Well, here it was. My travel nemesis had arrived …or more accurately I was travelling to meet it.
I have never been a good sailor and many ferry crossings between the UK and France had seriously put me off. I had lost count of the hours I had spent in overcrowded squalor bobbing about like a cork in a washing machine. And this crossing between Harwich and the Hook of Holland was going to be long!
Stena Line is one of the world’s biggest and most respected ferry companies. I had always wondered what a stena was but it’s not, in fact, a what but a who. At the end of the 1930s Sten A Olsson, the son of a shipper and sailing ship owner, founded the metal trading company Sten A Olssons Metallprodukter. That was the start of the Stena Group, and in 1946 he bought his first ferry and thus began Stena Line.
The next 30 years saw the company ferrying between Sweden and Denmark, Germany and Norway. In 1982 the son of Stena’s founder, Dan Sten Olsson, became Stena’s new Group CEO and in 1989, Stena Line acquired the Dutch company SMZ, which operated the Hook of Holland – Harwich route. By 1990, when Stena Line acquired Sealink British Ferries and two more Dutch companies, it had doubled in size. In 1996 Stena Line built the world’s first high-speed ferry. In 2006 Stena Line invested 400 million Euros in two new Superferries for the Hook of Holland-Harwich route, and it’s these ferries that I was to try.
The Stena Line experience owed more to flying than my past encounters with ferries had done. The Harwich terminal was quiet for the Friday evening crossing and even a group of Dutch students didn’t take up more than a fraction of the space. Plenty of seating was also a novelty after the throngs at airports.
The ship (or is it a boat?) was the size of a small cruise-liner and it had more in common with those gleaming floating hotels than with the utilitarian tubs plying routes across La Manche that I remembered from the old days. I was greeted by spotless carpets, polished brass and a lift, and there were plenty of staff on hand to give directions to overnight accommodation.
I found my Comfort Class cabin and that lived up to my, by now, higher expectations. It was the standard of a land-locked hotel room, although admittedly slightly smaller. The en-suite shower room had a full size shower, basin and loo, and a pile of fluffy towels. This was a step up from some economy hotels on land.
There were more creature comforts in the guise of beds. Yes, a brace of beds garnished with puffy duvets and pillows to match. A TV that even offers anxious pet owners a view of Fido or Fifi via in-kennel camera, and for the rest of us there is more predictable viewing. For those who are still on duty there is complementary Wi-Fi.
Stena Line offers generous hospitality even in this class of cabin. The bowl of fruit, the chilled white wine and the real glass glasses invited the newly arrived voyager to linger to perhaps enjoy a reviving ‘cold beverage’ before seeking out the restaurant.
The Metropolitan restaurant was my eatery of choice and it truly gave the impression of being a regular restaurant, with glass and linen-draped tables along with attentive waiters and a chef who evidently took a pride in his kitchen. This was far from the ‘chips with everything’ ferry café with which I had been inflicted in the past. The Metropolitan restaurant offers convivial dining with a menu that presents European classics along with dishes inspired by more distant continents. The prices are very reasonable considering they have something of a captive audience. I guess one could always open a box of homemade egg sandwiches in the privacy of one’s cabin, but you won’t be pushing the metaphoric boat out dining at the Metropolitan.
Morning came around surprisingly fast and was heralded by ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ over the PA system – a jolly tune that seems to represent the Dutch attitude to life. Breakfast was waiting: it was buffet style and reflected the national makeup of the passengers. Breads and coffee for those who have no regard for the culinary niceties of the most important meal of the day; plenty of cold cuts and cheese for others with refined Continental tastes; and the Full Monty tempted the rest of us. There were Dutch specialities such as pancakes, custard and sprinkles. Yes, dear reader, chocolate sprinkles that one might more usually associate with cake decoration are here considered a breakfast item for bread-garnishing. A few days in Holland will likely find you addicted to those chocolate flecks.
Stena Line to The Hook of Holland isn’t a compromise, it’s perhaps the most civilised way to travel to a host of Dutch cities. One arrives refreshed and ready for adventure with a full day ahead. One has had a good night’s sleep rather than a flight that one has viewed only as a necessary evil. One floats with Stena Line, and the holiday starts at Harwich.
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018