'Curiosity' led me to sample Brittany Ferries new économie service to le Havre, sailing onboard their latest acquisition, Etretat. Having been initially critical of the new concept I was keen to keep an open mind and see just what the new service would offer, particularly compared to her previous life as Norman Voyager.
25th March 2014
On arriving at Portsmouth International Port I saw that there was one car lane open for the new service in the usual BF car lanes, with the electronic display indicating 'économie Le Havre'. On subsequent visits to the port there are now dedicated 'écononmie' check-in lanes occupying the formerly empty booths beside Condor Ferries. The passenger terminal was very quiet, where I checked in. The only indication of the service differing from the norm was the boarding card which had the 'économie' logo on it. I was advised that boarding would commence at 11:00, with an announcement being made shortly afterwards. Once through security the low foot passenger numbers (approx 4) meant we were driven onboard in a BF van rather than the bus, which had the added advantage that we were taken straight up to deck 5. Now, the ramp up to deck 5 can only be described as a ski slope - and a real sense of achievement for the driver when you reach the top!
Once onboard you immediately arrive the 'information hall' which is a bright open area compromising the information desk, access to a small video lounge and the small 'Waves Shop'. Crew members were on hand here to welcome us onboard. Walking on you pass the ships main stairwell, leading up to the cabins, and also doors giving access to the outside decks. Forward of here is the main passenger accommodation with the 'Seaside Lounge', 'le Bar', 'Horizon Lounge', a small children’s play area and then finally the 'Pit Stop Self Service Restaurant'. Aside from a few new chairs in the bar (taken from the Pont-Aven) the ship remains identical in terms of layout, decor and facilities as she was when sailing as 'Norman Voyager'. The majority of signage (aside from facilities names) has been replaced with BF écomomie - complete with the ribbon and bow motif currently being used throughout the fleet. Deck 6 comprises the cabins (excluding two disabled cabins on deck 5).
From the outside deck on the stern of deck 7 (accessible via the 'doggy exercise deck' on the port side of deck 6) I watched loading take place, with approx 10 cars climbing the ramp onto deck 5. Departure was prompt, and without any fuss we set sail for Le Havre. Shortly after leaving the berth we were welcomed onboard 'Brittany Ferries Economie' - with no reference to the ship's name, nor the fact it was the first voyage. Our Captain for the day was Cmdt Raimbeaux (Rambo). Intermittent rain showers were avoided by heading to the enclosed outside decks on the sides of deck 5, although access to these is rather odd as the doors have emergency exit 'push bars' on them so it's not immediately apparent you can pass through. Sadly there were no well-wishers on the Round Tower! Once clear of the Channel we passed the inbound Normandie - and took a rather a large roll in the process!
Lunchtime beckoned. The selection on offer was generally good. A small selection of what you'd find on the 'traditional' ferries, with a small desserts fridge and a selection of starters before the hot offering. I did feel that the hot dishes were a little poor, the quality not the selection. I opted for the Salmon but it had been sitting there for some time. The servery is also 'canteen style' with steel lids so you can't see what the food actually looks like - even the chef had difficulty locating some of the options! A selection of drinks is then followed by the cashiers desk. OK, its an économie service so I can't complain, but small improvements here could go along way - that said the food was of a far higher standard than in the LD/DFDS days!
The tables are split into two zones (one formerly being primarily for drivers) and there is a large TV screen in both which were showing French and English news channels. Some tables overlook the bow which is always a bonus.
As there were only a handful of passengers onboard everyone quickly settled into their routine of reading, watching their iPads etc or camping out in the reclining seat lounges. After lunch I didn't see anyone venture to the bar for a drink nor look around the shop. Everyone seemsd to know what to expect onboard and had accordingly come equipped! There is free wi-fi available onboard and 'On-Waves' provide mobile phone coverage too. The shop has a very basic offering (being smaller than that on the Normandie Express), whilst newspapers were available at the information desk.
I did overhear one passenger chatting to a crew member, clearly a regular on the ship, and was comparing it to its former life, and generally praising the ship. He did make a point on departure of complimenting the fact shore cleaners came onboard on arrival in Le Havre! Incidentally a team of cleaners apparently spent two weeks deep cleaning the ship following its handover to BF.
Soon enough Le Havre came into view, and with the pilot embarked, and the Seven Sisters sailing past, we made our approach to the berth, just as the heavens decided to open! We arrived on time, but due to her design, it took some time for the cars to be disembarked and approx 30mins for us foot passengers. This time we disembarked via deck 3, accessible by a long corridor and lift at the rear of deck 5. It's then a walk off the stern door to a waiting shuttle bus which then takes you, wait for it, all of 30m, to a stairwell to access the terminal via a overhead walkway. This procedure is nothing new, as since P&O departed no ferry serving the port has fitted the foot passenger gangway arrangement - nevertheless almost 10 years later a better solution has yet to be found!
The passenger terminal in Le Havre, like Portsmouth, doesn't show any evidence of the économie brand (not even the boarding cards). Boarding for the return leg was advertised as starting at 21:00 but in the end it was closer to 21:30 before the gates were opened. One negative here. The two BF staff in the terminal were clearly enthusiastic and friendly, however their constant flirting with each other was rather unprofessional, with the foot passengers appearing to be an inconvenience on their night out! Once through passport control it was the usual process in reverse for getting onboard, being greeted by the purser on the car deck directing us to the lift or stairwell.
Something which wasn't advised of at check-in, nor mentioned with-in the ship's guide, is the Etretat's unique cabin entry system. The cabin numbering is somewhat bizarre but even stranger is that there are combination locks on the doors - similar to that found in a Forumula 1 hotel. The code to this isn't listed on your boarding card so you must go to the information desk to obtain the magic code. Code in hand it was straight up to deck 6 to bed, after a rather long day!
The cabin's are larger than that found on the rest of the fleet and are simple but clean and functional. The bedding is brand new, and now feature the usual BF duvet (compared to her LD/DFDS days). The bathroom was sufficient, but felt rather tatty with holes in the walls where items had been removed and featured an old style fixed shower head. On the return journey I went to bed as soon as I got onboard and thanks to the usual 08:00 arrival time enjoyed a full nights sleep. A negative comment however, is that the lyno flooring within the cabin and outside corridor means that noise carries very easily and I was woken a couple of times as people went past.
The sailing back was smooth, being woken an hour before arrival advertising breakfast was being served in the Self Service. This was repeated half and hour before arrival, but there wasn't the usual request to vacate your cabin, so another plus here. The Bretagne berthed ahead of us on No 2 berth, whilst we were on No 3 berth. The Normandie was preparing to set sail to Caen with what appeared to be a full load onboard. There was some friendly jeering between the two crews as we made our way alongside!
As in Le Havre disembarkation did take some time, it being half an hour before we were invited to make our way to deck 3 to get onto the shuttle to the terminal. With the Bretagne still unloading the queue for immigration did take some time but soon enough we were through - completing the 'adventure'.
So, what did I think? Well to be frank it does what it says on the tin. It's an économie service and BF clearly go to great lengths during the booking process to highlight this fact (you must tick to acknowledge that it's a basic service) so Brittany Ferries usual clientele will be unlikely to be shocked or complain. Essentially its the same service that DFDS are offering to Le Havre and LD to Santander so it will be very interesting to see how they compete against each other. I know some on here have suggested that the Barfleur or even Armorique should also now be branded under the économie banner. This is a crazy suggestion, as both ships are FAR superior to the offering onboard Etretat. If you want to get to France or Spain on a budget, without trekking to Dover, then this certainly is a great option. With BF's route network, and the ability to easily reserve your crossing with a small deposit and make booking ammendments it also wins over DFDS/LD.