Wednesday, August 31st:
Our second day, the first full day and our one sea day.
Up and groggy at 7:00 AM. Thankfully the cabin steward called before arriving with our breakfast so we at least had covered up. The coffee is excellent and they serve Tiptree jam. Life doesn’t get much better.
We have a balcony on deck 7 overlooking the bow. This is pretty cool. We asked the ship to send someone to show us how to open the sliding glass door. We were still in our bathrobes.
We headed up to breakfast in the Windows Cafe on Deck 9. This is the buffet restaurant. No, we did not have a second breakfast! Cappuccino was enough.
At 10:00 we went to the shore excursions presentation in the Cabaret room on deck 5 forward. There weren’t too many people present, but we wanted to learn as much about the ports as possible. The presentation focused on a few of the tours available.
We stretched out on lounge chairs on deck 5 after the presentation. It was sunny but chilly because of the constant breeze as the ship moves through the water. We met a nice couple and chatted until about 11:30 when we headed into the main dining room.
During our sea day, the ship is serving a buffet brunch in the Discoveries Restaurant. The selection was excellent. Among the many stations they served salmon Benedict, waffles, large shrimp, freshly cooked pasta, sushi and many desserts. We went up several times, taking small amounts. Following the rule: “No wine before noon as long as there is land under you,” we had glasses of Rose wine with lunch because we are at sea.
Lunch was followed at 1:00 PM by the port lecture on Bordeaux in the Cabaret Room. Now the room was packed! It looked like every passenger turned up! It was a talk about the history of the city and practical ideas on what to explore in the city.
This led into the 2:00 PM wine and food pairing in the Living Room on deck 10. This was a small event, with an audience of about ten passengers. We tasted four wines and learned how different varietals taste different after tasting different foods.
We saw our friends from Tuesday night’s dinner across the living room, so we joined them after the tasting. This led into afternoon cocktails. At last, we saw how this works in practice. You say: “I would like a martini and a gin and tonic.” Your server brings it over. There is no charge.
We enjoyed the sun from the wall of windows facing the bow, and discovered we were in position for the first of the afternoon trivia games. This allowed me to discover I don’t know as much as I think I do. We rode the trivia wave into the second game that followed.
We had hoped to attend the 3:00 PM port talk on Galicia, on the Spanish Atlantic Coast, but missed it because we were absorbed in trivia. Between the sun, the game, the cocktails and the company, it was enticing.
By late afternoon we were back in our cabin. It was nap time. We have remarked on cruises we behave like our cat. We eat. We sleep. We sit in the sun. If we are staying up at night, we need that afternoon nap.
We headed to the main dining room to meet our new friends, the nice couple from Northern Ireland at 8:00 PM. The dining room hostess gave us a beeper that emits a low buzz when your table is ready. We ordered a round of drinks while we waited.
We were given a four person table in the center of the dining room. Dinner was excellent. We had been gifted a bottle of Lanson champagne, which we shared with our fellow diners. We turned it over to our wine steward for served it throughout the meal.
Dinner was just as good as the first evening. Each course is artfully displayed. The portions are on the smaller side, yet quite ample. I assume you could order seconds if you chose. A key factor is pacing myself. There are so many dining options throughout the day.
Tonight we actually did close the dining room. The central location of our table let us know when the last other remaining table finally dispersed.
We walked through The Den, which is the centrally located bar and headed towards the elevator. Each couple headed in separate directions and we turned in.
On Thursday, we dock in Bordeaux, our first port. We cannot wait.
Thursday, September 1st:
Today we arrived in Bordeaux. I thought the highlight would be the vineyard visit, but it was overtaken by the White Party.
We docked at 11:45 AM on Thursday morning. You might assume a cruise ship should get in as early as possible to maximize time ashore, but tides are a factor and Bordeaux is unique because it has a lift bridge that is only raised at scheduled times to minimize road traffic disruption.
We walked off, found an ATM to get cash, then found the tourism office to ask questions about how we would get to Chateau Lynch Bages in Paulliac.
Visiting Chateau Lunch Bages in Paulliac
This is important to include because wine fans (like myself) might want to visit a famous chateau of their choice. Most have tours and visitor centers including the really famous ones. Years ago, you wrote a letter months in advance. Today, the chateaus have a “visit us” link on their website. Booking far I. Advance is still necessary as the tours tend to be very small. Azamara had one such shore excursions to Chateau Beychevelle and Chateau Kirwan, but it was booked up. The tour size was only 15 people.
We took a taxi for the hour ride to Paulliac. This ran about $110. The town is tiny, but it does have a train station. Unfortunately, the train schedule did not align with the scheduled time for our visit. We arrived almost two hours early.. the chateau itself in in another small town, Bages. Over the years the chateau bought and renovated it. One cafe, one butcher, one bike shop, etc.
Our tour started at 4:00. Eight people plus an English speaking guide. 8.5 if you count the dog the German couple brought. The dog stayed in the lobby with a bowl of water supplied by the staff.
The winery is brand new. It was designed by two world famous architects. It used the latest technology and is spotlessly clean. It is something out of a James Bond movie. You cannot imagine the amount of money it must have cost. The chateau employs 50 full time staff and brings in 2,000 extra workers at harvest time.
The tour ended with a tasting of two of their wines. The dog attended too, but did not get to imbibe.
The chateau called a taxi for us. An hour (and $130) later we were back at the ship in Bordeaux.
The White Party
The White Party is the highlight of the trip so far. This requires some background on my part.
Many years ago, a few French guys started a phenomenon called Diner en Blanc. It mushroomed in size and spread around the world to major capital cities. Invited attendees bring their own picnic food plus white linens, tables and chairs. The location is secret until the last moment. It’s like a flash mob. The New York City event draws a few thousand attendees. There is an urban legend the waiting list exceeds 10,000 names.
Azamara hosts a White Party aboard each cruise. Everyone is asked to dress in white. (It’s not a requirement:). The party sets up around the pool in the center of the ship. Lots of tables and chairs. The buffet food is served at the aft end. There is great music, primarily from the 70’s and 80’s. There was a live band and many talented professional singers who got the crowd going.. There are what we would call go go dancers at each hot tub. A conga line formed, snaking through the crowd singing the tequila song. If you remember the songs “I will survive,” “I am woman,” and “YMCA,” this is your night. The dance floor was packed for YMCA.
The energy level was high. The food was abundant and excellent. The wine and drinks flowed like water thanks to an army of servers.
It started about 6:30. At 9:30 it decamped to the Living Room lounge where it was set to continue through the night.
I cannot imagine a better party.
Friday, September 2nd:
It was our second day in Bordeaux. The White Party had been moved to Thursday because rain was expected on Friday. If the two of us had forgotten what rain looked like, we were reminded on Friday.
We had rolls, juice and coffee in the cabin, then headed up to the Windows Cafe for cappuccinos. So far, so good. We watched a couple of tour busses line up on the pier. We heard the tour to St. Emilion left at 8:00 AM. We wondered if those passengers made the bus because the White Patty kept going and going.
Friday was a day we had planned independently. This comes with its share of pros and cons. Our experience is useful to know if you are independent travelers like us.
Lunch in Bordeaux
We did plenty of research beforehand. Le Chapon Fin was recommended as a great place for an elegant lunch. The ship is docked in a secure area. You walk about a city block in each direction to reach a gate. There is a guard to check your ship ID card upon your return.
The plan was to take a taxi to the restaurant. This is easier said than done in Bordeaux. Taxis operate from Taxi Stands. These are not easy to find. I suspect they can be booked online, but we don’t have cellphone service overseas. We walk four blocks left and three blocks right to find a taxi stand.
Taxi stands appear to be places where taxis go to sleep. Put another way, there are often taxis, but no drivers. We found one. He wouldn’t take us to the restaurant because it was basically across the street. He gestured in a general direction.
I visited the tourist office. They showed me on a map it was about five blocks away. OK, we can do that.
Then the skies opened. It has been a hot dry summer in Europe. Today, they got more rain than I think we had back home all summer. We were wearing windbreakers, but we were soaked! We walked. No restaurant. We stopped in a shop for directions. We walked another couple of blocks and finally found it. The rain had abated, but we were soaked to the skin, with our hair plastered to our heads! No photos were taken for obvious reasons. FYI: our two course lunch was 34€ each and two glasses of paired wine ran an additional 19€. For great decor, spectacular food, plus extra small courses at the beginning and end, it was worth it!
The chateau visit
We had privately arranged a visit to La Mission Haut Brion, a famous vineyard in Pessac, within the Graves region. It’s part of the city of Bordeaux. It was sunny when we left the restaurant, but then the rains returned. We found a kindly shopkeeper who called us a taxi. The fare ran about 40€ but we reached our appointment on time.
It was an excellent tour including a tasting of the two famous wines at the conclusion. They have a shop, so we left laden with bottles. The staff called a taxi to get us back to the ship.
Our evening onboard
We met up with the nice Northern Irish couple for dinner in Aqualina, the ship’s specialty restaurant featuring Italian cuisine and seafood.
Before we met up, we had drinks in the Living Room beforehand. It features tapas as a munchie. We sat at the bar and I learned something interesting, a credit to Azamara.
I assumed the liquor used for drinks included in your fare were made with generic house brand liquors. I asked about the gin they used. It’s either Beefeaters or Gordon’s Gin. Wow! That qualifies as a nice Christmas present back home! Azamara is not cutting corners!
We decided to move closer to the specialty restaurant. I suggested drinks in the Drawing Room, the ship’s library. That’s when I discovered there is actually a venue without a bar! I picked us up drinks from Prime C, the specialty steakhouse next door.
Dinner was great! It was leisurely. The meal consists of four courses: appetizer, soup/salad, entree and dessert. The selections were great. Lobster ravioli had chunks of lobster on top. My beef tenderloin was great. We had chocolate soufflé for dessert.
Our friends bought a bottle of wine in Bordeaux. We enjoyed it with dinner. The corkage charge is $10, one of the few times you need to reach into your “pocket” during the voyage, so far.
We closed the restaurant. It’s becoming a pattern.
We are having a great time.
See previous posts:
Cover photo:La Mission Haut Brion Barrel Room
Our Itinerary-Azamara Quest, Southampton, England to Lisbon, Portugal
- Southampton, England. We fly into London a day or so early. Hopefully there will be no flight cancellations or rail strikes. We take the Underground into London.
- Marriott Kensington Hotel. It’s located about two blocks from the Gloucester Road Underground station on the Piccadilly Line, which runs from the airport. It’s a good hotel that is reasonably priced. They have a Concierge Lounge, a Marriott Bonvoy perk.
- Pont de La Tour. We plan to have dinner with friends at our favorite restaurant. It overlooks Tower Bridge, as the name implies. They have a good price fixed menu in addition to a la carte offerings.
- National Express. We will take the bus from Victoria Coach Station to Southampton on Monday morning. The fare is about $7.50.
- Bordeaux, France. We have an overnight in Bordeaux so everything doesn’t need to fit into one day. Bordeaux is a city famous for the wine of the same name. The most famous chateaus in the region are just outside the city. I am a wine snob. There are 8,500+ wine producing chateaus in Bordeaux. In my opinion, only 87 matter, the chateaus in the original classification of 1855.
- Visit chateaus. The ship has a 5 hour tour, Medoc Discovery. You visit Chateau Beychevelle and Chateau Kirwan. Yes, they are on the 1855 list! Cost is about $180pp. It will be worth every penny. At this moment it is sold out, but we will join the waiting list upon boarding the ship. We are contacting the major chateaus directly as out backup plan.
- Cite du Vin Wine Museum. It’s relatively new and supposed to be spectacular. Tickets are 21 Euro each. That’s good for a couple of hours.
- Lunch at a sidewalk café or fine restaurant. Friends in the wine trade recommend Les Noialles or Chapon Fin. We can book reservations online.
- Food to discover. Bordeaux is famous for Bordeaux wines. The cheeses are probably numerous too.
- Jean de Luz, France. We are near or close to Basque Country, but we are also close to Biarritz, the legendary resort town made famous by Empress Eugenie, the wife of Napoleon III. Queen Victoria liked the place too. It’s the sort of place the super wealthy of the 1800’s visited and Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes would visit while solving a case. The ship has a 3+ hour tour, priced at $99 but we might explore on our own if we can get there easily. St Jean de Luz seems pretty small. The population is about 14,000. There seems to be one main street running from one side of town to the other. (I am sure there are other streets.) I think I read there is a frisbee throwing contest, but not when we are there.
- Michelin highlights seven restaurants in the town. None get stars, but all are recommended. Usually they have lunch menus that are three courses and price fixed. I am sure we will find something.
- St. Jean de Luz might be small, but there is a hypermarket nearby. Carrefour usually has a great wine selection.
- Market Day. Fortunately we will be in port on market day. Visiting an outdoor market in France is always a treat.
- Apparently, the train from St. Jean de Luz to Biarritz takes ten minutes. Exploring this resort is an option.
- Food to discover. Basque cheese is local to the area. The French wine region Irouleguy is nearby.
- Bilbao, Spain. I am confident Bilbao has lots going for it, but the Guggenheim Museum is the star attraction for us. Tickets are 16 Euro for adults, 8 Euro for seniors. Age has its privileges. I am assuming finding a good place for tapas should not be difficult.
- Guggenheim Museum – If we have come this far, we must check it out.
- Trams – Bilbao is said to have the best mass transit system in Spain. I am assuming we can ride trams and get a good view of the city.
- Hop on, hop off bus. Apparently Bilbao has several competing companies.
- El Corte Ingles – Spain’s major department store chain has a location on Grand Via. (Where else would you put it?) In addition to a food hall and great wine department, the chain usually has a self-service restaurant and, depending on the location, a linen tablecloth restaurant. Rioja wines always taste better there!
- Food to discover. The Rioja wine region is nearby. It’s probably the wine of choice in Bilbao. We are still in the Basque region, on the Spanish side of the border. We will look for Basque sheep’s milk cheese.
- Gijon, Spain. Here is a city we do not know much about. It is the 15thlargest city in Spain. Maritime industries and the navy are a major part of the city’s heritage. Cimadevilla, the old fisherman’s quarter, is the oldest section of town. I assume we will head there, walk and explore.
- Gijon has seven restaurants recognized by Michelin. Auga is the one meriting a Michelin star. They seem to have a six course tasting menu priced at about 60 Euro.
- Roman settlement. The oldest part of town also has a Roman settlement, possibly the oldest in Spain. We can check that out.
- Yes, they have a branch of El Corte Ingles. Think of it as Spain’s version of Macy’s.
- Yacht club. It’s also located in the fisherman’s quarter. I wonder if they will let us in.
- Food to discover. Can it be true there are 50 cheeses in the area? Penamellera is one example. We love wine, but cider is popular in this area.
- La Coruna, Spain. This is where you find the Church, Santiago de Compostela, the destination for the pilgrims who do the walk of St. James, the Camino de Santiago. The total journey is 500 miles. Seeing the Church will be great. We will likely find another spot for tapas.
- Santiago de Compostela. There are many reasons to visit this Church. One is the giant censer, a five foot long, 180 pound incense burner swung from ropes and pulleys. It’s the largest in the world.
- Yes, our favorite Spanish retail chain has a location near the Church. It’s our backup plan for lunch.
- Michelin recognizes 16 restaurants in La Coruna. One merits a star, Arbore da Viera. It looks like the most reasonable of their tasting menus is 60 Euro.
- Food to discover. Local chesses include Arzua-Ulloa and Queso Telita. Wine should be from the Galacia region.
- Porto, Portugal. We are wine fans. We are port collectors. We will want to visit one of the historic port lodges, like Grahams. You can buy tourist passes to include the train, boat and a visit to a port lodge. Lunch will fit in there somewhere. Porto has some Michelin starred restaurants.
- Port lodge. We are wine collectors. We know a bit about port. Ideally, we want to get into the best port lodge possible and take the tour with the best tasting. We realize this will come at a cost.
- Enjoying the tourist pass. If we can tour by rising a bus and a boat, we will give it a try.
- Hop on, hop off bus. The yellow bus costs 18 Euro. That’s another touring option.
- Food to discover. Terrincho and Transmontano goat cheese are two to discover. Although the city is famous for port, the region producing Vinho Verde is nearby.
- Lisbon, Portugal. Lisbon we have visited several times previously. Our #1 activity will be taking the train to Cascais, a beach town a short ride outside the city. The last time we visited, the train reminded us of vintage NYC subway cars. On that trip, we exited the train, walked into town and asked two police officers where we could find an outdoor restaurant serving platters of cold seafood. They laughed, told us which way to walk and said we would see several! We did and had a splendid afternoon we still talk about today. It was the first and only time we have tried barnacles!