BACKGROUND INFORMATION This was an unusual cruise – 8 nights away, but never getting more than 175 miles from the home port, with overnight stays at all three of the ports visited and spending a significant amount of time sailing up and down rivers on a sea-going ship. Our main reason for choosing it was that we have never visited Amsterdam, Antwerp or Rouen and thought that a travelling hotel would be a good way of seeing them, and it achieved our objectives very well indeed. We found it a bit odd that excursions from Antwerp to Brussels and from Rouen to Paris were featured quite strongly, when Brussels and Paris are so easy to get to from the UK by Eurostar, and Antwerp and Rouen are such worthwhile destinations in their own right, but we’re all different, aren’t we?
SHIP INFORMATION Braemar is a modest ship. It lacks many of the attractions of larger and newer ships, but suits people who like a more relaxed, low-key cruising experience We had travelled on it before it was stretched, and found that very good use has been made of the extra 32 metres, including an additional swimming pool, a very attractive observation lounge and a pleasant new restaurant as well as several new cabins. Being an older, screw-driven ship, there is quite a bit of mechanical noise and vibration, especially on the lower decks aft. Some forward cabins are also uncomfortably close to the bow thruster units which can lead to early awakenings, so midships cabins may be advisable if you are sensitive to such things. Braemar is also not the steadiest of ships, so open-water cruises on it are best avoided by people prone to seasickness. Internally, furnishings are pleasing and interiors are light, bright and airy. Braemar does not have a proper theatre, though, and the main Neptune Lounge is far from ideal as a venue for shows, with inadequate tiering, poorly arranged seating and some columns restricting views of what is going on on the stage. Talking about tiering, the tiered stern is magnificent, fully accessible to all passengers rather than just to those with aft-facing balconies as on most modern cruise ships. There is also plenty of sunbathing space on the upper decks, a full wrap-round promenade deck and access to the tip of the bow for Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio impressions – just don’t stand on the rail to do them.
EMBARKATION We parked our car on the pier at Dover, which was a very easy process with a short walk (or courtesy minibus ride) to the cruise terminal. The terminal does not have many facilities but the cafeteria is adequate and there is plenty of comfortable seating. Check-in was painless, with no noticeable queues, but embarkation did not start until 2pm which meant that most people had a significant wait in the departure lounge.
ACTIVITIES There was only one “proper” sea day on this cruise, which limited the need to resort to activities as such. We normally go to series of talks, but only went to one talk on this cruise, which was all right but not outstanding, trying to cover eight centuries of Anglo-French history in one hour. A second day of cruising was spent navigating down the River Seine, which was delightfully scenic, so we had no need of organised activities.
SERVICE Staff and crew were friendly and helpful. People who cruise regularly with Fred noticed cutbacks in staff, notably in the elimination of wine waiters, but we found the level of service in all areas to be at least adequate and often better than that.
CABIN Although most cabins are small by modern standards, they do not seem cramped or claustrophobic. Ours only had portholes but was still light and airy. There is plenty of hanging space, but not much drawer or shelf space. Equipment is good, with a flat-screen television, a safe and an adequate supply of toiletries – oh, and the essential (for Brits) tea and coffee facilities. Everything worked, after we had tightened up light bulbs that had been shaken loose. The design of shower curtain made it very difficult to avoid flooding the bathroom when showering. There are no British-style sockets, so plug adapters are vital.
DINING No for-fee speciality restaurants here, just the MDRs and the buffet restaurant and fish-and-chips-type meals from the open deck Marquee Bar in fine weather. We used the buffet for breakfast and lunch and our assigned MDR for dinner and were happy with the quality and choice in both locations. Our table companions disappeared off to the buffet for the Asian theme evening and pronounced it to be very good. There was a late-night chocoholics’ buffet on one evening, which looked good but not as lavish as we have seen on previous cruises.
ENTERTAINMENT The song-and-dance performances by the Braemar Show Company were good, especially the singers who were definitely better than most in this kind of company. Other entertainment by hired-in performers was not brilliant, but the crew shows were excellent.
PORTS OF CALL I will put more details into individual port reviews, but it was the itinerary that sold this cruise to us and we were not disappointed. We do not like the way that Fred describes times in port in advance publicity, just referring to early or late am or pm rather than giving times. This caught out several people who were expecting one and a half days in Rouen and elected to visit Paris on the first day in the expectation of a couple of hours in Rouen the next morning, but the “late am” departure turned out to be 10.15, too early for a look round the city when it is two miles from the cruise terminal. Our departures from Amsterdam and Antwerp were at 16.00 and 17.00 respectively, giving us almost two days in each of those cities. The cruise terminals in Amsterdam and Antwerp are close to the city centres and no shuttle buses were laid on, though in Amsterdam we resorted to a couple of short tram rides to get to the heart of the city because we knew we had a hard day’s walking ahead of us exploring the city’s canal rings. One of the canal bus routes stops very close to the cruise terminal. In Antwerp the ship docked within a few yards of the cathedral and the historic core of this fine city. In Rouen a shuttle bus service was provided for the first day, at a modest £5 for unlimited journeys. It was originally stated that it would finish at 7pm, but this was revised to 1am when the management were made aware of the late night son-et-lumiere at the cathedral. There were some major hiccups with the shuttle arrangements, but we were still glad we went to this fantastic free show.
DISEMBARKATION We had a cabin on one of the lower decks and were travelling independently so we were some of the last to leave the ship, but we were still back at our car for 9am after a smooth disembarkation process.
SUMMARY We enjoyed our cruise very much. Braemar has some shortcomings, but also some nice features that you don’t find on newer and larger ships, and made a perfectly adequate base for what was effectively three city breaks stuck together with no packing and unpacking to do between them.
Our ship was berthed at quay 20 on the River Scheldt, just a stone’s throw from the cathedral and the historic core of this fine city. We were there for two days, a Sunday and Monday, and since most museums are closed on Mondays we made the Sunday our museum visiting day. We chose to visit the Plantin-Moretus Museum, very close to the ship’s berth. This is nominally a museum of printing but it is sited in a beautiful old building with a peaceful central cloister. The entry fee is 8 Euros, and we thought it was worth it. We then visited the very modern MAS (Museum aan de Stroom), which is built on eleven levels with a differently-themed mini-museum on seven of the levels and a rooftop panorama of the city. Entry to the rooftop is free, but there is a 5 Euro charge for the permanent exhibitions and an extra 5 Euros for the temporary exhibitions. In the afternoon we visited two more museums, the Rubens House and the Museum Mayer Van den Bergh. Entry to each of these museums costs 8 Euros, but a combined ticket is available for 10 Euros. The Rubens House contains many fine works of art and is a fine old building with a pretty courtyard garden. The Van den Bergh Museum is also good, but possibly not worth the separate admission charge. We bought the combined ticket which was good value, especially on a rainy Sunday when few shops are open.
Antwerp offers great opportunities for shopping in the areas of Grote Markt, Groenplaats and (especially) Meir, with particularly tempting chocolate shops. There is also the diamond district which has a certain fascination but is not very picturesque. We are not natural shoppers, and chose to spend our second day admiring the architectural gems that Antwerp abounds in. Foremost among these is the cathedral, Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedraal, one of the finest Gothic cathedrals you will see anywhere. Another place worth visiting for its fine architecture is Centraal Station, magnificent inside and out. We spent most of a morning exploring two residential areas, Zurenborg and Zuid, packed with striking buildings, many in Art Nouveau style. This involved taking trams and buses, which are easy to use and cheap if you buy a day ticket for 5 Euros from the tourist office in Grote Markt (or 7 Euros if bought from the driver).
Many of our travelling companions chose to spend their time on tours to Brussels or Ghent, both great places, but I think we did better staying in the fine city of Antwerp.
Rouen is a fascinating city, with a magnificent cathedral, strong historical connections to Joan of Arc and quaint half-timbered buildings seemingly at every turn. If you are there on a summer evening, don’t miss the fantastic son et lumiere show projected onto the west front of the cathedral. Don’t waste your time on a tour to Paris. It’s a long way on the coach, you won’t have time to do it justice and it’s very easy to visit in other ways. If you have already seen Rouen, then a shorter tour to Monet’s house and garden at Giverny or the picturesque harbour town of Honfleur may be a good bet.
The cruise terminal at Rouen is at the edge of the city, a two mile walk from the cathedral in the heart of the city centre. Shuttle buses will probably be available and are probably the best way for independent explorers to access the city. Rouen has a good public transport system, but the nearest bus stop is 1300 metres from the cruise terminal. Those who choose to make the long walk to the city centre can do so along a pleasant riverside walkway.
We were initially puzzled that our departure from Rouen was scheduled for 10.15am, giving almost 20 hours to cover the relatively short leg to Dover and depriving us of a morning’s sightseeing in Rouen, but the six-hour run down the Seine during the main part of the day proved to be a highlight of the cruise. Although some stretches of the river are industrial, most of it is lined with cliffs and pretty countryside and villages, with three transits under high-level bridges including the spectacular Pont de Normandie, a special farewell to a special cruise call.