Tuesday, May 22nd/Wednesday, May 23rd – Days 18 and 19, Larrabetzu, Bilbao, Portsmouth, Home
Up early, we found the drive to the ferry port was very easy, and very quick, from the hotel. We hadn’t booked breakfast, because we figured on getting something on the ferry, and so check out was quick and easy, even struggling with the language barrier.
Check in was quick too, but embarkation was a long process because Brittany Ferries know how to pack a boat and it often means you have to wait while they play Tetris with lorries, cars, vans and motorcycles. We eventually made it to our cabin, which was pleasant enough though maybe not quite as luxurious as the website had suggested. We unpacked our bags because we were going to be on this boat for 23 hours and we were pretty keen to be comfortable.
The Cap Finisterre is a reasonably well equipped boat, with a sun deck and a tiny swimming pool, bars, a cinema, and a restaurant or two. We set about getting our bearings and then had a study of the entertainment schedule to see if there was anything interesting going on. While we were doing that, the ferry began to ease its way out of the harbour and we were at sea almost before we’d noticed.
We hunted down breakfast in the self-service cafe, which was not an experience I’d recommend unless you really want a full English breakfast of somewhat questionable quality, or want to pay a fortune for a yogurt and a coffee. We were hoping that the rest of the day’s food offerings would be better. We’d reserve judgement.
For now, we were going to investigate the “entertainment”, in this instance the 11:00 talk from the on-board representatives of ORCA, who would tell us about cetacean life in the Bay of Biscay and beyond. They told us that they often saw dolphins at the point they talked about them, and sure enough, bang on cue, there they were, three or four of them leaping about in the wake. I failed to get a photo, but I didn’t mind too much because I’d seen them anyway.
We spent an hour after that staring out to sea, trying to spot something, anything, and driving ourselves slightly nuts. I did take a break in the middle when I had to go and attempt to book a table for dinner that evening. They would only take bookings at 12:15 for the evening, so there was a small queue when I got there (two couples in front of me), but when it was my turn they tried to fob me off with an 18:00 table, saying all the 20:00 slots were gone. I failed to see how that could be, unless they did actually take bookings ahead of the time they said they did. Eventually, he gave in and let me have the time I wanted, but with a very bad grace and absolutely no logic. That done, we decided we’d test out the cinema lounge, and bought tickets for “Isle of Dogs”. The cinema lounge is OK though it was good to be the first people in there, because if, like us, you wear glasses, you may struggle to select a suitable seat in front of one of the half a dozen or so large TV screens. We found seats we liked and thoroughly enjoyed the film. It’s fair to say that Wes Anderson is very much a Marmite film maker, in that there’s no sitting on the fence with people about his work. You either love it or loathe it. I’m in the former camp, but can absolutely understand why other people don’t think the same way.
Post film, we headed up to Deck 10 to rejoin the dolphin/whale watch. People kept coming up and saying they’d seen dolphins off the front, the other side, the back, just none where we were, so Lynne and I moved to the sundeck at the stern, and sat and watched the water. Eventually, it paid off with a sighting of what I’m told are probably pilot whales, which are apparently quite rare in the Bay of Biscay.
Satisfied that there were cetaceans out there, and not just seagulls, we went back inside to shower and dress for dinner. A drink in the bar first proved a pleasant diversion, and we waited to see what dinner would turn out to be like. It could go one of two ways, and given the attitude of the staff when I was booking, I was not as optimistic as I might have been. As it turned out, food-wise at least, I needn’t have worried. The service, on the other hand, was not a patch on that which we experienced with P&O on the outbound ferry. Their wine prices were also significantly more optimistic. It meant we started with a half bottle of Champagne, not a full one, because I really don’t see how they justified their prices.
It was accompanied by a tuna mousse and some crispbreads, which was very pleasant, if difficult to spread onto the crispbreads without getting in a mess, but we went for it anyway.
Lynne started with the crab and langoustine lasagne, with a cream broth shot through with basil. The pasta was a bit on the heavy side, though the filling and broth were tasty enough. There didn’t seem to be a large amount of basil, though there was unexpected and unadvertised samphire which made things rather more salty than either of us would have preferred.
The other starter was a poached egg, with wild shellfish and prawns and a Kari Gosse emulsion, the latter being a Breton version of something that dates back to the days of the French East India Company, and was created by a pharmacist named Gosse, hence kari (curry) Gosse. Apparently it is still only sold in Breton pharmacies, which reminds me of my childhood days when you could only buy olive oil in the UK in pharmacies – it was for getting wax out of your ears! Anyway, the emulsion was very good, warming, mildly spicy, though calling it curry seems like a bit of a stretch to me. There were plenty of prawns, and lots of tiny mussels too, along with a nicely crisp cheese stick.
We ordered a bottle of red to have with our mains, naturally sticking with Bordeaux, in this instance a Chateau la Croix Romane 2015 Lalande de Pomerol. It’s not one of the great wines of Bordeaux, but it’s extremely drinkable as a young wine. This one certainly was.
It went went with the spiced lamb, with bulghur wheat and vegetables, which was heavy on the wheat and somewhat light on the veggies. The lamb was tender and tasty though, both the lamb fillet and the meatballs.
The roast fillet of beef with peas and Kampot red peppers, making a spicy sauce with some good heat levels. I’d have liked the beef better if they’d bother to render and caramelise the fat, but the actual meat was just right, and the peas in their little pastry cases were a pleasant contrast. I’m not sure they would not have been better with the lamb though. That seemed a more logical composition to me.
So a bit of a mixed bag, but certainly more good than bad, in the food. However, now we’d finished they quite clearly couldn’t get us out fast enough. People were clearing and cleaning tables all around us, and generally giving off a vibe of “if you’re not going to spend any more, get out!” while making it oddly hard to do that, because we struggled to get a bill and ended up having to go to the till to pay. I don’t expect to do that in a restaurant that’s claiming to be relatively high end. We would have stayed where we were and finished our wine, but instead ended up taking it back to our cabin.
A good night’s sleep followed, and we were up bright eyed and ready for the day, having very much appreciated getting the one-hour time difference back! After some debate we went for breakfast in the restaurant, where we found the attitude of service was worse than at dinner. For the continental breakfast you get fruit juice, cereal and the like, but the tables are set with these things already handed out, so despite the fact that there is muesli available, you get a children’s cereal at your place, and an orange juice (which I don’t like) despite there being choices. The waiter was exceedingly grumpy when I wanted to swap a box of Frosties for something adults eat, and the orange for apple juice. He wasn’t too happy when we wanted brown toast either. I’ll travel with Brittany Ferries again because there are good things about them, but they really, really, really need to sort the restaurant service side out! It’s dire at the moment. The bar, on the other hand, is staffed by people who actually seem to like customers. Still, at least we had a view as we pulled into Portsmouth…
Disembarcation took time (around 45 minutes) but after that it was a clear run to home and we were back indoors by midday, and able to collect the cats mid-afternoon. They wandered around the house, being generally cling-on cats, or Klingon cats if you will, and getting cross about the luggage and boxes in their way.
Unpacking the wine would have to wait for the weekend and the purchase of extra wine racks!