Disembarking from ISLE OF INISHMORE at Dublin it was obvious that it would be sometime before she came off berth 49 and ULYSSES moved across the river.
Inside the terminal was busy with people milling around. There was a certain sense of expectation. Looking upwards, to the top boarding gallery of the terminal building, members of ULYSSES crew could be seen waiting to board along with their belongings and various ship fittings.
Passing through the check-in gate, passengers were presented with a certificate inscribed "I sailed on the Maiden Voyage of Ulysses the largest car ferry in the world" and signed by Captain Tom Joyce.
Given the "Joycean" theme of ULYSSES it appeared somewhat appropriate that the captain in command of the maiden voyage should share the same name as the famous author.
The departure lounge steadily filled up as more people ascended the escalator. Many of those present appeared to be trippers there for the occasion of the maiden voyage, there appeared to be quite a few ship enthusiasts around too!
ISLE OF INISHMORE finally came off berth at around 08:55 whilst ULYSSES moved off berth 47, crossing the river and slowly turned. The INISHMORE is quite a substantial ship in terms of size. However, as the ULYSSES approached the berth her imposing presence became more and more apparent.
With a gross registered tonnage of 50,938 she exceeds the gross registered tonnage of White Star's famous Olympic class vessels by around 4,000 tonnes she is also wider than these vessels though shorter.
As the Olympic class vessels were regarded as the most impressive ships of the British Mercantile Marine in the early part of the 20th Century, the ULYSSES must be the twenty first century equivalent for the Irish Merchant fleet and is a splendid national flagship.
With ULYSSES on the berth the crew made their way on board along with various stores such as waste bins etc. However, time ticked by and there was still no sign of passenger boarding commencing.
Despite the long wait time appeared to pass quite quickly as there was plenty to talk about. Eventually sometime around 11:30, I didn't record the exact moment, the departure gate doors were opened and embarkation commenced.
Reaching the top level of the terminal building the gangway sloped steeply upwards to the side of ULYSSES as it was now around high water.
Once on board passengers have a choice of climbing the diamond stairs or using the glass-sided Ocean Lift to reach deck 9 - the main passenger deck. The lift or stairs lead passengers to the reception area which is located on the starboard side. It is much brighter than the reception area on ISLE OF INISHMORE as it facing the starboard side of the vessel, rather than being located inboard. I imagine it must be better for the crew as well. However, on the two van der Geissen vessels boarding was directly into the reception area. On ULYSSES the need to ascend or descend stairs or lift appears to create something of a bottleneck and does not offer the same smooth flow of passengers available on the previous vessels. There would not appear to be a way around this problem which has been caused by the sheer size of the vessel, which places the main passenger deck much higher than the top floor of the terminal gangways at Dublin or Holyhead.
Just forward of the reception area on the starboard side one comes across the commissioning plaque unveiled on March 21 by Paralympic Gold Medallist Mairéad Berry. Close to the plaque is a circular clock plaque which is the first of a number of other such plaques around the vessel which comprise the ULYSSES Walking Tour.
The ULYSSES walking tour aims to give passengers the opportunity to learn something about James Joyce and his famous work Ulysses whilst discovering all the features of the ship.
Each chapter in Ulysses is based around a different hour of the day June 16, 1904. The clock plaques commemorate this and are located at various points of interest around the vessel. Each clock contains some interesting facts about James Joyce and the characters from Ulysses.
Passengers undertaking the tour can complete a competition form using the answers found on the plaques to with a monthly prize draw offering a return ticket for a car and up to five passengers.
Passing from the reception area one enters Leopold Bloom's traditional Irish Pub, complete with a performers' stage. During the maiden voyage live folk music was on offer.
The pub runs the full width of the ship at the forward end offers good views from its many windows. There is a large central bar area from side and obviously making a statement that children are welcome in this pub is "Silly Milly's Fun House".
Leaving the bar on the port side one enters Boylan's Brasserie one of three food outlets on deck 9 which form part of the Nora Barnacles Food Emporium.
Boylan's Brasserie provides hot and cold meals on a self-service basis. Adjacent to this is the Burger King outlet.
Beyond the Burger King one can continue down the port side into the Grafton Shopping Arcade or passengers can move into the centre of the ship and enter La Brioche Doree a French style café offering croissants, baguettes, cakes and coffees.
I must admit that I have never seen an on board shop on an Irish Sea ship as busy as this one since the end of Duty Free.
The shop is excellent offering a wide variety of goods including perfumes to beers, wines, spirits, books, electrical goods, quality Irish gifts, toys etc. Irish Ferries have always offered excellent on-board shopping facilities and the shop on board ULYSSES surpasses facilities previously available. What also impresses is the quality and range of the gift items available a lesson could certainly be learnt by some other operators who offer a much more limited range of items some of which are of dubious quality!
The shop is basically L shaped, one arm of which is located below the atrium which permits quite a lot of natural light to enter.
The shop and La Brioche Doree both exit on the starboard side of the vessel.
Passing to the rear of the vessel one enters the entertainment area. The Cyclops Entertainment Centre is on the starboard side and is a large electronic amusement arcade. On the port side one can enter the area around the Volta Picture Theatre. This is a twin screen cinema with refreshment Kiosk. From the entertainment area views are possible out of the rear facing windows over the stern.
Adjacent to the Cyclops Entertainment Centre one can ascend stairs to the James Joyce Balcony lounge on deck 10 beneath the Atrium. The Balcony Lounge offers arm chairs located around the opening from which one can look down into the shop and up to the glazed cover on deck 11. From here is there is access to the ship's passenger cabins. I had the opportunity to use an inside cabin 341 which appeared well turned out with two beds side by side. There being no window a mural of celtic art provided relief to the bulkhead. The cabin appeared smaller than those on ISLE OF INISHMORE. However it looked quite comfortable.
Forward of the cabin area is some crew accommodation and beyond that the bridge.
The bridge is particularly spacious. The Captain and First Officer sit either side of a centre console facing a range of monitors. Behind the centre console there is a conventional wooden wheel.
There is excellent visibility from the bridge wings aft along the sides of the vessel. To further assist in berthing the vessel there is a Perspex panel in the floor.
Deck 11 is the top deck of the vessel. It is divided into four areas. At the forward end above the bridge is the Martello Observation Lounge, Marino Casino gaming machine area and the Freight Driver's Club lounge. The Martello Lounge also has a performers stage.
Behind the deck 11 passenger area is the space where the ships store containers are loaded from the quayside by an integral crane and lowered into the vessel. Moving further back is the crew's cabin accommodation. There is open deck space along each side of this area. However, this area is gated off. During the voyage the starboard side was open for passenger use. However, it is not known if this will always be the case.
The fourth area is the Sandycove Promenade Deck around the funnel. Inside the funnel housing rises the Ruby Stairs. No deck seating was noted, however, as with many new ships this usually takes a while to appear only being fitted when the ship is in service. Given the height and speed of the vessel, the open deck can be quite breezy, however, there are a number of sheltered spots.
The open deck space is more than adequate, something often lacking in some modern vessels.
Departure from Dublin was rather behind schedule the scheduled 09:45 at 12:10. ULYSSES swung off the berth and faced down the channel towards Poolbeg light. ISLE OF INISHMORE had retreated to Alexandra Basin. Norse Merchant Ferries BRAVE MERCHANT was berthed at the NMF berth 52 and now looked rather small when viewed from the top of ULYSSES.
Passing down the Fairway the stone carrying vessel VILLE was busy at work depositing more boulders to protect the ever cracking South Wall.
I must admit to spending quite a lot of time exploring the ship and hence did not pay that much attention looking out for other vessels. Whilst on the bridge Sea Containers RAPIDE could be seen around 13:22 heading towards Dublin on her 10:30 sailing from Liverpool some miles to the north.
Anglesey appeared all too soon. The HSS STENA EXPLORER departed on her afternoon sailing to Dún Laoghaire, however, I managed to miss this as I was browsing in the shop. As we approached Holyhead Harbour the STENA CHALLENGER could be seen preparing to get underway on her afternoon sailing to Dublin.
Entering the harbour a large number of people could be seen standing by the breakwater watching ULYSSES make her first commercial arrival. The weather was particularly good and ULYSSES must have made a splendid sight.
Slowly swinging round ULYSSES backed onto the berth and was made fast at 15:25. Exactly 3 hours and 15 minutes after departure. Disembarkation appeared to be delayed for a short time. But all too soon it was time to say farewell to this fine ship.
No body can fail to be impressed by ULYSSES. She really is a fine vessel. She is certainly elegant both externally and internally. Her predecessor ISLE OF INISHMORE was certainly attractive and well laid out internally though her exterior could hardly have been described as attractive, being too boxy and angular. In terms of external design INISHMORE was a retrograde step in terms of exterior design compared to ISLE OF INNISFREE.
Whilst the overall style of ULYSSES both internally and externally is fine, this superb ship is let down by its catering facilities.
Since leaving home around 22:30 on Saturday evening apart from a packet of crisps I had not had anything to eat until I boarded ULYSSES and looked forward to having a good meal. I recalled a couple of excellent value meals I had in the ISLE OF INNISFREE's Lady Gregory Restaurant back in 1999 when she was covering for the ISLE OF INISHMORE's refit on the Holyhead - Dublin route and was convinced that there would be no problem on the ULYSSES.
However, I was disappointed to find that there were no waiter service restaurants for passengers other than freight drivers.
What was available was just too "fast foodish" for my liking. A ship of this magnitude needs a decent restaurant. On the HSS you can get a served meal. On Sea Containers BEN-MY-CHREE you visit the food bar order and pay for a meal and then it is brought to your table. However, on ULYSSES there is no option but to stand and queue. Whilst this might be acceptable on smaller pax capacity vessels such as those operated by NorseMerchant Ferries, it is not acceptable on a vessel with a high passenger capacity. Passengers don't want to stand in lengthy, slow moving queues.
Queues on board ULYSSES at the various food outlets were very long - except at La Brioche Doree. I gave up trying to buy one of the tasty looking baguettes as there appeared to be continuing delays in preparing these. In the end I settled for a coffee, croissant and custard at around 13:00. Not exactly what I had had in mind and I must admit I was very, very disappointed.
Whilst not denying that "fast food" is popular these days, not everyone wants to eat cardboard burgers and fries I personally detest such food. Speaking to other passengers there did appear to be disenchantment in the catering department.
Adrian Sweeney, editor of "Ships of Mann" magazine tried three times to obtain a baguette , but eventually gave up on the third attempt. He eventually gave up and settled for something at Boylan's Brasserie but wasn't impressed in terms of choice or quality.
I certainly hope that the on board facilities improve once ULYSSES is run in and perhaps it is unfair to judge a ship on a maiden voyage. However, the dining facilities might require more serious consideration by her owners.
The durability of some of the fixtures and fittings must be called into question. Such nice touches as glass topped tables, some with lights beneath might look attractive, but just how durable are they in the long term? I was assured that they are of the best quality, however, perhaps not all the passengers that they have to endure will be of similar quality!
It is interesting to note that Irish Ferries did not follow the trend established by other Irish Sea operators in providing First / Business Class accommodation. There exists adequate space on the vessel to provide this which could earn extra income in terms of upgrade fees and permit those passengers who like a quite environment with individual attention from stewards to relax. On a full sailing I could imagine ULYSSES to become rather uncomfortable as there are no quiet areas apart from the James Joyce Balcony and that is in close proximity to the shop area, though above it and a suitable lounge would would be a welcome addition.
I must admit I welcome the decision to not install a motorist's lounge as INNISFREE and INISHMORE. Probably the best lounges on the ship, their exclusivity to motorists was somewhat unfair to foot passengers. I will always maintain that these should have been operated as upgradeable lounges for ALL passengers irrespective of whether they were in a car or not.
This report comprises my first impressions of the vessel, I have certainly not covered everything that attracted my attention. Later in the year I intend to undertake another trip just to see how things have bedded in and get a better impression of the vessel in service.