on December 24, 2012
It's become almost a tradition for my son and myself to take a short break together at the beginning of the year, and this year was no different.But where to go?We decided on a couple of days in The Netherlands and I started searching for the best way to do this. What I came up with was a ferry crossing from Newcastle to Ijmuiden. It was almost 50% less expensive than crossing from Rosyth to Zeebrugge via Superfast Ferries, and took a couple of hours or so less. And as Newcastle is only a couple of hours away for us, it seemed perfect.The ferry is operated by DFDS, a Scandinavian company, and they also have services to Sweden and Norway from Newcastle (or to be more accurate, North Shields), but we weren't concerned with those destinations.Booking was relatively straightforward, but not on the official DFDS website. Oh, it's a comprehensive site with lots of info regarding destinations, fares and timetables. There are also virtual tours around the ship, but for the life of me, I couldn't book the sailing. For some reason, it kept directing me to the wrong journey. Oh well. As it turned out, I managed to book the trip through another site called aferries.co.uk and it was actually a few quid cheaper.Talking of prices, these vary according to the time of year, accommodation, length of visit, and car size (assuming your taking a car...obviously). There are also discounts for kids and senior citizens etc. It would be ridiculous to go through the pricing structure here, but suffice to say, I paid £262 for two adults sharing an inside, 2-berth cabin, traveling in a normal, family-size car and staying two nights in the Netherlands. This was late January.There are a few different ships listed on the website, all being slightly different as regards facilities, and there are two different ships which work the Holland route. We used the same ship on both crossings and that was the Queen of Scandinavia, which I think is about 10 years old, so although it wasn't exactly modern, it didn't feel too dated either.Boarding the ship was pretty painless. It's recommended that you arrive 1-2 hours before departure but in fact, boarding didn't start until around 45 minutes before sailing time. This might have been because it wasn't too busy though. Having parked the car in the bowels of the ship, we made our way to the cabin for a look-see.The cabin was not very large - in fact, I've got a larger cupboard back home! Still, it had a couple of twin beds, a small table between them, a larger shelf-cum-dressing table with a mirror and a power point, and some shelves and space for hanging clothes. A large trip-hazard...(or should that read step?) led you into a claustrophobic, yet adequate toilet with shower, sink and mirror. For entertainment, the cabin has piped-in music (which was dreadful!), but being an old-hand at this sort of lark, I took a personal DVD player to pass an hour or so. The cabin was clean enough and had AC which kept it reasonably comfortable. It was fairly quiet as well, with no noise from the engine and I can't recall hearing anything from any other passengers.Suitably unloaded and refreshed, it was time to explore what the ship had to offer.On the 4th deck, you will find a small cafe which serves snacks. It's a lot cheaper for a coffee or a beer/soft drink here than in the main bars, but it's also a lot less comfortable and less atmospheric. Handy for feeding a bunch of yappy kids on hot dogs and slush puppies, but not much more. You'll also find a play area for the little darlings on this deck, as well as the information desk where you can get...um, information.Deck 7 is where you'll the nightclub, a bar and a restaurant, as well as quite a large shop selling all sorts of gift-type goodies. The bar has a resident pianist, and is somewhere to spend a slightly quieter time than in the adjacent nightclub, where most activities take place. On the outward crossing, much of the entertainment program was curtailed due to the adverse weather conditions. However, on our return journey there were no such problems and we enjoyed a pretty good evening with floor shows etc. The band weren't too shabby and, even though the beer was pretty uninspiring (Heinekin), a good time was had by one and all.The nightclub has a small casino area with a Blackjack table and a Roulette table which I didn't bother with - crossing the North Sea in January entombed in 30,000 tonnes of rusting steel was a big enough gamble for me.There are also lots of 'puggies' (fruit machines) scattered along the corridors where you can have a more modest bet.I can't really say much about the restaurants on board (I think there are three) as we had eaten before boarding. However, looking through the doorways, I got the impression that they were pleasant enough, and the menus didn't look too bad, if a little expensive. They range from buffet to fine dining.On the 8th deck, there are a couple of cinemas, and another restaurant. In all, I think there were around 8 different movies on offer on a rolling program throughout the night.There's also a swimming pool and sauna on the ship, but I wasn't tempted - I was determined to keep dry. Neither was I tempted into venturing onto the sun deck - since there was no sun, it didn't seem a major sacrifice!Still looking for something to do? Well, if the rocking and rolling of the ship doesn't quite do it for you, there's a disco to jump around in until the wee small hours. I didn't even look for it.A quick word or two on the staff: they were very friendly and seemed to try their best to keep a holiday mood going, as though it was a cruise rather than a method of transport. Actually, for a lot of people it was a cruise - DFDS do a mini-cruise whereby you travel across overnight, spend a few hours in Amsterdam, and travel back again.The crossing from North Shields to Ijmuiden takes around 16 hours, departing at 5.30pm and arriving in Amsterdam at about 9.30 the following morning (local times), the return timings are: 6.00pm/9.00am. We were an hour late on the outward journey due to the weather, but bang on time coming home. The journey passes fairly quickly, as by the time you've had a look around the ship, maybe had something to eat and spent an hour or two in the nightclub, it's just about time to retire for the evening. We headed back to our cabin around 11-ish, watched a movie in the cabin, and tried to sleep. It's not easy with the motion of the ship, but eventually, morning came.We really only had time to have a quick freshen-up and to drink an obscenely expensive cup of coffee in the bar while watching the land slip into view, before it was time to head to the car and be on our way.I was quite surprised at how little of an ordeal this was, considering the pretty awful experience I'd had on the Rosyth-Zeebrugge crossing. Of course, I had a 'stoater' of a hangover that time, and the sea was a lot choppier.Also, although the journey is only a couple of hours shorter, it somehow seemed much quicker than that. I think this is because you arrive fairly early in the morning and don't have too much time to kill.So would I use this service again?Y'know, I think I would. It's ridiculous that it's economically a better option for me to drive over 100 miles to catch a ferry rather than simply cross the Forth Road Bridge, but there you are. Unless Superfast get their act together and offer a more competitive price from Scotland, I think I would use this service in preference to my more local one anytime.It was nice to get back on dry land though!
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