Crossing the water

Getting to the Continent, or to Britain’s offshore islands, by ferry continues to be a popular travel option with GTOs. The onboard facilities and large passenger areas generally provide the perfect environment for group travel – and the variety of departure points and destinations offer plenty of choice. In the first of a two-part feature, Tom Evans looks at the operators’ plans for this year.

Brittany Ferries' Cap Finistere

Brittany Ferries' Cap Finistere

Whilst ferry operators have raised concerns about announcements to introduce new EU air pollution rules in 2015, which they say could force them to cut services and close routes, there continues to be an increase in the number of passengers using their services – especially coach parties – and new investment in modern vessels and terminals for the coming year.
A number of routes have recently changed operators; the Danish shipping group, DFDS Seaways, has acquired Norfolkline and sold its Irish Sea route from Liverpool to Belfast to Stena Line, whilst retaining the Dover to Dunkirk and Liverpool to Dublin routes. For 2011, groups also now have the choice of a new route from Ramsgate to Ostend, operated by LD Lines, and a service from Swansea to Cork, with Fastnet Line, whilst Brittany Ferries plans to introduce a service to Bilbao, following the decision by P&O to end its twice-weekly crossings to northern Spain. Stena Line has invested in a new ferry port facility at Loch Ryan in Scotland, a 28-acre site two miles north of Cairnryan, and has introduced one of the largest Superferries in the world on its service to Holland from Harwich. 2011 will also see P&O Ferries launch two of the largest ferries ever designed for service on the Dover Strait and the opening of a new ferry terminal in Portsmouth.
Almost all ferry operators offer some sort of discount on group bookings and many have dedicated teams to help with travel arrangements. Whilst recent takeovers mean that there are fewer operators to choose from, GTOs still have a wide range of routes and destinations to consider, and it is well worth researching all the options to find the best deals and most suitable service.

Stena Line's Stena Caledonia

Stena Line's Stena Caledonia

Departing from the south east

Ports on the south east coast offer fast journey times and regular departures to north west France and Belgium.
SeaFrance is one of two companies operating services to Calais and is the only French ferry operator sailing out of Dover. The company currently runs up to 15 return sailings daily on the popular Dover to Calais route, with a journey time of just 75 minutes. Onboard their three ships, passengers can enjoy a taste of French cuisine in the restaurants, bars and cafés, and GTOs should enquire about group menus, which are available if booked in advance. Special rates are available to groups on both short excursions and longer stays.
With up to 23 return sailings a day, P&O Ferries provides groups with the widest choice of departure times on the Dover to Calais route. The journey takes around 90 minutes in each direction and, onboard, passengers will find a floating version of Langan’s Brasserie, the West End establishment owned by celebrity chef Richard Shepherd, and a range of other restaurants, cafes and bars. The operator plans to introduce two of the largest ships ever constructed for the route in 2011 and both will feature state-of-the-art amenities, restaurants and large panoramic windows.
Since taking over Norfolkline in 2010, DFDS Seaways has been offering coach travel on its Dover to Dunkirk service. New custom-built coach facilities mean this route, which was previously only accessible to those travelling by car or minibus, is now an option for larger groups wishing to travel to the continent. The journey takes around two hours and, during this time, groups can make use of the onboard bars, cafés and restaurants, and even get a massage in ‘The Chill Out Factory’.
Also in the south east, a new service has been introduced linking Ramsgate in east Kent to Ostend in Belgium. LD Lines and Transeuropa Ferries jointly operate the route and run crossings throughout the year for passengers travelling by car. LD Lines provides a crossing from Newhaven to Dieppe too, this time in partnership with Transmanche Ferries, with two return sailings daily onboard a conventional ferry. Special rates are available on all routes operated by LD Lines for groups of more than 10 passengers travelling together.

Sailing from southern ports

Portsmouth has become a popular departure point for GTOs looking to sail to Spain, France and the Channel Islands, and a new terminal, due to open at the port in spring, promises an even better passenger experience. Meanwhile, the smaller seaports of Poole, Weymouth and Plymouth provide additional destinations and alternative road links to consider when planning a trip.
Brittany Ferries currently operates a range of cruise and highspeed ferry services from Portsmouth, Poole and Plymouth to Cherbourg, Caen, Roscoff and St Malo in France, as well as Santander in northern Spain. In addition, the operator has recently announced an expansion of its services from Portsmouth to include the Spanish city of Bilbao. Two crossings a week by the luxury cruise-ferry, ‘Cap Finistère’, will be available on this route from 27th March, supplementing the twice-weekly Portsmouth to Santander and weekly Plymouth to Santander services. Brittany Ferries has dedicated group booking facilities and parties of 10 or more can make significant savings.
LD Lines offers two types of sailings on the crossing from Portsmouth to Le Harve, with a high-speed ferry service for those looking to zip across the waters and a conventional ferry service for a more leisurely journey. There are plans to introduce a new purposebuilt ferry, the ‘Norman Leader’, on the route from 1st May to replace the current conventional ferry, the ‘Cote d’Albatre’.

A Condor Ferries vessel cruises into port

A Condor Ferries vessel cruises into port

GTOs looking for alternative routes to France, or to arrange a trip to the Channel Islands, may wish to consider services from Portsmouth, Poole and Weymouth offered by Condor Ferries. Regular crossings from all three ports are available by conventional ferry or fast craft to the Channel Islands, with services also available from Weymouth and Poole to St Malo and, during the summer months, Portsmouth to Cherbourg. Groups travelling with this operator could choose to combine a visit to either Jersey or Guernsey with a trip to northern France and can take advantage of discounts on all services.

Irish Sea crossings

Following the acquisition of Norfolkine’s Irish Sea ferry services, DFDS Seaways now operates the passenger service between Dublin and Liverpool. The crossing takes around seven hours and there are day and night sailings available in both directions. Onboard the modern, purpose-built ships, facilities include restaurants, bars, shops and cabins.
Stena Line is the largest operator on the Irish Sea and will be offering a new route in 2011 following an agreement with DFDS to acquire its Liverpool to Belfast route.
Meanwhile, the operator decided to close its Fleetwood to Larne operations at the end of 2010 due to ongoing losses on the route. In addition to its investment in new services, Stena Line is also developing a brand new £200 million ferry port facility at Loch Ryan in Scotland, which will open in the autumn and provide a departure point for sailings to Belfast. As well as routes from Scotland and Liverpool to Belfast, the company offers sailings from Fishguard to Rosslare and from Holyhead to Dublin Port and Dun Laoghaire. Group discounts on all services are calculated on a case-by-case basis and Stena Line has a dedicated groups team to assist with bookings.

Irish Ferries making the trip across the Irish Sea

Irish Ferries making the trip across the Irish Sea

Irish Ferries, meanwhile, offers two routes across the Irish Sea from Wales, from Holyhead to Dublin and Pembroke to Rosslare. Its ‘Dublin Swift’ fast ferry service and ‘Ulysses’ car ferry service operate two return sailings a day to Dublin, whilst the ‘Isle of Inishmore’ car ferry makes two return trips a day between Pembroke and Rosslare. Onboard all three vessels, passengers can enjoy comfortable and spacious seating and, for a supplement, groups can upgrade to Club Class with priority boarding and use of an exclusive lounge providing complimentary snacks, drinks and newspapers. Irish Ferries has a dedicated groups department to help with bookings and discounts are available on all services for groups of 10 or more passengers.
Other options for those looking to travel to Ireland are the services provided by P&O Ferries from Liverpool to Dublin, and Cairnryan and Troon in Scotland to Larne in Northern Ireland. Two conventional ferries are used on the crossing from Liverpool, with the choice of an overnight or day sailing; however, GTOs should note that this service is not available for foot passengers and there are no lifts available to the main passenger areas. ‘P&O Superferries’ operate year-round services to Larne and are supplemented between March and October by the ‘P&O Express’ fastcraft. Crossings are available throughout the day from Cairnryan and Troon, and a restaurant, lounge and bar/café can be found on all vessels. P&O Ferries offers discounts on pre-booked meals and special group fares.
A new route across the Irish Sea, from Swansea to Cork, is now available to GTOs too, courtesy of Fastnet Line. The crossing opened in spring 2010, with the offer of four weekly services in each direction during the peak months of July and August, and three weekly services from September to June. A 1,500-passenger capacity vessel, the ‘MS Julia’, sails between the two cities and onboard facilities include bars, restaurants, shops, a cinema and casino. Each sailing takes around 12 hours and GTOs should enquire about group rates.

Services from eastern ports

Ports located on the eastern shores of the UK provide GTOs with a number of alternative routes to the continent, with direct crossings to countries in northern Europe and Scandinavia.
Those looking to travel to Holland could choose to sail on a new Superferry from Harwich, in Essex, to the Hook of Holland with Stena Line. The operator launched the second of its new ships in late 2010 and each is designed to have low environmental impact. Onboard the new vessels, passengers can enjoy buffet and a la carte restaurants, a cinema, bar and lounge, and make use of the free Wi-Fi service. As with other services operated by Stena Line, group discounts on this route are calculated on a case-by-case basis.

Relaxing at the bar with DFDS Seaways

Relaxing at the bar with DFDS Seaways

DFDS Seaways also offers services from Harwich, with up to four return sailings a week to Esbjerg in western Denmark. This is a great option for GTOs looking to take groups on a direct crossing to Scandinavia and also opens up road routes to northern Germany and Sweden. The service departs from Harwich in the early evening and arrives in Denmark at lunchtime the following day, with similar journey times on the return leg. Further up the coast, the operator offers a different route that connects the north east to Holland. Its service from Newcastle to Amsterdam leaves daily and sails overnight, arriving just in time for breakfast. DFDS Seaways offers a range of discounts for groups and can organise drinks receptions, dinner packages, discos and exclusive areas on both services.
P&O Ferries, meanwhile, operates two routes from the port of Hull, with daily services to Zeebrugge in Belgium and Rotterdam in Holland. Two of the world’s biggest cruise ferries, the ‘Pride of Hull’ and the ‘Pride of Rotterdam’, operate on the crossing to Rotterdam and feature passenger cabins, a casino, cinema and live cabaret shows. Group rates are available on both routes and P&O has a dedicated coach and group team to assist with bookings and pre-booked meals.

P&O Ferries' Pride of Rotterdam

P&O Ferries' Pride of Rotterdam

Exploring Britain’s offshore islands

The many islands that lie just off the British coast are also serviced by a number of operators, presenting GTOs with a good range of destinations to consider for day trips or longer visits.
For instance, three ferry operators serve the Isle of Wight, providing crossings 24 hours a day on six different routes, with crossing times from as little as 10 minutes.
Wightlink operates regular services from Portsmouth to Fishbourne and Ryde, and Lymington to Yarmouth. Its fastest crossing is operated by a high-speed fleet of catamarans, sailing between Portsmouth Harbour and Ryde Pier Head in around 22 minutes. A yearround car ferry service is available on crossings to Fishbourne and Yarmouth and, onboard these vessels, passengers can relax in comfortable lounges or spacious sun decks. Groups can also take advantage of facilities like Costa Coffee shops at the company’s ferry terminals. GTOs should enquire about discounted fares and special offers.
Regular crossings to the Isle of Wight are also offered by Red Funnel, who run services from Southampton to West and East Cowes. Services to the West Cowes terminal are undertaken by the Red Jet High Speed Ferry, carrying foot passengers only, whilst a passenger vehicle ferry is used on the East Cowes crossing, and is able to accommodate coaches. The company recently launched a new travel website for smartphone users, allowing customers to view detailed timetable information and receive live service updates whilst on the move. Discounts are available to groups of 12 or more travelling as foot passengers and special rates are also available for coach parties.

Wightlink's St. Clare vessel

Wightlink's St. Clare vessel

Hovertravel provides the fastest crossing to the Isle of Wight, with regular daily services taking just 10 minutes. The journey between Southsea and Ryde is available to foot passengers onboard a hovercraft and, for a small charge, a ‘Hoverbus’ is available to take passengers from the Southsea Hoverport to Portsmouth and Southsea bus and train stations. Discounts are available for groups of 15 or more and the terminals used by Hovertravel are accessible for coach parties, with parking facilities and transfer points located close by.
Those looking to organise a trip to the Isles of Scilly could make use of the Isles of Scilly Travel service from Penzance in Cornwall to St Mary’s, the largest of the islands. The crossing is available from March to October and is operated by the passenger ship, ‘Scillonian III’. The journey takes around two hours 45 minutes and, onboard, passengers can have a bite to eat in the buffet area, enjoy a drink at the bar or look out for dolphins, seals and basking sharks from the ship’s top deck.
Crossings from the British mainland to the Isle of Man are available from Liverpool and Heysham, in Lancashire, with the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company. With three ships in operation, the company offers a fast craft service from Liverpool and a freight and passenger ferry service from Heysham. There is a choice of bars and restaurants on board all ships and, for a small surcharge, groups can book seats together in the Niarbyl Lounge.
GTOs looking to take groups to islands off the north coast of Scotland may like to consider the routes offered by NorthLink Ferries. The company runs regular services from the Scottish mainland to Orkney and Shetland using three purpose-built cruise ferries. Passenger ferry services run between Scrabster on the Scottish mainland and Stromness on Orkney, and between Aberdeen and Kirkwall on Orkney and Lerwick in Shetland. NorthLink vessels offer a range of ensuite cabins, a self-service and a la carte restaurant, lounges and a cinema. The operator also offers group tours around the islands and special rates are available upon request.
On the west coast of Scotland, Caledonian MacBrayne sails to 24 destinations. The network of routes covers some of the most beautiful and dramatic places in Scotland, from Arran in the south to Lewis in the north. The company introduced a new ship to its fleet in 2010, the ‘MV Finlaggan’, which has a capacity for 550 passengers and can accommodate coaches. Caledonian MacBrayne offers discounted rates on certain routes for 12 or more people.

On a Manchester Ship Canal Cruise with Mersey Ferries

On a Manchester Ship Canal Cruise with Mersey Ferries

Mersey Ferries, meanwhile, operates daily ‘River Explorer Cruises’ between Liverpool’s Pier Head and the Wirral’s Seacombe and Woodside terminals, along with cruises on the Manchester Ship Canal. Whilst these routes do not connect with any offshore islands, they do provide an interesting option as part of an itinerary. The ‘River Explorer Cruise’ takes around 50 minutes and sails past famous landmarks, allowing groups to explore the River Mersey’s rich heritage. The company’s trips along the Manchester Ship Canal, from Liverpool to Salford Quays, normally take around six hours to complete, but shorter cruises have now been introduced, starting and finishing outside the National Waterways Museum at Ellesmere Port. Passengers can enjoy spectacular scenery and a lively commentary along the 35 miles of canal and learn how this magnificent waterway shaped the city of Manchester and the north west of England. Discounts are available for groups of 20 or more.