SailRail – a logistical love affair?

Irish Ferries' Ulysses coming into Dublin Port Photo: Irish Ferries
Irish Ferries’ Ulysses coming into Dublin Port Photo: Irish Ferries

I have long been a fan of SailRail deals and wish there were a lot more of them. I have lost count of the amount of times I have travelled this way between London and Dublin, my two home towns, hopping on the 9.10 Virgin train at Euston and travelling direct to Holyhead, one of the most gorgeous routes which clings to the shores of North Wales, arriving at 12.50 in time to catch a variety of afternoon ferries. I am always in Dublin in time for tea and all for £38 single. A price that doesn’t go up during school holidays either. What’s not to love? For more information on how to book and what it costs, your absolute best and most up to date port of call is the inimitable Man in Seat 61.

So, I am forever trying to persuade my pals who are crossing the Irish Sea to do so using SailRail. It takes a bit of work, but they get there in the end and usually love it. The extra time to work of have family time together, no airport apprehension, no Ryanair rage and,of course, it’s cost. It’s a win win. At least, most of the time – until delays kick in and then the happy marriage of Sail and Rail starts to show a little need of counselling. The logistical love affair hangs by a thread when a third party is introduced. The car passenger. Because car drivers are always given precedence when it comes to ferry travel. They board first, they disembark first and they have access to better infrastructure in the ports. As a foot passenger I was always in the minority on these ferry crossings for years, struggling to find a bus to transport me from a ferry port to the city centre, or a car hire company which will deliver to the port without charging a huge supplement.

Catherine and family coming into Dublin Port by ferry
Catherine and family coming into Dublin Port by ferry

But things are changing. When I travel by train and ferry now, the numbers have increased ten fold at least. People have cottoned on for various reasons and fair play to the ferry and rail companies for keeping these deals going. But when you arrive into Holyhead with an hour to spare before the London train leaves the platform, and you are instructed to wait  for an hour watching car after car disembark, and your train leave the station (despite informing the crew that you have a SailRail ticket and would very much like to catch your train) this could be considered terms for divorce in my opinion. However, with a little mediation, and recognition of the needs of all parties involved, we could surely feel the Sail Rail love again? Stenaline, Irish Ferries, Virgin Trains, Arriva and the rest. Please take note and help put the Rail back into Sail so that we can all make this the marriage made in heaven that it deserves to be.

Train and ferry between Ireland and London

Catherine and family coming into Dublin Port with Irish Ferries

I had a call from a friend who was stuck in London during the worst of the snow, “You must know how to get me home without flying”, she said. “I need to be back in Dublin tomorrow and every airport in Europe seems to be closed”. Within minutes she was sorted. “ Catch the 9am train from London Euston direct to Holyhead with Virgin Trains, arrives four hours later, then onto 2pm Irish Ferries crossing to Dublin port, arriving just after 5pm. Hop in a cab or shuttle bus, and home and dry in time for tea” I said.

She booked it immediately online via Virgin Trains and Irish Ferries, with last minute rates of £55 sterling for the single train journey and £25 sterling for the one way crossing. She had a lot of work to do on the way, so upgraded to first class on the train, (£97 sterling). This is the best train upgrade around, in my view, with free food and drink the whole way. Enjoy smoked salmon and scrambled eggs as you lash through the Shires, bagels on the border and a glass of something lovely to strengthen the sea legs as you follow the North Wales coastline. With free WI-Fi and generous reclining seats, you won’t want to get off at all. Although to be honest, Virgin’s latest speedy trains are so comfortable, economy feels like first class compared to any of my memories of what was the journey from hell all those years ago when ‘budget’ meant the ‘bus’.

I got a text at 5.15pm from my friend – “just drifting past the South Wall. Best trip home ever. Will never fly again”. This I doubt, but every snow cloud has a silver lining. It’s hard to convince people about the joys of greener, slower travel, unless they actually experience it. You can bring as much luggage as you want, including bikes. You check it all in now, so no lugging it round the ship anymore. You don’t have to hide your make-up bottles either. Even Holyhead terminal is better these days. On a recent trip, a Donegal man who makes the trip six times a year told me, “It breaks my heart.In the old days we begged them for a new terminal and now it’s here, but it’s empty. It used to be a cattle market, dirty and full of drunks”. Sounds like a bad budget airline, I thought.

If you aren’t making a last minute booking, book a Sail and Rail package. This is possible using various methods. If you are travelling out of the UK, go through booking agency Raileasy, and remember to put your home station first, not just Euston, as you can get a through ticket from any station in UK.  Do check if you are travelling direct to Dublin Port or Dun Laoghaire, as some services mean you have to change at Crewe or Chester stations. You can’t get a first class ticket on this package, but book well in advance with Virgin Trains (virgintrains.co.uk), and you can get a First Class Single for approx. £50 sterling, with great food and drink served all the way through Wales and England. Note, however, that this is a mid-week deal, and there is no food at weekend, so you are just paying for a bigger seat if travelling Saturdays or Sundays.

If you are travelling from Ireland to UK and want to get a good SailRail package, do this at Irish Rail, either by phone

On our way home

+ 353 1 8366222 ( Mon to Fri 9-5),  email sailrail@irishrail.ie, or call in to one of the following Irish Rail stations: Athlone, Ballina, Cork, Drogheda, Claremorris, Dublin Connolly, Dundalk, Ennis, Galway, Killarney, Limerick, Limerick Junction, Longford, Mallow, Mullingar, Sligo, Thurles, Tralee, Tullamore, Waterford, Westport or Wexford.

Or you can do just as my friend did, and book online the night before, roll on, roll off, no bother. I’m not sure she really cares that her carbon footprint was at least half of flying, to be honest. But if she can see that travelling the greener way is a much better experience all round, then it’s a win win. Any other converts can check out all European rail routes with details of journey lengths, transits, and overnight accommodation, as well as green places to stay nearby, at the newly launched www.greentraveller.co.uk

An edited version of this article was fist published in The Irish Times, 16 January 2010

 

Smile, you’re on a bike

smile-youre-on-a-bike2Just as Dubliners and its visitors are now discovering, with the arrival of Dublin Bikes, cycling definitely makes us smile. Is it that ‘get back in touch with nature’ vibe (albeit not really a feature of Dublin), feeling like a child again, or just slowing down to take in the world, that makes us feel good about ourselves? If you are enjoying the new Dublin Bike scheme, then start thinking further afield.  Cycling holidays are about as green as it gets, not only by their carbon neutrality, but because bikes often take you to places you wouldn’t otherwise explore, bringing much needed tourist income to those areas.

 

I am not talking yellow jersey 200k a day cycling holidays either. You can find those in any cycling magazine. But the sort of cycling holidays where you just pack a couple of panniers, put your bike on a boat or train, get off at the other end, and discover the powerful peace to be found in pedalling your way into unknown territory.

My most recent experience of this was in Scotland, (as featured in The Irish Times, 16.05.09), when I travelled with Scottish cycle holiday company, Velodays (www.velodays.com) and spent an amazing few days exploring Perthshire.  I was met off the train with a Veldodays bike and GPS, transferred backpack to panniers, and took on 50k-ish a day adventure, full of the highs only the Highlands can provide.

 

If you want to treat yourself to a bracing break in the saddle before the clocks change another option is to put your bike on the Rosslare ferry and head for Fishguard, which is the start of Wales’ Celtic (West) Cycling Trail (see www.sustrans.org.uk for maps). A great eco-location to stay is Preseli Venture Eco Lodge, located 10k from Fishguard, with pickups arranged if necessary. You could just stay there, but as they are activity specialists, you could get your bikes there and combine cycling with coasteering, for example, for really getting down, dirty and drenched (www.preseliventure.co.uk).

 

Closer to home, if you haven’t discovered Strangford Lough in County Down yet, then get those panniers packed. The Strangford Lough Trail leads you around the back roads of this exquisitely tranquil, and utterly underrated part of Northern Ireland. Starting in Comber, County Down, the trail (132kms circular) is made even more accessible now by the Comber Greenway, an 11kms cycle track along a disused railway, from Belfast city centre to Comber. Spend a weekend doing this trail to really enjoy the Loughscape – I recommend one night at top notch eco-B&B Anna’s House (www.annashouse.com), just outside Comber, with the best breakfast ever to put you on the road (the only danger is you might not want to leave), and the second at the Portaferry Hotel (www.portaferryhotel.com), a family-run institution right on the Lough’s shores, where you can see the eponymous ferry arrive to take you across the Lough for more exploring. See www.cycleni.com and order their excellent book on all NI cycling routes.

 

For the more adventurous, put your bike on the ferry at Rosslare (Irish Ferries carry bikes, €5 each way), and head to Cherbourg. One hitch is that you can’t put your bike on the Rosslare train at the moment. Go figure. So try Bus Eireann instead, who, depending on space, will stick it in the boot for €11. It’s a great buzz cycling down the ramp ahead of all the cars, navigating your way through Cherbourg, and onto the Cherbourg Cycling Trail, or La Manche à Vélo – 230kms of off-road cycle trails (Voies Vertes) on disused railways or towpaths, 35 cycle loops, each around 20kms long. The first Voie Verte starts at Rocheville, 20kms outside Cherbourg. For details see www.mancherandonnee.com, but there is also great English language info on this trail on www.brittany-ferries.co.uk website, (but note that they do not actually sail from Ireland to Cherbourg, only to Roscoff in Brittany).

 

The list of Euro-cycling opportunities is endless, and I confess I have a bit of a habit of collecting cycle maps just to escape in my dreams, if not always from my desk. If you want to do the same, a great starting point is Eurovelo, the European Cycle Network. You can get more info on their work at www.ecf.com, but their website is a bit heavy going, so I recommend buying their maps from UK’s cycling organisation, www.sustrans.org and start planning your next expedition.