My golden rule of travel is to avoid shopping. Put me on Paris’s Champs-Élysées or Milan’s Via Monte Napoleone and I will likely head straight for the nearest museum, cathedral or bar. So how did I find myself on a Yuletide shopping cruise?
It is the job of the intrepid reporter to venture outside their comfort zone, so I decided to challenge myself on a five-night Christmas markets voyage with Saga from Southampton to Germany, Holland and Belgium. How would a cruiser cope if his or her companion fancied the idea of crossing the North Sea in December in search of festive gifts?
Several cruise lines make the journey across to Northern Europe for sightseeing and Christmas shopping. Some are already reporting limited space for certain sailings this year. Cruises on Europe’s rivers, and in particular those that sail during the Christmas and New Year periods, are in demand.
My first impression of our ship, Saga Pearl II, was that it wasn’t very Christmassy at all. That was soon rectified. As I tucked into a full English the next morning, the crew decked public areas with holly and dressed Christmas trees with baubles and shiny boxes.
Saga Pearl II
Our first stop after a smooth sailing was Bremerhaven, where the key excursion is to Bremen, an hour inland by coach. I was not the only guest who would have preferred a longer visit here rather than a choice of either morning or afternoon, because it’s a charming showcase of Hanseatic architecture squeezed between river and canal.
The Christmas market fills the main square and seeps down to the quayside. On a mild but dull day, the Renaissance town hall and twin-towered cathedral formed a festive backdrop for the market’s softly lit wooden stalls.
In the cause of research I browsed the carved candles, glass lanterns, chocolate treats, marzipan and reasonably tasteful Christmas decorations. In the spirit of goodwill – and inhaling the aromas of glühwein and sizzling pork – I even bought a wooden doll for a friend. Alongside the cathedral I found a second market with two carousels turning beside stalls piled high with seasonal fruit and veges.
While the itinerary allowed for only half a day in Bremen, Saga was running a free shuttle into nearby Bremerhaven town centre. I walked along the wide harbour and into the town, where another festive market awaited in the shadow of the church. A cluster of glühwein stalls proved irresistible, and I found myself sipping the brew from a novelty china boot.
A day at sea en route to Germany had already given me time to explore the ship. Saga Pearl II is big enough to provide diversions (including an outstanding library) for fidgets like me, yet small enough to allow one to make friends, even on a short trip. The food was excellent, the drinks good value and there was an especially friendly vibe on board – so it ticked plenty of important boxes. One evening I popped along to a well-supported singles meet-up, hosted by a crew who took a genuine interest in ensuring that guests had fun.
The Christmas market in front of the Bremen City Hall
At IJmuiden, the gateway to Amsterdam, I opted for the Taste of Holland excursion. Combining the wonderful old windmills of Zaanse Schans and the picture-perfect town of Edam, it was an excellent choice (if slightly tainted by a stop at an overpriced cheese shop).
I enjoyed the commentary about the rivalry between Protestant Edam and its Catholic neighbour Volendam, and we had good views of houses built alongside small ditches (or mini canals) that provide drainage for residents. Many windmills, we learnt, were built to pump out water.
Our final destination was the Christmas market at Bruges, a short drive from the port of Zeebrugge. It was disappointing. Just a couple of rows of stalls selling un-Christmassy goods such as sports bags. No matter. Bruges is an architectural confection as rich and sweet as any Christmas cake.
The streets were packed with shoppers so I wandered along the quieter canals, resting my legs with a Belgian beer in a rustic little bar.
I toyed with the idea of visiting the Frietmuseum – yes, the Museum of Chips – but instead went for the real thing, a cone of delicious hot frites from a takeaway kiosk.
The old windmills at Zaanse Schans, in the Netherlands
During the sail back to Southampton I joined a group of guests in the bar, sharing stories about the novelties we had bought. Any concerns over a lack of serious Christmas shopping had been dispelled by the opportunity to bring back tons of fine Belgian chocolate from Bruges.
If I had to oblige again in a cruise of this nature? It would be back in Bremen, snacking on a succulent German wurst, warming my heart with mulled wine and listening to festive music from the market’s loudspeakers. Given those conditions, I might even be tempted to give Christmas another chance.