Saturday, 23 August 2008

Isle of Man with the Steam Packet

You can get to the Island by rail and sea from Heysham (best for the north of England and Scotland), Liverpool (best if coming from the rest of the UK), Dublin (Republic of Ireland) and Belfast (Northern Ireland). Heysham however is perhaps the most convenient journey of them all for the train traveller. Heysham Railway Station could not be closer to the sea terminal (as seen in the photo to the left). In fact the terminal and the station are the same building. Heysham Port on first impressions is an industrial landscape next to a power station. It couldn't be less scenic, however it is not our destination and the Steam Packet has provided a comfortable terminal with check in desks, waiting area and a snack outlet. After check in you are free to wait for the boarding call. All luggage is checked in (a bit like flying) so you don't need to worry about your belongings while on board, just pick them up from the luggage point at the other end.

The Steam Packet is the world's oldest passenger shipping company established in 1830. However it is an up to date transport company with a fleet of modern ships. All the routes now use high speed ferries with the exception of the Heysham link which makes use of a traditional ferry which was built especially for the service a few years ago. The company has not forgotten it's routes though and has re branded earlier this year with traditional Manx names, livery and style. My ship, the Ben-my-Chree was looking excellent in its new black and white livery with bright red funnel. It replaced the King Orry and to be honest I preferred the 'King'. It was a dedicated passenger ship while the 'Ben' is a combined freight and passenger ship which has the feeling that the emphasis is definitely on the freight. Having said that it has all the facilities you would expect. On boarding I headed up to the main passenger lounge. I found a reserved seating lounge, the restaurant, a small shop with Manx souvenirs, a pub, a 1st class lounge and open air deck. I headed straight for the open deck and despite crossing in a storm that had the fast ferries stuck in port, remained their for almost the entire journey. There is something very special about sailing outside. On the inside you could almost imagine you are on shore, except for the constant movement. But outside is the real experience. There was enough shelter to make it possible in the high winds and I even got a few interesting photos! I was also very impressed with how the Ben-my-Chree handled the Irish Sea. At almost 12,000 tones even someone prone to sea sickness like me was feeling nothing! There is something very relaxing about sitting on deck and watching the ocean slowly glide by...

Arriving at the Isle of Man was an equally special treat. From out of the sea far in the distance I became aware of the hills of the Island. Gradually they came into focus and out of the sea rose Man. By this stage in the journey the weather had calmed and it was a brilliant summers evening on the island. The ferry arrives right in the heart of the capital and from the sea you can see the rows of promenade hotels, the hills behind them and the buses and cars taking commuters home from work on this miniature country. There is no mistake, this is an island and a very special one at that. The island is very green and the countryside is there right in front of you inviting your interest. First though, there is arrival. The Douglas Sea Terminal has been modernised and now resembles an international airport more than the sort of small ferry terminals of western Scotland. This IS an international transport terminal though as the Isle of Man is a self governing territory. Passing through Customs reminds visitors that they have left UK mainland. This is no ordinary international sea terminal though. Reminding everyone that this is the Isle of Man are the island's symbolic three legs, seen everywhere from flags to logos around the building, together with government, of the Isle of Man that is, offices. And how many international terminals greet visitors with a sign of 'this way to local buses, taxis and trams.

More of that though on my next post. The journey home was very similar to my outward journey except for one very significant point. I had a treat and travelled first class. Is it worth it? Yes, a definite yes! This is the Britain by Rail blog and you will forgive me for being rather enthusiastic about trains most of the time, but if I could just be a little critical. UK rail companies, airlines, visit the Steam Packet and learn how to do first class. The first class lounge is located at the front of the vessel with a forward view similar to what they must have from the navigation bridge upstairs. A friendly stewardess who told me that she lives on the Mersey but makes her home in Douglas for work greeted me by name and took me to a comfy leather seat for the journey. Compared to the rest of the ship which was a little noisy, the first class lounge was an oasis of calm and relaxation. We left bang on time and I watched the birdlife of the Irish Sea as we gently made our way towards England. When I was thirsty I ordered a complementary fresh (note restaurants, shops and airlines I now know what fresh really means!) orange juice. There were newspapers and DVD's, but really the show out of the front windows was far more relaxing. Why pay to travel across the sea and read a paper!? Then when it was time for lunch there was no lining up with the masses in the self service restaurant, rather my stewardess took my order back to the lounge for me. My rating, ten out of ten. If I could have gone all the way home by ferry and missed out on the train I wouldn't have thought twice! Of course every cloud has a sliver lining, in my case at least I was heading home by train and not by car as some of the other ferry passengers had decided to do! Did they not know about the rail terminal?

Overall both journeys were excellent. It is really a pity that they are so short, there is not nearly the time to fully enjoy the sea travel experience. However for anyone wondering whether a trip to a UK island is worth the journey, I would highly recommend the experience. Forget flying, and experience a great British way to get to our islands with the local ferries. First class or open deck it is a travel experience not to be missed.

1 comment:

Christy Murphy said...

Thank you for posting this. I am traveling there next month and worry about sea sickness. Hopefully my trip will be as smooth as yours!