Pleasant surprises at off-the-radar ports

One of the pleasures of cruising is discovering places that aren’t necessarily on your radar.

In planning a land vacation, people naturally pick destinations and sights they’ve been pining to see. So, too, for cruising. But there are often ports on an itinerary that aren’t at the top of the list.

And sometimes you pick a cruise for the ship, not the destinations. That was the case with a recent cruise on the Anthem of the Seas, the newest ship from Royal Caribbean International.

After an April debut, the ship has been stationed in Europe this summer, doing mostly 14-night itineraries, which is a bit too long for my schedule.

One of the few seven-night itineraries featured several ports I would not have picked solely for the destinations. But the two ports in northern Spain — Gijon and Bilbao — were thoroughly enjoyable.

Gijon has a pleasant downtown. We stopped at a bakery for some early morning pastries, and for coffee at a tavern that had plenty of personality. We rode the bus to Oviedo, a bigger, inland town famed for its siderias, or cider restaurants.

In Bilbao, there’s far more see beyond its world-renowned Guggenheim Museum, including a chic financial district and a charming medieval old town.

Our third stop, Guernsey, a British dependency off the coast of Normandy, offered a scenic shore hike on a well-marked trail through an amazing diversity of foliage.

The final stop was in Le Havre, the French port at the mouth of the Seine River.  Le Havre itself is not very picturesque, having been 80% destroyed in World War II. There were several excursions to Paris, but the prospect of a two-and-a-half-hour bus trip each way discouraged us from that option.

Instead, we took a taxi over the last bridge on the Seine to the town of Honfleur on the south bank of the river. The town is not much more than a harbor, a church and two main streets, but the harbor is quaint and lined with cafes, and the main streets had enough intriguing restaurants and shops to make me want to return.

I had never heard of Honfleur before. Thanks to my cruise I will be looking for an opportunity to go back.

MSC Cruises and Etihad sign feeder flights deal

MSC Cruises has signed a deal with Etihad Airways to supply flights from across Europe to feed its winter sailings in the Arabian Gulf.

The Italian line will use the UAE carrier for fly-cruise packages from the UK as well as Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Holland, Ireland, Italy, Spain and Switzerland.

The company is running a series of 16 seven-night cruises on MSC Musica in the region from December 13 featuring Abu Dhabi, Khor al Fakkan, Muscat, Khasab and Dubai.

MSC Cruises has brought more than 100,000 passengers from 115 nationalities to the Emirate between 2011 and 2015.

Abu Dhabi’s overall cruise season last winter attracted a record 200,407 passengers and 94 ship calls.

MSC Cruises chief executive, Gianni Onorato (pictured), said: “Through our partnership and also together with Abu Dhabi Ports Company and Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority we will work to develop Abu Dhabi as an ideal winter cruise destination to further strengthen our offer in the region.”

Etihad Airways president and chief executive, James Hogan, said: “Abu Dhabi is being developed into a leading international cruise destination, with record passenger numbers and ship calls reported during the recent 2014/15 season.

“Future projections are even stronger, as the new Abu Dhabi Cruise Terminal opens at the end of this year, and world-class cultural attractions such as Abu Dhabi’s Louvre and Guggenheim museums enhance the local tourism offering.

“Our partnership with MSC Cruises, as well as Abu Dhabi Ports Company and Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority, for ‘fly and cruise’ will expand source markets for cruises in the UAE and regionally, bringing in more travellers from destinations across Europe.”