The P Word: Packing for your travels

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The packing world seems to separate itself into two tribes: here’s my kitchen sink, or hey, I can improvise a bivouac overnight with my miniascule pack.  At times I have wibbled between the two, moving from sink to bivouac and back again.

There are also two tribes of readiness.  There are the list makers, such as myself, who carefully tick everything off.  Then there are the slingits, such as my OH, who wake on the morning and blithely sling things into a bag.  Both have their perils, from packing performance anxiety in my case, to having to purchase a whole new set of undies in Blankenberg, Rostock and Tallin (name withheld – temporarily – to protect the guilty).

Of course, packing for a cruise is fraught with overpacking temptations.  If you don’t need to fly, which is now the chastity belt of the overpacking indulger, then you can bring “as much as can be fitted in your cabin”.  Athough cabins aren’t enormous, they are bigger than the average car, so you can certainly manage to include anything you can wedge into your boot.

Let’s take an example of the varied approaches to packing.  I’m recently back from 3 days on P&O’s Azura to Amsterdam.  I was there on a conference, so had work stuff with me.  I met a colleague at check in, who carried a cabin size case.  I had the next size up in a trolley bag.  Cabin next door to me?  One case each of the size I take for 14 days, plus a trolley bag apiece.  Whatever floats your boat, eh?  But I was a tad fascinated as to what they’d brought with them.  Giant Jenga?  A ball gown or two?  Or perhaps they had a stealthy second holiday to accommodate afterwards.

So what advice can I give you?

  1. Do your research online.  You can get the temperature forecast for your destination several days ahead, which gives you the chance to pack accordingly.  (Yay to smug me in Belgium last year, having remembered my hat, meaning I could wander around happily in the rain without battling with an umbrella!)  And this also helps if you want to find out the sartorial standards wherever you are headed.  Some cruise lines are more casual, others will need some thought over evening wear.
  2. Don’t sweat the small stuff; you can usually find it somewhere.  OH has an “interesting” new set of undies, especially from Tallin;  I think they were a stag party special.  I found out that the Spanish word for Paracetamol is Paracetamol and had a beautiful ornately wrapped box from a sweet pharmacist in Cadiz.
  3. Conversely, pack to your weaknesses.  I am both a worrier and a coeliac, and I feel much safer going away with an emergency stash of gluten free snacks.  It’s amazing how much happier a bag of peanuts and some fruit bars makes me feel, so that’s what I pack.
  4. To wash or not to wash?  (Your clothes, of course… )  If it’s warm and you’re inclined to more casual attire, then why not bring less, and hit the laundry part way through if the facilities are there (again, back to that research).  Some cruise lines have laundrettes, and you can always do a little handwashing in the sink if that suits you.  If you have just paled at the thought of doing manual labour on holiday, then I think we’ve just established you’ll be packing a bit more.
  5. Check what’s already there.  Nearly all ship cabins have a hairdryer, and it’s probably adequate unless you have Rapunzel-like tresses.  And you’ll probably find a selection of basic toiletries available if you don’t need to cater for sensitive skin.
  6. Share!  Are there things that you can share with your travel companions, such as some basic first aid stuff?
  7. Swap! And another good sharing tip, swap some items between your bag and that of your travel companion ; if one is lost or gets delayed you have a change of clothes and essentials to hand.

Happy journeys!


Cruising with Children

Deck facilities on Norwegian Epic

If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to take your children away to sea, wonder no more!  It’s a brilliant opportunity to give the whole family plenty to do, in a safe environment, and with the ability for both parents and kids to do their own thing.

Firstly, you need to pick your cruise line, and focus in on the kind of facilities that will suit your family.  Do you love nothing more than being constantly in motion from one activity to another, or are you wanting to chill?  Do you want to see lots of places in a short time, or make the most of the ship’s facilities?  Or even both?

If you’ve never cruised before, don’t forget that your holiday includes:

  • Your accommodation in an ensuite cabin, possibly with a balcony
  • All your meals and some drinks with meals
  • Full use of the ship’s facilities including pools, whirlpools, the gym, the library, deck and indoor games and sports courts
  • An entertainment programme by day and night including special parties, live music, nightly shows, quizzes, competitions and demonstrations


If you are looking for a great family cruise, look for some of the following features onboard:

  • free kids’ clubs, according to age, with plenty of activities to suit your children
  • family friendly entertainment
  • ports and shore excursions that suit your family.  How about cycle rides, visiting dolphins, or a kayak trip?
  • Extra special ship facilities that will make great memories.  How about a climbing wall, a zipwire, or your favourite Dreamworks characters onboard?
  • Early children’s teas, so you can settle your kids for the night
  • A night nursery, enabling you to have some time as a couple.  P&O’s Azura has the wonderfully named “Sea Bed” as its night nursey and soft play area.



So don’t be afraid to check out a cruise holiday with your children. And if you have children, and are getting married, it’s a great opportunity to take your children with you but still have some time together.

Do you remember the first time? A first cruise to Cherbourg on the Queen Mary 2

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Firstly, I must apologise for that little Pulp earworm that is affecting those of you, like me, of a certain age…

So what do you think of when I say the word “cruise”? Something your parents do? Something for the “newly-wed, over fed or nearly dead”, as the saying goes? Or is there something about the romance of the sea, and the chance of seeing so many different places on one trip that just makes you a little curious?

We weren’t sure. The first time we went on a cruise, we were in our forties, liked to think of ourselves as hip and with at least some semblance of cool about us, and had friends in all kinds of age brackets. We may have been somewhat over-fed, but we weren’t even newly wed at the time. Then we saw an advert for a local cruise fair. “C’mon”, I said to a lounging OH. “Let’s go. Not to buy a cruise, but to see what the people are like who might go on a cruise.” And off we trudged to a local hotel, where I acquired a lot of free stationery, and, purely by chance you understand, a cheap two night cruise to Cherbourg on one of the world’s finest (perhaps even the world’s only remaining) great ocean liners, the Queen Mary 2.

Arriving at Southampton a couple of months later, my first impression was just “wow!”. From the meet and greet parking at the terminal to the first arrival into the grand atrium on board, that’s some serious pampering! The first thing you notice is the sheer size of the ship, and that wonderful raked bow. Then you get to the cabin (we had a hull balcony – a cutout in the ship), and see the sleekly tailored furnishings, all so art deco in style. A quick unpack, a sensible muster (lifeboat) drill, and we were off to the top deck for the sailaway party, with music, cocktails and a genuinely good time.

I still remember lots about that trip. It was QM2’s first voyage to Cherbourg, so the locals were out in force to celebrate. The port is as lovely as I remember from my childhood. And they still sell Marron Suis (a chestnut dessert) in French supermarkets.

And the ship? She’s beautiful. There was far more to do than we could possibly achieve in a two day sailing (we ended up sailing on her again to see more of her!). There was a show each night, and plenty of alternative entertainment all the time. Fabulous pools and whirlpools. Fascinating talks (we got to hear about MI5 on the second trip). A magnificent gym, and the only Planetarium at sea. A nightclub (G32, named after the hanger in which QM2 was built) with the best guilty pleasures school disco right next to an elegant ballroom dance with full orchestra and gentleman hosts to dance with the ladies in the Queens’ Room. White glove service for afternoon tea. We chilled out in the Winter Garden with cocktails, and watched the world go by.

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I’ll never forget leaving Cherbourg. A whole flotilla, comprising what seemed to be every craft in the surrounding area, arrived to see the Queen Mary 2 slip her lines and head back to Southampton. We had yachts, pilot boats, small motorised craft, the local tourist boats, a fire hose salute and even the odd jet ski or two escort us from our berth, and sail awhile alongside us. Returning to our cabin to watch from the balcony, we were amused to see a jet ski continue alongside us past the harbour wall, past the outer harbour, and into the open sea. I questioned whether we might draw our curtains at Southampton the next morning, and find him bobbing alongside us at our berth.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Happy journeys,

Neva Again: Juliet takes to the river in St Petersburg


As the minibus pulled up alongside, Anna the Guide confided that the two beautiful boats ready to take us through the canals of St Petersburg were named after a piece by Prokofiev (and possibly Shakespeare).  Romeo and Juliet awaited.   We scampered aboard and took comfortable seats at the rear of the first boat.  “Now,” said Anna.  “You must cross over to the next boat.”  Our eyes turned to the boat alongside.

It would be polite to say that Juliet was no longer in the first blush of her youth.    Her ample girth was highlighted by a mass of ranked spindly dining chairs, the kind being vigorously freecycled across the UK.  Her seaworthiness would have been questionable, had we not been destined for the canals.  We made a sprint for the rear, both to avoid the spindly dining chairs, and to stand a better chance of swimming for it, if needed.  With a dieselly, voluptuous belch, Juliet was on her way, scampering from the amorous attentions of the younger, sleeker Romeo.

“Now,” said Anna.  “You must be very careful of your heads.  If you do not duck the bridges will…” and she made a graphic show of decapitation.  Rolleyes ensued as we hit a particularly vigorous junction with the Neva River and Juliet wallowed.  We started measuring the distance to the river bank in line with our various swimming proficiency certificates.  Juliet shuddered even more alarmingly as we entered the first canal to hear the cry of “duck”.  Seated, I could have touched the bridge above without straightening my arm.  Standing clearance…well, I wasn’t planning to chance it.

“Now” said Anna.  “There are no toilets at Peterhof, and the ones on the hydrofoil will have very big queues.  So you should use the ones on the boat here.”  As the cries of “duck” became more frequent, the chances of making it forward to the head became ever more rendolent of a retro “It’s a Knockout” contest, where obstacles race towards the hapless contestant.  With the risk of decapitation ever on my mind, I climbed spindly dining chairs and ducked where necessary until I reached the splendour that was Juliet’s dank waterless dungeon of a toilet.  It measured precisely five feet eight inches from floor to ceiling.  I know, as my hair gave that ceiling its first cleaning in many a year.    “How was it?” asked the elegantly attired woman in front of me, as I returned to my seat to yet more calls of “duck!”.  Our eyes met in commiseration.  “Grim” I replied.

There were no queues for the hydrofoil.  And the toilets at the Summer Palace, where we lunched in great splendour, were of such fabulous gilded and mirrored Faberge-esque beauty that there was a queue taking pictures in the ladies.  Welcome to Russia.

Travels with my stepfather: A long lunch in Cherbourg

Meandering happily along the quay, we decided to start searching for somewhere to have lunch.  My stepfather, henceforth known as SF, had lived in France for many years (mostly in Paris, and with Dylan Thomas, but that’s another story), and had an encyclopaedic memory for all the little bistros and havens of his youth.  But the intervening years had dealt him some tough cards, including the advancement of muscular dystrophy, and some venues had considerably more challenges than used to be the case.

The Cafe du Paris stands proudly waterside as it ever did.  But with one small problem: the dining room is upstairs.  My teenage self starts to mull over my rather basic French for dealing with the problem.  But SF is no shy and retiring violet.  He heads to the foot of the stairs, and calls up to a deserted dining room.  It’s 11.30, and no one is ready to dine yet.

A waiter appears and a discussion ensues.  The Maitre D’ flies down the stairs, and warmly embraces SF.  It seems they have some history…one that I understand involves duck shooting.  I am not sure whether I am more horrified at the thought of French hunting, or the prospect of my SF (who at one point during his one and only driving lesson accomplished an 18 point turn on the pavement) being let loose with a weapon. 

After a lengthly exchange in what can only be called franglais, a call upstairs is made, and four waiters appear, bearing a stout chair with arms.  SF is seated, and with a little grunting, his improvised sedan chair is hauled up the stairs to the empty restaurant. 

We were seated.  Aperitifs were served.  There was an assiette of seafood, fish I didn’t recognise.  A salad course.  Creamy Normandy pork with cider.  Dessert.  Cheese arrived on a magnificent chariot, with dried fruit and bread.  A digestif?  I was treated to a few sips of Calvados.

All around the customer numbers and noise ebbed and flowed, as the restaurant worked its way through the lunchtime service.  The chariot was restocked.  Items were crossed off the menu as the kitchen ran low on stocks.  And at four o’clock we were once again escorted to street level and set loose with much hugging and fond farwells.

As I waited with SF for my mum to fetch the car, a group of tourists wandered round the corner.  SF leaned on my arm, after a long hard day of dining.  Papa Tourist drew himself up to his full height and snorted.  “Disgusting, those young French girls with old men.  Shouldn’t be allowed.”