Showing posts with label passenger ships. Show all posts
Showing posts with label passenger ships. Show all posts

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

European Ferries; a wonderful way to travel.

“I love ships”, I have told myself, “but I don’t like cruises.” It is a subtle difference, and one that I have a hard time explaining.

What I really mean, I suspect, is that I can’t stand the idea of spending a week or more on a floating version of Las Vegas being urged to have more and more “fun” and trying hard to avoid “locals”. This is a more upmarket version of a Butlin’s holiday camp, and the idea of enforced fun has never sat well with me.

But I do like ships; and I have, in the past, chosen to take the Queen Mary II across the Atlantic, all the time decrying the evils of cruising. I like the idea of using these majestic passenger liners as transportation and not solely as a crutch to sightseeing; I like getting on a ship in one port and disembarking in another having used it solely for transportation. It is, to me, a minor accomplishment in these days of Easy Flying.

And so, as I plotted the itinerary for this wander, I wanted to try and use one of the many Mediterranean shipping services that crisscross this vast sea. Palermo to Tunis seemed a reasonable choice, and the Grimaldi Line are a venerable and huge shipping concern; their vessels would exactly suit my needs and my mood, and so I booked passage.

Tunis harbour after our arrival
The Grimaldi Line is a fascinating organisation; owned by a Naples family and sharing the famous name of Monaco's rulers, to whom there is apparently no connection, it operates a major shipping concern throughout the Mediterranean, the North Sea and the Baltic Sea; it operates a substantial fleet of cargo ships, “cruise class” ships and commercial ferries, and it was on the latter of these that I sailed on the MV Catania.

She is a workhorse; a 26,000-ton vessel that carries 800 passengers and a cast array of trucks, cars and containers, I boarded shortly before midnight from the Sicilian capital. Boarding was a unique combination of Sicilian organisation and Tunisian order, and as we all stomped through the opening gate to the single elevator that would haul us up to the accommodation decks I was rather excited. The ship was full, and this meant that those without cabins were actually rushing to claim their piece of floor in the lounge area, a pursuit that didn’t actually involve me at all.

The Catania cabin; perfectly cosy with
ensuite facilities. Exactly what one wants
for an overnight journey to Africa.
I was caught up in the spirit, however, and soon found myself bursting into my cabin. I had taken the precaution of booking a cabin for “sole occupancy”; not a terrific extravagance (€135 for the one-way journey), but as it turned out, a wise investment. 

The weather was rough; now, I like a bit of a blow, but this is a sentiment that was obviously not shared by everybody on board. When I rose in the morning for coffee, there was no food (Gordon Lightfoot’s “Fellas, it’s too rough to feed ya” was running through my mind) and the deck did look a little like the morning-after-a-fine-party. But no matter, I had coffee and repaired to my cabin to wait for Tunisia to appear.

The crossing did, in fact, make me want to do more. Grimaldi’s route is substantial, and very useful to travellers seeking to explore Europe. They offer service between Spain and Italy, and the route from Valencia to Salerno (in southern Italy) looks particularly tempting. 

They sail between Barcelona and the port of Civitavecchia, just to the north of Rome, on a route that is a very viable alternative to flying between these popular points. It leaves from Barcelona at 2245 the voyage to Rome takes about twenty hours, and becomes an integral part of a European vacation. Sardinia, a fascinating addition to any exploration of the Mediterranean and the major Adriatic ports are all part of their route network, and well worth considering. And, of course, Tunis is on their extensive route network, and this is a city worth visiting.

Boarding in Palermo; there is a lot
that you couldn't take on a plane. 
So it wasn’t a cruise and it wasn’t a ferry but it was a journey. And this, the ability to turn a trip into a journey is what I love about travel. Two ports, linked by a regular service, and a ship carrying nearly 1,000 people home, away, between and these countries adds a level of intrigue to the journey, and the simple requirement of getting from A to B becomes exciting!

I love ships.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The RMS St. Helena: Nautical, but Nice;

"The RMS" as she is fondly known,  is an odd ship; built in 1990, it was probably old fashioned before she was launched, and she remains the lifeline for the remote and rather wonderful island of St. Helena, with periodic service to the island of Ascension that lies some 700 miles to the north.

The voyage to the island from Cape Town takes six days, and far from being monotonous, she offers a wide variety of activities ranging from people watching to the gymnasium to the movie offerings and of course the food.

The people are the most interesting; built to accommodate a maximum of 155 passengers in three basic categories of cabins, with twin, four and six-berth units available, she rarely carries more than about one hundred. There are Saints heading home for a vacation, business travellers heading out to work on one element of the island’s infrastructure or another, government officials and some tourists. The ship is fairly small, at 6.500 tons, but sufficient to weather the unpredictable seas of the South Atlantic, and deliver her passengers and the 3,000 tons of freight she carries reliably and safely.

The ship is redolent of a time-gone-by. Of course, this is mostly because nobody travels on a five-day journey by ship anymore to reach a destination; we fly, although this is currently an impossibility for St. Helena as they have no airport. One is being built at the moment, and it is planned to be ready in 2016, and many hopes and fears are riding on the inevitable changes that it will bring to the islands economy and social fabric.

The ship offers deck quoits, shuffleboard, domino tournaments, beef tea and frog racing; there are bridge games and visits to the bridge, there are movies, a library and the simple pleasure of watching the water for whales and the occasional massive sea turtle. Conversations are started and drift off into the afternoon, to be picked up once more over an evening sundowner; all very civilised.

There is a wi-fi service, although of such a miserable balance between cost and speed, it is barely worth acknowledging; however, there is much to be said for a week without Facebook and email.

Time ticks along; our cabins are small and simple, almost monastic. The public areas are pleasant and not over-crenellated, the decks hint of summer jollity in the winter shadows, and the water spills amusingly out of the swimming pool as we bump our way south to Cape Town. It is a strange community, currently of 75 passengers and 59 crew bobbing 4,500 metres above a plethora of googly-eyed sea-creatures and a thousand miles from land, yet dressing for dinner and a cocktail with the captain. It is really rather pleasant.

Passage on the ship is not inexpensive, but more than reasonable when one considers the route. A berth in a small two-berth cabin (with shared facilities) will start at about £475 each way. Larger cabins with en suite facilities will run about £1,000 and the largest cabins about £1,500. Considering that this brings passage to St. Helena, a delightful island of which more will be written later, and six days/five nights on board the RMS with fine food throughout, it is really a very good deal indeed.

It is the end of an era; the ship will be decommissioned after the airport starts operation, and for the island, its visitors and above all its residents, this change is a little frightening. One should travel to the island now, and enjoy the privilege of being one of the last people to travel to a remote country by ship.