Well, many of you may be surprised to see Dover in the title for today’s blog. It’s not because we don’t like Portsmouth any more, but more because we encountered delays heading north to the UK due to some winter storms passing through, which meant we had to take shelter en-route in order to not only stay safe but also to stop those gin glasses from sliding off the bar.
We hid quietly at anchor in the calm of the beautiful natural harbour offered in Vigo Bay, before crossing the Bay of Biscay when conditions had calmed nicely. However this meant that we arrived a little behind schedule, and logistically it was decided that Dover was the more sensible port to head to. After a few calm days at sea during which we enjoyed our farewell cocktail party and the final few days of executive chef John’s delicious offerings, before arriving in Dover on Saturday morning. By this stage, another system of winter weather had caught up with us, which meant blustery conditions alongside in Dover, and frequent spells of rain. December had arrived…
However, the weather did not at all affect our operation, where the passengers who had enjoyed their Moorish Mediterranean cruise headed home with some great memories, and we boarded some more passengers who were keen to visit a couple of North European ports on our next cruise entitled ‘Amsterdam Escape.’ Also carried out was a full unload and load of everyone’s baggage (a lot more always comes off than came on at the beginning…) and some 90 pallets of stores were brought on containing food, beverage and technical supplies for the ship.
At 17:00, once everyone had settled in and attended our mandatory safety briefing prior to departure, we were ready to let go our lines and whizz up the English Channel overnight towards the Netherlands. The wind howled and the rain poured (of course) as I stood on the bridge-wing manoeuvring the ship as we departed, but once we steadied on our north-east course between the UK and France, conditions were pleasant inside our grand little ship, and we held a little casual welcome cocktail party to formally say hello.
Various courses would be followed overnight within the vessel routing schemes in the southern North Sea, before approaching the flat coast of Holland and coastal town of Ijmuiden in the early hours of Sunday. I’ll speak to you from there!
Known as Holland’s ‘Gate to the North Sea,’ Ijmuiden has 4 harbours and is the largest Dutch fishing port. It grew up in the 1870’s when the North Sea Canal was opened. Much of it was rebuilt after WW2, and it now acts as the gateway to Amsterdam for regular visiting ferries, and cruise ships which decide not to use the canal (or are bound by time constraints – which we were on this occasion).
It was ‘blowing a hoolie’ as some might put it, when we approached the port from the west at 07:00. Some of the first sights one glimpses of land as they approach Holland from seaward is the towering wind turbines – and today they must have been charging every battery possible in earnest. Fortunately, as we entered the harbour itself, the wind eased a little and of course the sea flattened nicely in time for breakfast on board. With the aid of a local tug boat, we berthed the ship on the designated cruise berth, right next to the canal lock entrance.
At 08:00, having been visited by local customs & immigration authorities, the ship was formally cleared into Holland and passengers were free to proceed ashore and do whatever they wish. I warned them that a warm jacket & woolly hat would be handy accessories ashore today. Our shuttle & tour buses came right up next to the ship on the quayside so that people were exposed to the elements as little as possible, before heading off to explore.
A free shuttle service was offered into either the centres of Amsterdam or Ijmuiden. Alternatively of course, there were several of Saga’s own excursions on offer, with choices of scenic tours around Holland’s countryside, boat trips around the canals of Amsterdam, or even trips to various museums including the famous Van Gogh Museum. Those feeling less adventurous could merely wander about 100 metres from the ship, where there was a lovely bar & fish restaurant offering nice views over the harbour front and our ship. Those feeling entirely unadventurous were more than welcome to remain on board and enjoy Saga Pearl 2’s facilities, delicious food or all-inclusive drinks on offer.
Just after lunch time an enormous barge-like ship tied up alongside us, and deposited about 350 tons of fuel into our tanks (this was planned, by the way). This should be enough keep us going for another week or so. Once we had disconnected the fuel hoses, just around supper time, it was time to untie our lines tethering us ashore and head off out into the choppy North Sea again towards the neighbouring country of Belgium, to sample its delights tomorrow… In the meantime, our passengers were to enjoy a delicious 5 course meal, followed by their choice of entertainment between singing delights from the ‘Four D’s’ in the Discovery Lounge, or that of our residential one-man band Stuart, in Shackleton’s bar…
After a night weaving around the North Sea’s various vessel routing schemes in a general south-west direction, we found ourselves as planned at the Wandelaar Pilot Station at just after 06:00hrs. This pilotage serves all vessels bound for Euro-port as well as Zeebrugge and is a busy station around the clock. A large pilot ‘mothership’ drifts within the designated pick-up / drop-off zone, launching smaller vessels as required to deliver or retrieve pilots from ships entering or leaving the area.
With our Pilot safely on board, we then skirted the northern coast of Belgium in between various charted sandbanks before entering the large harbour of Zeebrugge just before 08:00hrs. Although calm inside, the wind still howled from the west-south-west, requiring tugboat assistance to help push us alongside our berth, which lay exposed to these winds.
Construction of this gigantic harbour first commenced in 1895 when the tiny village of Zeebrugge presumably housed extremely ambitious residents. It became one of the busiest sea ports in north Europe, and in WW2 several attempts were made to destroy this important port. Nearby is the seaside town of Blankenberge, which has a lovely beach waterfront and a town centre lined with dozens of Belgian chocolate shops – perfect for some Christmas shopping perhaps. We ran a free shuttle service to the town centre, which many passengers took advantage of.
Alternatively, the most popular option for passengers here, is to take a trip to the famous town of Bruges, some 45 minutes away by regular train service. Of course, we also offer organised excursion to Bruges for those who prefer a more effortless tour, without having to worry about becoming lost in the narrow backstreets or risk missing their return train back to port.
The beauty and attraction of Bruges probably doesn’t need describing for most, however it is now on the UNESCO World Heritage List and possesses a wealth of culture and splendid scenery. Canal cruises are a must, as well as a good stroll around the winding cobbled streets. Plenty of restaurants offer a selection of feasts including the traditional Moules Frites, and of course you can never wander too far without coming across those famous Belgian chocolate shops.
For those non-romantics onboard, who had seen or visited Bruges before, there were of course, other tours on offer which explored nearby areas including the town of Damme, stunning Loppem Castle, or even the Battlefields of Waterloo or Ypres.
Well, once everyone was back on board again at 18:00hrs it was time to cast off our lines and head back out of this Belgian harbour again, turning to port, (or the left) pointing the ship’s nose towards the English Channel and this time the port of Portsmouth. The holiday was not over yet though, for after yet another delicious supper our evening’s entertainment featured Internationally acclaimed Comedy Magician “Romany” (she’s won more magic awards than I could care to count) followed by a good old party into the early hours in Shackleton’s bar.
Our ‘Amsterdam Escape’ cruise seemed to come and go in the mere blink of an eye. Before we knew it, we were approaching Portsmouth Harbour again in the early hours to be safely alongside on a beautiful, calm & sunny winters Tuesday morning.
Today we would say goodbye to the majority of folk who spent the previous 3 days of fun with us in Holland & Belgium, and embarking would be approximately 400 passengers keen to see festive Germany, for we would be embarking on a 6-day trip to experience the birth-country of the now famous magical winter markets.
Several tonnes of food, beverage and technical stores were of course also loaded, to cater for a ravenous group of Saga passengers, all no doubt looking forward to Executive Chef John’s future feasts. Come 17:00, just as darkness fell, we set sail from Portsmouth, heading out of HM’s famous Naval Dockyard – being ever careful not to bump into any of those rather dangerous looking grey ships parked alongside on the way out.
Once out at sea, we turned to port (or the left, for the Saga newcomers/landlubbers…) heading up the English Channel, through the Dover Strait overnight and popping into the North Sea in the early hours. We had a day at sea to enjoy, allowing everyone to settle into life aboard (and find the bars) before we hosted our traditional Captain’s welcome cocktail party in the evening – concluded of course in tradition by muggins himself sharing some rotten joke or another before everyone went off to enjoy our formal welcome dinner shaking their heads no doubt.
Early the following morning, Thursday I think, we awoke to a gloomy day at the entrance to the River Weser which leads to Bremerhaven, some 40 miles upstream. Almost 200 years ago the people of this town decided to make their small fishing town into a large, deep-sea port, which in hindsight was rather a good idea as today it is a prosperous harbour. Along with around half of Germany’s fishing catch being landed there, it is also a busy commercial port – particularly for container vessels.
The fishing town of Bremerhaven is a pleasant stroll zone – especially with the Christmas Markets to enjoy. Alternatively, our passengers had the option of heading to Bremen to enjoy larger, more impressive Christmas Markets. Other trips to this historic city offered scenic tram journeys or walking experiences. If you are a car fanatic, perhaps an organised trip to the Mercedes-Benz works might appeal instead. The factory is only an hour’s trip away, and this exclusive tour offers an in-depth view & description into all stages from conception to construction. Finally, there was of course the option to take a trip to the Meyer Werft shipyard and see construction of our very own new ship – Spirit of Discovery.
Well into the hours of darkness, as everyone was enjoying their supper, the time came to depart and head back down the River Weser again, back into the North Sea. After a visit myself to the Meyer Werft shipyard in Papenburg, I too had very much enjoyed my day here, but was also keen to manoeuvre my little ship off the berth and proceed to sea – for there was one of Chef’s famous curries awaiting my consumption in the restaurant this evening…
After a night spent cruising gently eastward in the North Sea, we approached the River Elbe just after breakfast on Friday morning. As we entered the basin, our first local pilot jumped on board to assist our passage up the first section of this river.
The weather remained rather wintery: windy, overcast, spits of rain with visibility of only around a mile or so. The Elbe – indeed as with most rivers – starts off with a wide basin and narrows as one proceeds further upstream. After we passed the town of Cuxhaven on its western bank, some 2.5hrs into the transit, the banks on either side became visible and there were plenty of interesting views for everyone to enjoy.
75 miles further upstream from our entry into the river basin, our second river pilot called into Hamburg port control requesting permission to enter the busy port area. Muggins here drove the ship past the floating docks and into the city centre, where we would then swing about 180degrees before proceeding a few hundred metres back again to the Altona City Cruise Berth. It was becoming dark now having past into late afternoon in winter, and the weather was decidedly gloomy outside, with a gusty wind from the south-west which our Bridge Team needed to very aware of during the manoeuvre.
Typically, just as we approached our berth and the requirement for the Captain came to wander out onto the open Bridge Wing, it began to pour with rain. This naturally resulted in an expedited manoeuvre, and we found ourselves safely alongside Hamburg City Centre just as afternoon tea started, around 16:30.
We would be alongside here for 24hrs. Just after 17:00 that afternoon, our first organised excursion proceeded ashore – well dressed for Hamburg’s winter markets, and weather! This particular tour was entitled ‘Hamburg at Night,’ and promised its participants a traditional German evening meal (sausages & sauerkraut?) followed by a visit to the Red Light District. Surprisingly, some of the gentlemen took their wives along, too. I wonder if they were aware of the nature of the tour prior to its departure…
I am fortunate enough to have a friend in Hamburg and was treated to a personal tour starting with a visit to ‘Heaven’s Bar’ – a rooftop cocktail bar perched some 25 stories atop a high-rise building. After consuming an interesting German interpretation of a Horse’s Neck, it was time to wander around the Christmas Markets and eventually we found ourselves amidst a visiting funfair. Naturally, we tried one of the more hair-raising rides in the pouring rain, before proceeding slightly bedraggled to the Portuguese Quarter – a relatively newly born district of the town containing lots of nice restaurants. What did we eat in the Portuguese Quarter of a German town… an Italian meal, of course!
The following day, a usual array of daytime tours were offered. Hamburg city tours by land and sea, a visit to the beautiful Hanseatic city of Lubeck, and even a tour of the Airbus Aircraft Factory were all on offer. Fortunately, the rain was not persistent, allowing those enjoying various marches in between winter markets to choose their moments carefully in between showers…
As night fell upon Germany’s second largest city, it was time to set sail back down the Elbe river again. A picturesque sail-out with coloured lights adorning both river banks, was then followed an hour or so later by our farewell cocktail party and formal dinner. Delights such as haggis, lobster & steak were offered by Executive Chef John, for those who’d been ashore that hadn’t filled up too much with German sausages. After dinner entertainment consisted of the ‘Four D’s’ – a singing quartet bringing all sorts of West End style songs to the Discovery Lounge after supper.
Meanwhile, on the Bridge, we left the Elbe River just after 23:00, heading west again homeward bound after another successful short festive cruise. Next stop: Dover!