It’s time for a ferry renaissance

The Man Who Pays His Way: Hampshire to Morocco by sea? I’m in

It’s time for a ferry renaissance

Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has been writing about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores a key travel issue – and what it means for you.

The fine Portuguese city of Porto is in the limelight like never before. On Monday, Portugal will become the only major European country on the “green list” of quarantine-free nations. In two weeks, Chelsea and Manchester City fans will arrive in their thousands for the Champions League final and for the first time in decades, some of them may arrive direct from the UK on a ferry.

Brittany Ferries is contemplating a link from either Portsmouth or Plymouth to Porto, starting in around 10 days’ time.

Nicky Gardner, co-editor of hidden europe magazine, reminds us that direct ferries to the northwest of the Iberian peninsula are nothing new: the gorgeous Spanish cities of A Coruna and Vigo once enjoyed ferry links with Britain and could do again.

“Were restrictions relaxed, there might be scope for adding a stop at one or other en route to Porto,” she speculates but commercial considerations may intervene: “Brittany Ferries might worry about revenue dilution by abstracting from their existing Bilbao and Santander routes.”

Budget aviation has brought wonders to travellers but sailing overnight is the most civilised way to arrive in Spain or Portugal – indeed, almost anywhere. And as modern ferries are relatively gentle on the environment, this could be the time to restore missing links.

They will only come back if people start voting with their wallets and prioritise slow terrestrial travel – boats and trains – over planes.

Many former ferry routes will never return: before the Channel Tunnel was completed, you could sail (or hover) from various departure points in east Kent – Folkestone, Dover, Ramsgate and Sheerness – to combinations of Boulogne, Calais, Dunkirk, Ostend, Zeebrugge and Flushing. I love Boulogne and Ostend but I can see that concentrating ferry operations in Calais and Dunkirk makes sense.

At the other end of the UK, the link from Ballycastle in Northern Ireland to Campbeltown at the southern end of the Kintyre peninsula in western Scotland, looks the ideal ferry route, saving 200 miles of overland travel. For decades it has been intermittent but this summer the Kintyre Express – probably the smallest international ferry in the world, with just 12 seats – looks like being on again this summer, at least from Friday to Monday in July and August.

Plenty more former links compete for attention, especially on the North Sea, such as Harwich to Hamburg – ending with the majestic 80-mile glide along the River Elbe into one of Germany’s finest cities.

Newcastle to Stavanger and Bergen was a joy, too, linking up in the latter city with Norway’s marvellous Hurtigruten ferry – the daily link around the far north of the nation almost to the Russian border. Imagine sailing from Tyneside and, with a single change of ship, traversing the Arctic and ending up within five miles of Russia.

Even more exotic, says Nicky Gardner, would be the revival of a Southern Ferries route from the 1970s. “This P&O subsidiary used the MV Eagle – a very interesting ship, which presciently anticipated the current fad for cruise-ferries – on the Southampton to Lisbon route.”

Fifty years ago this summer, she says, a 6pm departure from Southampton arrived in the Portuguese capital at 10am two days later.

The Eagle had room for about 700 passengers – four times the capacity of aircraft used for holiday flights – plus 200 cars.

Even more intriguingly: “One weekly sailing was extended to Tangier.” Hampshire to Morocco by ferry? I’ll race you on board.