Anne Hailes: How I found love aboard the P&O ferry to Cairnryan – well, sort of

The Club Lounge on the P&O ferry en route for Cairnryan – what more could you want?

FULL steam ahead! I felt for the people queueing on the M2 coming into Belfast as I swung by on the empty road to Larne and the P&O ferry terminal. Last week when I sailed on the European Highlander to Cairnryan the ship was bursting with happiness.

First of all, meeting seven Mazda sports cars and their passengers going home after touring the north and promising to come back they were so impressed. Next it was a young man who accompanied me in the lift from the car deck to the passengers quarters. These are all on one level so easy to get around, from the cinema, children’s play areas and shop with ‘competitive prices’ to the restaurant (full marks for excellent vegetarian lasagna) and lounge bar beyond.

I opted to pay £12 when booking to have the use of the private club room with complimentary tea and coffee, biscuits and waiter service for meals and a television; you can book when you board for £14. What more could you want?

Anyway, this young man. He was beaming from ear to ear and I asked him if he was leaving Larne or heading home to Scotland – going home, he said.

“My first time in Northern Ireland.” Was it good? “It was tremendous.”

Something about the smile encouraged me to ask was he meeting a girl. Just the question he wanted.

“Yes and she’s lovely, I even met her mummy and she likes me.”

Turned out to be an internet date. They talked for a year on Skype and telephone but this was the first face-to-face meeting and it obviously was a very special time for them both. As we disembarked he came over and gave me a big hug, hardly able to conceal his joy, promising: “I’ll be back soon.”

It got the day off to a good start.

Then, as I was browsing in the well-stocked shop, young boys and girls arrived – 53 P7s from Cookstown, up at the skrake of dawn and all bright as buttons and full of chat. One of their teachers told me they were off to Edinburgh on an educational trip and she was as excited as the children.

That’s the thing about ferries – no two days are the same as the passengers come and go. I met some big burly truck drivers who are regulars and have their own Route Masters rest room, I just missed the North West 200 riders and there wasn’t a football fan in sight.

Coming up to the holiday season there will be coaches full of holidaymakers as well as families taking their cars onwards to destinations in the UK. It’s such an easy journey and so efficient. Gather at the P&O terminal an hour before the sailing time, join the queue of cars, camper vans, trucks and bikes, have a coffee and wait to be called.

Foot passengers are ushered on to a bus which drives them to the ship, right up the gangway to join the other vehicles. Step out, into a lift and on into the bright and busy passenger area. A welcome at the information desk and staff helping people with their needs – often it’s about changing currency. There’s no luggage lying around as it’s all in the cars and foot passengers can leave their cases in the bus where it’s kept safe until they return to disembark. Slick.

On my day the sun was shining and the Irish Sea was like a millpond. The staff will provide ginger biscuits and wrist bands to help overcome sea sickness – advice is to take your sea-sickness pills a couple of hours before sailing; not much good when you are under way.

If you do need fresh air it’s possible to walk outside along the deck.

This is the shortest route between Northern Ireland and Scotland, just two hours. Time passes quickly and I noticed, with Wi-Fi available free of charge, so many people were either working on their laptops, reading from a Kindle or playing games on their tablets.

Once off and back on dry land, the freedom to explore is magical. The road on to Glasgow and Edinburgh is windy and picturesque and coming down the hill to Ballintrea is quite breathtaking. I had decided to stop off on my way and for some reason I was guided to Glenapp Castle in Ayrshire. And there I got a really pleasant surprise. I’ll tell you what I discovered next week.

:: More details of fares and special offers at


Years ago a group of women were so despairing of the lack of roles in local theatre that they formed their own company and called it Charabanc. They made a massive impact and they have all gone on to make their mark not only here but on the wider stage of Britain and Ireland.

Now it’s happening all over again. In 2001 Siobhan Kelly, Clare McMahon and Maria Quinn met when they were 13 years of age at the Rainbow Factory School of Performing Arts. It was the beginning of a close friendship and subsequently successful stage careers.

Maria has been appearing in The Playboy of the Western World in London, Clare in the TV serial The Woman in White – as a writer, she has also been shortlisted for A Play for Ireland with Fishamble Theatre Company – while most recently Siobhan has appeared the the popular Amazon Prime series Vikings.

Now they’ve put their experiences together to chart their course from early teens to early 30s. Women Troubles is their story of life from teenagers, including first love, GCSEs, boyfriends and drama schools.

It's being staged at Newry's Sean Hollywood Arts Centre on May 24 (028 30 313180); Downpatrick Arts Centre May 26 (

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