Deborah Stone has the time of her life on a mini cruise to France
It was only as I slipped away from dinner for a reasonably early night and heard the sound of people singing along to Abba that the penny finally dropped: mini-cruises are really party cruises, and most passengers on board just want good food, good company and a good laugh.
Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines has a fabulous reputation for delivering British-style traditional cruises for its loyal passengers, but when I joined its elegant ship Braemar for a three-night flit across the English Channel, every night was a chance to let your hair down if you wanted.
There was dancing in the Coral Lounge until the early hours and the West End-style shows featured some of the best singers I have heard at sea. The atmosphere was always friendly and if you didn’t meet somebody new for a chat during freestyle dining at breakfast you would definitely have made a new friend by lunch, while the Scottish-themed Morning Light Pub and sophisticated Observation Lounge were always lively pre-dinner – perhaps because of the reasonable bar prices.
Food was always either good or excellent, ranging from superb offerings such as smoked salmon and asparagus starters, tasty chicken broth and roast duck to the rather ordinary grilled fish that is available every night (although many people prefer their food plain).
The circular Thistle Restaurant, with its cream and gold décor, is a truly gracious room, and has the same menu as the more intimate Grampian Restaurant. I wasn’t so keen on the self-serve Palms Café, which had a limited choice and was a bit gloomy after dark – although it probably comes into its own in summer with its additional seating on deck.
Meanwhile my Superior Twin outside cabin was very roomy, with a slightly Art Deco feel, plenty of storage and very welcome tea-making facilities. It was only let down by the tiny shower room with its plastic curtain and dreary décor. But it was fine for a three-day trip, which is also the perfect amount of time to get a taste of what cruises can offer.
Mini cruises also give you the chance to visit ports you might have overlooked before – in my case Cherbourg and Le Havre – and because they’re so close you’re virtually guaranteed a full day ashore.
We arrived at Cherbourg at 8.45am and although there were excursions to Paris (£70) and through rolling Normandy countryside to a farm selling calvados, cider and cheese (£50) I decided I could buy all those more cheaply in Cherbourg and still have change for a drink back on board.
A free shuttle coach dropped us outside the tourist information office where I was given a map and directed to the busy market in Place Centrale. There were piles of colourful vegetables that looked like they’d been dug up fresh that morning, and several seafood stalls. A small crowd gathered at one where a huge crab was mounting a desperate escape mission.
The surrounding shops sold local calvados and cider, and there were high-end chocolatiers loaded with treats and grocers selling foie gras.
Everything was beautifully packaged but rather euro-expensive, so after a good mooch around I walked to the new shopping centre near the harbour where the huge Carrefour sold very drinkable Cabernet Sauvignon for just €2.25 (£1.85) and pretty bottles of Armagnac for €16 (£13.25).
It was only a 15-minute walk back to the ship, which was docked right next to La Cité De Mer, an excellent attraction that explores our fascination with the deep sea. This includes an audio-guided walk through a real nuclear submarine (unarmed but still pretty scary), a state-of-the-art aquarium full of colourful fish and sea creatures plus numerous deep-sea artefacts and film footage.
La Cité De Mer is in part of Cherbourg’s huge 1930s Art Deco cruise terminal, once filled with the sound of transatlantic passengers such as Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor on their way to New York.
Increasingly it’s full of the sound of cruise passengers, and thanks to Braemar’s classic lines and sumptuous public rooms I could be forgiven for imagining myself back in the glamour days of travel.
The Braemar’s largely cream and gold or blue décor, with lots of light from picture windows, gives it a rather regal – certainly very individual – appearance.
With a maximum of 929 passengers on board the ship is perfect for people who want to be spoilt for a week or two but prefer a simple life. So while there are no wow-factor facilities there is a choice of dining, daytime and evening entertainment and enough sports facilities to keep you occupied but still leave time for sitting around the pool.
Its new Fitness Centre on Deck 7 has sea views and plenty of cross-trainers, running and cycling machines for the size of the ship. There are two reasonably sized pools and two whirlpools, plus a small spa where a pedicure costs £25 and salon where you can get a wash, cut and blowdry for just £35.
The only disadvantage of a mini-cruise is that there’s not enough time to do everything: such as go to the cinema, play bingo or join the afternoon quiz… which is why I’ll be signing up for a longer Fred. Olsen experience just as soon as I can.
Fred. Olsen Cruise Line (01473 742424/ fredolsencruises.com) offers a four-night Highlights of the Lowlands cruise on board Braemar departing on 23 August from £449pp (two sharing). The return trip from Dover calls at Le Havre, Ostende and Amsterdam.
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