You may have noticed that I am a bit of a nutterbutter at times. I dislike things other people enjoy, such as talking to a friend on the telephone, and yet like things other people hate, like travelling (the journey itself rather than the destination). It was in this spirit that I decided to take a day off work and book myself a random little trip over to Stranraer and back on the ferry one day. Alone. The most commonly asked question by anyone I told about my planned voyage was, quite understandly, "umm... why?" For no purpose other than for the adventure, mayteys! That said, it still became known as my "random loner trip" by those who just didn't understand (i.e. everyone).
I really love travelling on boats. I don't know quite why, although there is marine history in my bloodlines (the Navy rather than a half-dolphin great grandmother), but I find it soothing. In fact I find it more calming (not to mention fun) when there's a good bit of rough seas going on and you can barely walk in a straight line due to the swaying of the boat. I especially love standing out on the deck with the wind howling past, making my hair all tatty and my lips taste like salt - so refreshing!
And so earlier this week, with my printed booking confirmation in hand, I arrived at the Stenaline terminal on time for the 11.45am sailing to Stranraer. The Belfast terminal has certainly come on in leaps and bounds since the last time I was there, with a complete redesign that has essentially turned the whole place into a giant coffee shop (and you know how I love a good coffee shop!). My only quibble was that there was no announcement over the PA that the ferry was ready for boarding and I only realised I should probably be on my way when I looked up from my book to see everyone else scurrying off towards a far corner. Oops.
On the first leg of my trip I was on the Stena HSS Voyager. This is the faster of Stenaline's ferries and I've always kind of liked how you walk around in a big circle to get around the ship - it reminds me of the Enterprise from Star Trek TNG in that respect. For my little "loner trip" I had decided to go all out and book myself into the Stena Plus lounge. It was £16 extra each way but the website promised me free unlimited tea, coffee, wine and snacks, so I figured that given my usual caffeine consumption and the standard price of refreshments onboard the ferry I would get my money's worth in coffee alone. Plus sometimes it's nice just to splurge a little and feel special, especially when you're seen Titanic as many times as I have and know that the first class passengers get all the best places on the lifeboats if something goes wrong!
In the end I didn't need a lifeboat and nor feel that special, since it seemed like the world and his wife had been thinking along similar lines. Having given up looking for a table anywhere near a power outlet for my laptop (some chance!), I finally bagged the only two seats still available that simultaneously looked out towards the sea and were on the same level as the snack bar (both very important requirements!). Then it was into the five-minute long queue for the coffee machines.
I eventually managed to obtain a cappucino, a glass of apple juice and some shortbread and settled down for the journey. The HSS journey only takes about two hours and I spent it rotating between reading my chick lit book du jour, staring out the windows at the rolling waves in some kind of aquatic trance, enjoying a very tasty chowder with a tuna and cucumber sandwich from the lunch menu and helping myself to umpteen cups of tea and coffee (and post-lunch a couple of glasses of wine too!). By the time we arrived in Stranraer I was feeling very relaxed and the sun was just beginning to emerge from the grey and cloudy skies. Perfect!
Stranraer. Well, there's not really a lot to do in Stranraer to be honest. I even did research beforehand just in case there was some hidden gem I could take in during my brief trip, but alas it seemed that Castle St John is about it for visitors to Stranraer. That said I managed to fill the few hours I spent there quite comfortably by browsing in the shops, taking walks along the harbour and through Agnew Park and eventually having some decent fish and chips (compulsory when visiting the seaside) in the Starfish Restaurant. It was a lovely sunny day in the end and it was nice just to wander around a town I didn't know much about with nothing specific to do and nowhere specific to go.
The only strange bit was when I stopped into a pub for a quick drink and I ended up being the only person in there except for the barmaid. She watched Emmerdale, where someone seemed to be having some kind of breakdown, while I sat by the dominos table (I did not know pubs still had such things!) sipping my pint and trying to avoid awkward eye-contact. A sign on the window had advertised a beer garden but its whereabouts were not instantly apparent and to ask would have required forced conversation so I amused myself with my mobile for a few minutes instead and then left as soon as feasibly possible to continue my loner day back in the 21st century.
Soon enough it was time to head back to the foot passenger departure lounge for the ferry home. This time it was the Stena Caledonia and it was 45 minutes delayed, which wasn't a great surprise bearing in mind it had been 45 minutes delayed coming into Belfast when I was waiting to leave that morning. I found a plug socket by the vending machines in the departure lounge and hooked up my laptop to enjoy an episode of House to help pass the time. It did so admirably and by the time the end credits were rolling it was time to board. This time around I faced a 3 hour journey, as the Caledonia is slower than the HSS, not to mention older, so I was intrigued to see what the difference would be with Stena Plus lounge onboard this ship.
I followed the signs for the Stena Plus lounge and then stood around looking befuddled. A very helpful employee approached me and explained that there were actually two lounges onboard, one downstairs and one upstairs. He let me into the one downstairs and the door closed behind me. I looked around and essentially it was a small, depressing room with three windows, a small snack bar and a few tables and chairs. The people in it looked as grim as the room, so I turned on my heel and smartly marched straight back out again. The helpful employee, who was still there, looked at me knowingly and said, "would you like to try the upstairs lounge instead?" Yes please - I know £16 isn't a lot of money these days but it's more than I was willing to pay for the slow but steady withering of my soul.
At first glance, upstairs was marginally better. There were more windows, tables and chairs, the snack bar seemed a little bigger and there was (much to my chagrin) a children's play area (sorry mummies and daddies but children screeching for 3 hours is not my idea of fun). However a further look revealed two major plus points, namely that down one side of the room was an area with massive, fancy touch-screen computers (which no-one else seemed to be remotely interesting in) and also that on either side of the room was a door straight out onto the deck. Excellent! I installed myself in the very corner at one of the computer desks, moved the keyboard and mouse aside and set up my own laptop instead. Then I collected a new stock of caffeine, snacks and wine and returned to my little corner of wonder.
I spent about an hour of the journey writing my Rocky Horror blog post and the remaining time drinking wine and coffee, watching more episodes of House on my laptop and wandering out on to the deck to have my head blown off. I also tried the thai chicken curry from the dinner menu, which was pretty mediocre, although the chicken was nicely cooked. Even the children in the play area were relatively quiet. Then at around 9pm it was finally time to disembark back on to Belfast soil and make my way home.
All in all it was a strange but lovely day. I got to go on a boat (two actually), I got to walk along the shore and look at shells and I got to completely relax and do whatever I wanted, and all with a steady intake of precious caffeine and alcohol.
My only regret is that I had booked my trip before the Belfast Film Festival released this year's programme and I ended up missing something I would have loved to go to. The Yorkshireman however did attend said event and no doubt will write about it soon. But as for me, I had a nice day out and I think I might have to go on another similar little loner trip again sometime soon. Yes, I know I'm an oddity, but I'm mostly harmless. Mostly.