A bank holiday week-end, the M25 and road works in Southampton. Not a promising start to our week’s cruise on P&O Oceana, especially given that our destination was the Bay of Biscay.
We live in west London and, anticipating the traffic jams that failed to materialise, left home at ten. We were on board by mid-day, enjoying lunch and a glass of wine; so far so good, and another reminder of how stress-free it is to cruise from the UK.
After lunch we found our cabin and unpacked. There was plenty of room for all our clothes, although the bathroom was a little on the small side. Being a British cruise line there was tea and coffee making facilities in the room and in case your clothes got creased or needed freshening up there was a laundry room on each deck.
We spent a little time familiarising ourselves with the ship’s layout then, after muster drill, joined the sail-away party as we followed sister ship Azura out past the Isle of Wight and into the English channel on our way to our first port of call La Coruna.
Our second day was a sea day so we set out to find the well-stocked library and borrowed a couple of books. We also toured all the eateries and, despite the fact that Oceana is not a big ship, there is a good choice of places to have lunch and dinner, as well as a great pub serving draft beer and lager at £3.70 a pint and, of course, with no service charge added.
I’m not great lover of buffet restaurants, they tend to be functional, over-lit and lacking in atmosphere. However, Oceana’s buffet proved to be very different and we ate there on two evenings out of choice, especially enjoying the Indian food night. Perhaps since many of Oceana’s crew are from India it is not surprising that the food was varied, extremely good and authentic, even down to the Tiger beer on special offer for the evening.
Monday morning found us in La Coruna (or A Coruna in the local dialect). It is the nearest European cruise port to the USA and totally exposed to Atlantic weather. The houses along the front were therefore built with their backs to the sea to protect them and the inhabitants from the elements. The entrances are all facing the other way.
The city dates back to Roman times, they arrived in the 2nd century BC and a couple of hundred years later built a lighthouse, the Tower of Hercules. Although rebuilt and still operational, some of the original parts can still be seen. The city has many open spaces and there is no real dividing line between town and country so it has a very relaxed feel to it.
After a good morning's exploration our guide left us at a restaurant in the old town. Not surprisingly, seafood was high on the list and lunch consisted of squid, scallops, hake and to finish, chocolate cake with cheese-flavoured ice cream, a local speciality and perfectly suited to each other.
After a relaxing evening we set sail for our next port, Bilbao, a place I had long wanted to visit. The city sits on a river and is surrounded by mountains containing iron ore. For centuries this was at the heart of the city's industry but in the early 1980s it was realised that this could not continue.
With great vision the city set about a complete transformation from an industrial area to one based on services. In addition it went all out to attract culture, the arts and architecture. Looking for a big name to lead the way it was successful in getting the Guggenheim Museum, an award winning structure and the first to be clad in titanium. Outside the building are further famous structures such as the huge flower-covered 'puppy', large metal tulips and Tall Tree and the Eye by Anish Kapoor.
From this new area, originally the site of the old iron foundries, we walked along the river to the old town, a mixture of narrow streets and old churches. I'd also been looking forward to some Pintxos, the northern Spanish version of Tapas, and was not disappointed. This area is famous for them and they are varied and delicious. At less than three euros each it's a great meal that won't break the bank.
Our next call port of call was La Rochelle. A slight drizzle set in but it did little to spoil the visit. Originally a fishing port the harbour, protected by two fortified towers, is now full of private yachts. The Pintxos bars of Bilbao gave way to typically French restaurants spilling out onto the streets, although the weather that day did not encourage outdoor dining. La Rochelle is a town full of character, old well-kept buildings, some housing smart clothing and jewellery shops. Easily managed on foot it was full of photo opportunities, despite the weather.
Our last port was St Nazaire. The city is probably best known for its industry, including ship-building and the aeronautical engineering. It is also home to massive reinforced concrete U-boat pens dating from WWII. This somewhat depressing structure remains today. Perhaps more attractive are the P&O excursions to the nearby Muscadet vineyards and Nantes, a city known for its art and history.
After another sea day we were back in Southampton. Disembarkation was as quick and easy as boarding had been the previous week and back home we had time to unpack and load the washing machine before lunch.
Oceana came into service in 2000 so is not the newest kid on the block. Compared to the latest cruise ships, Oceana is a mid-sized, holding around 2000 passengers and 900 crew. However, she has a modern feel and a good range of facilities, yet is small enough to have a friendly and familiar atmosphere. No wonder she was popular with many of the passengers we spoke to on board. We too would be happy to sail on her again.
For more information on P&O Cruises visit http://www.pocruises.com or call 0843 374 0111
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Oceana in La Coruna
Sailaway Party !