Beautiful Bruges

Woke up this morning to find that the Arcadia was docked in Zeebrugge, Belgium.  Trevor and I worked out that it was nearly 10 years (December 2007) since we’d last visited this port, which is the gateway to the medieval city of Bruges.  On that day, it was bitterly cold with an icy wind blowing, but today it was crisp and bright and, thankfully, dry.

We ate our breakfasts sitting by the window in the Belvedere self-service restaurant.  Zeebrugge is one of the busiest ports in Europe, and we could see cargo ships and ferries, as well as a Navy frigate and some smaller boats busily going to and fro.  Zeebrugge actually means “Bruges by the sea” when roughly translated, and we’d decided today to make our own way into this picturesque city by train, rather than pay over the odds for a guided excursion.  We’d checked online beforehand and discovered that you could get a shuttle bus to the nearby town of Blankenberg, and from there a return train to Bruges only cost six Euros.

After a substantial breakfast, we wrapped up warmly (I wore my new cagoule), collected our money, cruise cards, camera etc from our cabin, then went down to Deck 2 to disembark the Arcadia.  We only had a short distance to walk before boarding one of the half-dozen or so waiting shuttle buses, and it only took about 10 minutes for them to drop us outside Blankenberg railway station.  A lot of people from the ship seemed to have the same idea as us; after all, there is a lot to see and do in Bruges and, to be honest, the exercise of walking around would certainly do no harm.

We had about 40 minutes to wait for the train, and the platform was fairly crowded with other passengers.  The train came in about 10 minutes before it was due to depart; it was a double-decker and we made our way upstairs for a better vantage point.  The train left bang on time, and we only had a short ride of about 15 minutes or so before arriving at Bruges.

Bruges is the capital and largest city of the province of West Flanders in the Flemish Region of Belgium, in the northwest of the country. The area of the whole city amounts to more than 13,840 hectares, including 1,075 hectares off the coast, at Zeebrugge. The historic city centre is a prominent UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it is famous for its production of chocolate, cheese, beer and, of course, Belgian lace.  Every other shop along its cobbled streets seemed to be selling these items.

We were a little early for the Christmas markets, but we could see the huts, stalls and festive lights and decorations, where they were getting ready to set them up.  There was not a lot of traffic (it’s probably restricted in the city centre) but we could hear the constant clip-clop of the many horse’s hooves as they pulled their carriages through the streets.  The horses all wore a sort of ‘sling’ underneath their tails, which consisted of a chute down into a receptacle at the bottom of the carriage; this caught all the horse muck and prevented it covering the streets.  I certainly didn’t envy the person who had to wash these containers out!  🙂

We were all wearing comfortable walking shoes as we strolled through the pretty narrow, cobbled streets on our way to the main square, window shopping as we did so.  The sun was out and it was quite warm on our backs, but when it went behind the clouds we noticed a brisk wind.  Around 11.00am we decided to find a beer-tasting place and we went into a lively bar/café along a “beer wall” – this was glass cases floor to ceiling with many different bottles of beer.  Outside there were high tables and stools, thoughtfully warmed up with patio heaters here and there.

We went inside and ordered a taster each of four strong beers which were between 8.5% and even 11% – almost wine strength!  Iris decided to have a hot chocolate instead.  With our 4 x 250ml glasses of beer was some small nibbles designed to compliment the flavour of the beers; there were some salami pieces, salted nuts and pretzels.  Iris got a couple of samples of gorgeous Belgian chocolate with her hot drink.  It was most enjoyable, but I’d imagine you would certainly know if you drank a pint of any of those beers!

Afterwards we wandered around the main square for a short while, looking in the shops and at the lovely architecture.  There were many leafy waterways on which small pleasure boats were gliding along with their sight-seeing passengers.  The savoury aromas from some nearby food-stalls caught our attention and Trevor and Iris decided to have some hot chips for lunch; I decided I’d skip them and have a good dinner later on instead.

Around one o’clock we decided we’d better make the 14:05 train back to the Arcadia; there were a lot of passengers (2,000) and we didn’t want to risk not getting on the shuttle bus or the train for the return journey, as we all had to be back on board by five o’clock at the latest.

We therefore went into another pub that had lots of character, and Trevor and I had a pint of beer each, before we used the loos and started to take a slow stroll back to the train station, after a very interesting morning.  As we’d predicted, we saw a lot of people at the station who had got the same train to Bruges as we had.

Back in Blankenberg we were pleased to see that there were half a dozen shuttle buses waiting, so it didn’t take too long.  Our pleasure was short-lived however; on arriving back at the Arcadia we were met with enormous queues as everyone had decided to return at once.  There were two gangways open, but we still had to queue for a full half-hour, in the cold wind, before we were able to board.  That is one of the problems with the bigger ships I suppose, although Arcadia is classed as ‘mid-sized’ by today’s standards.  It’s certainly another reason why I would never go on any of the mammoth ships that hold 4,000+ passengers.

Eventually we were all back on board after 4.00pm.  We returned to cabin A103 and I had a nice hot shower and washed and blow-dried my hair.  Then Trevor and I decided to go up to the Aquarius pool and bar where they were holding a Sailaway Party; we also had vouchers for a free glass of champagne each because we are members of the Peninsular Club, which is P&O’s loyalty programme.  Iris said she’d wait for us to come back.

Up on deck everyone was in a party mood; we were all given Union flags to wave and there were jugs of Pimms as well as the champagne on offer.  Dance music blared out of the speakers as everyone waved their flags and joined in with the singing and dancing.  At 5.30pm Arcadia slipped her moorings and we slowly started to make our way back out to sea, for the overnight crossing back to Southampton.

Once we’d finished our champagne (and because we were cold!) we went back to our cabin and joined Iris, before deciding to go to the Belvedere self-service restaurant tonight, rather than the Meridian, because they were serving an Asian buffet up there.  We enjoyed a sample of various Chinese and Thai cuisine, all washed down with some cold Tiger beer.

Then we returned to cabin A103 again where we reluctantly started doing some of our packing.  How the time had flown; tonight was our last night on the beautiful Arcadia; I could easily have spent a fortnight on board!

The show in the Palladium showlounge tonight was excellent; it was called “Reel to Reel” by the Headliners Theatre Company and consisted of lots of high-energy singing and dancing of excerpts from well-known musicals.  It was a great production accompanied by the superb live ship’s orchestra.  We’d seen it before on the Arcadia (and the Ventura) but it was obviously a first time for Iris and she enjoyed it very much.

Afterwards, Iris was tired after her full and busy day, so she excused herself around 9.30pm and headed back to our cabin.  Trevor and I thought we’d go to the Globe lounge where they were holding a quiz with a difference; it was called “Less is More” and was based on the TV gameshow Pointless.

There were not many people in the Globe; either everyone was away packing, or they’d decided to go elsewhere tonight.  One of the entertainment hosts came over and asked if Trevor and I wanted to participate in the gameshow and, because we always join in, we agreed.  She then went off to find three more victims… sorry… couples.  🙂

Once the game was ready to start (and there were a few more people filling up the Globe) we were called up to the stage area.  For those who don’t know, Pointless is a quiz with a difference, you have to accrue the fewest points, not the most.  There are questions which have several answers, and you have to come up with the least-common answer.  For example, if 100 people were asked to name a James Bond film, you have to guess which film fewest people would say (i.e. the lesser known ones).

The first question was about the books of Charles Dickens.  The first questions had to be answered by the ladies (no conferring!); one answered A Christmas Carol which scored 67 points, but one lady said Wuthering Heights (which wasn’t written by Dickens) and scored the top points of 100.  When it was my turn, I said Barnaby Rudge.  No-one else had suggested this, so I scored zero points – I’d found the pointless answer!  🙂

Thus the game continued, with the highest-scoring couples being eliminated after each round.  Trevor and I were booted out after round 2, which was based on Beatles songs (neither of which we know too much about).  But the losing couples still got a consolation prize – a nice little P&O branded USB flash drive.  🙂

We stayed to watch the rest of “Less is More”, then we made our way to the Rising Sun for tonight’s quiz, which was based on British TV comedies.  Not as easy as it sounded, however, as some of them went back to the 1950s on the old black and white televisions.  We only did the quiz in a half-hearted way and eventually gave up.  While we were there, we enjoyed a couple more drinks then returned to our cabin around 11.30pm, finished the packing, and put our cases outside the cabin door to be taken ashore in Southampton.

When we woke up the next morning, we were back where we started from.  Our cruise had ended, but our little holiday had not, as we were going to pop in to Yeovil to visit some friends we hadn’t seen in nearly 10 years, before continuing our journey back to Durham after an overnight stay.

All in all, it had been an enjoyable little trip, and I’m sure that P&O and the Arcadia will have gained some new fans afterwards.  🙂





Into the North Sea

Woke up at 8.00am after an excellent night’s sleep. I’d been wearing some industrial-strength earplugs while I slept so nothing disturbed me at all, and I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when I got out of bed, despite the fact that we’d had to put our watches forward an hour to European time.  Looking outside, the day seemed cloudy but dry, with barely any wind; a perfect November day, in fact.

We ate breakfast in the Belvedere self-service, and I enjoyed a selection of cold meats and cheeses with fresh pineapple and melon, washed down with orange juice and good hot coffee.  At around nine o’clock (which felt like 8.00am) a crowd of people came in; it looked as if they’d forgotten about the time difference or were just late risers, either way we were glad we’d missed the rush.

Afterwards we decided to go along to the shopping arcade and see if we could pick up any bargains.  In any case, I’d come out of the house without a coat or outdoor jacket; all I had was my fleece-lined corduroy jeans jacket which would probably be OK as long as it didn’t rain.  However, looking in the shops I spotted some “Right as Rain” cagoules by Joules; they are 100% waterproof and this one was a lightweight one as well as being longer than the usual cagoule length.  It was reduced to £31.00 so I bought it; I will just keep it in the suitcase permanently as it will never come amiss on holiday.  I also bought some Benefit mascara, my favourite brand.

After pottering around for a bit, we took a walk outside on deck in the calm but crisp air.  The Arcadia was only going along slowly, about 11-12 knots, and we could see the hazy outline of land in the distance, probably France.  Of course, a crossing to Zeebrugge can be done from Southampton overnight, but they were just stringing this out into a three-night cruise to give the passengers (particularly the first-timers) a taste of life at sea.

We then decided to go and have a cup of coffee while I did some of this blog.  Then we showed Iris all around the ship; from the Neptune pool deck with its retractable roof, to the well-equipped gym to the spa and hairdressing salon.

The morning passed in its usual pleasant way and, at lunchtime, we thought we’d go to the Neptune Grill on the pool deck where they were serving a light lunch.  I enjoyed a crisp green salad with cold meats and pâté and pickles, while Trevor and Iris had some fish, chips and mushy peas.  We each washed them down with a glass of cold beer, and spent some time just sitting people watching and chatting.  Some people were making the most of the swimming pool and hot tubs, but we hadn’t brought any cossies with us this time.

The noon-day navigational information from the bridge gave our position and the officer of the watch advised that the Arcadia would be dropping anchor at around 5.00pm before continuing into Zeebrugge at 5.00am tomorrow morning.

At 1.00pm we went along to the Rising Sun pub where they were holding a “Name That Tune” quiz.  We found the questions quite easy and scored 37/40; we guessed that there would be a lot of high scoring teams and indeed the team whose answers we marked got 39/40.  There were, however, a couple of teams who scored full marks, so it had to go to a tie-breaker.

We sat in the Rising Sun for a short while afterwards, before returning to cabin A103 for a half-hour power nap to make up for the hour we lost last night.

As it was a sea day, tonight was a formal evening.  There would be no captain’s cocktail party, however, as most cruise lines don’t do them for cruises under five days in length.  Nevertheless we always enjoy a chance to dress up, and it was a chance for Iris to wear her long dress and glam up a bit.  😊

I went up to the pool bar and got myself a glass of prosecco to drink while I was getting ready.  I took a while doing my make-up and I’d brought a lovely platinum blonde bobbed wig with me to save having to spend ages on my hair.  Then, at 6.00pm I donned my lime green and black full-length dress which had a neat little bolero jacket trimmed in sequins; I teamed my ensemble with a pair of gold high heels.  Then we all decided to go and see the official ship’s photographer to get our formal portraits taken.

This brought us nicely to dinner time, so along we went to table #45 in the Meridian restaurant and enjoyed another scrumptious meal washed down with wine and finished off with cheese and a nice glass of ruby port.  Then we had time for a cocktail up in the Crow’s Nest before hot-footing it along to the Palladium theatre for tonight’s entertainment.

The show featured a singer called Jon Fisher, who was a dead ringer for Gary Barlow from Take That, and indeed that was who he was going to perform as tonight.  He sang a lot of the best of Gary’s songs, such as Patience and Let It Shine, as well as some of the classic Take That hits such as Never Forget and Back For Good.  It was a thoroughly enjoyable show, although I think the ladies enjoyed it more than the men.  😊

We pottered around a bit and by the time Iris and I had joined the inevitable queue for the ladies’ loos we arrived at the Rising Sun too late to join the quiz.   We therefore went to the Spinnaker Bar and listened for a short while to the musician there, before returning to the Rising Sun at 10.30pm for Karaoke Hour.  I was on two minds whether or not to get up and sing, as I am still recovering from a cold/cough and my voice is still a little throaty.  I did get up and sing Nothing Compares 2 U by Sinéad O’Connor, but I had difficulty hitting the high notes and it wasn’t up to my usual standard.

Around 11.00pm Iris was flagging and wished us goodnight before returning to our cabin.  Trevor and I stayed longer, and I got up and sang Amy Winehouse’s You Know I’m No Good which I managed a lot better as it’s for a much lower voice.  We then remained in the Rising Sun until around midnight, and had a quick look outside before returning to our cabin.  The Arcadia was at anchor now in the North Sea, and all was calm and still.

All the Way to Arcadia

Well, it might seem strange to be writing about cruising so soon after our last one, but it seemed to be a long time until our next cruise, so we decided to squeeze in a mini-cruise of three days on board the P&O ship Arcadia, a beautiful vessel on which we’ve cruised three times previously (2005, 2007 and 2013).

On this occasion, however, we decided to bring along my Auntie Iris.  We had been trying to persuade her to come with us for a couple of years now, but this 3-day voyage would be just enough to give her a taster of life on the ocean waves, to see if she liked it and, like us, caught the cruising bug for a future, longer cruise.  😊

We decided to drive down to Southampton as it was probably cheaper, when there was three of us, than taking the train.  We picked up my aunt at 8.00am to allow and arrival time at Southampton of around 2.00pm, when we hoped we’d be able to board more or less immediately.

The Wednesday morning traffic was busy, with many lorries thundering along the motorway.  The weather, however, was crisp but bright, and we hoped that it would remain so for the duration of the cruise.  Crossing the North Sea in November is a bit of a gamble; we’ve crossed over to Rotterdam before, in December, and the sea was like a mill pond; another time we did it in March and sailed straight into a Force 12 hurricane.  High waves and heavy seas never bother Trevor and me in the slightest, but we didn’t want the weather to put my Auntie Iris off cruising for life!

At around 11.00am we decided to stop at Watford Gap for a half-hour break (particularly for Trevor, who was driving) and a cuppa and something light to eat, as we’d been up since 6.30am.  We didn’t want to eat a lot as we could easily do far too much eating and drinking on the cruise ship – cruises are, after all, famous (or infamous) for their gastronomical delights.  😊

A previous look at the Marine Traffic app on my phone had told us that Arcadia was the only cruise ship in port today, so that meant that it wouldn’t be too crowded.  Therefore, the remainder of the run down to Southampton Docks was straightforward and not too heavy on traffic, and we arrived around 1.30pm, driving along the front to see if we could spot the Arcadia moored up.  We didn’t see her this time, so we went along to the place where we were to park for the next three days.

Instead of using a traditional car park, we had decided to take advantage of the trend that sees local residents in an area renting their drives or garages as parking space to visitors.  It’s a great idea; the homeowners are getting extra income from spaces that would not otherwise be used, and the visitors and getting cheap and secure parking.  Web sites such as MyParkingSpace and ParkAtMyHouse are the ones to go to if you want to look for cheap, longer term parking.  The three days would only cost us £15.00.

Once we arrived, the homeowner greeted us and parked our car in his spacious driveway.  For six quid, he agreed to give us a lift to the passenger terminal, and we arrived just before 2.00pm.  The Arcadia looked different; she had just come out of dry dock in Hamburg where she’d had a refit, and her livery had changed.  Instead of the white hull and yellow funnel, her white bow was decorated with the red, white and blue of the Union flag, and her funnel was dark blue.

It was exciting being back in the familiar cruise terminal.  We had time for a quick drink; Trevor enjoyed a well-deserved bottle of Spitfire after his six-hour drive, and I partook of a glass of chilled Prosecco, cold and sparkling and gorgeous, tasting all the more so because it was the prelude to a cruise.  Yay!  This is our 44th cruise but the excitement never dwindles; I am just like a kid on Christmas morning every time.

Once our drinks were finished, we joined the quick-moving queue to board, got our cruise cards and happily made our way through security and up to the sky walk to board the fabulous Arcadia.  She may have looked different on the outside, but inside she was just as familiar as ever, and it was great to be back again.  😊

We took the lift to Deck 8 where we had been allocated cabin A103, a spacious balcony cabin.  It had a queen size bed and a sitting area with a sofa and coffee table and a dressing table and chair.  The sofa would convert into a bed for my aunt to use, and there was a curtain that pulled across to allow for a modicum of privacy.

Despite the fact that it was November, a wintry sunshine streamed through the balcony doors, and we went outside where there were a couple of reclining chairs, a footstool and a small side table.  As there was no wind, it was pleasant to sit outside if you were wrapped up well.

Our suitcases had not yet arrived, and we had about 40 minutes until we had to attend lifeboat drill so, leaving my Auntie Iris to rest and take in her surroundings, Trevor and I decided to go to the Spinnaker Bar and kick-start our cruise with a nice glass of something; Trevor had a pint of John Smith’s and I had a chilled prosecco.  Looking around, it was hard to believe it was nearly five years (January 2013) since we had last sailed on Arcadia; it was just like coming home.  😊

After our drink we returned to cabin A103 and waited for the signal to collect our lifejackets and proceed to our muster station, which was the piano bar on deck 3.  We had to touch our cruise cards to a scanner so that they would know we’d attended, as it is compulsory.  This was obviously the more modern way than the usual roll call.  The safety briefing over, our time was now our own and we could enjoy our unexpected mini-cruise, which we’d only booked a fortnight ago!

We went out onto the promenade deck with Iris and had a slow walk round in the calm weather.  Three times round the deck is the equivalent of a mile, but we only took a gentle stroll to the other side before going back into the warmth of the Arcadia’s interior.

As we’d booked last minute and hadn’t yet been allocated a table for dinner, we went down to the Meridian Restaurant on deck 2 and joined a short queue to see if we could get a table on first sitting at 6.30pm; we were assigned table #45, a table for three.

We returned to cabin A103 and saw that the Arcadia had set sail and was slowly making her way down Southampton Water.  The Solent was flat calm and, as we were high up in the ship, we were unable to discern any vibration; in fact you’d hardly know you were on a ship.  Our luggage had arrived by now, so we unpacked everything and stashed the cases under the bed.  As the cruise was only three nights it didn’t take long.

We got ourselves washed and changed and ready for dinner; tonight the dress code was smart-casual so I wore a dark purple lace dress with a pair of nude-coloured high heel shoes.

We were ready around 6.00pm, so we all went down to the Spinnaker Bar which was just along from the restaurant and we enjoyed some pre-dinner cocktails.  I had a Marguerita while Iris enjoyed a Piña Colada and Trevor stuck to his usual pint.  Then, at 6.30pm, we made our way to table #45 and enjoyed the usual delicious four-course meal, washed down with wine and finished off with a nice glass of amaretto.  Iris remarked that she could see how it would be very easy to gain weight on a cruise!  😊

After our leisurely dinner we went along to the Palladium theatre and bagged ourselves some good seats down at the front.  Tonight’s show was called “Walk Like A Man” and was a tribute band to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.  The show was really good, and the guys did the Four Seasons proud; they sang all their hits such as Oh What A Night, Sherry Baby, Grease Is The Word, Working My Way Back To You and, of course, Walk Like A Man.  It was an excellent performance and we all enjoyed it a lot.

Afterwards we made our way along to the Rising Sun pub for the Welcome Aboard quiz and to enjoy a few more drinks.  Iris was flagging a bit by now, so she said goodnight and Trevor went with her to make sure she could find her way back to A103, where Savio, our cabin steward, had made the sofa bed up to a comfortable-looking bed with crisp sheets and pillows.

Trevor then returned to the Rising Sun, where we remained until around midnight, listening to the music and just enjoying being back on the Arcadia.  Because this is just a “taster cruise” and a lot of first-timers were on board, we noticed that the average age of the passengers was much younger than the usual 50+ demographic; there were quite a few people in their 30s.

Then we went back to cabin A103 and settled down to sleep, while the Arcadia glided along on the flat-calm English Channel.  We had a day at sea to look forward to tomorrow.