Rupert Parker goes solo on a 13-night cruise from Southampton, visiting Portugal and Spain
My wife doesn’t like cruising so, for the first time, I decide to experience life as a single on board the Fred Olsen ship, Braemar. It’s with a certain amount of trepidation that I sit in the embarkation lounge in Southampton and cast my eye over my fellow passengers. Most seem to be obvious couples and I’m wondering whether I will really be on my own for the duration of the voyage. I’ve brought plenty of books, just in case the weather keeps me cooped up inside.
Lisbon will be the first port of call but it will take two days sailing to get there. I wait patiently until my number is called and then climb the gang plank and make my way to the cabin on deck 6. They’ve upgraded me and I’m right at the front with a large window overlooking the bows. It’s relatively spacious with one double bed, enough hanging space, a dressing table, as well as two armchairs and, of course, a compact bathroom.
We make our way down the Solent as the sun is setting and soon we’re out in the open sea. Braemar has three restaurants, Thistle, Grampian and Palms and I’m heading to dinner in the Thistle. This is the largest and I’m shown to a large table and meet my fellow diners. They’re also all singles and there’s an even balance of the sexes.
The food is also good and served by quietly efficient waiters. There’s a choice of two starters, three soups, two salads and four main courses, plus fish of the day and a British speciality. By the end of the dinner, I realise that we’ve all hit it off surprisingly well. Every night we change places so we get the chance to know each other better and then move on for the entertainment and enjoy a nightcap. As the days go by I begin to look forward to our nightly rendezvous as I don’t really see them during the day.
This is my first cruise on a large boat, although the Braemar is smaller than most, at a little over 24,000 tonnes and holding only 930 passengers. There are eight decks with the top one containing two pools and a couple of Jacuzzis and rows of sun beds. For the first couple of days the seas are rough but, as we near Portugal, the skies clear and people start appearing in their sun bathing gear.
Lisbon is pleasantly warm and I explore the Alfama district before taking a trip to the historic town of Obidos, around an hour to the North. In the summer, this is so packed with tourists that it’s almost impossible to walk in the main street but this time of year it’s quiet. I do a tour of the ramparts, not for the faint-hearted as there’s no guide rail and the path is quite narrow.
We sail in the evening and next day brings us to Portimao, on the Algarve. This is a centre for sardine fishing and small restaurants on the sea front serve them up grilled. I’m fancying a swim so make my way to the beach of Praia de Rocha, a wide stretch of golden sand backed my rocky cliffs. The water is fresh, not warm enough to linger, and I’m one of the few brave souls to tackle it.
Early the next morning we enter the Guadalquivir River which leads to the city of Seville. The Braemar is one of the few ships able to navigate the narrow channel and after 49 nautical miles we moor right in the heart of the city.
The famous Gothic cathedral is the third largest church in Europe after St Peter’s and St Paul’s, and contains the elaborate tomb of Christopher Columbus. I climb to the top of the 100m Giralda tower, formally a minaret, taking a series of ramps, rather than steps. It was designed this way so the Iman could get up for the call to prayer on a donkey. The Alcazar, just opposite, is a royal palace that also has Moorish origins and the upper parts are still used by the King of Spain when he’s in town.
In the afternoon, I cross to other side of the river and explore the Triana district, all narrow alleyways and once home to the city’s gypsies. It’s undergoing a process of gentrification but I stumble on a small bar where outside, two guitarists are accompanying a young woman singing and stamping flamenco. This is decidedly not for tourists so I linger and enjoy the music.
The next day is spent at sea and the weather is so warm that it’s pleasant to sit out on the top deck and take in the sun. For my pre-dinner aperitif, the Observatory on deck 8, with its large picture windows, becomes a regular haunt. The main evening’s entertainment happens in the Neptune Lounge where an excellent Filipino band backs various singers and one night have a show to themselves. Other nights see comedians, magicians and variety with the ship’s resident entertainers.
Although Malaga is an attractive city in its own right, I’m taking a trip to Granada and the Alhambra Palace, a couple of hours away. There are three main attractions here – the fortified Alcazaba citadel, all towers and ramparts, the beautiful water gardens of the Generalife, and the Nazaríes Palace. This Moorish delight is the highlight and despite all the hype doesn’t disappoint. The fountain of the lions is sublime and I’m just wishing I have more time.
Sailing down the river, then through the straits of Gibraltar, we arrive at the city of Ceuta on the North African coast. This tiny Spanish enclave, nestled in Morocco, is a hangover from the time when this whole area belonged to Spain. I’m interested in an excursion to Tetouan, in theory only an hour away, but customs and immigration make this trip to Morocco twice that.
Still there’s a beautifully preserved Casbah here, a souk protected by ancient walls, and as they don’t see too many tourists there’s also very little hassle. Wandering through the narrow lanes, packed with stalls selling fresh fish, vegetables and meat, you really do feel you’re back in the middle ages. A refreshing cup of mint tea and some traditional live music in an attractive tiled courtyard complete the experience.
From here it’s homeward bound, back up the Atlantic coast for a day in Vigo then through the Bay of Biscay to Southampton. Mercifully the seas have quietened and it’s a few lazy days on deck, climaxing in an invitation to a formal dinner at the captain’s table. It’s still warm enough to take breakfast and lunch al fresco on the tiered stern, and one day a school of dolphins follows our boat.
On my last day at sea I spend a delightful afternoon in the Observatory, taking tea with scones and jam, to the sound of the cocktail pianist. I’ve made some good friends during the voyage and there’s time for one last supper before we say our farewells. We’re all feeling slightly smug that we’ve got on so well and, for me, travelling solo has been a pleasant revelation. It’s certainly something not to be frightened of – rather it should be relished.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines.