She may not be elegant or particularly fast, but the European Envoy is certainly comfortable, civilized and well run. Sailing on her from Mostyn to Dublin, I was highly impressed, and would recommend her without any hesitation. In contrast, the much-hyped NORBANK, on our return from Dublin to Liverpool, was disappointing, and her standards, surprisingly, were well below those on the Envoy.
I had booked the return trip to Dublin under one of P&O’s spring offers. The deal was sent to me by email, and offered 96-hour returns, with one-way sailings for 15 pounds per person, with car travelling for free, based on a minimum of two passengers sailing. The deal had to be booked within 48 hours – so I took the bait and paid 105 pounds for a return trip on Saturday 23rd March, including the 07:30 daytime sailing from Mostyn, with an ensuite cabin (15 pounds extra), and the 22:30 overnight return to Liverpool, again with an ensuite cabin (30 pounds extra).
Having overnighted in North Wales, we arrived at Mostyn an hour before sailing, as required. The route to Mostyn is well signed when approaching from the A55, using temporary AA signs – I guess permanent ones are still pending. The approach is via the coastal road, and the first thing with surprised me was the sight of the former Duke of Lancaster – I had had no idea she was located here. She is clearly visible from the road, and also, as I was to find out, from the port of Mostyn and the decks of the P&O ships. The port structure still seems rather basic – there is small check in building, with one lane for freight and one lane for cars. The car lane was shut, so we approached the freight booth, and were directed straight through to the security checkpoint. The car was thoroughly checked over, and we then proceeded to wait to board in a small row of cars pulled up alongside the berth. There was a small passenger terminal, but all that it contained were drinks machines and TVs. At around 07:00 we were led onboard, and all the cars were parked on her open upper freight deck – Deck 4. In total, there were 9 private vehicles carried, 4 unaccompanied trailers, and about 6 accompanied units.
Deck 4 is also the European Envoy’s main passenger deck. Forward of her funnel, a covered walkway leads forward onto an open deck promenade. Once the vessel has departed, access to this walkway is barred. From the promenade, stairs lead up to a similar open deck space on Deck 5, while twin parallel passageways lead into the accommodation itself. That to port is for crew only, it leads forward past storage areas, the crew laundry, the galley and messes. The passageway to starboard is for passengers, and immediately as you enter, there is a large open Information/Reception Deck to starboard. This area boasts smart wooden flooring, a quality touch that mirrors the accommodation on her running mate the European Ambassador. Opposite the desk, to port, stairs lead up to Decks 5 and 6, and the passenger cabin accommodation. The passageway then passes the walk-around kiosk and gift shop to starboard, before emerging into the main passenger saloon. The gift shop, although small by passenger ferry standards, nonetheless contained an extensive stock of gifts, books and duty-paid goods.
Her main saloon contains both her lounge and her restaurant in an open plan design. As you enter, the Peninsular Restaurant servery is immediately to port. Forward of this there is a seating area for the restaurant, separated from the bar area by a semi-circular low-level divider. Along this there is green sofa bank seating, while centrally there are circular tables surrounded by armchairs in light green. To starboard of the main walkway, there is a further small area with the same soft furnishings; this is the non-smoking area of the restaurant. The walkway then leads forward into the Orient Bar Lounge. The semi-circular bar is located centrally forward, facing aft. Around the edges of the saloon there is sofa bank seating in blue, with small low-level circular tables. Huge low-level armchairs, upholstered in bright contemporary colours like blue, dark green and deep pink, surround these tables. Forward, there is a small alcove on either side, which makes a very pleasant area for a small family or group. To port there is also a tiny separate games room. Prints of historic P&O ships decorated the bulkheads, along with prints of French village scenes – a little bizarre IMO, given her route. Overall, though, the saloon was very pleasant indeed. I’m not certain when the Envoy was last refitted, but I imagine it was recently and was to bring her up to the standards of the European Ambassador. This has certainly been achieved, her accommodation was modern, stylish and in excellent condition.
The passenger cabins are found on Deck 5 and 6 – there are approximately 20 on each deck, leading off twin corridors. Forward there are doors leading into the crew accommodation, while aft there is access to small outside deck areas. Our cabin, 515, was exceptionally spacious, and was in pristine condition. It contained bunk beds, each with individual curtains, a single armchair, storage space and a huge ensuite – the largest standard cabin ensuite I have seen on any ferry – including the Baltic operators. The cabin was bright and airy, and spotlessly clean. The corridors in the cabin area were decorated with an occasional print of a historic Dublin scene. As mentioned, aft, these corridors lead out onto open deck areas. From Deck 6, there is a single staircase up to Deck 7, her top deck. While most of this top deck is closed to passengers, there is a central walkway that allows passengers to walk forward to just before her masts. From here, the view down is rather lofty!
We had been assigned our cabin at reception upon boarding, where we were also given towels and told the meal times. Notices around the cabin area indicate P&O have quite a problem with the disappearance of towels, and are considering implementing a deposit scheme. We proceeded to the Peninsular Restaurant immediately, and before long breakfast was served, on a help yourself basis. Along with the full English breakfast, toast/jam, and a selection of cereals were available, and all were unlimited. It was very civilized, a steward simply called passengers over, and everyone helped themselves. The quality was excellent, all the food was freshly cooked, hot and tasty – in contrast to the shipboard breakfasts I am used to. As is standard on P&O Irish Sea freighters, tea, coffee and orange juice were also available throughout the crossing. In addition, while breakfast was served, the Orient Bar also opened. The stewards cleaned the tables as soon as you had finished, no mess was left to linger.
As breakfast was being served, the European Envoy pulled away from her berth, actually 15 minutes early. Next to the reception desk, the weather forecast was displayed - the Force 3 predicted was accurate, and we enjoyed a very smooth crossing. The drivers onboard soon retired to their cabins, and most other passengers just relaxed in the lounge. With such a light load, there was plenty of space, and the crossing was very relaxing. TVs in the Orient Bar area played Sky TV, but there was no other entertainment of any description. The bar shut soon after breakfast, and remained closed until lunch was served later at 13:30. Lunch was again a casual help yourself affair, but once more, the quality and selection was excellent. There was a chicken and celery soup to start, then a choice of four different main courses, including freshly battered fish, and six choices of vegetable. To finish, there was a selection of three different cold desserts. All in all, it was a most impressive meal. As we ate, I observed the European Ambassador heading out at the start of a crossing to Mostyn. By the time the meal was over, the Envoy was in Dublin harbour, and by 14:30 she had docked and was ready to unload.
The sole criticism I had of the Envoy was the lack of any crew presence for the majority of the voyage. After breakfast had been cleared away, and the bar shut, all the crew disappeared – even the information desk was unmanned. This remained the case until lunch was about to be served. The occasional deck crewmember was seen on the outside decks, but no stewards etc. A small notice in her main saloon advised passengers to use the internal phones to summon help in case of an emergency – but gave no indication of where one was! Even though there cannot have been any more than 25 passengers aboard, I did feel some crew presence at least would have been appropriate. Passengers always have questions and queries. I myself wanted to request a bridge visit, which I am sure would not have been a problem on such a quiet, calm crossing. However, I just could not find anyone to ask. The gift shop was advertised as opening on departure and an hour before arrival – in reality, it opened only 10 minutes before disembarkation, and then only to change currency. I did not really see the point of having such a (relatively) extensive gift shop, only never to open it. Similarly, it would have been convenient to have the bar open for at least an hour or so in the middle of the crossing.
That point made, however, I thoroughly enjoyed the crossing. The European Envoy herself is in excellent condition throughout, and there was virtually no trace of her previous identities. The sole reminder of the past was a small brass model of Molly Malone located in a glass cabinet behind her reception desk. Next to this there was a small plaque, explaining that the Port of Dublin had presented it to the Ibex, following her rebuilding in 1995. The P&O branding onboard does seem confused however – although I am sure she is officially a P&O Irish Sea vessel, the brand generally used onboard is P&O European Ferries – this appeared on the trays etc, and on signs throughout. Interestingly, the welcome on board announcement used the brand P&O European Ferries (Irish Sea). A final interesting point was the presence of several signs exclusively in Spanish around the vessel – including in the passenger accommodation. As she has never served Spain, these were clearly provided for her Spanish crew.
Overall, the crossing was civilized, relaxing, and superb value. I estimate that the food served would cost at least 25 per person if it were bought at Holyhead, so that has effectively paid for the crossing in itself! When you consider in addition the extra drive along to Holyhead, and the very relaxing nature of the Envoy, I know that I would not use the shorter crossings again.
Disembarkation was swift, and the cars were led off in a line to the exit of the P&O complex. One strange point was that before we could exit, our tickets had to be collected – quite why this was necessary on arrival I do not know.
With the central nature of the Port of Dublin, we were in the city centre within minutes, and were soon enjoying our 8 hours ashore. At 21:30 we returned to the P&O terminal for our return sailing to Liverpool, with high expectations of the NORBANK. Things did not start well however – the organization at Dublin is far from perfect. Although there is a check-in booth dedicated to cars, this was not in use, and we drove straight through to the marshalling area. There are three very short rows for cars to wait boarding, next to the passenger terminal. Check in was in the terminal itself, but nobody was instructing passengers to get out their cars and do this – it was only by chance I discovered it was necessary. The next problem we encountered was that the P&O system would not accept our booking for this sailing. The reference number was correct, we had the physical ticket, and all our details were logged – but for some reason the check-in system would just not accept it. So were left standing at the check in for nearly 30minutes, without any apology or explanation until I began to get annoyed. Eventually the clerk just issued another ticket – quite why the computer could not have been overridden I do not know. Even if that were impossible, it would not have been hard to apologize.
Loading of private cars did not commence until around 22:15, when a port vehicle led the 12 private vehicles onboard. Cars were again stowed on the upper open vehicle deck, but this time it was immediately clear that the freight load was much higher than on the Envoy – indeed, the NORBANK appeared fully loaded. On NORBANK, the upper freight deck is still below the level of the passenger accommodation, and passengers climb stairs to an elevated walkway. This leads to the aft open deck area on C Deck, from where you enter her internal accommodation.
This starts aft with a large reception area. Centrally aft there is a large desk with two counters, to port is the information desk, to starboard the counter-service shop. Opposite these is an impressive stairwell leading up to B Deck, her cabin deck. On either side of the stairwell, there is a bank of three public phones, and then passageways lead forward into her main saloon. This is rectangular shaped, but is divided up two main areas using dividers and glass panels, the bar is aft, while the restaurant area is found forward. In the centre of each area is the servery, facing aft. On either side (of both), there is a seating area, so there are a total of four distinct seating areas. In both the restaurant areas, there are chairs in light green with dark wood trim, around tables of various sizes. In the bar-lounge areas, there is low level sofa seating around the edge, broken up with low-level tables, on which are small lamps. In the middle, chairs surround small low-level circular tables. All the furnishings are again upholstered in light green, although the chairs in these areas have a light wood trim. In addition, in front of the bar, there is a small row of bar stools in red, and accompanying high-level tables. Both lounge areas are fitted with large TVs. The Deck above, B Deck, is devoted entirely to cabin accommodation, all are ensuite with two lower level berths. Both passenger decks have a U shaped open deck space aft.
The accommodation was clearly original – designed I believe by Studio 8. In style it was certainly reminiscent of the accommodation onboard the NSF passenger vessels in the 1990s. From a distance, it still looks quite stylish and modern, but close up, there was much evidence of wear and tear. The carpets were stained, and several fittings bore cigarette burns.
The NORBANK is very much still a P&O North Sea Ferries vessel. Their logo is on display throughout – on signs, on the bed linen, even on the soap provided! Reminders of her North Sea service are everywhere – including a Certificate from Goole and Hull Port Health Authority that is still displayed in her restaurant. There were even reminders of her service for North Sea Ferries originally – their logo was still on the doors leading to her main saloon, a onboard plan on B Deck showed the ship in her original livery, and the welded on letters of that brand-name could be seen on her hull aft as we drove onboard, even though they have been painted over. Indeed, the only place the P&O Irish Sea brand was in evidence was in the small window advertising products on sale in the shop. What’s more, NORBANK is still a very Dutch vessel. This is immediately brought home when you board, as behind the reception desk is a huge photograph of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, and the twin clocks displayed are labelled with the British and the Dutch flags respectively. In the restaurant servery, there is a large poster detailing different types of sea fish, in Dutch and English, from a fishmonger in Katwijk ann Zee! A further interesting feature was a small painting, hung on B Deck above the stairwell leading to the reception lobby. Depicting the Van der Gliessen undercover yard, and a tug, it was presented to NORBANK on 29th October 1993 by her sponsor, Mrs A.W. Rootliep Costermans, the wife of the then chairman of Nedlloyd.
Upon boarding, passengers were again required to report to the reception desk, where their cabin number was confirmed and towels supplied. We were not given a key, but I presumed it would be in the cabin. When I could not find it, I returned to the desk to request one – only to be told that there were no keys used onboard – the cabins can be locked from the inside. This concerned me greatly for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I would be leaving valuables – including expensive camera equipment – in my cabin. The P&O response was that I could leave it in the safe at the reception desk – but this was totally impractical, as not only was it bulky, but I never know when I might need it. I also am certain that any safe would not have enough space for the valuables of all passengers onboard, so this is not a well thought out solution. Of course I could be accused of being paranoid to imagine someone would rifle through the cabin – but on a full sailing, I certainly don’t think it is impossible. Secondly, what if one person wishes to retire to bed, and the other not, as happened because my girlfriend was tired. She did not want to sleep with the door unlocked – but if it wasn’t, then I wouldn’t be able to get in later. Again, it of course seems paranoid that a stranger would come in – but on a vessel full with male lorry drivers, is it unreasonable for a woman to want to lock her door when she is alone? What if parents were travelling with children? Again, it is important for there to be the facility to lock/unlock the door from outside. At the end of the day, when you book a cabin – you expect a key – full stop. I do not know if this is a permanent ‘feature’ on the NORBANK, or if it is due to complications following her recent transfer from the North Sea – but I think it is an issue P&O should address with haste. Our cabin itself, predominantly pink in colour, was pleasant and well kept, if not as spacious as that on the Envoy.
Dinner was being served by the time we had boarded, so we proceeded to eat immediately. Once more, I was disappointed by what I found. While the choice of main dishes was greater, the quality of food, and presentation, was far lower than onboard the Envoy. The food certainly did not appear fresh, and was served only luke-warm. In Norbank’s favour, portions were generous, and the selection and quality of the desserts was impressive. As usual, tea, coffee and orange juice were available in unlimited quantities. By the time private vehicles were loaded, most of the freight had already been boarded – so the restaurant was already full when we came to eat. While we ate, the NORBANK remained berthed at Dublin, and did not actually depart until 23:15 – 45 minutes late. As we passed the Irish Ferries terminal, I observed a dark Jonathon Swift lying over for the night at the berth.
As we left Dublin, it was announced arrival at Liverpool was scheduled for 8am – a full two hours late. This suited me, as I was not relishing disembarking at 6am, but I was surprised, as I had thought the NORBANK and her sister were fast vessels, and certainly should not loose time on passage. Passengers were woken with a knock on the cabin at 7am, and called for breakfast. This again was slightly disappointing – only a continental breakfast was offered, cereals, yogurt and (cold) toast. It was also clear that the restaurant and lounge areas had not been properly cleaned after the night before – cigarette butts still littered the floor, and overflowing ash-trays were on tables, which did not make a pleasant environment in which to eat breakfast. It would not have taken much effort to do. Once in the Mersey, we were soon locking in. Ahead of us I could see an unidentified Norse Irish Viking, and the Lady of Mann was also tied up in one of the docks. The NORBANK was actually berthed by 07:40, although private car drivers were not called to disembark until around 07:55.
Overall, the NORBANK disappointed me. She is not a particularly bad ship in her own right, but just did not stand up to comparison with the standards I had experienced on the European Envoy. Her accommodation, while stylish, is showing signs of wear, and is in need of a refit. The standards of food and service onboard need to be addressed to bring them up to the level on the Envoy, and IMO, cabins keys must be re-instated ASAP. I also believe the P&O marketing is misleading, and builds higher expectations. Their brochures claim NORBANK has ‘Two restaurant areas, two lounges and a bar’, when, in reality, I feel she only has one main saloon, with a restaurant servery and a bar. It is strange that the facilities on the Envoy are written down, and described as a single saloon, whereby those on the NORBANK are made out to be so much better. In short, I was expecting much more. It is also a shame P&O Irish Sea has not been able to make their mark on her before her entry into service. Once treated to a full refurbishment, I am sure the NORBANK will prove a highly comfortable ship on which to sail.
However, even with the criticisms I have levelled against the NORBANK, the crossing was still very interesting, and superb value, and I’d certainly recommend the crossings to others. Be it as a means of transport, a short break or just a day, I’d certainly snap these offers up when they come along.