Joy and I have never been on an ocean cruise before but always rather fancied the idea. The one big snag being that we love taking our holidays in the Sick Bay – so how to get the best of both worlds?
Our friends John and Sue are not only experienced cruisers but they also have the rare knack of learning from their experiences. They tend not to make the same mistake twice. So when they offered to find us a good cruise, and join us on it, we were only too happy to agree.
Neither of us fancied going somewhere cold and staring at icebergs all day so we asked Sue to find a Mediterranean cruise and, to get the best of both worlds, find one that started and finished at the same place so we could have a road trip in the Sick Bay.
Sue took up the challenge and very soon we were booked onto a week-long cruise from Barcelona, taking in some lovely cities like Naples, Cannes and Livorno. Apparently there are good lines, like Norwegian Cruise Lines, and some crap ones like Fred Olsen and Thompsons. We were on a large ship called the Epic, run by NCL. (Despite its name it is American, as are most of them).
This is a VW camper blog so I will avoid going into how wonderful the cruise was, but it was. It was everything we’d imagined; the food, the drinks, the entertainment, but when it all came together it was even better than we’d expected. (A bit like retirement really). One of the highlights though was Thursday 8th June, although Norwegian Cruise Lines could take no credit for a fantastic election result. We sat up most of the night watching it all on BBC World and then bumped into an English couple the next morning in Civitavecchia who had not heard any of the news. They were Tories and quite dismayed as I related the details, trying hard not to show how elated I felt about it all.
The trip down to Barcelona followed a familiar formula but was no less enjoyable for that. As usual we crossed over to France on the Eurotunnel, so no sea sickness for Joy, and then head for our favourite aire at the Baie de Somme just north of Abbeville on the A16. This aire is set in a bird sanctuary, has a very nice restaurant and excellent camping facilities, all for free. It’s also about as far away from home as I can comfortably drive in a day, and as it turns out, exactly 3,000 kilometers from Barcelona.
It’s worth bearing in mind that not all aires are good places to camp overnight. Some are noisy, particularly where the big lorries congregate, some have poor facilities and (worst of all), some have crap restaurants where they don’t even have wine. Over the years we have identified our favourites and even when in a new area we can tell at a glance if it’s up to scratch or whether we should carry on to the next one.
As usual we followed our sat nav along toll free routes, which means any road from the free motorways down to tiny single tracks in the back of beyond. When it gets time to look for a campsite we divert onto toll roads which is where you get the best aires. In the morning we pay a couple of euros at the next exit and resume our toll free journey. The old saying about travelling being better than arriving certainly holds true when you’re in a camper-van.
If anyone asked me which is the most memorable bridge I have ever crossed I would have no hesitation – the Millau Bridge on the A75 heading for south west France. It’s the closest you get to flying your car into the sky. We always stop at the viewing point. Like the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, you can never get tired of looking at it. It came as a nice surprise to see they have built a new visitor centre which uses the latest hi tech to show in great detail how the bridge was built and I could have spent hours in there.
In the past you walked up a small hill to get the best view of the bridge but unfortunately now they have built an awful little viewing structure that almost manages to spoil the wonder of the sight.
The problem with slavishly following your sat nav is that you don’t always know what route you are going to take. We were hoping to cross the Pyrenees through the high passes but in fact got taken along the fast coastal route from Perpignan through Girona to Barcelona. This was interesting for all the (rather attractive) prostitutes sitting under sun umbrellas at the roadside waiting for business. But the mountain scenery would have been better so on the way back we told the sat nav to take us to Pau and this ensured that we had the most incredible journey through the mountains. At one stage we climbed for 14 miles in second gear along hairpin bends as tight as anything I have encountered on the Hardnott Pass. It took almost all day to get over the Pyrenees and I have never enjoyed a day in the Sick Bay as much as that, although Joy was pretty relieved to drop down into France and the less exhilarating roads below.
Because this trip involved a cruise, we decided not to take Leo. We could have boarded him in kennels in Barcelona but eventually left him with a lady, Angela, who takes in dogs at her home in Manchester. They get walks throughout the day and don’t spend any time in a cage. She brought him home last night and he seemed none the worse for the experience. (Previously we boarded him just outside Malaga and he sulked for a week). We also had to find a place to park the Sick Bay for a week in Barcelona. A Google search threw up an organisation called Parking Viajero which is basically an underground car park in the city centre and we booked a space. We were a bit apprehensive about this because the Sick Bay is quite high with the blue light and we would be stuck if we couldn’t get under the barrier. We got a shock when the sat nav took us to a deserted building site but eventually we found it round the back and everything was fine. We had at least a foot to play with on the headroom as well.
Parking Viajero charged us 57€ for the week’s parking, and this included a lift down to the ship and then they picked us up from the port a week later. Couldn’t have been easier and I would certainly use them again.
In conclusion we have got to say we are in love with the whole cruising thing. Sue is already looking for next year’s jaunt – probably around the eastern Med but we almost certainly won’t have the convenience of starting and stopping at the same place. So our trip will have an extra feature – getting to the city where we left the Sick Bay from the city where the cruise stops. Another journey to make but as they say, better to travel than to arrive . . .