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If, like us, your usual travel plans include endeavouring to squeeze a week's worth of holiday clothing into a carry-on bag that meets budget airline strictures - then know that there is another way. When we heard that P&O had built a new ship, Britannia, where food and drink was the main focus, we spotted our chance to do a spot of foodie tourism around Europe without having to worry about excess baggage charges.

Better still, as our trip round the Bay of Biscay was going to be leaving from and returning to Southampton, we could stock up on all manner of food and drink on our way and get it back to London without a hitch.

 

About Britannia

Britannia

Frankly the Britannia is a less of a ship and more of a floating city. It has capacity for more than 3500 passengers, 13 bars, 13 restaurants (not an unlucky number here, you see, even though it doesn't have a 13th floor) and the first cookery school to be built on a British ship. Key to the whole thing are the food heroes who have teamed up with P&O. There's Benares chef Atul Kochhar who has a restaurant, Sindhu on board. TV wine guru Olly Smith is behind the wine list at the tapas and wine bar Glass House. Saturday Kitchen's James Martin is the guiding force in the cookery school and award-winning master patissier ‘Cake Boy’ Eric Lanlard has put together a special afternoon tea on board.

Depending on when you book, you may find a particular chef on board - we were travelling with James Tanner a popular TV chef who's also co-owner of Barbican Kitchen in Plymouth, and The Kentish Hare in Bidborough, Kent. Later on this year there are trips with James Martin himself, Antonio Carluccio and Paul Rankin. Each chef hosts a number of cookery lessons and dinners while on the ship.

Our itinerary:  Our seven day trip left on a Saturday calling in the next day at St Peter Port in Guernsey before setting off for the Spanish ports of A Coruna and Bilbao, then to La Rochelle in France before returning to the UK. For two of the seven days we were at sea.

Day 1 - setting off from Southampton

Day 1 - setting off from Southampton

Having taken full advantage of the fact we could drive down and park practically beside the ship (which would prove VERY useful later on), we embarked Britannia in glorious sunshine. Our deluxe cabin had room for three (twin beds and a sofa bed), champagne on ice - thanks P&O - and, crucially, a large in cabin fridge which we were to fill by the time we were back in Southampton seven days later.

This was a day to try and get a handle on where everything was on board - but it's over 1000 feet long, so we made sure we knew where the nearest bar was and then dived into the pool to cool off.

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Day 2 - St Peter Port, Guernsey

Day 2 - St Peter Port, Guernsey

The next morning we woke up with the ship anchored in the bay at St Peter Port. This meant having to take the ship's tenders (whizzy little boats) into the port. As we'd arrived on a Sunday, Guernsey was essentially closed for business, but we still managed to find a few food shops on the harbour to stock up on some chocs made with local cream and some of the most insanely yellow butter we'd ever seen.

Our port excursion here was a thrilling rib boat ride courtesy of Island RIB voyages. They hurled us round the bay, stopping briefly to admire some seals basking off Sark, before zooming off to do doughnuts. HIGHLY recommended.

Lunch was a pretty good set of tapas at quayside restaurant Mora including decent San Daniele ham croquetas and some punchy calamari with chilli and chorizo.

Our evening meal was back on board and also consisted of a range of small plates in The Glass House. Olly Smith's wine list here is impressively good - there's loads to try and we spent all week popping back to do just that.

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Day 3 - At sea with the Cookery Club and The Epicurean

Day 3 - At sea

An at-sea day means there's more time to chill as you're not dashing around trying to make the most of your precious time in port. This meant trying out a lesson in The Cookery Club with James Tanner. It's one of the best kitted out cookery school kitchens we've ever seen on land let alone at sea.

With all the bothersome preparation work completed for us, we managed to pull together a poached pear salad, learned how to fillet a fish and to cook a perfectly gooey chocolate fondant. And we also got to eat our creations too. It's highly recommended if you're on board, and our only regret was that we didn't book another cookery lesson for the final at-sea day. 

You can see our creations in the gallery below, and it's worth mentioning that the recipes by James Tanner were also excellent - something that we would see again on day 6...

Onto the evening... In a one week cruise there are two black tie evening on board most of P&O boats and Britannia was no exception. We know this is the kind of thing that might put some folk off, but frankly we're absolute suckers for a bit of dressing up.

Our evening meal was in Britannia's fine-dining restaurant The Epicurean which really (sorry) pushed the boat out food-wise. A big emphasis was placed on gueridon service - so, for example, both Iberico ham and smoked salmon was carved tableside. They rest of the menu delivered some high-end food that we'd have been happy with at a Mayfair restaurant too - much better than we were expecting, we have to admit. 

We knew we'd have to try the crepes suzette which was clearly the star dish of the night. We'd already watched the trolley making its way around the room and when it came to our turn we weren't disappointed, either with the drama (we're still surprised the huge flames were allowed on the high seas) or the dish itself. An exceptional day dining at sea, all in all.

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Day 4 - La Coruna

Day 4 - La Coruna

Nope, we'd never heard of La Coruna or A Coruna (official Galician name) either before we went. Here the ship came straight into the port, so all we had to do was walk down the gangway to be in the middle of this rather beautiful city. It's also known as the crystal city on account of the buildings sporting enclosed glass balconies. Situated on a peninsula, there's the port on one side and a lovely beach on the other. And in between are LOADS of tapas joints.

With only a few hours in port, we knew were weren't going to be able to make too much headway here, but thanks to a very useful blog on the city from Reckless Fork we were able to do our best. That blog directed us to some places off the main drag that were extraordinarily cheap (tapas, two glasses of wine and a soft drink too for under a tenner) so it's well worth following the advice. 

However, we left with the feeling that whichever restaurant you wandered into, you would be sure of decent food, something we soon put to practice.

Wandering into restaurants, we enjoyed a large plate of the local delicacy of raxo - cubes of pork marinated in olive oil, garlic and white wine before being fried and served over chips (how can you go wrong with pig and chips?). And there was also some unbelievably good tortilla (the Galicians serve it nice and gloopy in the middle - like you'd find in Barrafina) and jamon - obvs. We saved the best till last - a couple of Tequeños - fried dough with cheese inside, pretty much the perfect bar snack. Now all we need is for someone to bring these over to London.

We left the city piled high with "tittie cheeses" (named after their shape) and bottles of the local Godello.

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Day 5 - Bilbao & Atul Kochhar's Sindhu

Day 5 - Bilbao

We knew that Bilbao would probably be the highlight of our trip, what with the Guggenheim and all, but we were taken aback by how violently we fell in love with this city. And while the gallery itself is an astonishing architectural sight and a place of cultural pilgrimage, the rest of the city is every bit as brilliant as this relative newcomer. It's loosely split into a more modern city arranged on a grid and - across the river - a medieval city. And everywhere you go, the pintxos are marvellous. And insanely cheap.

Our top tips for the city were

  • Sua San - a lovely place for breakfast, right by the Guggenheim, but without the crowds or priciness of the Guggenheim's own cafe.
  • Victor Montes - yes, this is on everyone's list, but there's a reason for it. This legendary restaurant has bags of character and the pintxos we had here were great. Just don't ask us what they were, because we've no idea. We just pointed and ate.

Back on board Britannia, we went for something completely different in the evening as a foil to our Basque travels and tried out Atul Kochhar's Sindhu. This is the Indian restaurant that he has across a number of P&O ships (and he was on board during a previous trip). Top dishes here were Karara Kekda - a crisp fried soft shell crab with tomato, cucumber and passion fruit salsa and a delicious Rajasthani smoked lamb chop as part of a tandoor starter.

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Day 6 - La Rochelle & an evening with James Tanner

Day 6 - La Rochelle

So, everyone in France decamps on holiday for August, and judging by what we found in La Rochelle, 99.9% of the most well-heeled folk had decided to come here. It was a tad busy, but thankfully we had a couple of recommendations to fall back on.

Lunch was at Chez Andre - a restaurant of two quite distinct parts. There's a definitely touristy section overlooking the harbour but the dining room off the other entrance on Rue Saint Jean du Pérot is where the locals (and us) eat, overlooking the huge tanks of lobsters. This is definitely a restaurant for seafood lovers and a massive platter of Île de Ré Fine de Claire oysters, prawns, clams, cockles, langoustine and whelks for under 20 euros was pretty good value for this spot.

A lot of people seem to rate the local ice-cream spot Ernest le Glacier but frankly we've had much better at home here in London.

Back at sea, we had our second visit to the Cookery Club. This time it was for an evening dinner hosted by our former tutor, James Tanner. This proved to be conclusively the best dinner of the trip, so if you're on board and a chef is holding court in the club, it's worth putting your name down for a booking. The food was excellent - with a sea bass ceviche and a brioche crusted lamb rack being stars of the show - along with a dessert version of "boiled egg and soldiers". A great night that made us want to check out what he's doing in his own restaurants. 

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 Day 7 - At Sea and Eric Lanlard Afternoon Tea

 Day 7 - At Sea and Eric Landlard Afternoon Tea

For the last day, the weather unfortunately turned overcast, so it was a day to catch up on reading (no bad thing in itself). But there was still time for one more clulinary opportunity on board. This time it was back to the Epicurean for an afternoon tea created by Eric Lanlard. There were some real standouts on display - particularly the crumpets - but we couldn't help but think it would have benfited from a lot more mini sandwiches before we got to the desserts. We did like the trifle with a little pipette for the sauce, mind. 

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Overall thoughts

We know cruises aren't for everyone, but if you fancy touring Europe and aren't mad on driving and would rather someone else did all the legwork, then there is a lot to be said for this type of holiday. We loved filling our cabin fridge with the kind of meats and cheeses that wouldn't normally survive a plane ride home, not to mention all the other food we brought back with us - and there was a lot -  just because we could.

Foodies should love the fact that on sea days they can take a class and improve their own cookery skills, and if you don't fancy that then there's always the opportunity to go old-school and work your way through the classic cocktail lists on board. Pina colada anyone?

 

More information

A seven night cruise on Britannia to France, Spain and Guernsey in 2016 costs from £479 per person which includes all food on board (speciality restaurants like Sindhu are extra - usually around £20 a head). Find out more.

Hot Dinners were invited on the Bay of Biscay cruise on Britannia by P & O. 

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