The cost of flights from the mainland to Taiwan is kept deliberately high, so for many families, the affordable way of getting there is to make the short ferry crossing from Xiamen to Kinmen Island, then fly from there to your next destination. We however like to be different, so instead, we took the overnight ferry direct from Xiamen to Keelung. It was an odd, though not unenjoyable, experience.
We had tried to book tickets online, but the ferry company’s website was distinctly unhelpful. I emailed an address I found on the usually reliable seat61.com, but got no response. So then we asked a Xiamen-based Chinese friend to help us. In the end, though the only way he could get tickets was to book through an agent. Even collecting our tickets was a challenge, as the office is only open on the one day of the week on which the ferry sails. And it is perhaps due to this old-school approach to sales that the ship was so eerily empty.
Our kids had been expecting a boat like the one on which we’d traveled the couple of miles to Gulangyu, so when they saw the huge ship we were boarding, they were wide-eyed. However, I think there were more passengers on the crowded Gulangyu crossing than on the “Star of Hong Kong.”
Despite the ship being half-empty, the stewards still managed to put us in the wrong cabin. We’d decided to go with the cheapest standard class cabin, and we were shown to a big 6-berth with a TV. This is all right, I thought, until we found a bag in the storage area, and took it to the stewards. They realized we’d been given the wrong cabin, and escorted us to the Deluxe area.
Great, I thought, free upgrade. Wrong again. We went back to the cabin opposite our original one and they kicked out the people who were already in there. However, they’d be in there long enough to make the tiny space stink. Please don’t think this is a case of snooty westerners objecting to the smell of foreign food – the old man’s feet really reeked. So I went and complained, in ungrammatical but noisy Chinese, and we were moved again.
As a family, we’re budget travelers, because we’d rather travel far and often than luxuriously. However, if we were to take this ferry again I would invest in a deluxe room. Not only was the standard cabin tiny, it didn’t even have a proper door, but was open at top and bottom like a toilet cubicle.
Nonetheless, when we went up on deck to wave goodbye to Xiamen, we had two very excited boys. The ferry crossing to visit family in Ireland was a regular part of my childhood, and I’d forgotten that for all their wanderings, my kids had never been on a proper ship before, let alone slept on one. And the sun going down behind Fujian was a more dramatic sight than the concrete of Holyhead.
We had stocked up with a bag full of snacks, but since there was no room to eat in the cabin we took it all up to the coffee lounge. We’d been feasting for a while when someone told us that we weren’t allowed to bring our own food there. However, they kindly let us continue as long as cleaned up after ourselves – probably because we were the only people in there. There was a huge restaurant, with long lines of tables, and hopeful staff standing outside, but I never saw a single person dine there throughout the whole voyage.
It all made for a slightly spooky experience, as though we were in a 1950s horror film about a ship of lost souls. On a more serious note, if that was a typical trip, it’s hard to see how the line can keep running.
That’s a shame, because we had fun, slept well, and arrived in Keelung refreshed and eager. From there it was a 30-minute ride on a local train to Taipei, which was to be the next stage of our adventure.