Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Cruising Without the Crowds


With 38 years full and part-time service with the Royal Navy, you might think that MIKE SOUTER has had enough of messing about in boats.

Far from it. In recent years he has travelled on some of the world’s best-known cruise lines. When the opportunity came to travel back to his home in Spain in a ship that takes just over 100 guests, he jumped at the chance:

Wanting a change from the vast cruise ships that carry thousands of folk, I consult with Andrew Davies, who works for Fred Olsen subsidiary, Go Cruise.

Andrew suggests I have a look at the itinerary of ‘Island Sky’, one of eight former Renaissance Cruise Line vessels, which is chartered by Noble Caledonia.

She carries a maximum of just 116 passengers.

I dig out my copy of the excellent Berlitz ‘Cruising and Cruise Ships’, a must-have book before you reach any cruising decisions.

Not only is it an interesting read, it is a no-holds-barred report on the quality of each vessel, its’ strengths and weaknesses, cabin sizes, entertainment, passenger to crew ratio and much more.

I pay the deposit, then the balance and, for several months, I dream.

Day One - Plymouth

Today is as wet as it could be. I have stayed with friends at their lovely house near Exeter. After a most convivial lunch with them and my former Royal Navy colleague, Nichola, who now does the PR for the RN College at Dartmouth, we drive down to meet the ship.

Island Sky is berthed at Millbay docks, the port from where Brittany Ferries leave and, despite it being boarding time, we are told to wait in their pretty soulless and uninspiring lounge. I appear to be, by about 15 or 20 years, the youngest passenger.

Dockers are loading all the bags on to a flat bed lorry, giving everybody’s luggage no protection at all from what can only be described as a tropical downpour.

When boarding starts, I make a beeline for my cabin. It’s VERY spacious indeed, all mahogany-effect wood, brass and mirrors. The bathroom even has a very classy teak-decking floor. I like it a lot.

Nineteen films are scheduled to be shown and I am keen to see at least half of them during the voyage.

I set off to explore. There’s a nice lounge, where afternoon tea is being served and, one floor up, a bar and library. The restaurant is a couple of decks below and it’s far too wet to explore the promenade and observations decks.

As we partake of tea and cucumber sandwiches, the crew is loading all the suitcases on board. Back at my cabin, my laptop case is sodden and, were it not for my daily paper, which has absorbed its’ own weight in water, the computer might not have survived.

There’s a knock at the door. It’s Gina, my Filipino cabin steward. She quickly scoops up all my wet possessions to take them to some secret drying place on board.
As we set sail, the rain mercifully clears and we are given a grandstand view of Plymouth Sound and the Hoe.

I have never known a crossing of the English Channel like it. Drawing only three metres and high for her length, Island Sky is clearly a lot better suited to calmer, tropical, waters.

Soon after leaving port, the information desk is doing a great trade in seasickness tablets and little paper ‘mal de mer’ bags have been strategically placed around the ship.

While Island Sky can take 118 passengers, there are a lot of single travellers onboard, so there are just 68 of us, two more than the crew.

The night is one of the worst I have ever had at sea (second only to a winter trip from Great Yarmouth to Schevingen on a shallow-draught Norfolk Line ferry). I sleep only in fits and starts, grabbing the edges of my king-sized bed on which, bizarrely, there is only a single duvet. At one point, I make one step from the bed to the bathroom, covering about 15 feet in one roll-assisted giant leap.

Day Two – At Sea

At 0600, I use all my nautical experience to have a shower while not falling over, then head for the bridge. The Russian Chief Officer, Alexsey, tells me there’s been a gale force seven, with waves of up to 20 feet. I like Island Sky’s ‘open bridge’ policy and become a regular visitor.

I join one of our guest lecturers, Gordon Corrigan, for breakfast. He’s been retired as an army Major in the Royal Ghurkha Rifles for 11 years and is now a military historian. We have a comical meal, which involves catching most of the contents of the table before it slides off on to the floor. We note that there are less than twenty guests in attendance.

By mid morning, Island Sky is not corkscrewing quite so crazily and there’s a good attendance in the lounge for the first of our ‘Enrichment Lectures’. Doctor David Cordingly was head of exhibitions at the National Maritime Museum, among much else, and naval history is his specialist subject. His lecture is about Lord Cochrane, a British Naval hero about whom I knew precisely nothing, upon whom the Master and Commander Books were based,.

Inspired by the excellent talk, I now have an autographed copy of David’s book, Cochrane the Dauntless.

After an excellent lunch, I participate with enthusiasm in what we used to call in the Navy, ‘a deck head survey’. Gina and the head housekeeper, Mario, have replaced my single duvet with proper king-sized sheets and blankets.

Before dinner, Gordon Corrigan gives an excellent talk about the Peninsular War. It’s in a very different style from this morning’s lecture, but equally stimulating.

We are supposed to be meeting Captain Georg Thomsen at a welcome cocktail party and dinner, but the weather has put paid to that. The open seating in the restaurant means that I have already met and chatted to lots of different passengers. There are retired doctors, solicitors, teachers, nurses and military folk, together with some very successful business types. After last night’s storm, most folk opt for an early night.

Day Three – La Rochelle, France

Hurrah! A much more comfortable night and, at 0700, we are already alongside in La Rochelle. I’m looking forward to seeing the WWII submarine base, but, for some inexplicable reason, it’s not allowed.

There are included guided tours in most of our ports, with optional trips for those who want to venture a bit further afield, often accompanied by our guest lecturers.

La Rochelle is one of the biggest ports for leisure boats in France; there are literally thousands of yachts in port. There’s a lovely historic and pedestrianised town centre, plus a charming port area with the original guard towers still intact. I thoroughly enjoy the maritime museum, housed in a former weather ship and a trawler. The afternoon market is as colourful as any I have ever seen. It’s simply a delight.

Quite a few of my fellow passengers have confessed to me that they arrived on board with secret stocks of alcohol, so I head to Monoprix for a few purchases of my own.

Our third lecturer, Richard Nurick, has spent fifty years in the wine trade and knows his onions. Well, his grapes. I’ve chatted to him already at mealtimes and his knowledge is truly encyclopaedic. A few samples of Loire Valley wines are just the thing before we go to change for our postponed welcome cocktail party and dinner.

There’s a little scroll-type object on my bed, tied up with a red ribbon. I am to be among the chosen few to dine with the Captain tonight. It’s one of only two evenings where a jacket and tie is requested (there are never black tie evenings) and I wish I had my Naval uniform with me. Captain Thomsen is ex-German Navy and latterly commanded their wonderful sail-training vessel, the Gorch Fock.

There’s a change to our programme. Apparently a sandbank has moved, which means we can’t get to St. Jean de Luz later in the week. But the bonus is that, instead of spending tomorrow at Arachon and travelling by bus to Bordeaux, we now have time to travel all the way up the River Garonne and dock right in the city centre. Brilliant!

Day Four – Bordeaux, France

I’ve been up since the crack of dawn. The pilot boarded at midnight for the 60-mile passage up the Garonne River. I’ve never before been to Bordeaux and to berth right in the middle of the town is such a delight. Just a few steps away from the ship is a splendid modern tram service so, armed with a day ticket, I criss-cross this splendid city till I drop. There’s so much wonderful architecture and grand avenues
that it’s almost too much to take in. Bordeaux is simply superb.

The water feature in front of the Bourse is magnificent, changing from a pool to a fountain, then a water spray. I vow to return.

Most people decide to take dinner tonight on the lido deck, watching the banks of the Garonne go slowly past. It’s just delightful. In my cabin, Gina has decided to sculpt one of my towels into an elephant. At least, I think that’s what it is.

Day Five – At Sea

There’s something under the door this morning. It’s a birthday card. I am 56 and some clever person in the purser’s office has spotted the date on my passport. There’s a little note to ask whether I’d like my special day marked at dinner. It’s one of many nice little touches that have greatly impressed me on board.

Richard Nurick lets us sample cognac and armagnac before lunch and, prior to the evening meal, David Cordingly tells us about ‘The Wooden World: Ships and seamen from Columbus to Nelson’.

In my cabin, there’s an ice bucket with a nice bottle of bubbly, so I invite retired Royal Marine colonel, Nick Thompson, his wife Tessa and Captain Thomsen to help me polish it off. Except Nick, poor man, is under doctor’s order’s not to drink alcohol and has to make do with a diet coke.

I still have not managed to see a film on the in-cabin movie channel.

Day Six – La Coruna, Spain

Almost all of the passengers are taking a trip to Santiago de Compostela, one of Catholicism’s major pilgrimage sites. To compensate for our cancelled visit to St. Jean de Luz, the trip, which includes lunch at Santiago’s wonderful parador, is being given to everybody on a complimentary basis.

I’ve got a lunch appointment. Captain Thomsen has kindly allowed me to invite a Spanish Navy friend on board. Commander Nanclares is the base commander at Ferrol, where, last summer, I did my last job in naval uniform for NATO. I have needed to get his full name for security purposes.

My chum, who I know simply as Pachi, turns out to be Francisco Javier Pérez de Nanclares Pérez de Acevedo.

Day Seven – Leixoes, Portugal

I stroll the short distance into town, where I enjoy the fish and vegetable market and a much nicer cup of coffee than that available onboard.

There’s an early lunch before a tour of Oporto, that’s included in the voyage price. The town lies astride the River Duoro, with pretty steep hills either side. The riverside area of Ribeira, with its UNESCO world heritage status, is a bit touristy for me, but interesting nevertheless. Local youths are amusing the visitors by leaping from one of the bridges.

At Graham’s Port, much is sampled and I am among very few on the tour who purchase a bottle to lay down for Christmas.

Day Eight – Lisbon, Portugal

I love the sail up the River Tagus into Lisbon. There’s an included tour, but I have had enough cathedrals for a while, so decide to buy a day pass for the comprehensive tram and metro network. I’m glad I did; I had forgotten just how hilly Lisbon is!

We only have four hours ashore, which is a pity, because Lisbon deserves a lot more. With ports coming thick and fast, I think a day at sea would perhaps have been welcomed by most folk rather than a rushed port visit.

Day Nine – Cadiz, Spain

We dock right beside the historic centre. A lot of Spanish-based expatriates don’t bother with Cadiz, which is a pity. Founded in 1100 BC, it’s one of the most historic cities in Europe. The main parts of interest are all very walkable, with a lovely promenade.

Day 10 – Seville, Spain

I am asked to be tour guide for Nick and Tessa Thompson, a task I am delighted to accept. We are berthed almost beside the wonderful Plaza d’Espana, which is being superbly restored to its original 1929 glory. We manage to get Nick a free ticket (proof of retirement age required) for entry into the Royal Palace, the Alcazar, where we enjoy a very decent cup of coffee and a wonderful stroll in the extensive and delightful gardens. I ask two local police officers where to take a typically Spanish lunch and we repair to the cool of a restaurant interior for a nice selection of tapas. Nick ignores the doctor and, for the first time in a week, enjoys a beer.

During a Spanish wine-tasting back on board, Richard Nurick is impressed that I am well acquainted with ‘Ribero del Duero’. ‘Most Brits don’t get much beyond Rioja,’ he tells me.

Day 11 Seville, Spain

Island Sky has called at 7 ports and sailed a distance of 1653 nautical miles since leaving Plymouth.

I’m impressed not only with the fact that my 70Kg of luggage has found its way onto the quayside, but that it is perfectly lined up.

It’s what I have come to expect. The staff on Island Sky has been superbly efficient and keen to please. There’s been no stuffiness, ships’ officers mingle freely with the passengers, the information flow has been good and I am hugely impressed.

Small ship cruising might not be for everyone; but for me, the chance to mix and mingle with all sorts of interesting folk, especially at mealtime, was brilliant. There were no big shows, bingo or quizzes, just a bit of piano playing by the excellent Robert Fuchs.

As I board my high-speed AVE train for the two-hour journey home to Malaga, I pick up the one book that I have opened since leaving Plymouth ten days ago.

I never did find time to watch a film.

ENDS 2356 words


Mike Souter booked his cruise through Go Cruise, who offer substantial discounts on brochure prices. 01952 402301.

For full details of Island Sky’s programme and all other cruises offered by Noble Caledonia, call 0207 752 0000

The Berlitz Complete Guide to Cruising and Cruise Ships 2010 is priced at £16.99.

All photos: Mike Souter, SouterMedia.Com

Bordeaux Bourse and pool
Ferdinand the Navigator in Oporto
La Coruna Town Hall through arch
Cepe mushrooms and wonderfully fresh vegetables in La Rochelle market
La Rochelle Harbour and Towers
Lisbon tram and post box
Plaza d'Espana, Seville
Island Sky alongside in Leixoes

All photographs: Mike Souter, SouterMedia.Com

You can see all the photographs from this feature and much more of Mike Souter’s travel photography at:

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