Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

In search of the ideal way to cross the Irish Sea while awaiting the opening of that feat of engineering genius, the Titanic Tunnel? Well, you need look no further

I have lived on these shores now for more than two decades since “blowing-in” from England in the early '90s and ever since then I've waited, hoped and prayed for a civil engineering genius to build a tunnel across the Irish Sea connecting the two islands. Or, better still, a bridge.

How much simpler/cheaper/easier life would be without having to book/plan/pay for every trip! Just jump in the car and visit family and friends whenever you like... and you could be back here and home in bed as quick as a trip up the Antrim coast.

Now that my son Luke has flown the nest for university in London, the idea seems even more appealing. However, until the launch of the monumental Titanic Tunnel (built by Harland and Wolff in 2020, officially opened by King William and Queen Kate) I will have to continue relying on public transport to get me there and back.

I've tried them all... every type of vehicle or vessel available — planes, trains and automobiles; ferries, busses and boats. Every flight-path there is on all the “short-hop” routes — Flybe, easyJet, British Midland, British Airways, Ryanair, Manx Airlines, you name it, I’ve flown it. I’ve also tried out every possible ferry route — Belfast to Stranraer, Larne to Cairnryan, Larne to Fleetwood, Belfast to Heysham, Dublin to Holyhead and Belfast to Merseyside in every type of craft from Seacat and HSS to traditional roll-on roll-off ferry.

But at last, for now at least, I think I have finally discovered the next-best method to get a car and contents to the middle of GB in the most comfortable, hassle-free way possible. I made all the the mistakes and forked out a fortune on fares so you don't have to. Here's my verdict...

Stena's new, souped-up crossing from Belfast to Birkenhead (a route formerly owned and operated by Norforkline) is definitely the way forward on to the... err... mainland. There are two per day, but for me the winner is the overnight trip that leaves Port of Belfast at around 22.30.

In the old days this used to be a very basic, no-frills job, aimed largely at lorry drivers who were given priority during boarding and then again onboard, including their own “Truckers” bar and restaurant. Regular car and foot passengers were of course welcome onboard, but the emphasis was very much on keeping it cheap, cheerful and basic for the freight fellas who would do the route routinely all in a day's work.

However, since Stena bought out Norforkline's Belfast-Birkenhead operation in July 2011 they've completed a £4m refit and makeover of both ships and now it has everything you could wish for on a short-hop voyage.

Okay, it's a bit more pricey than it used to be, but now it's an absolute pleasure from start to finish. New features include a waitress-service bistro with a menu created by the celebrity chef Kevin Woodford (off the telly). There's still a separate pit-stop style cafe for lorry drivers, but this new service offers gastro-pub type dining with choices such as yellow Thai vegetable curry with jasmine rice and freshly roasted joint of the day with mash and root vegetables... all beautifully presented and with a wine list too, no less.

There's a comfortably plush mini cinema on-board for movie-loving insomniacs which shows a choice of two current titles during the course of the night which is another great feature included as standard for all passengers.

Meanwhile in the bar and lounge areas — all comfortably refurbished this year — large screens show the most popular satellite channels throughout the night.

But for me, the greatest improvement is the introduction of complimentary wi-fi on board — something that so far has been unheard of on a traditional ferry crossing over the Irish Sea. And for those without a lap-top there's a dedicated internet area where for a couple of quid you can surf the web to your heart’s content on a shiny new Apple iPad.

Of course, another main attraction are the overnight cabins. These haven't changed and are still pretty basic, but include everything you could need for a decent night's sleep.

But the best part of the whole trip is waking up at dawn to the sight of Liverpool's famous Liver Building alongside it's impressive all-new modern skyline.

So that will certainly suffice for now... at least until that tunnel finally emerges.

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