It has come to my attention that there is no way for a column that runs every few weeks could possibly keep updated on all the places we’ve been and things we’ve done, so I’m going to switch it up a bit this time. Instead of where we went, how about how we got there?
Trains in Europe have been a whole different deal than what you think of as "train travel" in North America. But there are endless travel articles lauding European train travel, and everyone who’s ever been in Europe will tell you how revelatory they are.
(If you’re interested, we’ve relied on the seat61.com website for all our train travel tips.)
Trains, though, can’t cross the ocean. And, while we have taken a cheap flight or two, by far our favourite way to travel so far has been by overnight ferry.
We caught our first one across the Adriatic when we finished up with northern Italy and decided to check out Croatia (short version: Croatia’s awesome).
Ferries come in a multitude of different shapes and sizes. Some are speedy catamarans, others are slow and lumbering. Some take cars and even semi trailers, others are passenger-only.
We like to book the large, slow ones, which tend to leave in the evening, travel overnight, and get to your destination in the morning. It’s a trip and accommodation all in one.
For the budget traveller, most ferries offer a deck class "seat" (I put that in quotes, because you often don’t get a seat). On overnight ferries, it’s not unusual to see people sacked out in sleeping bags underneath stairs or anywhere they can find a warm place. Other passengers will pay a little bit more and get airplane style seats.
Airplane style? I’d rather curl up under the stairs.
Because we are travelling as a duo, Amy and I have always opted to splurge a bit and get cabins.
For our first couple of trips, those cabins have been bottom-of-the-barrel style. There’s a special sense of dread that you get from being told your cabin is underneath the cars and trucks, from taking the stairs down, down, down past the waterline, and then passing through a series of watertight emergency doors right to the front of the ship where you know that if the ferry runs into anything, Titanic-style, you’ll be the first to know.
At the bottom of the ship, too, any waves or rough seas seem to resonate through the hull, sloshing all night long as the ferry plods onward.
That said, the cabins are reasonably spacious, usually with a closet and a small table as well as the two bunks. There’s usually a sink, sometimes a full bathroom and often a shower, too. Like a hotel, there’s emergency information on the back of the door, and you can see glow-in-the-dark paths that will lead you from your cabin to your "muster station" near the lifeboats in the event that anything really does happen.
Of course, like most travel, that’s exceedingly unlikely. Moving hundreds of people hundreds of kilometers, in the dark, is essentially a dull endeavour.
But ferries do their best to spice things up for travellers. There’s usually a couple of restaurants on board, a bar, and some shopping — especially of the duty-free, international-waters type where you can stock up on cheap vodka, cigarettes and cologne.
Different ferry companies also do things slightly differently. To and from Croatia, we were given a courtesy wake-up call we hadn’t asked for, thanks to a bang at the door at about 6:30 a.m., about an hour before we were scheduled to dock. But the return trip, on Croatia’s national ferry line, Jadrolinija, they woke us up with a purpose — our cabin booking included a free buffet breakfast. Sure, it was a gimmick to ensure that we were out of our cabin and ready to disembark, but it was a pretty swell way to start the day.
On the outbound trip, using Blue Line ferries, we also got a knock, but no breakfast.
On a more recent ferry trip, travelling to Crete on ANEK Ferries, there was no knock at all — so it was lucky we’d set an alarm of our own. And, as they shepherded us down the stairs and out into the port, they simply handed us cups of coffee or fresh-squeezed orange juice (there were two guys doing nothing but feeding oranges into a juicer, so when I say "fresh-squeezed," I mean it).
Those different ferry lines differ in other ways, too. On Blue Line, we were careful to bring some meat, cheese and beer aboard, so that we wouldn’t have to buy anything in the exorbitantly priced restaurants. They had a single brand of beer that was priced at a reasonable rate — everything else was double or triple what we would have paid ashore.
On Jadrolinjia, except for the free breakfast, things were similar. But on ANEK, based in Crete, it was a sea change (pardon the pun). The ANEK restaurant was one of the cheapest places we’ve eaten all trip — and it was good!
Although you spend a lot of time on an overnight ferry sleeping, there’s also plenty of time to socialize. As a cheap way to get from place to place, it’s popular with other travellers as well as with locals, and we’ve spent hours onboard sharing drinks and swapping stories with other people going to the same place we are.
There’s not a lot of call for ferries in Manitoba, of course, which is kind of too bad. If you’re used to travelling by bus or by plane — or even by car — there’s something great about getting on a great big boat, with no worries about how much luggage you’re lugging, whether you’ve got a bottle of wine in your picnic basket, a guitar, or even a dog.
We’ve taken at least a half-dozen ferries so far this trip, and we’re planning a three- or four-night boat cruise on the Nile in a week or so. It’s quite a civilized way to travel, and we love it.
Except, that is, when Greek sailors, fed up with yet another government austerity plan, call a snap strike and the ferries stop running for two days.
But aside from that, we love it.