08 February 2020

Travelling on CalMac: a Nordic perspective

In 2016, I visited Scotland on two separate occasions and travelled on a small selection of Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) ferries, connecting Scotland's Western Isles to the mainland and each other. An abundance of photos from those trips have been sitting on my hand drive ever since, waiting for publication. For this blog's new concept, I thought I'd finally record some of my impressions of travelling with CalMac. Some ships discussed have of course been featured here before, but today we'll look at them in a slightly different way.

Clansman and Isle of Mull at Oban harbour in the afternoon of 4.6.2016.

The very original plan for my visit to Scotland was that the first CalMac ship I would encounter would be the 2014-built Loch Seaforth. However, an unexpected schedule change for my travelling companion (the design historian Bruce Peter) meant my first encounter with CalMac was quite different: 1984-built Isle of Arran.

My first time seeing a CalMac ferry: the Isle of Arran arriving at Ardrossan.
Onboard the Isle of Arran, bound for the island the ship is named after.
The Isle of Arran was, frankly, surprisingly old-fashioned. Both in terms of exterior and interior design, the ship seemed to be a product of a much older era than the first half of the 1980s (delivered 1984). For a tour of the ship's interiors, please refer to this previous entry.

Returning from Arran, my second CalMac experience was more up to date: the 1993-vintage Caledonian Isles, sailing on the Ardrossan–Brodick route alongside the Isle of Arran, which offers a wider array of facilities, but also looks more up to date on the outside and inside. However, there is certainly a CalMac "house style" when it comes to interior design that – to me anyway – looks dark, brooding and somewhat out of date. The Caledonian Isles also has some strange design choices, like an observation lounge where the windows are so high you can't actually properly see outside when sitting down...

Of course, it should be remembered CalMac are more of a public transport service than a commercial venture, and the interior do work fine, regardless of what you think about the decor.

The Caledonian Isles makes an evening departure from Ardrossan to Arran on 5.8.2016.
The Mariners Restaurant on the Caledonian Isles; a chairs bolted to the floor give the space a decidedly workmanlike feel.
The Caledonian Isles' Coffee Cabin.
Following the initial encounter with the Isle of Arran and Caledonian Isles, Bruce and I headed to Oban, where the main attraction of was the last seagoing paddle steamer in service, the Waverley, but we also had plenty of opportunities to photograph various CalMac ships, and travelled onboard the Isle of Mull and Coruisk.

The Isle of Mull on a crossing from Oban to Craignure on 5.6.2016, photographed from onboard the Coruisk.
The Mariners Restaurant onboard the Isle of Mull. Note, again, the fixed seats.
The Isle of Mull is one of two CalMac vessels with a bar – The Still – onboard, as seen here.
On the Oban–Craignure route, the Isle of Mull and Coruisk made for a very mismatched pair: the 1988-built Isle of Mull has one of the widest selections of public rooms onboard CalMac ships, while the 2003-vintage Coruisk is more of a glorified road ferry, with just one public room and very little passenger space compared to the (then-)running mate.

The Coruisk departing Oban on 5.6.2016. This is an aft view, though it is quite hard to tell on a ship that is essentially (but not quite) a double-ender.
Boarding the Coruisk at Craignure. Boarding procedures varied from skywalks as on bigger ferries to car deck walk-ins such as the one seen here.
The Coffee Cabin on the Coruisk. A somewhat more extensive look at the interiors of the ship can be seen here (though to be honest, there isn't very much to it...).

What surprised me positively was how extensive the onboard product was, at least on the bigger ships (of course, the Coruisk was the only "smaller ship" I sampled on these trips): there is more often than not a (cafeteria-style) restaurant, a café, an observation lounge, a shop and sometimes even a bar. On the other hand, a negative surprise – though from previous experiences with the UK, it perhaps shouldn't have – was how much staff there are in the different venues and how frankly inefficient it all seemed. A cafeteria that on a Finnish ferry would be manned by one or two people had four or five people banging their heads together behind the counter on the Caledonian Isles and Isle of Mull. Of course a contributing factor is the British aversion to self-service, where even a self-service cafeteria needs to have someone to give you your food... which to me, coming from very efficiently-minded Finland, seems utterly wasteful.

CalMac food isn't nescessarily something to write home about, as this Full Scottish Breakfast from the Isle of Mull demonstrates. In hindsight, I'm surprised this didn't come with chips – on the Caledonian Isles, they even wanted to give me chips with lasagna! (I declined).

Of course, my CalMac travels so far have only scratched the surface of their large fleet and varied route network, so my impressions should not be taken as definitive in any way. But it is fascinating – as always – to realise how different onboard products on ferries are in different parts of the world, when on the surface you would expect them to be the same.

For those interested in CalMac and their ships, there will be an gallery of ferry exteriors coming up later.

15 January 2020

Grandma's Place pop-up restaurant onboard the Gabriella, 3.10.2019–3.2.2020

Finally, after the few book entries, we can get to the first proper entry in the new concept of this blog. Earlier this month, I made a short ferry cruise to Stockholm with my family, primarily because our three-year old wanted to go on a ferry again. The ship happened to be my personal favourite of the four sailing on the Helsinki–Stockholm route: Viking Line's Gabriella. I especially like the ship in today's form, as the ship's most recent big refit managed to put in an amazing array of interesting restaurants. Although I had not realised it when booking, one of these – the Bistrotek – offered during our voyages, and for a few weeks more, of the best onboard restaurant experiences I have had to date: Mummola, or Grandma's Place in English, serving "classic home cooking with a modern twist."

Decor to match the theme.
The Mummola (all the nuances of the term don't really translate, so I'm using the Finnish form here) concept is deceptively simple: three starters, four main courses (plus one additional options on Thursdays), and just one desser to choose from. Yet, I felt like I was spoiled for choice – as did my travelling companions, and we ended up dining here in both directions.

What strikes your fancy?
The Bistrotek as seen on the morning of 4 January 2020 – unfortunately without the rag rugs that completed the Mummola look. I really, really like what Viking have done with the restaurant area midships of deck 8 – in terms of layout, decor and the restaurant offerings, this is hands down one of my favourite dining areas on any ship.

First night, I went with the mushroom salad on toast for starters and salmon soup as the main course. The portions being quite large, I couldn't find room for dessert, alas. And what can I say? The starter made me a believer in the concept. Mushroom salad is a tricky choice, as despite being very simple it is easy to get wrong. Viking's chefs made it just right. The salmon soup was equally good: fresh, simple, tasteful ingredients beautifully combined. Nothing superfluous, nothing missing.

Fantastic mushroom salad, on a slice of bread grilled by someone who shares my love criply grilled bread. I'd have this again any time.
Salmon, potatoes, chives, dill, cream, rye bread... you don't need anything else for a great salmon soup.
Both my companions opted for the spinach pancakes, and as our kid couldn't finish their entire portion (I'll return to the subject of children's menu below), I also had a chance to sample that. In contrast with the two dishes I had, the spinach pancake was a more experimental take on a classic dish, a spinach pancake filled with seasoned spinach leaves and accompanied with potato salad. Not really what any of us expected, but certainly very, very good!

The presentation was perhaps the weak point for the spinach pancakes. But I do love the plate, exactly the kind my grandmom would have liked!
As said, we were so taken by the concept we decided to dine here on the way back, too (a contributing factor was the knowledge this was a temporary thing), as both adults in the group felt we really would have also wanted to sample the pike and the dessert offering. So back we went!

If the presentation was a problem with the spinach pancakes, on the pike it was spot-on!
As I could by now expect, the pike was an excellent dish – the fish was perfectly cooked (a challenge with pike, which easily get too dry), and the potatoes, carrots and sauce complimented it perfectly. The oven pancake, however, was a bit of a disappointment. Whereas all of the dishes thus far had had that homemade feel, the pancake itself here was somehow just slightly wrong, coming across as being made somewhere in a factory rather than by hand (regardless of whether it was or not). The rest of the dish – the home-style cloudberry jam in particular – was good, but it wasn't enough to save the last dish from being a let-down.

An oven pancake is a bit hard to make presentable, alas.

Even with the slight disappointment of the dessert, Mummola was still a fantastic experience, and a restaurant in which I would be more than happy to eat again (although I will have to hurry if I want to, there's just two and a half weeks left). Despite – or perhaps because – of the humble inspiration, the dishes were both interesting and tasty, a fresh departure from much of the usual ferry food. The vegetarian in me was also pleased to notice that there was just one meat dish in the entire menu – this is no way made the selection worse, but it did make life easier for those of us who avoid eating meat (however, it should be also noted that none of the dishes were vegan).

I finally got to hug Viking Line's kid's mascot Ville Viking! Photo my Maria Id.

Since I was travelling with a child, I have to raise one more subject: the children's menu. On inquiring whether is was possible to get half portions of the Mummola menu for children, we were told this can't be done (with the exception of the salmon soup, of which a starter version exists and which our kid did have on the second night). Considering the foods served are literally the kind one would expect grandmom to make, it seems very, very odd to me there's no kid's versions of most of the dishes. For example, spinach pancakes continue to be the favourite school lunch dish in Finland (everyone gets free lunch at school), so surely it would be an obvious dish to have as children's version?

Furthermore, while Viking are very good with their offering to kids otherwise (the small activity pack ours got while waiting for food kept them so occupied they initially didn't want to stop to eat, despite telling us a few moments earlier they were very hungry), the kid's menu, branded Ville Viking's taste adventure, is anything but adventurous: for mains, you've got the grand options of (beef) burger with fries, chicken fillet with fries, or salmon with boiled potatoes. Now I admit my hands-on experience is limited to just one three-year old, but based on their food preferences Viking is seriously underestimating children's eating habits.

Final verdict: Grandma's Place – great for adults, somewhat disappointing for children. (Not the outcome I was expecting, for sure!)

Kships will return.

02 January 2020

Book news: The North Sea Bridge: Ferry Connections Between Scandinavia and Britain 1820-2014

New year, new book. Alright, technically it's not a book of the new year, as The North Sea Bridge was published in December 2019, but my own copies reached me yesterday, so we're starting off the new decade with a book review.

Kalle Id
The North Sea Bridge: Ferry Connections Between Scandinavia and Britain 1820-2014
Ferry Publications: Ramsey 2019.
160 pages.

Back in 2014, I was asked to write an article series for Ulkomatala on the history of passenger shipping between the Nordic Countries and Britain, as these services ended that year with the closure of the Esbjerg–Harwich link. What I expected to be a four-part series turned out to run for a ridiculous seven installments and resulted, amongst other things, an interview for a radio travel programme by the Finnish national broadcaster Yle. The idea of expanding and translating the article series into a book was born soon afterwards, and here we are.

I hate taking these photos during the winter; in Finland this time of the year, natural light is too nonexistent for these to turn out good, no matter how hard you try.

Reviewers so far have been kind enough to say that the book fills an important gap in (english-language) maritime history and without false modesty I have to agree: this is the first time the story of the Nordics-UK passenger services have been told in their entirety, in detail, and drawing from source materials in all the Scandinavian languages, Finnish and English. Most of the material in the book has been available before in print in one of these languages, but never before has all the relevant information been put in print in a language most readers from all the relevant countries can be expected to understand. On top of it all, experts from all the relevant countries helped me along the way in some form or another.

Illustrations are drawn from numerous private and museum collections and are in excellent quality (even if I say so myself).

The book is available to buy numerous booksellers, and naturally also directly from the publishers here.

For those of you who live in or near Finland, I have a limited number of copies to sell directly, for the relatively modest price of 30 euros plus postage. If you are interested in buying a copy, drop me an email at kalle.id@gmail.com

Kships will return soon with an entry that isn't about books I've been involved in, I promise!

09 December 2019

Book review: Bretagne – 30 Years Of Splendour

Let's start with a little bit of background for this one: a little over three years ago, my friend (of the internet variety) Vitor Francisco got in touch with me as he had an idea for a maritime book (several, in fact!) and he was keen to have my advice on publishers and how to get things started. In the end, however, it turned out he didn't need it: last May, he got in touch with me again, telling me he had found a publisher (G Books International, run by the maritime historian Nico Guns) and that he was about to do a book on Brittany Ferries' Bretagne – amusingly, this was not a project he had listed to me earlier. Later on, Vitor was kind enough to ask me to write a foreword for the book, which I was more than happy to do.

All this naturally makes me not the ideal person to review the book, as I've been involved in it, first in a peripheral manner before it was even a real project, and then later more intimately. But, as I think it's a good book worthy of the publicity, I'm going to do it anyway.

Bretagne – 30 Years Of Splendour isn't your stereotypical ferry book with thorough technical details and an extensive history of the ship down to the smallest incident and route change. Rather, it is the kind of book which I think is sorely lacking in the field of maritime books: one looking at the subject from the passengers' point of view. What is it like to sail on the Bretagne? What do the interiors look like? How is the cuisine? What are the ports served like? Are there any special events related to the ship and its service? This book delivers all these points and more, with plentiful illustrations to go with the text.

There are some things that I would have done differently. There is some repetition in the photos, and I would have frankly removed some of them from the final product, allowing either for the remaining ones to be printed in larger size (though it must be said there are no stamp-sized images here!), or cut down the number of pages, which would have had the advantage of making the book shorter and therefore cheaper to produce. Furthermore, I would maybe have included a look at how the ship's livery has changed over the years; as it is, all the liveries are illustrated, but not in a chronological way. And then there are a few typos, but to be honest they are almost unavoidable (and I shouldn't be the one speak, seeing there is one also in the prologue I wrote).

Overall, I think this is a very exciting book in that it is very different from most existing ferry books (the ones in English, anyway), with a refreshingly different way of looking at things. This is more of a passengers' book than an enthusists' book, and even with the above mild criticism it makes the book very worthwhile and, frankly, I wish there were more books like this out there! (Perhaps I should write some myself? :P)

27 November 2019

Strikebound in Helsinki

The Mariella and Gabriella laid up together at Katajanokka on 26.11.2019 due to the strike, with the Lotus (Danish-flagged and therefore outside the strike) bunkering the Gabriella and slightly messing up my envisioned shot.
The Finnish postal services have been on strike for the past two weeks, after the employer decided to unilaterally move a part of the workforce under a different collective agreement, resulting in pay cuts of 30-40%. When the postal services wouldn't budge from their original position, support strikes quickly begun – for reasons that should be obvious, workers across the board were not exactly keen on a precedent being set for such radical pay cuts made purely at the employers' discretion.

The Finnish Seamen's Union (amongst others) joined the strike on Monday, with Finnish-flagged ships laid up after arriving in Finnish ports. For the Helsinki-Stockholm route, this meant that only the Silja Symphony was sailing, with the Mariella laid up on arrival on Monday and the Gabriella and Silja Serenade on Tuesday.

Need a magazine cover?

Finnlines attempted a strikebusting move by moving the Finnstar, which normally sails on the Helsinki-Travemünde route, to the Malmö-Travemünde route (meaning she never arrives at a Finnish port and is therefore not subject to the strike), and moving the Swedish-flagged Europalink to the services from Finland instead. However, the strike was resolved earlier this morning, before the Europalink even reached Finland.

The Lotus leaving – I was so preoccupied with taking photos that I didn't notice she was moving at first! Alas, she reparted just as the light was getting a bit too dark for really good views.

Of course, the Helsinki-Stockholm ships laid up gave nice chances of photographing ships that are normally not seen together in Eteläsatama in Helsinki (similar unusual pairings could also be seen in Vuosaari, Turku, Naantali and Hanko, but I didn't have time to zoom around the country quite so much).

Line-up of the Finnish-flagged Helsinki-Stockholm ships. Unfortunately, I only realised you could take a photo with all three properly visible through the harbour fence when it was a bit too dark for really good photos.
You wait for five months for a blog update and then two come at once? Worry not, I'm sure we'll be back to the one update per month if you're lucky -pace soon. :P