Last weekend Christine and I went on a ‘mini-cruise’ to Bruges with P&O Ferries. The ‘mini-cruise’ is a package that includes return overnight ferry journeys for two people from Hull to Zeebrugge or Rotterdam, and return coach transfer to Bruges or Amsterdam respectively. This can be taken over two consecutive nights there and back, or over three nights with an overnight stop at your destination.
We did the two night option, which gave us around 8 hours to spend in Bruges. I’ll write more about what we got up to in Bruges later this week but today I’ll focus on the ‘mini-cruise’ experience.
I keep using ‘mini-cruise’ in quote marks because this is most definitely not a cruise. You travel on a standard cross-channel ferry – for the Hull-Zeebrugge crossing this is either the Pride of Bruges or Pride of York which are comparatively small ships (around eight decks) but the Hull-Rotterdam ferries are somewhat bigger. The on-board facilities are therefore not like you would expect on a large cruise ship, and are limited to a couple of restaurants and bars, a shop, café and small cinema.
We were on the Pride of Bruges which was introduced into service in 1987 – and it shows. There hasn’t been much done to the ship since then and it retains its 1980s feel in many parts despite some effort in refurbishing it. This includes the cabins.
The cabins sit somewhere between ‘sleeper train’ and ‘budget hotel’. They are en-suite so a shower, basin and toilet are squeezed into a tiny wetroom with each cabin. The beds are bunkbeds, and are rather narrow too – I can’t imagine many children will be conceived out at sea. And you get one unearthed plug socket, about 7 foot off the ground above the mirror, which uses the European standard connector. The walls were also not particularly thick and so the rowdy hen party (bachelorette party for the Americans amongst you) in the next cabin kept Christine awake for most of the night; I slept through it. You have to pay around £10 extra if you want a window in your cabin – we didn’t, so our cabin was in the middle of the boat rather than at the edge. In any case, it’s late October and it gets dark early, so there wouldn’t have been much to see.
There were some signs of modernisation elsewhere on board. Wifi is available, charged at £3 for 90 minutes, which is actually quite reasonable considering you’re out at sea. I didn’t test it so I can’t say how fast or reliable it was, although it seemed to be only available in the public areas and not the cabins. Mobile phone reception seems to also be available at sea, but only for calls and texts, not for data – again, I didn’t test this nor find out how much extra it costs to use. In any case, when leaving Hull I still had phone reception on my own network, 3, for quite some time after departing.
Eating and drinking
Of the two bars, the Sunset Show Bar is the biggest with live entertainment and a casino table, with another smaller and quieter bar next door. The drinks selection is reasonable and not whilst not cheap it wasn’t ridiculously expensive either. The café serves Starbucks coffee, but not the full range – no pumpkin spiced lattes here – and no soya milk. Then there are the two restaurants – The Kitchen and The Brasserie.
The Kitchen is a buffet. We didn’t go there at any point because of the queues – instead we booked into The Brasserie each time, for both evening meals and breakfasts. You do have to book but it’s worth it – it’s a full waiter service restaurant and the food is reasonably good. Not outstanding but I’ve paid far more for worse. The best thing is that it’s also reasonably quiet in there, whereas we could hear the noise from The Kitchen out in the foyer.
When you book your ‘mini-cruise’ tickets online you have the option of pre-paying for your meals – for two people this adds £88 to the cost but at £11 per person per meal it’s not bad overall. It’s enough to cover The Kitchen, and in The Brasserie it will get you £16.50 per person for dinner – anything over that just has to be paid by cash or credit card. We only went over by about £5 between the two of us for our meals – two courses and non-alcoholic drinks. I imagine we would have spent more overall had we paid for each meal individually rather than pre-paying, and because you have to check-in before 5:30pm it’s not really feasible to have a meal before you travel.
If you do the two night ‘mini-cruise’, then, where possible, P&O will try to ensure that you get the same cabin in each direction, so you can leave your luggage there. This isn’t always available, and won’t be an option for the three night option as you’ll go out and come back on two different ferries.
The clientele on board was a mix – some couples like us, presumably on the ‘mini-cruise’ deal, but also a few families, a couple of stag and hen parties, a few school groups and some lorry drivers. Because it’s a ferry you can bring your car, coach or lorry with you, although we went as foot passengers.
Speaking of which, if you are travelling by train to Hull, I would strongly advise getting a taxi from the railway station to the ferry terminal. The Zeebrugge ferries leave from Terminal 2 at the ferry port, which is up the arse end of nowhere. According to Google Maps it’s a good 15 minute walk from Terminal 1, used by the Rotterdam ferries, where there is a regular bus service to the railway station. So if you’re going to Rotterdam then consider the bus but a taxi is a must for Zeebrugge. It’ll cost you less than a tenner each way, and on the return there will be a number of taxis waiting at the terminal when you arrive.
The foot passenger terminal at Hull mirrors the ferry in being very 1980s. It’s not like an airport with lounges and shops and so forth – the facilities are pretty basic. Think ‘small regional railway station’ rather than ‘international travel hub’. That being said all of the facilities you’d normally see in an airport are on the ferry anyway. The Zeebrugge terminal was a bit more modern and was full of adverts (in English) selling Hull and East Yorkshire as a tourist destination – I get the impression that Brits going abroad makes up a higher proportion of their customer base than Europeans visiting Britain.
The weather wasn’t too bad for our journey although the sea was rather choppy on the return. When you’re in bed you only notice it a bit though and neither of us got seasick. The ferries lumber across the seas at around 20 miles per hour so they’re reasonably steady, and tend only to be cancelled in the worst of conditions.
In a world where low cost airlines zip you from place to place and international trains carry you under the English Channel at high speeds, it’s perhaps a little odd that we still use these huge ferries to get around. But would you rather spend the whole day travelling, or have the travelling done for you whilst you’re asleep? Sometimes it’s nice to go to sleep in one place and wake up at your destination.