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Is cruising for you?

by Peter Morrell on 03 September 2013, 09:09AM

Is cruising for you? Peter Morrell goes on a mini cruise to find out what a life on the ocean waves is really like.

Surveys have shown that only about 15 per cent of people in the UK have been on a cruise. This means that there must be a lot of people who are wondering what a holiday on a ship is really like. To find out more, my wife and I recently went aboard Fred Olsen’s Balmoral for a three night mini-cruise.


The first advantage was that, as we were sailing from and to Southampton with no luggage restriction, there was no frantic suitcase weighing the night before we left. On the day of our departure we piled all the cases into the boot of the car. On arrival at the port they were whisked away by a porter, our car valet parked and we just had to walk up the gangway after checking in and going through security.


We were soon in our cabin, which was comfortable and spacious with twin bunks and en-suite shower room. The first ritual of any cruise is the mandatory life boat drill and this shared experience of learning how to don a life jacket generates a lot of camaraderie with your fellow passengers. Thankfully the need to use this newly acquired skill is negligible; despite the publicity of the Costa Concordia last year, cruising is one of the safest forms of travel.

It was time to explore the ship. For the new cruiser choosing a mini-cruise and smaller ship is the better option, as you can quickly learn about all the amenities and activities on board. Although there are not as many lectures and organised activities as on a full-blown cruise, you can still immerse yourself in a bit of me-time in the spa.  If you want to get away from it all you can curl up with a book in the ship’s library and if you feel the need to burn of all those calories there is a great fitness centre with ocean views, if the weather is ok you can take a dip in the swimming pool.


The main lounge, where there is nightly entertainment, was the venue for a welcome afternoon tea. Sandwiches and sticky pastries were served with a good strong cuppa. As we found out over the next three days, one of the perils of cruising is the amount of food on offer and without some degree of discipline your waistline will suffer.

Back in our cabin our luggage had arrived and we unpacked. Another of the bonuses of cruise life is that although you visit different destinations you only unpack once, irrespective of how long the trip.
We were travelling in a group so met up in the Observatory bar, where we watched the UK slip away through the panoramic windows.  The first pleasant surprise was that on board the currency was pound sterling and the drink prices were lower than a London pub. With land out of view it was time for a quick snooze before getting ready for dinner.

Cruises come with their own dress code and what to wear on board is always a vexed question.  On the Fred Olsen ships, casual holiday clothes are the norm for daytime and t-shirt, jeans and trainers are quite ok. In the evening a jacket and open necked shirt with casual trousers for the men is fine and the ladies can wear either a dress or trousers with a smart top. Our cruise had one formal night, which includes the Captain’s cocktail party where everyone puts on their finery. A lounge suit with tie can be worn by the men, but most choose black tie and for the ladies its cocktail dresses with no restrictions on the amount of sequins and bling. 

Formal dining

This slightly stricter dress code for the formal night does create a sense of occasion and for many of the people onboard the cruise is part of a special event. This may be a landmark birthday or wedding anniversary that is being celebrated with friends and relatives. So at dinner you can pretty much expect the waiters to appear with a sparkler decorated cake, guitar and tambourine to deliver a stylised version of Happy Birthday to a beaming passenger.

There are two sittings for dinner, 6:30 or 8:30, so if you are an early or late eater you can stick to your routine. At dinner seats are pre-allocated and if you are a couple you will be sharing a table of four. Singles are sometimes grouped together (usually at the discretion of the Maitre D’) and larger groups can sit at a table of up to 10. Cruising is a very sociable experience and table sharing is an ideal way of making new friends and exchanging experiences. If you want a more casual dining experience there is also a cafe that offers buffet style meals in the evening.


Food is a key element of the cruise experience and dinner in the main restaurant is a five-course affair that features soup, salad, entree, main and dessert. Every possible dietary requirement is well catered for. There are options for vegans, vegetarians, those with gluten intolerance or nut allergies. Each course has a multiple choice and there is always a fish of the day. Other meals on board are equally lavish, from Continental to full English at breakfast and either a buffet or full meal at lunch. There’s morning coffee with biscuits and afternoon tea with cakes in the unlikely event that you will feel hungry between meals.


One of the beauties of cruising is that the destinations come to you. A morning peek through the blinds of your cabin will reveal the skyline of a new place to see. On my cruise our first stop was the picturesque French port of Honfleur. Clustered around a yacht basin are a maze of cobbled streets with restaurants, cafes and shops selling local food specialities and Calvados, the region’s apple brandy.


Although you can eat ashore, and many people do, the known quantity of the food on the ship just ten minutes walk away is a big attraction. While the ship sailed overnight we entertained ourselves after dinner with a cabaret style show in the main lounge before heading off to one of the bars for a nightcap.


The next morning the view from our window had changed, we were moored in the bay of pretty St Peter Port, capital of Guernsey. As the ship was too large to dock, landing was by tender. Although slower than walking down the gangway it did give us the chance to see Castle Cornet, the fortification that guards the harbour close up. Guernsey has a quaint charm that is part British and part French. St Peter Port was Victor Hugo’s home in exile and his residence, Hauteville House, is now a museum. Chalk boards advertising seafood specials cluster round the outside of restaurants, so this is very much a foodie destination.

Landing by tender

Back on board it was our last night before arriving back at Southampton. The mini cruise had been an excellent taster for what to expect on a maritime holiday.  The upsides were the food, the shore excursions, the lack of luggage restrictions and its remarkably good value. The downside? Disembarking so soon.

Author bio: Peter Morrell is the award-winning editor of www.aboutmygeneration.com and www.culturalvoyager.com.

Images courtesy of Peter Morrell and Fred Olsen Cruises

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