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Groups on cruises: Western Europe

Photo by Bob Hoelscher

In August, I was fortunate to enjoy a wonderful 11-night voyage from Southampton, England, to Lisbon, Portugal, aboard the excellent Azamara Journey, one of two vessels currently operated by the Azamara Club Cruises division of Royal Caribbean.  Accommodating fewer than 700 guests, this relatively small ship cruised to seven fascinating ports — one in the Channel Islands and two apiece along the Atlantic coasts of France, Spain and Portugal.

Experienced cruisers who have found themselves elbow-to-elbow on shore with passengers from four or five other liners visiting the same port, will surely understand how this trip offered an additional, unexpected treat, since we did not encounter or even pass one other cruise ship during the duration of the voyage.  The “bottom line” is that the ship, the line and the itinerary all earned my highest recommendation.

Historic Island

Our first call was at St. Peter Port, Guernsey, in the Channel Islands.  I was pleased to find a lovely and quite prosperous isle that resembles a cross between Bermuda and Victoria, British Columbia.  Tourism and agriculture are staples of the economy here, but there are also a number of historic fortifications to explore, both from antiquity as well as the Nazi occupation during World War II.

Bordeaux, France, is the center of one of the world’s greatest wine-producing regions, so interesting wine-centered tours were offered to Saint Emilion, Sauternes and Graves, and Margaux. A walking tour through the historic district of this, the capital of Aquitaine, also revealed the art and 18th-century architecture of a classic European city.  Azamara Journey was docked in the heart of the city overnight, so having the ability to explore the illuminated monuments and public buildings of Bordeaux after dinner was an added plus.

St. Jean de Luz, France, is a charming seaside resort town that boasts one of the finest beaches in the region.  However, only about eight miles distant is Biarritz, one of Europe’s most famous and opulent playgrounds for the “jet set,” where the stunning beach is surrounded by magnificent villas and world-class hotels.  Nearby also is the little cog railway that climbs 900 meters to the summit of La Rhune Mountain for spectacular panoramic views of the Basque country.

Spanish Coast
Pasajes, Spain, is a picturesque port community for the city of San Sebastian.  As reportedly the largest cruise ship ever to call here, we were astonished to find ourselves being welcomed by throngs of local citizens here lining the waterway, an event that was repeated on an even larger scale upon our departure.  We even made the front page of the local newspaper!

A call at Bilbao, Spain, featured a private visit and tour to the remarkable Guggenheim Museum, which was designed by architect Frank Gehry and opened in 1997.  In a cruise requiring numerous superlatives to describe, this was one of the prime highlights for me.

Portuguese Wine
Porto, Portugal, is both a sprawling city of eclectic architectural styles and home of the sweet port wine.  A cruise on the scenic Douro River, which flows through the heart of the city under a succession of impressive bridges, adds an additional dimension to touring here.

Our final destination and point of disembarkation was Lisbon, justly ranked among the world’s most beautiful cities. I opted for an excursion to the colorful resort community of Cascais and the fascinating Royal Village of Sintra, one of the oldest towns in the country, which is renowned for striking Gothic and Moorish architecture.