Travel: A whistle-stop weekend at sea

Packing France and Guernsey into a weekend visit may sound ambitious, but on a mini cruise it’s a breeze, says Jeremy Gates.

By The Newsroom
Tuesday, 15th October 2013, 7:00 am
St Peter Port with Cornet Castle in the background, Guernsey. Pictured: PA Photo/VisitGuernsey.
St Peter Port with Cornet Castle in the background, Guernsey. Pictured: PA Photo/VisitGuernsey.

The wide blue bay is a vision of paradise in the early morning sun: golden sand, a gentle breeze and the curving beach almost to myself, apart from a few children fishing for crabs among granite rocks on the foreshore.

Then I look in the other direction along the shore to see the face of conflict: a massive concrete bunker, presenting a narrow slit towards the waves and built to resist bombardment from ships or flamethrowers flailing up the beach.

It all looks in such immaculate working order that I half expect a blonde, fresh-faced Hans to open the hatch door and ask politely if he could possibly go home please.

Now I understand why our Fred Olsen cruise liner Balmoral stirred so much interest with an onshore expedition on the Channel Island of Guernsey entitled “The German Occupation - with the chance to explore and photograph a German gun emplacement”.

If you like gun emplacements, Guernsey’s collection is among the world’s finest: many boast a brand new coat of Dulux, and Castle Cornet, bastion of the English Crown for 800 years, fires an 18th century cannon each day.

A gentler Fred Olsen outing offered a cycle tour of the island, taking in some of its 27 (mostly sandy) beaches and bays. With a speed limit of 35mph, Guernsey has drivers so careful that even amateur cyclists can amble along country roads with confidence.

Cruise ships make about 120 visits a year to Guernsey. It’s a grand sight when you pull back cabin curtains to see the capital, St Peter Port, basking in the sun.

There’s plenty to see in a few hours onshore: beaches and bays, the house where the French novelist Victor Hugo polished the final version of Les Miserables between visits from his mistress, fine seafood, and so many bits, bobs and bunkers which the Germans left behind.

Driving into St Peter Port, Visit Guernsey guide Viv Wenman points to the long slit in a solid stone wall at a road junction: the invaders popped a machine gun through the gap to deter resistance, and locals have preserved the slit for over 70 years.

We rounded off our visit with a splendid Sunday lunch at La Fregate restaurant (amazing value at £26 per head), enjoyed on the terrace of a hillside vantage point which looked down on Balmoral at anchor in the wide blue bay beneath us.

We reached Guernsey on the second day of our whistlestop weekend cruise - which began in Southampton on a Friday afternoon which saw seven cruise ships going down the Solent on the evening tide.

Thirty six hours later, as we chugged into St Peter Port, mums were slapping sunblock on the foreheads of toddlers still wiping sleep from their eyes. Maybe I wasn’t the only one thinking that keeping up with 1,300 other passengers can be hard work!

Fred Olsen’s fleet of four ships has a reputation in the cruise world for its care of older travellers, especially over-60s. But when I checked in by stepping gingerly between the push chairs, I realised its weekend cruises attract a wider age group.

Family reunions linking the generations, hen parties/girly weekenders, even a male voice choir from Hampshire in matching pullovers due to perform in Normandy - all sorts and age groups turned out for this one!

Some are drawn by the fame of the ship: Balmoral, largest ship in Olsen’s fleet, starred this summer in a TV show - ‘The Cruise: A Life at Sea’ in six episodes on BBC Two. At 43,500 tonnes, she’s smaller than Dover-Calais ferries, but belongs to an era when cruise ships were proper ships, rather than floating hotels.

Celebrity chefs? Never heard of them. But formal nights, when passengers brush up and don glad rags - and often kilts - to pose for family portraits, are a big hit. Dinners of consistently good quality are also served pretty fast - important when there are so many things to do afterwards.

With everybody finishing meals at roughly the same time, Balmoral offers a fantastic mix of musical shows, dancing, karaoke and numerous bars to pass the evening - all rounded off with a midnight buffet.

On promenade deck, groups gather before breakfast to cover four laps for a measured mile. You can stretch in yoga, Pilates and exercise to music - each costing £5 per class.

It’s very traditional compared to ‘freestyle’ cruising, but great fun too. To celebrate birthdays at dinner, the waiters form an impromptu orchestra and serenade passengers on their ukuleles.

Fred Olsen acquired the ship in 2007 and added 60 more cabins. But the elegance of the open lounges and central atrium remains - and the library, one of the biggest afloat, is the perfect spot to find a comfy chair for a relaxing zizz, with great views of the sea.

The views are even better from the Observatory Lounge, above the bridge at the front of the ship. A great spot for a drink before or after dinner, as a pianist tinkles melodies on the grand piano.

Our cabin had good sea views beyond the line of lifeboats, rather than a balcony - but a settee and oodles of living space beyond the bed. And the bathroom was big enough to include a bath where you could actually sit down, rather than one of those rather narrow shower cubicles with a plastic tray and curtain which are standard on new superliners.

Single travellers like Balmoral too, because she has 64 cabins (out of a total of 800-plus) designed for people travelling alone, who dodge single supplements to enjoy a space which is all their own.

The option of a mini-cruise undoubtedly appeals to time-poor travellers or those wishing to bridge the gap between longer holidays. Packing two destinations into a long weekend may sound ambitious, but it’s actually surprisingly stress free.

Prior to visiting Guernsey, our boat made a stop in Honfleur, an historic and beautifully preserved town on the Seine estuary of Northern France, where Parisians come at weekends to escape the hassles of the capital.

We walked into town, following cobbled streets beyond the market place to Sainte-Catherine, built by shipwrights in the 15/16th centuries and the largest wooden church with a separate bell tower in France.

The town’s impressive art gallery is a tribute to eminent local artist Eugene Boudin and fellow Impressionists, including Monet, who flourished on this stretch of the Normandy coast.

But the most unusual museum here is The Maisons Satie, a strange mixture of sights, sounds and funny machines arranged as a musical and visual tribute to composer Erik Satie, born in Honfleur in 1866.

Museums, of course, aren’t compulsory. Plenty of visitors to Honfleur happily pass the day, munching their way through the moules mariniere beneath the umbrellas on the crowded quayside, as they watch the world go by.

If the weather is good, Honfleur and Guernsey make a fascinating double act. If it’s possible to arrive in Southampton on a Monday morning with a spring in your step, you probably need to arrive on Balmoral, with those ukulele serenades still ringing in your ears.

Travel facts - Guernsey

Jeremy Gates was a guest of Fred Olsen Cruises (www.fredolsencruises.com; 0800 0355 150) which offers a variety of mini-cruises. On December 6, Fred Olsen’s Black Watch will operate a four-night Paris & Bruges voyage ex-Dover (to Rouen and Zeebrugge) from £399 per person.

:: For more information on Guernsey, or to book a tour, visit www.visitguernsey.com or call 0800 028 5353.