Thursday, 3 January 2013

I have been to ... Belgium and the Netherlands (almost) ... again!

Saturday 29th December: Southampton

We woke up just after 6.30am, and after a leisurely breakfast and some final packing we set off from home at nearly 9.20am. Because we were undertaking our car journey between Christmas Day and New Year's Day, the roads were quite empty, and despite gusting high winds and occasional torrential rainfall on the M25 and M3 we reached Winchester Services just before 11.00am. We took a short break for refreshments and to restore our personal comforts, and then completed the journey into the centre of Southampton.

The ship we were going to cruise on – the MV Oceana – was moored alongside the Ocean Terminal. This was located next to the main Isle of Wight ferry terminal and was built on the site of the terminal where RMS Titanic moored before setting off on her fateful maiden voyage. This was also near to where the preserved steam–powered vessels Calshot ...

... and Shieldhall ...

... were usually moored.

We unloaded our luggage from the car, and whilst this was being taken away by a porter so that it could be loaded aboard Oceana, I booked my car in with the port's own valet parking service. Our membership of the Baltic tier of P&O's loyalty reward scheme ensured that we had priority boarding, and by 12.15pm we were sat in the Starlights Lounge having a drink.

Although we were told our cabin was ready for our use as we arrived at Starlights Lounge, we decided to have a refreshing drink before going there to unpack our luggage. All but one of our bags was waiting in our cabin when we got there just before 2.00pm, and the 'missing' bag turned up not long afterwards. Our unpacking was finished well before we had to attend the compulsory Safety Of Life At Sea (SOLAS) briefing at 4.00pm, following which we went up on deck to drink a glass of champagne as the Oceana undocked and set sail. On our way down towards the Solent Oceana passed RFA Mounts Bay, which I managed to photograph despite the darkness.

We had a pre–dinner drink in the Le Club Bar before going to the Ligurian Restaurant for dinner. For the first time we were allocated what P&O term 'freedom dining'. This meant that we could go to the restaurant at any time between 6.00pm and 9.30pm to eat, but that we would be sat at the next available table rather than always at the same table every night. As the cruise was only a short one this did not worry us particularly, but we were unsure whether or not we would enjoy this style of dining on a longer cruise. In the end we had to queue to collect a pager, go for another drink – this time in the nearby Explorers Bar – and wait to be paged. We had only just been served our drinks when this happened, and we were then seated and served. The food and service was excellent ... but I don't think that we will opt for 'freedom dining' in future.

After dinner we returned to our cabin to rest and prepare for bed ... and to turn our clocks forward so that we would operating on local time when we woke up on the following day.

Sunday 30th December: Zeebrugge

Despite high winds, lightning, and hail during the night we slept well, and when we woke up at 8.00am Oceana was already alongside the quay in Zeebrugge. As usual this was adjoining the Belgian Navy's main naval base, and several of the navy's ships were moored alongside ...

... including the minesweepers Bellis (M916) ...

... and Narcis (M923), ...

... and the support ship Godetia (A960).

After breakfast in the Plaza self–service restaurant we went ashore and took the shuttle–bus to the nearby seaside town of Blankenberge. The shuttle–bus dropped us off next to Saint Anthony’s church (Sint-Antioniuskerk), which was located near the Town Hall and railway station.

We walked up the main shopping street – Kerkstraat – towards the sea front, ...

... stopping as we went to undertake some retail therapy. We each had a mug of hot chocolate in a small cafe in Manitobaplein that we had visited on a previous trip to Blankenberge, ...

... then walked to the Marina, ...

... and from there up onto the promenade (the Zeeduk). The sea was quite rough, and was breaking on the shore in a continuous stream of long rolling waves.

(One thing was very noticeable in Blankenberge ... the number of people who were walking their dogs. It almost seemed that every other Belgian had a dog ... and yet there was a total absence of dog mess anywhere we went. The obvious conclusion is that Belgians are civic–minded and responsible dog owners. I wish I could say the same for their British counterparts.)

Near the centre of the promenade was a monument. From a distance it looked like a rather ornate war memorial, but on close inspection it turned out to be a memorial to two local soldiers – Lieutenant Joseph Lippens and Sergeant Henri De Bruyne – who died in the Belgian Congo.

Lippens and De Bruyne served with the Force Publique (the army of the ‘Independent’ State of Congo or EIC [l'État Indépendant du Congo]) and took part in the campaign to prevent the capture and enslavement of native Congolese by Arab slavers. They were captured in 1889 when the EIC post at Kasongo was taken by a group of heavily armed slavers, and they were subsequently murdered and their bodies mutilated (their hands and feet were cut off according to local custom) when negotiations between the Arabs and the EIC for their return collapsed.

We then returned to the shuttle–bus pick–up point, and were back aboard Oceana by 3.00pm. After a snack lunch, we spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing and reading in our cabin. At 5.35pm – just before Oceana set sail from Zeebrugge – the Captain announced that, due to predicted high winds and bad weather, it was not be possible for the ship to dock in Amsterdam as planned. He also stated that for safety reasons the ship would moor off the coast of Belgium overnight and then proceed to deeper water during the day so that passengers could celebrate the New Year in some degree of comfort.

This news was very unfortunate as we had planned to go on a canal cruise whilst we were in Amsterdam, and – if possible – to do some shopping or visit a museum. However, having recently visited Amsterdam, we understood the reasons why the Oceana was unable to make the transit of the locks on the North Sea Canal (Noordzee Kanaal) in high winds. The clearance between the ship's sides and the lock walls would have been minimal, and a strong gust of wind could easily have pushed the ship into the lock wall, which would have caused serious damage to the ship.

We had already booked a meal in the Horizon Grill Restaurant, which is one of the alternative dining venues aboard Oceana. This was run under the auspices of Marco Pierre White, and as usual it was an excellent meal that was well worth the small additional supplement that we had to pay.

After dinner we retired to our cabin to relax for an hour or two before going to sleep. By this time Oceana was at anchor off the coast of Belgium, and despite some wind noise and a little movement it was a very peaceful way to end the day.

Monday 31st December: At sea

Oceana did move position slightly during the night in order ensure that everyone had a restful night's sleep, but when we awoke at 8.00am we were still off the coast of Belgium with numerous other moored vessels around us.

Because it was an unexpected 'sea day' we did not rush into breakfast. We also decided to avoid the Plaza self–service restaurant as we expected that it would be rather crowded, and went to the Adriatic Restaurant instead ... where we met a waiter who had served us earlier in the year aboard MV Azura.

After breakfast we took a walk around the various public spaces on the ship, including the shops and the Atrium, where the ship's ice and fruit carver was demonstrating his skills. We then returned to our cabin to rest and relax for an hour or two.

At 11.00am the Captain announced that he was going to move the ship up the coast of the Netherlands towards the entrance to the North Sea Canal. He explained that it was his intention to heave to when he got there in the hope that a pilot would be able to board the ship and take her through the locks at Ijmuiden. If this was possible, then the Oceana would be able to reach Amsterdam in time for the New Year.

By the time we had been to eat a late snack lunch in the Plaza self–service restaurant and returned to our cabin by 3.30pm, Oceana had sailed westward so that it could join the appropriate lane of the sea traffic separation system and then turned northward towards the approaches to the North Sea Canal. However at 6.15pm when the Captain announced that Oceana was thirty miles south–west of the Amsterdam Pilot Station, he also informed us that the weather forecast was that winds would reach Force 11 on the Beaufort Scale, and that is made it impossible for the ship to proceed up the North Sea Canal safely into Amsterdam. He expressed his regret that he had not been able to get the Oceana into Amsterdam, but stated that his first concern was for the safety of his ship and those aboard it.

Having realised that there was now no likelihood at all of going ashore that evening, we prepared for the evening's formal dinner and the New Year's entertainments and celebrations. We had a pre–dinner drink in the Winners Bar (which was located next to the Monte Carlo Casino) and then ate dinner in the Cafe Jardin Restaurant, another of the alternative dining venues. This is an bistro–style restaurant that serves Mediterranean food and that is also run – like the Horizon Grill Restaurant – under the auspices of Marco Pierre White. As we expected, the food and the service were exemplary, and it was an ideal way to celebrate the end of the old year. After dinner we went had a short break back in our cabin before going to the Atrium, where remained until midnight and joined in the celebrations that marked the start of 2013.

Tuesday 1st January: At sea

Not long after midnight the ship reversed he course and began to sail south–west back towards the UK. By the time we woke up at 10.00am Deal and the White Cliffs were visible on the starboard horizon, and at 10.15am Oceana passed Dover.

Whilst we prepared to go for brunch (breakfast was not served after 10.30am, even in the Plaza self–service restaurant), we discussed what we were likely to do as the ship seemed to be on course to dock in Southampton well ahead of schedule. In the end we decided not to think about it and to just to see what happened.

Just after midday the Captain announced that he intended to continue to sail along the south coast of England and past the Isle of Wight, and then – at some point during the evening – to turn about and return to the pilot pick–up point at the Nab Tower at 3.00am.

We spent the early part of the afternoon in the Le Club Bar reading and relaxing, and returned to our cabin just before 2.30pm. After a brief discussion we decided to skip lunch and to have afternoon tea instead, after which we would pack. This did not take very long, and we had plenty of time to read and prepare for our last dinner of the cruise.

We ate dinner in the Ligurian Restaurant for the second time this cruise ... and yet again 'freedom dining' proved not to be to our liking. The food and service were excellent, but it was a real nuisance having to queue to collect a pager, then find somewhere to sit and wait, and then to have to queue to be seated when the pager went off.

After dinner we returned to our cabin and finished preparing to disembark on the following morning. This involved packing our hand luggage and checking that all the draws and cupboards were empty.

Wednesday 2nd January: Southampton

Oceana docked at 4.30am although we were oblivious to this as we were asleep at the time. By the time we woke up at 6.30pm the process of unloading the luggage was well underway, as was the replenishment of the ship's consumables – including fuel oil and fresh water – that were needed for her next cruise. We ate breakfast in the Adriatic Restaurant before collecting our hand luggage from our cabin prior to disembarking at It took us twenty minutes to find our luggage in the luggage collection hall and reclaim our car from the valet parking service, and by just after 9.00am we were driving through Southampton on our way to the M3. The amount of traffic on the roads was much lighter than we expected, and it took us just over two hours to reach home.


  1. Happy New Year to you and the missus.

    Good thing you were on the Oceana and not the Oceanos..


  2. Arthur,

    Happy New Year to both of you as well!

    I had forgotten about the sinking of the Oceanos! It's loss does have echoes of the loss of the Costa Concordia, even down to the 'excuse' given by the captain.

    All the best,


  3. Sounds like not only an enjoyable way but an appropriate way to finish the old year and start the new one.

    May it herald a good and happy year for you both in which you avoid life's storms and come safely to port.

  4. Ross Mac,

    It was a very enjoyable cruise, and they certainly know to have a fun New Year celebration on P&O ships.

    Many thanks for your best wishes for the forthcoming year, and I hope that both you and your wife have an equally good year.

    All the best,



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