DFDS Seaways Brussels Christmas Markets Mini Cruise Review
In December 2010 we were invited by DFDS Seaways on-board a popular festive mini-cruise, a sailing to Amsterdam from Newcastle and then on to Brussels (the heart of Belgium) to experience their famous Christmas markets. This is our review of this short break mini cruise.
Getting to the Port of Tyne
We had been counting down the days until the sailing but little did we know that fate wasn't on our side. December 2010 saw unprecedented snow fall first in Newcastle (the departure port) and then the entire east coast of the UK. As we were travelling from Cardiff up the M1 and A1, we nearly didn't make it.
We had booked into a Travelodge in Sheffield the night before. Blizzard conditions on the M1 set in shortly before we pulled of the motorway so we were relieved to be taking a short overnight break from the snow, though after just managing to get into the hotel car park a new concern arose - are we actually going to be able to get out?!
We woke up early so as to leave enough time to dig ourselves out of the car park and get to Newcastle on-time. We passed many overturned and jack-knifed lorries en-route so we took extra care.
The International Passenger Terminal at the Port Of Tyne is located in the North East of England. It lies approximately 8 miles to the East of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. It's a great location for those living in the North of England and Scotland though it can be a long drive from the South.
Our entire journey from South Wales to the North of England was made on motorway and dual carriageway, so we can confirm there are excellent road links to the port! We took the M1 up to Doncaster and then the A1(M) to Washington before taking the A194(M) and A19 through the Tyne Tunnel. The port is around five minutes from the Tyne Tunnel and is clearly signposted.
Parking is operated by the Port of Tyne and is relatively expensive though in line with other port parking charges. It is, however, the closest parking you can get to the terminal which is a real plus point when you are wheeling your luggage through snow! Parking fees can be paid by cash or credit/debit card upon return at pay stations located within the terminal itself and next to the car park.
When we visited the price was £12 per day (for each block of 24 hours) or £15 a day if you lost your ticket whilst on holiday. You can check the current parking prices here .
There are other modes of transport you can use to get to the Port of Tyne, namely rail, buses, and flights.
Newcastle railway station is located to the South of the city centre and is easily accessible from across the UK. Once there, you can take advantage of the DFDS Seaways transfer bus which runs between Central Station and the port itself. There is a small fee for the trip but it's much cheaper than a taxi!
The nearest airport is Newcastle International Airport near Woolsington which lies to the North West of Newcastle upon Tyne. It offers flights to and from regional airports around the UK and is around 14 miles away from the port.
The airport is connected on the Metro route that serves Newcastle which gets you even closer to the port, though there's either a short taxi ride or a bit of a walk to get to the terminal.
Checking-in for our Sailing from Newcastle
Checking in at the Port of Tyne International Passenger Terminal was quick and simple.
As you go through the main doors to the terminal you pass a shop on the left hand side. Continue on into the main lounge. To the right are the DFDS Seaways check-in desks.
When we arrived there was a very small queue but this moved very quickly. We handed over our booking confirmation page and passports and were given our boarding cards (which double up as cabin keys) together with dinner cards as our meals were pre-booked. It is worthwhile pre-booking your meals as you can save money versus the on-board prices.
We were also given a pack of vouchers for the pre-booked transfers and hotel accommodation in Brussels. Inside the pack there was a comprehensive leaflet explaining everything we needed to know about the mini-cruise including when and where the transfers take place as well as other hints and tips.
The departure lounge was a large area with comfy seats. A café was located next to the shop serving light refreshments while you wait. There was also a Bureaux de Change and a large TV displaying the latest news headlines. As you would expect, the terminal also had toilet facilities and just before the exit was a pay machine for the car park.
We checked in around an hour before we were allowed to board. Soon after a few coaches arrived each laden with plenty of passengers to fill the terminal up, though at no point did it feel crowded. It's advisable to get to the port early to ensure you've got plenty of time to check-in but unlike airports you don't need to be there stupidly early!
It really was a swift and efficient process
Around an hour before the ferry departed boarding commenced. We hung back as we saw no rush to get on-board though others scrambled to be near the front of the queue. Whilst a long queue formed, it was very fast moving.
Before you are allowed onto the vessel you need to go through security, presenting your boarding card and passport. Following this is a random customs screening.
We were one of the lucky couples who received a complimentary bag search care of Her Majesty's UK Border Agency . Random bag searches are in force to ensure everyone's safety so it's something that is necessary.
The whole process of passing through security to boarding the ship was no longer than half an hour, so it really was a swift and efficient process.
We proceeded onto the King of Scandinavia (though since this holiday DFDS have renamed it King Seaways and repainted her in a new livery) where we were greeted by friendly smiling staff who looked at our boarding card and directed us to our cabin. We joined the queue for a lift up to deck 10 where our Commodore De Luxe suite awaited us. We joined the queue for the right hand elevator that seemed to be the best bet for going up. I'm not sure if that was just luck or coincidence but we got in a lift quicker than counterparts in the left queue! If ever there was a top tip that might be it!
Cabins are clearly signposted on each floor and your all-in-one boarding card / room key clearly states the deck level and cabin number in case you forget.
DFDS had put us up in the crème de la crème of cabins , the Commodore De Luxe. As part of the Commodore De Luxe experience, all De Luxe cabins are locked behind a metaphorical yet quite physical glass door! On boarding, Commodore De Luxe stewards and stewardesses await outside for passengers. A stewardess showed us into the Commodore De Luxe area and then into our suite before making dinner and breakfast arrangements for us.
We have reviewed King Seaways separately as we felt it would be more useful as a standalone review, rather than being crowbarred into this review. We do urge you to check out our ship review as it goes into depth on what you can do on the vessel, the variety of cabins available and much more!
Arriving in Ijmuiden and Transferring to Brussels
We set sail from Newcastle and encountered rough seas. We were ill-prepared (top tip: take travel sickness tablets just-in-case!) and so spent the night racing between our beds and the bathroom. Thankfully by the morning the seas were a lot calmer and we enjoyed a hot buffet breakfast.
We arrived at the port of Ijmuiden, Amsterdam at around 9.30am CET. It took around half an hour to safely dock and get the walkways and cargo doors open. Frequent announcements invited car deck passengers down to reunite with their vehicles. A wake up announcement was broadcast at around 8.00am CET with a couple of announcements thereafter announcing last minute shopping opportunities in the duty free shops.
Once the ship had docked disembarkation commenced. Some choose to queue early. We used the stairs to get down to the correct deck and joined the queue. Demand for the lifts was quite high why we chose to walk down the stairs instead.
A short walk through the enclosed walkway and we entered the terminal. A small queue formed to pass through Customs, which snaked through the terminal and along the walkway.
At the end of the walkway is an escalator that takes you down to the ground level. Turning right, we joined the Customs queue. As most of the passengers were from the UK/Europe then getting through Customs was a swift process. Once through Customs a set of double doors leads to the outside.
Ijmuiden Port is unsurprisingly located in IJmuiden, The Netherlands, which sits to the North West of Amsterdam. It's around 20 miles from the centre of Amsterdam. If you travel as a foot passenger outside of a mini cruise then we suggest you pre-book transfers to Amsterdam if that's where you intend to spend your day.
She went above and beyond ... by giving us a guided tour
After we cleared customs at Ijmuiden, directly outside the doors were a series of coaches. Very helpful guides dressed in yellow showed us to our coach. As we were on a mini-cruise break to Brussels we had our own separate coach to passengers' day tripping to Amsterdam ready and waiting.
I can't remember the name of our coach driver but she had a strong Dutch name! She went above and beyond what we expected by giving us a guided tour of what we were passing along the journey to Brussels. She reeled off facts and figures as well as a bit of history and origins and translations of city names.
The coach itself was comfortable, quiet and had tea and coffee making facilities as well as a toilet. The seats reclined and the temperature was comfortable, despite the freezing temperatures outside!
The entire journey was around 3 hours including a break at a snow covered service station on the Belgian border. It didn't feel long at all and as quick as we boarded we were in Brussels itself. We were dropped off across the road from the hotel (primarily thanks to the one way systems in place nearby).
Our Novotel Centre Tour Noire Brussels Review
Our hotel in Brussels was the Novotel Centre Tour Noire. DFDS Seaways tend to only use major hotel chains renowned worldwide for quality and comfort when booking passengers hotel accommodation as part of a mini cruise holiday. This means you can be reassured of good service, quality accommodation and a good location during your stay.
That was certainly the case with Novotel Centre Tour Noire . Novotel is part of the Accor Group as are the Ibis and Mercure chains. Having used the former and longed to stay at the latter, we expected Novotel to be comfortable with modern facilities.
The front of the hotel overlooks a car park whilst the rear overlooked sister hotel the Ibis Brussels Centre Ste Catherine. The entrance, located under the blue illuminated sign, leads into a large lobby area.
Check-in was brisk with four agents on the front desk. We had to fill out a form and hand over our reservation ticket supplied to us when we checked in for the cruise. In return, we were given a pair of keycards and room 226.
The lift took some getting used to. On the way up it needs a valid keycard to work but didn't require anything for the descent.
Our room was HUGE! A large bed was tucked in a corner leaving a huge amount of empty space, ideal for plenty of luggage. A TV (which could receive BBC One, BBC World Service as well as countless French, German and Italian channels) sat next to a kettle with tea and coffee supplies.
Breakfast was included in the package and this was a buffet breakfast with a choice of hot and cold items. We tended to opt for bacon sandwiches although a novelty was eating hollow chocolate snowmen (real Belgian chocolate that tasted very good) as well as the Lotus biscuit Santas. Lotus (who are headquartered in Belgium) are of course renowned for the caramelised biscuits traditionally served with coffee.
The location of the hotel was fantastic, with Place Saint Catherine located just behind
The location of the hotel was fantastic, with Place Saint Catherine located just behind the hotel - literally a two minute walk around the corner. It was around a five minute walk to the Grand Place and around another five to the Mannequin Pis which was the furthest attraction we visited. For the Christmas markets the hotel was ideally placed and perhaps the closest we could have been to the main attractions of Winter Wonderland.
We didn't have an evening meal at the hotel's restaurant but did take a look at the menu. The menu sounded appetising, with elaborate and posh sounding meals you would expect to see at a good quality restaurant.
Our Mega Guide to Brussels & Their Christmas Markets
Key Attractions in Brussels
Brussels felt like a very historic place. The guide book we picked up talked endlessly about Museums and historical buildings. If you love museums then you will love the large selection that cover the city ranging from comic book museums, chocolate museums, art museums and beer museums. We were only in Brussels for a few days but here's what you could experience, depending on your tastes.
Belgian Chocolate Shops
Arguably the best known export from Belgian is fine Belgian chocolates and around Grand Place you'll find loads of specialist chocolate shops to choose from. Expect to pay a small fortune but the quality of products is exceptional in most cases. You will find a range of sellers stocking value boxed chocolate intended for people who think chocolate is just chocolate but if you fancy yourself as a connoisseur then look for premium names like Neuhaus , Godiva and Pierre Marcolini amongst others.
Many premium chocolatiers sell hot chocolate and this is an experience not worth missing. We sampled a range but our favourite by far was that from Pierre Marcolini. Thick, rich and heady, this tasty treat gave us a chocolate buzz like never before.
Delicious Food and Drink
There is nothing quite like sipping on a freshly brewed cup of coffee, eating some delicious Belgian cuisine and watching the world go by. Try to sample a selection of Belgian coffee shops and eateries as well as the pubs and bars.
You will find a range of cuisine available from fast food takeaways to Michelin star grade fare. We found the most dominant type of restaurant were those specialising in seafood though walking around Brussels will open your eyes to a wide variety, from those offering suspiciously cheap meals to those where you would need a second mortgage.
Of course, if fish is not your thing then there's plenty of worldly choice from Indian, Chinese and Japanese cuisine through to American and traditionally European meals.
We are not architecture buffs but we knew a trip to the Grand Place was essential, just to see the lavishly designed buildings that encompass the Square. Also, keep an eye out for large but discreet comic book cartoons drawn onto the side of buildings, in celebration of Brussels affinity to comic books.
Brussels is full of a variety of architecture and it feels like the new and old designs merge seamlessly. A trip to the Royal Palace is a must if you love heritage sights.
This is a statue of a little boy that is supposed to pee - as he is a water fountain. Whilst he can often be seen spending a penny, he does succumb to cold temperatures during the winter months causing the water to freeze. Ouch!
He has a wardrobe of costume changes and we saw two of them (Saint Nicholas and a firefighter) during our visits. The Manneken Pis can be found a few streets off Grand Place.
Jeanneke Pis is tucked in an alley in amongst restaurants deep in the heart of Brussels, not too far from Manneken Pis. In a bid to introduce equality, Jeanneke Pis is a statue of a girl crouching also peeing. She's less popular but worth seeking out nevertheless.
A lot of the European Union political debates happen in Brussels so it is worth a visit to the European Parliament , if only just to say you have been there. Major decisions are made there that affect residents within the European Union and the entrance area around the European Parliament is impressive.
Brussels has loads of museums on offer to suit all tastes and preferences. At a rough count we reckon there are at least 120 of them dotted around the city. Some favourites include the Belgian Comic Strip Center , Museum of Cocoa and Chocolate , Museum of the National Bank of Belgium , and the Parlamentarium
For a comprehensive list of museums, head on over to the Visit Brussels tourist information website.
Brussels isn't really famous for attractions. It does have a few family favourites but they are few and far between. The city lends itself better to weekend visits rather than week or fortnight holidays because of this.
If you've got a spare day, you can day trip from Brussels to Bruges, Ghent, or Antwerp easily using the train.
Brussels Christmas Markets
The Christmas Markets in Brussels were arguably the highlight of the trip, especially as these were the centrepiece of the themed mini-cruise. For one month each year the centre of Brussels is decorated in glorious twinkling lights whilst a Winter Wonderland (known locally as Plaisirs D'Hiver ) takes pride of place in Place Saint Catherine.
The centrepiece of Brussels celebration of Christmas is Winter Wonderland - a series of chalets with local souvenirs, gifts, food and drink surrounding a huge ice rink. At the end is a huge Ferris wheel soaring into the sky (€5 a head but worth the price!).
The vital statistics were printed on the back of the tickets. This wheel stretched up 60 metres into the sky, was 21 metres wide and 19.5 metres deep. It weighed an impressive 290 tonnes and was decorated with a staggering 25,000 LED lights!
The markets were constantly busy when we visited, with those that offered mulled wine and other hot drinks being the most popular in the freezing temperatures. There was a good range of chalets with a mixture of products for sale. Food and drink was most popular closely followed by those offering festive gifts. There was even one offering discounted broadband service!
Top picks were the huge trucks selling cones of chips (frites) with a huge array of sauces as well as authentic Belgian waffles. Both these were around €3 a serving but the portion sizes were huge, so the price felt very reasonable indeed. We watched as the giant waffles (great value) were hand made in front of us.
The ice rink was popular and we watched as a mixture of participants skated around. Everyone from young children and adults skating for the first time right through to real experts were enjoying the rink. They even had a trolley-like apparatus for beginners (young and old) to skate around with to help get a sense of balance.
Around 1.25 miles of illuminations connected Winter Wonderland to the Grand Place. Along the way more stalls lined the route along with an ornate merry-go-round. In total, 240 chalets were located around the Stock Exchange (Bourse), Place Sainte Catherine and the fish market (Marché aux Poissons).
The streets were decorated in bright colourful lights and even at night they felt safe to walk down. We were fortunate enough to have snow fall during our stay so that helped add to what was already a very festive affair.
As gadget geeks we were really looking forward to the Grand Place. Steeped in history and architecture by day, the Grand Place is turned into a light and sound show at night. Several projectors beamed a giant light show onto the front of City Hall whilst banks of speakers boomed festive tunes to the busy crowds that gathered for each performance.
"Electrabel Nights" featured a range of memorable characters all singing and dancing to a jolly set of tunes, each with a Christmas theme. Unfortunately we didn't have a camcorder handy but a fellow tourist did and managed to capture a fantastic video of the show (see below).
In a nutshell, the Brussels Christmas markets were amazing. Great food and drink, lots of stalls and a great performance in Grand Place all helped make the holiday feel very festive indeed, as did the snow!
Brussels Culinary Highlights
For us, the highlight of Brussels besides the Christmas Markets was the food culture. Perhaps it is the atmosphere that makes it so good, or perhaps it's the fond memories of the delicious chocolate tastings that has swayed us!
Authentic Belgian Chocolate
There are more chocolate shops around Grand Place than you can count, with a wide variety of choice. Our favourite was Choco-holic which is just a few steps from the Mannequin Pis. We went in a few times when we realised they had the best prices and chocolates we could find. It's tucked out the way but was a great find and the man in there who served us was very kind and helpful. Another chocolatier worth a mention was Leonidas, which specialised mainly in a server of individual truffles and was always very busy which is a good sign for tourists.
There were a wide choice of shops to select from, with some selling the mass market chocolates and others specialising in homemade delicacies. It's definitely worth having a walk about and browsing the shops away from the Grand Place to find a greater selection.
Belgian Hot Chocolate (Chocolat Chaud)
If chocolate isn't enough, you can get it in liquid form. Having avoided the main international chocolate chains as per the recommendation of a travel guide we read, we gave in at Godiva, across the road from the Mannequin Pis. A cup of hot chocolate from there cost €3 and it was certainly a flavourful cup.
For the best cup head on over to Pierre Marcolini at Place du Grand Sablon where we found the best cup of hot chocolate around. It too cost us around €3 a cup but this was intoxicating. Each sip of the thick and luscious creamy chocolate was full of complex flavours. It was pure pleasure and somewhere we would definitely visit again.
Frites (Chips / Fries)
The traditional way to eat frites in Brussels is held in a paper cone, smothered with mayonnaise. In the guide books there were references to carts selling frites dotted around but we didn't see any, other than the mega cart (truck) in Winter Wonderland. We stumbled across a "friterie" (chip shop) nestled away in the back streets surrounding Grand Place but didn't see as many as we expected. Perhaps a visit in summer will tell a different story.
You can't visit Belgium and not taste an authentic waffle. There were many tiny outlets dotted around the city that sold Waffles although we didn't get a chance to photograph rows of them thanks to the cold weather. In summer there are generally more made, decorated and displayed.
We tried the Belgian waffle which was made in front of us at Winter Wonderland. It's a rectangular waffle with a light and airy batter decorated how you choose. We opted for icing sugar though plenty of cream and fruit or chocolate sauce seemed to be the popular choice.
The following night we tried the other style of waffle Belgium offers which is known as the Liège waffle, a round waffle which is chewier and has caramelised sugar on the outside. It's sticky, dense and filling as opposed to the Belgian waffle which was much lighter.
Okay, strictly speaking it's not the freshly brewed coffee that was most important but more so the chocolates that came with it! We visited Jean-Phillip Darcis , a chocolatier with a selection of posh looking chocolates and macaroons, and a delicious offering of delicate cakes monogramed with their logo. Overall it was a very posh offering with reasonable prices and more importantly a seat by the window to watch the world go by.
Our return transfer coach was on-time and the group (around 20 of us) had all congregated in the hotel foyer so boarding was quick and easy. We had the same driver for the return leg which was great as we all felt like we knew her by now! The return leg detoured past the famous Atomium attraction in Brussels which we didn't have time to visit during the stay but would have done if we spent longer in Brussels.
The return leg was quieter as there wasn't much narration except for recapping some sights which we could see better thanks to more favourable weather conditions on the return leg.
We stopped at the same service station for around half an hour to have a quick break outside of the coach before continuing back to Ijmuiden. When we arrived the coach parked right outside the port entrance doors so it was literally a case of stepping off the coach and into the terminal.
We arrived at the port around half an hour before we could board. The entrance is the same exit used for arrival. This time, you snake to the check in desks which are on the right hand side as you enter.
We didn't time it but check in couldn't have been any longer than two minutes. It really was exceptionally swift. Once you have checked in you then head on over to the Customs desk which was also very swift.
Rows of seats fill the terminal and at the back you can find a shop, a small café and toilets. Just in front of the escalators were a couple of computer terminals and some barriers.
Shortly after the scheduled boarding time the barriers were removed and a queue formed. Mandatory passport and boarding card checks were performed before we headed up the escalator. At the top was a Customs agent randomly checking luggage. We were asked for our boarding cards but that was it on the return leg. A short walk along the walkway led us onto the ship.
The return sailing from Amsterdam to Newcastle was calm and gave us the perfect opportunity to try out more of the on-board facilities.
A very peaceful good night's sleep left us refreshed perfect as we docked in Newcastle port the following morning, again on time.
Brussels was simply amazing. The Christmas markets were first class, with hundreds of stalls selling everything from luxurious Belgian chocolates and waffles to Christmas gifts and souvenirs. A huge ice rink and big wheel completed the Winter Wonderland (Plaisirs D'Hiver) in Place Saint Catherine whilst a brilliant light show entertained crowds at the famous Grand Place.
It was a city that oozed culture and a couple of days was not really long enough to take it all in. This Christmas Markets mini cruise was a perfect opportunity to sample the city though, and is a great way to see the city without the hassle of organising transport and hotels.
Our outbound sailing may have encountered rough seas but we have very fond memories of the crossings. Unlike air travel the ferry formed part of our holiday experience and for us it made the holiday what it was - fun, enjoyable and very relaxing.
We have compiled a list of useful links that should be helpful if you are now considering your very own mini cruise (a festive break or otherwise) sailing with DFDS Seaways.
To really get the most out of a short break holiday to Brussels you ought to buy a guide book. A little bit of research before you go means you can maximise your time in the city, cramming in as much or as little as you choose to do. Below are some suggestions of the most popular guide books for Brussels (many also touch upon Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp).