by Gary Phillips

Gary takes a trip on the enormous new Stena Britannica from Harwich to the Hook of Holland.

Amsterdam is high on the to-do list of most weekend break travellers, but few consider the possibility of getting there by ferry. It’s clearly a liability to have a car anywhere close to the city centre of Amsterdam, but with the comfort of modern cruise ferries, and their low price, this option is now becoming a serious option for the modern short break passenger.

Even living in central London, driving to the Port of Harwich takes about one and half hours, which is about the same amount of time it takes to travel to Heathrow, to check-in, and to get through the security checks. Even after all the hassle involved with getting airside, you still have to queue onto the plane, and suffer the Dickensian experience of being folded into your seat for at least an hour before getting our again. At Harwich, things are very different. You have literally acres of space to park. I found a space right at the foot of the stairway to the port terminal. You then simply walk across onto the boat with barely any queuing, occupy your cabin, switch the TV on, boil the kettle and get ready for either a big breakfast at the canteen or save yourself for a large lunch at the restaurant. If you’ve been to an airport recently you’ll recognise why this is an attractive option.

Don’t forget the guilty pleasure of driving up the A12 when it seems the rest of the world is heading into London for a day’s work.

Stena Line, the operators of the Harwich to Hook of Holland route, have invested in two new identical superferries, both 60,000 tonnes and 240 metres long. The largest ferries in terms of carrying capacity in the world with 5000 metres of lanes to park lorries and cars. The great upside for the leisure passenger is that the ferries make most of their money carrying freight, which results in discounted travel for leisure travellers an off-peak periods. I met a group of young lads on the boat who each paid just £54 return for a crossing to Holland with train tickets to and from Great Yarmouth and Amsterdam included.

Not only are these new ferries large, but they are extremely comfortable and modern. There is plenty to during the six and half hour trip to Hook of Holland. You can stand out on deck and enjoy the fresh air, you can use the free wifi across the whole ship, you can eat great food, you can watch a film at the multi-screen cinema or just laze about in your cabin watching TV. It’s simply inspired. With the ship being so big, with modern stabilizers, there is much less likelihood that you’ll get sea-sick as well.

Kids will be especially happy with Curious George, Stena’s themed play bear and their own play area to the side of the bar and restaurants, where parents will be rightly kicking back and taking it easy.

From a personal standpoint, and as a lover of the great outdoors, being able to stand out on deck to take in the sea air is the greatest pleasure of all, especially on a fine day. You can observe the ports of Harwich, the Hook of Holland and Rotterdam on the way in and out with their impressive port facilities filled with enormous container ships. You will also see an increasing array of off-shore windfarms. Ornithologists and other wildlife watchers have plenty of opportunities on-board. I saw a few seals during the journey without even looking out for any.

If you have ambitions of visiting Amsterdam during your mini-cruise, you need to know that the journey takes about one hour and forty five minutes. This came as a shock to me, as I really hadn’t thought about how far it might be. It involves taking the train to Rotterdam, changing there and then on to Amsterdam. You also need to know that you can buy tickets on board if you haven’t bought a through rail ticket with your ferry crossing. They cost EURO 26 return, which is the same as you would pay via the ticket machine, which will only take coins. No notes, and no foreign credit cards will be accepted, as I found to my disappointment. Luckily the train conductor allowed me to travel to Rotterdam free of charge so I can buy a ticket there. Please don’t ever consider taking a taxi to Amsterdam. It may take three hours through traffic, and will cost an arm and a leg. Make sure you book the “Hispeed” train as the “Sprinter” stops at every single station which adds another forty five minutes to the journey. There is also the “Thalys” train, but you need seat reservations and will cost more. The through tickets you can book via Stena Line will not allow you to travel on the Thalys, so beware.

Despite the mission involved in getting to Amsterdam from the Hook of Holland, it is well worth it, and especially so for me because the weather was so great. Plan your arrival in Amsterdam with care. Before you leave home, check which tram you need to catch to get to your hotel, it will save you loads of time and stress, and may also impress your partner at the same time. In my case it was the 24 or 25 tram, which went all the way down to close to the Heineken Brewery where I was staying at the Asterisk Hotel at Den Texstraat. This journey took about 10 minutes and cost EURO 2.30.

The Hotel Asterisk was a perfectly clean and well-managed hotel, where I stayed in a simple single room without facilities for the one night for just EURO 58. Just a minute’s walk away from the tram stop and easy walking distance to all the sites. The staff were particularly friendly, and the breakfast was excellent.

I spent a whole day walking Amsterdam, making my video, but taken slowly, you can spend days here taking in the views. It is such a beautiful town. As I mentioned before the weather was just perfect, with the light falling beautifully on the town all day, particularly in the morning.

Initiated by my experience on the way over, I wisely bought a return ticket to Hook of Holland in advance. Having walked Amsterdam, complete with tripod and video camera for several hours, I was now a spent force. The prospect of that cabin on Stena Britannica was too great a appeal to resist so back I went to Centraal Station and got on the first train – the slow one! I was so tired, I just had to take the weight off my feet.

It was 18:30 by the time I got to the Hook of Holland but the really great thing was that I only had to wait a few minutes to walk on to the ferry again, complete with my cabin key. I can now see why businesspeople increasingly use this method to get to London. You can get to central London, at Liverpool Street by 09:00 the following morning.

I predict that the mini-cruise aboard these ever-bigger superferries will become more and more popular in the next ten years, and when you try one out you will easily see why.