River and ocean cruising is an increasingly popular option for groups and, in this issue, Val Baynton talks to three GTOs whose groups enjoy cruising, to learn more about their experiences.
Winnie Benford helped establish the Fetcham U3A in Surrey in 2002 because the two existing local U3As were full. She was on the organising committee from the outset, and drew on her experience working for large companies to become the travel and social events organiser. Her roles in the past had included working in a chemicals division of ICI where, amongst other things, she organised international tennis tournaments! She confesses to being a ‘born organiser who loves seeing people enjoy themselves’, but she also finds the role a positive influence in her own life, and one that keeps her mind and soul active. It all helps her to cope with the varying needs of her husband, who suffered two strokes nearly eight years ago, which severely reduced his mobility.
When Winnie Benford was one of the founder members of the Fetcham branch of the University of the Third Age (U3A) nearly 13 years ago, she began an enjoyable and varied time with like-minded, energetic retirees, and from the start she was involved in organising travel and days out for the group, drawing on her experience in similar tasks during her professional working life.
River cruising quickly became one of the most popular activities for her members and, most years since 2004, the group has taken a trip along one of Europe’s waterways. Cruises are usually for between seven and ten days, and normally around 40 people join each trip. Single rooms are always requested on the vessels and operators such as The River Cruise Line are expert at getting a good allocation. If there are not enough singles, Winnie does confess that she is quite persuasive in encouraging people to share!
One of the reasons that cruises are so popular is because they offer a complete package for her members. The cost is known at the outset and the price includes transport to the ship – whether by coach or coach and flight – all meals and standard drinks on-board, and excursions. ‘My members like to know what the costs will be before they travel, and river cruises allows them to budget very well,” says Winnie. “In fact, there’s hardly any need to spend any money whilst away!’ Cruises are normally planned a year to 18 months ahead, so the cruise can fit in around the rest of a full and varied programme for the group, and there’s time for individuals to save up.
Memorable cruising highlights have included a recent ‘Rhine in Flames’ cruise on mps Lady Anne, sailing with The River Cruise Line. This cruise is timed to coincide with the annual fireworks display in the Rhine Valley when local vintners celebrate the harvest of the Riesling grape. ‘The location with fire, water and light interacting is a great backdrop for the sound of the fireworks as they reverberate around the valley,’ says Winnie. The group has also experienced the Danube sailing from Passau to Budapest on MS Serenity, again with The River Cruise Line, in 2014. In 2012, they chose CroisiEurope’s Paris to Honfleur cruise on the MS Botticelli along the River Seine. The group normally takes the standard excursions offered on each cruise, as these include the highlights of the towns or regions they pass through, and are well organised and led by experienced guides.
From the cruise on the Danube, they took excursions to the Benedictine Abbey in Melk and the days in Vienna, Budapest (pictured below) and Bratsilava. All were typical of the high quality offered by The River Cruise Line, Winnie says. However, if one of her members wanted to visit somewhere in particular, then Winnie would be happy to try to include that too as part of the cruise itinerary.
Winnie is very impressed with The River Cruise Line. “The company knows what my members enjoy so working with them is very straightforward and there are very competitively priced options,” she says.
For this year’s cruise, Winnie was delighted to find something slightly different for her group, as she felt they had almost ticked off all the European rivers! “This year, in July, we sailed from Berlin to the Baltic Sea, Poland and Copenhagen with CroisiEurope on MS Victor Hugo,” she says. ‘This provided a very interesting itinerary and a tiny bit of ocean, albeit, coastal, cruising.’ She further explains how her members enjoyed learning and seeing the varied history and landscape of the region. The visit to Peenemünde on the island of Usedom in the Baltic Sea was fascinating, she recalls. ‘We visited the factory where German flying bombs were made, with a replica V-1 rocket in the compound, and saw the flats that were built for the servicemen to holiday in, but were never used.’
‘The cruise brought to life aspects of the past that were familiar to much of my group,’ reflects Winnie. ‘But it was a chance to see places at first hand.’ She notes that there were several differences to on-board life compared to a standard river cruise because of the sea cruising element. ‘When the ship was sailing the Baltic sea, passengers had training to wear life jackets and when the ship was moored, security onboard was paramount and was carried out to a high professional standard to ensure everyone’s safety at all times,’ she recalls. ‘It was a brilliant trip, the CroisiEurope crew were very good and the wine and food was excellent.’ Spurred on by the success of being at sea, she is now thinking of an ocean cruise for her group’s next cruise holiday in 2016.
Generally the group boards a coach locally and travels via Eurotunnel to start their river cruises or, in some cases, flies to the departure point for the cruise, being collected by coach again and returned home at the end of the break. As a GTO, Winnie is very aware of the responsibility of taking a group away and ensuring that everyone is safe and enjoys the break. She says, ‘A cruise is a good option as there is a lot of support and backup before the trip and during it as well, which I personally find very reassuring.’
Mary Ginger is based in the Vale of Taunton in Somerset and started to organise trips for her friends and family some 25 years ago. Their first trip was to the 1990 Garden Festival in Gateshead, and came about by chance when her friends learnt she was planning to visit herself and asked if they could come along! Before she knew it, 28 people had signed up and the few days away were so successful that on the return journey home she was asked not only to do it again but, following a short visit to Durham Cathedral, requested that she organise a return to Durham to explore the area more fully. Mary is now retired but for the first few years of her organising worked full time in a busy fine art sale room in Taunton, where her role liaising with customers gave her the administrative experience to cope with putting together the trips. She is also Visits and Tour Secretary for the local West Somerset NADFAS (National Association of Decorative and Fine Art Society) and Visits Secretary for NADFAS South West, which covers the area from North Somerset to Cornwall.
Mary Ginger’s travel group, made up of an informal network of neighbours, friends and family in her home area of Somerset, has been going on day trips and short breaks for 25 years since her first trip to the Gateshead Garden Festival in 1990 (see panel). She and her late husband, Brian, came up with the name Dragonfly Tours after seeing a handful of the insects settle on a garden table in their then new home. Dragonflies had been one of Mary’s favourite visitors to the garden pond in their previous home, so she was pleased to see they also frequented their new garden! The name seemed apt for a group loving to travel and it suitably reflected the friendly and open make-up of the group. Over the years, Mary has organised a wide selection of trips, from day visits to gardens and stately homes to longer breaks to Europe and Canada.
Often Mary’s trips are in response to a suggestion from her members, and this was the case with their first ocean cruise in 2011. Mary had been on a cruise herself with a relative the year before and when she got back her group said ‘Why didn’t you take us?’ Mary selected a Fred.Olsen cruise for her group for two reasons – they’d been with the cruise operator for her previous cruise, and she was delighted by the ship and the service they offered. She also cherished a particular memory from her childhood. ‘As a small child, my grandmother used to take me to watch the ferries going in and out of the mouth of the Tyne,’ she recalls. ‘And they always seemed to be Fred.Olsen. I told her that one day I would go to Norway on a ship just like that!’
Now the group has been on three cruises – firstly visiting Spain and Portugal, which was followed by a cruise to the Mediterranean in 2013 and then to Norway in July of this year. All have been with Fred.Olsen, sailing on Balmoral and departing from Southampton. ‘The ship itself is very comfortable,’ Mary says. ‘And the crew are extremely friendly and look after us exceptionally well. They seem to remember so much about us! The welcome we receive is wonderful and everyone feels at home and happy.’
What impressed Mary from the outset about Fred.Olsen was the service she received from the moment she made her first tentative enquiry about a cruise back in 2011. ‘Ellie Fulcher and the groups team looked after the booking and me every step of the way’, she explains. ‘And this was very supportive. The exceptional service continued onboard, and no fault could be found, so I was happy to book our subsequent cruises with them.’ Above all, she notes that it is the attention to detail that makes the cruise line stand out. ‘When we arrived in our cabins this year, not only was there the hand written ‘Bon Voyage’ card from the groups team but also a brass bookmark in the shape of a dragonfly!’ Mary was particularly delighted when an anniversary cake to celebrate the 25th birthday of Dragonfly Tours was presented to the group during afternoon tea whilst they sailed the fjords.
Mary and her group have happy memories of the whole eight-night Norway cruise. The first port of call was Stavanger, which Mary says was delightful, combining the old with the new. ‘Many of the group went on the organised tours but I found that the local tourist bus going around the port was very good.’ The highlight of the cruise was that all four Fred. Olsen ships were in Bergen at the same time – the first time this has happened in 200 years. Mary recalls, ‘We were due to dock at 5am but my friend and I were up looking out by 4.30am and we invited others to join us on our balcony for a ‘coffee party’ and watched as we all sailed into port. There was a carnival atmosphere on the quayside with bands, pipers and dancers, and the party feeling went on all day with tug of war and basketball between the ships’ crews. The ships were bedecked with flags and bunting too.’
There were many tours organised by the groups’ team that passengers could book whilst in the beautiful and interesting port of Bergen. However, Mary says, ‘Many of us enjoyed wandering around the town taking the funicular car to the top of Mount Floyen. It was a lovely sunny day and the view of the four ships in port was a sight to see.’
So far, all the Dragonfly Tours cruises have departed from, and returned to, the UK and Mary organises coach travel to Southampton using Ridlers Coaches from Dulverton in Somerset. ‘Ridlers drivers are always unflustered in stowing the enormous amount of luggage we seem to take with us!’ she says. Mary uses Ridlers for all her other tours too. For overnight breaks, she always asks for the same driver. ‘They always give 110%!’ she says.
Mary now plans a cruise for her group every other year, to give members time to save. For 2017, she is considering going further afield and booking a fly-cruise – perhaps to the Caribbean or the Baltic region. She finds that although cruising is a relatively expensive break, she is able to persuade people to come along by pointing out the benefits of the all-inclusive price, which covers all meals, teas and coffees as well as the excellent nightly entertainment. ‘There is also a package that covers daily alcoholic drinks,’ Mary adds. ‘And we took that this year. So there was really nothing extra to pay for!’
Rob Waters has been Travel Manager, Coach Trips, organising outings for the Addlestone Community Association in Surrey since 1973. He worked for British Rail for 37 years, retiring in 1997. Rob is married to Lyn and they have two children and four grandchildren. Aside from organising trips, Rob is an enthusiast about canals and enjoys travelling around Britain on his own canal boat.
Rob Waters must be one of the longest serving GTOs we’ve been in touch with. This year he celebrates 42 years of organising trips and short breaks for the Surrey-based Addlestone Community Association, which has some 900 members! GTO first interviewed Rob in 1994 (GTO 52, May – see below) and this time we asked him more about what made him return to group cruising after nearly 20 years. An established feature of Rob’s annual itineraries has long been trips on heritage railways and canals, but in 1997 he decided to be a little more adventurous and he booked the first river cruise for the association. The cruise was booked with KD River Cruise Lines (now part of Viking River Cruises), sailing on the MS Intalia along the Rivers Rhine and Moselle from Frankfurt. It was judged an outright success by him and his members, but this year is the first time they have booked another cruise because, during the intervening years, Rob struggled to find an operator that offered both service and value until he came across CroisiEurope. He has been extremely impressed by the company since, and he and his members are keen to book another cruise soon. He explains why. ‘CroisiEurope boats are spotless, the food is delicious, the cabins are comfortable and well maintained, and all the staff – from the Captain to the kitchen prep team – are, without exception, brilliant,’ he enthuses. ‘The attention to detail is unparalleled and overall the standard of service is what every hotel should provide, but many don’t!’ As an example, he points to the on-board chef and his team’s ability to provide delicious food choices for passengers with dietary restrictions, ‘I filled in a form when booking the trip, outlining any special needs, so that when we arrived onboard, the restaurant staff were already well informed.’ If the suggested menu was not to the person’s taste, then something else was offered, Rob says.
Fifty two members were on the six-night cruise sailing down the Seine from Paris to Honfleur, passing though the pretty section of Les Andelys on MS France. ‘We were actually late to embark because of issues at the Channel Tunnel,’ Rob recalls. ‘But the purser delayed the welcome reception so we all had time to get changed.’ As usual, the group travelled with Trumans Coaches, based in Ash Vale in Surrey. ‘Trumans look after us very well and the drivers know what we like to do, so we’ve used them for the last four years,’ Rob says.
Rob organised his own land-based excursions and he arranged for the coach to shadow the cruise ship so it was always on hand to pick the group up. During the Seine cruise, there were trips to Monet’s Garden in Giverny (pictured bottom left) and a sightseeing tour when moored in the cathedral city of Rouen, as well as a coastal tour along the picturesque stretch of the river known as the Côte Fleurie from Honfleur to Cabourg, with a visit to a distillery making Calvados. At the end of the cruise, they journeyed back to Addlestone, calling at Le Touquet for lunch on the way. His community group represented about a third of the total passengers on the ship, and there were also groups from Norway and Denmark as well as some individuals. The cruise was ‘first rate in every regard,’ Rob says.
River cruising is popular with Rob’s group for several reasons. ‘It offers excellent value for money, once on board there’s no need to keep re-packing, the scenery is ever changing and it’s a wonderful way to see the countryside,’ he explains. Rob adds, ‘My members like to know the costs involved up front, and the all-inclusive package offered by CroisiEurope makes it easy to budget.’
Cruising top tips
• Work with a group cruising specialist operator to get full support in planning and organising your cruise
• Plan a year or two in advance to give your group time to save
• Sailings from UK ports can suit more members, especially those who are less mobile
• All inclusive packages mean there’s very little extra to pay for whilst on a cruise, making budgeting easier for everyone
• Selecting the same operator and ship for cruising allows members to feel at home
• Take advantage of familiarisation visits to ships or short two-night cruises to assess whether a cruise would suit your group