It has arrived – the long-awaited and much heralded £1 million Northlink/Serco refit.
But what does it bring for the budget traveller and frequent user of our lifeline service?
The glass dividing Magnus’ Lounge (previously the restaurant) from the Midship Bar is now largely opaque, making it difficult to spot friends lounging on the leather sofas.
Pre-refit you simply strolled in to join them for “da night”. Now you need to shell out £18.50.
But don’t worry, this fee includes two “complementary” drinks, “free” snacks and hot beverages. If you lack the ready, prepare to spend your evening “apartheid” style.
The new catering arrangements are more egalitarian – the same grub for everybody, but a much reduced choice – no more Shetland lamb or juicy McNab scallops. You’ll search in vain for Orkney pork with black pudding or fish without batter.
Unless you’re a child, rough weather comfort food like macaroni cheese is off the menu, as are the 3am bar sandwiches. Should you wake hungry in the small hours, vending machines provide crisps, chocolate bars and fizzy drinks.
On the plus side, the likes of a bacon roll or Danish pastry can now be had in both bars, reducing the breakfast and tea time crush.
Price hike aside, nothing much has changed in the Mid-Ship Cafeteria, now ‘The Feast Restaurant’.
There’s a 20 per cent introductory Islander discount, and a new Fairtrade coffee experience. At the “airflow cooled” salad bar, a gentle breeze (approx. force 0.5) fans the beetroot, coleslaw and lettuce.
The play area is now a “Viklings Den”, complete with dressing-up box. A Game Area with atmospheric blue lighting comes in handy for youngsters who’ve forgotten to pack their laptop.
The shop sports an enlarged perfume section, adding a touch of Heathrow glitz.
For a tipple after hours, Valhalla beer, Orkney fruit wine, and that most authentic of all Shetland products, Blackwood’s gin, are on offer.
Socialising opportunities are much reduced. While the Midship Bar is now a bit more spacious, reclining seats replace a considerable number of chairs, tables and benches in what is now the Longship Lounge.
Gone are the benches and tables opposite the shop – the only place on the ship to relax away from the bars and restaurant, where families could play board games and spread out their travel paraphernalia.
All reclining seats are now in public areas. If you need an early night, but can’t get or can’t afford a cabin, sleeping pods are your only option.
Sci-Fi space travel? Three by six “Tokyo” cubicle? Mattress? Pillow? Duvet? No such luck.
The pods are “premium” reclining seats; dimmed light, peace and quiet and taking the weight off your feet adds £18 on top of the steeply increased prices for food, drink and cinema.
The long-overdue reinstatement of public showers – four in all – is reason to be cheerful. Six minutes of hot and cold laid on for three quid (free for pod users), with a “rinse-off” beep before the final minute and a Serco towel for £2 plus a fiver’s deposit.
But don’t think for a minute da new nort boat incumbent lacks generosity: “Ladies” receive a free disposable shower cap.
Magnus, the new face of Northlink, is a mature gentleman with a flowing beard and prominent horns.
I imagine his job description read something like this: “Light duties -would suit retired person”.
Judging by the length of his outstretched arm he’s on the tall side and may find fitting comfortably into a reclining seat, even a “premium” one, problematic.
In the good old days Magnus relaxed his aching limbs and soothed his sore back by stretching out full length on one of the bar benches, but this is no longer an option.
Vertical contraptions, the human equivalent of bird deterrents designed to stop pigeons from roosting on windowsills, now divide the upholstery at intervals.
This not only renders lying down impossible, but also prevents the squeezing in of an extra twatree folk for a jolly gathering.
Northlink/Serco is open to suggestions, I’m told, and the following might go some way towards adding a bit more equality and comfort to the travel experience:
With all reclining seats now in brightly lit and often noisy public areas, free earplugs and sleeping masks would be a kind gesture.
Give everyone the chance to travel by extending discounts to the unemployed/low-waged. (A low season return journey with shower use and basic food/drink costs a young Shetlander on Jobseeker’s Allowance considerably more than the weekly benefit of £56.25.)
Please don’t deprive your passengers of much-needed beds. Suspend exclusive cabin use during busy seasons.
While Magnus’ Lounge might enhance the business class visitor experience, it does the opposite for the lifeline user. Voyagers have always mingled free of charge and like to continue doing so.
Those hip-bruising human deterrents could easily be replaced by friendly signage, asking passengers not to stretch out during busy times. After all, every ferry in the world allows folk to “camp out”, which not only makes for a comfortable night, but greatly adds to the sense of fun and adventure.
During 37 years and over 150 sea voyages, I’ve seen many a change.
Totting up the pros and cons of the Serco refit, I’m sorry to say the latter heavily outweigh the former.
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