If there was one thing I never wanted to do on this blog, it was moan, but after the experience I had this weekend, I don’t really have a choice!
Keen to get out and explore foreign lands, I started looking into my options. I was willing to give anything a try, so did some Google searches to see what I could find, and more importantly, afford. That’s when I stumbled upon a coach trip, advertised by a local travel company, to Belgium.
I never would have thought about going on a coach trip; when I used to work in a cafe in my hometown, every Thursday, there was an influx of grumpy old women who all wanted tea and scones. My colleagues and I would try our hardest to serve everyone, but due to the sheer number of people, we’d end up running behind. Then, the old dears would get angry at us, shouting, criticising, asking for refunds, and it was all because they hadn’t thought about the fact that there simply were not enough of us to get round to all of them! Experiences like these put me off of coach trips. Why would I want to sit on a bus with these sorts of people? And for what, two hours in a town, only to hop back on the bus to go home again? No thanks! This trip, however, felt different. This wasn’t a day trip to a town in England. We’d be going somewhere abroad! I had to go!
I booked the trip for myself and my mother, as her birthday was coming up. I spoke to a lady from the company on the phone and she told me the trip was to Ostend, where we’d have three hours to wander around. Excellent, or so I thought…
Early on Sunday morning, I leapt out of bed and got ready, the excitement coursing through me. I put on my big coat and pretty much dragged my sleepy mother out of the house to the pick up point. Dead on time, the coach swung around the corner and I literally jumped for joy. A man stepped out and greeted us enthusiastically, but he didn’t ask to see our booking confirmation. I thought nothing of it and climbed on.
We got all the way to Dover before things started to seem wrong. The coach driver announced that there was some confusion about where we were actually going. Many of the passengers were under the assumption that we were heading to a duty free shop in Calais. Others thought we were going to De Panne. And then there was us, and a couple of others, who thought we were going to Ostend.
My mother and I sat back and waited for a further announcement, some kind of clarification, but nothing came. After a while, I couldn’t stand it anymore and walked down to the front of the coach to talk to the three staff members. I explained the situation, from my point of view. I’d booked this for my mother’s birthday and it said “Ostend” on my receipt. Although the men listened to me, I don’t think they fully believed me, but I continued to state my case. Apparently, “the girls in the office have been making lots of mistakes lately”. I couldn’t really see how that was an acceptable excuse, but that was all I was getting from them.
In the end, they agreed to go to all three places that people wanted to go, and warned that we’d be home around 1AM. I was very unsettled by this as I had a training course the next day that I had to leave home early for, but I knew I didn’t really have a choice but to continue. Dover is a long way from home, and I certainly didn’t want to pay the train fare to get back on top of the £68 I’d forked out for the trip.
We got into the port and then another sign of the company’s incompetence appeared… They hadn’t booked the ferry! We’d have to wait over an hour to catch one. At this point I just wanted to get off the coach and escape, but our passports had already been scanned. So, to kill time, I got off and took some photographs.
This was when I realised something about our fellow passengers – they were a bunch of alcoholics! They began drinking at only 9:30 in the morning! Back on the coach, the ladies next to us were spilling their drinks all over the place, swearing their heads off about how “No one wants to go to f*****g Ostend!” I ended up getting upset, and they finally stopped, but the damage was already done. They had been so cruel and I felt scared by their anger. I did not feel good about having to spend the rest of the day with these foul-mouthed people.
Despite all of the complications, we stuck with it and eventually boarded the ferry. My mother and I jumped off the coach as quickly as we could and escaped to the open deck. Suddenly we felt better. The sea was calm and the sun was shining. The White Cliffs looked stunning as we slowly sailed away from the UK. The alcoholics stayed inside (probably in the bar) and we finally had some peace.
As we got closer to Calais, I excitedly watched as the details in the landscape became clearer. It started to rain a little, so we headed back inside, and then it was time to rejoin the coach.
Our first stop was at the duty free shop in Calais. One of the staff gave us vouchers to spend on alcohol and almost fell over in shock when I told him we didn’t drink. I think he suddenly realised why we’d be so disappointed to go only to the duty free shop.
While we ate our lunch on the coach, the alcoholics gradually piled back on, their arms struggling to carry the boxes and boxes of beer and wine. My mother and I shook our heads in disbelief as a man staggered across the car park in a complete daze. I wondered how the alcoholics could look at that man without feeling a little worried about where their habits would take them, but to be fair, half of them were already too drunk to care!
Next, we landed at PJ’s Chocolate Factory, which was about as far from Willy Wonka’s as it could get. It did have a good selection though, and we bought a few treats for ourselves and our relatives before setting off again. Ostend was only fifteen minutes away, and my mother and I were quite perplexed at how angry the alcoholics had been about having to go there. It wasn’t like it was hundreds of miles away!
In Ostend, the feeling of excitement I’d lost along the way came back, and I hurried off the coach, camera in hand, eager to get snapping. We’d been dropped at the marina where hundreds of boats were docked. We wandered around the area, then went in search of the beach. Unfortunately, we failed to locate it, and as we only had two hours before we had to leave, we reluctantly decided to give up and stay fairly close to our pick up point.
One of the first things we stumbled upon was a stunning, Neo-Gothic church, Sint-Petrus-en-Pauluskerk. I was dumbfounded by its intricate detail, so much so that I welled up a bit as I took in its impressive beauty. I tried my best to get some good shots of it, but I nothing I could have captured would have done it justice.
After spending much time at Sint-Petrus-en-Paulskerk, we headed off towards another church we’d passed on the coach. It was less breathtaking than the first church, but still worthy of our time. This church was Sint-Jozefskirk and was a little harder to photograph as it was set closely to other buildings and a busy road.
Once we’d finished church hopping, we walked around aimlessly for a while and ended up in a residential area where we came across seven cats, all hanging out in and around someone’s garden. We dubbed it “The Cat Garden” and spent a few minutes trying to coax them to interact with us. They weren’t particularly interested! We then walked back towards the marina, passing a few interesting landmarks along the way.
We tried one more time to find the beach, but time was ticking away, and we didn’t get far before we had to turn back. Luckily, we had just enough time to buy some waffles from a little cart. They were to die for! I’ve never had a genuine, fresh Belgian waffle before, only cheap imitations, and now I know I’ll never be able to enjoy one of the “fakes” again! I could have eaten twelve of the real deals!
Finally, our trip to Ostend was over. I was a little disappointed that I hadn’t found any souvenir shops, or bought anything I could actually keep, but it was still an enjoyable two hours. We got back on the coach, where the alcoholics were even more drunk and rowdy, and braced ourselves for the long journey home. The smell coming off of some of the passengers was beyond description. I can only liken it to the stale beer smell that filters out from pub air vents. It was disgusting, and I felt quite sick for some time. I tried to distract my senses by chewing strong gum, but it wasn’t enough. As well as stinking to high heaven, the alcoholics became ridiculously loud and crude. I shoved my earphones in and tried to block them out, but all I could hear was swearing and graphic sexual conversations all around me. The things they were saying… I honestly have never had to listen to such vile talk, and I work with teenage boys all day long!
We got back to the ferry at Calais in good time, but unfortunately, we had missed the sunset. I really wanted to capture the sun setting over Calais from the ferry, but it was pitch black by the time we boarded. We didn’t go onto the deck when we got on; we ended up getting Starbucks instead, and watched the distant street lights from the window.
Right before leaving the ferry, we found ourselves alone on an open deck. We could still see the lights over France to our left, and now we could also see the lights at Dover. I commented on how I suddenly felt much more connected to the world, as I’d never felt that close to the rest of Europe before. Then, it was announced over the tannoy that it was time to head back to the coach… back to the smutty conversations and unrestrained drunkenness. Oh joy!
The last leg of the journey seemed to go on forever. The guys behind us became increasingly crude, and even started play fighting. One guy who’d previously been joining in actually started to detach himself from them, and I did see a slight smirk on his face as I rolled my eyes at a sleazy comment from behind me. Now, it was a case of “getting through” it. Home was about an hour and a half away, but at least I knew we would get there eventually, and that we’d be free of these awful people. Finally, we arrived in our town and departed. One of the staff members said, “See you next time” – hahahaha! I think not, my friend! I’d sooner saw my own leg off than use that company again!
While there was so much about this trip that disappointed us, the small amount of time in Ostend, and the pleasant ferry journeys, were enough for the trip not to be a complete waste of time. Still, there’s not a chance in Hell I’ll ever sign up for a coach trip again! Next time I think I’ll fork out a bit more money and organise something myself – if one established travel company can’t get their act together, I certainly won’t be trusting any more to actually give me the trip I paid for in future.