Many German, Belgian and Dutch whisky enthusiasts annually prepare in Spring for a special crossing of the North Sea by ferry from IJmuiden to Newcastle, usually taking their car with them. The ultimate goal is the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival. The company that takes care of a safe journey on the waters between the European continent and Great Britain is called DFDS Seaways – a respected 150-years-old Danish company.
We’re talking about thousands and thousands of people here. The journey takes roughly 18 hours. Boarding in the port city of IJmuiden, near Amsterdam, is at 4pm local time and arrival in Newcastle at 10:30 AM the following morning, ship’s time.
The crew of DFDS takes ample care of the passengers and offers a varied program aboard. Those who enjoy the movies can choose one in the cinema; if you fancy a bit of a gamble, you’ll find the casino open as soon as the ferry hits international waters; the children’s play corner allows parents some relief; the Blue Riband Restaurant offers excellent dinners a la carte; or, alternatively, the hungry traveller can book the all-you-can-eat buffet in the Seven Seas Restaurant. If you prefer a simple sandwich and beverage, the coffee corner gladly serves. Of course, there is whisky. Why not try a flight of single malts in the Navigator Bar? Or check out specials on single malt in the duty free shop, often a place for bottles not locally available, such as the Danish single malt Braunstein. Night owls may be tempted to visit the night club with live music and various acts, a range of cocktails and a well-stocked bar.
Most passengers however will spend the night sleeping in their cabin. That might be an affordable four-person inside cabin with bunk beds, an outside cabin with sea view or a very comfortable Commodore Deluxe with free mini-bar and complimentary breakfast. But, who is DFDS and what do these initials actually mean?
History of DFDS
DFDS stands for ‘Det Forenede Dampskibs Selskab’, Danish for ‘The United Steamboat Company’. It was founded in 1866 when three Danish shipping companies merged.
The initiator of the newly formed company was a successful businessman named C.F. Tietgen.
At the time, IJmuiden on the Dutch coast wasn’t a port of call yet. The first regular service to England was introduced in 1875 when the Danish harbour at Esjberg had been made suitable to moor ships of this size. In the next decade, DFDS would become one of the 10 largest companies of its kind and maintain services to various destinations, even the USA. During World War I, the ships on the other side of the Atlantic were chartered by American companies to maintain their connections with the Caribbean and South America.
Around the 1920s, the Libau-Danzig-Copenhagen line seamlessly connected to the Scandinavia-America Line and shipped many emigrants to the West. In World War II, DFDS suffered a lot of damage. As soon as Denmark was occupied all their motor ships were docked because of the lack of fuel and the company lost control over 31 of its ships. Three years after the war had ended, DFDS lost another ship in 1948, with dramatic consequences. The Kjobenhavn hit a sea mine and 48 people lost their lives.
The 1950s and 1960s showed a steady growth and mergers with other companies and openings of other lines. For example, the Nordana Line exploited freight ships between the Mediterranean and the Gulf of Mexico. New connections were added between the USA and South America. The centennial was celebrated and in 1967 the current logo (a Maltese cross) was introduced. However, in the early 1970s not many people would board a ferry to whisky country and there was no IJmuiden-Newcastle line. One needed to fly to Edinburgh or Glasgow and hire a car to drive to the Speyside.
In 1982, DFDS acquired the Tor Line that maintained services between Amsterdam-Immingham and Amsterdam-Göteborg and that meant their entry into the Netherlands, albeit that the merger was named Scandinavian Seaways (Holland). The first gateway to Scotland by ship was opened for the European whisky lovers.
In 1994 Scandinavian Seaways moved its terminal from Amsterdam to IJmuiden, located at the coast. In doing so the ships needn’t go through the great locks that separated the North Sea Canal from the actual North Sea, which saved a lot of time. In 1996 the line with Newcastle was opened with a daily service and the number of passengers would rapidly grow. In 1998 the company counted 289 trips with more than 86,000 Dutch passengers. If only 2 per cent of that group were interested in whisky, that would have meant 2,000 whisky tourists 18 years ago, let alone the ones from other EU countries. It didn’t take long before a second ship was added and the total number of trips rose to 458, with 110,000 passengers.
The road will take you through beautiful scenery, following the Spey, passing many distilleries
On 1 October 1999 the name Scandinavian Seaways was changed into DFDS Seaways, in an attempt to combine all various lines worldwide under one header. Smaller ships were exchanged for larger ones and in 2003, one of the best years in the company’s history, 85,000 cars and 523,000 people made the journey from IJmuiden to Newcastle and back.
In the next decade the capacity and the number of passengers showed a steady growth, partly caused by the fact that the ships could now carry caravans and touring cars. In 2011 all ships were repainted in the same colour – ‘DFDS blue’ for the bow, white for the decks and blue again for the chimney, which proudly displays the Maltese Cross. All ships were re-baptised and given Seaways as their surname.
On the road to Speyside
Well, and then you arrive on the other side, in the northeast of England. Whisky country and the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival are still a long ways to go. After all, many roads, if not all, lead to Scotland. It depends on the traveller’s preference which one to choose. I usually avoid the coastal road (A1). Instead, I take the A68 to Jedburgh, passing the mighty standing stones that mark the border between England and Scotland. After Edinburgh it’s the A9 north. Past Aviemore a turn to the right will take you to the A95. Just follow direction Elgin. The road will take you through beautiful scenery, following the river Spey, passing many distilleries of name and fame, such as Cragganmore, Glenfarclas and Aberlour.
An excellent place to stay is Craigellachie. The eponymous hotel has 27 rooms and the world famous Quaich Bar with more than 700 different whiskies to taste and the Copper Dog Bar & Restaurant below, which is open to non-residents as well.
Then, opposite the hotel, there is the Highlander Inn. A cosy, small-scale country inn, it is owned by the well-known Japanese whisky expert Tatsuya Minagawa, who started his career as a bartender in The Quaich many years ago. Other nice places to stay are the Dowans Hotel in Aberlour, the Archiestown Hotel in Archiestown, across the river Spey, or the Forsyths-owned Station Hotel in Rothes.
In this area you will find a distillery on almost every street corner. The Whisky Shop Dufftown is one of the gathering places for whisky tourists and the Speyside Cooperage on the road between Dufftown and Craigellachie is a place not to be missed. The Macallan is just across from the Craigellachie Hotel, and Strathisla, the oldest working distillery in the area, is in Keith, which is a good half-hour away by car. Those who prefer a beautiful scenic view may consider taking the old railway between Dufftown and Keith, which leaves from a platform next to Glenfiddich Distillery and arrives in the backyard of Strathisla.
About 20 minutes north of Craigellachie is Elgin, home to The Drouthy Cobbler pub, another hot spot during the festival. Elgin is the capital of the county and has plenty of hotels and B&Bs to choose from. The official festival website offers an extensive program of activities that can be pre-booked online. In 2019, the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival runs 1–6 May.
Back to Newcastle
I regularly advise whisky enthusiasts to reserve two days for travelling back to North Shields, the terminal from where the ferry will take you back to the European continent.
The first leg is to Edinburgh, usually reached by returning via the A9. For those who prefer an alternative route from Craigellachie to Scotland’s capital, I can recommend the following: drive from Craigellachie in the direction of Tomintoul, passing the Glenlivet Distillery, then follow the road to Cock Bridge, Candacraig, Ballater, Crathie and Braemar. From there take the A93 through Glen Shee, a stunning valley, pass Blairgowrie, then head for Perth, where you can join the M90 south that will bring you straight to Edinburgh. The next day continue at leisure to Newcastle, as you have plenty of time – reckon with four hours and you might even wedge in a visit to Glenkinchie Distillery, southeast of Edinburgh. The ferry from Newcastle leaves at 5pm, but be sure to be on board by 4pm.
DFDS offers the same entertainment on the way back and will sail you to IJmuiden safely through the night; you’ll be arriving the next morning around 10:30am local time, ready to tell your friends about your adventures.