20 October 2015

Crossing the Channel: Portsmouth to Ouistreham (Caen)

I'm a regular visitor to Normandy in northern France, and my usual route is with Brittany Ferries from Portsmouth to Caen - but as Caen is inland, the port is actually in nearby Ouistreham. Last year I used the ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe as there wasn't any space on the Portsmouth ferry, but this year I was pleased to be back travelling with Brittany Ferries. It's a long crossing at around seven hours, which overnight means you have time to have a decent sleep.

Outward Journey - Armorique

Portsmouth is a busy port, but it's an easy one to get to with the M275 passing its gates. From home it's a 2h30 journey (M25 permitting), the same as to Dover, and the port has recently been refurbished - although I didn't have time to explore the facilities.

It was busy on arrival, with ferries to the Channel Islands and Le Havre also leaving in the late evening, but the signage is clear, and the check-in process straight forward (not withstanding being behind a car with multiple cats in transit, all requiring their pet passports and ID chips to be checked!).

For some reason, on every previous trip on the bike I've been pulled in to the security search area before boarding while cars, white vans and the like have been waved straight through. I've never really understood why, as you're very limited in what you can carry on a bike, but this year I was waved straight through. Bicycles and motorcycles are considered to be the same, so I rode slowly through the port in a cloud of cycles (I've always wanted to marshal a cycle race - next time I'll take a pillion with a TV camera to sit backwards and film them).

The usual ferries on this route are Mont St Michel and Normandie, but the Mont was away and Armourique was deputising. I've never been on Armourique so was looking forward to the experience.

With the bike secured by the stevedores I ventured upstairs. Signage is somewhat sparse on-board, and I wasn't entirely sure where my cabin was or which deck I was on, and how to get there as the 'feature' staircases didn't join up with each other - after asking for directions I ended up taking the lift, which just seemed wrong.

Having left my bike kit in the cabin I needed a meal so went to sample the self-service restaurant. It's enormous. Rows and rows of tables and chairs, with three people sitting at distant intervals as if after some disagreement - but I think it was just a small number of customers in a very large space. The servery was similarly spacious with a selection of hot meals available, as well as cold options, wine, soft drinks, desserts and the like. I opted for the entrecote steak, cooked to order (moyen), avec frites, with mousse au chocolat to finish.

The mousse looked home-made and was served in a ceramic ramekin, but closer inspection revealed it was in a plastic pot sat inside the ramekin to look home-made... You almost had me fooled Brittany Ferries!

Our scheduled departure time was 22.45 but it was after 23.00 when we finally slipped our moorings, and I'd finished my meal in time to watch the departure from out on deck (unlike some ferries, there is plenty of room outside) before heading to the bar for a nightcap.

Like the self-service restaurant, the bar on Armourique is big. It also lacks the character of some of the other ferries, particularly Mont St Michel's bar, but it was busy. I decided not to have a drink after all, and turned in for the night.

I'd booked a two-berth inside cabin, and it was unusually spacious with the bunks arranged across the cabin and the overall size being almost double that of most typical ferry cabins. It was, of course, en-suite with shower, basin and toilet but there was a very unpleasant odour coming from somewhere that brought to mind seaside sewage. The bunk itself was comfortable, and I slept reasonably well waking shortly before the wake-up call over the tannoy. Unfortunately my cabin had a rattley door lock, and at certain engine revs it was very audible - think of tea cups and teaspoons rattling on saucers - but fortunately this only seemed to happen when the ship was manoeuvring so it didn't really matter.

The ship was due in at 07.45 local time, and with the hour time difference this makes for a very early start as they wake you up with a perky piece of folk music an hour before arrival. With just a short run along the coast to Arromanches I decided to just have a cup of coffee and a pain au chocolat for breakfast in the bar.

We arrived on time, and it wasn't long before we were called to the car deck to disembark. Immigration at the port was relatively quick, but unlike Portsmouth it isn't on the motorway network so it was a slowish crawl through the town before heading west to Arromanches.

Return Journey - Normandie

For the return journey I was booked on the 08.30 crossing on Normandie. Again the check-in process was uneventful, and I was gratified to find that the port authorities have installed a shelter on the quayside for motorbikes to queue inside so they are out of the weather - other ports could learn from that: thank you Port du Ouistreham!

It was a busy crossing, with a lot of bikes booked on board, and we were parked tightly together to the point where bikes were leaning against each other, which isn't good. Knowing how the bikes are normally secured on the boat, I positioned the bike so it was central to the lashing points on the deck, contrary to the directions of the stevedore, but was proved right when I'd dismounted and it was in just the right place to be strapped down.

I'm a little sensitive as to how the bikes are secured after an unfortunate experience on my first trip to Normandy, as it happens, on board Normandie. In those days they used lengths of rope to secure the bikes, and when we arrived they missed removing one of the bits holding my bike to the deck (it was below my pannier, and out of sight) so when I rode off I had the ignominy of crashing on the car deck - something that gained me the nickname 'Tug' for the rest of the trip as I tried to tow the ferry...

The current method of securing bikes is with a heavy-duty ratchet strap and big blue cushion, run over the seat to lashing rings on the deck. It's done for you; you just need to make sure the straps aren't across any bodywork and that they don't over-tighten the strap - the landlord of the B&B we stayed at has seen a number of bent and broken side stands as a result of over enthusiastic tightening of the ratchet straps.

Despite Normandie being one of the regular vessels on the route, it isn't one I have travelled on all that often. I was travelling with friends this time, and shared a day cabin which had both a temperamental door lock and an intermittent toilet flush, but at least it had a more pleasant smell.

The ambience in the public areas is a little more cosy than on Armorique, although I only used the bar on board for a cup of coffee and a croque monsieur - both of which were good.

For some reason there is a 3D printer in the main reception area that prints plastic key rings as souvenirs which are sold in the on-board shop: either the company's bear mascot or a ferry (Bretagne, I'm told).

Our arrival back in Portsmouth was about half an hour late owing to congestion in the port, but the cruise up the Solent is quite pleasant, even in the drizzly rain, and on an all-day journey half an hour doesn't really matter.

We were off the boat promptly, and although the UK board controls are somewhat time-consuming it wasn't too bad and from the port it's straight on to the M275 for the journey home - sadly through increasingly heavy rain.

For a long crossing the cost of the ferry and cabin is quite reasonable, and Brittany Ferries do seem to make an effort with generally good facilities and, as you might expect from a French company, good food. Some of the other operators, notably P&O whose food provision on their Hull to Rotterdam crossing is very poor, could learn a thing or two from them.

Ratings for Armorique and Normandie:
Value: 4/5
Service: 4/5
Food: 4/5
Facilities: 4/5

Since publishing this review, I've had an update on the Chocolate Mousse situation from Brittany Ferries via Twitter:

So it seems they are 'home-made' after all.