A short voyage to Guernsey and Belgium will leave first-time family cruisers wanting more, says Tara Cain.
We’re zipping through the waters around the coast of Guernsey on a speed boat, the wind whipping through our hair, the sea spray on our faces. As our cruise ship looms large and beautiful in front of us, I watch my two children exchange a glance and smile, and I know exactly what they’re thinking: I can’t believe we’re staying on that. It’s SO cool.
For our first cruise together as a family we chose a four-night trip to Guernsey and Belgium on Azura, one of P&O Cruises’ largest and most family-orientated ships. The kids were wide-eyed with wonderment as we boarded in Southampton, and their excitement continued when they saw the pools, the kids’ clubs and the restaurants. Even opening the sliding doors to our stateroom balcony brought squeals of delight.
Warm and welcoming
The atmosphere on board was so family friendly, even older passengers travelling without their grandchildren chatted to my two in the lifts, at the restaurants and around the pools, curious to know what they were enjoying most, which made them feel really welcome.
Dinner times were easy and stress-free and both children came back to our stateroom at night buzzing about their adventures. But for me the best part was that we got to spend some time together as a family. Let’s face it, happy children make for happy parents.
In the gorgeous medieval town of Bruges we took a 20-minute coach ride from the port into the city centre. Cobbled streets echoed with the sound of horses’ hooves as they pulled the carriages which are available for hire.
Chocolate is definitely big business in Bruges, and you’ll find all manner of sweet treats to buy and take home (if you can make them last that long, that is). I can highly recommend the moreish giant chocolate crispy wheels (around €1.50 each).
Exciting ports of call
A lunch of ‘moules-frites’ is a must to get that true Bruges experience, but make sure you step away from the main square and explore the back streets where prices are much more palatable; or a freshly-made waffle from one of the street vendors costs around €5 each and they’re worth every penny.
Another great way to experience the town is to take one of the boat rides that navigate the network of canals snaking through Bruges. They’re very informative and you get to see another picturesque side of the town you could very easily miss on foot.
After a day at sea our next port of call was St Peter Port in Guernsey. Much to the children’s delight, our ship, too big for the port, dropped anchor off shore, and we were ferried ashore on board a tender. There we boarded a rigid-inflatable boat (RIB) for a ride around the coast.
And what an adventure it was. Decked out in waterproofs and life vests, we climbed on board the RIB and then sat back (or clung on for dear life) as skipper Pierre took us on a high-speed tour of the coastline, zipping past Azura, bouncing off the waves, with stop-offs to see breeding birds, points of interest and a colony of grey seals. We all loved it – it was a real highlight of our cruise.
Kids’ clubs a hit with the children
Back on board the ship there was a lot to explore too. Although it was a little chilly, the swimming pools and al fresco Jacuzzis were well used (mainly by the children), and even the evening movie at the outdoor Sea Screen attracted hardy viewers who snuggled under the complimentary blankets to watch.
The Reef kids’ clubs (split into four age groups, from 2-17) were a big hit with my children and they visited most days. Dan, 11, could check himself in and out of his club, and there was plenty for him to do including air hockey, movies, themed activities, sports tournaments and PlayStations (although the staff do monitor time spent on screens and encourage the children to do something else as well). He made new friends and also spent a lot of time on the sports deck, playing basketball, football, cricket and even shuffle board. Mia, eight, had to be signed in and out of her club by her dad or I but she was delighted with the crafts, outdoor play, movies (on beanbags and under blankets later at night) and games consoles.
For adults, there was lots of entertainment to suit all tastes. Our cruise featured a show in the excellent Playhouse Theatre from British tenor Alfie Boe, who filled the room with his voice. The shows were all packed and very popular with passengers – he played to the audience and even took some selfies on stage with a fan’s phone.
P&O Cruises is renowned for its onboard cuisine and food was certainly plentiful; there’s even a kids’ buffet served between 5 and 6 pm every day with dishes more suited to their palate. The children also loved the formal night when they got the opportunity to dress up. The waiting staff were always attentive and mindful of their needs.
Three other restaurants make up the evening dining experience and if you book into the Meridian you can enjoy freedom dining (meaning you don’t need to keep booking, just turn up when you are ready) which is a huge bonus when you’re travelling with children.
Afternoon tea – made up of the traditional crustless sandwiches, cakes, and scones – is available in the self-service restaurant, but if you head to the Peninsular you can get the same fare served by a waiter for a truly British feel.
As the kids’ clubs had proved such a hit with the children, my husband and I took the opportunity to enjoy some adult time at two of the ship’s speciality restaurants.
My favourite was Seventeen (which has a cover charge of between £28 and £30pp depending on the length of your cruise) where the food is divine and the service pure theatre. I opted for the melt in the mouth ribeye steak, which was cooked to perfection, and I can also recommend the flambéed pineapple for dessert, which is prepared at your table, much to our delight.
Another option, Sindhu, is an Indian/British fusion restaurant (cover charge £15 to £25pp), which is operated under the watchful eye of Michelin-starred chef Atul Kochhar. I can recommend the beautifully presented and flavour-packed Rogan josh.
Raise a glass
Once you’ve eaten there are bars to suit all tastes, from the New York-themed Manhattan to the Asian-inspired Malabar. I really liked the Planet Bar, which sits at the very roof of the ship at the back and boasts wonderful views on a clear night. Or, if you visit The Glass House, you’re in the hands of wine expert Olly Smith, with his selection of 32 different wines to choose from.
The ship was full during our cruise, with 3,100 passengers and more than 400 children. Yet it never felt crowded; just ensure you pick your breakfast times wisely or you’ll have to queue for your sausage and bacon.
Our superior deluxe stateroom was comfortable and easily big enough for a family of four, with a bathroom, bedroom and sitting area which leads out onto the balcony. There is plenty of space for clothes in the walk-in wardrobe, if you store your suitcases under the roomy double bed, and a sofa bed for the children. There are also two TVs (one facing the bed, one facing the sofa bed) and a pair of binoculars which is a nice touch.
A top tip is to make sure you check out your daily Horizon magazine, which is left in your room every evening, so that you can find out what is happening on the ship the following day, what films are showing and what events you can join in with.
With two children in tow who were super keen to get on the ship and explore, I actually dreaded arriving at Southampton to board in case of queues. But thankfully the new Ocean Terminal for check in is clean and bright so boarding was easy and slick.
So what was our verdict as a family cruising together for the first time? My husband, Steve, who was hugely sceptical before we boarded, is now a total cruise convert. He loved the variety of things to do, the different venues to eat in on board and the fact that the children were engaged and enjoying themselves the whole time. We’re all hooked. The freedom, the chance to visit new places every day, the laid-back, stress free days – we may have just discovered our perfect family holiday.
Tara blogs at thestickyfingersblog.com.
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