A gem of a cruise

Holyrood Restaurant

It’s not just the diamonds of Antwerp that sparkle and stand out on a sailing with Ambassador Cruise Line, writes Jeannine Williamson

It’s not long after 10am when our guide Caroline hands us a glass of canary yellow liqueur and explains it was originally created by a doctor and pharmacist in 1863. More alarmingly, she says it was often used to cure the equine stomach ailment colic – hence the long-necked bottle to fit into horses’ mouths – and was once given to a poorly elephant at the zoo.

I decide to ignore the time of day and focus on the fact that I’m trying Elixir d’Anvers purely for medicinal purposes. The pick-me-up is unexpectedly pleasant and aromatic, not like the fiery rocket fuel I was expecting, and we leave the small liquor shop and head back into the winter’s day on Antwerp’s Grote Markt, or central square, feeling suitably warmed.

The drink is among the many surprises during my short break Festive Getaway cruise on Ambassador Cruise Line’s latest ship Ambition, which joined the fleet in 2023 and which, with sister ship Ambience, specialises in cruise holidays for over 50s. When I first heard we’d be visiting Antwerp I assumed we’d be bussed into town from a port outside the city. However, the 1,200-guest Ambition is small enough to navigate Belgium’s River Scheldt and sail right into the heart of this captivating city which is out of bounds for larger cruise vessels.

Attractions to suit all tastes

With room for just one ship at a time, Antwerp is a lesser-known port on ocean cruises which adds to its appeal. You won’t be disgorging into town with thousands of other passengers and don’t have to negotiate a huge terminal to get there. Within minutes we’re off the ship inside the most impressive tourist information centre I’ve ever seen. The medieval fortress of Het Steen castle is Antwerp’s oldest building and right next to the docking spot.

Ambition is moored overnight, so we’ve got plenty of time to explore the city independently or sign up for some of the ship’s excursions, which also include the chance to travel further afield and explore Brussels and Ghent. At the information centre we get an introduction to the city’s history. To make the most of our stay Caroline suggests we buy an Antwerp City Pass, €45 for a day or €55 for 48 hours, and it’s a great tip. The pass covers public transport, free entry into museums and attractions and other discounts.

After Caroline’s tour, which provides a perfect introduction to Antwerp, our group divides to variously seek out some of the city’s many contrasting attractions. Some of my fellow passengers go in search of chocolate while others head to the dazzling diamond district, even if just to window shop. Antwerp is known as Diamond City because around 86% of the world’s rough diamonds and 50% of all polished diamonds are traded there. If you’re not feeling flush, chocolate diamonds make a fun souvenir.

Drink in the sights

De Koninck (credit De Konicnk)
De Koninck (credit De Konicnk)

Meanwhile, I’m on the trail of another of Antwerp’s famous, and less expensive, commodities; beer. The city pass includes free entry into De Koninck brewery, the last remaining brewery in the city which recently celebrated its 190th anniversary. Several of us hop in a tram to get there. Part of the historic building has been converted into an interactive exhibition and you set off with a glass of Bolleke – the name of the beer and the round glass it’s served in – to sip on the way round. It’s a fun way to learn about the brewery and brewing process, and you even get the chance to try your bartending skills and pour a refill. If you need another top up there’s a large bar at the end, with signs delivering bon mots such as: “spilling a beer is the adult equivalent to losing a balloon”.

The convivial atmosphere continues back onboard Ambition. Catering to Brits, including couples, groups and single travellers over 50, it has a very friendly and relaxed vibe and the size of the ship means nothing feels overwhelming; particularly to any first-time cruisers. Crew members are unfailingly smiling and attentive.

Balcony suite
Balcony suite

There’s a good choice of cabins, ranging from insides to spacious suites. As an older ship – constructed in 1999 and fully refitted in 2023 prior to joining Ambassador – rooms are generally far more spacious than you find on modern vessels. I’m in a lovely Superior Junior Suite with a balcony and perks include in-room treats such as a welcome bottle of wine and fruit, plus complimentary room service breakfast. Whichever you choose, cabins are well-equipped with welcome facilities such as an all-important kettle.

Prepare to be spoiled

Out and about, Ambassador has put a lot of work into creating a host of different bars and lounges that really do provide something for everyone. The Cavern is the place for all-day entertainment including trivia, bingo and live music, while The Purple Turtle Wine Bar is a more intimate spot for cocktails. Each night energetic and multi-talented performers stage two shows in the comfortable Palladium Theatre, such as hits from the musicals.

There’s no shortage of places to eat, too. Cruise traditionalists will like the classic first and second sitting dinner service in the two main restaurants, Holyrood and Buckingham, and there’s food virtually throughout the day in the Borough Market buffet. Dinner in the atmospheric Asian eatery Saffron is delicious and well worth the £16.96 supplement. For a really special occasion, the Chef’s Table served up one of the most imaginative multi-course menus I’ve ever had at sea and fully justified the £89 charge. Seating just 12 diners in an intimate curtained-off private dining room, it’s a spectacular affair that includes a galley tour, menu introduction by the executive chef and wine pairings throughout.

On our night it ends with a spectacular golden chocolate globe dessert. As we tuck in, and the chef comes back to bid us farewell, I’m sure we’re not the first or last silver travellers to appreciatively murmur the immortal line from the iconic 1990s Ferrero Rocher ambassador’s party advert: “you are really spoiling us.”

Find out more

Ambassador Cruise Line, which primarily focuses on holidays for over 50s, offers cruises from eight British ports; Tilbury, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Dundee, Liverpool, Belfast, Bristol and Falmouth. Itineraries visiting Antwerp range from four-night city breaks and week-long festive getaways to 12-night cruises.

To book a cruise with Ambassador Cruise Line and get further information from our Silver Travel Advisors, call 0800 412 5678.

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Jeannine Williamson

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