I was last on a ferry circa 1998. Back then, I was a 15 year old, en-route to a holiday in France with my parents and sister. It was the last of our traditional run of long summer breaks in France, where we would always catch a ferry over, our car heavy under the weight of multiple tents, bikes and far too many clothes (teenagers don’t travel light).
My memories of the numerous crossings over the years are rosy; the excitement of seeing the ferry looming before us, running down the long corridor to find our cabin, eating breakfast looking at the sea – it was all part of the holiday experience. It was like our break didn’t properly start until we arrived at the port.
When I was asked if I’d be interested in going on a review trip to Spain, using the Brittany Ferries Plymouth to Santander crossing, I didn’t need to think twice. I was interested to see if my rose-tinted memories of the ferry were correct. Was it really a less stressful way to travel with kids? Would it be a successful marker to the beginning of a holiday with grandparents? Would I choose the ferry over a plane, when it came down to it?
My answer is yes. And yes again. And yes after that, too.
We arrived at the port in Plymouth in driving rain. As huge drops of water hit the windscreen, my dad warned me to expect a rough crossing. But as soon as I saw the huge white ship bobbing ahead of us, I didn’t care. The Pont-Aven is the biggest ferry I’ve ever been on. At ten decks high (complete with a pool, soft-play area and three restaurants) it’s not to be sniffed at. I couldn’t help it – those familiar childhood butterflies of excitement had me again.
“We go on that boat Mummy?” My three year old clearly shared my excitement – craning her neck to catch her first ever glimpse of a ferry. “I want to get on NOW!”
We were booked into a four berth outside club cabin. This meant we had sea views and the comfort of an en-suite bathroom with a shower, basin and toilet. We also had a TV (although we didn’t watch it) and tea and coffee making facilities. It was plush, but not huge, providing the perfect base from which to explore the boat.
It was only a matter of time before a wander round the ferry took us to the soft-play area. Frog is like a homing pigeon when it comes to anything soft-play related.
Set in a corner of the cafe at the front of the Pont-Aven, the area is ideal for families with young kids. It’s by no means a huge all-singing, all-dancing feat of soft-play engineering, but it was just the right size to keep my three year old entertained for a good half an hour, in between popping out to watch The Smurfs on the TV in the room, or peeking out of the port holes nearby. There were some tables set up in the corner too, so parents could sit and have a cuppa while watching their kids, if they wanted to.
A little more exploring took us to the deck, then over to a bar, then a boutique shop and, finally the swimming pool. The pool is only open May to September, so don’t expect to take a dip outside of these months. Luckily for me, my three year old wasn’t too bothered, preferring to return to the soft-play area for more jumping, sliding and bouncing.
The thing about travelling on a ferry, is that you don’t need to worry about the amount of luggage you take on holiday. When we went to Turkey a couple of years ago, I remember getting terribly stressed about how many nappies I could realistically fit in the suitcase, and if the big baby board books I packed for the flight would take me over the baggage allowance. There’s none of that when you go on a ferry. You simply pack up the car with all your stuff, and take a separate overnight bag for the crossing. My stress levels were operating at pretty much zero before I even got onboard.
Our evening meal was in the restaurant with table service. You need to book a table for this one well in advance, but it was still pretty busy when we arrived for our 6.30pm seating. After we’d queued in line we were shown to a quiet spot in the corner of the restaurant, by a window.
We sipped wine (Frog was on water) while overlooking the sea. A piano tinkled away in the background and the whole thing was very civilised. The restaurant is equipped for young kids, with high chairs and a separate menu, although the portions are pretty generous for even the hungriest three year old. As fortune would have it, Frog was feeling a bit sea-sick at supper time, so she only lasted for a couple of the courses. My parents tell me the cheese board and pudding courses were delicious though – as was the rest of the wine!
The night passed uneventfully. Snuggled in our cabin we didn’t hear any of the music from the bar (there was a live band and magic show on) and Frog fell to sleep almost instantly – as did I. Again, this is where travelling by ferry top trumps a plane ride. There’s no uncomfortable shifting of seats or cramped legs, you simply go to bed and wake up even closer to your destination.
I remember being overcome with amazement when I first saw the sea from the deck of a ferry. In the middle of the ocean, you can only see the horizon and it feels like you’re on a little floating world all of its own. I had that same feeling when I took Frog on deck the following morning. She pointed to the sea, asking where the fish were and trying to spy a mermaid. Again, it felt like part of the holiday itself, rather than a journey to get through before the holiday actually began.
That moment was kind of blown out of the water by what happened next though. We were invited up to “The Bridge”, which is a pretty big deal. I almost said no at first, thinking I was being offered the chance to take part in a game of cards that my nan would enjoy. My hesitation disappeared, though, when I realised it was an offer to meet the captain and see behind-the-scenes on the ferry.
From the front of the ferry, next to the flashing control panels and amongst the buzz of the walkie-talkies, we had the most incredible view of the sea. It was there that we spotted a pod of dolphins swimming alongside the boat – something we’ll never forget. Frog was beside herself with excitement, as were my mum and dad. I was scrambling for my camera, but I was too late as usual. This is the best I could do…
We eventually arrived at the Spanish port of Santander around 20 hours after we set sail from Plymouth. With full bellies of food (minus my slightly sea-sick child) and a night of unbroken sleep, it didn’t feel like we’d been travelling really. Apparently it was a rough crossing, but the ferry was obviously designed to stabilise itself on the waves, so I barely noticed the swell.
The journey provided us all with a chance to eat good food, relax, play and generally get started on enjoying our holiday. With a cinema and two other restaurants that we didn’t get a chance to try, my only complaint would be that the crossing wasn’t long enough!
I was provided with tickets covering accommodation, travel and food for three adults and one child, for the purpose of this review. As ever, all opinions remain my own.