TRAVEL: Hitting high notes with MSC Opera cruise
Settling into cruise control, Gemma Collins finds herself singing the praises of MSC Opera and enjoying some of the more interesting cities northern Europe has to offer.
There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats,” said Ratty to Mole, in Kenneth Grahame’s classic, The Wind in the Willows.
Well, we’re akin, Ratty and I. Except I like my boats large and with engine power rather than oars.
The MSC Opera, you see, is a one hell of a girl. At sea she’s home to 2,200 passengers and 750 crew. She has 14 decks, 795 cabins, two swimming pools, a fully-equipped gym and jogging track, a theatre, shopping gallery and casino, among other things.
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Pretty enticing for a mobile hotel.
My journey began in Southampton (a coach ride or two away from Leicester), but more convenient than flying to a foreign port.
Embarking was swift, and in no time at all, I was sitting on the upper deck, a glass of Pinot Grigio in hand, as the sun beat down upon my back.
Glorious Southampton. A taste of things to come, I imagined, already relaxed and expectant, as we bobbed gently up and down in port. My room was a balcony suite, with a bathroom and lounge area – not at all the pokey port-holed perception I’d had. But then that’s the Opera for you. Italian lead, it’s marble floors, fine woodwork, vibrant decor and panoramic windows with dramatic sea views.
We left at 4pm. But the north wind doth blow, and we shall have... choppy seas. That was the way it stayed for pretty much all of my three-night, four-day taster of MSC’s Northern European tour. So, shame about the weather, but, well, that didn’t get in the way.
I’m 32 and very single, so cruising is something I associated with elderly couples, or rich families and their slightly-spoilt children.
Boy, was I a fool. If you love travelling but hate packing, this is the ideal scenario. It’s a one-stop shop – a floating hotel where, while in port, you can explore as you wish, taking in the sights and sounds, the culture and cuisine, and, when the day is through, you can come home to your super hotel and fill your time with fun things, until the next destination.
Our first stop was the party port of Amsterdam. You can indulge in the “cafe” scene and go where the lights are red, but I fancied something a little more traditionally Dutch. If I’m honest, I wanted to visit the Van Gogh Museum, but by the time my group got its act together, that tour was full up, so we opted for the windmill village of Zaanse Schans.
Note: book excursions early, or Rough Guide the city more than an hour before docking. I sound a little bitter. I was (I love van Gogh), but it was surprisingly pleasant, meandering around an island of mills. The man at the clog factory made carving look easy. There were hundreds of pairs to purchase, but even a woman’s love of shoes stops at wooden and pointy.
The cheese factory though... Between us we ate a lorry load, the creamy delicacy flavoured with everything you could imagine, from chocolate to paprika. Can you get cheese poisoning?
Back on the boat, our stomachs churned. The sea didn’t help.
Talking of cheese, the stage shows in the onboard theatre were very good. We went every night, a variety of acts to make us ooh and ahhh.
Tongue in cheek, it’s kind of nice to get caught up in the cabaret camaraderie of cabin life.
MSC Opera operates this eight-day Northern European cruise, throughout the peak summer months, stopping off at Amsterdam, the French town of La Rochelle, the Basque city of Bilbao, the Galician port of La Coruna, and finally Cherbourg – the gateway to the rolling countryside of Normandy.
What better way to spend a full day at sea than in the spa?
I had a facial and full body massage, and they were wonderful. So relaxed, it meant I could sleep through the stormy moments, and wake up ready to fine dine and dance the night away.
La Rochelle is renowned for sunshine. That wasn’t my experience. My chum and I spent a day drinking cocktails in a waterside bar. We watched the rain fall on the vieux port, and considered a boat trip to Fort
Boyard, but discounted the idea in favour of staying warm and dry.
The next morning we sailed into Bilbao. If I had been on the full cruise, I’d have paid my respects to the famous Guggenheim Museum. But alas, Heathrow bound, we made our way to the considerably less interesting Bilbao airport.
I arrived back in Leicester feeling like I’d been away for weeks, rather than days. Not because I was tired, but because I’d discovered a life on the open waves.
Early booking prices on the MSC Opera’s Southampton to Southampton continental itinerary for 2012 start from £639 per person, cruise only.
For more information or to make a booking, call 0844 561 7412 or visit: www.msccruises.co.uk.
Free car parking and free coach transfers apply to these departures. There’s a kids cruise-free policy.
Gemma Collins travelled to Southampton by National Express coach. For more details, call 08717 818181 or visit: www.nationalexpress.co.uk