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BOUDICCA REVISTED- ANOTHER DAY AT SEA

BOUDICCA AT SEA
Boudicca at sea, seen from the terrace of Deck Seven. Photo copyright is that of the author

After a brace of days in the spellbinding beauty that is Port Elizabeth,  the Boudicca swung out to sea again, en route for Durban. After the exhilaration of our first true South African landfall, a day at sea came as a bit of a welcome respite.

In point of fact, our next port of call was to have been Richards’ Bay, with Durban being put in a few days later. But circumstances in the ‘Rainbow Nation’ itself dictated a necessary change to our running order.

The political unrest surrounding the impending impeachment of President Jacob Zuma seemed as nought when compared to a crippling drought that has blighted swathes of the country. The long, hot summer had meant no significant rainfall of any kind for months on end, and the reservoirs are running dry.

The per person allowance of water was eighty seven litres per day on my arrival in Cape Town, but by the time we returned to Cape Town that had shrivelled to a mere fifty litres. By any measure, this was a desperate state of affairs.

Of course, we on board Boudicca had no shortage  of water for our own, personal use. But the local authorities did impose a hose pipe ban on board our ship, which meant that the normal, nightly cleaning of all exterior decks had to be put on hold. The ship’s substantial acreage of normally pristine teak decks would just have to make do as best as was possible.

Actually, the crew did a fantastic job under very difficult circumstances. Hotel manager Peter Reeves and his staff toiled manfully to keep the ship clean. Both on board and ashore, the use of hand sanitisers was promoted vigourously. And those of us sensitive to the local situation certainly did what we could to keep the water usage down whenever possible.

This, then, was the backdrop to our decision to go to Durban first. We spent an indolent, somewhat undemanding day romping through a sporadically turbulent sea,  flecked with a conga line of whitecaps that kept the good ship Boudicca rocking most of the day under a benign, sunny sky.

Some people seemed surprised at the motion of the ship, which in turn came as something of a surprise to me. We were essentially crossing from the South Atlantic into the Indian Ocean. Those waters can cut up fast and loose at any time of the year, let alone in summer.

Apart from this background, the day passed in a kind of sublime, peaceful whirl. Reading for a while was followed by an informative lecture on the delights that Durban would soon have to offer. There was a lunchtime quiz in the Lido Lounge, and then some cracking fish and chips for lunch at the outdoor Ocean Grill, complete with side orders of tartar sauce and bracing sea air.

Early afternoon, and I sauntered up to the lofty, outdoor terrace at the rear of Seven Deck. A glass or two of gorgeous South African wine was mellowed by the equally splendid view of the ship’s stately wake, somehow managed to occupy a seemingly inordinate amount of my time.

There’s a kind of detached, almost Olympian feeling about lingering here- one also common to the same spot on board Black Watch-  especially with that marvellous panorama of petrol blue sky, and the majestic rise and fall of the stern in that following sea. It’s deliciously indulgent, and totally addictive.

Dinner seemed to come around at warp speed that night. A string trio swung lushly through a conga line of Cole Porter classics as passengers gathered to enjoy their pre-dinner cocktails. Early evening sunshine flooded the ship in a mellow glow, apt anticipation of the five course feast that lay ahead.

It was wonderful to find Rommel (a very fine Filipino gentleman, and not the ‘Desert Fox’ of old) acting as Maitre d’ for the Four Seasons restaurant. I knew him of old from many previous cruises aboard the Braemar, and he runs a very deft, welcoming operation over breakfast, lunch and dinner alike.

The same has to be said for the staff; dinner on any Fred. Olsen ship is a warm, intimate experience, where fine food and flawless services provides all the gimmickry that you will ever need. It’s at once both alluring and reassuring, and for many it is the highlight of the day. And little wonder, too.

Later, I sauntered up to the Lido Lounge to listen to Colin the piano player and the excellent Staple Hill duo as they serenaded us gently past the witching hour. And, with most passengers now retired for the night, there was time for one last nightcap, back out on the terrace.

And there it was again; the gentle heave of the ship and the sound of the rolling ocean, swishing by past her flanks. It came tonight with a side order of moonlight; a pale quarter strawberry moon shone fitfully from between passing banks of night time clouds. Ashore, the odd lighthouse beam shone fitfully out across the surging, pitch dark southern ocean. The air was as warm as toast.

By now, my bed was calling. The morning would see our arrival in Durban, and I had a busy day ahead…..

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AFRICAN SUNRISE

BOUDICCA
Boudicca

My journey out to South Africa started with an overnight Thomas Cook flight from Manchester to Cape Town. The airline uses an A330 for these flights, outfitted in a 2-4-2 row seat configuration in economy, with some extra large Premium seats up front.

As it turned out, the flight was only half full. I lucked out with an entire row of four seats to myself, adjacent to an empty window seat. Leg room was pretty good, but then I’m only five foot six tall in any event.

The plane lofted skywards from the darkened, rain sodden runway as the twelve hour flight really got into it’s stride. On each seat back was an on demand video entertainment system that was pretty lacking in comparison to those on, say, Emirates or Virgin. But it’s saving grace was an in flight, real time map that showed not only height and speed, but also the actual topography of the land being flown over. This seemed like a good little idea to me.

I was surprised at how good the quality of food was on this outward leg. The main meal was a specially curated James Martin creation, offering two different hot main courses. The emphasis is on simple good cooking (I opted for the beef) and I have to say that this was one of the best economy feels that I have ever eaten on any flight.

Drinks wise, the first one was free, courtesy of Fred. Olsen. It was a pay bar after that but, in all honesty, who really wants to sit and drink at such an unearthly hour anyway? Tea, coffee and water were free throughout the length of the flight.

I dropped in and out of a fitful sleep as the big A330 left Europe behind. It ghosted above the moonlit Mediterranean and made a seemingly slow, stately progress across the night time Sahara. Suddenly, the prospect of Africa- so long a distant dream- was becoming an immediate, looming reality.

And then came one of those magical moments that still make travel a truly thriling experience, even in these tense, hateful times. As our plane crossed the actual line on the map between the Sahara and the Serengeti, the first, faint streaks of sunrise began to shimmer on the far horizon. The big plane banked slowly, gracefully,  and the entire sky was a sudden blaze of dazzling, brilliant sun. My first ever African sunrise.

To say that it warmed the heart on more than one level is an understatement. It was a spine tingling revelation; totally apt as an appetiser to the lush, beautiful country that awaited me just a few hours ahead. And I suddenly found that any desire to sleep had gone, replaced instead by an intense adrenaline rush that seemed to put me on auto pilot, pun wholly intentional.

This being an overnight flight, the staff were pretty discreet in moving around the cabin after the main meal service. They did a very good job on the whole, and were both friendly and responsive. Updates from the flight deck were kept sensibly few, given the hour.

A light breakfast was polished off with some gusto. God, could I actually be hungry again? Apparently, yes….

Hours seemed to diappear at a frantic rate as the big bird whispered it’s way ever southwards. Before I knew it, we were on final descent into Cape Town. The next thing I remember was the yelp of tyres screeching on tarmac and a sudden, gentle shuddering that faded as the plane snuggled up to it’s arrival gate.

Our passage through customs and immigration was relatively painless. Fred. Olsen organises all transfers between the airport and the ship via a string of waiting coaches. It’s a seamless, totally convenient transition, and the whole operation ran as perfectly as a Swiss watch.

The first blast of a South African summer hit me like a steam train. Lord, after the British winter it felt so good to feel the warmth of the sun again. The feeling was like one of gently applied healing balm.

The transfer coach trundled dutifully through a warren of ramshackle townships and past an outbreak of banal shopping malls, splayed out across an arid landscape that is crying out for rainfall on a spectacular scale right now. Gradually, the great, unmistakable bulk of Table Mountain rose, high and massive against  a searing noon day sun. No clouds dusted that broad, implacable plateau; the sky was cobalt blue, without even the ghost of a breeze in the air.

And soon, another shape became apparent quite close by.  As it grew, it morphed into the unmistakable form of a cruise ship funnel. Bridal white, the flank was crowned with the familiar Fred. Olsen ‘fish’ logo in shades of red, white and blue. Below it, the sun glinted against a long row of floor to ceiling windows, making them shimmer in the haze. Under that looming shadow. our convoy of motor coaches slewed to a halt, almost as if cowed by this latest presence.

This, of course, was the Boudicca, Stately, graceful and proud, she sat bathed in both promise and sunshine. As perfectly poised as a swan and dressed from bow to stern in bright, colourful bunting, the ship was a beautiful, thrilling sight. And if that fabulous, first African sunrise had been the appetiser, then here was the main course, writ large in steel, teak and sheer, unashamed splendour.

I had the definite feeling of embarking on a truly epic adventure that was way out of the box; a sublime, seagoing safari…….

 

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.

BALMORAL

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.

 

 

SAILING THE BLACK WATCH- TAKING A LEGEND TO FABLED LANDS

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

I’m currently in the last stages of packing for the next voyage in this year’s series of adventures. In this case, it’s a short, five night cruise from Scotland to Norway and back aboard Fred. Olsen Cruise Line’s fabled Black Watch.

This year, the company introduced a range of these short, five night cruises for the first time, sailing from northern ports such as Newcastle’s Port of Tyne and Rosyth, the cruise port for Edinburgh. It is from this latter port that I’ll be embarking on the former Royal Viking Line veteran to three of the loveliest fjords on the cusp of western Norway.

Bracketed by a brace of sea days sailing to and from Norway, the Black Watch will make calls at Flam, Olden and Geiranger, showcasing some of Norway’s platinum chip scenery against the backdrop of the last days of summer. An itinerary that combines the timeless pleasure of life aboard one of the true aristocrats of the cruise industry with one of the most amazing scenic smorgasbords on the planet, at a time sensitive pace, and a at a price that won’t break the bank, either.

En route, I’ll be checking out Fred. Olsen’s legendary cuisine, including the new outdoor dining concept at The Grill, an extra tariff establishment that has been getting rave revues. I’ll also be sampling the extra price, premium afternoon tea, a white gloved extravaganza served up in the lofty heights of the Observation Lounge each afternoon.

Both represent something different and more upmarket for what has always been this most traditional of ships. With her profile resembling a miniature version of the QE2, Black Watch embodies all that is best and timeless about old style cruising, without simply becoming some kind of Victorian theme park afloat.

For example, there is no shortage of spacious suites and cabins with private balconies, many installed in a very comprehensive refit a couple of years ago. And, while the jury is still out on the ‘new’ dove grey paint scheme, Black Watch has all the contemporary creature comforts that a 21st century cruise passenger could want.

It will be interesting to see if the ship has managed to maintain the air of special, personalised intimacy and superb service that I remember her for. Though I visited her recently, I have not actually sailed on Black Watch since 2004.

Hence, I’m looking forward to boarding this very special, highly styled ship. Departure alone should be stunning and dramatic, swinging out and under the fabled Forth Bridge. It will hopefully prove to be a grand appetiser to a wonderful adventure, come rain or shine.

Look out for the blogs and photos to come, as Black Watch and I renew our old acquaintance.

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.