There are certain challenges we all must go through in life. From spending 10 days in an Australian hospital as a result of a spider bite (that actually happened to me) to coping with being publicly dumped by the Prom Queen (that never happened but I can imagine it would be just as scarring), we just have to deal with them. So after a 3-hour drive from Edinburgh to Cairnryan with our two daughters who are both under three years old, the last thing my partner Jo and I needed in our lives was another challenge. Now, three hours might not seem like a particularly long drive, but when you have two, shall we say, ‘excitable’ children in the back of your family wagon, trust me, it is a challenge. Especially when you have nervously dedicated the next two weeks to a road trip around Ireland.
Having not been on a ferry since a youth rugby tour to Europe, I have no idea what to expect. My memories of the channel crossing that I embarked on when I was a youngster are a little hazy to say the least. But as we pull up at the port and first set eyes on our vessel, huge grins spread simultaneously across mine and Jo’s faces. This isn’t what I remember a ferry to be – it looks more like a cruise ship!
The drawbridge is lowered and we roll towards the ferry. The beautiful irony of us being a tad late, as per usual, is that we don’t have to queue and drive straight onboard. A kind man with a soft Scottish accent directs us to our designated bay and glances at me with a knowing look as he sees our five-month-old, Emmy, going berserk in the back of the car. The rear-view yelling matters not, as I am bedazzled by the size and volume of the boat and actually feel quite calm as we pull to a stop. We get out of the car and realise that our youngest has, to put it nicely, soiled herself; a valid reason to be screaming. It always is for me, anyway.
In any situation with our two-year-old, Izzy, the first port of call is wherever has the most food. This happens to be the lovely Taste restaurant. The menu is plentiful with options to suit both us and our bottomless-pitted daughter, and offers a very reasonable family meal deal, which we indulge in. Jo and I play a rapid game of Rock, Paper, Scissors to see who gets to have a drink versus who has to drive the final leg, and it’s a humongous win for me. We watch in amazement as Izzy devours her generously sized kids’ meal and then reaches across to steal the last of my chips, with a cheeky smile and not an ounce of guilt. The victorious beer helps calm me as I witness this outrage. I polish off what’s left of my lovely plate of locally caught cod and feel quite content as I do a spot of people watching. There is a nice vibe on this ferry, especially as the Ireland v France match is being shown in one of the bars and we are down to the last 16 stage of Euro 2016! For the non soccer lovers, there is a dedicated ‘Footy-free zone’ restaurant and also a cinema, as well as a Games Zone and even a modest shopping area.
After we finish our meal, we stroll through the ferry. A stroll at a toddler’s pace means that you get nowhere fast. It’s more of a riotous zigzag. As I chase Izzy, encouraging her not to tell every passenger that will listen how big her last burp was, Jo’s eyes lock on to the Nordic Spa sign on level 10 (yes, there are 10 levels on this ship) like a homing missile. Oh how delightfully a deep massage and a Jacuzzi would be right now. Imagine that. But, as it tends to, our good old friend Reality slaps us in the chops and we decide that it’s better to head to the Soft Play to calm Izzy down.
The Soft Play area is filled with other families looking equally relieved that there is something for their boisterous young ones to let off some steam in, and we all sit down to watch the kids unite to cause as much destruction as a room full of malleable objects will allow. This is a great way to pass the time, but I know in the back of Jo’s mind she is fantasising about the missed opportunity for a massage a mere few floors away. It turns out my sympathetic squeeze of the shoulder doesn’t quite cut it. After an impromptu face painting session kindly put on by the Stena Line staff, with impeccable timing a loudspeaker announcement informs us that we are almost at our destination: Belfast. Also with impeccable timing, Izzy yells out that she desperately needs the toilet. A hurried bathroom stop for us all and we venture downstairs to the holding bay and head to the car. We strap the girls in, and I assume my proud shotgun position in the passenger seat with Jo at the wheel. She has let the Nordic Spa thing go. But not the fact that I once again beat her at Rock, Paper, Scissors. However, she concedes that this was a rather peaceful journey and a much more stress-free option than flying. Especially as both girls are now sound asleep in the back. As we drive off the ferry, a fellow passenger sees our girls sleeping and gives me a familiar knowing look.
Now all that’s left is a fortnight of road tripping around Ireland with our crazy duo; but that will be another story altogether…
For more information on Stena Line please visit www.stenaline.co.uk
Photographs by John Harfield and Stena Line