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SMALL SHIPS; GOING SOUTH FOR GOOD?

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Black Watch at Flam. Photo is copyright of the author

When Saga Cruises takes delivery of it’s new Spirit of Discovery in 2019, that line’s current, popular Saga Pearl II will leave the fleet. Though no buyer has yet been announced, it is to be hoped that this charming, intimate ship will find another owner, and hopefully within the UK market at that.

One possible interested party could well be Cruise and Maritime Voyages, which operates the Astor on a winter programme of fly/cruises to and from South Africa and Australia over the autumn and winter. Saga Pearl II is the near identical sister ship to Astor, and there’s no doubt that the two ships would make a great working duo. And, by then, it has to be reckoned that the veteran Marco Polo might well be coming to her final sell by date around that period. The slightly smaller Saga Pearl II would make an ideal replacement, with her outdoor terraced decks and similar, intimate styling, so the logic is inescapable here, too.

Against that, Saga Pearl II has a passenger capacity of just over 500- significantly less than the 800 carried by the adults’ only Marco Polo. And the trend lately at CMV has been to buy more bigger, second hand ships than before. The line first acquired the 45,000 ton, 1,300 passenger Magellan, and then upped the stakes significantly this year with the introduction of the near 64,000 ton, 1,400 passenger Columbus. Though relatively intimate compared with the modern big ships of P&O and Cunard, these two ships are still respectively double and treble the size of the Marco Polo. And, though intimacy remains at the heart of the CMV philosophy, the size of the ships is moving inevitably upwards.

A similar, upward gradient has also taken hold at Fred. Olsen, whose last addition- the 43,000 ton Balmoral- is almost twice the size of the 24,000 ton Braemar, and much larger than either of the stable, popular 28, 000 ton sister duo of Black Watch and Boudicca. It’s interesting to note that all four of the Fred. Olsen ships have been ‘stretched’ with the addition of a new mid section. In fact, both Braemar and Balmoral endured the process when already under the Olsen flag.

Like CMV, Fred. Olsen has nailed it’s colours firmly to providing a more intimate, British oriented travel experience, aimed at the older passenger. And, while both lines have succeeded and gained much success with this approach, it’s difficult to see how they expand in the same market; quite simply, the availability of major tonnage is now becoming an ever increasing problem.

Fred. Olsen has failed to add any new tonnage since the Balmoral back in 2009 and, while all four of the fleet’s ships are undergoing significant refurbishments to keep them fresh and attractive, the line is clearly in need of a new ship, or perhaps two. For a long time, the line has cast a covetous eye on the 38,000 ton Prinsendam of Holland America Line. Up to now, the Dutch line has proved very reluctant to part with it’s widely admired ‘Elegant Explorer’. But that might be about to change.

Holland America itself is in the throes of a retrenchment, geared towards providing the line with larger, more luxurious and family friendly vessels. Two of the 50,000 ton, 1990’s built Statendam class vessels- Ryndam and Statendam herself- were recently sold off to the Carnival subsidiary of P&O Australia. The two remaining in Holland America’s portfolio-Maasdam and Veendam– are clearly on borrowed time, especially when Holland America takes delivery of the stunning Nieuw Statendam in 2018.

If those two do, indeed, go- and it is pretty certain that they will- then Holland America might also, finally, divest itself of the Prinsendam. Any of these three fine, well cared for vessels would make great additions to  Fred. Olsen or, indeed, to Cruise and Maritime Voyages.

Elsewhere, other potential pickings are slim. I’ve already mentioned the lovely little Saga Pearl II, but the 19,000 ton Celestyal Nefeli- the original twin sister of the Braemar– might also be in the mix. Her two year charter to Celestyal Cruises comes to an end this year and, thus far, the Greek line has shown no commitment to renewing it. It has returning tonnage of it’s own to hand at the end of this year, coming back from Thomson Cruises. But the latter line’s decision to retain the popular Thomson Spirit for one more season might yet cause Celestyal to rethink again about the Nefeli.

Other than the ships cited above, it seems that the only new route open for both lines is that of dedicated new builds. Indeed, this is the route that Celestyal itself is heading towards, with plans for a pair of new, 60,000 ton cruise ships. And, with the current, on going boom in the number of small sized expedition ships now under construction, builders are beginning to appraise the viability of more general purpose, smaller sized cruise ships, albeit to a limited degree.

That said, none of this is written in the sky, never mind set in stone. It’s food for thought rather than a set menu. But, as the next two years or so play out, the moving of chess pieces here and there should be fascinating to watch.

As ever, pray stay tuned.

 

 

 

BALMORAL MOVING TO EDINBURGH FOR 2018 CRUISES

Upping the ante for 2018 in the Scottish cruise market, Fred. Olsen is sending it’s flagship, the 43,000 ton Balmoral, north to Edinburgh in 2018.

The ship, originally built in 1988 as the Crown Odyssey for the long defunct Royal Cruise Line, will operate a series of nine cruises from Edinburgh’s port of Rosyth between May and July. With a passenger capacity in excess of 1300 plus, each sailing thus offers some five hundred more berths than the current FOCL Scottish stalwart, the popular Black Watch.

Sample itineraries include a five night Norwegian Fjords cruise departing on May 28th, calling at both Bergen and Eidfjord at the height of the apple blossom season, as well as a fourteen night Scandinavian Capitals sailing, covering the ‘greatest hits’ ports of the summertime Baltic, departing on June 9th- right at the heart of the summer season.

Another particularly attractive option is a seven night ‘Diamonds, Chocolates and Canals’ cruise departing on June 30th. This one serves up an especially tasty platter of ports including Amsterdam, Ghent, and an overnight stay in cosmopolitan Antwerp.

All these itineraries are on sale now, and Fred. Olsen- enjoying a record wave of bookings this season- is sweetening the deal by offering three cruises for the price of two, or free tips for guests booking on board prior to May 3rd.

Some nice options in play here on a spacious, intimate ship that offers a generally very relaxing, value oriented cruise experience in very tasteful surroundings.

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FIVE THINGS I LIKED ABOUT BLACK WATCH

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The Black Watch in Flam, Norway

Regular followers of this blog will know that I am recently back from five days’ cruising aboard the wonderful Black Watch, fondly remembered by many as the legendary Royal Viking Star.

Five days is not long, but it is long enough to re-evaluate a ship that I last sailed on back in 2004. What I discovered on board was a sublime, well packaged cruise experience that does exactly what it promises. No hype or hyperbole.

This list is by no means all encompassing or exhaustive; Black Watch is a lady brimming with both quirky and endearing delights. She has a poise, married to a sense of enduring authenticity, that give her the genuine stamp of ocean going maritime royalty.

So- without any further ado- here are my ‘Top Five’ great experiences about sailing aboard the Black Watch

THE DECK SPACE

Originally built for high quality, low capacity world wide cruise itineraries, the ship is generously swathed in broad, expansive acres of sun washed teak decking, sprinkled with really comfortable furniture, that make her a delight to relax aboard. Outdoor pools and Jacuzzis, together with a pair of outdoor bars and an upper deck tennis court, makes both relaxation and gentle exercise a true joy on sea days.

There is a full, wrap around promenade deck, and no shortage of artfully stepped terraces overlooking the stern. that are a treat to experience at any hour of the day or night.These swathes of outdoor real estate helps make the Black Watch feel larger than she actually is.

THE CREW

Time and again, Fred. Olsen’s warm and friendly Filipino staff win plaudits from new and returning passengers alike. And no wonder.

Many have been with the company for several years, and their hospitality skills are as finely tuned as a Swiss watch. Everything is done with a smile; nothing seems to be too much trouble. No mean feat, considering the long hours that they work.

These people are, quite literally, the heart and soul of the Black Watch. They give the ship an aura of cosseted ease, and a level of attentiveness that works like some kind of magical healing balm. Collectively, they cannot be praised enough for their dedication and attitude to their guests. Truly lovely people.

THE COURTYARD

Despite the name, this beautiful room is actually sited indoors, just across the corridor from the centrally sited Braemar Lounge, with its floor to ceiling windows overlooking the sea.

Because of this proximity, The Courtyard is flooded with natural light at most hours of the day. With a faux stone floor sprinkled with small tables and rattan chairs, the room has a very strong passing resemblance to the Veranda Cafe aboard a rather famous, not to mention unfortunate, White Star liner of a certain vintage.

With beautifully primped greenery and a slate faced bar, this elegant, airy room is a perfect ante chamber to the adjacent Orchid Room buffet. With plenty of space between tables, it never feels crowded. The Courtyard works just as well as a venue for a semi formal afternoon tea, when the tables are dressed with white tablecloths, or as somewhere to linger over a glass of wine at any time of the day. And the beautifully styled tunes performed by the Rosario Strings trio really do evoke that ‘Palm Court’ feel to cosmetic perfection.

THE GRILL

New to Fred. Olsen, this is a very nice introduction as an evening alternative to the main dining room. At an extra tariff charge of £20 per guest, the sheer quality of the food and service would beat many land based establishments for both style and price.

Located outside, aft on deck six, The Terrace offers a la carte classics in a matchless setting. Feasting on Fillet Steak, asparagus and hand made chips while sailing through a sun draped Norwegian fjord in early evening takes some beating, for sure. That steak itself was so perfectly done that it almost fell apart at the touch of a knife.

The dessert I chose- chocolate cup with berries- was worth going for on its own. Pared with some exquisite wines and finished with a dreamy Cappuccino, the food served up in The Grill constituted, quite simply, the best meal that I have eaten on any cruise ship this year.  Not simply a restaurant, but an open air theatre too, The Grill really raises the bar on the already fine dining offered right throughout this ship.

THE BOOKMARK CAFE

A wonderful, window lined indoor space that is one part library, one part sweet shop, Bookmark Cafe is irresistible to anyone with even a remotely sweet tooth. With rank upon rank of tempting, chocolate based treats-Chocolate Truffles, anyone?- on sale for around 65p each, not to mention an entire raft of reasonably priced, exotic speciality coffees to complement them, this room is a real hazard to activity of any kind.

In hues of ruby read, full of deep, comfy chairs and tables, and abutted by one of the most elegant libraries afloat, Bookmark Cafe oozes style, space and sheer temptation that few will be able to resist. And now available on all four ships in the Fred. Olsen fleet, Bookmark Cafe adds something fresh and compelling to the already considerable allure of this most stately of ships.

So- there we have it. Black Watch. Primped, proud and freshly powdered. Don’t take my word for it- go see for yourself.

 

 

UPDATED: BLACK WATCH ‘UNDER WAY FOR SPAIN’

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Black Watch- formerly the Royal Viking Star- in her original Fred. Olsen white livery

Having landed her passengers in Funchal, Madeira a few days ago, the fire damaged Black Watch is under way once more. The 28,000 ton, 1972 built ship left Madeira today for the Spanish port of El Ferrol, on the north west coast of the country.

Repairs will be needed to cabling in the engine room that closed down three of the ship’s eight diesels. It is understood that the Black Watch will take on supplies when she arrives in El Ferrol on Saturday, and will also undergo further evaluation by specially flown in experts at the Navantina dockyard located there.

After this, it is intended that Black Watch will proceed directly to Tilbury for any necessary further repairs. Although no exact time scale has been released for this- an unrealistic expectation until Navantina has completed due diligence- the fact that Black Watch is bound for Tilbury, rather than a dry dock in Southampton or on the continent, seems to point to the damage not being overly serious, with most of the major repairs being carried through by Navantina at El Ferrol.

Thus far, only the following July 8th cruise-a nine night voyage to the Norwegian Fjords- has been formally announced as cancelled by the line.

Some seven hundred passengers had to be evacuated and flown home on three specially chartered planes when Black Watch suffered her engine room fire. All of these will receive a full refund of their cruise fare, or the option of re-booking a comparable cruise in the same grade of cabin for free, plus a certificate for twenty per cent off any future Fred. Olsen cruise.

Stay tuned for updates.

UPDATE 8/7:

Fred Olsen Cruise Lines has issued a statement on the Black Watch, in which it says that it ‘fully expects’ that the 1972 built ship will sail on it’s next scheduled cruise- a twenty six night Arctic itinerary on July 17th.

The nine night Fjords cruise, due to sail today, was cancelled as outlined above.

If so, it would seem to confirm the earlier prognosis laid out on here that the damage is not as serious to the ship as first thought.

Stay tuned for any further relevant updates.

 

 

NEXT BLACK WATCH CRUISE CANCELLED OWING TO FIRE DAMAGE

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Black Watch- formerly the Royal Viking Star- in her original Fred. Olsen white livery

Fred. Olsen Cruise Liner has formally announced that the next cruise of their popular Black Watch has been cancelled as result of recent fire damage sustained on her recent Canary Islands cruise.

The ship limped into Madeira, with damage to her engine cable systems. The fire was confined to the engine room, and all other on board systems remain operational.Some seven hundred passengers were flown home from the Portuguese island. At present, Black Watch remains in Funchal while technical teams assess the damage.

The July 8th sailing- so far the only one to be cancelled- was a Norwegian Fjords itinerary operating out of Tilbury.

At present, it is impossible to guess what the knock on effect might be to the remainder of the 2016 itineraries for Black Watch. This writer is currently scheduled to be aboard the 1972 built, former Royal Viking Line veteran, built as the Royal Viking Star for a short Fjords itinerary out of Rosyth.

As soon as updates become available, you’ll find them posted here. Please stay tuned.

ROYAL VIKING LINE- THE ORIGINAL DELUXE CRUISE LINE

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The legendary Royal Viking Sky, seen here after her lengthening in 1982

Today, there are a handful of sybaritic, top end cruise lines that promise their guests the sun, the moon, and the stars on a golden platter. Crystal, Regent, Seabourn, Seadream and Silversea come most readily to mind.

All of the above are absolutely high end, incredible experiences. But, while they all compete with one another for the cream of the trade, one thing that all of them have in common is their original source of inspiration.

That source being the legendary Royal Viking Line.

Founded by the suave, patrician Warren Titus in 1972, and with head offices quartered in San Francisco, the line pioneered an almost identical trio of superlative sister ships, designed to take top end cruising to a stratospheric level. The plan was simple, but sweeping; create an environment of casual, spectacular ease and luxury that embraced the best of everything, from food, cabins and service through to stunning, far reaching itineraries. Wrap all of this up in a trio of incredible, swan like vessels, and garnish with real Scandinavian hospitality and flair. Titus thus laid the corner stone for the line which, even today, evokes unashamed awe and nostalgia as the true progenitor of luxury cruising.

First out of the stocks was the Royal Viking Star, in the summer of 1972. She was followed by the Royal Viking Sky in the summer of 1973, and by the third ship- Royal Viking Sea- in December of 1973.

The actual physical appearance of these three vessels was nothing short of stunning. Always immaculate in shades of bridal white, each boasted a graceful flared bow, and fine flowing lines topped amidships by a single funnel, one that owed a lot of influence to the rival, much larger QE2.

The three sisters were all of around 21,500 tons as new, and all were delivered from the Wartsila shipyard in Finland. Designed for epic, long distance cruising, the three sisters carried only around 550 passengers each- 200 or so less than similarly sized vessels of the day. And, although balcony cabins were not yet then in vogue, the on board space and accommodation was, quite simply, spectacular for the size of the ships.

Their clientele revolved largely around wealthy retirees, often from the Pacific Coast of North America. These were people used to expecting- and demanding- the best of everything. On Royal Viking, they were indulged and cossetted in a way that had never been seen before, on ships that were intimate enough to have everything imaginable, and yet still small enough to slip into the most secluded, sought after ports in the world. From Papeete to Portofino, these spectacular, modern day Vikings became a familiar, much treasured sight. Within a short time, Royal Viking gained a stellar reputation as the only real way to cruise. All three ships were so popular that they often sold out many months in advance.

This led to some dramatic cosmetic surgery for the trio. Beginning with the Royal Viking Star in 1981, and then followed by Royal Viking Sky in 1982 and Royal Viking Sea in 1983, each ship was taken out of service, cut in half, and then joined together with a new, ninety three foot long new mid section.

These extensions had the effect of raising the gross tonnage of each ship to 28,000, and allowed the ships to cater for a new total of 750 passengers each. Despite this, the three sisters were still able to accommodate all passengers at one seating for dinner, an industry ‘first’ that set the tone for almost every luxury line that followed them.

If anything, the additional length made them more beautiful and yacht like than ever. Still venerated and utterly sophisticated, the three ships went back to their own series of fantastic voyages. But change was in the offing.

In 1984, Royal Viking Line was bought out by the legendary Knut Kloster, as part of his plan to make Norwegian Cruise Line an international conglomerate. Grand as it was, the plan was way too early, and beset with logistical and financial hurdles. Disenchanted, Warren Titus left the company in 1987. But, by that stage, the visionary Kloster was already envisaging a big new build for the fleet. The first, in fact, since 1973.

When she emerged in 1989, the 39,000 ton, 850 passenger Royal Viking Sun had the same general appearance as her smaller siblings, with the exception of her superstructure. This was now garlanded with rows of the newly in vogue balcony cabins, and topped by a shorter, more squat funnel. Big things were expected of this new Viking flagship when she first appeared.

Kloster also gifted the line a small, luxury mega yacht, the 10,000 ton, 1992 built Royal Viking Queen. With all outside suite accommodation for just 212 passengers, she was at that time the most spacious cruise ship afloat anywhere.

But this bullish expansion belied the fact that Kloster’s overblown operation was now in deep financial trouble. Simply put, it had grown too big, too soon. By 1994, the whole operation was sailing on a rising tide of red accountant’s ink.

By now, even the sybaritic Royal Viking Line had lost a great deal of its shine. Newer rivals such as Seabourn and Sea Goddess ate voraciously into its former core passenger base. After twenty two years, Royal Viking Line was finally wound down as a company in 1994.

But the impact of Royal Viking on high end cruising has been seismic. Many of the senior staff on their ships have now transferred to the likes of Silversea, Oceania, and even Crystal.

And it is testimony to the original strength, excellence and adaptability of their design, that all five original Royal Viking ships still remain in service today. The original trio in particular are still utterly unmistakable. Over time and tide, they have evolved into some of the most graceful and elegant vessels still sailing to this day.

Today, Royal Viking Sky survives as Fred. Olsen’s Boudicca, having there rejoined her sister ship, Black Watch, the one time Royal Viking Star. Royal Viking Sea, meanwhile, sails on as Phoenix Seeresien’s magnificent Albatross.

Fittingly, Royal Viking Sun graduated to Holland America Line, sailing for them to this day as their ‘Elegant Explorer’, the beloved Prinsendam. And, still sybaritic to this day, the former Royal Viking Queen remains in service as the elegant Star Legend, of Windstar cruises.

In Royal Viking, Warren Titus created far more than a salubrious brand. He created a legend, one echoed today in the service, cuisine and stance of every de luxe cruise ship in service across every ocean on the globe.

For that, and for the memories that this great institution created over the better part of two peerless decades of excellence and indolence, Warren Titus deserves to be ranked right up there with the likes of Albert Ballin. To this day, Royal Viking remains a byword for the best of everything in luxury cruising. And history will only further embellish that reputation over the years to come.