After a busy few months we needed a break; nothing arduous or expensive but the chance to relax and get away for a week to pastures new.
Cruising from the UK is always stress-free. No worries about crowded airports, unpleasant security, the weight of your suitcases and what’s in your hand luggage. Just a simple drive to Southampton, hand over the car keys and the cases, then a couple of hours after leaving London we are on board and enjoying lunch and a glass of wine. Perfect.
Our chosen seven-night cruise was on board P&O Oceana, sailing out to La Coruna, then back via Bilbao, La Rochelle and St Nazaire.
Oceana was launched in 2000 and is by today’s standards a mid-sized ship holding around 2000 passengers and 900 crew. Nevertheless it has the look and feel of the newer and larger ships, just a little smaller and, many would say, more intimate and friendly. We immediately felt at home and clearly so did many of the passengers we spoke to.
There was plenty of storage space in our cabin, an abundance of hangers (I always get told off for packing some!), the usual queen-size comfy bed and tea and coffee making facilities. However carefully you pack, clothes can sometimes get a little creased so it was good to note that there was a laundry room on each deck in case anything needed freshening up.
Oceana has a lovely theatre and an impressive show lounge so there was no shortage of entertainment. The restaurants varied in size and layout, with Marco Pierre White’s balcony-style restaurant offering breakfast and lunch alternatives as well as dinner, although there was a small extra charge for dinner. I’m not a great lover of buffet restaurants, they tend to be functional, over-lit and lacking in atmosphere, but Oceana’s proved the exception and we ate there on two evenings out of choice.
The pub was also popular with guests. A pint of draft lager or beer was modestly priced and, of course, no service charges are added on P&O Cruises.
So, having settled in, explored the ship and attended muster, we headed onto the top deck for the sail-away party as Oceana followed her big sister Azura out of Southampton, passed the Isle of Wight and on towards our first port of call, La Coruna.
The next day was a sea day and a chance to put our feet up so we headed to the elegant and well-stocked library and borrowed a couple of books. The day flew by in a blur of relaxation, good food and wine and, of course, the traditional captain’s welcome party.
The following morning found is in La Coruna, the nearest cruise port to the east coast of America. The city dates back to Roman times, they arrived in the 2nd century BC and a couple of hundred years later built a lighthouse, the Tower of Hercules. Although rebuilt and still operational, some of the original parts can still be seen. The city has many open spaces and there is no real dividing line between town and country, it has a very relaxed feel to it and most of it can easily be explored on foot.
Next stop was Bilbao. The city sits on a river and is surrounded by mountains containing iron ore. For centuries this was at the heart of the city’s industry but in the early 1980s it became clear that the city could no longer rely on it. The city’s leading lights came up with an ambitious plan and set about it with great vision and determination, transforming the old industrial area into one based on services. In addition it went all out to attract culture, the arts and architecture. Looking for a big name to lead the way it was successful in getting the Guggenheim Museum, an award winning structure and the first to be clad in titanium. Outside the building are further famous structures such as the huge flower-covered ‘puppy’, large metal tulips and Tall Tree and the Eye by Anish Kapoor.
From this new area we walked along the river to the old town, a mixture of narrow streets and old churches. I’d been looking forward to some Pintxos, the northern Spanish version of Tapas, and was not disappointed. We visited two Pintxos bars, all in the name of research of course! The Pintxos were varied and delicious and even better when washed down with the good quality but inexpensive local wine. At less than three euros each it’s a great meal that won’t break the bank.
The following morning found us in La Rochelle and a twenty minute free transfer from the ship dropped us close to the harbour. Originally a fishing port and protected by two fortified towers, it is now home to private yachts. Typically French restaurants spill out onto the streets, although the weather that day did not encourage outdoor dining. La Rochelle is a town full of character, old well-kept buildings, some housing smart clothing and jewellery shops. Easily managed on foot it was full of photo opportunities, despite the weather.
Our final port of call was St Nazaire. Best known for its industry, including ship-building and the aeronautical engineering, it is also home to massive reinforced concrete U-boat pens dating from WWII. This somewhat depressing structure remains today. Perhaps we should have opted for the more attractive P&O Cruises excursions to the nearby Muscadet vineyards and Nantes, a city known for its art and history.
Our final day was also a sea day and we had time to relax after four days of sightseeing, and to socialise with some new-found friends. Despite docking an hour late the following morning, due to some unexpectedly high winds, we had an easy drive home, emptied the contents of our suitcases into the washing machine and enjoyed lunch with a glass of wine from one of the bottles we had brought home. Now if only I could find some Pintxos nearby!
For more information on P&O Cruises visit www.pocruises.com or call 0843 374 0111