Set sail and see three European countries in eight days

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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.

COMPACT FACTS

How to get there

Fred Olsen (01473 742424; fredolsencruises.co.uk) 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.

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