This is titled Ferry #1 because there is a second major ferry that I rode during this trip, from Den Helder to Texel island in the Netherlands, that I will write about later. Read other posts from this trip.
Two Wednesdays ago, on May 10, I spent about eight hours on a ferry from Harwich, England, to Hoek van Holland, Netherlands. (That’s pronounced “hook fawn holland”, by the way.)
I had an exciting time…so exciting that I captured 429 photos and videos that day. I also published an accompanying short video showing some of the unique parts of the ship and the voyage.
It started with a picture of an empty street during my early morning walk to the bus stop in Covent Garden, London, and ended with a picture of a long-awaited “döner box” for dinner in Rotterdam.
Months ago while planning my trip to Europe I decided that I would take one of the ferries from England to the Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands (as my destination after the ferry was Rotterdam). At some point I decided upon taking the Stena Line from Harwich. P&O also operates a ferry, from Hull.
Other modes of getting across the English Channel are Eurostar, a train, and flying, which I’ve already done, in 1998 and 2014, respectively. (There was once a hovercraft service from Dover, England, to Calais, France, which ended in 2000.)
Stena’s ferries leave twice daily, at 9 AM and 11 PM. I was originally going to take a night ferry, but I booked a day ferry because I wanted to see the departure and arrival ports in the daytime, I didn’t want to have to stay up late to travel to the port and settle into the cabin, the day cabin is half price, and I wanted to work a little. The ticket was around $120, which included the crossing fare and the cabin fare for a private room with en suite shower and a window to the sea.
Getting to the port
I woke up at my friend’s friend’s flat – the one in Covent Garden – at 4:45 AM and walked over to Strand to catch a night bus to Liverpool Street Station. Taking the tube would be longer because of changes and there was approximately zero traffic ahead of the bus for the 18-minute ride. Plus, I remember that the journey planner indicated the Elizabeth Line – the most direct route – wouldn’t start running until a little after 5:30 AM, putting at risk meeting my scheduled train departure of 6 AM.
I hopped onto a Greater Anglia train that departed on time toward Norwich. I changed at Manningtree for a train that left for Harwich Town, calling at Harwich International, the name of the port. I took the train at this time because if I missed it there was only one more train that would get me to the port on time before check-in closed. If I missed the boat then I would have had to go back to London and buy an expensive same-day Eurostar ticket to get to Rotterdam. Needless to say, I made the train I wanted, and I got to the departure terminal 30 minutes ahead of check-in.
Boarding the ferry
The smallest group of ferry travelers, it seemed, were “foot passengers”, those who walk on from the terminal waiting room like I did. The larger groups are those driving their personal vehicles onto the boat, and freight truck drivers. Bicyclists must use the same lanes as those driving on, but I don’t know how many of them there were.
There’s an airport-style security screening (although a bit simpler, as shoes can stay on) after which I presented my passport to a Stena Line staffer who gave me my boarding card. The paper boarding card has a barcode that doubles as the room key. The staffer told me to head down the gangway and off I went, onto the ship. I was the first foot passenger to board.
What I found funny when boarding is that I encountered no other workers between the check-in desk and the cafeteria. I didn’t see anyone to guide me to my room; I didn’t even know my room number until I reviewed the boarding card for some kind of indication and saw “10384”; this meant deck 10 room 384.
I found my room alright – there are maps and signs everywhere – and dropped off my luggage and headed to buy some breakfast in the cafeteria, as the ferry would leave in about 45 minutes and I wanted to be outside to witness the departure. Breakfast consisted of oats porridge (oatmeal made with milk) for £5.
Outside there was still a lot of action. Dock and ship workers were still moving semi-trailers onto the ferry. They had special tugs with very tight turning radiuses, and the drivers could turn their seats 180° so they could drive backwards. After the driver got the semi-trailer into place, workers on the deck would place a stand under the semi-trailer, the tug would drop it onto the stand and leave.
Deck workers would then tie the semi-trailer to the deck. Two adjacent semi-trailers could be tied simultaneously and there was enough room on the aft deck for two drivers to maneuver around each other. (This is shown in the video.)
Port workers shoved off the boat’s many ties and the ship slowly moved laterally away from the dock, and then the ship gradually made its way forward. I didn’t measure it but it felt like it took 10 minutes for the ship to finally slip past the Felixstore fortress and leave the harbor.
The ship passed two docked container ships, for Evergreen and MSC, being unloaded, and a couple of boats working to dredge the port. The port also had two lightships, a ship acting as a lighthouse. When leaving the port we passed an inbound MSC container ship, the MSC Sariska V (which I took 22 photos of…thank you brand new phone with three camera lenses).
On board the Stena Britannica
Since I awoke so early I skipped taking a shower at the flat, and I took one on board the ship instead. This was the largest ship I’d traveled on, by an order of magnitude. Prior to this the largest ship I’d traveled on is either the Staten Island Ferry or the Washington State Ferry to Bainbridge Island. I was wondering how I’d sleep.
The ship is incredibly stable. The minimal rocking was helpful or at least nonintrusive for my two-hour nap.
I took my laptop over to the cafeteria-lounge to work for a couple of hours. The ship has wifi and free internet access. Passengers can pay for higher-speed access, but I was only visiting webpages and I tolerated the standard speed.
The journey was nearly over pretty quickly, but I can’t account for all of the time. There was about an hour watching the departure, a slow hour showering and checking messages on my phone, two hours of napping, two hours of napping, and another hour of watching the arrival.
Rotterdam is one of my favorite cities in the world. There are a few reasons for my affinity. A primary reason is that a friend of mine lived there for many years so I visited a couple of times –2014 and 2015 – and got more than a shallow introduction. I also lived there for three months in 2016, and revisited in 2017 and 2022. After many years away, my friend lives there again (with his now spouse) so I am visiting again!
The ferry arrives to the Port of Rotterdam, which is the largest port in Europe, and at 41 square miles it’s larger than many cities. (See my other photos of the port during past visits, including a long bike ride.)
Stena asks that passengers in cabins pack out and wait in the lounges an hour prior to arrival so I gather my luggage and go outside to watch the mooring process. When it seems we’re docked I go inside to wait for the foot bridge to open so I can get out fast – I had to get into the city center to get my friend’s house key before he headed out to a show.
Once I’m off the ship there’s a long walk down to the terminal. Along the way I spot what’s being offloaded: a few manufactured houses were transported from the UK to the Netherlands. Huh.
I entered the country and walked right up to the Hoek van Holland Metro station. To pay for transit, I have a personal OV-chipkaart (public transport smart card) that bills a bank account for usage on any transit service in the country – save for most ferry crossings – at the end of the month. However, Metro now accepts contactless bank cards and mobile phone wallets.
I took the Metro to Rotterdam Centraal Station, which also happens to be my favorite train station as I love its dramatic roof, wide open plaza (Stationsplein and Kruisplein), and beautiful boulevard approaches from all four directions. It’s designed well for passenger experience inside, too.
After getting the house key I checked out an OV-fiets, a “public transport bike” (literal translation), using my OV-chipkaart, and biked to my friends’ house. (OV-fiets are available only to those with a personal OV-chipkaart, which must be tied to a Dutch bank account and thus it is generally not available to tourists. It is rented on a 24-hour basis for €4.45, and must be checked in to a train station at least once every 72 hours.)
I quickly dropped off my luggage and biked back to the station so I could get a döner box from The Döner Company for dinner. Turkish fast food in the Netherlands is like Mexican fast food in Chicago: pretty good no matter where you get it, inexpensive, and ubiquitous.
The döner box – comprising salad, sliced beef, fries, and chili and garlic sauces – was as delicious as I remembered it being.