Friday, February 20, 2009

A Maiden Voyage

This is a tale of disappointment; I wrote it on the day after we arrived at Le Bout de Sac having been on the maiden voyage (well, with passengers on board at least) of the "Armorique".
I still stand by everything that I wrote at the time, but as I noted at the end of the piece, we knew exactly what to expect on the return crossing and so weren't quite so digruntled. Isn't disgruntled a great word? Is it possible to be gruntled as well as disgruntled? If so, we were leaning more towards the gruntled on the way back.

The fact remains that if anyone is going to be sailing from Plymouth to Roscoff in the foreseeable future, it's L'Armorique or swim, so these are my initial impressions:

"Tuesday night was sailing off on holiday night; Mrs The Millbrooker and I were in high excitement (quiet in the cheap seats, not that sort of excitement).

As we really didn’t want to spend our last minutes in Millbrook washing up and clearing up a meal in Millbrooker Towers, we treated ourselves to a start-the-holiday meal for two at the dear old D&C, where Russell and Mark were conjuring up their celebrated magic for Curry Night. Here’s a shot kindly taken by Mr The Leaderene of Mrs The Millbrooker and me about to tuck in:
Shortly after stuffing ourselves with the spicy fare and slurping a drop of the yummy Otter Ale we set off for Millbay Docks and our appointment with Brittany Ferries’ much trumpeted new vessel “Armorique”.

What can I say? The new ferry is something of a disappointment; a triumph of marketing and management-speak over substance.

How can it be an improvement to do away with a decent waiter service restaurant and replace it with only a self-service cafeteria when there used to be a choice of both? Purely from the angle of being partially sighted and a white cane user, a self service arrangement doesn’t work unless there’s a member of staff to assist – I can’t carry a tray loaded with food and use the white cane at the same time! Members of staff available or offering to assist were conspicuous by their absence.

Not to mention that I’ve never yet had a meal that was actually served hot from a Brittany Ferries self-service outlet. This lamentable state of affairs continued when Mrs The Millbrooker and I emerged from our cabin for breakfast: two distinctly tepid fried eggs, two cold sausages, cold toast, warm hash brown and just-warm bacon. Frankly, guys, that’s rubbish and the company along with its chefs should hang its head in shame.The ferry is equipped with automatic glass sliding doors to access the outside decks; these are operated by a small button at roughly diaphragm height (for me, so that’s a massive reach skyward for Shazzerooneypoos). Seriously, this is no good at all for people with visual impairment. (1) Glass doors of any sort don’t show up on the radar very well, (2) push-button operation needs to be by BIG, coloured, Braille indented button. This is a brand new ship – failing to sort out simple things like that is not excusable at all.

Let’s also take a look at the choice of bar on offer. On the older vessels, we had a piano bar which was largely quiet (that is to say it was busy, but not loud); this was the venue of choice for Mrs The Millbrooker and me to enjoy a Cidre de Normandie or two. It was also the only place on board to get a decent cup of proper coffee. In addition to the piano bar there was a larger bar in which live entertainment would be meted out by musicians who had the look of hope that this gig might lead them to better things. The entertainment bar was generally noisier (obviously) and was also busy. Brittany Ferries has decided to do away with a quiet bar; Armorique has only one bar which is littered with eye-level video screens blaring bland, middle of the road pap and god awful hip-hop à la MTV; it’s more or less impossible to sit anywhere without one of these screens intruding into your view and absolutely impossible so to do without having the incessant 140 beats-per-minute rap or X Factor style wailing women pretending to be Whiney Houston (whose style of music I can’t bear, in case you'd failed to work this out).

Well, that’s another few pounds saved: I’m damned if I’ll spend money in any bar, either at sea or on dry land in which I have no option but to put up with intrusive music. Methinks it’s time to make sure we’ve got a bottle of something decent, a corkscrew and a couple of plastic cups with us whenever we sail Plymouth-Roscoff again.

Brittany Ferries will, I’m sure, make a point of refuting this argument by saying that they’ve provided a quiet “reading area”. Trust me, I checked out the quiet reading area, which directly abuts the MTV infested bar with not the slightest screening from it, let alone a decent sound-proofed bulkhead.

Mrs The Millbrooker and I shared a “deluxe” four berth outside cabin, because when we rang to book, the clerk said that all of the cheaper two-berth inside cabins were full. OK – but this didn’t appear to me to be a particularly busy sailing (Tuesday, overnight in February, remember) – so how many of each sort of cabin is there? The on board maps don’t show individual cabins, so I can only surmise that Brit Fairies has pulled a fast one to make sure that more people are obliged to pay more by restricting the availability of lower priced cabins. I’d be interested to find the exact figures on how many of each type of cabin they do have; and on how many people sailed on the night that we did. (Note - there are 96 four berth deluxe and 95 twin berth inside cabins....information here).(This shot of a deluxe cabin is from the vessel Pont Aven, the accommodation seems similar, I couldn't find a shot of a cabin on board Armorique)

Let’s also have a look at “deluxe”. On the older vessels, we got a wardrobe with plenty of hanging space and a set of shelves for storage of clothing, watches, book etc. On the Armorique (in “deluxe”) we had to resort to piling lots of our kit on the floor; two hangers, a couple of coat hooks, no shelving at all. The bunks are a mere 2’4’’ (70cm) wide meaning that anyone over 2 foot 7 is going to feel cramped (for once, Shazzerooneypoos comes out on top); this is not “deluxe” or “luxury”, for which we paid a premium of £63 (including 10% discount for being in the property owners’ club) –this is fleecing the public with poorer quality than already existed whilst smilingly pretending that it’s all in the name of “customer service”, or better “choice”.

I love it when they announce over the PA towards the end of a channel hop that they hope we had a good crossing and that we’ll sail with Brittany Ferries again. Of course we’ll sail with them again. We’ve no choice whatever; if we want to get to Brittany and we don’t want to drive for four hours either side, we sail Plymouth-Roscoff and who’s the only game in town? Ummm….yep, Brittany Ferries.

At least we know what to expect on the way back."

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