When Irish seas are smiling
The late-afternoon sun seems to be drawing a path across a silvery, still Irish Sea as Ulysses, colossus of the Irish Ferries fleet, glides towards Dublin. Friends have rattled me with tales of roiling crossings, but our journey from Holyhead, the shortest distance between Britain and Ireland, is as smooth as Blarney Stone-kissing banter.
If you list towards the nostalgic, a ferry crossing to Ireland is an easy, pretty and incredibly thrifty way to get from London to Dublin.
But to begin at the beginning (and I invoke Dylan Thomas here because we have been zooming at about 200km/h through the Welsh countryside), before the ship there was a train — a Virgin Trains Super Voyager from London’s Euston station. This tilt train rockets you into the English countryside, which turns Welsh before you can say Tom Jones, and soon you’re hurtling past stations with tongue-twisting, vowel-burying signs.
For about three hours and 40 minutes, enjoy the view through Buckinghamshire, in and out of the trainspotters’ delight of Crewe, and along the north coast of Wales to Holyhead. Alight and take a short stroll to the Irish Ferries check-in, where your baggage is blissfully spirited away and a bus that’s seen better days transports you into the bowels of the ferry, alongside jam-packed lines of freight lorries and cars. Ulysses stands 12 decks high, with more than 4km of lane space for 1342 cars and 240 trucks, and the swift loading of the vehicles and up to 2000 passengers and crew is a symphony of precise logistics.
Ulysses the super-ship — it was the world’s largest car ferry when christened in 2001 — has more than a few nods to Ulysses the super-novel and its author James Joyce, who peers over the reception area from a giant carved mural. A series of clock-faces are signposts for a Joycean walking odyssey around the ship.
Decks 9-11 are for passengers and for an extra fee, you can book into a cabin if you need a nap, but there’s plenty to keep you awake in the three hours and change it takes to get to Ireland.
Choose from Irish pub Leopold Bloom’s, a bistro, cafe, duty-free shopping arcade, a two-screen cinema or a quiet lounge with reclining chairs encircling the light well of an atrium dome.
Beneath the giant shamrock-green funnel up top, there’s a wide external promenade deck, where it feels as if you might be whipped overboard like a clover leaf, even on our silky crossing.
Even if you have kids in tow, consider paying the €18 ($25.50) apiece to upgrade to Club Class for a majestic view from the only public place on the ship that looks out over the bow. As well as the prime vantage point, there’s a selection of complimentary drinks, snacks and horsd’oeuvres, including mounds of smoked salmon and pinwheel salmon sandwiches. (Wine is offered gratis, but beer isn’t. I’m guessing that’s because, judging by the brews being sunk downstairs, some passengers would swiftly get the most out of the cover charge and imperil the peaceful, clubby atmosphere.)
As we near Dublin, the sea is still smooth, but the sun has retreated into Irish-grey clouds, and behind the hills on the horizon there is the steady slate of rain sheeting down. But it seems more romantic than miserable. To be sure, this is a glorious way to arrive in Ireland.