Emma Jeffreys takes our annual look at the benefits of travelling across the water from British shores to the surrounding islands and the Continent. She finds that this mode of transport not only offers convenient departure and arrival points, but can be a highlight of a group trip.
There continues to be a wide selection of ferry operators for GTOs to choose from when organising a trip over the sea. Many offer significant savings and benefits for those travelling as a group, as well as dedicated teams to help with travel arrangements. Eurotunnel and Eurostar offer an alternative mode of transport to the Continent too.
Although 2012 saw the official demise of Fastnet Line and SeaFrance, it has also seen the emergence of new operators into the cross-channel market. MyFerryLink, a co-operative of SeaFrance employees, has leased three former SeaFrance vessels that were purchased by Eurotunnel to travel the Dover-Calais route. Disappointingly though, the newly-formed company does not take bookings for groups larger than nine and has currently been referred to the competition commission in the UK, with a ruling expected in April.
Another new cross-channel service, operated by Euroferries, is set to launch in February with the promise of offering four daily crossings. The high-speed service will sail between Ramsgate and Boulogne.
In addition, DFDS Seaways and LD Lines announced a new joint venture last March. DFDS has an 82% stake, with LD Lines holding the remaining 18%, and the new company has already added a new Dover-Calais crossing to its operation.
DEPARTING FROM SOUTH EASTERN PORTS
Ports on the south east coast of the UK offer groups a fast route to the continent, with Dover remaining a firm favourite with travellers.
The Dover-Calais service provided by P&O Ferries offers up to 23 return sailings a day with a crossing time of just 90 minutes. The fleet includes the new addition, the Spirit of France, which began its service in February 2012. At more than 47,000 gross tons and 213 metres in length, Spirit of France and sister ship Spirit of Britain, which began service in 2011, are the largest ferries ever built for the Dover Strait. The combined cost of nearly £300 million is the largest investment ever made by P&O Ferries. The route features six multi-purpose superferries in total and all ships feature a choice of restaurants, including the waiter-served Brasserie offering fine dining afloat. Groups can pre-book meal vouchers and choose to upgrade to the luxury of a club lounge. The dedicated Coach and Group Team can advise of any discounts available.
The new joint venture between DFDS Seaways and LD Lines offers a new service between Dover and Calais, launched in February last year. The journey takes around 90 minutes and runs 10 times every day. The established Dover to Dunkirk crossing meanwhile takes two hours. On board facilities include self-service restaurants, bars, a children’s play area and a VIP area on the Dover to Dunkirk vessels. Discounts are available to those travelling in groups of 10 or more.
Groups may also wish to consider sailing across the channel from Ramsgate to Boulogne with Euroferries. The operator has entered into an agreement with global ship manufacturer Austal, which has secured a newly built 102-metre vessel on a long-term charter agreement. The service is due to become fully operational during February. It will offer four daily crossings, catering for passengers, cars and luxury coaches. The vessel is capable of achieving speeds in excess of 40 knots, thus enabling Euroferries to provide one of the fastest channel crossings available.
The Port of Ramsgate also provides the only passenger ferry service between England and Belgium. Transeuropa offers up to three crossings a day from Ramsgate to Ostend on its passenger ferries, the Gardenia and Larkspur. GTOs should note that although the company does not accept coaches or foot passengers, it can offer special rates for groups of vehicles travelling together. GTOs are advised to contact the operator for details.
PORTSMOUTH AND SOUTHERN PORTS
The rest of the south offers plenty of options for travelling across the channel too.
Routes to the Normandy region are available from the south coast with LD Lines, which operates two ships on its services from Portsmouth to Le Havre and from Newhaven to Dieppe. The daily return service to Le Havre is operated by the 550-passenger capacity Norman Voyager, while two daily return crossings to Dieppe are available onboard the 600-passenger capacity Seven Sisters vessel. Both ships offer passengers a range of onboard facilities, including a bar, lounges, self-service restaurant and cabins. Fixed year-round pricing is set for coaches, minibuses, group foot passengers and cyclists. Discounted group rates are available on application for groups of motorcycles and car rallies.
Condor Ferries will resume sailings from Weymouth in July after diverting to Poole after cracks in the harbour wall led to the closure of the ferry terminal in February 2012. Services will resume subject to the works being completed. This will allow groups to choose to sail with Condor Ferries from three ports across the south coast; Portsmouth, Poole and Weymouth. Services from Weymouth and Poole to St Malo require a change of vessel in either Guernsey or Jersey, while a direct service is available from Portsmouth to Cherbourg. A café-style menu is available on all services, as is an upper deck bar and shop selling a wide selection of drinks and travel items. Those looking to add a touch of luxury to a journey may consider upgrading to a private lounge with leather reclining seats, complimentary newspapers, and refreshments and steward service. Discounts are available to those travelling as a group.
Brittany Ferries has announced the reinstatement of the popular Barfleur ferry on its Poole to Cherbourg crossing from March. It will operate a year-round daily day-time crossing from Poole and an early evening cruise back from Cherbourg, making it ideal for day trippers as well as those travelling beyond Cherbourg. The four and a quarter-hour crossing will replace the seasonal high-speed service that was previously available on this route. Groups who wish to travel from Portsmouth with Brittany Ferries can also travel to Cherbourg and Caen or St Malo in France, while crossings to Spain arrive in Santander and Bilbao. Roscoff and Santander can also be reached via services from Plymouth. Accommodation on board the vessels range from simple two-berth inside cabins to luxury Commodore suites, some of which have their own balconies and butler to serve breakfast or afternoon tea. Group discounts are available for 10 or more passengers.
CROSSINGS TO IRELAND
Despite hopes to resume crossings, Fastnet Line was unable to re-launch the Swansea to Cork service and the company was placed into receivership last February. There remain three companies, however, offering a range of routes across the Irish Sea.
Stena Line remains the largest operator on the Irish Sea with the offer of five routes. The recently refurbished Stena Lagan and Stena Mersey operate on the Liverpool to Belfast route. Groups crossing from Holyhead to Dublin can also enjoy enhanced passenger accommodation if travelling on the Stena Adventurer or choose to travel on a Superferry service. A seasonal Fastcraft service also operates out of Holyhead travelling to Dun Laoghaire, seven miles south of Dublin city centre. Groups are advised to check the website for up to date sailing information on this service. A further option is to travel from Fishguard to Rosslare on the Stena Europe Superferry. Parties travelling with Stena Line can benefit from a new menu on board all ships designed by celebrity chef Kevin Woodford and those GTOs who want to make their journey extra special can upgrade to the Stena Plus lounge. Groups in Scotland may even choose to indulge themselves in the Pure Nordic Spa when sailing on board a Superfast ferry from Cairnryan to Belfast. A group discount is available on all services.
P&O Ferries operates the shortest, fastest ferry crossings to Northern Ireland with up to 10 daily sailings from Cairnryan and Troon in Scotland to Larne. Groups who choose to travel to Larne by fast ferry and superferry can enjoy the offerings of Poet’s Bar, Fables Restaurant and the Sea Shop on all sailings. GTOs should contact the operator’s expert Groups Reservations Team to take advantage of special fares and discounts on pre-booked meals. There is also a ferry crossing from Liverpool to Dublin, but group travel is not offered on this route.
Irish Ferries runs two routes from Wales to Ireland. Two vessels operate on the Holyhead to Dublin route and offer up to four return crossings between them each day. The Dublin Swift fast ferry makes the crossing in just one hour, 49 minutes, while the world’s largest car ferry, the Ulysses, crosses the Irish Sea to Dublin in three hours, 15 minutes. Groups can also travel with Irish Ferries from Pembroke to Rosslare. There is a Club Class option on all ships where passengers who opt to pay a supplement will enjoy priority boarding, use of an exclusive lounge with complimentary snacks, drinks and newspapers, an exclusive lounge bar for meals, plus selected discounts in the shops. The operator has a dedicated groups booking team and offers parties of 10 or more discounts on standard rates.
TRAVELLING FROM EASTERN PORTS
For GTOs based in Scotland, the north of England or the Midlands, sailing from the eastern coast of the UK can save miles of driving and fuel costs for those wishing to travel to Scandinavia and countries in northern Europe.
Stena Line operates twice-daily return crossings between Harwich and the Hook of Holland on its two Superferries, the Stena Britannica and Stena Hollandica. These vessels were launched in 2010, and represent a combined investment of over £375 million. With two restaurants, two bars, an onboard shop and even a cinema on each, the onboard services will help ensure all members of your group are kept pleasantly occupied. Groups can benefit from half price cabins on day sailings and GTOs are advised to contact Stena Line’s group team to find out more about available discounts.
On its North Sea routes, P&O Ferries offers daily departures for the 14-hour Hull-Zeebrugge crossing and the 12-hour Hull-Rotterdam service. Two of the world’s biggest cruise ferries, the Pride of Rotterdam and the Pride of Hull, operate on the Hull-Rotterdam crossing. Entertainment on board includes a casino, cinema and live cabaret shows. The Hull-Zeebrugge ships – Pride of Bruges and Pride of York – also offer a wide range of onboard facilities and services including a Club Lounge, the lively Silverstones Bar and the Four Seasons Carvery. Groups can take advantage of tax-free shopping in the onboard shops and enjoy a discount on meals if pre-booked at the time of making a reservation. Special group fares are available to those travelling as a party of 10 or more.
Holland can also be reached with DFDS Seaways, which offers a daily ferry route from Newcastle to Amsterdam. The two ships that operate the route are the King Seaways and the Princess Seaways. The company’s Harwich to Denmark crossing is the only ferry route from the UK to Scandinavia and operates two to four times per week, depending on the time of year. From the port in Esbjerg, it’s an easy and scenic drive through Denmark and on to Sweden and northern Germany. DFDS Seaways’ cruise ferries feature a variety of comfortable ensuite cabins, restaurants, a cinema, casino, bars and live entertainment, and shops for customers’ enjoyment. Groups can contact the dedicated group travel team for information on current group offers and discounts.
CROSSING THE CHANNEL BY RAIL
For groups who wish to travel by rail, there are two operators, Eurotunnel Le Shuttle and Eurostar, which currently provide regular services throughout the day to destinations in France and Belgium via the Channel Tunnel.
Eurotunnel Le Shuttle offers a fast, frequent and convenient coach and car carrying service between Folkestone in Kent and Calais in France. With a journey time of just 35 minutes from platform to platform, it is the fastest route across the Channel for passengers travelling by coach. The Passenger Terminal Buildings at both Folkestone and Calais offer restaurants, a bureau de change, disabled facilities and various retail outlets. Regardless of the direction of travel, all border control checks are completed before boarding the shuttle. Therefore, on arrival, the coach can proceed directly from the shuttle and onto the auto route or motorway network without further delay. GTOs are advised to contact the operator for details of any promotional offers. Special rates are available for groups of 15 or more vehicles travelling together.
Eurostar offers cross channel services from the north London station of St Pancras International and from Ashford and Ebbsfleet in Kent. Groups travelling without vehicles can travel directly to Paris and Lille in France and to Brussels in Belgium throughout the year. Seasonal services are provided to ski resorts in the Alps and to Avignon in Provence. GTOs can contact the dedicated Group Sales Team for information on tailored group packages that can include competitive group prices, reduced transfer rates and reserving everything from one carriage to the entire train.
ROUTES TO OFFSHORE ISLANDS
Those who wish to organise day trips or longer stays on the many islands that lie off the British coast will find them well connected to the mainland by regular ferry services.
Three companies offer 24-hour services between the Isle of Wight and the mainland. Wightlink operates an average of 140 crossings a day between the British mainland and the Isle of Wight on three different routes. A fast crossing onboard a catamaran is available between Portsmouth Harbour and Ryde Pier Head, whilst a more leisurely car ferry service is offered on crossings from Portsmouth to Fishbourne and from Lymington to Yarmouth. GTOs should enquire about discounted fares and special offers.
Red Funnel operates routes between Southampton and East and West Cowes. Services run every day of the year, including Christmas Day. Vehicle ferries serve on the 55-minute crossing to East Cowes, while hi-speed foot passenger vessels race across the waters to West Cowes in 23 minutes. Onboard, groups will find a café restaurant serving a wide variety of hot and cold food, a well-stocked bar and premium Steam coffee outlet, as well as free Wi-Fi. Group rates are available for passengers travelling to both destinations and the operator can offer advice on where to stay and the best places to visit on the island.
Another option to consider when planning a trip across the Solent is the Hovertravel service between Southsea and Ryde. Hovertravel is the world’s longest running commercial hovercraft service and is currently the only scheduled passenger hovercraft service in the world. The crossing takes just 10 minutes and is available to foot passengers only. The terminals have coach transfer points directly outside and discounts are available for groups of 15 or more.
Formed in 1920, the Isles of Scilly Steamship Company continues to provide services from Penzance in Cornwall to St Mary’s, the largest island in the Isles of Scilly. The crossing is undertaken by the Scillonian III passenger ship, which makes the crossing Monday to Saturday, from March until November. The two-hour, 40-minute journey takes passengers past the Minack Theatre and Wolf Rock Lighthouse, while dolphins, seals and basking sharks are regular sightings from the top deck. Onboard refreshments are served at the bar or buffet and souvenirs, gifts and guidebooks can be purchased in the onboard shop. GTOs are advised to contact the operator to discuss potential discounts.
For those groups looking to explore the unique self-governing kingdom of the Isle of Man, the IoM Steam Packet Company provides the option of a seasonal fast craft service from Liverpool and a conventional ferry service from Heysham in Lancashire to Douglas, with an additional winter ferry service from Birkenhead. The Manannan, a 96-metre catamaran, is the largest vessel of its kind on the Irish Sea and offers passengers a great experience of fast and comfortable travel to the Isle of Man from Liverpool. On board facilities include two cinema lounges, a large café bar area at the stern and the Coast-to-Coast café. Meanwhile, the Ben-my-Chree sails from Heysham and offers four-berth ensuite cabins with TV and complimentary tea and coffee. Groups should contact the Reservations Team to discuss group offers.
Caledonian MacBrayne sails to an incredible 24 different destinations on the west coast of Scotland. The network stretches from Arran in the south to Lewis in the north and covers some of the most spectacular coastlines and landscapes in the UK. The operator has a large and modern fleet and introduced its newest ship, the MV Finlaggan, to the Islay route in 2011. A variety of coach and tour options are available and group rates apply on certain routes for those travelling in parties of 12 or more. Later this year, the operator will introduce the world’s first sea going Roll On Roll Off diesel electric hybrid ferry on the crossing between Sconser and Raasay in Skye. It is the first of two hybrid ferries designed for use on many of the short crossing routes around the Clyde and Hebrides.
Serco Northlink Ferries provides services from mainland Scotland to the Northern Isles of Orkney and Shetland. There are daily sailings between Aberdeen and Lerwick, Shetland, with up to four calls a week into Kirkwall, Orkney. NorthLink also sails up to three times daily from Scrabster, Thurso to Stromness, Orkney and this scenic 90-minute crossing takes in sights such as the Old Man of Hoy and St John’s Head. This crossing is ideal for day tours of the island. Three state-of the-art ships – MV Hamnavoe, MV Hrossey and MV Hjaltland – all provide the highest standards of safety and comfort, offering well-appointed cabins, lounges, bars and well-stocked shops providing a range of local crafts and produce. NorthLink also offers a range of exclusive discounted group tours, which include your own coach and driver and combine onboard meals where applicable as well as guides to take you around the islands if required. Further information is available by contacting the Groups Reservations Team.