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P&O Irish Sea – 13 October 2001

12.45 ex Larne. 18.00 ex Cairnryan

By Gary Andrews

The Star Cruises’ owned Austal built 82 metre catamaran SUPERSTAR EXPRESS joined P&O’s Larne – Cairnryan route in 2000 and immediately proved popular with her crew, P&O local management and passengers alike.

Having been on charter to P&O Ferries since 1998 (spending her first two years on the Portsmouth – Cherbourg route) it did seem at one stage that 2001 would be her last year at Larne with the new multi-purpose vessel, EUROPEAN HIGHLANDER due on the Larne – Cairnryan route for summer 2002 to join her almost identical sister, EUROPEAN CAUSEWAY (introduced last year). However, it now appears that the SUPERSTAR EXPRESS will be back in 2002 and is due to begin operating again on 15 March, having completed her 2001 season on 16 October.

Having had various pleasant trips on her in both 2000 and 2001 I decided to take a final trip of the 2001 season on 13 October, taking a daytrip to Scotland to visit my brother and sister-in-law. A lunchtime sailing saving me an early start after being out the previous night and an early evening return giving me the chance for a pleasant afternoon in Stranraer. (Light lunch in Stranraer followed by a few drinks in Portpatrick – not exactly very rock’n’roll but pleasant all the same)

The passenger accommodation SUPERSTAR EXPRESS is equal if not better to that one would expect from a modern conventional passenger vessel. Indeed, perhaps her high standard of onboard design is partly due to her having been built for Star Cruises.

The main deck has "Fables Restaurant" forward. Comments on food aboard the vessel later. Most of the seating in this area is in comfortable high backed brown and gold "airline" type seating around tables (though the seating in the middle is circular seats around circular tables). The main stairways from the vehicle decks arrive in this area and foot passengers board via a port door to the lounge.

Aft of the Fables area is a bar down a passageway on the port side (un-open during her time on the North Channel and if removed would perhaps provide for an attractive bay of seating beside full-length windows). Midships is a spacious open plan area that includes lounge style seating. Meanwhile on the starboard side is passageway including a counter service shop (selling newspapers, confectionery etc). It was used in 2000 but remained closed in 2001 and again could be converted to an attractive bay of seating (though I think it has been used as a store during 2001). Opposite both the unused bar and unused shop are toilets.

In the aft area of the craft can be found a fairly and well-stocked large gift shop with a pleasant seating area behind stretching to the very back of the ship, featuring shorter backed airline type seats in red and blue. This area offers superb views, but does not appear to be that popular due to the area being a bit noisier, being right above the water jets of the craft. (Additionally we all know most passengers will sit in the first seats they arrive at and these are the furthest away seats from where passengers board). Also in this area are gaming and arcade machines and a children's' play area. At the stern of the craft to both port and starboard are outside deck areas. The port side area allowing one to really experience the speed - one being able to stand directly above the water jets.

The upper level of the passenger accommodation, accessed by a large open plan stairwell in the Fables area, is the main area that has changed since the craft was transferred from the English Channel to the North Channel. This area was once purely a Club Class lounge and featured a large bar. A smaller segregated Club Class area has been created aft on the starboard side of the craft featuring a small bar and servery and the usual things one would expect. There is also access to a Club Class exclusive outside deck area.

The main area of the upper accommodation deck is now simply the vessel’s main bar, known as Poets Bar and is a very attractive and popular facility. Both the bar and Club Class facility contain the same reclining aircraft seating in gold and black arranged mainly in groups of six around tables (there are also a few tables and fixed high-backed chairs around the stairwell). There is also a further set of toilets on this deck. Perhaps the highlight of this area is a doom sky light – making this area seem most spacious and airy.

Outside deck areas are often criticised on fast ferries however, both of the upper deck outside areas are very attractive (one being accessible from the bar area and one accessible from Club Class) and includes some seating which is reasonably well sheltered.

Overall the décor of the craft is excellent, comfortable seats, quite tasteful furnishings and a generally spacious feel.

On both my crossings the sea was flat calm and the ever-talkative Captain Val Plant was master for both crossings. Captain Plant usually puts out around 3 announcements during the crossing, firstly welcoming passengers aboard, then updating on progress and a final announcement as the craft
nears port – this is something that I’m sure most passengers appreciate – we all know how much passengers like to be kept informed. (Captain Plant’s frequent references to the one-hour crossing clearly illustrate his personal pride in being master of the vessel that operates the fastest crossing between Britain and Ireland).

Both of my crossings were made within the 60 minute crossing time advertised, a slightly early departure on my return trip meaning I was stepping off the ship inside an hour. (My outward trip was exactly on schedule). On both trips the craft was fairly lightly loaded and the economics of the fast ferry business being what they are it obviously makes sense for P&O to only operate the craft during the peak period.

The craft is well run and offers a very satisfactory level of service. Some seats are beginning to look a little tired which isn’t surprising given that the craft has not received any major alterations since being built in 1997. Perhaps some seat recovering will be needed in the near future. The general cleanliness of the craft (including the toilets) was good, though like many ferries (especially fast ferries with tight turnarounds and restricted amounts of time for cleaning) there were bits of litter to be found in corners, such as behind seats. 

I’m not really sure that this can be realistically avoided, though one would hope that the craft starts each
morning perfectly clean and it is just the "bins don’t exist" general public that make a mess over the course of the day. Given my outward crossing was the fifth of ten, I can’t really fairly judge that.

There is no need for the craft to have an extensive menu as it would not be possible to enjoy a large meal on a sixty minute crossing and the "Fables Restaurant" selection is ideal (pretty much featuring light snacks). However, it is rather disappointing that far from the full menu appeared to be on offer. I don’t really buy into a "low passenger numbers" argument as most bars, hotels and cafés have full menus whether they have 4 or 40 customers. 

On my return sailing I had a Chicken Tikka Ciabatta which was sadly rather bland. Therefore, sadly the food on the SUPERSTAR EXPRESS did disappoint a little. However, I have had tasty snacks on the craft before so I guess it may just have been a bad day.

Overall, the SUPERSTAR EXPRESS is an excellent vessel, offering a good and reliable level of service and is well worth travelling on.

The SUPERSTAR EXPRESS is now at Falmouth for winter lay-up (unless Star Cruises decide to find a winter charter for her, or use her themselves in the Far East) and will be back on duty with P&O in March.

Gary Andrews – 21/10/01



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