A first time cruiser takes a seven day trip from Bristol to Ireland (2024)

By first-time cruiser, Andrea Cowan.

I have to admit to having never been on a cruise, or even contemplating one, until I was invited earlier this year. What clinched it was when I found out you could actually board a cruise ship from just up the road outside Bristol at the Royal Portbury Docks – and the ease of the location didn’t disappoint: within half an hour of parking the car, I was sitting on my cabin balcony with a drink in my hand, relaxed and ready for the holiday to begin.

This was the seven-day Ireland Discovery cruise on Ambition, an elegant ship from the relatively new Ambassador Cruise Line. Ambassador currently has two ships which sail from London Tilbury, Newcastle, Dundee, Liverpool, Belfast, Bristol and Falmouth. The focus is on the British market, providing a no-fly, hassle free holiday which is primarily adult-focused, although they do offer some multigenerational family sailings in school holidays.

A first time cruiser takes a seven day trip from Bristol to Ireland (1)A Junior Suite, my 'home' for the week, and what a home it is! (Image: Andrea Cowan)

LET’S SET SAIL

The ship, Ambition, was bought by Ambassador in 2021, having been built in 1999 (under a different name). In 2022 it was chartered by the UK government to provide temporary accommodation for Ukrainians who were fleeing the Russian invasion, as we were proudly informed by the Ukrainian Captain of the ship, Oleksii Varyvoda.

It then underwent a refurbishment and upgrade, including technologies to ensure it is as sustainable as possible and like its sister ship, Ambience, can sail in environmentally protected seas (currently only 10% of cruise ships can do so.) It’s first voyage as Ambition was in May 2023.

But back to this holiday. My ‘home’ for the next week was a Junior Suite on deck 10 and it exceeded all expectations, with a walk-in wardrobe, super-sized bed and fabulous hot shower, and of course the aforementioned balcony which provided a wonderful, sheltered suntrap on several occasions over the week.

WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT?

The facilities on the ship were impressive. Food is a big focus and there are several distinct dining experiences: Buckingham and Holyrood are the two main restaurants, Borough Market provides an informal buffet service on the top deck alongside Alfresco Pizza Grill (just by the small pool and jacuzzi), and Saffron which specialises in Indian dishes (so good we went twice). In a very touching gesture, there is also a Mediterranean-styled restaurant, Lupino’s, which pays homage to an Ambassador colleague, Michelle Lupino, who sadly passed away in October 2022. The cruise line even donates £5 to charity for every bottle of her favourite Mateus Rosé that is purchased.

There are a range of bars to explore across the various decks to explore, each with their own character, including the Cavern Bar complete with a dance floor. This brings us to the onboard entertainment, with a plethora of live music and quizzes on offer each day. There is Brontë’s Library for anyone requiring a little quiet and serenity, and a games room, Aces & Eights, for some ‘un-hosted’ card sessions, although it was suggested to me not to try and join in with bridge unless I was a very confident player: it’s taken seriously!

One of my cruise highlights was The Palladium. This theatre was the place to go after dinner for the ‘Live at the Palladium’ programme of song, dance and comedy. I was slightly awe-struck at the professionalism of this theatre company, not just the talent of the young troupe but also the dramatic sets which changed nightly. I enjoyed everything from a surprisingly spine-chilling play to the all-out ‘Night at the Movies’ celebration of iconic music from blockbuster films.

For the active passengers, there is also a gym and fitness centre, a ‘round-the-boat’ walker’s track on the top deck along with a couple of small swimming pools and a jacuzzi. Meanwhile, the tranquil Green Sea Spa offers a range of massages and treatments for complete relaxation and pampering.

A first time cruiser takes a seven day trip from Bristol to Ireland (2)The Top Deck is the perfect place to relax in the sun (Image: Ambassador Cruise Line)

FIRST, FALMOUTH

Our first stop on this cruise was Falmouth where some more passengers were boarding. We were docking for the day and so had some time to explore the city or a join one of the excursions that had been arranged.

It was just a 10-minute walk from the harbour to the high street, alternatively a courtesy shuttle bus was on hand. The harbour is apparently the third largest natural deep-water harbour in the world and the city now welcomes approximately 50 cruise ships a year. It is well prepared for visitors, including a Meet & Greet ‘Cruise Ambassador’ service which means that there were plenty of people around to help passengers make the most of the day.

Our first stop was the National Maritime Museum Cornwall, an impressive building in the aptly named Discovery Quay overlooking Falmouth Harbour. It provides a powerful sense of Cornwall’s rich nautical and coastal history. A highlight was the Pirates exhibition (but hurry – it finishes in January 2025).

We headed to the waterfront restaurant, INDIDOG, for lunch: a stylish eatery with, understandably, a strong focus on locally sourced Cornish produce. It would have been easy to sit and while away the day, but time was of the essence, and I wanted to check out the high street which was full of independent shops so I took myself off, agreeing to meet everyone back on board for sail-away co*cktails on the top deck.

A DAY AT SEA

Day three was spent at sea. Whilst it could have been assumed that this would be a non-eventful day – not a chance! Activities were taking place on the ship round the clock, from crafting to choir, bowls to bingo. I had the great privilege of visiting the Bridge and meeting Captain Varyvoda. It was fascinating to see the work involved in ensuring this enormous ship’s smooth journey through the sea. Apparently, Ambition is planning a ‘behind the scenes’ tour for future cruises which would include a trip to the Bridge – something well worth investigating.

In the name of research, I threw myself into the rest of the day’s activities. I just managed to catch the last few minutes of the Book Club. Passengers had been notified of the book choice a couple of weeks before embarkation ready for discussion (The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society) and led by the entertainment team. It was a great opportunity to chat to some fellow passengers, most of whom had been on several cruises. Ambition was held in high regard, from the size of the ship (1,200 passengers compared to some that carry 5,000) to the professional but friendly service.

From there I saw a short humorous ‘vignette’ in the Clifton Lounge before joining a fascinating talk on Diamonds and Tanzanite in the Purple Turtle Wine Bar. If the mood had taken me, I could have then played table tennis, joined a trivia team or even attended a fitness class but enough was enough!

There was just time for reading on my balcony before meeting for pre-dinner drinks and the Gala Dinner. A highlight for many passengers, this was the opportunity to really dress up and it was lovely to see the tradition upheld with so many evening gowns and dinner suits. I called it a day after a trip to theatre, although others danced into the early hours at the silent disco in The Cavern.

A first time cruiser takes a seven day trip from Bristol to Ireland (3)Arriving at the pretty town of Bantry (Image: Andrea Cowan)

IRELAND AWAITS

I woke up to a stunning view on Day Four. We had arrived at Bantry in the Republic of Ireland: the sun was shining, the water was sparkling and the harbour was framed by craggy, atmospheric mountains. We had to board a tender boat to go ashore as Bantry Bay was too small for Ambition to dock. Again, there were numerous excursions on offer and we headed straight to the Tourist Office for a Heritage Walk, led by volunteer Teddy. He was Bantry born-and-bred and the walk was not only packed with historical facts, but also brought alive by his stories of growing up in this pretty fishing harbour town.

In the afternoon we visited Glengarriff, a village just around the bay, nestled between the mountains and the sea. We boarded the Harbour Queen Ferry for a trip to Garnish Island, a stunning garden island known to horticulturists around the world. An added bonus was spotting seals basking in the spring sunshine on the crossing. The trip was rounded off by a glass of Murphy’s at the elegant Eccles Hotel in Glangarriff.

A first time cruiser takes a seven day trip from Bristol to Ireland (4)The colourful streets of Kinsale (Image: Andrea Cowan)

LEPRECHAUNS

Day Five of the cruise brought us to Cobh harbour, in Cork. I was up early for breakfast as I was joining a trip to Kinsale and Cork. Again, the tour was enhanced by the brilliant tour guide, Liz Morgan from Ireland Excursions. She provided a fascinating potted history of Ireland, as well as the local area, peppered with the myths and legends of fairies and leprechauns. Who knew that the reasons the roads are so windy is because ghosts can only go in straight lines!

We arrived at the pretty town of Kinsale with its colourful streets. Unfortunately, it was a whirlwind stop as we only had an hour to soak up the atmosphere before returning to the coach to continue the tour through Cork. Arriving back in Cobh with a couple of hours to spare, I explored the town, with its striking church, St. Colman's Cathedral, and a visit to the Heritage Centre, situated in the town’s restored Victorian railway station which brings its history to life. Cobh (or Queenstown as it was previously called) was The Titanic’s final port of call before setting sail on its fateful voyage to New York.

A real treat was planned for our group that evening, back on-board Ambition, with dinner at The Chef’s Table. The menu consisted of nine courses of carefully curated dishes paired with different wines. It was pure indulgence, even held at a special, candlelit VIP table, just to complete the experience.

TITANIC TALES

Our final destination of the cruise was Belfast Harbour in Northern Ireland on Day Six. Because of time constraints we were only venturing as far as the Titanic Quarter but it was a fascinating day, beginning with lunch at the Titanic Hotel, located in the former headquarters of Harland & Wolff, builders of Titanic. This set the scene for the afternoon’s visit to The Titanic Experience, a self-guided tour around the museum. Our day culminated in a trip to the Titanic Distillers in Thompson Dock, Belfast’s first working distillery for almost 90 years, concluding with a rather delicious tasting session. This is a new venture, only opening in May 2023, and well worth seeking out on a trip to the city.

Day Seven was another day at sea as we made our way home to Bristol. I decided to take it a little easier this time, beginning the day with breakfast in bed. I then took a stroll through the ship to The Palladium where the guest lecturer, Tristram Elmhirst, was giving his second talk about life as a forensic scientist. I could have then played darts, joined in some line dancing, attended a pilates class or made some braided bracelets in a craft session. But in need of relaxation, I opted for a Hot Stones Massage at the Green Seaspa, before returning to our favourite restaurant, Saffron, for the final dinner of the voyage. .

Early the next morning, having arrived in Bristol Royal Portbury and following a slick and efficient disembarking process, I was in my car and heading for home in little over an hour from waking up! I consider my first foray into cruising as a great success, in no small part due to the hassle-free start and end to the holiday. Where next? The Fjords perhaps?

Channel Islands and The Netherlands Experience, departing Bristol Royal Portbury on 13 July 2025 for just £829pp*

Departing from Bristol, this six night cruise includes a stop at Falmouth before taking guests to the charming St. Peter Port in the Channel Islands, with its cobblestone streets and historic architecture. The cruise will then offer guests the chance to explore Ijmuiden, a Dutch coastal town offering a mix of urban sophistication and bustling port atmosphere.

To find out more visit www.ambassadorcruiseline.com or call 0808 1028701.

*Please note that pricing is correct at time of writing and is subject to change

A first time cruiser takes a seven day trip from Bristol to Ireland (2024)

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