Contributer PATRIC BAIRD says the arrival into the Port of Belfast on board Crown Princess will happily sit alongside those of sailing into some of the world’s most exotic locations
I have sailed some pretty spectacular waters during my time as a seasoned cruiser, including the narrow, glacial fjords of Alaska, the canals of Venice, lined with their ancient buildings, and the tropical, blue waters of French Polynesia.
While Belfast Lough doesn’t quite compare to some of the breathtaking sights I have seen from the deck of a cruise ship – Ballylumford power station isn’t exactly the Basilica on Piazza San Marco – the memories of my recent arrival into the Port of Belfast on board the magnificent Crown Princess will happily sit alongside those of sailing into some of the world’s more exotic locations.
Shivering on deck on a cold and misty Sunday morning in September may not sound like the most promising of foundations upon which to build an enduring memory, but sailing past Carrickfergus Castle, while the lights of Cultra and Holywood twinkled on the opposite side of the lough, filled me with a sense of pride, knowing that my home city was every bit as interesting and photogenic as some of those far-flung beauty spots I have visited.
I had joined the ship the previous day in Liverpool, for a five-night stay in the middle of Princess Cruises’ 12-night British Isles itinerary, a round trip from Southampton which takes in some of the UK, France and Ireland’s most desirable destinations, including Guernsey, Cork, Dublin, the Highlands of Scotland, Edinburgh and Le Havre.
Anyone who has been on a cruise will be familiar with the dreary formalities of the dockside check-in process, which can often mean joining a long queue to be photographed, undergo passport checks and filling ouat endless forms, all of which takes up precious time which could be better spent on board, sipping cocktails or sampling the culinary delights of the buffet restaurant.
But thanks to a little gizmo the size of a 10p piece, guests can be in their cabin, swimming pool, bar or buffet, quicker than it takes to choose between a mojito or Manhattan. Exclusive to Princess Cruises, the multi-award winning Ocean Medallion, which guests are issued with prior to sailing, works alongside a phone app into which all the necessary information such as passport details, profile picture and meal preferences are uploaded before departure, ensuring an expedited and stress-free experience upon arrival at the port.
Once on board, the Ocean Medallion acts as your cabin key, automatically unlocking the door as you approach, while the app allows guests to order drinks, food and retail items which are delivered to you wherever you may be on the ship, as well as being able to keep track of family members and friends (with their permission, of course!)
I found using the Ocean Medallion, as well as both the Medallion Class and Ocean Compass apps, to be invaluable as guides to everything that was happening around the ship, while using one of the many portals or screens in public areas to book dinner or a treatment at Lotus Spa was very simple indeed.
For those guests who might not consider themselves be very tech savvy, pretty much everything can still be done the old fashioned way – including visiting the shore excursions desk to plan all those land-based activities.
During my short cruise, it would have been nice to spend more time experiencing the ship and as many of its attractions, but I was also looking forward to spending time ashore. On a cruise of the British Isles, there are so many excellent excursions to choose from; while in Liverpool, I took the ‘In the Steps of the Beatles’ tour, in which a very knowledgeable guide showed us some of the sights immortalised in Beatles’ songs such as Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane, as well as visiting the childhood homes of Paul McCartney and John Lennon.
The following morning, Crown Princess docked alongside the recently-opened Belfast Cruise terminal – I can report that it is an excellent facility and a very welcome improvement to the experience of those arriving on cruise ships into the Port of Belfast.
One of the many tour options offered for our visit to Northern Ireland was a city tour of Belfast – although Marcel Proust said: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes”, and I had no doubt I would learn something new about the city in which I had lived all my life, I decided on going a little further afield, signing up for the ‘Local Connections: Giant’s Causeway’ tour. Although it had been quite a while since my last trip to the famous stone columns, it was unlikely that they would have changed much, given that they look pretty much as they did 50 million years ago. I was looking forward more to the scenic drive which would take in Dunluce Castle, Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge and Ballycastle, while our excellent local guide and driver, David Lyttle, took a slight detour to point out several iconic Game of Thrones locations, including the Dark Hedges and Ballintoy Harbour.
The next day, an early morning arrival into Greenock, near Glasgow, was followed by the ‘Best of the Scottish Highlands’ full-day tour, which began with a visit to the pretty town of Luss, situated on the banks of Loch Lomond. Those of a certain age, such as myself, may recognise Luss as the filming location of the long-running television show, Take the High Road. A stop at the 18th century Inverary Castle and lunch at a nearby hotel preceded the drive back to the ship which took in some truly spectacular Highland scenery, as well as a trip on the ferry across the River Clyde to Greenock.
After a full day at sea, the next port of Invergordon, on Scotland’s north-eastern coast, was the starting point for my ‘Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle Ruins’ excursion, which included a short walking tour of the city of Inverness, a monster-spotting opportunity during a drive along the banks of Loch Ness (a no-show by Nessie, unfortunately) and a stop at the ruins of the medieval Urquhart Castle.
There’s nothing like a bit of fresh air to stimulate the appetite and, on the Crown Princess, there are plenty of dining options to choose from. All meals are included in the price of the cruise, but some of the speciality dining options which have a small cover charge are well worth considering. My favourite was the Salty Dog Gastro Pub, with its legendary Ernesto Burger, Crown Grill Steakhouse and top-notch Italian restaurant, Sabatini.
It’s also worth noting that the dietary choices of vegans and vegetarians, particularly at the buffet, are finally being recognised by an ever-increasing number of cruise lines, with Princess being no exception. There’s even something to look forward to at bedtime – designed to offer the most comfortable and rejuvenating sleep at sea, the Princess Luxury Bed has been developed in collaboration with expert Dr. Michael Breus, aka “The Sleep Doctor”. I don’t think I have had such good nights’ sleep in years and, upon arriving into Edinburgh, it was very difficult both having to get out of such a lovely bed and leave the ship so early for a depressing journey back home – but then, didn’t I decide that Belfast’s not such a bad place after all?