A Floating Hotel Full Of Drunken Geordies

It’s something we’d been meaning to do for years. We weren’t sure why it was so much more expensive than flying, and we were quite frankly bemused by the cavalcade of options available to us when ordering. Truth be told, that’s why so many abortive attempts had come about before we finally bit the bullet. Did we want to take a car? Did we want to eat in a restaurant? Did we want to breathe? OK, that last one is a bit facetious, but it’s only a matter of time. A boat to Amsterdam?

In years gone by it used to be possible for us to get the ferry to a great number of destinations from my home town of North Shields. The international ferry terminal is still there, but it largely only has one destination. I say largely because there is only one firm which sails every day – DFDS – and they only sail to one destination. True, Fred Olsen sail to Norway and the like throughout the year, but that’s not a ferry: that’s a real cruise, and that is not what we are looking for. Not yet, anyway.

We wanted a family mini-break for our birthdays; Amsterdam seemed like the perfect place to take ourselves to. As I wrote last week it elicited some odd memories, but that was the city, not the boat.

Getting to North Shields International Ferry Terminal (capitals intended) is a breeze. So long as you drive there. We can drive; we even have a car. But our car was going to be perfectly safe, and incurring no charges whatsoever for sitting at our front door half a dozen miles away. Taxi is the usual option for such things, and bus is almost door to almost door, but we blagged a lift. Nice.

Something people complain about at the other end is that a so called “Newcastle to Amsterdam” booking does not take them to Amsterdam. It drops off at the Europort in Ijmuiden. A bus in to the city costs extra. They’re explicit about that. My quibble is that it doesn’t start in Newcastle either. I know I’m splitting hairs between Newcastle and North Shields, but I was born in one of them, and I grew up in the other. They are very different places: sort your complaints out, please, travellers.

One way in which the terminal was no different from every other travelling experience ever was the bar / shop. Serving beer to all comers, with a gambling terminal in the corner, it set the scene for the evening to come. Even though there was no wait to board, people were drinking still. Curious.

I don’t know how I feel about the security arrangements on a boat, but I do know how I feel about the security arrangements prior to boarding a plane: it feels like being groped by a stranger who wants you to feel safe. On a boat, there are armed police bobbing about – as you’d expect –  but there are no checks. I believe there are random checks, but they are alleged to focus more on the search for contraband, illegal and otherwise, depending on your embarkation point. That was a big shock to me. I mean, I’m glad I don’t look like a security threat, but what if I had a bag of heroin?[i]

We boarded in a slowly moving queue, with a chattering four year old entertaining the crowds. It was simply a question of being told where we should be going, and then ending up there. And then we were there. That was it. We’ll see you later; or we won’t. And then there was a big knock.

I was greeted with a question. I had clearly never done this before, so I needed help. How they knew we were there I will never know. I had a bundle of forms and vouchers thrust in my hand, told to use them in the customer service centre, and heard an oft-repeated script. And then she was gone.

In actual fact, I had been told how to get in touch with anyone I liked from customer services, and given the keys to the internet. And a breakfast menu. I love breakfast. We ordered heartily and went to hand our order in. And to explore the ship. We were back in our cabin just ten minutes later.

I’m not criticising the boat; I’m just saying that there isn’t all that much to see. The bars were full of drunken Geordies and other various varieties of Northerners; The shop was closed, and the “Kidz Zone” wasn’t yet open. We would be spending much of our time on board there, and that was fine for us. There were no drunk people there, and my daughter could attempt to make friends with any number of children there. And when that failed, she could just tell her life story to their parents.

I’m not saying we were absent; we barely looked at our phones, and we mostly watched her happily playing. It’s just that when she fell over at one point, one of the parents she had befriended looked around to see if she actually had any parents. She did, and we were laughing. Encouragingly. Yes. We were encouragingly laughing as our daughter dusted herself off and jumped straight in the ball pit.

Food and drink were issues on board. The massive boat / ship (delete as appropriate) used to be well known for its seafood buffet. It also had a number of decent family restaurants to choose from. And then it didn’t. They were closed prior to our arrival, and the only options were an “international” buffet of conflicting provenance. We chose to pack sandwiches, and they were perfectly adequate.

The sea was an issue on board. The massive winds, and consequent swell, was the only thought on my partner’s mind in the run up to the trip. She doesn’t handle movement well. She hates being in a plane and experiencing turbulence, so what would sleeping through a force 10 gale be like? We did not find out, because sleep was the last thing her body was capable of that night. It could’ve been worse. We could have been thrown out of bed, in to a pile of broken glass. That never happened.

Service was not an issue on board, however. The myriad staff were as helpful as could be. Yes, one of them crept up on me to give me a prepared speech about getting access to room service, but I knew that anything I would ever need they would be absolutely happy to help with. Which is nice.

[i] I didn’t. I have never had such a thing in my life. It was an extreme example.