Dipping Your Toe in the Water

Patric Baird dips his toe in the cruising water

I met a truly inspirational woman recently – Mary was in her late seventies, widowed, and was a fellow passenger of mine on a Christmas cruise around the Indian Ocean. Nothing particularly unusual there, except that this remarkable lady had signed on for a cruise lasting 30 days and didn’t know anyone else on board the ship. Oh, and she had never been on a cruise in her life, before now.

I love cruising, but I’m well aware that it’s not for everyone. “What would have happened if you hated it?” I asked, still in a mild state of shock at her revelation. “Well, that’s just hard cheese” she replied, in her very matter-of-fact, Mancunian manner. Delving further, she revealed that she had recently sold her house and moved into sheltered accommodation, had no children and few friends, and couldn’t face the prospect of spending Christmas and the new year alone, in freezing weather. And here she was, sunning herself on deck, on Christmas Eve, on first name terms with fellow cruisers of similar age and backgrounds, and she was clearly enjoying every second of it. So much so, she had just signed up for another month-long cruise, setting sail from Bali in December 2019, including a stop in Sydney Harbour on New Year’s Eve.

Even though I admired her spirit, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend her initial actions to other first-time cruisers. Maybe start off a little more cautiously, by dipping a toe in the water, so to speak?

I would, however, have no hesitation in recommending one of Fred. Olsen’s ‘taster’ cruises, such as the one I joined late last year. Departing from Southampton on Bonfire Night was a spectacle in itself, with beautiful fireworks exploding all around as we sailed along The Solent, towards the English Channel. I couldn’t help thinking that this was such a wonderful introduction to all those passengers who had never been cruising before, unsure of what to expect over the following five days and nights, as the MS Braemar headed towards Northern France.

In fact, I wouldn’t have been surprised if Fred. Olsen weren’t somehow involved in arranging such a spectacular departure, given their attention to detail in ensuring that their guests receive the highest level of hospitality. With their four-strong fleet of smaller cruise ships, first-time guests soon forget any pre-conceptions they might have held of spending their days at sea wandering the endless corridors of some huge and impersonal cruise ship.

Given that Fred Olsen has one of the highest rates of returning guests among all the cruise lines, all those years of perfecting the whole cruise experience has paid off, for both the company and for their guests. Crossing the English Channel in early November could easily have been a bit of a challenge for anyone yet to find their sea legs – luckily, the sea was calm and, as we sailed past Le Havre at dawn the following morning, any risk of choppy waters was left behind as the rest of the cruise would be spent leisurely sailing along the tranquil waters of the River Seine.

One of the many advantages of sailing on a smaller ship is that many ports of call are much more accessible, with our first destination, the magnificently-preserved medieval city of Rouen, only a short shuttle bus journey from the dock. As the ship was docked for almost 36 hours, guests were free to leave the ship at any time, either signing up for one of many organised excursions, or to explore Rouen’s shops, churches, chateaux, bistros and surrounding landscapes at their own leisure. Although the sunny and crisp weather was perfect for being out and about, for those staying onboard, or returning from a long day of sightseeing, there’s always plenty to do on the ship, ranging from games, dance and exercise classes, to bingo, quizzes and the evening live shows.

You can laze around in your cabin, reading a book or watching a film on television, visit the sumptuous lunch buffet, or have a pre-dinner drink in one of the bars if you fancy meeting up with some of your fellow cruisers to swap stories, which seemed to me to be one of the most popular pursuits. Our next port of call, again with an overnight stay, was the small Normandy town of Honfleur.

Rich in history and stunning medieval architecture, it’s the ideal base to visit the surrounding area noted for its production of potent calvados and refreshing cider, the pretty seaside resort of Deauville, as well as the nearby town of Bayeux, famous for the tapestry depicting events surrounding the Battle of Hastings. One’s mood on the final night of any cruise can be a little sombre, especially on an itinerary lasting only five nights. No sooner have you made some new friends, discovered your favourite cocktail and learned the names of the waiters (which is only fair, because they all know your name), it’s time to get off and return to the harsh reality of everyday life back on dry land. But just imagine yourself with a glass of champagne in hand, watching the world-famous fireworks display over Sydney Harbour Bridge next New Year’s Eve – maybe Mary has the right idea after all?

A similar cruise with Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines in 2019 will be a ‘French River Cruising in Five Nights’ departure on board Balmoral. Sailing from Dover on October 10, 2019, ports of call will be: cruising the Seine River; calling at Rouen and Honfleur both overnight stays, before arriving back in Dover on October 24, 2019. With calls into two classic French destinations, this sailing will offer incredible experiences all the way, including an optional excursion to romantic Paris, a visit to the Claude Monet House and Gardens and much more on this indulgent five-night escape. Prices currently start from £599 per person, based on an interior twin-bedded room, subject to availability, and includes all food and entertainment and port taxes.