Anyone who has spent time sailing around the Mediterranean will be familiar with the sameness of the restaurants and souvenir shops that closely surround its enchanting harbours. Whether you berth in Corsica or Crete, Samos or Sardinia, Delos or Dubrovnik, most of the food in the front row restaurants is boringly “Med-fusion”. Even the prices are similar. The Chinese manufactured “souvies” are given just a tinge of local flavour, unlike the restaurant offerings.
However, if you venture back a street or two from the waterfront, not only is the food generally better, more imaginative and cheaper but the shop offerings are of much higher quality and at lower prices. Thus are the unthinking or inexperienced tourists taken advantage of. Much the same applies to ferries, particularly in the southern Aegean. In the north, though, there is little competition so you take whichever ferry you can.
Things have improved significantly since my report on Greek ferries from last week. While the ships are still mostly elderly, with an average age of more than 30 years, they have been of notably higher quality and safety standards. This is refreshing. Competition definitely improves the breed and even ferries owned by the same company improve as you travel southward. Greek shipowners, however, appear to have a strong aversion to buying new vessels. Sale and purchase plays seem to be a major component of their business plans.
For example, the Diagoras, a Blue Star ferry, owned by the same group, Attica, was incomparably more impressive than the Express Pegasus, owned by sister company, Hellenic Seaways, despite no significant difference in fares charged. Diagoras was in far better condition in every respect. Even the toilets were cleaned during the voyage from Lesbos to Chios. Safety equipment was more obvious, plentiful and, apparently, in better condition. The safety briefing was audible and appropriate. Seating was comfortable and a detailed passenger manifest compiled. Staff were polite, friendly and helpful.
Looking around the harbours in Limnos, Lesvos and Chios, however, I noted numerous ferries I would prefer not to travel on. Old, much modified and poorly maintained, they presented an unattractive spectacle. I think I would prefer to swim. However, they invariably appeared to be well equipped with life saving equipment and no bow doors were evident since Thassos/Kavala.
Chios to Piraeus was completed on the ex-Japanese Ro-Pax Nissos Samos, another Hellenic Seaways, Attica Group, vessel. This, also, despite being old, (31 years) was a high quality, well-maintained ship. Also, as with most Greek ferries, its turn-around times were astonishing. Loading and unloading procedures were conducted like well-choreographed ballets. While OH&S procedures would have horrified north European and, especially, Australian bureaucrats, the results were very impressive. Paddy Crumlin of the Maritime Union of Australia would not like word of the capabilities of his Greek counterparts to get back to Australia.
While waiting in Piraeus for our ferry to Heraklion in Crete, we diverted for a quick trip to nearby Aegina, in the Saronic Gulf. This was undertaken on the conventional 75 metre LOA Ro-Pax Agios Nektarios. Owned by small local company Anes Lines, she was well maintained, equipped and handled.
Piraeus to Heraklion was covered in the old and dilapidated Prevelis which appeared to be neglected in advance of a trip to the breakers. This 39-year-old Anek Lines ferry had once been a lovely ship when delivered by Japan’s Imabari Zosen to its original owner. Despite its dilapidated appearance, Prevelis was, as usual, well equipped with safety equipment including evacuation chutes. Turn around times were again tremendously impressive and would have horrified Australia’s MUA and its North American counterparts. The 4:00 am loading and unloading in Santorini was symphony-like.
Finally, after seeing a number of fast ferries in Piraeus, we managed to board one for the voyage from fascinating Heraklion to amazing Santorini. This was the 22-year-old, 87-metre Incat Champion Jet 2 operated by fast ferry specialists SeaJets. All my prejudices in favour of fast aluminium catamarans were confirmed on this two-hour voyage.
Despite rather ancient carpets, the interiors, including the garage, of this now ageing vessel, were in impressively good condition. Toilets, for example, were frequently cleaned and immaculate. Safety equipment was top class and plentiful. The video and printed safety briefings were easily the best experienced in the Aegean. The aircon was the only effective example on all our voyages. Turn arounds were spectacularly efficient.
With only the Santorini to Piraeus voyage, also probably on Champion Jet 2, left to go, my conclusions as to Aegean ferries are probably obvious. Apart from the notable exceptions mentioned, I was generally very impressed with the standards of the ferries we traveled on. While invariably elderly, they were well-equipped and well-handled. Bow doors, thankfully, seemed to be a thing of the past. Competition from “cut price” airlines is having a notable effect and safe, comfortable, fast catamarans are gradually becoming more readily available.
As with most vessels in most places, ferries have generally improved considerably in terms of safety, comfort and speed. In Greece over the past 44 years, this has been particularly noticeable.