Braemar, wine and tapas
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Wine and tapas, a wonderful
combination especially when a cruise ship brings them together.
The sun shines from a clear blue sky as we board Fred. Olsen’s cruise ship Braemar berthed at Southampton’s QE2 Terminal, an atmosphere of excitement pervades the air as passengers eagerly arrive on board, many having cruised this ship before such is its popularity.
Safety drill completed its 3 long
blasts from the ships whistle as we ease off our berth and turn onto
Southampton Water into the shipping lane past the Isle of Wight before turning
south west along the English Channel and south into the Bay of Biscay towards
our first destination, Bordeaux in South West France.
day is a sea day and time to explore this, Fred. Olsen’s smallest ship in the
fleet but a very well appointed one. First thing you notice are the
refreshingly bright and tasteful interiors. Pastel coloured walls, contrasting
carpets, gleaming glass and brass. The 4-deck high atrium, glass outer wall affording
views to the outside world whilst an inner wall boasts a mural giving the
illusion of viewing scenes through arches. These decks are connected by a turquoise
treaded staircase where much use is made of glass and brass giving it a bright
modern feel. Lifts operate for the less agile or those who just don’t want to
walk. Completed in 1993 Braemar began life with Crown Cruise Line and having
gone through various names and owners was purchased by Fred. Olsen Cruises in
2001. In 2009 Braemar was ‘stretched’ to her current size of 640ft taking her
in excess of 24,000gt. Carrying a maximum of 929 passengers when full there is
a crew of 371 to look after them in a variety of cabin sizes and excellent facilities.
Our cabin on deck 4 boasts a large picture window, twin beds, on suite
facilities, large flat screen tv, tea/coffee making facilities, safe, hair
dryer and quality toiletries. Plug sockets are of the continental type.
the following afternoon sees us enter the Gironde River slowly passing villages
and vineyards leading us to La Garonne on which Bordeaux stands. Slowing, we
edge onto our berth and with the breeze gone we all realise it’s Bordeaux’s
turn for the heatwave with the mercury hovering on 42°C and humidity through the
roof. Locals are paddling in the ornamental pool decoration by the port and
pavements are hot to walk on. Oh, the delight of the ships air conditioning
system. Following dinner in the Grampian Restaurant on Deck 8 it’s time to take
in the Neptune Lounge show followed by early bed, tomorrow we are on a tour.
Bordeaux is one of the best known
wine areas of France boasting 287,000
acres of vineyards
producing annually in the region of 960 million bottles. Today, the sun
has gone, it’s raining, the mercury has dropped to 17°C, what’s the title of
that song, ‘What a difference a day makes’. Having swapped tee shirts for
jumpers and rain capes we hurry across the wet quayside to our waiting coach
and begin our tour, firstly of the city itself before setting out through the cloud
laden sky and wet countryside to the 127
acre vineyard of Château Larrivet Haut-Brion at one time owned by the Marquise
of Canolle and now considered by some to be one of the top wine producers in
the Bordeaux region. The vines are divided to produce 40% Cabernet Sauvignon,
55% Merlot, and 5% Cabernet Franc for the red wines with 60% Sauvignon Blanc
and 40% Sémillon for the whites. The cellars are vast, wall to wall of wooden
barrels containing wines at various stages of fermentation. Time to sample the
produce but not being a wine buff, I listened to others who say
the wine is excellent. Tour over its time to
head back to the coach and the ship, at least its
day sees us arriving in the northern Spanish port of Santander and yes, it’s
home to the bank of the same name. The rain gone and the mercury has crept up
to 22°C as we leave the ship and board our coach for a visit to Parque de la
Naturaleza Cabárceno some 17km north of Santander. This is something really
different, a park covering over 1,900 acres and developed from a former open
pit mine. An area of gorges, valleys, rock formations covered by 12 miles of
road, divided into various large savanna style areas where animals roam freely
as they would in their native habitat. First stop, the tiger area, the sight of
tigers roaming and relaxing in the sun is amazing, on to the monkey area where large
gorillas and small monkeys roam and mix together, now on to the cable car
station. Yes, a cable car that encircles the park in 4 stages, each car
accommodating 8 people slowly transports them across the open spaces from where
you look down on the animals and their habitat. Species of African antelope, elephant,
giraffe, bison, brown bear, ostrich, zebra, camel and many more roam the large
open areas. The full ride depending on queues at the various stops can take as
long as you wish but a minimum of an hour is needed when it is not busy.
Arriving back its lunch time at the park cafe where prices offer exceptionally good
value for a tourist area, coffee, a large slice of tortilla Espanola with large
crusty roll, 3 Euro. Next, a display at the Sea Lion enclosure where the sea lions
perform crowd loving antics to earn themselves fish rewards from their keeper. The
rain has returned so back to the coach, time to visit some of the park areas to
hopefully observe some of the animals at close quarters and we were in luck.
Zebras, ostriches, giraffes and a vast number of brown bears, some with their
youngsters playing in the rain, a wonderful sight. This is certainly a venue to
spend the whole day, alas, all too soon we were heading back to the ship ready
for dinner where we arrive in brilliant sunshine.
night we dine at the ship’s speciality restaurant, The Grill, set on the aft
deck al fresco style. My choice, fresh slightly charred scallops as a starter, 10oz
sirloin steak topped with lobster accompanied by grilled vegetables as a main and
a cylinder of chocolate to finish. Lay the cylinder on its side, crack it open
to allow 3 different types of chocolate to flow and all washed down by a
delightfully chilled rosé wine. Yes, I will be starting a diet soon.
night sailing sees us arrive in the delightful port of Avilés 124 miles west of
Santander. Today our trip takes us along this stunningly beautiful coastline.
The expansive golden sand beach of Murod de Nalón surrounded by cliffs and amazing
rock formations, a place to relax and let the world drift by. It’s Sunday and
families arrive to set up for a day on this beautiful beach, yes correct, I am
jealous as I step back onto our coach. Once on the move we climb the steep narrow
road to our next destination the fishing port of Cudillero again surrounded by high
cliffs, seeing it as we approach reminds me of a pretty west country village by
the sea. The small harbour, fishing boats glistening in the sunshine, the
village alive with brightly coloured restaurants and cafes, small shops selling
confectionary and locally made souvenirs, houses of different colours built
into the cliff face. Again, an area off the usual tourist track allowing it to
remain an authentic gem. Sitting at one of the cafes in the sun, sampling local
tapas, gambas, potatas bravas, tortilla washed down by an excellent local rosé wine
is total peace and tranquillity only broken by being told it was time to return
to the coach and back to the ship.
On arrival back at the ship we are
informed that due to incoming inclement weather we would be missing the next
days port of La Corona and heading back across the Bay of Biscay but would have
a day in Honfleur. It was impressive how much effort and detail Captain Glavic
put into showing us all on maps and weather charts what we should avoid. At 5pm
we say goodbye to Avilés and sail slowly along the channel past beaches, cliffs
and small boats as we head to the open sea. Another port on my ‘must return’
After a day at sea we arrive at
one of my favourite ports, Honfleur on the banks of the River Seine. Honfleur
can trace its history back to 1027. Imagine a small harbour with small yachts
moored, the harbour edges occupied by the parasol covered tables and chairs of
small restaurants displaying menus of seafood including one of my favourites,
fresh gilled sardines, minted lamb chops, carafes of local wine and cafes from
where the scent of fresh coffee fills the air. Walk behind the harbour and
visit the Church of St Catherine, largest built wooden church in France
constructed in the 15th century following the 100 years war. Built on the model of a market hall,
which, using naval construction techniques gives the impression of an
upside-down ship's hull. Entering the main doors, you’re greeted by what
appears to be two main altars and a smaller side chapel where flags, pendants
and paintings from a bygone age hang from the walls and wooden pillars. A
church that is simply furnished but beautiful, models and statues reminding the
visitor that this is a church associated with the sea, candles burn slowly at
various locations providing an air of peace and solitude. The church bells
housed in a separate wooden structure across the square are equally impressive.
Time to return to the harbour strolling past
confectionary shops selling caramel sweets for which the town is famous, others
selling Calvados a Normandy Cider that the region is famed for as it produces
very little wine. Back at the harbour it’s time for an ice cream at one of the
small parlours amongst this wonderful French cafe society. An ice cream in a
glass large enough to be a vase, topped with strawberries, sliced apple, kiwi
fruit and orange, its huge and I struggle to finish it. Time now to return to
the ship and pack ready for our arrival the next morning in Southampton.
So, who would enjoy this ship and
cruise? Fred. Olsen appeal in the main to those of 50 years plus and have a
large loyal following, however on this cruise we had some families with
children and one set of grandparents who had brought their two grandchildren
with them. The ship has a children’s pool as well as two main swimming pools
and two Jacuzzi as well as a spa. The food and service cannot be faulted
whether in either of the main dining rooms, Thistle and Grampian or the Palms
buffet. The dress code on formal nights sees the vast majority in evening
dress, even the male children wore jackets and bow ties, receiving many
compliments. The entertainment is focused in two venues, the Coral Club and
Neptune Lounge provided by the ships theatre company and cabaret acts that
often feature, we had a magician and a comedian who was also an excellent
singer. The staff are simply superb having a ‘nothing is too much trouble’
attitude. Good size well equipped cabins and comfortable beds. For me, it is a
case of that expression from The Terminator ‘I’ll be back’ and thank you Fred.
Olsen for inviting me.
Alan is a professional travel
journalist and was a guest of Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Fred.
Olsen Cruise Lines.
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