After departing from Southampton at around 5pm on Friday, and sailing through the night, our cruise ship, the Queen Elizabeth, docked at the Belgian port of Zeebrugge early on Saturday morning. Neither Mrs PBT’s or I were in a hurry to get ashore, particularly as our ship wouldn’t be sailing until the early evening.
We’d both enjoyed a good night’s sleep, so much so that I at least had forgotten that my good lady wife had ordered breakfast in bed. She was in the shower, when a knock came at the door and one of the waiting staff arrived with her tray of bacon and eggs.
I say “her,” because I was not partaking of such frivolities, even though room service, if wanted, was included as part of our package. Unlike Mrs PBT’s, I’ve never been a fan of eating in any bedroom, whether in a hotel or onboard ship, so as soon as she’d reappeared I left her to enjoy being pampered, and set off to locate the buffet on one of the Queen Elizabeth’s upper decks.
There was a choice of at least two buffet and dining areas, so I picked the least crowded. After scanning what was on offer, I loaded my plate up with a couple of rather tasty Cumberland sausages, a few rashers of back bacon and a good helping of scrambled eggs, and sat down at a vacant, port-side window seat. I was just wondering what to do about an accompanying hot drink, when the waiter turned up with a most welcome jug of coffee.
From my vantage point, nine decks up from the waterline, I had a good view of the comings and goings on the quayside below. There were various groups of passengers disembarking, in order to board the coaches, waiting to transport them away on a number of pre-booked, shore excursions, but myself, Mrs PBT’s and our two travelling companions had a more leisurely day in mind.
I mentioned in a previous post that the excursions were expensive and, apart from the trip to Ghent, were heading off to places I’d been to before. Our plan was to make a short trip ashore, have a look around, buy some Belgian chocolate and a few Belgian beers, and then come back onboard in time for that most British of institutions - afternoon tea.
As well as the various coaches, I noticed the appearance of red, single-deck buses at regular intervals, and quickly sussed out these were the means of leaving the port. I’d already read that no pedestrian traffic is permitted in the port area, and that passengers wishing to make their own way ashore, were required to use the buses, so after finishing my breakfast, and a second cup of rather strong coffee, I set off back to our cabin to collect my good lady wife.
She in turn had gathered our fellow travellers – her sister and her brother-in-law, who were staying in the adjacent cabin. After donning our coats as protection against the rain, we set off to leave the ship. It’s worth mentioning here that everything onboard the Queen Elizabeth is controlled by means of electronic cards, issued to all passengers, and unique to that particular individual. The cards are pre-charged against the owner’s credit card, and as well as providing proof of identity, can be used for all purchases onboard ship.
With an all-inclusive package, the only things to buy are alcoholic drinks, luxury items (perfume and jewellery), an upgrade to one of the more exclusive restaurants and the service charge added in lieu of tipping individual stewards or waiters. On leaving the ship your card is scanned, and it is scanned again on return. Additional airport-style security checks are also carried out on all returning passengers.
Once on terra-firma we boarded a bus, which transported us the short distance to the cruise terminal. I was expecting a passport check to be carried out, but with our passport information already linked to our card, there was no need. Apart from a souvenir shop, plus a series of desks offering various excursions, there was very little at the cruise terminal. It was also very windy outside, which did not please my wife – something about messing up her hair!
I discovered at the terminal that we could have instead taken a bus to the nearby seaside town of Blankenberge, where there is a lot more in terms of shops, cafés and bars. Unfortunately my companions seemed much less keen on the idea of a couple of hours in Blankenberge than I did, and my suggestion to Mrs PBT’s that I could shoot off there on my own, met with one of those real old-fashioned and very disdainful looks.
Directly opposite the terminal, and overlooking a marina, there was a factory-outlet shop, selling a large variety of keenly priced, Belgian chocolates. We dived in, and my wife and her sister bought more chocolate than they could possibly eat (some of the boxes were gifts, apparently). I resisted the temptation, although I did succumb to a few of the strategically-placed freebies.
On the way into the shop, I’d noticed the tell-tale canopies of a bar, further along the marina, so when Mrs PBT’s went to pay for her purchases, I enquired, all innocently, as to the whereabouts of the nearest café. Just a short distance along the marina said the lady at the till. “Would you recommend it?” I asked. “Certainly,” was the reply.
My suggestion of a short walk and a coffee met with universal approval, and a few minutes later we piled into the American-themed, Café Chevvy's. There were a group of locals sitting at tables close to the door, (typical dour-looking Belgians as my wife later described them), but the proprietress was friendly enough and told us we were welcome to sit wherever we liked.
After ordering either coffee or hot chocolate for the rest of the group and a Westmalle Dubbel for me, we sat there enjoying our drinks and taking in the atmosphere of this typical and rather pleasant Belgian café. There wasn’t a huge variety of beers on the menu, but what was available was quite respectable. I tend to prefer the dark Dubbel-style beers, to the paler, but stronger Trippels, and I have always enjoyed Westmalle’s version
Naturally my Westmalle was served in the correct badged glass, which came as no surprise to Eileen, but quite impressed her sister. Café Chevvy's was a lucky find in an area consisting largely of modern apartments and unused yacht berths. It was also a good place to spend some time with our travelling companions and to enjoy the excellent Trappist ale.
All good things come to an end and having another beer would have been pushing my luck, and to be honest one strong Trappist beer was sufficient at lunchtime. I paid the bill and we made our way back to the cruise terminal. Before boarding the shuttle-bus, I called in at the souvenir shop, which was actually offering a range of reasonably-priced beers.
I came away with a Brugse Zot Dubbel, from De Halve Maan Brewery, plus a selection from Fort Lapin; an artisanal brewery located just outside the centre of Bruges. After that, it was back on the bus and back on the boat, ready for afternoon tea.