Okay, so I’m sure Euro Disney is pretty awesome, but as someone who has a bit of a thing for trains, the Eurotunnel really is all that. We set off at 08:30 as James wanted plenty of time to get to the terminal for our train at 14:40. As we hadn’t used the train before we had no idea what to expect and with the two smalls we needed extra wiggle room for stops. The roads were nice and clear so we had a nice easy journey down, making good progress, aided by the fact that both smalls fell asleep within the first few miles and woke up when we were no more than 30 minutes away from the terminal. A good omen? With 3.5 hours to spare and unsure of what to expect when we got there we pulled into Maidstone services. DS had woken up just a few minutes befoe, I badly needed a coffee, and James was keen to fit the headlight reflectors. The timing was good as DD woke up as we pulled into the car park.
One coffee later we were on our way to the terminal. Wow. When transport infrastructure works it really does. At the entrance we were given a card with our “boarding card” info (we were “D”), then we drove round to the “terminal” where we could park and go inside to buy food or duty free, just like at the airport minus all the security checks and pointless shopping opportunities (when did anyone actually buy Kurt Geiger shoes at an airport?) Although we were still a good 45 minutes early, we weren’t sure whether we could drive up to get an earlier train (the people we spoke to in the terminal car park suggested not) so I ran in and picked up a few sandwhiches, which were pretty reasonably priced, at least compared to an airport terminal, then we drove round to wait for the train. We were then assigned to Aisle 14, where we waited at the front of the queue for around 30 minutes until it was time to board. There was very little traffic there so it was all pretty slick and within another 30 minutes we were parked on the train and ready for the off. Thirty minutes later again and we were in France! I wish I’d known how easy it would be!
Once on the other side we could relax a bit: no more deadlines, timetables, just time to take a breath and drive, calm it all down a bit, and make our way to our hotel for the night. Our hotel for the night was the Inter-hotel Alizéa, just of Autoroute 11 in Les Mans, which was approximately 4.5 hours from Calais according to the Garmin. We were on our way, in France, at last. James and I chatted while the littlies slept again (brilliant) and it was interesting that we were both feeling just totally at ease with it all; no anxiety, more relief. We made our way along the autoroute, then DD woke up: time to stop.
We pulled into the first services we came to – Aire de Somme – and were more than pleasantly surprised. We know from driving in France on holiday that many of their equivalent of the UK’s motorway services put ours to shame and I’d say this one was one of their best! There was a clean and dog-free playground, a lake with decking, a clean and modern building with a Petite Casino (a shop), a restaurant, loos, and even a tourist shop selling souvenirs! Very nice. We ended up here for an hour and a half and could easily have spent the whole afternoon there, if we hadn’t got another 3.5 hours of driving to do. DD had a much-needed run around, DS had a wriggle around, James sorted out the headlamp reflectors on the car, then it was time to go.
Back on the road again we were soon through Rouen and on our way to Les Mans. An hour from our destination DS woke up crying so we made another pitstop for a coffee, this time at a much more low-key services (a log cabin with a coffee machine and a resident cat.) DD had a little bit of a run around, mostly chasing the cat, then we set off again. By then it was getting dark so James had his first taste of driving a right-hand drive (RHD) car in a left-hand drive (LHD) country at night. Before starting our journey James had flicked a magic switch in the Passat, thanks to Mark (our most trusted mechanic from IVS in Huddersfield), which changes the headlamps so they’re good for driving on the right, but as we also had the reflectors on James was concerned that they were blocking out some of the light he needed. After a few miles he got used to it though, so no big deal. The roads were quiet, my eyes were burning with tiredness, we were 50, 40, 30, minutes away. Getting there, all good.
Just when it was all going so well DD woke up. “I want booby,” she whined. I explain (not for the first time that day) that we were driving and would stop when we could. She really wanted it though and was megatired so managed to work herself up into a state, screaming, kicking, almost puking, so I explained again that we’d stop as soon as we could. More screaming. I suggested we hold hands, which was very unpopular, as was my suggestion for her to have chewy dody (her emergency dummy). By this point we were only 8 minutes from our hotel according to the GPS and all unimaginably tired. I checked the Kindle, which was on 4% power, and suggested Shaun the Sheep. Shaun the Sheep seemed to do the trick and the screaming stopped. Instantly. The terrifying power of TV! But with all this going on we were almost at our turning and we were both a little distracted, so James took a wrong turn adding another 10 minutes to our journey. Typical! So after nearly 12 hours on the road, approximately 2 minutes from our destination, we watch the ETA on the Garmin change from 10.31pm to 10.40pm. Boom! Well, by this point we were delerious with tiredness and just grateful the screaming had stopped in the back. A few minutes later and we were in the hotel car park.
Thankfully, the hotel I’d booked – Inter Hotel Azelia – turned out to be a blinder and I would recommend it to anyone making a similar journey across France (Trip Advisor review to follow). It was very convenient for the autoroute and open 24-7, so there were no worries about turning up at whatever time, which was something that we found with the places I’d seen on Air BnB, many of which specify check-in/arrival times, mostly no later than 10pm, I presume because usually you’re staying in private homes. Fair enough but that was pressure we didn’t need what with everything else and not having made the journey before. The hotel worked out well as the guy on reception, who was incredibly helpful, offering to lock my bikes in their conference room overnight, was just handing over to the night receptionist. Our room was lovely; clean with plenty of space, a nice bathroom, a kettle with coffee sachets (Nescafé!), and good firm mattresses. What a relief! By the time we’d unpacked our overnight essentials DD had made a full recovery and was bouncing around the room, excited by this new experience. Within minutes she had switched the TV on (she’s not even three so how did she do that?) and we were all sat in a daze watching the women’s paraolympic basketball: Algeria vs. France. Random.
One bath later and we were all tucked up in bed. A successful day of travelling bar the missing iPhone.