Escape to the Baltics on a luxury liner
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TRAVELCRUISE

Escape to the Baltics on a luxury liner

After a two-year hiatus, seasoned cruiser Mark Silver was delighted to set sail once again

I stood there open-mouthed as I stared at the truly stunning ship. She was quite possibly the most beautiful vessel ever launched… yet I much preferred the one I had just sailed on!

The restored, sculpture-laden Vasa is Stockholm’s No 1 tourist attraction. Incredibly, less than a mile into her maiden voyage nearly 400 years ago, the battleship had swayed to one side and dramatically sunk.

Happily, the vessel that had brought me to Sweden was far more resilient. I had boarded the luxury Le Champlain in London 10 days earlier and then cruised across northern Europe. The ship is owned by French company Ponant and is a ‘battleship’ of sorts… in that I strongly recommend you battle your way to get a ticket!

This was my 25th cruise but my first in more than two years. We explored some wonderful, buzzing, medieval towns and cities. Our French ship was to bring us friendship, with the mainly French and American guests proving to be splendid company. In fact, so friendly that post-voyage we have already been invited to Colorado and Texas.

Normally carrying up to 184 guests, there were far fewer on our sailing as Covid still deterred some folk. But if Le Champlain is anything to go by, the cruise industry should be in rude health again very soon. And, despite the lower number of passengers, there was no shortage of staff who helped treat partner Samantha and I to a level of service and dining that surpassed any of my previous voyages.

There are 12 other ships in Ponant’s fine fleet and, although founded back in 1988, they are still a little-known gem among UK cruise-lovers. They venture worldwide and specialise in far-flung and fascinating regions such as the Arctic and Antarctica. Guests are mostly well-travelled and discerning – but Samantha said I fitted in! – and the atmosphere on board was one of continuous joy.

We found the unusual experience of boarding in our capital city a real treat – the opportunity to sail through an opened-up Tower Bridge was enchanting, and that was just our appetiser. Soon our mouths would be watering as we visited some of the most charming destinations on our continent.

Cabin on Le Champlain

Our first stops took us to beautiful Bruges and Antwerp and then we enjoyed Amsterdam plus little-known delights such as the Danish island of Bornholm, and Visby in the Swedish island of Gotland, which is the best-preserved medieval city in Scandinavia.

Aside from breathtaking sights, we came away knowing more about famous figures from history such as the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens and the Renaissance humanist Juan Luis Vives I had vaguely heard of Vives but through our brilliant tour guide in Bruges I learned that the ‘father’’ of modern psychology moved from Valencia after close family, including his father, were executed in the Spanish Inquisition just for being Jewish. He died in Bruges after producing wide-ranging works in the 16th century.

If you want a cruise ship with the big shows and fancy casinos, this would not be for you. If you are content with, say, a superb pianist and talented singer then stay on board with me a little longer. All cabins have a balcony and the luxuries in the bathroom include Hermes toiletries. The real highlight of a Ponant cruise is the French cooking. I did well to put on ‘just’ half a stone by the end. (There is a small gym on board, so I’m told!)

I eat pretty much anything, but Samantha keeps kosher and there was plenty for her to savour. She said the salads were the best she had tasted, we both loved the delicious soups, and, for me, the meat and fish were melt-in-your-mouth jobs.

Ponant fares include a vast selection of complimentary drinks and we constantly had our glass refilled with excellent Champagne. It seemed rude to refuse a top-up. A more-than-decent red, white or rose is served with lunch and dinner. You can pay for a more specialised bottle.

The spa on Le Champlain

Samantha didn’t object when I booked her a massage in the spa. There is a wide choice of treatments and my facial using high-end Sothys Paris products left me relaxed and rejuvenated.

Ponant boasts some of the most interesting speakers in the cruise industry and our talks brought to life how, among other things, the Vikings carried out their daring raids at sea.

Our knowledge was further enhanced when passing by Hollandse Synagoge during a tour of Antwerp. The port city was badly damaged by the terrifying V-1 and V-2 flying bombs and this Moorish-style shul fell victim during the Second World War. It was entirely renovated in 1958 and has been a protected building since 1976.

All our tours were memorable but the highlight was a ‘freebie’ when taken on Ponant’s own small crafts along the charming canals of Amsterdam; luckily for us, this coincided with the birthday of King Willem-Alexander. This made for a party atmosphere with hundreds of people dressed in orange celebrating the special day on boats of various shapes and sizes. There was plenty of beer being drunk as the Dutch let their hair down. Naturally, we stuck to Champagne!

After disembarking in Stockholm, we rounded off our holiday with a couple of nights in the lovely Swedish capital and, from the Vasa Museum, made the short stroll to another fabulous attraction, ABBA The Museum. There you can interact and sing one of their hits in a recording studio. I performed Mamma Mia… well, here I go again plotting my next Ponant cruise… my, my, how can I resist it?

The next Escape to the Baltics cruise on board Ponant’s Le Champlain will depart from London on 29 May 2023, arriving in Stockholm on 9 June 2023 (11 nights). From £6,880 per person based on two sharing a stateroom, including all meals, soft drinks, house drinks, spirits, mini-bar and 24/7 room service. For more information visit uk.ponant.com or call 0808 23 43 802.

 

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