Category Archives: Cruising

Hurtigruten Around the UK

Back from the 5-day trial run of the new Hurtigruten ship MS Fridtjof Nansen which left Liverpool on Thursday last 12th March for Dublin, Cardiff, Fowey (Cornwall) and Dartmouth (Devon) before disembarking its passengers at Portsmouth on Tuesday morning 17th

MS Friedtjof Nansen at anchor

Those who’ve read my blogs will know I’m no fan of cruising but this trip was exceptional and I’m now a big fan of, not cruising, but the Hurtigruten fleet and their way of presenting a cruise.  So much so that I would have signed up immediately for another trip with them but for the Coronavirus situation which makes forward planning difficult.

Hurtigruten has long been in the forefront of ecological travel and the MS Friedtjof Nansen, being the latest ship in the fleet, has a very sophisticated operating system. In line with their ecological profile is the cutting-edge hybrid engine system which consists of large battery packs with extra electric power that allows the engines to function at optimal levels: these, in tu, substantially lower fuel usage and CO2 emission. In addition, the ship has the option to run just on battery power for limited periods of time which means no fuel spent and zero emissions.

Pool on Upper Deck – Photograph Agurtxane Concellon/www.hurtigruten.com

Our cabin was spacious and well-furnished in cool Nordic fashion with blissfully comfortable beds and duvets, plus thick Scandinavian blankets should they be needed (they weren’t). A good-sized bathroom with super rain-shower led off the hall, but the cherry on the cake was the large balcony with a hot-tub which steamed away throughout the voyage – available for use day or night. A giant TV screen was both television and information display for temperatures, maps, up-coming talks, lectures, films, restaurants and menus, and just about everything one wanted, or needed to know on the voyage. A state-of-the-art coffee machine and tea-maker well-supplied with the necessary makings, meant we had all we needed should we want to spend time in our cabin.

A choice of talks from onboard professionals throughout the day (all enthusiasts with sense of humour) meant that we were immersed in an experience second to none, and difficult though it was to draw oneself away from the hot tub on the balcony (or the hot jacuzzi on the top deck for those who wanted a more social immersion) I found it hard not to attend as many as possible.

The Nansen Science Centre is the onboard HQ for the expedition team, an edutainment venue where guests and crew meet.  This Centre will come into its own when the ship voyages to the polar areas that the Hurtigruten fleet have made their own, equipped as it is with VR goggles which will allow passengers to use Pioneer BluEye underwater drone cameras.

Large cube screens in the Science Center showcase engaging content and it is equipped with advanced microscopes to examine samples from the field, offering a perspective on the natural world.  Although we were sailing in UK waters, we were able to see and handle many exciting finds from polar regions, like Narwahl tusks, killer whale teeth, walrus tusks, polar bear skulls and dolphin fin skeletons which resemble nothing so much as a human hand.   

Explorer Lounge Bar – Photographs Agurtxane Concellon/www.hurtigruten.com

Disembarkation in Dublin was cancelled because it was in lockdown so our first port of call was Cardiff.

Arriving at the Port, the life-size statue of Ivor Novello sitting atop a plinth of red granite took me back to my teens when we danced to the music of this favourite son of Cardiff. Or did we? I can remember my mother singing We’ll Gather Lilacs so perhaps it’s the mind playing tricks.

CARDIFF BAY

Quotations such as these adorn the walls of the Welsh History Museum
Titles of Novello Songs

Outstanding architecture and great use of space made the area a very agreeable place in which to saunter before popping into the Millennium Building for a tour of the theatre (the acoustics are very impressive) and the lush red terracotta Pierhead Building (now the Welsh History Museum) built of glazed terracotta blocks from Wrexham.  The interior is no less startling in its use of terracotta and locally produced ceramic tiles. It houses a terracotta fireplace, a terracotta staircase the balusters of which are made of terracotta, and a banister of glazed ceramic that echoes the lovely tiles that line the walls. 

Interior Welsh History Museum

Much has been made of the waterfront development in Cardiff and with its many cafes and restaurants we experienced a very Welsh welcome wherever we went.  We even sampled Welsh cakes and Bara Brith with our morning coffee.

Nordic Church built to honour the Norwegian sailors who docked here

FOWEY

Fowey (which I learned to pronounce Foy) in Cornwall was a pretty little place and as there was an optional river trip up the estuary many people opted for that but I spent the day in the village and was rewarded by some delightful sights as I strolled around the village.

Fowey

The light rain persisted for most of the day so although it was possible to take photograhs, the effect on the final images was to make them all look a bit misty.  In fact, a typical day in an English seaside resort in spring.

DARTMOUTH

Dartmouth I completely fell in love with.  I was entranced by the medieval buildings still being used as dwelling houses, the narrow cobbled alleyways, the parks, the sense of history everywhere, and the absence of big stores. 

Independent shops, boutiques, and providers of food, wine and butchery, serve the local population from 17th and 18th century merchants’ houses. It is said that Dartmouth has the best collection of these merchant houses of this period, but it must also be said that it has some exuberant imitations.  The Butterwalk is the most impressive block. It consists of four timber framed houses built between 1628-1640 and beautifully restored after bomb damage during the Second World War. 

We took a trip up the river Dart, passing Sir Walter Raleigh’s boathouse, to Greenway House, the former home of Agatha Christie and now a National Trust property. The house overlooks stunning views of the River Dart and the 30-minute cruise, operated exclusively for the National Trust, is a perfect way to approach Christie’s mansion and superb grounds. 

We didn’t go inside Greenway but spent a lovely sunny afternoon walking the extensive grounds and woodland, admiring the wild cyclamen, bluebells, primroses and irises growing under the trees and along the edges of the paths, and inhaling the perfume of the magnolia trees, magnificently in bloom.  Do rhododendrons smell?  I can’t remember but in their full glory of crimson, yellow and pink blossom they were a sight to behold.

Ring the Bell for the Ferryman and he comes from the other side.

A quick ferry across the river to Dittisham, an exceptionally beautiful riverside settlement on the Dart and one of the most attractive villages in South Devon.   Famous for its plums at one time, it is now a relaxing day-trip from many places in the county and an ideal spot for a short break – or even a day trip.

Coluldn’t resist it!

And then it was back to our Norwegian home for our last night on board.  It had been a wonderful five days, much better than I had imagined it would, and I put it all down to the Hurtigruten staff who made sure everything ran smoothly, the comfort of the cabins with their cool Norwegian décor, and the simple yet wonderful food.   I even bought a stuffed huskie to take home and I wasn’t even in the arctic!

Cruising: The Verdict.

In my last post I wondered if cruising was all it’s cracked up to me.  Well, I have now returned from a my Caribbean cruise and have reached a verdict.  No, it’s not.

Lifeboat and Sea
Lifeboat and Sea

Mind you, I went with my viewpoint on the subject of cruising already half-formed.  My interaction with regular cruisers had not always been positive as I had found most of them to have little interest in the countries they visited: they spoke of “seeing” the city when they had spent a mere six hours there.  No harm there you may well say and I agree: we don’t all have to like the same thing.   But I felt that cruising took away the real adventure and excitement of travel, of discovering new things and being surprised by sights and sounds.

Big Ship in the Harbour
Big Ship in Harbour – Probably Celebrity Cruises

What I also hadn’t realised was the sheer competitiveness of the cruising lifestyle.  Those who had cruised most often talked about their Platinum status with certain lines, their Diamond status with others and their Gold cards, all of which entitled them to various bonus events and favours, champagne in the cabin, extra captain’s cocktail party, an upgrade (the only worthwhile bonus in my opinion) and early booking rights.  I listened in awe at the dinner table to the cut and thrust of the conversation and tried to work out if 4 Cunard trips equalled 3 P. & O and how many P & O’s or Celebrity Cruises would one have to do to have equal par with someone who’d done a trip on the Queen Mary.  It was a world I’d never known before, one fraught with social dangers.

Swimming in St. Vincent's in the Caribbean
Swimming in St. Vincent’s in the Caribbean

Then there were the back-to-backs, those who stayed on the ship and continued with the next voyage, sometimes 3 voyages all together.  Many of these people didn’t even bother getting off the ship when it docked, saying “Oh, we’ve been here before and it doesn’t change much!”  Well no, it probably didn’t, but don’t we all change with the years and what appealed last year might not this year so isn’t a town or city worth another look

The Azoes and Street Art

Amazing Street Art in Porta Delgado in the Azores

.But then I love my casually shod feet on the ground as I roam the streets and alleyways of foreign ports.  I love evenings sitting at wayside cafes and restaurants, watching the world go by as I sip a coffee or something stronger.  I love the strange smells that waft from the kitchens, the sounds of foreign languages, the frisson of excitement as one tries to remember the warnings from friends of the dangers of certain places.  And there’s none of that on a cruise.

I got off at every port, I went on some trips into the interior, but I don’t think for a moment that I experienced the Caribbean.  I saw beautiful landscapes and seascapes through the window of a coach, I managed a walk along a beach once or twice, and sampled Creole cooking on one occasion, but we never interacted with the locals.  I walked through the towns where we docked listening to the cries of the vendors, being hustled to take a taxi, buy a necklace, try some rum, but all the time aware that the ship would sail without me if I wasn’t back in time.  Even on the one day I managed to have lunch in the town it wasn’t possible to meet any local characters as I normally do.  I was an obvious visitor from the ship (two ships unloading over 5,000 people into a small town skews everything out of kilter).

Tropical Blooms in Martinique
Tropical Blooms in the island of Martinique in the Caribbean

So, I shall return to land holidays with maybe the occasional cargo-ship trip (these I don’t class like cruise ships – they are so different).  A week trekking in the hills in my own country, or walking in Austria or Switzerland, lazing on an Asian beach and attending a religious festival in the evening, or jazzing it up in New Orleans is more my style.

Is Cruising all It’s Cracked up to Be?

Wash from the Ship
Wash from the Ship

Now that Christmas is over I can finally turn my thoughts to holidays again.  I am lucky to live on an island where the summer months are delightful, the waters are warm (usually) and sailing, swimming, and surfing are all popular pastimes, so I usually creep away somewhere warmer during the winter.

This year, for the first time, I have opted to try cruising    I am not sure if I’m going to like it as I’m an inveterate people watcher from cafe tables in Southern Spain and Italy, bistros in France and Konditori in Denmark and Sweden, but I feel it’s time I had a change.

Williamstad Harbour

Not only am I going on a cruise-ship but I’m going to the Spice Islands of the Caribbean so I shall not have the usual pleasure of traipsing around ruins and wrecked churches, guide-book in hand, feet encased is stolid walking shoes.   But everyone tells me I will love it, so I’m giving it a go.

I have travelled the ocean before, but always on a cargo ship, one of the big ones that are the length of 3 football pitches, around which a walk makes a perfect workout before, or after a meal.  I have always enjoyed them, but then feeling part of a working ship seems so much better than being a passenger on a cruise ship.

Beautiful Williamstad, Dutch Antilles Sure, we dressed up in the evening, but so did the crew who changed from oily overalls into pristine whites to mingle with the six passengers in the bar.  No entertainment but we made our own, pockets of conversation with the mixed crew from South Africa, Philippines, Angola, UK and South America, Trivial Pursuit, watching the latest DVDs together, or just spending longer over the magnificent meals: cargo ship food is always good I’ve found without encouraging too much gluttony.

Al Fresco Evenings in the Tropics

The Chef & the Barbie

And then there were the Sunday barbecues on the deck, dress-down for captain and crew when the flamboyant shirts and shorts made an appearance and we all relaxed.

Eddie Does His Thing

I think I shall miss all that as I polish up my hat and smarten my glad rags.  On the other hand I may find it the best thing since sliced bread.  Who knows?

Photos from my last cargo ship trip on display here.

AStreetin CartagenaA Pilot Boat Approaches

Security in Caracas

Luxury Cruising on Burgundy’s Canals

Burgundy is famous for great wines and cheeses but those not exported are a special treat best sampled while cruising in luxury through France on board a canal barge.

A Peaceful Mooring for the Evening

Cruising on the barges of European Waterways definitely falls into the category of luxury, if luxury can be defined as having large air-conditioned bedroom suites (unusual on barging holidays) being pampered, and being served superb food and drink.

The GoBarging company has been cruising European waters since 1974, since when their reputation as canal cruise experts has gone from strength to strength. Unashamedly serving the luxury end of the cruise market they deliver what they promise, food of the highest quality, fine wines, expertly chosen regional cheeses to accompany the dishes, and a crew that pampers and looks after everyone with genuine warmth. The 24-hour open bar carries a wide selection of spirits, wines and liqueurs.

In France GoBarging.com covers different parts of Burgundy, Provence, the South of France, the Rhone and Loire Valleys. Passengers are collected in Paris and driven in comfortable mini buses to the embarkation points.

Approaching a Lock on the Nivernais Canal

Taking just one cruise for instance, one that departs from the  scenic town of Auxerre with its magnificent Gothic style cathedral and streets of half-timbered houses, the barge passes through 45 locks on the Nivernais Canal.   Negotiating the locks (by Captain and crew) gives passengers the opportunity to disembark and walk along the towpath or make use of one of the bicycles carried on board to explore further inland.

Getting to know fellow travellers is facilitated by a champagne reception hosted by the captain. The free-flowing wines and cocktails ensure a lively atmosphere at all times. The wines and cheeses are explained before meals by one of the charming hostesses on board and the chef ascertains guests’ likes and dislikes and offers alternatives if necessary.

Burgundy has some of the most stunning scenery in France. The canal and the River Yonne wind through rolling hills dotted with ancient villages in which every limestone house has pink roses climbing the beige walls and window boxes crammed full of red and pink geraniums. Vineyards, fruit orchards and farms add a variety of colour, and with 3-4 harvests a year in the area, there are always ribbons of green alternating with golden fields of wheat.

Chateau on a Hill seen from the Canal

Barges on the canals sail approximately half a day, the other half being spent at a place of interest.   All members of the crew are well versed in the history of the area and act as guides and drivers. If walking cobbled streets is not to everyone’s liking there is usually an interesting bar from which to people watch, or remaining on the barge with a book and some music from the library is the other option.

Vineyard in Beaune

Few people want to miss the tours of the wine-cellars though, especially in Chablis, the tiny area that produces the coveted vins de luxe Grand Cru and Premier Cru Chablis. French vineyards in Burgundy are frequently small and family-owned specialising in only two grape varieties, the red pinot noir and the white chardonnay. The sparkling wine of the region, the Cremant, is a revelation to some people who have not tried it before.

The towns visited afford time for exploring and shopping, whether Auxerre with its gold sundial clock and quirky statues dotted throughout the maze of pedestrianised streets or Vézelay with the Roman Basilica of St. Mary Magdalene where the crusaders converged before setting out for Jerusalem, a centre for artists of all kinds and a perfect place to buy ceramics, paintings, or woven tapestries.

As an alternative to a spa stay, barging is perfect. It is just as relaxing, the food is much better, there is no TV, no “entertainment”, no jolly “mine host” encouraging audience participation, only good food over which to linger with a fine wine or liqueur. Cabins are comfortable and spacious, and the captain, chef and crew are chosen for their friendliness, charm and ability to cope with any emergency.

Many companies on the French canals offer cruises of varying periods, but I’ve only travelled with the company mentioned above, European Waterways.  Having found one that pleases me, why change?  

Reflections