Wine and tapas, a wonderful combination especially when a cruise ship brings them together.
The sun shines from a clear blue sky as we board Fred. Olsen’s cruise ship Braemar berthed at Southampton’s QE2 Terminal, an atmosphere of excitement pervades the air as passengers eagerly arrive on board, many having cruised this ship before such is its popularity.
Safety drill completed its 3 long blasts from the ships whistle as we ease off our berth and turn onto Southampton Water into the shipping lane past the Isle of Wight before turning south west along the English Channel and south into the Bay of Biscay towards our first destination, Bordeaux in South West France.
Next day is a sea day and time to explore this, Fred. Olsen’s smallest ship in the fleet but a very well appointed one. First thing you notice are the refreshingly bright and tasteful interiors. Pastel coloured walls, contrasting carpets, gleaming glass and brass. The 4-deck high atrium, glass outer wall affording views to the outside world whilst an inner wall boasts a mural giving the illusion of viewing scenes through arches. These decks are connected by a turquoise treaded staircase where much use is made of glass and brass giving it a bright modern feel. Lifts operate for the less agile or those who just don’t want to walk. Completed in 1993 Braemar began life with Crown Cruise Line and having gone through various names and owners was purchased by Fred. Olsen Cruises in 2001. In 2009 Braemar was ‘stretched’ to her current size of 640ft taking her in excess of 24,000gt. Carrying a maximum of 929 passengers when full there is a crew of 371 to look after them in a variety of cabin sizes and excellent facilities. Our cabin on deck 4 boasts a large picture window, twin beds, on suite facilities, large flat screen tv, tea/coffee making facilities, safe, hair dryer and quality toiletries. Plug sockets are of the continental type.
Late the following afternoon sees us enter the Gironde River slowly passing villages and vineyards leading us to La Garonne on which Bordeaux stands. Slowing, we edge onto our berth and with the breeze gone we all realise it’s Bordeaux’s turn for the heatwave with the mercury hovering on 42°C and humidity through the roof. Locals are paddling in the ornamental pool decoration by the port and pavements are hot to walk on. Oh, the delight of the ships air conditioning system. Following dinner in the Grampian Restaurant on Deck 8 it’s time to take in the Neptune Lounge show followed by early bed, tomorrow we are on a tour.
Bordeaux is one of the best known wine areas of France boasting 287,000 acres of vineyards producing annually in the region of 960 million bottles. Today, the sun has gone, it’s raining, the mercury has dropped to 17°C, what’s the title of that song, ‘What a difference a day makes’. Having swapped tee shirts for jumpers and rain capes we hurry across the wet quayside to our waiting coach and begin our tour, firstly of the city itself before setting out through the cloud laden sky and wet countryside to the 127 acre vineyard of Château Larrivet Haut-Brion at one time owned by the Marquise of Canolle and now considered by some to be one of the top wine producers in the Bordeaux region. The vines are divided to produce 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 55% Merlot, and 5% Cabernet Franc for the red wines with 60% Sauvignon Blanc and 40% Sémillon for the whites. The cellars are vast, wall to wall of wooden barrels containing wines at various stages of fermentation. Time to sample the produce but not being a wine buff, I listened to others who say the wine is excellent. Tour over its time to head back to the coach and the ship, at least its stopped raining.
Next day sees us arriving in the northern Spanish port of Santander and yes, it’s home to the bank of the same name. The rain gone and the mercury has crept up to 22°C as we leave the ship and board our coach for a visit to Parque de la Naturaleza Cabárceno some 17km north of Santander. This is something really different, a park covering over 1,900 acres and developed from a former open pit mine. An area of gorges, valleys, rock formations covered by 12 miles of road, divided into various large savanna style areas where animals roam freely as they would in their native habitat. First stop, the tiger area, the sight of tigers roaming and relaxing in the sun is amazing, on to the monkey area where large gorillas and small monkeys roam and mix together, now on to the cable car station. Yes, a cable car that encircles the park in 4 stages, each car accommodating 8 people slowly transports them across the open spaces from where you look down on the animals and their habitat. Species of African antelope, elephant, giraffe, bison, brown bear, ostrich, zebra, camel and many more roam the large open areas. The full ride depending on queues at the various stops can take as long as you wish but a minimum of an hour is needed when it is not busy. Arriving back its lunch time at the park cafe where prices offer exceptionally good value for a tourist area, coffee, a large slice of tortilla Espanola with large crusty roll, 3 Euro. Next, a display at the Sea Lion enclosure where the sea lions perform crowd loving antics to earn themselves fish rewards from their keeper. The rain has returned so back to the coach, time to visit some of the park areas to hopefully observe some of the animals at close quarters and we were in luck. Zebras, ostriches, giraffes and a vast number of brown bears, some with their youngsters playing in the rain, a wonderful sight. This is certainly a venue to spend the whole day, alas, all too soon we were heading back to the ship ready for dinner where we arrive in brilliant sunshine.
That night we dine at the ship’s speciality restaurant, The Grill, set on the aft deck al fresco style. My choice, fresh slightly charred scallops as a starter, 10oz sirloin steak topped with lobster accompanied by grilled vegetables as a main and a cylinder of chocolate to finish. Lay the cylinder on its side, crack it open to allow 3 different types of chocolate to flow and all washed down by a delightfully chilled rosé wine. Yes, I will be starting a diet soon.
Another night sailing sees us arrive in the delightful port of Avilés 124 miles west of Santander. Today our trip takes us along this stunningly beautiful coastline. The expansive golden sand beach of Murod de Nalón surrounded by cliffs and amazing rock formations, a place to relax and let the world drift by. It’s Sunday and families arrive to set up for a day on this beautiful beach, yes correct, I am jealous as I step back onto our coach. Once on the move we climb the steep narrow road to our next destination the fishing port of Cudillero again surrounded by high cliffs, seeing it as we approach reminds me of a pretty west country village by the sea. The small harbour, fishing boats glistening in the sunshine, the village alive with brightly coloured restaurants and cafes, small shops selling confectionary and locally made souvenirs, houses of different colours built into the cliff face. Again, an area off the usual tourist track allowing it to remain an authentic gem. Sitting at one of the cafes in the sun, sampling local tapas, gambas, potatas bravas, tortilla washed down by an excellent local rosé wine is total peace and tranquillity only broken by being told it was time to return to the coach and back to the ship.
On arrival back at the ship we are informed that due to incoming inclement weather we would be missing the next days port of La Corona and heading back across the Bay of Biscay but would have a day in Honfleur. It was impressive how much effort and detail Captain Glavic put into showing us all on maps and weather charts what we should avoid. At 5pm we say goodbye to Avilés and sail slowly along the channel past beaches, cliffs and small boats as we head to the open sea. Another port on my ‘must return’ list.
After a day at sea we arrive at one of my favourite ports, Honfleur on the banks of the River Seine. Honfleur can trace its history back to 1027. Imagine a small harbour with small yachts moored, the harbour edges occupied by the parasol covered tables and chairs of small restaurants displaying menus of seafood including one of my favourites, fresh gilled sardines, minted lamb chops, carafes of local wine and cafes from where the scent of fresh coffee fills the air. Walk behind the harbour and visit the Church of St Catherine, largest built wooden church in France constructed in the 15th century following the 100 years war. Built on the model of a market hall, which, using naval construction techniques gives the impression of an upside-down ship’s hull. Entering the main doors, you’re greeted by what appears to be two main altars and a smaller side chapel where flags, pendants and paintings from a bygone age hang from the walls and wooden pillars. A church that is simply furnished but beautiful, models and statues reminding the visitor that this is a church associated with the sea, candles burn slowly at various locations providing an air of peace and solitude. The church bells housed in a separate wooden structure across the square are equally impressive. Time to return to the harbour strolling past confectionary shops selling caramel sweets for which the town is famous, others selling Calvados a Normandy Cider that the region is famed for as it produces very little wine. Back at the harbour it’s time for an ice cream at one of the small parlours amongst this wonderful French cafe society. An ice cream in a glass large enough to be a vase, topped with strawberries, sliced apple, kiwi fruit and orange, its huge and I struggle to finish it. Time now to return to the ship and pack ready for our arrival the next morning in Southampton.
So, who would enjoy this ship and cruise? Fred. Olsen appeal in the main to those of 50 years plus and have a large loyal following, however on this cruise we had some families with children and one set of grandparents who had brought their two grandchildren with them. The ship has a children’s pool as well as two main swimming pools and two Jacuzzi as well as a spa. The food and service cannot be faulted whether in either of the main dining rooms, Thistle and Grampian or the Palms buffet. The dress code on formal nights sees the vast majority in evening dress, even the male children wore jackets and bow ties, receiving many compliments. The entertainment is focused in two venues, the Coral Club and Neptune Lounge provided by the ships theatre company and cabaret acts that often feature, we had a magician and a comedian who was also an excellent singer. The staff are simply superb having a ‘nothing is too much trouble’ attitude. Good size well equipped cabins and comfortable beds. For me, it is a case of that expression from The Terminator ‘I’ll be back’ and thank you Fred. Olsen for inviting me.
Alan is a professional travel journalist and was a guest of Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines.
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