P&O Ferries have for many years, operated a car ferry service from Portsmouth to Bilbao in northern Spain. The ferry that operates this route is amongst the largest in their fleet and carries passengers, cars and freight from Portsmouth, across the English Channel, around Ushant and across the Bay of Biscay, taking one day and two nights to get there, and two days and one night to get back. Through out the year, passengers board the ship for a mini-cruise, a return ticket out and back in three nights and three days. Up for something a bit different, we took advantage of a ridiculous ticket price of £70 return, for two adults with a cabin.
Boarding the ferry in Portsmouth during the evening of Day 1, it was already cold and blustery and this did not bode well for the passage. Having eaten at home prior to departure, we settled down in the bar for the evening, watching the cabaret performances.
There were many 'old hands' on this cruise, all equipped with their own full supply of stores and on first name terms with the host! We had anticipated being held captive for food and drink so had off-set this a bit by bringing our own travel kettle and a few essentials.
In the early hours of the morning, the ship rounded Ushant, in the shipping separation lanes of the north west coast on Brittany, France. This was our last glimpse of land, sailing by in the distance. The ship really does have quite a few facilities and we made the most of the gym, open decks, shops, restaurants and bars. The Bay of Biscay is an area highly populated by marine mammals - whales and dolphins of all types. We spent quite a lot of time looking for them. The ship is permanent home to a scientific observation charity - the Biscay Dolphin Research Programme. We saw a slide show and lecture about this, with hints and tips on where to look.
After our evening meal in one of the restaurants, the evening was spent partly in the bar with the live entertainment, which included our participation on stage in a game of Family Fortunes. It was a close thing, but we lost. Our prize as runner-up was a cocktail each. The winners got a free ticket each on another min-cruise. We may have had the better deal....
Arrival in Santurzi, the port town for Bilbao. The mountains behind the town were snow capped. We had opted for one of the coach assisted tours for our morning ashore - only 5 hours in Spain. We were chauffeured to Castro Urdiales, a small fishing port a few miles west of Bilbao. It was very pretty, with an inner and outer harbour, protected from the Bay of Biscay by a large breakwater, which we strolled along. The town was quite compact and we strolled the back streets. Overlooking the harbour is a striking Gothic church and the remains of a Roman bridge. After whiling away some time in a cafe, we re boarded the coach for the journey back to the ship.
Once back on board and departed for home, we settled down to some serious dolphin spotting, only interrupted by some serious drinking. Starting out on deck, we were blown away by the vicious cold wild and retreated to the forward observation deck. Situated over 100 feet above sea level, it was quite a surprise to see waves breaking over the windows in front of us. Patience paid off and eventually we had a fleeting glimpse of dolphins, speeding in from the side to ride the bow way of the ship. Only a few seconds of seeing the small grey things between wave crests seemed to justify the time spent waiting. Later, we went to another lecture where the BDRP observer described all the sightings he had made during our passage. Clearly, a lot more can be seen from his desk on the ship's bridge....
In the evening, after another meal in the restaurant, we purchased cinema tickets and watched, "School of Rock" only, spoiled by the endless chatter of school kids...
Daylight as you enter the English Channel is a surprisingly pleasant sight. Time was spent still looking for dolphins, but to no avail. The Atlantic grey water soon turned into the channel brown as we closed on Portsmouth. This day really did feel a bit like we were waiting just to get home, which was a shame as the previous days had been nothing but fun (except maybe a bit of queasiness at times). Portsmouth always looks great when arriving in the dark. The illuminations on Southsea sea front and the lights of The Solent never fail to please me.
The trip had been a great mix of nature, history, travel and fun and whilst we would not be booking out tickets any time soon, I have no doubt that we will go again.