Travel at the moment is no fun – especially if an airport is involved. The number of forms and permissions to be filled in is like something devised by the Kremlin in the 1980s and in the name of “health and safety” (which, along with “company policy”, is the final bastion of the intellectually-challenged functionary) customer service has all but disappeared.
Because of Covid, the gloves are off. “We make no apology for putting your safety first” – one of the most annoyingly self-satisfied travel phrases in the world – can now be roughly translated as: “we take great pleasure in finally wielding the power we have always craved.” As anyone who has stood in a three-hour queue for passport control at Heathrow will be able to tell you.
So, the best way of travelling internationally these days is by car, and if coming from the UK, it’s likely that this journey will start by sea. I recently had to go to Portugal and Spain, and it soon became clear that the most civilised way to do it was going to be on Brittany Ferries from Portsmouth to Santander.
It’s promoted as a ‘mini-cruise’ and with a crossing time of just over 28 hours, the description is justified. Sure, there are faster ways to get to Spain. But with the ship gently cutting through an endless expanse of sea in front of you, it’s a constant reminder that you are actually travelling, in a world that is increasingly sanitised (literally now, as well as metaphorically). The speed of air travel has shrunk the planet and made it feel almost too small. Travel by land and sea is a welcome and romantic reminder that it’s still a big place, just as it used to feel in a bygone age.
The voyage to Spain is also an entirely painless experience. You turn up at Portsmouth, check in, wait in the car for a little bit and then get directed onto the ship, without being herded like cattle or treated like a leper. That ship in question is the Galicia: a Chinese-built vessel last year, which marks a new chapter for Brittany Ferries. It’s different from their other boats, feeling a bit more like a cruise ship than a ferry. Which in some ways is a bit of a shame, as those wanting a rough and ready seafaring atmosphere might be disappointed.
You’re allocated your cabin during check in, so once you’re onto the cavernous car deck, it’s just a question of heading upstairs and accessing your accommodation straight away. The Galicia is deceptive, as while it looks enormous, there are only really two decks that you’re interested in: decks seven and eight, which contain the food, drink and entertainment. Most of them are still occupied by cabin space, but it’s intelligently laid out, unlike the rabbit warren within most ships. I found my cabin in minutes (1710) as this was by far the easiest ship to navigate that I have experienced on Brittany Ferries.
Part of that is down to the use of space; there’s a bright and airy feeling to the entire boat, with the sort of décor that makes you forget that you’re on board a ship.
I had selected a four-berth inside cabin that was more than adequate, although you can specify increasing levels of luxury. It featured four beds, its own en suite bathroom, a TV, desk, bedside table, wireless internet, and cupboard. I’ve stayed in many less comfortable and well-equipped hotels. Being an inside cabin, this didn’t have a porthole – instead a clever light behind a ‘fake window’ – and while that didn’t bother me, some people might prefer a room with a view.
The bed was extremely comfortable, and the duvet was plump. Plus, with three other beds in the room, you can always raid extra pillows or duvets if you need them (but you won’t).
And that was it: time to relax for the next day, night and morning.
The Galicia departed from Portsmouth at 09:00 and arrived in Santander at 14:30 the next day. So, the first stop was obviously breakfast, of the traditional English variety, while the boat left Portsmouth behind on a beautiful morning. Much better than being corralled into a 737 while being bombarded by announcements, with only a stale muffin for company.
The first part of the trip was taken up by watching the Isle of Wight slip past (which is surprisingly big) then it was time for some reading on deck.
Lunchtime soon came round: there are two restaurants on the Galicia, a big self-service on deck seven called Azul, and a tapas bar on deck eight. Both have quite prescriptive opening hours, so you need to work out in advance when they open and shut. The same applies to the shop. This is perhaps the only criticism: it would be much easier simply to have all the facilities open throughout most of the voyage, rather than sporadically opening and closing according to set hours.
One dinner and one breakfast is included in the price of the ticket, but lunch is down to you: I selected a perfectly acceptable Caesar salad, an apple tart and a beer. None of the food is going to win prizes, but it’s all entirely decent and not bad value.
The tapas restaurant makes more of an effort to impart a quintessentially Spanish flavour (even though the ship’s crew is entirely French) but it won’t work if you have a larger appetite – so I stuck with the main restaurant.
During the afternoon and evening I got some work done in my cabin. The premium Wi-Fi is costly but works well, and the desk and chair are comfortable. It’s really no different to working all day in the office, except quieter. What stood out was the quality of the ride: there was no swell when I made my crossing, but the movement was almost imperceptible all day and all night, even in the notorious Bay of Biscay.
The Plaza Mayor bar was closed, apparently due to French anti-Covid laws, although it’s hard to imagine how they might apply in the middle of the sea and indeed who is checking; I didn’t spot any gendarmes lurking behind the perfume counters in the well-stocked Duty Free shop. I’m clearly no expert in maritime law, but that was the only other disappointing aspect of the trip.
In any case, it’s easy to get a drink in the restaurant, so I enjoyed a beer before dinner while watching the world go by, before moving onto a plate of Spanish ham, followed by Beef Bourguignon, chips and vegetables, cheese, and a chocolate mousse – washed down with a very acceptable carafe of Cotes du Rhone house red wine. Again, don’t expect gourmet meals, but it’s more than just eatable, and the restaurant with its floor to ceiling windows provides a stunning setting.
After dinner, it was up to deck 10 for a stroll: the very top of the ship that’s optimistically called the ‘sun deck’. It’s easy to forget how dark a night at sea can be, but this deck is beautifully lit up by some multicoloured Spanish plastic statues of Galician women in traditional dress that double as lights: just one of the interesting design touches that help make this ship a bit different.
Back to the cabin and an excellent night’s sleep. One advantage of the inside cabin is that it’s a perfect blackout, but the biggest surprise was that I didn’t feel any of the usual rocking motion you find when travelling at sea.
The following morning consisted of a lie-in and a bit more work (having topped up the internet) and then another trip up to deck 10 to see the misty Galician coast come into view. The ship docked at 14:30 precisely, and after a bit of hanging round on the vehicle deck and negotiation of the chaotic port, I was on the road and heading towards Portugal by just after 15:00.
Flying already seems so last year…
Anthony Peacock works as a journalist and is the owner of an international communications agency, all of which has helped take him to more than 80 countries across the world.
Photographs courtesy of Brittany Ferries