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Marion Ainge enjoyed a rocking good cruise with Fred Olsen

Marion Ainge

is a travel writer for


SAILING away from Antwerp, a quayside band playing Bill Haley's Rock Around the Clock prompted passengers leaning over the side of the ship to sing along and clap. Some couples even launched into an impromptu jive. Responding to this 1950s pop song is a giveaway to the average age of a Fred Olsen fan, ie 67, but an  increasing number of older and younger cruisers are enjoying the benefits of great service and fantastic food on one of this company's smaller cruise ships.


And although families are welcome - I spotted only two youngsters aboard with mum and dad - you won't see pink plastic slides, entertainment crew roaming the ship in Disney character suits or  be disturbed with the shouts and yells of high spirited youngsters. There's always someone to chat to or if you prefer, you can find a quiet spot to read or have a coffee or a drink.


The Braemar is a firm favourite with many Fred Olsen regular cruisers, with around 500 cabins, catering for just over 900 passengers and a full quota of ever-smiling staff. It's stylish and elegant, with none of the brashness of some of its larger, flashier competitors. Whenever you fuel up with full English breakfast, tuck in to a hot or cold buffet lunch, relish an afternoon tea with irresistible cakes and pastries or a linger over a superb five-course dinner, you can be sure of sampling and enjoying the pleasure of the freshest, finest food. And you need never be bored with quizzes, shows, talks, classes, fitness options, a swimming pool and more.


Our journey to departure port, Southampton, via Eavesway, was easy and comfortable. Drivers are friendly and helpful, and once your luggage is on the coach you don't see it again until it's delivered to your cabin door.


On our way to old Amsterdam, we lazed on deck in warm sunshine. From this busy port, some guests opted to take to the tour to Keukenhof where they tiptoed through 800 varieties of tulips within 79 acres of garden displaying seven million bulbs of multi-hued spring blooms. We opted for the canal and city tour, passing Anne Frank's house, where a long queue formed to see where this young girl and her family hid from the Germans during the Second World War, and one of Rembrandt's dwellings.


Lining the canal sides are numerous boat houses, some quaint and adorned with flowers, some surprisingly modern, with terraces and contemporary al fresco furniture. At a local farm, a group of women in traditional dress explained the Dutch cheese-making process. Truffles, herbs, garlic or brandy flavour some of the circular, red and yellow wax-covered cheeses. Clogs, or klompen, are still used by people working in agriculture as they cope with muddy terrain. At Zaanse Schans, we watched skilled artisans carve and fashion these traditional wooden shoes by hand. About six million souvenir wooden clogs, mostly splashed with colour, are produced in The Netherlands each year. Please don't buy me a pair...I have enough of a challenge with high heels!


At Saanstadt, a small village of neat green houses, a clutch of working windmills stand guard on the banks of a river so calm it appeared to be a lake. The windmills include a saw mill, a paint mill for grinding pigments and an oil mill where huge grindstones crush peanuts to extract  the oil from them.


How could I leave Amsterdam without seeing the infamous Red Light District? At 5pm, workers were hurrying home, strolling couples linked arms, mothers ambled with prams and cyclists sped along, all oblivious to the canalside windows of the Rosse Burt. It was a little early for trade, but I did see one young woman, clad in a basque and stockings, staring out of a ground floor window, looking bored and lonely. I wanted to wave and say 'hello'.


If diamonds are your best friend, or could be, the diamond cutters, polishers and merchants of Antwerp, the gems of their sparkling trade, can help you buy a bit of bling. In this history and culture-rich city of stunning architecture, within a secluded district, the craftsmen of DiamondLand offer free guided tours in 12 different languages to explain the cutting and  polishing process of these precious stones.


But if a glittering bestie is a little too costly for your budget, chocolates won't ever let you down, particularly  those from Belgium, where you can almost smell the rich, sweetness in the air. The tasting was as interesting as the fascinating chocolate-making demonstration in the basement of a family business within the small, medieval city of Ghent.


From Normandy's Honfleur, we took the coach to Bayeux to see the historic tapestry.The 50 scenes of remarkable, vibrant colour, exquisite workmanship of dyed wool on linen has endured nine centuries. Across 70 metres of intricately embroidered cloth, the story of Edward the Confessor, Harold and William the Conqueror's negotiations for the English crown is depicted, culminating in the Battle of Hastings and the Norman conquest of England.  An audio commentary provides a scene by scene description and explanation.


At a harbourside cafe in picturesque, Honfleur, home of artists, I spoke a little French to the waiter, who answered in English. Undaunted, I continued the conversation, en français, until he relinquished the coffee cups and surrendered. A small victory for les anglais, n'est ce pas?


Marion Ainge




Boudicca’s 5-night Tulips & Chocolates cruise departs Southampton, March 26, 2017. From £499 pp (interior twin bed cabin)












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