When Brittany Ferries announced the sea connection between Cork and Santander back in Spring, I felt like I’d won the lottery. This elation made no sense as I already have a direct flight from Santander to Dublin but somehow this sea connection felt so much more significant. Keen to check it out, I boarded that ferry to Cork along with my husband and three children in July and the experience went way beyond what any of us had expected.
26 Hours That Flew By (Really!!)
I live in the city of Santander and, with the ferry port right in the city centre, it was fast and truly surreal to drive up onto the boat (yes, we went up a ramp onto the deck). We were giddy knowing that the next time we turned on the ignition we would be in Cork!
Although it sounds like a long time to travel, the 26 hours flew by. I had taken the ferry to Plymouth a few years ago so I knew what to expect, but there was something really special about hopping on in Santander and hopping off (or driving off) in Ireland.
What We Did on Board
We boarded around midday and spent the first hour on deck enjoying the wonderful views of the bay of Santander. Travelling on the ferry gives you a unique vantage point of the key streets, parks and landmarks. I’ve taken quite a few tours of the bay on boats of varying sizes but I have to say that the views from up high on the ferry present the city and the bay in a whole new light.
After boarding the ferry, we quickly dropped off our overnight bags to the cabin and we rushed back up on deck to enjoy the views. (When you travel with your car, you only take an overnight bag to your cabin. Everything else stays in your car.)
It was a personal thrill to see the city’s newest icon – Centro Botin – (you can read why I’m such a fan here) from the ferry. I love to capture it from the water but the views from the ferry were wonderful as the terminal looms right out over the Renzo Piano creation. (In fact, the site upon which the centre was built used to be a Brittany Ferries carpark.)
The departure from the passenger terminal was extremely smooth and emotions were high as we left the port and starting floating past Santander’s landmarks. After passing Centro Botin, and the ever stylish Puertochico neighbourhood and little port, the next major sight is Magdalena Palace – an icon of the early 20th century which brought significant fame and royalty to this Northern city.
The city’s beaches, which were the reason tourists came back in the 1850s and still are a huge draw, look pretty spectacular also. And it’s impossible not to be impressed by the Puntal (a sandbank which I nickname Treasure Island). The ferry appears to brush past this beach as it makes its way carefully though the shipping channel. (The sensation is exactly the same if you are on the Puntal beach as the ferry feels like its right beside you!) And finally, as the ship leaves the bay and enters open sea, the two city lighthouses bid us farewell. One is in the sea and the other is on the Cabo Mayor headland.
When we left the city well and truly behind, our thoughts turned to exploring the space in more detail and then food. We brought our own meals for the first day and ate at the dining area beside the restaurant. This was followed by a nap back in the cabin. We chose an external cabin with a window which was nice to look out but the best part was the fold-down beds. Now I’ve slept in a fair share of beds from hotels to hostels and I have to say the ferry beds are incredibly comfortable and cosy and the gentle rocking of the boat induces sleep straight away.
After we rested, it was time for a snack while we waited for the Spain v Russia match. That’s when we tried a glass of Guinness which was also delicious (and turned out to be better than some of the versions we had later in Ireland). After the host nation sent Spain packing, we settled down for the night and all of us dropped off quickly.
During the night – the sway did pick up although nobody actually seemed to wake up. In the morning, the children felt a little off colour so we suggested they stay lying down and avoid breakfast altogether.
Myself and my husband felt fine and took turns to check out the catering on-board which turned out to be a decent combination of French and Irish cuisine. Breakfast consisted of cereals, breads and a full Irish for those who enjoy a fry-up. The sway was more noticeable in the dining area so we kept it Continental and headed back to the cabin.
As we edged closer to Ireland, the sway settled right down and we were all able to walk around the boat and have an early lunch together. The Connemara operates to Irish mealtimes on board which was handy as the children were now starving and wanted to eat early. The kids portions were well-priced and went down a treat. The adults amongst us also enjoyed our meals.
What We Didn’t Do on Board
Because the Connemara is a “no-frills” or “economy” service, it means there aren’t any cinemas or other entertainment on board. It didn’t affect us in the least as it meant we spent a lot of time in the cabin, reading and sleeping. This was a bonus as far as we were concerned because we’d had a busy week in advance of the trip. After the stress of closing off a few work projects before the holiday and packing bags last minute, it was great to have had that day “off” on board to unwind.
We had a 4-person cabin and the youngest two were supposed to share a bunk. Of course, it ended up a bit different and I found myself getting elbows and knees in the back during the night. (That’s how I noticed the sway had picked up.) But because I’d actually had so many naps, it wasn’t a problem and I was glad the five of us were together.
Although there is free wifi in certain public areas of the boat and you can purchase a wifi package for your cabin for a fee, I highly recommend the digital switch-off. Our eldest (now a teenager) and younger two read their books and played mini board games we brought as well as exploring the boat. They weren’t the only ones – most of the passengers on the Connemara were families and whilst my three didn’t strike up a friendship with anybody else, it did feel like a friendly space. There was a play area near the restaurant for small kids and the older ones seemed to enjoy doing laps of the boat.
The only contact we missed with the mainland was during the Spain-Russia game as the satellite coverage of the game was patchy at the beginning. But that was a small price to pay when you consider how free we all felt with our mobile phones packed away and books out.
Before we knew it, we were approaching Cork – completely refreshed and rested in every sense. It was exhilarating to catch a sight of Ireland after more than a day at sea. As you probably know, Ireland has experienced a heat wave this year, so we were welcomed by its usual dramatic coastline but this time it was framed by beautiful blues skies and drenched in golden sunshine.
It was impossible to feel anything other than pride as the boat progressed along the coast. Although I often feel a surge of happiness when approaching Dublin by plane, it’s often replaced by some concern about the landing (and the same when arriving into Santander). On the ferry, it all happens so slowly and calmly and gracefully – you don’t have anything to be concerned about. In my excitement, I didn’t take many photos but I rectified that on the return leg – as you’ll see.
Disembarking in Cork
The crew guided us safely down the ramp and I think we were one of the first vehicles off board. Because we had been parked on deck, we had a significant amount of sea salt to clean from the windscreen and the vehicle. We did this responsibly with a bucket and cloth as water shortages were being discussed on the radio and there was talk of hose-pipe restrictions in some parts of the country.
Biking in Phoenix Park in Dublin is one of those activities we always do in Ireland. And yes, those are wild deer in the background. This is the largest enclosed park in Europe and it dates back to 1662. You can see the scorching weather has taken its toll – I’ve never seen the grass look so brown!
When in Ireland
Our time in Ireland was, as always, brilliant. In addition to meeting up with lots of family and friends, we got to enjoy the country in glorious sunshine. It was great to have our own car there rather than a hire-drive – and because it’s a 7-seater so we were able to pack the car full with people and pets. We had wonderful walks, meals, chats and more and in no time at all we were back in Cork’s Ringaskiddy to return to Santander. This time I made sure to take some photos as we left Cork harbour.
Back on Board
The departure was wonderful. Cobh looked so pretty as we sailed out into the bay! The return trip was fantastic overall. Again, we spent most of the time sleeping and reading – which was sorely needed as we had packed a lot into our eight days in Ireland.
The crossing had been quite calm on the way over, but on the way back, it was mirror-like with just an ever-so-gentle sway from time to time to remind you that you were on the ocean. We had breakfast before boarding as the return departure was 11am so the return trip was punctuated by lunch, dinner and breakfast and the England-Croatia match in between. Plus lots of naps on those ever-so-comfy-beds.
Time flew by again and about 60 mins before our scheduled arrival time, we spotted Spanish land on the horizon. The day was overcast but it was still wonderful to observe the city all over again – from up high.
A Different Perspective of the City
The view of Santander from the ferry was incredible again – I don’t think I could ever tire of the bird-like views from up high on the ferry. It was lovely to enjoy the bay and all the landmark buildings which seemed tiny compared to the Connemara.
Disembarking in Santander & Immediate Thoughts about the Trip
We drove down the ramp (reminding ourselves that in Spain you drive on the right) and were back home in 10 mins all over again. The most strenuous part of the trip was unloading the bags from the car. Had we flown, we would have loaded and unloaded our bags twenty times over. Security also feels much less intrusive when travelling by ferry. Of course, the car and passengers are checked before boarding and upon arrival again but you don’t feel the same level of personal intimidation by the process. Maybe this is why the ferry was so busy with young families and passengers with reduced mobility. There were also lots of passengers travelling with pets which got us thinking about the subject of a dog for the family.
Room for Improvement?
Although I was concerned that the ‘economy’ classification would mean things were very basic, we had all that we needed on the journey and more. And it was great not to have too many distractions on board. The only critique I can think of for this route is the ban on bike and foot passengers which my family were very disappointed to learn about. Brittany Ferries says it’s because of the configuration of the Connemara and its limited number of cabins. I hope that something can be tweaked in time as the route is not just a great connection route for families and tourists in cars but would also be fantastic for cyclists and Camino de Santiago walkers from Ireland. In the meantime, it’s a wonderful service for getting people in cars, vans and trucks from Ireland straight to Spain.
Although Brittany Ferries say it has launched this new route to celebrate the 40th anniversary of connecting Santander with the UK and Ireland with France, it is no coincidence that the route is up and running before Brexit. Back in May, the Irish Times published an article ‘New Cork-Spain ferry will allow hauliers to avoid UK after Brexit’ (read it here) where Commercial Manager at Cork Port, Captain Michael McCarthy says, “We’re delighted the new service with Brittany Ferries… they have been the most fantastic partners and both of us believe that the Connemara is an ideal start up ship and will lead to further investment in a larger vessel as we develop the route.”
Give it a Spin
The Captain isn’t the only one who hopes this is a profitable crossing. I’ve been living here over a decade and rumours of a direct ferry connection between Ireland and Spain have come and gone. It is like a dream come true for anybody who travels between Ireland and Spain for business or pleasure to have the option of taking the ferry. While the direct flight is fantastic, there are many occasions when you need more space. And driving from Northern Spain to Northern France to get the ferry to Rosslare feels like a bit of a trek.
Take for example a group of friends who are rowers here in Santander and travelled with the fixed-seat trainera (a typical rowing boat for 13 people) to Cork to participate in the Ocean to City race in May. They’ve considered driving the trainera through France or the UK but it seemed like a bit of a logistical nightmare. When this direct connection with Cork was announced, they knew they had no excuse and had an amazing time. They’ve returned with great plans to engage much more closely with their Cork counterparts.
Other friends living in Cantabria but originally from Dublin have also taken the opportunity to drive over with their family and enroll their daughters in a Dublin school for a term. Of course, they could have flown into Dublin but it makes it so much easier to pack up and drive. And I’m sure the reverse is also happening – with families and businesses and associations in Ireland reaching out to their counterparts in Northern Spain. I reckon the authorities here in the city realise this ferry connection is a fantastic vehicle for networking, trade and tourism between Ireland and Northern Spain.
Because the whole family really enjoyed the trip and we are all happy to make our annual Summer trip by boat every year, at the end of July we decided to do something we’ve been thinking about for ages and we adopted a family pet – well, two actually. We hadn’t taken the leap until now because we didn’t want to have to leave them behind at a boarding kennel while we spend a few weeks every Summer in Ireland. It also helps that the children are old enough to help out with the dog-walking! A week after returning back to Santander, we came across these two dogs who had been abandoned together and now they are part of the family.
We hope to be able to bring them with us next year on the ferry although one of them isn’t too keen on being in the car at the moment so maybe a ferry might be a bit ambitious. I’ll be taking the advice of their vet (another good friend) when the time comes to booking next year’s trip.
Hope you have enjoyed reading about the ferry trip. A lot of people are curious about it and have asked me whether it’s something they should try – which prompted me to share this trip here. I’d better sign off now as it’s time to take the dogs out for a walk – in the shade – as it’s an exceptionally warm day for mid-September. Thanks so much for reading and if you have any comments, questions, queries or clarifications, I’d love to hear back from you…