Travel: New ports of call for European voyagers: Ferry operators are eager to open up new routes to distant destinations, north and south, and they offer some good deals, says Frank Barrett

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The Independent Travel
This week, P & O European Ferries revealed that it was looking at the possibility of opening a new route from Portsmouth to La Rochelle or Bordeaux. Regular Independent readers may experience a certain sense of deja vu.

Almost exactly two years ago we carried a letter from David Burton of the Wirral, who had just bought a house in the Charente. 'I am certain that there is an opportunity for the ferry companies to open up a direct service to Bordeaux,' he wrote. He wanted a sailing that offered the prospect of a decent night's sleep. 'A Bordeaux service would enable anyone going to the South, South-west or South-east of France not only to enjoy a 'cruise' but to arrive within easy striking distance of their destination.'

I suggested at the time that, if a ferry company wanted to take up the suggestion, Mr Burton and I would be pleased to accept a substantial reward for passing the idea on. We shall wait in hope. Mr Burton's letter inspired a lively correspondence on these pages, as to the desirability of longer ferry routes. (This correspondence was revived early last year, with the many letters we published on the subject of the late lamented ferry routes from Southampton to Lisbon and Tangiers.)

P & O says that a Bordeaux or La Rochelle service is 'some way off'. 'We were considering the Portsmouth-Bilbao route for two or three years before we started it last year, so it could be a couple of years before we decide to serve La Rochelle or Bordeaux; this is just one of several options we are considering,' said a spokesman.

The company's strategy is clearly to develop its ferry business on longer routes, away from the white-hot competition on the Dover straits. Its Portsmouth-Bilbao experience has so far been encouraging. The company claims it has carried 145,000 passengers - three times as many as it originally expected. It was reluctant to reveal the number of cars, which suggests that this aspect has not been quite so good.

Brittany Ferries, which previously had the UK-Spain market to itself with its long-established Plymouth-Santander service, says it has maintained its business despite the P & O competition. Its marketing director, David Longden, said the arrival of P & O had had the effect of doubling the market.

After a year of relatively undramatic growth on the western Channel, all the operators expect greater things this summer. Not only has the pound revived slightly against the franc, but also the ferry companies anticipate a substantial boost to their business from the celebrations being held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy on 6 June.

A more modest fillip to cross-Channel traffic will be provided at the beginning of July when the Tour de France crosses to England for only the second time in its history (the first was in 1974, when Brittany Ferries brought the competitors to Plymouth for a dash round the Devon countryside). This year, the company claims the rare distinction of being named 'Official Sea Carrier' to the Tour, carrying the cycling circus from Portsmouth to Cherbourg on 7 July at the conclusion of the race's fourth stage around Hampshire. Brittany Ferries will use the occasion to underline the fact that, unlike British Rail, it carries passengers' bicycles free of charge.

The company's main innovation for 1994 is the introduction of sailings from Poole to St Malo, a service that will operate between 14 May and 2 October. Plymouth to Roscoff has now been restored as a year-round service.

Brittany Ferries is hoping that it can escape the worst effects of any competitive battle on the short Channel routes, which is certain to intensify after the Channel tunnel opens in May. The booking incentives have already started. P & O, for example, is offering to anyone who, before 31 March, books a return for a car and at least two passengers for travel between 9 April and 3 September, a free return for use between 4 September and 19 December.

Brittany Ferries is studying the rival offers - and the potential threat to its traffic from the tunnel. It is now preparing a second edition of its ferry brochure: prices will no doubt be cut if it becomes clear that it is losing market share.

ONE MIGHT have expected the two Scandinavian ferry companies, Color Line and Scandinavian Seaways, to be feeling relatively unbothered by the opening of the Channel tunnel. Color Line, which operates from Newcastle to Norway, is indeed continuing business as usual (the prospect of driving from Calais to Oslo is a daunting one, tunnel or no tunnel).

But Scandinavian Seaways, with routes to Sweden, Denmark and Germany, is clearly taking the threat of the new competition more seriously. In anticipation of the tunnel, it is offering various price-cutting incentives. It has introduced a 21-day advance-purchase 'Four in a car' fare: with four passengers, the car goes free. For example, the 'Four in a car' return rate to Hamburg costs from pounds 235, Esbjerg pounds 280, and Gothenburg pounds 315.

For travellers who are happy to book and pay at least three months before travelling, there are further discounts: for example, the 'Four in a car' return to Hamburg falls to pounds 200, Esbjerg pounds 240, and Gothenburg pounds 270. The basic fare includes on-board accommodation in a four-berth couchette: passengers can pay to upgrade to better cabins.

Scandinavian Seaways' sales and marketing manager, Robert Mackenzie, says that the 'Four in a car' tariff is 'one of the best travel bargains available'. 'Scandinavia and Germany are strong motoring destinations, whatever the purpose of travel. Anyone who makes the comparison with the air travel plus car rental alternative will quickly appreciate what real value for money the 'Four in a car' fare is,' he said.

Another Scandinanvian Seaways innovation this year is the introduction of special 'Flag Day' sailings - about one in 10 of all sailings this year - on which adults will be able to travel at half price.

Like Scandinavian Seaways, which has a substantial programme of packages to holiday villages, country cottages, campsites, farmhouses, hotels and pensions, Color Line has a large inclusive-tour brochure. Its main attraction is the chalet holidays to self-catering cottages situated in and around Norway's fiords.

Both the Color Line and Scandinavian Seaways packages are much cheaper than most people would expect for Scandinavian holidays. For example, a seven-night self-catering package to the Vradal Chalets in Telemark costs from pounds 247 to pounds 549 per person, depending on season and the number of people sharing; the price includes return ferry crossing and chalet rental.

With Scandinavian Seaways, a nine-night package to the Lakeland Holiday Centre, a holiday complex on the Danish lakes of Jutland, costs from pounds 130 to pounds 531 per person, including return ferry crossing and accommodation.

(Photographs and map omitted)