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One Great Reason To Try a Small Ship Cruise: Magnificent Ports of Call

Sue Bryant

Last updated
Dec 23, 2019

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Bordeaux, France

What and where? Elegant Bordeaux, sweeping in a half moon around a curve of the Garonne river, is one of the few ports in the world where you’ll see river cruisers moored alongside smaller oceangoing ships. The port, at the heart of one of the world’s greatest wine-growing districts, is accessible from the Atlantic via the broad, muddy Gironde estuary, all big skies, sand dunes and salty air. Big ships have to dock at Le Verdon, some 60 miles away, but smaller vessels can sail all the way up the estuary to tie up in the heart of the city.

There’s masses to see, in the city and around it, which is why Fred. Olsen Cruises’ ships overnight here. The great chateaux and vineyards of the Médoc are in easy reach, as is the exquisitely pretty St-Emilion, but Bordeaux deserves your attention, too; for a start, the whole centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Don’t miss the Miroir d’Eau, the world’s largest reflecting pool, shimmering in front of Place de la Bourse, or the new La Cité du Vin, a futuristic wine-themed museum that’s quickly become the city’s star attraction. Take time, too, to explore the cobbled streets and sunny little squares just behind the honey-coloured buildings along the waterfront. Check out the cathedral, parts of which date back to the 13th century, and climb the free-standing Pey-Berland bell tower – the 229 steps are worth it for the view.

**Did you know? ** Canny shoppers head to the northern end of the Quai des Chartons, where ships dock, to the Quai des Marques, a stylish discount outlet in a series of restored warehouses where you’ll find bargains from brands like Hugo Boss, Reebok, Salomon, Delsey and even Clarks. The waterfront here is lined with outdoor cafes, perfect for un pichet de vin after your retail therapy.

How to do it: Fred. Olsen Cruises operates several voyages every year that sail into Bordeaux, docking right in the city centre. All of them involve an overnight, so you’ll have plenty of time to explore.

Corinth Canal, Greece

What and where? Greece’s sheer-sided Corinth Canal is a rite of passage in cruising circles, up there with the Suez, Kiel and Panama canals for sheer drama. The canal is short – only four miles – but truly spectacular, slicing through the rocky isthmus of Corinth, separating the Peloponnese from the Greek mainland and saving ships a 185 nautical mile trip. There are no locks and the water is a deep blue.

Because it’s so narrow – just 70 feet wide – the canal isn’t of use to bigger, commercial ships but for smaller vessels, the transit is a real thrill. You can literally touch the rocky sides on a mid-sized ship. The main highway to Athens passes over the narrow chasm. Keep an eye out for people gathered on the bridge; the Corinth is regarded as one of the world’s most dramatic bungee jumps.

**Did you know? ** The idea of a cut through the rock in this site was first mulled over by Periander, known as the ‘tyrant of Corinth’, in 602 BC. Engineering back then wasn’t up to the digging, so the Greeks constructed the diolkós, a stone slipway along which ships where wheeled on wooden platforms. The modern-day canal was completed in 1893.

How to do it Fred. Olsen’s Braemar broke the record in 2019 for being the longest ship to sail the Corinth Canal but if you missed out on this momentous event, there’s another chance in April 2021, on Braemar’s 25-night ‘Greek Islands and the Corinth Canal’ cruise from Southampton, a cruise with some wonderful ports of call – Malaga, Valletta, Agios Nikolaos in Crete, Ermoupoli in Syros, Patras and Argostoli in Kefalonia.

Lombok, Indonesia

What and where The sleepier, less touristy neighbour of Bali, Lombok exudes a mysterious beauty, its interior all jagged mountains, ribbon-like waterfalls, volcanoes and misty rainforest. Indonesia is enjoying a moment in cruising at the moment as one of Asia’s hottest destinations, with Bali well established on cruise itineraries. Yet only smaller, more discerning lines call at Lombok, among them Fred. Olsen Cruises.

Ships dock at Lembar on the west coast, an easy jumping off point for the sandy beaches of Senggigi, a string of sweeping bays backed by jungly mountains. The island’s highest spot, Gunung Rinjani, is an active volcano and at 12,224 ft, the second highest mountain in Indonesia. The trek to the top takes three days but you can still enjoy the gorgeous scenery of the Sembalun Highlands, with views of the volcano, on a day trip.

Did you know? Cross the Lombok Strait, just 22 miles wide and separating Bali from Lombok, and you’ll sail over the imaginary Wallace Line, a boundary drawn in 1859 by British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace. During his travels, Wallace had observed that species on Bali were completely different to those on Lombok. He proposed the idea of a line dividing biogeographical regions some 100 years before plate tectonic theory was developed – and his contribution to the study of evolution is regarded as equally important to that of Charles Darwin.

How to do it Fred. Olsen’s Boudicca offers three different itineraries this year that call at Lombok, as well as exploring Bali, Komodo island and Semarang on Java.

Rouen, France

What and where? The Seine is a popular waterway for river cruising – but did you know that a boutique sized ocean-going ship could sail upstream all the way to Rouen? The route from the Seine’s broad estuary at Le Havre is absolutely beautiful and the light has a dramatic quality; it’s easy to see how Monet and his Impressionist cohorts were seduced by Normandy. Weeping willows drape voluptuously over the banks while plump, brown-and-white cows graze in meadows and apple orchards, the fruit of which produces the region’s famous liqueur, Calvados.

Riverside towns along the way include chocolate-box Honfleur, a jumble of pastel, half-timbered houses and restaurants around a rectangular, 17th century fishing harbour, and Caudebec en Caux, backed by densely wooded hills, where the Seine broadens out as it nears its estuary. From Giverny, you can visit the Monet house and garden, absolutely glorious in the sunshine, with its lily pond and languorously draped purple wisteria. Rouen, though, with its poignant heritage of the teenage Joan of Arc, who was burned at the stake in 1431, is the star.

**Did you know? ** Between 1892 and 1893, Monet set himself up in a studio opposite Rouen cathedral and produced more than 30 paintings of the façade reflecting the light at different times of day. You’ll see plenty of artists with sketchpads trying to capture the dramatic Gothic structure. There was mild scandal at the time, as Monet’s studio doubled up as a ladies’ fitting room for the boutique downstairs, so the artist had to work behind a screen to preserve the modesty of the customers.

How to do it Fred. Olsen Cruises offers several Seine voyages every year, overnighting in Rouen so you can take in the markets, bars and cafes of the medieval centre and spend time exploring the delight of Normandy. There’s even a no-fly cruise from Liverpool, on Black Watch.

Nosy Be, Madagascar

What and where? Dazzling, bizarre, eccentric… there’s nowhere like Madagascar. Towering, ‘upside down’ baobab trees, cute lemurs, colour-changing chameleons, deep canyons, jagged karst scenery, dense rainforest – the biodiversity on the world’s fourth-largest island is like nowhere on earth. Madagascar’s infrastructure is, admittedly, challenging but if you arrive by ship, you can certainly get a flavour of this incredible place.

One of two ports visited by Fred. Olsen Cruises’ Boudicca is Andoany, capital of Nosy Be, gateway to dense rainforest, crater lakes, waterfalls and miles of golden sands. Lemurs, too, which is the sighting every visitor wants. You’ll spot them in Lokobe National Park, an adventure that also includes a canoe trip through the mangroves, and on the cone-shaped island of Nosy Komba, where there’s a lemur sanctuary. In the resort area, there’s intriguing shopping, too, with chances to buy unusual souvenirs like pink peppercorn, vanilla, coffee, baobab honey and paper made from tree bark.

Did you know? Ylang-ylang is a native plant to Madagascar, its golden flowers giving off a sensual, spicy aroma that was embraced by Coco Chanel in 1921 in her new fragrance, the now iconic Chanel No 5.

How to do it Boudicca’s grand Japan, Asia and Africa voyage, departing November 2020, can be taken in different segments, three of which include ports in Madagascar.

Lysefjord, Norway

**What and where? ** The 26-mile Lysefjord, about 15 miles from Stavanger, is one of Norway’s most dramatically beautiful stretches of water. Sheer cliff faces, more than 3,000 feet high, plunge into the sea, while silver-white waterfalls tumble into the aquamarine water that’s sometimes as deep as the mountains are tall.

The name ‘Lysefjord’ means ‘Light fjord’ and it’s true that the light here has a certain ethereal quality, especially when mist hangs over the granite cliff faces. Although the fjord is almost impossibly deep in places, it has shallows, too; close to the entrance, there’s an underwater ridge of ancient moraine that means the water is only 30 feet deep. Fred. Olsen’s mid-sized vessels, though, can easily pass over this and sail deep into Lysefjord, giving you plenty of chance to marvel at its glassy beauty.

Lysefjord is famed for two extraordinary natural features. The square block of Preikestolen, or Pulpit Rock, is a sheer-sided plateau, almost perfectly square, jutting out over the fjord, almost 2,000 feet high. It was formed 10,000 years ago, when the edge of the glacier that carved Lysefjord would have been higher than the tops of the mountains. The daring pose near the edge for photos, while others stay wisely back, admiring the view.

Near Lysebotn, look out for Kjeragbolten, a large boulder wedged in a crevice near the top of Mount Kjerag, the highest mountain in the fjord. Again, the done thing is to pose on top of the rock for the ultimate Instagram shot, having hiked for six hours to get there.

Did you know? Lysefjord used to be a hideout for vagabonds, who would shelter in Fantahålå, a secluded cove near the entrance to the fjord. When the local authorities would arrive by boat, the vagabonds would shimmy up the cliff face and hide out in a cave.

How to do it: Norway is one of the most popular destinations for Fred. Olsen Cruises, and there are multiple opportunities to experience Lysefjord on voyages from as short as five days. Many sail into the fjord but you can admire the scenery from cruises that stop at Stavanger, too, from where there’s a chance to join a tour to Lysefjord either by smaller boat, on one of Fred. Olsen’s new RIBs (Rigid Inflatable Boats) or overland, to get a closer look at the drama of Pulpit Rock; one of the excursions on offer includes a hike to the rock itself.

Malé, Maldives

What and where? Most visitors to the Maldives bypass the capital, Malé, but there’s no better way to get a taste of the real character of these beautiful tropical islands. Just a few feet above the water of the aquamarine Indian Ocean, Malé is a bustling jumble of busy markets, brightly coloured buildings and mosques. The most notable, the Old Friday Mosque, carved from coral stone, dates back in part to the 13th century. City tours call at the fish market, a busy scene of trading, gutting and gossip, and the produce market, where you can marvel at the magnificent array of tropical fruit on sale.

Fred. Olsen’s Boudicca is small enough to call at Malé, anchoring off for a day that could take you on a city tour or to the tiny island of Vilimalé, a world away, fringed by white sand beaches and coral reefs, teeming with fish in rainbow colours. If you snorkel, there’s a chance of seeing manta rays close to the beach, or sea turtles, as well as the rainbow-coloured tropical fish that flit between the coral heads.

Did you know? Maldivians are great snackers and call their local specialities ‘hedhikaa’, which you can sample on Fred. Olsen Cruises’ tours. Every café and every home produces them, served with black tea. Look out for gulha – fried balls of tuna, onion, chilli and coconut – and bajiya, the Maldives’ answer to samosas. Fried mushimas are hugely popular – they’re tiny mackerel-like fish, scored, rubbed with chilli, deep fried till they’re crispy and eaten whole.

How to do it Boudicca’s 140-night Japan, Asia and Africa voyage, departing in November 2020 and offered in several shorter sectors, calls at Malé, as do some of this year’s Indian Ocean explorations.

Seville, Spain

What and where? Seductive, sultry Seville, home of flamenco and setting for the Bizet’s Carmen, basks on the banks of the Guadalquivir river, in the heart of sun-drenched Andalucia. Visiting this regional capital is a bucket list essential for cruise passengers exploring Spain – but from Cadiz or Malaga, where bigger ships dock, it’s a one-hour or two-hour drive respectively.

If you’re on a Fred. Olsen Cruises’ ship, on the other hand, you’ll sail straight up the river and dock in the city centre, close to all the big sights, a privilege only afforded to smaller vessels. Being moored in the centre is such a privilege; you can come and go as you please on a hot day, taking a break to cool off in the ship’s pool, and walk to attractions like enormous Gothic cathedral – the largest in the world – and the Giralda Tower, which incorporates the original minaret from the mosque on top of which the cathedral was built. Christopher Columbus is buried here, too, a point of interest for any seafarer.

The whole city oozes wealth and style, the contemporary architecture as daring as the buildings dating back to the time of the Moors. But perhaps the most memorable moments from Seville are the simplest; sitting in the sun outside a rustic tapas bar, tucking into a plate of patatas bravas and sizzling garlic prawns with a glass of chilled white, listening to one of the many talented street musicians gently playing classical Spanish guitar.

Did you know? This may sound like a fantasy out of The Da Vinci Code but the city of Seville does, in fact, have its own secret code, NO8DO. You’ll see it everywhere: on drain covers, flags, bullfighting programmes, above doorways – even on parking fines, should you be unlucky enough to get one. But what does it mean? According to legend, the code was a gift to the city in the 13th century from King Alfonso X the Wise. During battles against his own son, Sancho IV of Castile, who wanted to usurp his father, the city stayed loyal to the king. The numbers and letters can be decoded if you see the 8 as a loose coil of yarn or wool. In Spanish, this is a madeja. Say ‘no madeja do’ quickly and it could pass for ‘no me ha dejado’, which means ‘it (meaning the city of Seville) has not abandoned me’. The emblem was given to the city in 1283 and remains part of its fabric to this day.

How to do it Fred. Olsen Cruises offers several cruises to Spain that include a voyage along the Guadalquivir. Especially notable is Braemar’s ‘Spain and Portugal with Seville Feria Fireworks’, departing in April 2020; the ship overnights in the heart of the city during the annual Feria de Abril (April Fair) and you’ll have a ringside seat on deck for the dazzling fireworks that light up the sky.

Kiel Canal, Germany

What and where? There’s always a sense of the surreal when cruising along a man-made stretch of water, under motorways and rail bridges with cars and trains rattling overhead, and Germany’s impressive Kiel Canal is no exception. The 61-mile-long canal, the world’s busiest artificial waterway, connects the North Sea, from the mouth of the Elbe river, to the Baltic, at Holtenau, slicing through bucolic countryside of Schleswig-Holstein and saving vessels a 250-nautical-mile trek around the top of the Jutland peninsula, through often stormy seas.

The canal opened in 1895, having taking 9,000 workers some eight years to build. It’s crossed by 11 road and rail bridges and is used by more than 40,000 vessels each year. Cruise ships and cargo ships aside, there are pleasure cruises for people who simply want to enjoy the spectacle, and private yachts (with a motor, or they’re not allowed to do the transit) and motorboats are a common sight. Only smaller cruise ships can pass through the canal, including those of Fred. Olsen Cruises – length aside, the biggest vessels would be too tall to fit under the bridges.

**Did you know? ** If you get any free time in Brunsbüttel, check out the Schleusenmuseum, dedicated to the machinery that operates the locks on the canal. Know, too, that you’re on Germany’s ‘Cabbage Route’ here, where some 80 million cabbages are grown each year, helping to explain the Germans’ love of sauerkraut.

How to do it: Several of Fred. Olsen Cruises’ ships transit the Kiel Canal. Boudicca’s Cruising German Waterways voyage in March 2020 is particularly fascinating, as you’re on an ocean-going ship that spends much of the seven-night itinerary inland, on rivers, something only the nimblest vessels could do. Boudicca will transit the Kiel Canal twice, calling at the lovely old seaside town of Warnemünde, gateway to Berlin, as well as Hamburg and Bremen.

Praslin, Seychelles

What and where? The 115 dreamy islands of the Seychelles are off the radar of most cruise lines; beyond the main island of Mahé and its laid-back capital, Victoria (the smallest in the world, incidentally), there’s simply no way of accommodating big ships. Fred. Olsen’s Boudicca, however, is small enough to nip into both Mahé and Praslin, a paradise of white sand beaches, tumbled granite boulders and aquamarine water.

The ship anchors off Praslin and offers excursions that only dreams are made of, not least a trip to nearby La Digue for time on the archipelago’s most famous beach, Anse Source d’Argent. Here, the silvery sand, emerald water, glossy coconut palms and those famous wave-sculpted granite rocks make it quickly clear why this is one of the most photographed beaches in the world. To reach the beach, you need to pass through L’Union Estate, a former vanilla and coconut plantation that’s now home to some of the Seychelles’ population of giant tortoises.

There’s also a chance to stroll through the primeval Vallée de Mai nature reserve, best known for the towering coco de mer palms and their intriguingly shaped nuts, which can weigh up to 33lb, but also a birdwatcher’s dream; look out for the endangered black parrot, the blue pigeon and the Seychelles warbler, all of which are endemic to the area.

Did you know? Octopus curry is the national dish of the Seychelles. Not surprising, this being an island nation, but if tentacles and suckers aren’t your thing, the jackfish and red snapper are exquisite alternatives. Satini is a local salad, made from grated green papaya, fresh apple, onion and hot chilies, while ladob is the best local pudding – bananas or sweet potato cooked in coconut milk and flavoured with vanilla, nutmeg and cinnamon; comfort food at its best.

How to do it Fred. Olsen Cruises has some wonderfully adventurous Indian Ocean itineraries and there are several variations on voyages that call, start or finish in the Seychelles. Boudicca’s December 2020 African Wildlife Adventure, for example, finishes in Mahé for an overnight.

Intrigued by Fred. Olsen's small ship cruises? Read more on Cruise Critic:

One Great Reason Among Many To Try a Small Ship Cruise: Magnificent Ports of Call

All Aboard! Cruising the Baltic on Fred. Olsen’s Boudicca and Why Small and Friendly is the Way To Go

A Land-Based Holiday Versus a Cruise? We've Done the Maths For You.

Travelling Solo? Here's Why a Cruise Makes Perfect Sense For Your Next Holiday

*Sue Bryant is an award-winning journalist and a big fan of expedition cruising. As well as working for Cruise Critic, she is Cruise Editor of The Sunday Times in London and also contributes to publications worldwide, among them Sunday Times Travel Magazine, Porthole, World of Cruising and Cruise Passenger (Australia). *

Publish date December 23, 2019
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