12:30 Plymouth to Santander - April 12
Driving along the A386 leading from Dartmoor into Plymouth I passed a couple of French registered coaches heading towards the moor - a good indication that the PONT-AVEN had arrived on her overnight sailing from Roscoff. For several weeks I had been looking forward to this opportunity to resample what must be the finest ro/pax vessels operating in these waters.
On my first voyage in 2005 I had been very impressed, but then the ship had only been in service for just under a year. Would things have faded a bit since Easter 2005 I wondered? Being used to traveling on some ships on which fittings and trim fall off and are not replaced I wondered if the same would have started to happen with the PONT-AVEN!
I arrived the Millbay terminal quite early, around 09:30 to ensure a parking space near the terminal building. Parking at Millbay remains reasonably priced at just £3.50 per 24 hours unlike certain north west England ports and airports.
I waited in the car for a while before entering the terminal building at around 10:15. Check-in and departure lounge is on the first floor level.
Unlike my previous trip, the pleasant departure lounge reeked of stale fat emanating from the café area. This was something several other waiting passengers remarked at and provoked the opening of some windows. Why people would want to buy a "greasy spoon" type breakfast when much better food lies only a few yards and a short wait away on the berth is a bit of a puzzle!
When traveling last year passenger boarding commenced well over an hour before departure.
However, this time there was a bit of a delay. Though passengers were called, a decision was then made to reposition the gangway due to the falling time.
Passengers were then sent down in batches to immigration and security. This is a good way of doing things as it avoids the rush which can be encountered at some ports as everyone surges forward.
As last year I wasn't selected for the security screening sample, my passport being checked by an animal immigration officer, I was soon walking along the covered ground level walkway leading to the complex gangway structure.
Within minutes I was on board and in outside cabin 6416 on deck 6. Last year I discovered that unlike Irish Sea operators Brittany Ferries don't make passengers queue for cabin key cards. Instead you go straight to your cabin which is unlocked and retrieve your keys from the key card holder. A much more efficient way of doing things.
Cabin 6416 is on the starboard side a few doors closer to the stern than the cabin I occupied in March 2005.
The outside 4 berth cabins are spacious, when used by one or two occupants. There is a convertible bed / sofa on one side plus a fold down bed on the other. Two bunks can be dropped from the deck head. There is also a clock radio which can be tuned to one of three onboard music stations which cater for most tastes.
There is a large port hole window around a metre in diameter. Flanked by two ornamental lamps between which is a radio. The window is quite heavily tinted which stops people outside staring in. After depositing my bags I wandered up to deck 9 - the swimming pool and upper promenade deck area. I waited for our departure.
There have been complaints recently in the west country press about the engine noise which the PONT-AVEN generates when she is in Millbay Dock.
In 2005 I wasn't aware of any unpleasant noise, and this year I made a point of listening to see if there was any. Of course there wasn't! Many passengers were outside and non of them appeared distressed by any noise from the generators.
If there is a noise problem for those living around Millbay perhaps it is caused by the old grain silo alongside the berth? This appears to act like a sound mirror. Those who have some knowledge of the 1930s air attack early warning system may know of such concrete sound mirrors used to amplify aircraft engine noise. Sound does appear to bounce off the silo. On returning to Millbay it was noted as the ship came along side the old silo sound levels did increase noticeably but not to an unacceptable level.
The old silo has not seen use for many years but has been retained as a windbreak for ships berthing at Millbay Docks.
The passenger gangway was cleared at 12:18, with the stern ramp secured at 12:24.
Following an exceptionally long blast on her deep whistle ropes were off at 12:28 a couple of minutes ahead of schedule and the PONT-AVEN nosed out of Millbay.
There was no naval activity noted in the Plymouth approaches.
Inside the breakwater the Maltese registered cargo ship VALANTIN PAUL lay at anchor with her hatch covers open.
Off the Cornish village of Cawsands the freighter OCEAN SPRAY and the Everard tanker AUDACITY rode at anchor.
Passing in bound was the former RMA tender MEON.
After rounding the outside of Plymouth Breakwater FORTH FISHER was passed at anchor outside the breakwater.
PONT-AVEN was abeam Rame Head and accelerating at 13:00.
It was now time to head off to book dinner and get lunch at Le Flora Restaurant.
For lunch I opted for the hors d'oeuvre and sweet buffet. At £12.50 it was a case of eat as much as one wanted. After being shown to a window seat I went off to pile the plate!
After piling the plate with smoked salmon, ham, pate, savory rice and several other goodies and washing it down with a bottle of red wine the friendly waiter was around trying to urge me to get a second helping before he took the plate away for me to get the sweet course.
I declined as I felt pretty full and still had sweet to come from the buffet. Chocolate mousse, prune custard tart and strawberry tart.
Meanwhile the catering officer came around to check with diners if the food was okay.
Okay? It was wonderful and excellent value for money! Operators on the main Irish Sea corridors should take a serious look at what Brittany Ferries offer in terms of value for money and quality of food. The cuisine offered by BF appears to be a great incentive to attract passengers.
Around 13:28 we passed the Eddystone Lighthouse on the port side.
After lunch I found one of the plastic deck chairs outside the restaurant at the stern.
A number of ships could be seen crossing east and west bound including an east bound car carrier, but all too far off for positive identification.
Around 15:20 I made my way into the Fastnet Piano Bar for a coffee, where the pianist was entertaining with a selection of traditional tunes. On this occasion whilst the baby grand piano was seen to be in use by both the ship's pianist and several passengers, it did not appear to function during this trip in automated mode.
After coffee it was off round the promenade deck to the bow. Sitting for a while on the shelter section of deck 6 to watch the passing maritime scene. Quite a few north bound ships could be seen coming north through the Ushant traffic separation scheme. Only one identifiable and close enough for a photo was the ro/ro container vessel NDS PROMINENCE. Later in the afternoon there was a performance in The Fastnet Piano bar by the "Hot Banana" Jazz Band playing classic old time jazz - if you like that sort of thing!
Later I took myself up to deck 10 above the bridge around 20 miles to the east could be seen the Breton Coast and just visible the back and white striped Créac'h Lighthouse.
I had at this time discovered from the ships daily programme of activities, that a ship's tour had been organised - but unfortunately having booked a table for dinner around same time.
My dinner sitting began at 18:30 as I entered the Le Flora Restaurant the ships tour party were exiting.
A leisurely 2 hour meal followed. Super hors d'oeuvre buffet followed was followed by a served main course of chicken and lemon kebab served with rice and ginger.
This was followed by the French cheese selection followed by a superb sweet buffet. Excluding wine the price was an incredibly modest £18.50. One would be hard pressed afloat or ashore to find better value and quality at such a price.
After the indulgences a number of rounds of the open decks were required to work off the excesses! Unlike many ships, there is virtually no open deck space which is off limits to passengers. This is something, which comes as quite a revelation to those used to traveling on the Irish Sea. The PONT-AVEN was obviously built to allow passengers a full outside deck experience. The expanse of open deck space including the ability to encircle the ship on deck 6 makes for some serious exercise opportunities.
One wonders just how many circuits of deck six could be possible in the crossing to Santander? Might make a good charity raising sponsorship opportunity!
An early night beckoned - so it was off to bed around 22:30.
I awoke around 02:00 to quite a bit of vibration. The ship appeared to be in a following sea and would periodically surge forward with noticeable vibration coming up from the props from time to time.
However, sometime between 02:30 and 03:00 I must have fallen asleep again. I awoke again around 05:45 by now the vibration had ceased and the ship was running very quietly and smoothly. Getting ready I made my way up to Le Flora Restaurant which was directly above the cabin just in time for opening at 06:30 BST.
Still feeling rather full from the previous evening's indulgence I managed to start the day on fruit salad followed by smoked salmon and boiled eggs followed the scrambled egg, bacon and sausage.
There was plenty more but I couldn't eat it. Breakfast buffet price is £9.50 but in reality one only pays £4 as excursion tickets include at £5.50 breakfast credit.
By the time breakfast was concluded The PONT-AVEN was very close to the Isla De Mouro crowned by its lighthouse. The Atlantic swell breaking on its sheer cliffs on what was quite a calm morning.
It is not difficult to understand why the lighthouse was de-manned and automated quite early in the 20th Century due to the keeper's accommodation becoming untenable in adverse conditions.
As we passed the Magdelena Peninsular crowned by the former Summer Palace of the Monarchy of Spain PONT-AVEN was met by the pilot cutter MOURO I with pilot coming aboard on the starboard side for the final run up the harbour to Santander Sea Terminal.
Berthed slightly upstream from the terminal was research vessel CIENTIFICO which internet searches reveal is chartered to the Spanish Navy for use as a hospital ship to serve seafarers working off the coast of Spain.
The PONT-AVEN swinging promptly on to the berth with ropes secured at 08:45, (07:45 BST) 15 minutes ahead of schedule.
Within a few minutes the passenger gangway had been positioned and disembarkation commenced.
Passengers with excursion tickets can leave their bags and belongings in the cabins whilst ashore. Last year I noted that yellow cards had been placed on the doors of excursion passengers to indicate they would be returning. This wasn't done this time, but on enquiring at the reception desk I was informed and shown the list that notified crew which passengers would be leaving belongings on board.
Unlike my first voyage to Santander in 2005 there were two immigration officers on duty which meant there was little delay despite the large number of passengers disembarking.
It also appeared that a significant amount of improvement had been undertaken at the terminal.
Unlike the UK which has Easter Monday as a bank holiday in Spain the bank holiday is on Maundy Thursday. Consequently Santander appeared very quiet with little in the way of traffic or pedestrians about.
I wandered along to the Placette d'Embarcadero taking time to enjoy the early morning quiet and watch the activities of the Los Reginas vessels.
At 09:45 the first Los Reginas pleasure cruise sailing departed for a trip around the Bay.
On my first visit to Santander I had considered taking a trip on the harbour ferry service but caution meant that I observed but did not travel.
After having a coffee in the attractive small terminal building at Placette d'Embarcadero I spotted the inbound ferry and went and bought a ticket for what the lady in the booking office called the "little trip" when I enquired.
Whilst her English may not have been perfect it was 100% better than my grasp of Spanish!
The trip I booked was the service ferry rather than the tourist circulars. I joined around 25 locals, some equipped with surf boards, as she departed from the slipway and headed off across Bahia de Santander to Pedreña, this offered excellent views of the PONT-AVEN on her berth at the sea terminal.
After departing Pedreña the vessel headed up the estuary of the Rio de Cubas turning towards The village of Somo passing Puente de Somo which spans the Rio de Cubas.
At Sumo there was a change of passengers before the vessel headed back to Pedreña and Santander.
This interesting trip lasted an hour and cost just €3.50!
I noted that Los Reginas SA operate quite an extensive vessel fleet. These are berthed at Pedreña and range from modern twin hull passenger vessels used mainly for tours to the more traditional passenger vessels used on the scheduled ferry services.
15:30 Santander - Plymouth - April 13
After a wander around Santander I wandered back the Sea Terminal. A notice at the check in desk stating that embarkation would recommence at 14:00. However, embarkation commenced early at 13:40.
It was interesting to note that the security screening of passengers only involved a Guardia Civil officer and a security guard. Given the large number of passengers travelling on the PONT-AVEN one wonders why similar 100% security screening at Douglas requires at least 5 people to perform!
Boarding early one was able to wander around the accommodation with few passengers around and photograph some more areas of the ship.
I then went up to deck 9 bought a drink from the bar and grabbed a deck chair to enjoy the pleasant warm sunshine. Not being a sun worshipper I found a semi sheltered spot under the life raft rack on the port side.
At 14:09CET the UECC car carrier MONTLEHERY passed outbound.
By now the pilot vessel MAURO I was waiting patiently on the starboard side of the PONT-AVEN.
The gangway was off before 15:30CET. However, departure was a few minutes behind schedule at 15:37.
With a long single blast on her whistle PONT-AVEN moved off the berth, swinging out into the bay
As PONT-AVEN headed back towards the Atlantic Ocean the lifeboat SALVAMAR DENEB was observed moving away from a quay in the vicinity of Palacio De Festivales.
Off the Magdalena Peninsular the PV MAURO I picked up the pilot.
Once passing the Isla de Mauro the PONT-AVEN's engines were opened up and she surged out into the ocean.
Unlike on my trip last year there were no ships at anchor waiting to enter the port.
Remaining outside until around 17:30 I then wandered to Le Fastnet Bar for a pre dinner drink. My evening meal sitting on Wednesday being 18:15 again it clashed with the ship's tour. I could have opted for a latter sitting but then I would not have have secured a window seat, therefore I decided to forgo my other opportunity for the tour.
After another superb meal - I wandered outside around 20:00 to the stern could be seen MONTLEHERY which had been overtaken some time previously. The sea had acquired a very "oily" appearance one usually associates with very calm conditions when encountered on the Irish Sea. However, there was a noticeable swell which was causing the PONT-AVEN to pitch back and forth noticeably but gently. At this point in the Bay of Biscay the ship is outside of the continental shelf.
Remaining outside until round 21:30 (BST) wandering around to work off the dining excesses I appeared to be the only person out and about apart from the duty fireman on patrol who was calling at various locations to insert his key. A number of ship's lights could be seen to the east. I retired to my cabin as darkness became complete.
An early night followed with a sound sleep - awaking at 06:45 I took a wander around. The deck crew were up and about early with their hoses out it was a case of dodging the spray and they busied themselves washing down the paintwork.
Le Flora Restaurant opened for breakfast at 07:30. After another great breakfast I was on deck again at by 08:20 in time to observe the passing of the Eddystone Lighthouse at 08:25 on the port side.
PONT-AVEN was off Rame Head at by 08.50.
At 08:55 we passed off Cawsand the DML built motor yacht SAMAR heading out bound on sea trials
At 09:15 it was requested that cabins were vacated just as the PONT-AVEN passed Plymouth Hoe.
Stopping outside Millbay the PONT-AVEN swung and then went astern to the berth being secure at 09.25. The gangway being in place by 09:31.
So concluded my second voyage to Santander.
Has the quality diminished?
No! - The ship is still maintained in excellent condition, the only non functioning item I could see where the computer information panels which provided a guide to the ship - these were all switched off.
The crew were again excellent and very helpful - they take a pride in the vessel and in satisfying passenger needs all very helpful and cheerful.
If you have not yet sailed on the PONT-AVEN - what are you waiting for?
Mini Cruise excursions start at just £79 pp off peak for cabin and breakfast with supplements for outside cabins and peak season travel.
Whilst one may think that around 36 hours at sea may pass very slowly - in reality the opposite is the case eating, drinking and walking the decks soon uses up much of the time and it all passed far too quickly! If one wants more there are activities and performances in the main bar as well as two cinemas and swimming pool.
Looking at my diary it appears possible that two further trips can be slipped into my itinerary this year - one in August to sample the ship during the peak holiday season and one in late October - hopefully to try her in some more challenging weather!
My mother, who occasionally joins me for a trip - was equally impressed. She had heard the hype for over 12 months and was certainly curious to discover if the PONT-AVEN was that good.
She now wants to go again .... enough said!