I got to chatting with one of my more frequent traveling colleagues and he suggested I should consider popping over to Amsterdam before wrapping up the project and heading back to the US. I’m not quite sure what came over me, but I had booked the trip before you could say “frequent flier miles.”
Heathrow and Amsterdam are dominated by OneWorld and SkyTeam carriers and surprisingly, there isn’t a Star Alliance carrier offering a direct flight. BMI doesn’t service AMS and while LH does, it’s a connection that adds a premium for the security fees. The ferry, on the other hand, leaves from a port not far from my customer and the timing works out well. So I booked a cabin on the Stena Lines, departing Harwich on Thursday evening and arriving Hoek van Holland (Hook of Holland in English) Friday morning for $199 roundtrip. The return departed Monday afternoon and arrived back in Harwich in the early evening.
Ticketing is quite simple and surprisingly inexpensive. On overnight trips, a berth is required and the reviews I read suggested getting an outside cabin. So I chose that. For the return, I saved $15 by choosing an inside cabin. Base price was $40 if you didn’t want a cabin at all.
Boarding for “foot passengers” starts three hours prior to departure. I arrived at the Harwich International Rail Station at 7:30. It’s a very short walk to the ferry terminal and I waited in the queue, watching the cars and trucks being driven up the ramp and into the ship, the Stena Hollandica. When boarding was called, it was handled very professionally. The gate agent checked boarding passes and passports, scanning the boarding pass and issuing room keys. It’s a long walk up the gangplank into the ship. I managed to find my room on deck 11, pleased that I had been upgraded from a single to a triple. Set up like bunk beds, the lower bed was a double bed and the upper, a single. Bathroom with shower and sink, with towels laid out. It was small, but very efficient and very clean.
I left my suitcase and went in search of food. All of the common areas are on one deck, with a separate area for the truckers. Cafeteria-style restaurant, smoking room, bar, casino, TV area, sitting rooms, even a small cinema ($10 to watch a first-run movie – too much!) with popcorn. My chicken curry was excellent, after which I went back to the room, checked email and changed for sleep. I was out for the count, only waking seven hours later at the “arriving in one hour” announcement. Again, a long walk to Dutch immigration and the nearby Hoek van Holland train station that runs to Rotterdam.
For the return, it was all the same in reverse. Check-in, Dutch departure emigration, room key, etc. Even the same chicken curry. This time, only a “double” room with upper and lower single beds but otherwise no difference.
I’ve been on cruises before and this was similar. The North Sea gets a pretty strong north to south current, so east/west crossing can be bumpy. Someone who is susceptible to seasickness should probably consider taking Dramamine. Stena operates two ships on opposite schedules – the Hollandica sails one way while the Britanica sails the other. They are quite large ships with room for 1200 passengers and 5500 feet of lanes for cars and trucks. Free wi-fi on board was unexpected – the email and news sites I wanted to access worked fine, but gaming and video sites were blocked to preserve bandwidth.
As for the sightseeing, it was fab. I spent the first night in Rotterdam, where I viewed the Maritime Museum and the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. The second day, I took the train to Amsterdam and did a huge amount of sightseeing, Van Gogh Museum, House of Bols, Het Rijksmuseum, even the Sex Museum and more. No ‘coffeeshops’ or ‘space brownies’ but my guided tour went through (and didn’t stop in) the red light district. The Marriott Amsterdam Airport Courtyard is a nice hotel if you want to be at the airport, but not so much if you’re sightseeing in Amsterdam. After the one night, I moved to the excellent Renaissance that is very close to the Centraal train station for the next night.
Note: As with my later trip to Italy, the Nederlandse Spoorwegen (Dutch train operator) machines do not accept swipe and sign cards. Some of the machines don’t even accept Euro notes or coins! There is a 50c charge to purchase a ticket from a ‘human’ and they don’t accept any credit cards at all – only debit cards and cash. I was damned near stranded in Rotterdam, but I manged to find a Geldautomat (ATM) and get cash. Grrr!