Want to explore Europe without the hassle of a city break? Jayne Dawson boards a leisurely cruise to Amsterdam, Antwerp and Paris.
City breaks are a delight, aren’t they? You leave home before dawn, negotiate airport security, fly into a foreign city, wait for your luggage, catch an expensive taxi to your hotel, leave your bags and wander the streets a bit until its check-in time…
Some people thrive on all that, it’s part of the travel experience, but for those who don’t there is another way.
Fred Olsen Cruise Lines have put together an itinerary that means you can float more effortlessly around Europe. They have devised a cruise that takes in three city breaks in one holiday. That means you get to take your hotel with you to each of those European cities, and you arrive there without any of the hassle associated with air travel.
The eight-day trip we sampled took in Paris, Antwerp and Amsterdam and stayed overnight in each port, giving passengers time to explore.
We joined the ship Braemar in Dover to try this combination of city break and cruise trip.
But first a word about cruising. Some people would run shrieking in the opposite direction rather than step aboard for lots of reasons: they dislike the idea of descending on a country as one of a large group, they don’t want organised entertainment, they don’t want to be confined within a ship.
But they are swimming against the tide. Cruising is increasing massively in popularity and its relatively falling prices mean that a pastime once available only to the very affluent can be a good value option for most holidaymakers.
And Fred Olsen is a cruise line with an intensely loyal following. Its clients book time and again, and throughout the week I spoke to several passengers who had notched up trips well into double figures.
The reason is that Olsen offers traditional cruising combined with great customer service. Some cruise lines have dispensed with the formal aspect of cruising: eating is cafe style, there is no formal dressing, but not Fred Olsen.
They have stuck to the traditions they know their passengers want – but their secret weapon is their crew who seem to genuinely care for their passengers’ comfort and wellbeing while aboard the ship. In turn, the passengers go out of the way to get to know the crew. Nothing is over the top, but there is a lot of friendly banter and chat in the restaurant each evening. And the food is truly excellent. The quantity and quality of food on a cruise is an important factor and Olsen, with a galley team on 69 aboard Braemar, has got it right. Passengers can be as indulgent or as healthy as they like, all the options are available. If you want to eat fish and salad and fruit it is all there, but equally so are the full English breakfasts, the cakes and the puddings.
Braemar has plenty to offer besides, with a packed daily schedule of activities and shows as well as a range of facilities, from a library to a spa, gym and pool.
At sea, guests can make the kind of holiday that suits them. Cruise passengers tend to fall into different tribes: some like to read, play bridge, attend talks; others prefer the bar, the deck barbecues, the pub-style quizzes. You will find some in the gym, the spa and the pool. Fred Olsen ships are not the mega-liners, they are small compared with most cruise ships today, but there is room on board for passengers to create whatever day suits them.
The idea that cruisers in general are all elderly these days is not true – plenty of families with young children choose this type of holiday – but Fred Olsen passengers are usually older, with grown-up families back at home.
Once in port, some passengers go their own way but others choose to join the organised tours.
The tours to visit the major sites make sense when you have limited time, but not everyone joins them. Some passengers pick one to a place of particular interest to them so that they get the benefit of a guided trip and all the information that goes with that, then explore other destinations alone.
In Amsterdam we opted for culture and visited Rembrandt’s house, a marvellously atmospheric place furnished as it was when the artist lived there in the 1600s, thanks to him being down on his luck. Rembrandt went bankrupt and so an inventory was drawn up of everything he owned at the time – bad luck for him, but good for us.
The Van Gogh Museum is definitely worth visiting, a huge modern museum packed with his work and telling the visionary painter’s sad story.
Our next port was Antwerp, a beautiful city in its own right, but we spent one of our two days in Bruges, enjoying its charming cobbled streets and its chocolate.
The final stop was Rouen, where we opted to travel on to Paris – one hour and 40 minutes by train. Leaving the undoubtedly amazing Eiffel Tower to others, we visited the Catacombs, a series of underground chambers containing the bones of millions of Parisians.
The overnight stays on this trip meant that passengers could see the destinations at night – not always possible on a cruise – and were free of the pressure of getting back to the ship on time.
If you are new to cruising and want to test the water, then this combination of cruising and city break could be a good option.
• Fred Olsen Cruise Lines will be offering a similar cruise in 2015, onboard Balmoral. This seven-night European City Break departs from Southampton on May 24 and calls at Hamburg, before spending overnight stays in Amsterdam and Antwerp.
Prices currently start from £699 per person, based on an inside twin-bedded cabin, subject to availability, and include all food and entertainment on board, and port taxes.
For further information on Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines, go to www.fredolsencruises.com. Book online, call reservations on 0800 0355 242 or visit an Abta travel agent.