WEEKEND: Foreign ferries, the point being crossing the English Channel opens up a Continent’s-worth of other ferry routes. Miss out the boring bits, get to Europe’s far flung regions a bit quicker, arrive in style or break up a long journey with an enforced rest, dinner, drinks and a sunset. A small sample: to Greece, Finland, Sweden and back to Blighty.
Standing less than twenty feet away as the 55,000t Minoan Lines Cruise Olympia reversed onto the berth made us seriously wonder what we were letting ourselves in for. Apart from having permanent access to the car throughout the 18 hour voyage – from Ancona in east central Italy to Igoumenitsa in western Greece – the experience was exactly as per the long ‘cruise ferry’ sailings between the UK and the Continent. Olympia is quite glitzy inside with its marble reception area and fine dining restaurants. The real surprise was how many other Brits there were on board, many with dogs. It would have been much cheaper had we not wasted money on an outside cabin – just go up on deck – and brought at least some of our own food. Two+car can cross for £250. Waking up the next morning cruising between the Albanian mountains and the coves and beaches of Corfu was amazing.
You can get the Oresund Link between Denmark and Sweden but for almost the same price there’s the Stena Line ferry between Frederikshavn and Gothenburg. The 3.5 hour sailing costs from €50 two+car and sails right into the city centre at the Swedish end, under the Alvsborg Bridge, finish line for the Volvo Great Ocean Race (Gothenburg is Volvo’s home town). Frederikshavn is a ship building port, just clawing its way back from a devastating recession. Despite the Palm Beach, with trees bred to withstand -20 degrees, it’s unlikely to be somewhere you would want to stay (don’t!). Less than an hour’s drive away are the shifting sand dunes of Skagen, on Denmark’s northerly tip and one of its most popular holiday regions, on the junction of the Kattegat and Skaggerak Seas, outflows of the Baltic, where the waves lap against each other. You can also catch a ferry to Oslo from Frederikshavn, or other places in Norway from Hirtshals, about the same distance from Skagen in the opposite direction.
Maybe, just maybe, in about a decade’s time there will be a Chunnel-busting Tunnel underneath the Gulf of Finland between Finnish capital Helsinki and Estonian capital Tallinn. Meanwhile, to avoid the 500+ mile round trip and the visa hassle and expense of driving through Russia, you can catch a ferry. It only takes two hours and there are so many operators – Tallink, St Peter Line, Eckero Line and Viking Line – it’s like catching a bus. Just roll up to the check-in booth, swipe your card and you’re on. Directferries.co.uk has a special offer at the moment of €72 each way. We paid €97 but have seen advance fares at €49. The terminals are conveniently just off the city ring road in north east Tallinn – you can also catch boats to Stockholm and St Petersburg – and within a few hundred metres of Helsinki centre. From the sea, flat Tallinn looks nothing special but picking your way through the Helsinki archipelago is a great way to arrive in Finland.
Atmosphere. It’s not something you have time to appreciate on short or even medium length ferry trips, the agreeable bonhomie among fellow travellers either departing on or returning from their Continental adventures. The one thing all our long sailings have had in common is the relaxed feeling aboard. Maybe it’s all the booze. Alcoholic benders and road trips do not normally mix. The only chance you have to get properly wasted is an overnight crossing. The boat might not leave until late but you can generally board early. The bar is the first thing to open, quickly followed by the – proper – restaurant with an extensive wine list. Truly civilised. Drink in hand, there’s nothing quite like a sunset at sea. That’s why it’s so tragic that the Esbjerg-Harwich route, above, closes in September. Not just because it’s the last direct ferry link between the UK and Scandinavia – that’s bad enough – but because the finale of any hoon in and around the Baltic will now be a slog across the most boring, and congested, parts of Germany. Not relaxed at all.
To find out more about the European ferry network Google ‘ferry’ – most of the big internet sites book routes throughout the Continent. We’ve used www.directferries.co.uk and www.aferry.co.uk. The latter has a great smartphone app. Tap, tap, tap and you’re done. Be aware it is not always possible to book fares for immediate travel.