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Marion Ainge sails to Scenic Spain on Fred Olsen's Boudicca
Ashore in La Coruna, Galicia, after enjoying a cafe con leche at a waterside bar, I nearly got into trouble. As I went to the counter, I realised, unbelievably, because I travel quite frequently, I'd left my purse locked in the cabin safe. It could have been worse, I supposed, if I'd ordered a slap up meal, but there was no choice but to explain and apologise, which I did.
"De nada, buenos dias," said the smiling young manager with brown velvet eyes. Red-faced, I stumbled out, vowing, in future, always to leave some euros in every bag. But on the Fred Olsen Scenic Spain cruise, I discovered that open-armed friendliness is evident in Galicia and all along Spain's Atlantic Coast.
From Liverpool, the bountiful Boudicca set sail towards La Coruna, her first port of call, while around 750 passengers got to know their way around. Fred's fleet comprises smaller vessels which can access ports that some high-rise, floating tower block counterparts can't negotiate. You won't find any monster climbing walls or bubble-gum pink plastic slides on these ships.
My comfortable, twin-bedded, ocean view cabin had plenty of hanging/drawer space and bath with shower over. Whether you choose buffet or restaurant dining, Fred's food is first class. From lobster, venison and tuna steaks to, most probably, the most flavoursome, tender, perfectly prepared chateaubriand I've ever had, the choice is amazing, the service, sublime.
The traditional, white-gloved, silver service afternoon tea is a quintessentially English experience. A glass of Champagne makes it even more special. Smoked salmon, prawn and egg mayonnaise sandwiches, crusts off, of course, warmed scones with clotted cream and jam, plus a dainty selection of berry tartlets, mini eclairs, chocolate fancies and more, accompanied by a selection of different, some fragrantly exotic, teas. It's a good idea to book for this delcicious indulgence on a sea day and, afterwards, to take a brisk turn or two on deck!
Activities include exercise/dance classes/lectures, quizzes and bingo or you can indulge in a spa treatment, swim, laze on deck, as I did, with a coffee or a cocktail, or sit by the huge windows in The Observatory with a book. Port lectures provide useful and interesting information. Evenings come to life with comedy and music in the form of stringtrios, pianists, musicians, entertainers and shows.
Ever-smiling crew members, renowned for their commitment to customer care, are always at the ready to help, however they can. The Scenic Spain cruise enabled passengers to explore, EspaÒa Verde, or Green Spain, taking advantage of shipís compact dimensions to delve deeper into this gorgeous part of Northern Spain and visit the heart of beautiful, historic cities.
Boudicca docked just 400 metres from the the old medieval town of La Coruna boasts the world's only working Roman lighthouse, the UNESCO-listed Torre de Hercules, and sweeping sandy beaches. From La Coruna, it's possible to take a tour to the magnificent cathedral, Santiago de Compostela. Every year, pilgrims in their hundreds of thousands, walk the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St James), a large network of ancient pilgrim routes stretching across Europe to reach the tomb of Santiago. British general, Sir John Moore, who fought and died defeating the French at the Battle of Corunna in the Peninsula War, is buried here. It's surprising what you remember from school history lessons!
The hop-on hop-off open-topped bus tour of elegant Santander highlighted the dramatic Atlantic coastline, foaming waves breaking on to wide sandy beaches fringed with palm trees. The El Sardinero Beach has maintained ambience of the Belle Epoque era with its seafront terraces, rows of elegant hotels and renowned restaurants A real and welcome contrast to the popular and highly populated Spanish Costas In Bilbao I faced a huge spider, standing tall, guarding her precious eggs, pouched and clearly visible in a sac below her abdomen. At almost nine metres high, this bronze, marble and stainless steel statue was created by artist, Louise Bourgeois.
The arachnid stands alongside the waterfront-sited Guggenheim Museum, where thousands of visitors pass through daily. Designed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry, the ground-making contemporary building, coated in shimmering titanium, opened in 1997 and features a collection of permanent and visiting exhibits of works by Spanish and international artists.
Bilbao is at the heart of Basque Country, an autonomous community with its own culture, language, tradition and celebrated cuisine. You'll find no fast food outlets, Irish pubs, fish and chips or tacky strips of shops here. Our excursion included a walk around colourful, old Bilbao, a pedestrian precinct of bars, taverns and restaurants where we sampled some pintxos, which are similar to tapas, in a back street bodega. The selection included grilled octopus and prawns on wooden sticks, serrano ham plus avocado and anchovies on crusty bread. Served with a glass of very palatable house wine, it all went down a treat.
Our group strolled through a colourful square of ochre, green and wine-hued buildings in Aviles, an old seafaring and farming town, now a thriving city with pavement cafes and arty quarters, but also an important fishing port. In a cider cellar, Victoria showed off her 'sidra' pouringskills, lifting one hand high above her head to pour the golden liquid into a glass held in the other hand at knee height, without spilling a drop. Apparently, this method creates a frothy top and improves the flavour. Sounded good to us, so we quaffed a glass and and tasted Asturian cheeses, which included the famous 'blue with a bite', Calabres, plus spicy fried chorizo and golden chips. At a reputed patisserie, we admired the chocolatey, fresh cream-filled concoctions and strawberry-topped tarts in the glass display counter. But disappointingly, with our coffee came a plain, cottage loaf-shaped, yeasty bun, the like of which, tradionally, we were told, fishermen packed in their bags. Perhaps they used them as bait!
The Diversity of Green Spain eight-night cruise departs Southampton April 28. From £949 pp (two sharing an interior twin-bed cabin)
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Images credit: Fred.Olsen Cruise Lines and Marion Ainge