A home-grown cuppa and wine from a remote vineyard are some of the unexpected treats on a UK cruise.
Whilst the farm to fork concept has become increasingly popular as consumers look to buy locally and know where their food comes from, I never thought I would experience a tip to teacup equivalent. Yet here I am sipping a restorative cuppa on a sunny afternoon in Cornwall with tea that’s been grown in the adjoining fields.
Occupying a beautiful location beside a deep sea creek seven miles inland from Falmouth, Tregothnan was the UK’s first tea estate – and remains the only one growing tea outside without the use of polytunnels – with the first cup poured in 2005. None of us on the tour were even aware that tea could be cultivated in the UK, hence our interest in signing up for the trip. It’s one of many enlightening discoveries during a week aboard Viking’s newest ocean ship, Viking Venus, which celebrated the return to cruising in the UK with a season of sailings around the English shoreline before it heads to the Mediterranean and Scandinavia for the rest of the season.
We’re engrossed as Greg Springer shows around the 120-acre estate – or tea gardens as they are formally known – and we learn how the plants take up to seven years to mature and Tregothnan could supply enough tea bags to keep our nation of tea drinkers going for just four days. It’s fascinating to hear that in a coals to Newcastle scenario the tea, sold pure or blended with other teas, is exported to 28 countries including China where it is viewed as a niche and idiosyncratic novelty.
The excursion typified the ones offered by Viking wherever it sails. The adult-only line specialises in immersive, cultural cruises for curious travellers that scratch below the surface of the destinations visited, seeking out unusual places for exclusive behind-the-scenes tours with an interesting tale to tell.
On St Martin’s in the Scilly Isles, just two miles long and with a population of 120 people, we meet Holly Robbins at the second most south-westerly (by a whisker) vineyard in the UK. Holly and her partner James Faulconbridge fell in love with the tiny isle when they visited on holiday and moved to St Martin’s from Nottingham in 2020 to take over the vineyard when the previous owners retired.
After taking in glorious views on a self-guided tour through the vines we sampled wine as Holly told us: “It was a spur of the moment decision as we had just bought a house and we never expected to run a vineyard or do anything like this, but it was a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Back on board the 930-passenger Viking Venus there’s plenty more to uncover. The sixth in the Viking ocean fleet replicates the trademark design of its five siblings, a classy understated Scandinavian look with beautifully thought out details in both the public areas and cabins. There’s artwork throughout the ship, with an app to guide you through it, a Nordic heritage area, fun animated version of the Bayeux Tapestry, books everywhere and gorgeous model ships in the Explorers’ Lounge. In my cabin a tactile felt bag doubles up as a magazine rack and there’s a cosy Norwegian throw on the bed.
There are plenty of unexpected touches, too. A new bookmark is left in my book, at the right page, during evening turndown one night. And when I try out the ship’s hot tub, overlooking the infinity pool, a waiter comes out and hands me a glass of fizz.
By day there are lectures by guest speakers, trivia quizzes, an eagerly anticipated afternoon tea set against the backdrop of piano music and, in addition to the for-fee excursions, a free included shore tour in every port. After dark classical musicians play in different lounges and bars around the ship, there’s a foot-tapping band in the late-night Torshavn venue, plus musical shows in the theatre, including an ABBA tribute night.
Meals are a highlight. All restaurants – including the two speciality dining venues serving Italian food preceded by the most incredible bread baskets and Chef’s Table with its beautifully balanced tasting menus – are included in the fare, along with free-flowing wine, beer and soft drinks at lunch and dinner. There is traditional Nordic food, such as open sandwiches and waffles, and a superb choice of vegetarian and vegan dishes. If you’re still feeling peckish there’s complimentary 24-hour room service.
All the while Covid-19 health measure stay in place Viking has a very comprehensive and impressive set up. The line is the only one to have an on board testing laboratory and each day we all have to complete a non-invasive procedure to provide a saliva sample. Our temperatures are also taken daily, and on return from shore excursions, and social distancing measures are in place around the ship.
On the penultimate day I treat myself to a Nordic hair treatment. In keeping with the ship’s uncluttered lines and Scandinavian ethos for simplicity the spa menu is pleasingly uncomplicated, with just a few things to choose from. My hair is wrapped in a hot towel while the conditioning treatment sinks in and the therapist gets to work on a blissful neck and upper back massage. Next comes the (optional) Nordic part – a cold water rinse. I decide to go for it and after the initial numbing shock it’s very refreshing and my hair is super sleek afterwards.
If you fancy indulging in another hard-core Scandi ritual, then head to the spa’s thermal suite. After warming up in the sauna you can stand beneath a wooden pail and pull a cord that unleashes a bucketful of cold water. I couldn’t pluck up the courage to do it. And when health protocols allow, the ship also has a novel snow grotto where ‘fresh’ snowflakes fall every morning.
Well, when in Rome and all that. From English tea and far-flung English wine, it was a cruise filled with unique experiences.
Tel: 0800 458 69 00
On Board Facilities: Six restaurants, five bars, theatre, swimming pool, sun deck, spa, gym and free Wi-Fi.
Number of Cabins: 465 cabins
Price Band: Medium to high
Insider Tip: If you enjoy a drink, it’s well worth buying the Silver Spirits drink package which costs $19.95 a day and covers unlimited cocktails, premium wines by the glass and other drinks (excluding Champagne) up to the value of $15 per drink. The package can be purchased prior to sailing or on board.
Reviewer’s Rating: 9/10
Factfile: Viking Venus is spending its inaugural season sailing on a variety of cruises, some of them all-new, in the Mediterranean and Scandinavia. Fares cover meals, drinks with lunch and dinner, a complimentary shore excursion in every port, flights, transfers and gratuities. Six-night cruises start from £1,390.
Known as the ‘River Cruise Queen’, Jeannine Williamson is an award-winning travel writer, cruise expert and our cruise correspondent, who has clocked up thousands of nautical miles.
Photographs by Viking Cruises and Jeannine Williamson