A Small Ship Cruise aboard the National Geographic Orion

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It was freezing cold when I got up at 5am, but I clutched a coffee to keep my hands warm – and there was no way I was missing out on sailing up the Thames and having the historic London Bridge open just for me! It was so chilly, there was only a handful of us huddled together in the dark on the deck of the National Geographic Orion. I have never seen London so quiet, it was almost eerie gliding down the river in the blackness. The 19th century bridge loomed closer, then stretched up high to let us through – it felt very special.

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The small ship difference

Recently I was lucky enough to enjoy my first trip on a small ship, Orion. It’s a fully-stabilised ice-class vessel which is as comfortable gliding the Thames as it is navigating polar ice, or exploring small harbours in the South Pacific. I’ve spent a bit of time on large cruise ships, but this was different. A small ship cruise isn’t a floating resort with endless queues for buffet meals, it’s a trip for real travellers with fascinating commentary, and plenty of time to explore along the way. You can’t beat a small ship, the itineraries are brilliant, and the food and service is much more personalised!

From the minute I stepped on board at the La Bourse city-centre pier in Bordeaux, France, the 53-cabin ship, and its staff were amazing. The ship was easy to find your way around, and my cabin was lovely – very spacious with a nice bathroom.

A gorgeous picture window let lots of natural light flow in. One of the highlights was the food! There was a buffet breakfast and lunch, with everything you could possibly want – then a la carte for dinner, with lots of lovely local wine. Because it was a small ship, the waiters soon knew everyone’s name and preferences.

A nice touch was the screeds of National Geographic photos on the walls – many of them far-flung destinations the Orion had travelled in years gone by. A huge draw card for me was the knowledge of the staff on-board – not only did they know almost everything about each port and destination we visited, but there were interesting lectures at night about everything from French chocolate, history and music. We also had a National Geographic photographer on board, he was amazing! He was very down-to-earth and gave us useful tips for taking photos so we could get the most out of our holiday snaps.

From Bordeaux to London with plenty of stops in between
My six-day trip went from Bordeaux in France to London, along the French Atlantic Coast. Along the way, different excursions could be picked off the ship, with lots of spare time to explore on your own, or with the group. Unlike big cruise ships, you were not part of a crowd when you disembarked, but were allowed to wander freely – so got a real feel for the locals and the lives they lived.

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We stopped at Ile d’Aix, Napoleon’s last stop of French soil before his final exile, explored the ports and rugged cliffs of Belle-ile-en-Mer, and had a guided walk around medieval Locronan, in Brittany, with enough time to wander the quaint craft shops and taste the local favourite, Breton butter cake. One morning we woke up in Saint-Malo, and took a walking tour of the fortified port city surrounded by ramparts dating back to the 12th century and visited the iconic abbey fortress, Mont-Saint-Michel, a UNESCO World Heritage site poised dramatically on a rocky tidal island a few hundred yards off the coast.
The next day we visited the Normandy beaches with a local historian. The D-Day landings in June 6, 1944, were the first wave of the largest seaborne invasion in history – more than 6000 ships landed on those beaches. We walked in the footsteps of the Allied troops at Omaha Beach and paid our respects at the nearby American cemetery.

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The entire week for me was amazing. I loved the intimacy and comfort of being part of a small ship tour – with its bespoke itinerary, expertise of local knowledge – and enough free time to explore freely and just soak up the sense of adventure. I would definitely do another small ship cruise, in fact I’m already planning one to the Arctic!