This is our first proper family holiday in Northern Ireland post-pandemic and post-Brexit. In the past, we had usually driven to the West Midlands via the Channel Tunnel on the first day of travel, and then through Wales to Holyhead to get the fast ferry to Dublin and then on up on the second day. But that was in part to pick up my mother-in-law, who is not coming this year; so we decided to try the brand new ferry that goes directly from Dunkirk to Rosslare, not touching England or Wales.
The cost for four of us, including a cabin, is about the same as the Eurotunnel and Irish Sea crossings combined, plus you get four square meals en route. It takes precisely 24 hours (or at least, that is the schedule). Of course, to that you add travel to Dunkirk at one end, and from Rosslare to Co Down at the other, 2.5 and 3 hours respectively on a good day; plus you have to check in 2-3 hours before departure, so total travel time ends up not dissimilar to the landbridge route (but total *driving* time considerably less).
The journey was not without snags. Having left home in very good time at 3.15, we had to turn around and start again when a quick passport count revealed that we were one short. Traffic in Belgium on the direct route from Brussels to the coast was so bad that Waze (my navigation app of choice) sent us to Dunkirk via Antwerp. Rather than arriving on the dot of 6pm for a 9pm sailing, we reached Dunkirk at ten to seven; though it was clear that we would not have been turned away even if we had missed the supposed 7pm deadline by a bit.
The ferry was Lithuanian. The crew communicated with each other in Lithuanian, all of the shipboard signs were in Lithuanian with most (but not all) translated into English, the safety notices were in Lithuanian, Swedish, English and French, and passenger announcements were in Lithuanian, English, Russian and German (not French, even though we departed from France). I had more exposure to Lithuanian on the trip than ever before in my life. Lithuania is the only EU member state that I have never been to.
Most of the travellers on our sailing were freight trucks. I counted only three other family cars besides ours, and a couple of camper vans. The truckers hung out together in the bar (which was open 24/7), no reserved space for them as there is on some ferries (but if almost all your passengers are truckers anyway, there’s no need). The TV in the bar showed films badly dubbed into Russian, switching to Sky News as we neared our destination. Several passengers had brought pets, mostly dogs though there were a couple of cats.
There was not a lot to do on board – and we were offline as maritime internet is very expensive. I finished and tarted several books. We got chatting to the owner of a Donegal-based haulage firm who was ending a work trip to Germany and the Netherlands. He said it was the worst boat he had ever been on, with no facilities apart from space to eat, drink and sleep. But we felt we had little cause for complaint; our cabin was small but functional and we knew what we had signed up for.
We were very unlucky with the weather. Storm Antonis blew right across our path on the Saturday and I personally was very queasy. Judging from the unpleasant evidence that the crew had to clear off the carpets, others had had it worse. I was just about OK for breakfast and lunch, but when dinner was first served at 5pm the storm seemed to me still at full blast and I just could not get out of bed. (The rest of the family are better sailors than me.) Very fortunately, soon after 6pm we got out of the storm and into a region of calm which lasted for the rest of the trip. I was suddenly back to 100%, just a few minutes after I had felt on the edge of the abyss. I was still in time for dinner and requested (and got) a double helping of lasagna.
The storm meant that we arrived in Rosslare at 9.30 pm rather than the originally scheduled 8pm, a 25½ hour sailing instead of 24. We go to County Down in just over three hours from the southeastern corner of County Wexford; I can well remember the days when that journey would have taken five or six. To my surprise, Waze directed us to turn off the N11 at Enniscorthy and head for the M9 across country via Bunclody and Ballon, neither of which seemed excessively busy on a Saturday night in August. Apparently the N11 has massive roadworks in County Wicklow.
Anyway, we got here just after 1 am on Sunday morning, a total journey time of just under 35 hours, of which less than 7 were spent driving. The landbridge route would generally have been the same length of time overall – leave home at 8am, arrive around 6pm the next day – but with far more time behind the wheel. And in fact, we were just unlucky with the weather. I am positively looking forward to the return trip.