Just 90 minutes sailing with Saint John Paul II from the centre of Valletta
Linking Malta and Sicily Virtu Ferries is effectively a bridge between the two islands with a swift 90-minute Mediterranean crossing. This daily, year-round, day return, service eliminates the geographic divide between Malta and its closest neighbour, making Malta truly part of the European Market. For some time I had been waiting for the opportunity to travel on the company's largest and newest high speed catamaran, Saint John Paul II, in full commercial service and a visit to Malta in July 2022 provided that opportunity with time for a quick round trip to Pozzallo
Virtu Ferries sails from Valletta's Grand Harbour, without question one of the most beautiful natural harbours in the world. Taking in the magnificent harbour vista from the vantage point of the craft's spacious outside deck as she loaded for an evening sailing to Pozzallo, it was hard not to be impressed by the breathtaking view of the fortifications, church domes and steeples of Valletta and the Three Cities.
Matching the quality of the surrounding area the standard of the craft's accommodation is very high, probably the best I have yet to experience on a fast ferry - and I've seen a few! I should not be too surprised for the craft's luxury finish derives from a design based on 28 years of surveyed passenger feedback.
Built in Hobart, Australia by Incat Tasmania, Saint John Paul II has a total of 1,134 VIP, business and economy seats across two decks, including 996 inside and 138 outside. The principal lounges are located on the Main Deck; one forward and aft, another two amidships on the port and starboard sides, and a designated freight drivers lounge with additional facilities. There is also comfortable outside seating located aft. Up top, there are two VIP lounges on the Bridge Deck.
In The Club Lounge passengers can enjoy a good range of snacks and drinks, including a pretty good espresso in proper ceramic cups! This is a relaxing space with reclining chairs complete with footrest and, of course, panoramic views of the sea. Like the Main Deck below, the lounge opens onto a large exclusive outside seating area.
The full span of Saint John Paul II's vehicle deck is designed to carry 23 heavy commercial trailers, equivalent to 490 truck lane metres or 167 cars. Malta is an island nation with a strong and growing economy so it is imperative that Virtu Ferries’ year-round lifeline passenger and freight services are reliable. Malta can experience some very strong winds and high waves during the winter months, so Virtu wanted the very best solution for a year-round, comfortable fast-ferry service. This was the driver behind the investment in Saint John Paul II.
In design stage, Virtu Ferries sought increased reliability, sea keeping, passenger comfort, capacity and economy with less operational downtime than existing vessels in its then fleet. Using computational fluid dynamics (CFD) and hydrodynamic free-running model test techniques, the well proven Incat Wave Piercing Catamaran hullform was further developed for Mediterranean winter conditions. Modelled by Revolution Design, the hydrodynamic tests were undertaken by Seaspeed Marine Consulting at the Ocean Basin and Ship Tank in Gosport, UK – facilities normally associated with UK Ministry of Defence projects. What emerged was a completely new bow arrangement and increased tunnel height, ensuring the 110 metre long Saint John Paul II was truly fit for purpose on year-round ferry operations on what is an exposed Mediterranean island route.
Reliable services bring numerous benefits to an island nation. A more recent, indeed now well established, market is that of Maltese residents owning a family holiday home in Sicily. This is as well as Sicilians commuting between their hometowns in Sicily and their workplace in Malta. Indeed it is noticeable that there are a number of Sicilian restaurants scattered all over Malta. The Island is also a second home to many highly skilled Sicilians, very much essential to Malta’s economy.
Delivered to Virtu Ferries by Incat in February 2019 the craft was selected for the prestigious notation “Significant Ship” by the highly respected Royal Institute of Naval Architects (RINA). Saint John Paul II then went on to win the coveted High Speed Ferry award in Cruise and Ferry Review’s first ever Ship of the Year awards. A short list of nominations included high speed Express 4 from Molslinjen, Rikulau from Brave Lines, Venus Clipper from Thames Clippers and fellow Incat catamaran Volcán de Tagoro from Naviera Armas.
Without doubt, Saint John Paul II is an excellent vessel with superior seakeeping qualities, delivering a high standard of comfort.