All my life, I’ve lived with a serious conundrum: one of my greatest passions is to travel. However, I struggle with an intense fear of flying.
I know I’m not alone – this is one of the most common phobias out there. But it’s for this reason that I have always preferred to travel by boat or train (when possible).
In recent years, slow travel has been gaining traction as a much more sustainable and enjoyable option than flying. I particularly love ferries. You can indulge in a glass of wine and a nice meal while someone else worries about the destination. You can choose to take your vehicle or travel as a foot passenger. You meet interesting people; all headed on their own interesting journeys.
Yes, it takes longer than an airplane, but I love the relaxed way you can settle into your cabin, berth or seat and watch the ocean swirl by; surrounded by serene views and the odd bit of wildlife. I have now been actively choosing to travel by ferry for over a decade, and I’ve managed to visit some pretty cool places.
This trip takes you across the Yellow Sea, from Korea’s port city of Incheon, to the really interesting city of Qingdao, which is found on China’s northeast coast. When travelling to China, the biggest headache will always be obtaining a visa, which you need to do in plenty of time before you depart. The ferry terminal in Incheon will check your passport and assign you a cabin as you embark.
I was in my 20s for this trip, and I was a bit worried about who I would be sharing my cabin with (I booked a less expensive, four-berth cabin). However, I was pleasantly surprised to be grouped with three other young women, all from China, who were studying in South Korea. They spoke some English and helped me order my dinner. The ferry sailed through the night and arrived in China the following morning.
Qingdao is a fascinating city. If you enjoy beer, you will be interested to know it is the home of Tsingtao (another way to spell Qingdao) beer. You’ll find the brewery on the aptly named “Beer Street”. Certain parts of Qingdao might seem better placed in Bavaria than in China. This is because the city was occupied by the Germans from 1898-1914. During this time, they influenced the city’s architecture and introduced beer-making to the region.
From Qingdao, I booked an overnight train (10 hours) to China’s capital city of Beijing, where I took in the sights and – of course – visited the Great Wall before returning to Qingdao and the ferry, which took me back to South Korea.
This ferry costs approximately €95 one way as a foot passenger and the crossing takes 16-18 hours. This ferry operates three times per week. You can book tickets online at weidong.com but visas should be arranged at the time of booking.
I had only met my now-husband a year prior to this trip, but as we planned our three months of backpacking around Southeast Asia, I told him I didn’t want to fly once we landed in our first location (Denpasar, Bali) until we reached our final destination (Bangkok, Thailand). This meant three months of trains, buses and ferries.
The journey from Indonesia’s capital city, Jakarta, to the Sumatran city of Medan (via the port of Belawan), started stressfully. The ferry system in Indonesia is rarely on schedule and there is a very real chance that the ferry will leave the port 15 minutes before you arrive at the terminal. We were also worried about not being able to share quarters. Being an Islamic nation, ferry cabins in Indonesia are segregated by sex.
I have vivid memories of this ferry trip - live karaoke during meals; watching intense thunder and lightning storms in the distance; sailing past the bright lights of Singapore – but the best memories I have are of my roommates.
I shared a cabin with an auntie, her two nieces, and twin sisters. The auntie and nieces were secular Muslims – dressed in clothes much like my own – while the twin sisters were practising Muslims; dressed head to toe in the beautiful Batik patterns so indicative of Indonesia. Practising; non-practising – it made no difference. We all got along like a house on fire.
I was taken in as a “sister” over the three day-long journey. They shared their food with me while the teenaged nieces rooted through my make-up bag and asked me questions about Britney Spears. I realised that one of the twin sisters was nine months pregnant, on her way to meet her husband, who was working in Sumatra. As is (apparently) custom when you have a chance meeting with a stranger, she asked me to give her baby a name (I chose the name Matthew - oddly, this was not the first time I was asked to name a baby in Indonesia).
When we arrived in Medan, we made our way to the rainforest village of Bukit Lawang to visit an orangutan rehabilitation centre. We then trekked through the jungle before heading to our next ferry – a high-speed boat which would take us across the Melaka Strait in just two hours, to Malaysia.
At its least expensive, the ferry from Jakarta to Belawan Port costs a little over €25. At its most expensive, it costs a little over €45. The easiest way to book is directly through the ferry terminal while in the country.
My most recent ferry trip was also one of my most memorable. When I was asked by Brittany Ferries if I would like to travel their newest route on their new ship The Salamanca (which sails from Rosslare, Co Wexford to Bilbao in Basque Country), how could I say no? It combined my favourite mode of transport with a new (to me) destination. This press trip included a three-day tour of Basque Country, in collaboration with Visit Euskadi (the Basque tourism board).
Unlike my previous ferry experiences, this trip was luxuriously comfortable – which is probably for the best as my back is no longer able for big backpacks and hard cabin berths.
With access to their premium lounge and unlimited access to the ship’s wi-fi, I was able to work in blissful peace. The lounge offers snacks and refreshments; including a full breakfast and lunch spread with an array of delicious French cheeses, charcuterie and – the best part – French wine on tap.
My cabin included two single beds with comfy duvets and a TV with on-demand films and plenty of channels in English, French and Spanish. It also had an ensuite bathroom, complete with shower. It was small, but oh-so-comfortable.
While this trip took place at the end of March, 2023 and the sea, at this time of year, was quite rough, I don’t usually suffer from seasickness. If you think you might not have great sea legs, you can take Kwells tablets which will help with any nausea. The Salamanca runs on Liquid Natural Gas (LNG), which means lower emissions, no foul-smelling smoke and a quiet engine. The weather, however, is out of the captain’s hands.
After a restful night’s sleep, we began our final approach to Bilbao. I took my coffee out onto one of the decks to enjoy the warm sea breeze and take in the coastal scenery. I loved watching for dolphins during the trip, which I’m sure would also be a highlight for any children on board (aside of course from the on-board cinema and playground area on the top deck).
At the moment, the biggest annoyance for foot passengers is the lack of a train connection into Bilbao from where you disembark. You need to arrange transport from the ferry terminal or walk to nearest bus stop (15 minutes).
Once landed, I was whisked away to the nearby city of San Sebastian; one of the most beautiful places I have had the pleasure to visit. My time in and around Bilbao was spent eating delicious food, drinking local wines and ciders and seeing the sights (including the phenomenal Guggenheim Museum of Modern Art in Bilbao). This is a trip I can see myself taking again and again.
For two foot passengers sharing a four berth cabin, prices to Bilbao start at €332 for a one-way trip. For a family of four with a car and four-berth cabin, it starts at €443. Sailing takes place each week on Wednesday (approximately 28 hours) and Fridays (around 30 hours). The 2024 schedule has now been released, with a temporary switch in Spanish ports from November 2023 to March 2024 (Rosslare to Santander) while works are completed in the Bilbao port. brittany-ferries.ie