Mini Cruising

A great alternative to a city break and ideal for family get togethers
Chris Hurley reports

Chris by the Harbour at Honfleur

Chris by the Harbour at Honfleur

Plenty of Shopping Opportunities in Honfleur

Plenty of Shopping Opportunities in Honfleur

Calvados - Apple Brandy is a Local Speciality

Calvados - Apple Brandy is a Local Speciality

Honfleur Market

Honfleur Market

Inside Honfleur's Wooden Church

Inside Honfleur's Wooden Church

The Harbour at Honfleur

The Harbour at Honfleur

Street in Honfleur

Street in Honfleur

Landing by Tender at Guernsey Harbour

Landing by Tender at Guernsey Harbour

Victor Hugo's Statue on Guernsey

Victor Hugo's Statue on Guernsey

The Harbour and Castle Cornet in Guernsey

The Harbour and Castle Cornet in Guernsey

Formal Dinner on Balmoral

Formal Dinner on Balmoral

Balmoral Casino

Balmoral Casino

Jacuzzi on Balmoral

Jacuzzi on Balmoral

If you haven’t been on a cruise before and fancy dipping your toe in the water (excuse the pun) before you sign up for a full holiday, it is often suggested that a mini-cruise is a good way to find out whether a longer holiday afloat is for you.

The idea certainly makes sense in that you can check out the facilities, the dress code and the entertainment onboard and prove that you have the stomach for bobbing up and down on the waves.  However, after spending four days on board Fred Olsen’s Balmoral sailing to France and the Channel Islands, I would say it was a really fun trip but, in many ways, quite unlike other Olsen cruises I have experienced.

Carnival Atmosphere

Arriving at the Southampton cruise terminal on a Friday afternoon, it was a totally different scene from Fred’s usual cruise check-in, which is normally a very calm and gentle experience.   I have never been aware of crowds of people – just that the average age is over 65, there are very few children to be seen and that there’s just enough time to enjoy a beer or coffee in comfort before boarding. 

This time there was something of a carnival atmosphere in the hangar-like waiting room, decked out with balloons and, despite having to join a long snaking queue, the crowd seemed happy enough.  There were passengers of all ages, families with young children and lots of groups of friends and relatives. There were hen and stag parties and one group of very jolly middle-aged women were dressed in a red white and blue theme. Definitely not the usual demographic for an Olsen cruise. 

Fred’s ships are always relaxed and friendly but the pace is slow and the atmosphere low key.  But with just a few days on board, it seemed that everyone was anxious to get the party started.  After being entertained by Connie and the Balmoral Orchestra at a mass afternoon tea, lots of passengers opted for something stronger and the bars soon filled up and everywhere was buzzing.

At dinner there was all the sense of occasion that goes with cruising and, even on this short trip, there was a Captain’s cocktail party with a formal dress code where you quickly learn that you cannot be overdressed on a cruise.   The five-course dinner was good but, in my view, not quite up to the standard of food I have enjoyed on Braemar, Black Watch and Boudicca.  The fare seemed much simpler and less tempting particularly in the dessert department that I have always found so hard to resist.

On past cruises, most passengers have been tucked up in bed soon after the midnight buffet but this time the bars were doing a roaring trade in the small hours, while others were still giving Karaoke their all or strutting their stuff on the dance floor.  This weekend it was a party boat and everyone was enjoying the great cruising upside that you never have far to walk home.

Honfleur

On Saturday we docked in the pretty French town of Honfleur and, after a very substantial English breakfast, most passengers headed for the shore.  There were excursion options to Monet’s gardens or Normandy but we decided to stretch our legs and take the twenty-minute stroll into Honfleur rather than spend hours on a coach.

Besides, it’s a lovely place to while away a sunny day.  This picturesque town has great historic charm with lofty slate and timber fronted houses overlooking the colourful yachting and fishing harbour.  Our first stop was the 15th Century wooden church of St. Catherine, with its separate belfry clad in chestnut weatherboarding.  Legend has it that the local shipwrights, eager to build the church after the departure of the English following the 100 year war, simply couldn’t  wait for stone to be found. The timber structure that was originally intended to be temporary is still there for all to see. 

Cobbled sloping streets offer a wealth of fascinating shops selling fine chocolates, art and, of course, the local firewater – Calvados.  Some passengers returned to Balmoral for a very hearty lunch but others chose to dine alfresco at one of the many restaurants around the harbour offering freshly caught fish and seafood.

For a bit of local history there’s the Musée d’Art and the Musée de la Marine which covers the life and work of the local fishermen and a fascinating little Museum – the Musée de L’histoire – which recreates a typical 16th century house and prison crammed with exhibits of furniture crafts and costumes. 

St. Peter Port, Guernsey

Despite another late night and some serious partying, many passengers were up bright and early on Sunday for the Island Tour of St Peter Port in the British island of Guernsey.  It’s a bustling town where Georgian and Regency architecture has been refined by French émigrés. The result is a charming mix of styles with tumbling terraces and tiered gardens, stylish boutiques and chic cafes.  It was here, in exile from 1855 to 1870, that Victor Hugo finished his novel on which Les Miserables is based.

There were also optional tours called ‘Floral Guernsey’, ‘The German Occupation’ or, for the very energetic, the opportunity to explore the Northern Beaches by bike.  We did none of those, choosing instead to go for a stroll through the pretty Candie Gardens with their superb views across town and for an excellent Sunday lunch at the very elegant Le Frégate restaurant.   How would we ever manage dinner that evening?

Family Celebrations

As one might expect the final dinner was a particularly jolly affair and I lost count of how many cakes with sparklers were presented and how many times waiters sang a rumbustious Happy Birthday! or Congratulations! to various guests.  Here was evidence, if it were needed, that a mini-cruise is a very popular way for families and friends to get together to celebrate special birthdays and anniversaries.

I felt that this trip was perfect for a multi-generational get together with something to please everyone.   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 from the ship’s library and if you feel the need to burn of all those extra calories there’s a great fitness centre with ocean views or you can take a dip in the swimming pool. 

The whole experience was like being immersed in a Beryl Cook painting.  Everyone was having a good time.  The atmosphere was lively but never rowdy. Food was plentiful and the quality good. And the opportunity to dress up gave the whole thing a sense of occasion.  With leisurely time ashore at some very attractive places I would also say it’s a great alternative to a city break or a weekend away for those who wouldn’t normally consider a cruise.

As for testing the water, if you are looking for tranquillity or really want to find out about traditional cruising, I think you are just going to have to dive in and book the real thing.

Mini-cruises aboard Fred Olsen Cruise Lines
Black Watch has a four-night mini-cruise, W1323, ‘Paris & Bruges Cruise Break’ that departs from Dover on 6th December 2013 and visits Rouen (France) for an overnight stay, and Zeebrugge (Belgium) before returning to Dover. Prices start from £399 per person, based on two adults sharing an inside, twin cabin. In 2014, Braemar has a mini-cruise to Honfleur, M1420 ‘Honfleur Mini Cruise’ that departs from Dover on 18th July 2014 and visits Honfleur for a full day, then returns to Dover. Prices start from £169 per person, based on two adults sharing an inside, twin cabin.All prices are quoted per person, based on two adults sharing a twin cabin, and include all meals and entertainment on board and port taxes.

For more details go to www.fredolsencruises.com

 

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