Not sure if cruising's for you? Try a short break at sea
Take a short break cruise to try it out
One in nine package holidays is now a cruise, but if you've never been you might hesitate to commit your hard-earned cash and your holiday time to being on a boat for days at a time.
To see if a life on the ocean wave is for you, dip your toe in with a short cruise. And, of course, keeping it short means cutting the cost, without skimping on the upmarket lifestyle aboard.
So long, SouthamptonThe cruise terminals punctuating the docks here are testament to the city's long association with cruising, as the port of iconic ships such as the Queen Mary, QEII and the, ahem, Titanic. Embarkation of the 3,000+ passengers was a slow but smooth-running process in a bright, light building on the quayside.
My partner, Bob, used to live in Southampton, so he was delighted to see the city from a different angle, receding in the wake of the massive P&O ship Azura as we set off for our four-day cruise to Rotterdam, Zeebrugge and Le Havre.
Navigating around the ship
When you first get on board, you can't imagine ever being able to find your way around. But there are pocket-sized maps in the cabin to carry with you, maps on all the staircases, lots of staff who are happy to direct you. And you'll soon learn whether your cabin is on the port or starboard side (even numbers are to port, odd to starboard). And you can't really get lost, because you're still on the ship no matter how far you wander.
What's the cabin like?
Our cabin was pleasingly large, with its own balcony with two sunloungers. The beds were big and comfortable, and we were welcomed with champagne, chocolates and a fruit bowl. Corks popped up and down the length of the ship as we set sail.
In comparison, the bathroom seemed small, but it was thoughtfully laid out - even including a tiny washing line to string across the shower cubicle.
Who are your fellow travellers?
Chatting to a veteran cruiser on board, we learned that the nickname for P&O's clientele used to be 'p*ssed and old' - but on our trip the passengers were a real mixture of ages and backgrounds: young families who'd saved for the trip, middle-aged groups celebrating a special occasion, well-heeled older couples, and at least one honeymoon party. P&O actually stands for Peninsular & Oriental, referring to the Iberian Peninsula, which the company won the mail contract for back in 1837, and the Oriental line, which became part of the company in CHK.
Eating, drinking and entertainment
You can eat however you want: from the buffet restaurant open all hours, to fine dining in Sindhu, created by Michelin-winning Atul Kochhar - deliciously upmarket Indian cuisine, and Seventeen - upmarket British food. As a vegetarian, I was very well fed, and so was Bob, a confirmed carnivore.
There's also the option of choosing a fixed dining time at the same table every time, so you get to know other people who are doing the same, or completely flexible free dining, where you book a restaurant table or just turn up. You certainly won't go hungry. And if you want to eat 'at home' there's 24-hour room service too. And paying is easy, you're issued with a prepay card, which is swiped like a credit or debit card, and the total deducted. You can monitor your account via the TV in your cabin.
You're never far from a bar on board - and with no worries about how to get home at the end of the night (or day), most people made full use of them. I got into the habit of an afternoon Pimm's in the Breakers bar by the outdoor pool when we came back to the ship after a day ashore.
By night we loved The Glass House, where wine connoisseur Olly Smith has selected 32 wines to sample in sophisticated surroundings. The Planet Bar is a futuristic setting with wall-sized screens showing film of calling points around the world.
On a short break - or possibly even a longer one - there just isn't time to sample everything on offer, but we did manage a moment of cruise-heyday nostalgia with a game of quoits on deck! We also enjoyed an evening of cocktails and dancing to 80s hits in the Manhattan Bar, and almost joined a ballroom dancing lesson, but our dinner table was ready. Most popular options include nightly song and dance shows, talks from experts, spa treatments, open-air film screenings, and even a library.
Our four-day cruise called at Rotterdam, Zeebrugge (for Bruges), and Le Havre. At each port P&O lays on a fleet of free buses to take passengers to and from the centre, and also offers paid-for excursions further afield. From Rotterdam, there were trips to Amsterdam and The Hague; from Zeebrugge, trips to Bruges, and from Le Havre to Paris, Claude Monet's house in Rouen or the pretty port of Honfleur.
Arriving in a new place by cruise ship is stress-free; there's no working out how to get from the airport to where you're staying, then lugging your suitcases there, before going out to explore - you just step off the ship (with your passport).
Bob and I opted to explore on our own. In Rotterdam we enjoyed a stroll down Coolsingel, a central shopping street, hiring bikes from the main station, and a canalside meal in Delfshaven, a sleepy 14th-century district of canals and windmills, from where the Pilgrim Fathers left for America. A short tram ride took us back to the boat, and right beside its berth was the Nederlands Fotomuseum, just part of a redeveloped dockside area including bars, cafés and interesting 1930s architecture.
At Zeebrugge crowds from the ship opted for the 'independent travel' option of a coach ride to the coastal resort of Blankenberge to catch the train to Bruges. P&O staff were very knowledgeable about train times and ticket prices.
Our first quest in Bruges was to find a tie for Bob as the dress code was formal that night. That done, we admired and sampled the products the city is more usually known for: chocolate, beer and lace. The city was busy but we clocked up the main sights: canals galore, the Belfry in the main square, the Basilica of the Holy Blood, the tranquil lake at Minnewater. To make it easier on your feet, there are lots of boat trips available. Our final stop was to stock up with Belgian beers to take home.
At our last stop, Le Havre, we admired the town's architecture, a modern spaciously laid-out rebuild in a classical style after the severe bombing towards the end of World War Two. A pleasant promenade lined with cafés and fish restaurants backs the beach, with views along the Normandy coast. After a coffee on the 'prom' and a relaxing Sunday morning seaside stroll mingling with locals enjoying the sunshine, we treated ourselves at a patisserie, before a brief stop, courtesy of the P&O coach, at the shopping centre located on the dockside.
Find out more
P&O offers over 30 short cruises, with prices starting from £321 for a two-night trip from Southampton to Zeebrugge for Bruges in October 2011. For more information and to book (booking taken from now until 2013), visit P&O's website, at www.pocruises.com.