I’ve been wanting to take my car (a 2013 MINI John Cooper Works Coupé) abroad for a while now, but being a 2 seater it’s not the most practical when going away as a group. I’d been wanting to visit a friend in Hamburg for a while, as I love that city and Timo is a fantastic host, so I opted to drive for the long weekend instead of the usual hop on a plane (this also meant that I could help my friend replenish his cupboards full of M&S products he became addicted to when he lived here).
My options for the crossings were P&O (Dover-Calais) or Stena Line (Harwich-Hook of Holland), as I am able to use a concession on these routes. The cost of the Stena crossing including cabin was between £55-60 than the P&O, which definitely made Harwich the right option as the drive from Calais would have meant paying more than that in fuel. I had to book my ticket through their call centre in Holyhead which was a dream, with none of the background noise you normally get and people who are well briefed about the product they are selling.
I booked the overnight sailing both ways, which meant the Stena Hollandica for the sailing to Holland, and the Stena Britannica back. Both of which were delivered to Stena in 2010 after a protracted construction, and have a gross tonnage of 64000! Ships set sail from Harwich at 2300, and arrive into Hook of Holland at 0800, whilst the return leaves the continent at 2200, with disembarkation at 0630 (the ship arrives at around 0445). Early boarding is also available on night sailings, which was a big plus for me although it’s not easily found as it doesn’t appear on the ticket. Early boarding meant that I could clear the M25 before rush hour really kicked in, however I wasn’t so lucky around Chelmsford on the A12.
In conversation on the @StenaLineUK twitter account (which is only for the Harwich route, UK customers using the Irish sea need to use @StenaLineUKIE), they confirmed early boarding is available 3 hours before departure, so I duly arrived at Harwich at 1900 expecting boarding to begin at 2000. This was not the case, Check In opened at 2000, and I wasn’t on board until after 2100. Their twitter account did not respond when I queried what was happening. We were loaded through the bow, but what felt unusual was that cars were boarded through the lower of the vehicle ramps, and we were directed to Mezzanine deck 4 which was only lowered on the port side, and for half the ships length. As such I had to do a 3 point turn and in the morning another 180 turn would be required to exit from the stern.
I had booked a single outside cabin, which was located on deck 10. I attempted to wait for the lift, as I had my entire weekends luggage with me but it was very slow and the queue kept building so I climbed the 6 decks using the stairs. My single cabin was actually a twin, sold with the upper bunk unused. However the lower bunk was large and whilst not a full king size bed, could sleep two comfortably. The bathroom was also larger than I’ve come to expect from BF, with the shower being glassed off to the left of the sink rather than squeezed in alongside the toilet. Every cabin has TV too, with a smattering of British & TV channels, bow cam, map and Kennel cam for those with dogs on board. I quipped on twitter to @StenaLineUK that the cabin size was far superior to @BrittanyFerries, to which the only reply I got was from BFs ^CJ, who took an interest in my trip and asked which ship & route I was on before wishing me a pleasant trip.
All passenger lounges are on deck 9, with the Taste restaurant (buffet), Metropolitan restaurant (a la carte), Taste Wine Bar, and Riva bar all found in the forward third of deck 9. The taste restaurant occupies the space in the centre to the left of the main walkway, the Riva bar on the right occupying the starboard side of the space, and the Metropolitan restaurant at the far side of the Taste restaurant, on the port side. The Taste Wine bar is by the entrance to the Metropolitan restaurant, and also serves as the bar for the casino and the bar seating at the bow of the ship.
Midships on deck 9 is Guest Services which also serves as a light cafe for people using the C-view lounge which is essentially open season on the main arcade and the shop is adjacent to guest services. At the stern is ‘The Living Room’ which includes the ships cinema, a video wall with large armchairs, the barista bar serving coffees and alcoholic drinks and the ships Wifi centre.
I headed to the Metropolitan restaurant, as I had a pre booked meal (£23 for 3 courses). It was the walk round to the Metropolitan that took me back. As I walked past the riva bar, the barman greeted me and asked if I wanted anything. I politely declined as I was hungry, but the level of service continued when I got the the restaurant. The crew were friendly, engaged in conversation, asked about my trip and seemed genuinely keen to help. Most of the staff were Filipino crew, with Dutch crew occupying the more supervisory roles. Dinner was fine, I opted for a smoked duck breast starter, followed by pork fillet main and a creme brulee to finish. It was tasty, but arrived too quickly for my liking.
After dinner I looked outside, and the large deck space even included a basketball court, and spanned for 3 decks, 9, 10 & 11. 2300 (0000 ships time) came and went, and at 0015 ships time an announcement was made (pre recorded) stating that freight was still being loaded and we are delayed, but this wouldn’t affect our arrival at Hook of Holland. The fact that they have a pre recorded announcement implies this is a regular occurrence.
I had planned on playing some blackjack at the casino, but it would not open whilst in port. I had a couple of drinks at the taste bar (and Riva bar which is decorated like the Riva boats), and the staff wished me a pleasant trip to Hamburg (kudos for remembering me from the restaurant). A quick look out the window showed that we weren’t leaving anytime soon so I gave up on the casino opening and retired to my cabin. I asked at Guest services ifI would be evicted from the cabin before arrival as is the norm on BF, but was told not until the call to the car decks was made.
A wake up call at 0630 gave plenty of time for the mornings ablutions (of which included using by far the best shower on a ship I’ve ever used, powerful, large head and a lot of space too) before getting some breakfast at the taste restaurant. Options aboard are Continental Breakfast at the Barista bar in ‘the Living room’, or a full hot buffet in Taste for €15. The choice was good, with many hot and cold options, including my favourite, the cold meats and cheese. We were called down to cars whilst breakfast was still being served so I made a mad dash to the cabin, packed as quick as possible and headed to deck 4. After the lap of the lower vehicle deck, I was quickly through passport control (take note Portsmouth) and bound for Hamburg and arrived just after 1430 after hitting some traffic near Rotterdam & Bremen.
The Hamburg visit was amazing as ever. Discovered a bar that also houses a brewery, another bar that distills its own gin, got invited to a house party and visited the amazing Miniatur Wunderland.
All too soon it was time to head home using the German autobahns and Dutch motorways. Despite heavy traffic around Utrecht, Gouda & Rotterdam I managed to get to Hook of Holland as check in opened at 1900 for the 2200 sailing, and after about 10 minutes wait quayside, we were called forward to board Stena Britannica. This time we would be on deck 3, surrounded by trucks, but all the cars were kept close to the lifts which seemed to arrive a lot quicker than on Stena Hollandica. Again my cabin was on deck 10, and was identical to the outbound.
The ship is identical to her sister, however being British flagged runs on British time. Again the hotel staff are mainly Filipino, with the supervisory staff being British this time. I again had a meal reserved and the menu was almost identical, however this time there was a reservation card on the table with my name on it.
The maître d' was British, and I had a chat with him after the meal. This time round I opted for Ceasar Salad, Pork Tenderloin and the Crumble. All again were good, but a little too quick in appearing meaning that it wasn’t as well prepared as I’d liked. The ceasar salad had far too much parmesan slices too. I opted for a couple of glasses of Californian Syrah, after my exploits across the USA last year I have become a fan of their wines. Whilst eating, the table next to me explained to the maître d' that they were used to using the Harwich - Esbjerg route, and are now using Stena following its closure. Interestingly, they were running an errand for their son, who had won an auction item. They were collecting one of the F1 cars from the collapsed Caterham F1 team and bringing it back to Denmark for him. The maître d' explained that they had over 250 trucks on board that evening, and had seen a lot of extra business since DFDS withdrew from Harwich. He also said the ship has carried in excess of 300 trailers on occasion. I wasn’t surprised that we were busy, as Stena Hollandica had gone off for an 8 day dry dock since my sailing 3 days previous. In our chat we exchanged that we both have mutual concessions on each others companies services, and that he may hear my dulcet tones at his local station in the Portsmouth area. He was surprised when I pointed out that he may still see the former Sirena Seaways in his native Portsmouth.
I did manage some roulette on this crossing, as we left on time, however I was not successful. However there was o access to the outside deck on deck 9 as the staggered doors were not working. Freight drivers could still access the area through their lounge, pbut passengers needed to use the space on deck 10 & 11.
I had a couple of nightcaps, and ordering Gin & Tonic proved tricky. On both ships, I had been charged €5.10. However on the last occasion I was served by the Guest Services Manager, who insisted on charging me for a full can of tonic instead of a splash. Previous staff on both ships had opened the can, and then kept it in the fridge. I successfully insisted on being charged €5.10 however he gave me the can of tonic too. The gin was Bombay Sapphire which is an improvement on the Gordons that BF insist on serving.
Thanks to the early boarding, I managed to get a full nights sleep, before repeating the breakfast experience which again matched her sister ship. However the ship had arrived a couple of hours previously, and freight had already been unloaded meaning a very prompt disembarkation at 0630. So prompt that I was back home in Surrey by 0915.
All in all a very good couple of crossings. The passenger spaces are a bit spartan and feel very motorway service like, but the crews are incredibly eager to please, and the food and drink decent too. All in all a very good and convenient way to cross the North Sea, but I’d be a bit bored on a day sailing. The only letdown was the terminals. Virtually no facilities other than toilets for car drivers at all.