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BOOZE CRUISE IS STILL CHEAPERBY FAR; Stocking up for the big day? KEN BENNETT discovers the English Channel is awash with bargains on a pre-Christmas sail to France.

THE alluring lace stockings looked an irresistible Christmas present for my wife.

But at 80 Euros a pair - and to parody Brummie comic genius Tony Hancock - that's almost pounds 40 a leg!

I was standing in a sumptuous shop at the Calais lace museum, an understated, pounds 30 million development in the heart of the historic town.

Here, once-derelict buildings have been transformed into a bright modern tourist attraction where the intricate history of lace-making comes alive through interactive exhibits.

It was English machinery and knowhow from the Midlands - Nottingham, in particular - that was exported across the Channel at the time of Napoleon Bonaparte to power a thriving industry in the French town.

At one time, there were more than 40,000 people employed in lace-making in Calais but, with massive competition from the Far East, business has inevitably dwindled.

However, what does survive is an example of the finest quality, and that underpins what a shopping trip to Calais is really all about. The strength of the euro means French prices are very much the same as those in Blighty. The heady days when coaches and White Van Men would lurch home weighed down with cut-price booty have been replaced with savvy shoppers who actually stock up on board P&O's fleet of ferries.

Beers, wine and spirits are very keenly-priced and with P&O offering a crossing for just pounds 25 for a car and up to nine passengers, it's easy to save that in any of their onboard shops. And if you just want to shop and not drop off in France, they have a unique Car Park Shopper package which has to be one of the Channel's best-kept secrets.

For a miserly pounds 10, two people with a car can park on one of the company's Dover to Calais ships. During the fourhour return trip, there's ample time to take advantage of offshore shopping at the low French rates of duty on board.

Two litres of Courvoisier brandy cost just pounds 35, Gallo wine boxes are priced at pounds 16 a pair and Jacob's Creek is pounds 15 for six bottles. For beer drinkers, two 24x50cl packs for pounds 22 might go down nicely, or there's a similar offer on Grolsch.

Top-name fragrances and cosmetics are up to 40 per cent cheaper than on the High Street and discounted fashion brands include sunglasses by Gucci, Prada and Police, plus bags by Radley, Guess and Fiorelli.

In fact, they are so confident of the business that they have invested pounds 360m in two new ships which will be commissioned in the new year.

But I promise there are a host of delicious specialities waiting if you decide to spend some time in this inviting French port.

Hypermarkets, including Carrefour in Cit Europe and Auchan, always have special promotions going on with great deals in wines, spirits and party fare.

The fresh seafood areas are spectacular, so take a coolbox or car fridge. Glassware, olive oil, detergents and bottled water are among the many items still cheaper than at home.

For something very French and very different, the Maison du Fromage opposite the Place d'Armes market square offers cheese to caress - and assault - the palate. The only problem is with such a wonderful choice, it's difficult to know what to buy. But kindly Iris Crespo, who runs the shop, is happy to advise and let you taste the delicious range of cheeses first.

The shop also sells other regional specialities; pats including foie gras, which are great for a Christmas dinner starter; potted meats, preserves, mustards and even locally produced beers and ciders.

And, of course, the chance to eat in some superb restaurants - the Grand Bleu or Histoires Ancienne - puts a satisfying stamp on your venture. In the coming weeks, Calais will dress up to provide a festive treat for the whole family. Check out the Chamber of Commerce website at www.calaiscci.

fr or the tourist board at www.calais-cotedopale.com for details.

If you decide to stay over to take in some additional retail therapy, a night for two at the Holiday Inn, right in the centre of town, will cost 131 Euros a night for a double room.

As for those stockings: deal - or no deal? That's strictly between the bank manager and me!

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TASTY: One of the cheese shops in Calais The fine architecture of Calais Town Hall
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Nov 8, 2009
Words:737
Previous Article:Travelling into the future.
Next Article:25% off a luxary trip to London on the NORTHERN BELLE.


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