Off the top of my head, the latter point reduces the total to just four of note – the Pride of York (ex-Norsea), Ibn Batouta (ex-St Christopher), Le Rif (ex-Galloway Princess) and Kapetan Alexandros A (ex-Doric Ferry). Make it six if you count the operational HH Ferries Superflexes.
Best new ferry
I can only assess ships which I’ve sailed on this year but based on that Tallink’s Star is the consummate new delivery of the past 24 months. Stylish and efficient, her introduction together with the Viking XPRS swept away any need for separate fast ferries on Tallin-Helsinki. But she is more than just fast – she is big, stylish and beautiful. Tallink have their detractors, (my main suggestion to them would be to keep the Tallink brand away from Silja as much as possible because it seems to only do harm there amongst Finns and Swedes) but you have to admire them when they produce newbuilds of this standard.
Best classic ferry
I think the Ancona of SEM/Blue Lines will win this every year. The ironic thing is that she was pretty much anachronistic when delivered, with sub-optimal vehicle decks and slightly old-fashioned passenger spaces. Yet perhaps her biggest strength has been the almost old-fashioned quality of her build, which sets her apart from many of her 1960s contemporaries. A good compare and contrast is with her fleetmate the Split 1700 – same year, same designers but a world away in style. SEM seem to know it and the Ancona is their undoubted flagship, a ferry every enthusiast should try and sail on at least once if they can.
We tend to be slightly dismissive of Japanese ferry conversions, but I think the reality is that the dismissal should be on the conversion, not the Japanese. Pre-conversion they are incredibly fascinating ships to sail on but since almost all of the ships that come to Europe sail into the hands of the Greek shipyards, their charm is obliterated (see amongst others Prevelis, GA’s Marina, Rodanthi etc etc). Done well however and things can be different – so the best for me this year was ANEK/HSW’s Ariadne, which is virtually a newbuild and the epitome of modern Greek shipboard design. The Ionian Queen of Endeavor was also pretty good. For an unchanged Japanese original, check out Jadrolinija’s Lubenice or Brestova.
Theoretically ferry food has come on leaps and bounds over the years, but some operators just don’t seem to have cottoned on. SNCM’s Napoleon Bonaparte was a good (bad?) example, which makes an interesting counterpoint to their main rivals Corsica Ferries where I’ve always found the food pretty good – the buffet on the Mega Smeralda (ex-Color Festival/Svea) in particular was excellent.
Other good meals were had on the Mariella, Seafrance Berlioz and breakfast on the Oleander. The to-order pancakes on SSC never disappoint (the Ofelia being good this year) but for an overall experience the Ariadne again proved hard to beat. Prices for the waiter service were literally about 20 Eurocents more than the self-service yet the experience was unbeatable and rounded off by the waiter delivering complimentary rounds of Ouzo. Now I’m not a big fan but didn’t want to appear ungrateful so downed it, at which point he promptly filled the glass up again, and again. So that ended up being a very long night…
It seems a little harsh but there are always going to be some howlers. The Duchess M (ex-Breizh Izel) of Marlines was dirty, overcrowded and miserable. The interior passenger spaces were restricted to an upstairs bar and a downstairs self-service and when the latter wasn’t open you weren’t allowed in. Passengers without a cabin had a truly miserable time and since the cabins were fairly grotty that’s saying something.
However I’ll forgive that ship a little simply due to her age. To me even worse was the much more modern Blue Star Ithaki. Ill-advised by guidebooks such as Frewin Poffley’s Greek Island Hopping, backpackers subject themselves unnecessarily to hours of torment on ships that are too small for the operations they are used on – or perhaps more pointedly, the loads they take. It was a case of find a seat and cling to it for the entire voyage. Painful, miserable and, since it’s an everyday occurrance, unforgivable.
I’ll usually eat pretty much anything but the Red Star I (ex-Thoresen’s Viking III) was truly awful. And, after a superb meal in the restaurant on COMARIT’s Boughaz in 2007, the Banasa in 2008 plumbed the depths, including plastic plates, knives and forks. And food come to that.
What was particularly galling was that the freight drivers had full service and a full menu in their section, served by the same staff, from the same galley. Since we were pretty much the only non drivers on board it wouldn’t have been hard to go that bit further.
It’s doesn’t feel right saying it but Agoudimos Lines’ Penelope A (ex-Horsa) was in pretty squalid condition this Summer. The new furnishings given to the ship last year in the forward two bars were already ripped and worn. Since it took 20 years for the previous fittings installed by Sealink to fall into similar disrepair I think we can draw some conclusions. The 2007 refit was carried out primarily by the ship’s crew during the Winter and it doesn’t appear to have been of the highest quality, the best intentions of the crew notwithstanding. The company and the ship still have a loyal following on the Rafina-Andros-Tinos-Mykonos run but the competition is stiff and often superior. The Horsa’s sister, the Agios Georgios (ex-Hengist) in contrast is in superb condition so it shouldn’t be too difficult if Agoudimos had the intent.
So that’s it – hopefully 2009 will offer as much variety and fun as 2008. Things have shut down a little for the Winter, which gives scope to write up a few voyages from last year. Starting, perhaps, with the Ancona herself.