GHENT PHOTO ESSAY

Ghent's colourful canal side setting is simply gorgeous

Ghent’s colourful canal side setting is simply gorgeous

Ghent, is chock full of Gothic architecture, still completely intact

Ghent, is chock full of Gothic architecture, still completely intact

The famous 'Grote Kannon'- the Big Canoon, in the city centre

The famous ‘Grote Kannon’- the Big Cannon, in the city centre

Canal side scenes like this one typify Ghent's old world appeal

Canal side scenes like this one typify Ghent’s old world appeal

One of the amazing confections that lines the old Graslei harbour

One of the amazing confections that lines the old Graslei harbour

Want castles? Gravenstein is as fairy tale as it gets

Want castles? Gravenstein is as fairy tale as it gets in the ancient fortress league…

Gravenstein looks like some kind of amazing, medieval theme park

Gravenstein looks like some kind of amazing, medieval theme park

Quite the view; sidewalk cafe and ancient castle; sums up Ghent perfectly

Quite the view; sidewalk cafe and ancient castle; sums up Ghent perfectly

More atmospheric, old world magic on show in this amazing city

More atmospheric, old world magic on show in this amazing city

The heart of the old city of Ghent; it resembles a lot of old trading cities

The heart of the old city of Ghent; it resembles a lot of old trading cities

The town hall, set on a main square, is typical of Belgian cities

The town hall, set on a main square, is typical of Belgian cities

The city is littered with amazing statuary, like random jewels

The city is littered with amazing statuary, like random jewels

The city's waterside setting is one of it's major attractions

The city’s waterside setting is one of it’s major attractions

Bridges and ancient buildings along cobbled streets; Ghent

Bridges and ancient buildings along cobbled streets; Ghent

It's not all water and stone in this most beautiful of cities

It’s not all water and stone in this most beautiful of cities

A-ROSA FLORA; THE RHINE GODDESS

Dreaming wide awake; sailing the Rhine in spring

Dreaming wide awake; sailing the Rhine in spring

The surface of the springtime Rhine was like a mirror, still and silent as a string of cotton candy clouds flitted across it like so many ghostly galleons. From the balcony of the the A-Rosa Flora, I watched entranced as as succession of stunning vistas unfolded around me like a series of staggering drum rolls, one after another.

One minute we motored effortlessly past giant, hulking industrial plants, the new cathedrals of the 21st century. Another minute, and we ghosted past small villages clustered round the spire of some ancient church. A bend in the river would offer up broad, sandy beaches dotted with improbable gangs of roaming horses, enjoying the returning springtime sun.

Passing under vaulting, arched bridges and through long, deep canal locks, we nudged effortlessly into ancient, fabled Dutch and Belgian cities and some lesser known gems along the way. There was sturdy, Gothic accented Ghent, with its cobbled streets and looming spires, and poignant, pretty Arnhem, with its flower strewn waterfront promenade and the famous ‘bridge too far’ that still straddles the Rhine at this juncture.

Vibrant, swaggering Amsterdam and cutting edge architecture in the vast harbour of Rotterdam formed a fabulous contrast to the breezy, yacht studded harbour at Hoorn. Antwerp was all clattering horses’ hooves on cobbled streets and impossibly gorgeous waffles, lashed in hot chocolate sauce, savoured against a soundtrack of ringing church bells in one of the most magnificent grand squares anywhere in Europe.

Pool deck on the A-Rosa Flora

Pool deck on the A-Rosa Flora

We moved deftly through an endless hinterland of street cafes and flower strewn streets and squares, sailing past flotillas of sturdy Rhine coasters, each one with a car or two strapped to it’s stern and, often as not, a furiously barking dog standing guard on deck. Lines of plane trees stood like sentries as the setting sun flitted skittishly between the foliage, warming the ancient river with an amazing, translucent wash.

Our passage was almost dreamlike; our transport a paragon of modern luxury. The A-Rosa Flora was making only her third voyage, yet already she has become an amazing cocoon of style, warmth and excellence. With open seating dining in a window walled restaurant that regularly offered up the most amazing food I have eaten on any river boat, it was a feast for both the palate and the senses.

Smart, crisp and modern, the A-Rosa Flora boasts a vibrant, modish palette that allows for the bright, linear decor to complement the wash of floor to ceiling natural light that suffuses the boat. An elegant observation lounge right forward leads to the dining room via a starboard side inner promenade. One deck down a small, beautiful jewel of a spa offered an almost water level perspective of the outdoor pageant as it slowly unfurled.

On deck, canvas chairs and wooden tables dotted the forward and slightly raised aft deck. In between was a pool, a small golf putting green, and even a sit up, outdoor bar. Like everything else on board, the quality of fixtures and fittings was superlative. Clean, crisp and incredibly comfortable, the A-Rosa Flora is a modern, modular marriage of intelligent design and subtle, finely styled flair. If the opposition isn’t worried, it should be.

The elegant dining room

The elegant dining room

It is no exaggeration to say that dining was a feast; from the freshly baked breakfast breads and strong, piping hot coffee to the gorgeous, unmissable soups, right down to the delicately prepared fish and such evening dishes as reindeer, it was simply fabulous. The desserts were creamy, custard and chocolate confections that dared you to try and ignore them. I failed. Repeatedly.

The cabins? Four suites had proper private balconies, but most- such as mine- had a French balcony. Twin beds that convert to a very comfy double,  a couple of comfy chairs, and a flat screen TV. Three wardrobes and ample drawers provide more than enough storage space; the dress code is smart casual right throughout the trip.

The bathroom is shower only, though it is an excellent shower. Best of all was the floor to ceiling sliding door that opened up onto that balcony rail; a beautiful place for enjoying a glass of chilled sekt as the A-Rosa Flora ghosted silently along the implacable, moonlit Rhine.

All things considered, those rooms are more than simply comfortable; each one is a little haven. And, this being a river boat, everything else is just a simple step away.

With an all inclusive drinks policy on board and a staff that absolutely work their socks off from top to bottom, dawn till dusk, the A-Rosa Flora serves up the storied, ancient Grand Dames that line the banks of the Rhine with singular aplomb and panache. It’s an elegant, indolent and all inclusive way to see these fantastic places, many of them looking like something straight out of the pages of a Brothers Grimm fable.

Exquisite panoramas from the forward Observation Lounge

Exquisite panoramas from the forward Observation Lounge

And, with all your shore excursions and transfers included for the duration, there is no more convenient or inclusive way to see the magnificent, medieval magic of old Europe. Just lovely.

CRUISE AND MARITIME- SMALL BUT SWEET

Cruise and Maritime can show you the beauty of Ibiza

Cruise and Maritime can show you the beauty of Ibiza

Cruise and Maritime is a relative newcomer to the UK cruising scene, but in a few short years it has managed to acquire a trio of smaller, extremely comfortable ‘ladies of the sea’ of a certain vintage, Marketed successfully to a clientele that is naturally averse to the current generation of glittering, Vegas- style mega ships, it also offers a summertime series of sailing from different home ports around the country. As with their rival, Fred. Olsen, this has proved to be a winning formula.

There is a lot of flexibility in the company schedules, from overnight repositioning cruises to gargantuan, thirty two night round trip cruises to the Caribbean and back. And, with this winter season’s charter of the small, beautifully styled Astor, Cruise and Maritime now offers the welcome option to sail to and from Australia and South Africa over the winter months; a real boon for those averse to airports and flying in general.

The company’s trio of swells consists of the aforementioned Astor, a stylish lady of 21,000 tons with a graceful, swept back funnel and some gorgeous tiered decks at the stern. Discovery is the former Island Princess, also around 20,000 tons. With light, airy interiors and a sliding glass roof over her central lido pool, she is ideal for cruises in northern waters in the long summer nights.

Perhaps best known is the Marco Polo, a wonderful, typically styled liner, suffused in bow to stern art deco, and blessed with a wonderful series of cascading, upper deck terraces at the stern. A similar size to her fleetmates, her capacity of around 800 passengers is also on a par with the other two ships. And, like them, she offers a uniformity of product across the board.

Visit Honfleur on a Cruise and Maritime city break

Visit Honfleur on a Cruise and Maritime city break

Common to all three of the Cruise and Maritime ships is a warm, intimate atmosphere, and food, service and entertainment geared towards a predominantly older, UK market. There are very few balcony cabins on any of the ships, and extra tariff restaurants are a complete no-no here.

What you do get is a good value, solid product that will take you to some fascinating places, at a genuinely good price point. The exception is the single cabins, which are typically twice the rate of a double, and something the company needs to address in light of aggressive discounting by rivals.

Both Discovery and Marco Polo shift bases around the country during the summer, sailing from ports such as Bristol, Edinburgh, Harwich and Newcastle, as well as the main, year round base of Tilbury. The Essex port has a dedicated coach connection from London Victoria for all sailings, and is also easily reached  by rail from anywhere in the UK via London’s Fenchurch Street station.

Cruise and Maritime is a real alternative to the mega ships of Cunard and P&O. The ships are charming and evocative, well run, and offer a whole raft of optional itineraries. You can even spend the evening on board Marco Polo pierside in Tilbury, and enjoy drinks, dinner and a floorshow on board. This is a great way to get the ‘feel’ of the ship without going overboard on the finances.

Shell Beach, Saint Barts. Go there with Cruise and Maritime's winter escape

Shell Beach, Saint Barts. Go there with Cruise and Maritime’s winter escape

I particularly recommend some of the short, two to five day short cruises offered by Marco Polo, many of which are ideal for visiting some of Northern Europe’s more appealing Christmas markets, such as Antwerp and Ghent. These are also ideal pick me ups, and they also offer the opportunity to see and discover some new and very attractive cities at a good price point. Add in the attractions of a secure, largely all inclusive environment, and the value becomes obvious.

Best of all, there’s also no worries on the amount of personal luggage you can bring back with you, so you can shop to your heart’s- and your wallet’s- content. Enjoy.