Over the Easter weekend I found myself in Naples – with a need to get to Milan a couple of days later. By train this is a journey of a little under five hours, but with time to spare a more interesting way of doing things appealed and so I decided to take something of a â€œlong cutâ€, via SNAV to Palermo on Sicily, then taking one of the longest domestic train journeys in Europe, the â€˜Trinacriaâ€™ sleeper from Palermo to Milano Centrale.
Arriving in port in the early evening from Ischia on board Medmarâ€™s local ferry the Lora dâ€™Abundo, a fine selection of ships was to be found in refit or layup. These included the Moby Corse (ex- Pont-l’AbbÃ©/Dana Anglia), still under refit in advance of her entry into service on Mobyâ€™s new Corsica routings; next to the Stazione Marittima the Leviathan (ex-Wilhelmshaven), reportedly due to be converted into a restaurant vessel for Venice; and the long laid-up Logudoro of BlueVia/FS, late of the old Civitavecchia-Golfo Aranci train ferry route. There was, however, no sign of the Abundo (ex-Quiberon/Nils Dacke), so she may well have already begun her voyage to the scrapyard.
One veteran whose end has been less than noble is the 1936 car ferry pioneer the Freia, later the Ischia Express, whose half butchered remains are still floating alongside one of the more distant quaysides. SNAVâ€™s Adriatic fast craft pair the Croazia Jet and Pescara Jet were alongside the Western breakwater, awaiting a Summer return to service, whilst nearer the shipyards were Tirreniaâ€™s inglorious Aries and Capricorn. With no cruise ships in port on this evening however, one huge passenger vessel dominated everything â€“ the brand new Cruise Olympia of Minoan Lines, which had been brought around from the Fincantieri yard in Castellammare di Stabia to dry dock in Naples in advance of a June debut on the Patras-Igoumenitsa-Ancona run.
Three ferries were lined up ready to take their evening departures to Sicily â€“ the Trinacria of TTT Lines, Tirreniaâ€™s Raffaele Rubattino and SNAVâ€™s SNAV Sardegna (ex-Pride of Le Havre/Olau Hollandia). SNAV are ultimately a subsidiary of transport giants MSC and have had the financial support which has enabled them to establish a decent network of Italian domestic overnight services over the course of the past decade using a fleet of five ex-North European ferries. SNAV stands for Societe Navigazione Alta Velocita and the companyâ€™s legacy fast craft services in the Gulf of Naples remain, together with some more recently added Adriatic high speed services.
The â€˜Sardegnaâ€™ and her sister (SNAV Lazio, ex-Olau Britannia) are employed during the peak season on the Sardinian run to Olbia from Civitavecchia – this is presently being covered by the former Peter Wessel (now SNAV Toscana); in season the latter ship operates the seasonal Civitavecchia-Palermo line. The â€˜regularâ€™ Naples ships are another pair of ex-P&O sisters, the SNAV Campania (ex-Norstar) and SNAV Sicilia (ex-Norland); in recent weeks the â€˜Sardegnaâ€™ and â€˜Siciliaâ€™ have been maintaining the service together; over Easter, however, the â€˜Lazioâ€™ was deployed on the run alongside her sister, leaving the former North Sea Ferries vessels laid up/under refit in Palermo.
Earlier this year SNAV announced that they were planning an interior rebuild of the former Olau pair to increase vehicle capacity; one could have been forgiven for fearing the worst – the shipsâ€™ half sister the Stena Baltica (ex-Koningin Beatrix) was heavily modified in 2005 with an upper freight deck and drive through loading and the results have not been entirely satisfactory â€“ from the outside at least. Not that there has ever been much external beauty to this pair of slab sided jumbo ferries, but still the prospect of strange lumps and bumps, duck tails and sponsons would do little to improve things. As I walked up to the â€˜Sardegnaâ€™ on her berth however the ship looked remarkably unchanged, the only discordant note being SNAVâ€™s livery which, in dark black, is slightly too severe to be entirely attractive (although on paper one would have thought it should be).
Walking on board over the car deck, a quick glance around gave an indication of the work done however â€“ looking upwards to either side, new areas of car deck were visible where once there had been two decks of cabins either side of the upper freight deck (with which the ships, unlike the former â€˜KBâ€™, were built, loaded slightly cumbersomely over one level forward and aft and accessed via huge ramps).
SNAV first acquired the ships after the end of their UK service in 2005 and the original pre-service refits made only modest changes onboard â€“ most notably the addition of a forgettable â€˜SKY TV saloonâ€™ on Deck 7 adjacent to the information desk and main lobby, an area previously part of the large shopping complex. Beyond that, and subject to some new signage and SNAV posters, the ships were left largely unchanged from their final P&O guises and this remains the case today. Cabins found forward on Decks 7, 8 and 9 and through Decks 10 and 11 remain, although since some of those removed in the car deck extension were crew accommodation, certain cabins elsewhere have been appropriated to compensate.
Aft of the remaining section of shop (which even in its reduced state still looks too large, featuring plenty of unstocked shelves) can be found the self service restaurant, fitted out by P&O in 2002/03 in the slightly dismal International Food Court style. What was originally the curiously located disco and latterly a roro driversâ€™ restaurant remains in a corner of the self service, and seems to be sometimes used by crew.
On the Deck above, that final P&O refurbishment again predominates â€“ the former Langanâ€™s restaurant is to starboard and the Harbour Coffee Company to port. Aft on the port side is the old Club Class lounge, which is largely unchanged save for some rearranging of the furniture â€“ this space isnâ€™t always open with SNAV, largely dependent on whether passengers booked with reclining seats are accommodated here or in the lounge on the deck above.
On Deck 9 the port area was originally a series of small conference rooms with a cinema; quite what use the conference facilities saw under either Olau or P&O Iâ€™m not sure but in the 1990s they were partly appropriated for use as an additional cinema whilst part of the main bar, aft, was carved out to serve as a large reclining seat lounge. SNAV use the former conference spaces as a â€˜libraryâ€™ and, typical for Italian ferries, a card room, but â€“ equally typically â€“ both these spaces were locked on this crossing.
To starboard, a narrow arcade winds its way back to the main showlounge (originally the Las Vegas Bar, in its final P&O days it became, depressingly, another Silverstones). Inboard of the arcade are small seating areas, a childrenâ€™s play area and an area of slot machines; as on other Italian ferries, the desire to see and be seen means that the tables lining this arcade prove surprisingly popular â€“ an ideal place to people watch and engage in energetic discussion, on this occasion in particular the Serie A game between Sicilian rivals Catania and Palermo which was being shown live on TV screens throughout the ship, resulted in a 2-0 win for Catania and proved to be the subject of much anguished Palermitan hand-wringing.
Before departure I took the chance to have a quick peek at the new car deck areas; one reason the modifications are almost unnoticeable from the outside is that the cabin windows all remain, resulting in a reasonably well lit space. Presumably only limited structural or buoyancy modifications are required as the cabin areas have been converted only for cars rather than freight so the weight impact is less marked. The access arrangements look slightly tortuous, particularly on the upper of the two decks, Deck 6, whose centre section has always been a retractable mezzanine deck. So the new area at this level is to the side of a mezzanine accessed from an upper freight deck accessed from a ramp from the main deck. I wouldnâ€™t count on getting out of there in much less than an hour after arrival on a full sailing.
The one other significant difference which previous passengers will notice from the rebuild is in the main lobby where originally quite distinctive staircases led down on either side both to gangway doors and the cabin decks below â€“ these have now been removed and, with all the lobby furniture also having disappeared at some stage, the whole space now looks rather spartan.
Departure at 8pm was on time with only a light load aboard; the ship sailed in the company of the Raffaele Rubattino through the night and was on the berth in Palermo by the scheduled 6.30am the next morning. Dinner in the self service was fine, although rather expensive, and the allocated inside four berth cabin entirely original but clean enough. In Palermo a nice collection of ex-North Sea tonnage was to be found laid up, with the SNAV Sicilia and Campania together with the adorable little Baia Sardinia (ex-Tor Anglia, Tor Lineâ€™s very first ship). Amongst the other ships visible were SIREMARâ€™s fast craft Isola di Stromboli and Tirreniaâ€™s Clodia (on dry dock) and Vincenzo Florio (laid up on the outer breakwater, still awaiting the tow to Croatia for the repairs required following her catastrophic fire in May 2009).
One couldnâ€™t really have any complaints with SNAVâ€™s service â€“ certainly I think the ex-Olau twins are of a slightly higher standard than the routeâ€™s normal ships, but even then the difference is relatively marginal as the ex-NSF pair are very well maintained although again largely unchanged from their P&O days. With the established competition from Tirrenia not always of the highest standard, despite their more modern fleet, SNAVâ€™s success on this route can be readily understood. The company has been talking about new tonnage since 2004 when a pair of vessels for the Naples-Palermo link were supposedly ordered in Brazil (the 2005 brochure even included an artistâ€™s impression of the first ship â€œcurrently under construction, to be launched in June 2006â€) but this apparently came to naught. Then, in April 2007, an announcement was made that a letter of intent had been signed for four large ships from Astilleros de Sevilla with capacity for 1,500 passengers and 3,400 lane metres. This option was allowed to lapse however and the companyâ€™s fleet looks set to remain unchanged for the next couple of years at least.