Set sail and see three European countries in eight days

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

You don't have to go to the Caribbean to try a cruise. Ian White took a short break around the coasts of France, Portugal and Spain

Cruises almost always start better than flights. There's no queuing to check-in, no crush through security, no long wait in the airport lounge. Within minutes of parking my car alongside Black Watch, one of Fred Olsen's floating hotels, I'd had my face digitally captured, my bags whisked from car to cabin, and my palm crossed with a swipe card, which served as my ID, room key and means of paying for anything bought on board. Being processed never felt so efficient.

I was setting sail from Dover on a cruise around the western coast of France and the Iberian peninsula. Three countries in eight days, presented as a mixture of onboard life and keenly organised snapshots of several coastal destinations along the way.

Black Watch can carry up to 868 passengers and has three restaurants, seven bars, shops, the Neptune Lounge – a ballroom-cum-theatre – gym, sauna, beauty salon, casino and internet room. Cabins are compact but well furnished. At 205ft long, Black Watch may be tiny compared with many of today's cruise ships, which regularly carry 4,000 passengers, but it still took a lot of marching up and down her grand, brass-railed staircases to find my way around all 11 decks.

The ship's décor is reminiscent of a grand country house and suave sophistication is on offer in the form of a strict dress code, gaming tables, cocktails, and chain-smoking. In the evening passengers meet in the Observatory Lounge for aperitifs. Three decks below, in the elegant Glenatar restaurant, five-course dinners are served. Afterwards, the Lido Lounge beckons for a nightcap and live music aimed at the "younger set".

Between big breakfasts, large lunches and gargantuan dinners, the boat stopped here and there. Our first port of call was Cherbourg, not one of France's prettiest towns, though it does evoke a certain nostalgia with its creaking old department store and charming art nouveaux Café du Theatre. The next day we crossed the notorious Bay of Biscay to Portugal – using the stairs became a little hazardous – docking the following morning at Leixoes. From there a coach tour was laid on to Oporto, a World Heritage Site, to visit the wine cellars of Ferriera, one of the country's best known port producers.

We sailed on to the naval shipbuilding harbour of El Ferrol in Spain in the late afternoon and, during the night, encountered rough seas. The wind roared, the waves crashed and the ship groaned an ominous lullaby. Next morning we called in at Santiago de Compostela, where a welcome shore excursion offered sanctuary in the cathedral at Plaza del Obradoiro, which houses the ashes of St James, patron saint of Spain. Originally built in 1075, the cathedral has been augmented with architectural add-ons in Gothic, Rennaisance and Baroque styles over the centuries.

Our next stop was Bilbao, said to be the most British city in Spain (well, it was raining). Landmarks such as an iron transport bridge built in 1893 are evidence of its industrial heritage, but its main attraction is Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum. Permanent installations include Richard Serra's sculptures wrought from steel shipbuilding plates and Jenny Holzer's dazzling "Installation for Bilbao", a row of floor-to-ceiling LED columns flashing words and messages in a constantly changing series of patterns and colours.

Finally, we called in at Honfleur, on the north-western coast of France. After another stormy night spent in the Bay of Biscay, this peaceful port, with its pretty harbour and tall, slate-roofed buildings, was a welcome sight.

By the end of the journey, I'd visited five locations in three countries without having to pack my bags and check out each morning. But next time I visit these destinations, it will be without the tyranny of a timetable.


How to get there

Fred Olsen (01473 742424; is offering a similar seven-night Iberia cruise from Dover, departing 21 June, calling at Bilbao, La Coruna, Leixoes for Oporto, and St Peter Port, Guernsey, from £529 per person, based on two sharing, and including all meals and accommodation on board, and port taxes.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Arts and Entertainment
Residents of Derby Road in Southampton oppose filming of Channel 4 documentary Immigration Street in their community
voicesSiobhan Norton on why she eventually changed her mind
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Scottish singer Susan Boyle will perform at the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony in Glasgow
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules
filmReview: The Rock is a muscular Davy Crockett in this preposterous film, says Geoffrey Macnab
Life and Style
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it