‘A cruise! How lovely, how long for?’ asked various friends. ‘A weekend,’ was Anna Hyman’s reply.
We were standing by the Inner Harbour in Honfleur watching the yachts and fishing boats bobbing up and down in the water. And on the skyline, clearly visible, the white funnel of Fred. Olsen’s Balmoral.
Now, I have been on many cruises, but this was my first experience of a mini-cruise. And I loved it.
I had picked up the transfer coach at Southampton Station about 1.30m, within a few minutes I was checkin- in, and by 4.30 Balmoral was making her way along Southampton water heading for Honfleur – on, as Fred. Olsen also described it – a Spring Shopping cruise.
After a charming greeting by my delightful cabin stewardess who showed me how everything worked in my cabin it was upstairs for tea and goodies before the compulsory muster (safety) drill. Drill accomplished back to the cabin to finish unpacking. It was at this point that the Shopping started, when I discovered that I had forgotten to bring any moisturiser with me. A dash along to one of the ship’s shops. They didn’t have my usual choice but they did have a good price on another brand, which I have to say, eight weeks later I like so much that I have no intention of reverting to the original.
Dress code for the evening was ‘smart casual’, so hoping I was appropriately clad, I left my cabin in what I had thought was plenty of time to join the rest of the party for a pre-dinner drink in the bar on the 11th deck. Unfortunately I have little sense of direction but with the help of one or two opportunely placed crew members I eventually found my friends and relaxed into a deliciously cool glass of prosecco.
Life on board
Dinner that night was a lively affair, as indeed it was on all three nights. We passengers were intent on making the most of our three nights at sea. The crew were under terrific pressure to look after everybody and keep the service moving, skilfully weaving in and out of tables whilst carrying laden and heavy trays. The meals were good with more than generous portions. I quickly became course-selective – I could never have managed to eat all the courses offered.
There was plenty to do in the evenings – the casino, plus entertainment. Whilst we were on board options included a male voice choir; the Balmoral Show Company’s Showtime; dancing to live music and cabaret acts; to say nothing of ‘dog racing’, quiz time or karaoke . And as we were to discover if anybody didn’t want to leave the ship, either on one of the many organised shore excursions or under their own steam, there were lots of on-board daytime activities too, something for everybody, including the Junior and Teen Cruisers.
Next morning Honfleur was bathed in sunshine. We were moored a gentle 15 minutes stroll away from the town centre (though there was a shuttle bus for anybody not wishing to walk). Honfleur has to be one of my favourite places.
Having got our bearings and admired the Vieux Bassin we found a convenient café for wickedly decadent morning cappuccinos before heading for the town square and the ancient Sainte-Catherinechurch, the largest wooden church in France built by local ship builders in the 15th century. Around the church were some of the produce stalls that lure locals and tourists alike to the town’s Saturday market. The market covers a number of streets but it is this section, with its tempting array of fruit and veg that is my particular favourite.
We ambled along quaint old cobbled streets, stopping every now and again to explore a shop before hitting on a likely looking place for lunch – regardless of the fact that it would be another huge meal back on Balmoral in the evening. Of course on both days we could have gone back to Balmoral for lunch but to make the most of our shore leave we opted for eating out!
It seemed a bit early to go back to our comfortable floating hotel, we were after all not sailing till 9.pm. Honfleur has some terrific museums but as we were standing beside the Vieux Bassin I suggested we call into one of my favourite museums – the Museum of Ethnography. It is tucked away down what is almost an alleyway – the rue de la Prison. It is housed in an old building over what was once an old prison cell. In several rooms up and down rickety old stairways we found furniture, clothes, house ware, books and other curios depicting life in 18th and 19th century Normandy. Fascinating stuff, and luckily the rest of the party thought so too.
Next morning, Sunday, the sun shone even more warmly over the Channel Island of Guernsey’s St Peter Port. We had all the excitement of taking one of the shuttle tenders from ship to shore.
We had wanted to visit Victor Hugo’s house, but unfortunately it is closed on Sundays. Instead the more energetic of the party opted for a cycle ride round part of the island, whilst the couch potatoes took a later tender and after a short stroll through the pretty Candie Gardens settled onto the terrace of La Fregate where the rest of the party eventually joined us for a deliciously good lunch. We made it back to the harbour just in time to catch the last tender back to the ship.
Back on ship there was something of a scramble to don party clothes in time for the Captain’s Formal Cocktail Party. Captain Robert Bamberg introduced key members of his staff to our loud and appreciative applause whilst thanking all his crew for their incredible hard work. The two cocktail parties (one for each of the two dinner settings) were followed by the Formal Dinner – an even more lavish affair.
Later, dutifully, we placed our suitcases outside cabin doors for collection by the crew during the early hours – not to see them again until we were back on dry land. For by early Monday morning our weekend cruise had come to an end and we were back in Southampton.
Fred. Olsen might have called it a mini cruise, but we all thought of it as a Weekend Away Cruise. Our only complaint it wasn’t long enough – another day would have made it perfect.
Black Watch has a four-night mini cruise, W1323, ‘Paris & Bruges Cruise Break’ that departs from Dover on 6 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 18 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 and include all meals and entertainment on board and port taxes.