Travel

Ferries offer cruise-like glamour minus the cost

AT SEA OFF THE NORWEGIAN COAST — Passengers primp in their cabins for the next seating in the dining room, or teeter along the swaying decks to keep their reservations in one of the more formal specialty restaurants.

Others shop in the duty-free store, browse the pamphlets at the purser’s desk for tips about the next day’s destination, relax in the Jacuzzi or sauna while waiting for massages, or order drinks in one of the bars or nightclubs.

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They’re not aboard a cruise ship. This is the Crown Seaways, the overnight ferry from Oslo to Copenhagen. And it’s one of a new fleet of well-appointed such vessels worldwide once considered rusting hulks that have been upgraded into surprisingly comfortable, full-service ships to vie with low-cost airlines and competition from alternatives such as the Eurotunnel.

“We don’t call them ferries any more, even though they operate like ferries,” said Tommy Brink, international sales manager for the Copenhagen-based company that operates the Crown Seaways, DFDS. “We call them overnight cruise ships.”

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Brink said the ferries were always reliable means of transportation, “no matter what the competition, but it’s obvious that we are doing our utmost to attract guests to come and use our services, and of course they only do that if they feel if there is value for money.”

The biggest of these ferries typically operate on voyages of less than a day, meaning passengers can see extraordinary sights from at sea such as the Norwegian fjords, Greek islands, or glaciers along the coast of Alaska, but without making a commitment to be stuck aboard a ship for a week dodging chatty retirees and other people’s children.

“We definitely get those people who are absolutely, adamantly not cruise people,” said Danielle Doyle, spokeswoman for the Alaska Marine Highway System, which runs a network of passenger ferries along a 3,500-mile route between Washington State and the Aleutian Islands.

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“They want to come to Alaska with their kayak, and they’re going to spend the majority of their visit in the interior, but they also want to see the Inside Passage, and the ferry gives them an opportunity to get out on the water and enjoy a different perspective,” Doyle said.

The BC Ferries vessel, Northern Expedition.

Ferry photo by Kent Kallberg

The BC Ferries vessel, Northern Expedition.

These are, in brief, the world’s shortest, cheapest cruises. And they’re often hidden gems about which American travelers may not know.

“It is still somewhat of a secret,” Doyle said. Alaska, for example, “can be very intimidating to people because it is such a large state and there are a lot of options here. And so I don’t think ferry services here immediately come to mind.”

Or in other many other exotic places.

With the Eurostar train siphoning away some English Channel traffic, some of the nicest ferries in those waters now also make longer excursions. Brittany Ferries’s flagship 2,400-passenger Pont-Aven travels from Plymouth, England, to Santander, Spain, which takes about 20 hours, and to Cork in Ireland. That ship has a five-story atrium, restaurants, a piano bar, an indoor pool, and two levels of boutiques.

Comfortable ferries also cross the Mediterranean Sea, between Greece and Italy and Italy and Morocco, and other destinations. And while the long-haul “super ferries” that serve many of the larger Greek islands are less luxurious and notoriously unreliable, and many are in need of updating, the views are worth it, and some vessels on the longer routes have clean cabins and great food.

Back in Scandinavia, very nice cruise ferries ply the seas between Stockholm and Tallinn, Estonia, a 16-hour trip. The Hurtigruten ferries travel north along the picturesque and sparsely settled Norwegian coast from Bergen to Kirkenes. The full round trip takes 11 days and stops at 34 ports, but you can get on or off at any of them. DFDS also sails between Newcastle Upon Tyne, in northeast England, and Amsterdam.

“The ferry gives them a little bit of an opportunity to have that cruise experience, but to stay in the communities also.”

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One of the newest ships in the North Atlantic, the Norröna, travels between Hirtshals in Denmark to the trendy destination of the Faroe Islands, year-round, and to Iceland in the summers, and has an indoor swimming pool, fitness rooms, several restaurants, a duty-free shop, and other top-flight features.

Small village church in Nordskala in the Faroe Islands.

Shutterstock / Eydfinnur

Small village church in Nordskala in the Faroe Islands.

Some of these European ferries are as big as conventional cruise ships, carrying as many as 2,800 passengers, but cost as little as $77, based on double occupancy (up to as much as $770, for the best and biggest staterooms) — much less than the combination of staying ashore at a hotel and flying, taking a train, or renting a car.

In the Southern Hemisphere, Chile’s Navimag ferries are much smaller, with a capacity of about 150 passengers. But what those passengers get is an unrivaled view of coastal Patagonia, covering 800 miles over four days, passing ice fields, fjords, and glaciers, against the backdrop of the snow-capped Andes. On board, there are small but tidy private berths, self-service dining, a gift shop, and a bar where you can order drinks made with ice collected from icebergs by the crew.

Some of the 11 Alaska ferries offer cabins with private bathrooms, but passengers who want to save even more money just snag one of the reclining lounge chairs or even bring small tents to pitch on the deck; there are also public bathrooms and showers, ice machines, and microwaves. Two of the ships have full-service dining rooms, most have covered solariums, and several have movie theaters, card rooms, and video arcades. Discounts are available for passengers who are 65 and older and children under age 12; kids under 6 sail free.

The route visits 35 towns and villages, passing the same white-topped mountains, fjords, forests, and glaciers as the pricey cruise ships that crowd the Inland Passage in the summer, while floating by porpoises, bald eagles, sea otters, and even whales.

“The ferry gives them a little bit of an opportunity to have that cruise experience, but to stay in the communities also, which is something you don’t get on a cruise,” said Doyle.

Even people who have heard about the state ferries in Alaska may not know about their counterparts that run along the coast of British Columbia. Two have cabins and other cruise ship-like amenities: one travels from Port Hardy at the northern tip of Vancouver Island to Prince Rupert and another sails from Prince Rupert to Haida Gwaii, formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands.

On major routes, the BC Ferries have buffets, children’s play areas, and other amenities, and some have naturalists on board who narrate the journey, according to spokeswoman Deborah Marshall. (The Alaska ferries formerly had naturalists, too, but that perk was lost to federal and state budget cuts.)

Disney cruises, these are not. Because the trips are so short, the cabins can be very small — the beds often fold down from the walls, Pullman-style, though some ferries also have luxurious seagoing suites — and food is seldom included, though it’s often unexpectedly good. The entertainment is not quite ready for prime time; introducing a set of ’60s classics, the vocalist in the nightclub of the Crown Seaways pronounced, in Danish-accented English, “This is for the older people,” and she didn’t mean it as a joke.

But even the kitsch is fun aboard these ferries. And Brink, of DFDS, said many Americans are missing out.

“In Denmark, which is a very small country, more than 90 percent of the population know about us,” he said. “In the US, if we’re lucky, it’s five or six percent who know.”

Taking a ferry “is very relaxing,” said Brink. “You’re getting from one point to another while you sleep. So instead of having one night in a hotel and a short distance flying, you can have a true experience.”

Jon Marcus can be reached at jon@mysecretboston.com.
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