For the devotee of classic ferries, particularly classic British ferries, it has to be said 2009 has been a sad time with the scrappers claiming amongst others the Georgios Express (Roi Baudouin) and Sara 3 (St Edmund). The former was perhaps the most beautiful car ferry ever to sail from the UK whilst the latter hid her delights inside, representing the apex of the interior designs devised by Ward & Austin for Sealink in the 1960s and 1970s. Her interlocking QE2-style lobby spaces in particular were an inspired design solution. Also lost was the Kapetan Alexandros A (ex-Doric Ferry), a 47-year old veteran with which I had become very familiar in the past few years and which was the last survivor of a class of, originally, freight ships of advanced design introduced by ASN.
It has not all been sad however and in newly-introduced ships such as the Elyros, Martin I Soler and Cruise Roma/Barcelona, stylish new passenger ferries are carrying on the traditions of generations past. Whilst, inevitably, they struggle to achieve the sleek external looks of the Roi Baudouin, internally they achieve great things within the framework their basic design specification allows.
On a personal level in 2009, 59 ships were sailed on, 26 nights were spent at sea, and one camera died (later resuscitated). I was told to stop taking pictures on board just once, a record low for recent years. That ship was BaleÃ ria’s Martin I Soler. Pointing out the company’s “Un Mar de Foto” competition, which stipulates that “Photographs should be taken on board BaleÃ ria ships” was the ideal response.
Based purely on subjective feelings on those 59 ships, here are some bests and worsts of the year.
Best new ferry
Despite that one arsey crew member, the Martin I Soler, just about, was my favourite new ferry. All the 2008 or 2009 built ships which were new to me this year seemed to have some weaknesses. The Cruise Barcelona is perhaps a little too stark in places, the Baltic Princess rather over the top (although operating as primarily a minicruiser, this is perhaps considered appropriate). The interior and exterior of the ‘MIS’ are attractive within a modern framework and the ship has become a big success running from Majorca and Ibiza to Valencia. The forward saloon’s twin deck picture windows however make that lounge a sun trap and virtually uninhabitable when the ship is running directly into the sun – which she does on her daytime crossings to the mainland. Still, she was a ship I grew to like a lot during the five or six hours spent aboard.
Best classic ferry
Last year I placed the Ancona in this spot, and this year I was most enamoured with another ship sailing from Split, the Istra of Jadrolinija (ex-Mette Mols, 1966). Mostly unchanged from new, she has been sailing for Jadrolinija for 28 years now and, like the locals who have protested about her imminent withdrawal, I find this little ferry beautiful and adorable. A round trip on her from Split to Stari Grad was the perfect farewell; for now however she remains in service and I cling to the hope that she may survive for one more year.
There has been plenty said about how she is perfectly suited to the demands of her route and how she will make Brittany Ferries money but the Armorique was still not quite what I had hoped for or expected. Does everything have to be wipe-downable? Was it really necessary to drive home that “this is a ship built to a budget” message by even dispensing with individually-tailored facility names? ‘Le Restaurant’, ‘Le Bar’? Please.
Whilst I respect their right to get an appropriate return on their investments, they also need to protect their brand. You’re Brittany Ferries, not P&O or Seafrance (at least not yet). Passengers expect certain things and whilst the Armorique delivers to a degree, as a whole she falls beneath the standards of ro-pax luxury set by earlier fleetmates. Not good.
Years spent tinkering to little acclaim on the interiors of Stena ferries had primed one to expect the worst from interior designers Figura. Their most recent work, on the Stenas Voyager, Adventurer, Nordica, Caledonia and Navigator therefore came as something of a bolt from the blue. It’s almost like they are over-compensating for a decade or more of Spike’s Sports Bar – parts of the Navigator are so Scando-trendy you half suspect she has been lined up for a later transfer to the Kattegat. Wall prints of the archipelago near Gothenburg; that stairwell-dominating tribute to famous Scandinavian chairs; and little vitrines full of expensively-acquired keynote Scandinavian designer trinketry sourced from the ‘Stena Plus Scandinavian Design collection’ – at least that’s what the museum-like explanatory labels said. And who wouldn’t be wowed by a Pinzke/BergstrÃ¶m designer cheese grater in a glass display case?
Last year it was the Ariadne, this year it is her rival-cum fleetmate-cum replacement, the Elyros of ANEK’s Piraeus-Chania route. One of my pet ferry enthusiast hates is people taking a random foreign ship and saying how good she would be for service on some local route with which the writer is familiar (usually something like the Silja Europa for the Isle of Man) but the Elyros instead of the Armorique out of Plymouth would really motivate one to make a series of day trips to Roscoff, regardless of what BF might say. She is, quite simply, a beauty.
It took the best part of three years to rebuild her and finally the Mega Express Five entered service this April. She has all the relevant bits and pieces squeezed in, yet in design this is a cut ‘n’ paste job from previous Corsica Ferries ships and as a whole she just didn’t seem to have ‘it’, whatever ‘it’ might be. She has a series of vast box shaped rooms with the same old furniture stuffed in any old how. Where the original Mega Express and her sister had some sort of creative hand holding things steady, and the ‘Three’, ‘Four’ and ‘Smega’ retained to a greater or lesser extent attractive facets of their original designs, the ‘Five’ is a disappointing mess. Tourship should take a trip to Chania and see how it can be done.
Now onto the important stuff; after much pondering I narrowed it down to three ships – Pont Aven, Maersk Dover and Girolata. The ‘Dover’s Sunday lunch in the restaurant was superb indeed, but the French ships seemed to have something else. If only because Brittany Ferries’ Lamb Gargantua is almost passÃ© now, I’ll plump for the Girolata. Was it a terrible social faux pas, when served fish soup in a tall glass, but with a spoon, to ‘drink’ rather than ‘eat’? Possibly so, but it was worth it. A triumph.
The pasta on the Excellent might have been OK had it been hot. The pasta might have been hot had there been more than one person serving a queue of about 500 passengers. All might still have been saved had the reheating microwaves not all been broken. Alas, it was not to be. For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost.
Finnmaid – 27 hours from Helsinki to TravemÃ¼nde in April. The crew might be able to give you a long list about why the ‘Star’ class are impractical in one minor way or another but there was something indefinably magical about this long crossing on a deluxe ro-pax.
Worst maintained ship
I was not in a particularly positive frame of mind when I boarded the Sharden in July – SNAV’s codeshare with Tirrenia meant I had been bumped off one of SNAV’s ex-Olau sisters and onto the state operator whose new ships I would normally choose to avoid. Inside she was OK but outside there was little evidence of any deck maintenance since she had been delivered in 2005. A poor performance, even by Tirrenia standards.
Perhaps not the faults of the ships themselves as such, but making a round trip to Tinos, out on the Superferry II (ex-Prince Laurent) and back on the Penelope A (ex-Horsa) on a day when thousands of pilgrims were sailing to and from the island was a bad move. Although I ultimately found a peaceful haven on the Penelope’s always-open bridge wing, given it was raining things weren’t ideal. Just watching her load hundreds of foot passengers was a revelation – crowds gathered first at the two main staircases aft on the car deck, then hundreds decided to bypass this by moving forward to the stairwells in the centre casings usually used by motorists; the really experienced grannies then scrambled up the ramps to the car deck mezzanines to try and beat the crush at a higher level. Good to see the ships still earning their keep, but sometimes it can be just too busy.