Even at sea level your head is in the clouds if your destination's Amsterdam. Simon Calder takes the new high-speed ferry from Harwich to the Hook of Holland
Everyone would earn a certificate commemorating their part in the first voyage of the hi-tech, high-speed vessel, promised the cheery Dutch announcer. She concluded: "Stena HSS Discovery - the only way to cross the North Sea".

That is, of course, tosh. Travellers crossing the North Sea these days can choose from ships operated by Color Line, P&O and Scandinavian Seaways, plus plenty of low-cost flights. Which why the old ferry service from Harwich to Hook of Holland was replaced by an HSS catamaran. The initials stand for high-speed sea service; cruising at 40 knots, the vessel halves the previous crossing time. She also takes only 50 people to operate - one-quarter of the number working on the two ferries that she replaces.

The service subtly changes the shape of Europe, particularly for motorists who do not live in southern England. Suddenly, Europe is less than four hours away from Essex - no longer is it quicker to drive to Dover or Folkestone and take one of the short sea crossings. Even those in and around London can benefit from the new link for trips to northern Germany or Scandinavia. Best of all, it should lead to heightened interest in the Netherlands.

Within 15 minutes of driving off the ferry you can be in The Hague, where the twee cuteness of the old town is neatly countered by the outstanding breadth and depth of art in the 17th-century Mauritshuis. Madurodam, "Holland in miniature", is a lot more fun than it sounds. And on the coast, the resort of Scheveningen is a jolly echo of Great Yarmouth, diametrically across the North Sea.

Foot passengers who see Hook and its surroundings merely as a gateway to the Continent will benefit from the shorter crossing times, though the timings of the new rail connections in Holland make some yearn for the civilised schedule of an overnight service: rail connections from the new evening sailing arrive in Amsterdam in the early hours, not a time when the Centraal Station area is at its most enticing.

An airline-style check-in has been introduced: passengers no longer need to carry large bags aboard, because they are transported separately in large containers. Unfortunately the system has been accompanied by airport- style queues for check-in.

On board, the new, huge, high-speed catamaran is a lot more salubrious than the two ferries she replaces. Imagine an airport departure lounge, complete with bureaux de change, restaurants and fast-food outlets, drifting across the North Sea, and you get the picture. Prices for adequate grub are quoted in guilders, but translate to reasonable amounts: 80p for a coffee, pounds 1.40 for a slab of pizza. A pair of cinemas screening new releases (Liar, Liar and Scream this week), and a disco on evening sailings, help to fill the journey time.

The question is: what precisely is the journey time? The Stena timetable says it will take three hours and 40 minutes. The two crossings I made on Monday took 10 minutes longer each way.

No one would be churlish enough to complain - except that the delays appear to be cumulative. Stena allows as little as 40 minutes to replace one consignment of cars and passengers with the next. At the end of the maiden voyage from Harwich, the turnaround at Hook of Holland took twice as long as allowed. So even though Discovery had begun the day on schedule, by the time the third voyage of the day ended she was running 90 minutes late.

The vessel is operated by Stena Line Holland BV; I called the boss, Pim de Lange, to find out what had gone wrong. "People have been trained for the faster turnaround, but as you would expect on the first day we had some teething problems. As you can understand, it's quite a change and we need some operational experience." What about the journey time? "We are now running ahead of time. On Wednesday afternoon, for example, the morning ferry from Harwich arrived 10 minutes early."

With luck, that will mean no repetition of the strange experience I had at Hook of Holland. I travelled on a "daytripper" ticket, price pounds 19, which means that you reach Hook of Holland then turn around and come straight back. But you have to disembark at the port and get straight back on. The late arrival meant boarding had closed; I would have to stay overnight in Holland and return the next morning. Fortunately the Catch 22 was quickly resolved, and they let me back aboard.

But the knock-on effect of Monday's delay was felt even by innocent parties such as Norwich commuters. The Boat Train to London was obliged to wait for us, even though it was due to form the late-night train to Norfolk. Though I doubt any platform announcer would have the nerve to say so, the Norwich train genuinely departed late because of "operational difficulties in the Netherlands area".

The Stena HSS can be booked through travel agents or direct on 0990 707070. A special "car plus five" fare of pounds 68 return is available on certain sailings.

Peter Hedderly sailed off into a ship's sunset on the last Saturday night voyage aboard Stena Europe

From the deck we watched the departure, as the sun set and we slipped quietly out of port and into the history books. Down below we had a celebration a la carte dinner. The waiter, who'd been working the route for 23 years, said in a subdued voice as he presented our food, "Gentlemen, it is my pleasure to inform you that you are having the last supper" - with tears in his eyes. Many of the crew had been working the route since before I was born. Most are retiring, although some are going on to the freight ships (the new HSS is operated entirely from the Dutch side).

Harwich-Hook always was the route to the Continent, or to Germany, at least - so much more civilised than Dover-Ostend. Until quite recently you could get on a through car at the Hook and step off that same car in Moscow, if you so wished. Services have been so rapidly cut back that, for the past few years, you couldn't even get to Cologne without a change.

We live in a rapidly changing world where nothing stands still. I'd say most of Hook route passengers are now bound for Amsterdam, or at least no farther than Holland; probably most of those going beyond will stop off in Amsterdam anyway.

So the new service has a lot to offer. You can now leave Amsterdam well after midday and still reach London that evening. You could never have done that before. With more people travelling than ever, this historic route must have good times ahead. But it will never be quite the same.

The writer is a compiler of the `Thomas Cook European Timetable'

Ocean ferry to canal boat: Amsterdam (top) is a four-hour trip from Essex when you take the high-speed, hi-tech Stena vessel (above) ADRIAN DENNIS