October 13, 2012 by Jools Stone
DFDS Seawys Amsterdam Ferry Review
Our month on the InterRails begins, predictably enough, with a train. It’s a fairly familiar and prosaic journey for us, since it’s the start of the east coast line to London, but that’s not to say it’s not a scenic one. As it hugs the craggy Borders coast, we try to see it with fresh eyes – the eyes of people departing on a month-long InterRail trip around Europe.
This seems to do the trick as before long we’re noticing how the cliffs drop away revealing tiny ruins and fishing villages below, we’re somehow more conscious of crossing the Royal Border Bridge over the Tweed and eventually into England and even the Torness Nuclear Power Station, near Dunbar, has a certain mysterious, creepy grandeur about it.
Getting off at Newcastle we make yet another mental note to explore this city properly one day, (how we’ve failed to do so after living just 90 minutes away for the past 11 years remains a mystery) but today we see very little of the place, the view obscured through the bizarrely dot matrixed window, on the 20 minute bus journey taking us to the North Sheilds ferry terminal.
As much as I love St Pancras and the Eurostar, I have to admit the DFDS ferry is a superior option for those of us inhabiting Northern Britain, being pretty much the easiest connection we have to continental Europe. Despite the monopoly they have, there’s no obvious complacency at foot here – it’s simply a great value, enjoyable way to travel from start to finish.
I have to be honest and say that I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this journey as much as I did. I had visions of hoardes of rampaging Brits hungry for the licentious promise of Europe’s most liberal city. But actually it was a thoroughly civilised trip, if a tad surreal in places.
Things start wonderfully with perhaps the quickest and easiest check in I’ve ever experienced on British soil. There are two shuttle buses from Newcastle Station timed around train arrival times, we get the latter one at 3.30 PM. When we arrive the terminal appears to be completely deserted. We present our tickets at check in and march straight through customs, stopping for a quick friendly chat with staff manning the gate and then we hop on board the ship, some 5 minutes after arriving, top that!
Our room was a mid level option: a twin, seaview cabin with an ensuite bathroom that was roomy enough. No frills in terms of decor but the beds were cosy, the room was quiet, carpeted and there was nothing especially claustrophobic about it.
The good news for InterRail travellers is that you can use your pass to get a 25% discount off this route, so long as your pass is not the one country UK one. This took the cost down to £96 for us. You’d struggle to find a pair of flights for that figure – or even a pair of tickets for the train down to St Pancras, let alone the connecting Eurostar. (The entry level option, a bunk bed cabin below deck, was available from around £80 before IR discount)
Having dumped our bags, we went on deck to explore our surroundings. We get into the lift and smile polietly at a short middle aged lady with a lugubrious face and purple cardigan. Apropos of nothing she tells us:
‘Exactly a year ago today, somebody fell in and drowned you know. At ten o’clock tonight.’ This renders us fairly speechless and as we stagger our way out grappling for some words, she continues, ‘I think he had too much…’ making the universally understood hand gesture for drink.
With this foreboding news ringing in our ears, we head for the deck. We struggle with a locked door and are directed to another by an especially grizzled looking Geordie. It takes us a few seconds to register his accent, which was so impenetrable that we mistook him for a Dutchman to begin with. The ship’s massive, hypnotic wake looks like the tail bone in a giant fish supper. It doesn’t look *that* easy to topple in from here.
We make our way up to the Sky Bar, at the Crow’s Nest, where the much-touted free barbecue transpires to be a man jealously guarding a single, pathetic curl of bacon. There’s a group of a dozen or so cricket hatted, England shirted stags who happen to be all standing precisely on a the red circular heliport, making them look a little like a tactical bombing target and a nice arrangement of rattan chairs, all sadly taken, so we head instead of the surprisingly chic Compass bar from where we gradually watch a rather castle marooned on the Geordie shore scroll by and later the sea and horizon merge into one harmonious band of azure.
Suitably refreshed it was time to review the ship’s dining options. It soon became clear to us that if DFDS reels you in with their great value cabins, this is where they make up any shortfall. You’re a captive market for a good 18 hours and they capitalise on this by presenting very few budget options.
There are 3 restaurants on board – a steakhouse, a slightly more upmarket ala carte affair and a buffet. All of which have almost nothing for under 30 euros per person. We opted for the buffet with the logic that at 32 euros each at least we could enjoy a range of dishes over 3 courses.
The buffet offered an impressive range of fresh, tatsy canapes, cold meats, cheeses, salads and fish dishes, plus half a dozen mini desserts to mix and match, but its hot meals were generally less appetising, as you might perhaps expect.
(For those needing a more budget friendly option, there is also a cafe selling pre-made paninis, plus a bar with a limited menu of pub food – lasagne, burgers, fish n chips etc – for around 15 euros.)
You do get the option to purchase a 25% discount on a pre-booked meal when you book your cabin, which seems like the sensible option to go for, if you’re not too fussy about menu choices. We didn’t go for it, as we wanted to study the menus first, but with hindsight it’s what I would recommend.
Once dinner is done with it’s time to check out the evening’s entertainment options. The boat had its own cinema and casino, of sorts, but the main action is split between the two bars. First we pay a visit to the ship’s main bar Navigators, complete with its own ‘troubadour’, a stone faced, nasal caterwauerl strumming in angst at his thankless task, as he vainly tried to compete with the music emanating from the next door bar and ‘nightclub.’
A mangled and spangled Johnny Cash bassline makes our ears prick up in the general direction of Nina and the Jetsets (surely they should be Sheena and the Shipshapes or something, c’mon people, where’s your contextual vehicular branding!), the house band who have started up next door.
Soon enough the cricket hats are throwing shapes on the dancefloor, determined to wring whatever japes they can from what looks like a decidedly pedestrian stag night, accompanied by the odd confused toddler, while rows of bewildered punters of various ages sit on gormlessly agog, like the audience from Phoenix Nights. We’re regaled by a non-stop medley of Roxette and other 80s soft rock hits, most delivered with bizarre Dutch intonation…
We’re startled by the sight of four middle aged German men, kitted out in identical grey plaid shirts, tucked neatly into indigo jeans, marching in formation while their wives capture the occasion on film. They seem more or less inseparable for the rest of the night. At one point the cricket hats make a daring bid for Nina’s microphone. From nowhere, the Head of Security springs into action, clearly relishing a chance to wield his handcuffs. The hats capitulate with good grace and the cuffs remain holstered for another day.
Later we lie tiddly in our beds and gently lilt from left to right, as we listen to the dull grumble of the engine.
The music is terrible, the atmopshere negligible, the drinks only moderately less overpriced than the food, but we enjoy ourselves immensely all the same. We have that tangible excitement of a journey beginning, of crossing a body of water into new frontiers.
We emerge the next morning feeling relatively refreshed, there’s more of a queue to exit than there was to board, but the coaches sit obediently outside and whisk us effortlessly enough to Amsterdam in 40 minutes.
Ironically our ferry crossing, booked more as a novelty and a way to start the trip without recourse to another joyless Ryanair flight, turns out to be perhaps the best of 5 overnight journeys we take, out classing the various night trains we sample on every measure.
We paid for our own cabin with DFDS, but both InterRail passes were kindly provided by Eurail and ACP Rail International respectively. This post was also supported by AFerry.co.uk.