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Monday, 30 July 2012

Chocs, docks and v posh frocks - 4 nights on P & O's Ventura....(and win a signed copy of 'Here Come The Girls')

Taking a ‘cruise virgin’ on his first ship carries a lot of responsibility – especially after I've built up a holiday taken this way to be the best thing since sliced bread.  Would it live up to the hype?  Especially as I wouldn’t have thought  Mr C was your typical cruise passenger.  He doesn’t like heights or deep water, has heard too much about the horrors of sea-sickness… and he’s sharing a cabin with myself and my two sons.  He fears claustrophobia – especially after hearing he’ll be onboard with 3000 other passengers:  he has visions of being crushed everywhere he goes.
At 7am on Monday morning, we are at the bus station with our suitcases to catch the Eavesway bus.  It’s a nice feeling to know that the next time we see those suitcases, they will be outside our cabin.  No lugging them about from bus to ship and should anything amiss happen to the bus – ie breaking down, caught up in traffic, the ship will hang on for us.  That wouldn’t happen if we were in our own car.  (Coming home we were delayed by over two hours because of 2 huge crashes on the motorway – so it happens). 
We always seem to stop at Northampton services, which has become part of our little regime.  The service there is always so awful, it just serves to prepare us for the different world waiting for us around the corner.  I’m giddy as a kipper, Mr C doesn’t see it (yet).
From arriving at the docks we’re checked in and clear customs within half an hour. 
Mr C thought the ship would be big but I don’t think he was prepared just for how massive she is as he has a slight panic about how something the size of a small village is going to be able to float. 

 Mr C is now armed with his cruise card which acts as his passport, his cabin key and his ‘credit card’ whilst on holiday.  The word ‘cabin’ has obviously confused him. 

He thinks that we’ll be in hammocks with only a small porthole to see out of.  I watch his face as we enter the body of the ship and it’s wearing an expression of ‘wow’.   That’s nothing compared to his first sight of the ‘cabin’ – a lovely roomy 4 berth with a living area, two TVs, fridge, large ensuite and a balcony.  Ice-wine (oh the nicest beverage in the world) is waiting for us in an ice bucket from my lovely friend Michele – and welcome chocolates for the boys.  At least the boys took it that they were for them from the speed they tore into them.

It doesn’t take us long to unpack as there is just the one formal night on this cruise.  There is plenty of room for all our clothes.  Tweenage boys tend to take up a lot of space, but we aren’t falling over each other by any stretch.  We take Mr C on a whistle-stop tour of the bars and restaurants and the theatre.  You really see the true length of the ship when you’re on a residential corridor – it feels an incredibly long walk back to the cabin if you pick the wrong staircase .  Mr C was expecting one restaurant, one swimming pool, one bar.  There are twelve restaurants and four pools.  And a sports court.

There is the obligatory life-jacket safety meeting

and once that’s out of the way, things feel more in holiday mode.  The brass band on the dockside plays as we push away into the sea.  We don’t have a celebratory glass of champers as we’ve just devoured the Ice-wine and any more booze would see us floating without the aid of a boat. 

We have a bit of a scrub-up for dinner.  It’s casual on the first night, but still nice to change and be fresh.  Mr C thinks the menu is the same on every night and can’t quite believe that it changes.  His brain starts whirring about how much food that must mean they carry in the galleys.  I – me – Mrs Stress-head – tell him ­ to chill and pick up the wine-list.   The prices of booze on board are surprisingly good value.  In fact the gorge Pinotage which my eyes always drift to is one of the nicest I’ve ever had and would cost much more in a Leeds bar.  Mr C is more than peckish now, as we haven’t had anything since a very early lunch stop so a starter, soup, main, dessert, cheeseboard, coffee and petit-fours is a welcome prospect – except he’s pig-full by dessert and can’t fit anything else in.   The people on the next table have a birthday so there’s the waiter chorus of Happy Birthday – the most tuneless singing in the world, but one which no holiday on a P & O ship is complete without. I’m waiting for the CD.  

He’s loving the ambience of the restaurants and the friendliness of the waiters and can’t believe how alive the ship is after dinner.Spoilt for choice what to do: shop, go and see a show, visit the casino… we plump for the coffee bar:The Tazzine. And the Metropolis - right at the top of the shop. The sea is calm as milk – Mr C can’t actually believe we’re moving.He’s heard too many stories about force 13 gales but the ship is rock-steady, the sun is blasting out rays – we could be in the Med rather than heading towards Zeebrugge

We have a relatively early night because it’s been a long day and we’ve got a trip booked to Bruges.  Our cabin has been tidied up, chocolates placed on our pillows, the lighting subdued and the beds turned down.  Mr C isn’t used to this treatment (and he better not get used to it at my house either!) We have a coffee on the balcony, looking at the moon and nothing else really and Mr C can’t quite believe that he feels the ‘nothing’ is a really nice sight. Rather disappointingly for me, the ship doesn’t rock me to sleep with that cradle-effect that can have other people reaching for the sick-bags.  It’s so steady, we could be on dry land.

Bruges is our stop the next day.  It’s boiling – but getting on the bus and being presented with free Belgian chocs makes me think I’ve booked the right trip.  After weeks of rain the sight of a honey-yellow sun is divine (although when we ring home, Barnsley is having the same so we can’t gloat as much as we’d like). 

Bruges is delightful - like a cobbled street town from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. We half expect to see Benny Hill working from a toyshop here.  It's much bigger than I imagined, with pretty pealing bells and chocolate shops EVERYWHERE.  Quite imaginative designs of chocolates too (gulp!)

The heat drives us into a roadside bar at lunchtime where we are forced to partake of the local blond beer – and thank God for that.  It’s like nectar. 

My son picks the best thing on the menu – the local speciality:  beef stew cooked in brown beer with ‘frites’ (which always sound so much crunchier and healthier than chips). 

 Luckily the heat forces us into another bar later on where we have more local beer and the lads have a waffle.

Obviously I buy chocolates – in a traditional shape as I’m not sure my dad would appreciate chocolate reproductive organs.

We wave goodbye to a very warm Bruges as we get tarted up for the formal night. Mr C, not normally happiest in suits, is totally up for that. ‘Do people usually make the effort?’ he asks, unable to quite believe that nearly everyone is swanning around in long dresses or cocktail dresses –even the women! Some men are in suits, some hardened cruisers in their tuxedos.

Mr C – bless him – thought that everyone walked around in tuxedos during the day as well.  Ah the myths there are on ships!  He now realises that you don’t need horribly expensive ball-gowns and Moss Bros suits on cruises.  One black frock with a different necklace does me for at least two posh nights.  He decides to fit in a few catalogue poses - I feel obliged to assist.

I have a gorgeous meal this evening – asparagus with a duck’s egg and parmesan crisp,


 and then a pear tarte with vanilla pod ice-cream

 Then we are off to the cabaret lounge to watch a comedian.  If you would have told me that I’d be fascinated by a bloke standing on a stage making noises like trains, I would have laughed you out of town.  But I am amazed.  So – never say never.
On the third day we land in Le Havre.  I cocked up a bit really as I booked us on a trip to Paris for the day – which is over a three hour drive away.  ‘Oh you should have gone to Honfleur – it’s the prettiest place in the world!’ said my friend Michele. But I tried too hard to impress – and that was a mistake because you really don’t need to try on a ship.  It’s impressive enough without any extra effort.
Still – it is again the most beautiful sunshiney day and nice to wander around Paris. We pass the Princess Diana memorial above the tunnel where she died.  The flame is an exact replica of the flame on the Statue of Liberty.

We have a lovely walk to the Trocadero to take pics and sit by the fountain where my son made us all v envious by jumping into the water because it was so unbelievably hot. 

 Then we take the Metro to Tuileries so I can drag everyone to Angelinas for the best hot chocolate in the world. 

 A great plan – except that we are wilting in the heat and only want beer, very cold beer.  So I can’t show off the chocolate, but I can show off the ice-cream. 

Their ‘Marron’ ice-cream is to die for. 
Luckily I don’t die though and it gives me a bit of a chance to show off my masterly local ordering of different flavours of ice-cream.  (I tried speaking French in Bruges yesterday where they speak Dutch and thought I was Italian… so I had points to earn back).

It is a long journey back – we slept – and we go straight into dinner.  Mr C is now fully in cruise mode.  It’s about after three days that you ‘slip into’ the holiday I always feel.   He’s loving the ship so much, I could have cancelled the trip to Paris and just sat around the pool doing nothing and I think he’d have enjoyed it more.
We go to see a show in the theatre, have a cocktail in Las Ramblas which is the most chilled out place on the ship for me – all Spanishy and live guitar music in the background.  And cracking Sangria. 

I don’t know who switched on the weather but it’s absolutely gorgeous.  When we retire to the cabin, the lads are peckish (what!!!?)  So they decide to order some pizza and pasta from Room Service.  Mr C volunteers to pay.  It's free, laugh the lads.  Mr C thinks they’re joking – they aren’t!  (my son sneaked out on the balcony with his!)

The last day is spent in Guernsey.  A cloud drifts past the blue sky, realises he’s on his own and so buggers off embarrassed.  We go downstairs for a posh breakfast this morning, picked from a menu and served by waiters rather than the buffet serve-yourself restaurant upstairs.  It’s tenders to get ashore – my faves – lovely little bouncy boats to carry you from the ship. 

We have a lovely walk around, but it’s too English for me with all those shop names:  Monsoon, Boots, C & A (C & A!!!!).  It’s too much of a reminder that I’m near home and I don’t want to be because it’s all been too nice – again.  And any cruise I’ve ever been on ‘could have been a bit longer.’ 

When we get back to the ship, we find some sun-beds and the lads get in the pool and I know that Mr C will love his sea-days more than the port days when he comes back – and he will… because I’ve got him hooked now, like some benign drug-pusher.  The lads decide to go off and get a burger from Frankie’s the poolside restaurant – Mr C again whips out his card and again the lads chuckle because it’s free.  He can’t believe it that you can just go and get food and not have to pay ( It’s too dangerously wonderful and now he’s back home, I hope he doesn’t try it in Macdonalds).  

 Today has been easy and relaxed and I think his favourite day because he didn’t have to get up early to get on a trip.  He stretches out on a sunbed with his drink and I feel his bones sighing. 

As a taster this cruise has whetted his appetite and he wants more because the ship-magic has worked.  It’s lived up to all my hype.  (We’ve only been back two days and he’s bought a bow-tie).

We have dinner

then watch a comedian, walk around the deck with the stunningly gorgeous backdrop of a glass-like sea and a pink sun. 

Our bags are packed and left out at night to be taken ashore. Posh breakfast the next morning in the restaurant to send us on our way and we’re back to earth with a bump stuck in traffic jams after a fatal crash on the M1. Some poor sod isn’t going to be booking any more holidays – that makes me extra keen somehow to get home and whip out my brochure.
Would I recommend this cruise?  As a test for anyone not sure if cruising is for them – oh yes.  One formal night is perfect – not too much pressure on finding a wardrobe (although I do have friends who don’t take a suit at all because they spend all day at work in suits and so prefer to eat up in the buffets in the evening which is a much more casual affair!)  It’s just enough time to feel yourself falling under a ship spell, if you’re going to – and if you hate it, well, it’s not too long until you’re back home (Can’t say I’ve ever met anyone who has hated it, although there must be some - I'm just glad I'm not one of them.)

The main myths dispelled for Mr C are that a cruise is for 'old, posh people'.  The Ventura is a family ship and there's loads to do for people of all ages.  That people have to spend a fortune on designer gear for the night - and the day.  Prada and Primark mix quite beautifully.  And you won't find anyone walking around in a ballgown during the day - it's comfort first and bugger the designer names.  That people don't spend half their holiday being sick over the side because the boat is rocking like newlyweds in a caravan.  The ships are fully stabilised - but yep, when there are high winds, there is movement (a jab in your bottom from the onboard doc will sort you out - it's bloody fabulous).  This cruise was as steady as a plastic surgeon's hand.  That you're going to be cramped.  There's LOADS of space on board so Claustrophobics won't need extra meds.   And it's SAFE.  You might be 19 storeys up and looking over at the sea but the only way you're going to end up overboard is if you deliberately climb up over the barriers and throw yourself into the briney.  You can't 'slip' through the railings (even if you did lay off the cream teas).  And it's nigh on impossible to be bored.  If quizzes, swimming, theatres, gyms, comedians, live music, dancing, shopping, lectures, the spa, scoffing, port visits, the cinema aren't enough for you, then good luck finding a holiday that does 'float your boats.'

The blow of getting home is a sort of soft one for me as I’ll be back on board within weeks ‘working’ on a much longer cruise in the Med.  One where I’ll be able to immerse myself fully into the lovely relaxing life, napping during the day on a sun-bed and hoping the lads give me a nudge if I start snoring.  As soon as we’re booked up on our next one with Mr C, I can guarantee he’ll start ticking the days down to lying out and vegging on that sunbed.  That’s what happens when the addiction kicks in ;)

Thanks to P and O Cruises as always.
For anyone who wants to read my book about fictional women on a real cruise in the summer slip 'Here Come The Girls' in your holiday luggage.  A few people have written to me to say that they've booked their first cruise after reading it - if that's happened to you, I'd love to know about it :)

AND if you want to win a free copy of Here Come The Girls - just tell me which your fave P & O ship is and why.  I'll ask the lovely Michele Andjel there to help me pick.  Competition ends on 10th September.

Milly x

Follow P & O on Twitter  - @pandocruises