Alan Fairfax voyages as a solo traveller
It’s winter, the wind is blowing a gale, rain is pouring down and its cold. Great day to go cruising, in fact it is exactly that, in a few hours my cruise ship will be heading for warmer weather. The taxi delivers me to Southampton’s City Terminal where Fred. Olsen’s ship Bolette is berthed, a ship I have travelled on several times but this time things are different. In the past it’s been with my wife and friends but this time I’m travelling solo, an opportunity to see what ‘Fred’ offers solo travellers.
At the terminal my luggage is taken from me, then, it’s simply wait until your baggage tag colour is called, through security, check in and board the ship, 25 minutes from start to entering my cabin, 6159, a balcony suite on deck 6. The cabin is tastefully furnished with seating area, large double bed, 2 wardrobes and numerous drawers. Balcony, floor to ceiling windows, fridge, hairdryer, flat screen tv, the list is endless and in the bathroom one of the largest walk in showers I have experienced. Electrical sockets are UK 3 pin and USA 2 pin together with USB ports so no need to bring phone chargers.
Early evening, we set sail through the Solent, English Channel, onward to the Bay of Biscay and our destination, Northern Spain, an area I first visited in 1962, my first time overseas but that’s another story.
Next day is a day at sea and the first meeting of solo passengers, an area has been reserved in The Observatory where I am greeted by members of the entertainment team, waiters serve complimentary drinks, a choice of Cava, white wine or orange juice. Sammie, the entertainment manager, informs us that solo tables have been arranged for breakfast and lunch whilst at dinner we have assigned solo tables plus an area of the buffet has been reserved for us at afternoon tea. If going on tour or just exploring the ports solos can meet up before so as not to be alone. The team will also arrange speciality restaurants or attend to any needs that solos may have. To test it out, that lunchtime I attend the main restaurant, asked for the solos table and was immediately shown to a table where I recognised others from the meeting. Throughout the cruise this worked exceptionally well.
That night is Captain’s Reception where senior officers are introduced whilst we enjoy complimentary Cava, wine or soft drinks together with a selection of canapés. The dinner menu is varied and caters for just about everyone including vegans and those requiring gluten free. Each night there is an ‘English’ dish on the menu, I thoroughly recommend the Shepherd’s Pie. After dinner it’s time to get to know my table companions better in the Morning Light Pub, a feature on all ‘Fred” ships.
On waking the next morning, it’s still dark but then I remember, I have advanced the time by one hour, we have arrived in Gijon. By the time I have finished breakfast there’s blue sky, the sun shining on a calm blue sea, what more could you ask for? Now onto the coach for my tour of ‘Fishing Villages of the Western Asturian Coast’. Driving past hills and valleys, always not far from the sea, you begin to realise how pretty and unspoiled the area is. First stop, Luarca, the word beautiful is not adequate, a white chapel on the headland, the sea on three sides, water turning from blue to white foam as it crashes onto rocks below, the cemetery housing white marble tombs, crosses, burial sites and walls glistening in the bright winter sunshine, even a small yellow and black lizard is taking advantage of the sun.
Next stop, the town of Luarca, home to fishing boats, market square hosting stalls selling everything from clothing to vegetables. Time for a coffee in a small café selling homemade cakes, it’s a long time since I have had freshly brewed coffee for €1.25. Our next stop, an area I have visited on a previous occasion and fell in love with, Cudillero. A small fishing village, houses of different colours built into the hill sides to protect them from inclement weather, the village square alive with bars and restaurants whilst a waterfall gushes its contents from the mountains into the sea. It brings back memories as I sit in the sun with a glass of chilled rosé. Again, the time passes too quickly and we’re back on the coach heading to the ship passing hills adorned with pines, beech, birch, oak, pampas grass and eucalyptus trees that were introduced to the region in the 19th century.
Tonight, I dine in Vasco Restaurant, one of Bolettes’s speciality restaurants. The food is based on Indian food from Goa. The choices are excellent, only bettered by the quality and taste. £10pp extra if pre booked and £15 if booked onboard which represents good value for money.
Next morning, we berth in Getxo, the port for Bilbao, the Basque region’s largest city founded back in the 12th century and considered the capital city of the Basque area. Our coach for the ‘Taste of Bilbao” tour delivers us to a view point high above Bilbao before we take the Artxanda Cable Car down into the city. A walking tour follows passing the Bilbao City Hall completed in 1892, its magnificent tower standing tall against the blue sky, Plaza Neuva, an area of fine restaurants specialising in wine and pintxos, the Zubizuri Bridge, an arched structure resembling a large sail 75 metres across spanning the Ria del Nervión, and many other old and famous sites of the city. The final stop is a traditional Spanish bar, cured hams hang from the ceiling, below stands the old style slicer that some will remember back in their childhoods. It’s now our turn to sample pintxos, they are delicious, small snacks that remind me of canapés washed down with a local white wine. They are very popular in northern Spain, especially the Basque region. Our return journey to the ship takes us past the famous Guggenheim Museum completed in 1997 and containing 250 pieces of art. The exhibitions held here change so best to check what it is before attending to avoid disappointment.
The following day we are in one of my favourite cities of the area, Santander. Today I have decided to give the tours a miss and do my own thing. After docking I leave the ship to explore the area, there is a lot to do and see in Santander, I stroll along the sea front past the imposing headquarters of Banco Santander founded in 1857 and on towards the sandy beaches which during the summer months are thronged with tourists. Despite this being the middle of November it’s quite busy with people taking advantage of the mild weather, the thermometer showing 20C. Even the ice cream parlours are doing a good trade. Eventually I find a small café with a table and seats in the sun. Here I enjoy a real Tortilla Espanola, just made with eggs, potato and onion, washed down with a local rosé wine. Sadly, the hours pass too quickly, it’s time to return to the ship. The sun is setting in an orange glow over the city as we say ‘Adios’ with 3 long blasts from the ships whistle beginning our transit along the estuary into the Bay of Biscay, passing the now deserted beaches proudly overlooked by the Magdalena Palace.
As we head back to Southampton it’s time to reflect on the cruise and what it offers the solo traveller. Personally, I could not fault it, solo dining tables, reserved area for afternoon tea, staff on hand to organise and give assistance. You are never alone unless you want to be, there are others in the same position as yourself, travelling solo by choice or because of bereavement like myself. If you are worried about travelling alone, don’t be, Fred. have perfected the experience.
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Call 0800 412 5678 to speak to our Silver Travel Advisors about a wide range of Fred. Olsen cruises, all of which offer great experiences for solo travellers. Couples and groups of friends are welcome too, of course.