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RIB RIDING THE WAVES, FRED. OLSEN STYLE….

RIB
One of the new RIB boats. Photo credit: http://www.fredolsencruises.com

The River Tyne in early March is not noted for it’s gentle waves and benign climate.So, imagine my surprise, then, to find myself waddling down the seaward side gangway of Fred. Olsen’s stately Boudicca to climb into a small boat that looked for all the world like a pilot fish sitting alongside some supine, basking whale.

I’m togged out in a full survival suit in fetching shades of coal black and bubonic yellow, topped off with a life jacket, and with matching gloves and a woolly hat as accessories. Getting into all of this was one awesome sartorial challenge. I suspect that it might have been easier getting into the Siegfried Line….

But all of this was for my own good. Those awesome little boats are called RIBs (literally Rigid Inflatable Boats) and they are the latest set of enhancements to be added across all four ships in the current Fred. Olsen fleet. Each of them has been gifted with a brace of these beauties and boy, can they ever barrel across a flat stretch of water. As I was just about to find out.

The idea is simple; enhance the already very considerable allure of the Fred.Olsen brand of small ship cruising by adding the RIBs. At any given time, these give the ships an opportunity to get a handful of intrepid adventurers right ‘up close and personal’ to the silent, soaring walls of rock that frame the great fjords of Norway, or to make landfall on some sublime, serenely dreamy Caribbean beach. And, with the four ship fleet literally exploring almost every known corner of the globe on a yearly basis, the opportunities to get even more immersed in some truly wonderful, spine tingling experiences are brilliantly obvious.

Imagine motoring around the massive, imperious rock formations that shear up out the seas off Phuket, or getting right up close and personal to some immense, glistening iceberg as it calves, crackles and sheds massive fragments of glistening ice into what looks like a sea of glass.  How about getting right up close to Sydney’s awe inspiring bridge, before actually sailing under it? Or even motoring at speed past the secluded manor houses and chateaux that line the banks of the sinuous, spectacular River Seine?

Most- but not all-of these adventures are quite likely to unfold on more benign waters than a River Tyne still gripped in the last, strangulated grasp of a raw winter Wednesday. Likely as not, there will be no need to shoe horn yourself into the second skin that I was sporting, as I moved to where my own little RIB boat was bobbing up and down in the slate grey swell. The sky overhead frowned down at us; fleets of great, grey clouds loomed above our heads, looking like inbound zeppelins on a bombing raid.

But, before you even get this far, there is a full safety briefing, and a mock up of the actual seating aboard the RIB. Each and every passenger has to demonstrate that they are fit and able enough to climb on and off these, before even being allowed to proceed any further. And each RIB comes complete with a brace of fully trained crewmen, capable of dealing with every aspect of the RIB experience.

The RIBs themselves each have two rows of seats running from fore to aft, complete with sturdy back rests, and a set of hand grips to which I was soon to become very attached indeed. Not since my white knuckle donkey ride to the top of Santorini’s cloud scraping caldera a few years back have I held onto anything with such grim determination.

We shuffle into our allotted seats with a sense of dour, determined resolve. Once everyone is seated the lines are cast off, and the boat splutters and rumbles into life. Boudicca begins to vanish into the Tyneside mist like some anxious, perplexed wraith. Spray flails the air as we begin to romp across the sullen, spitting briny. But, my word, this stuff really is exhilarating.

Waves flail at the walls of the harbour breakwater like angry, foaming fists as we surge towards it. A stout, grimy trawler waddles past us like some drunken dowager of old, while seabirds screech and then wheel all around it. As we increase speed the boat shudders, jumps and races along, with hissing girdles of foam curling around her flanks like so many angry slaps.

Now then rain drums down, knifing into us as we nose out past the breakwater. To port, the stunted remains of ancient Tynemouth Priory loom out of the mist like squat, truncated fingers. In our ears, the roar of the motor feels more like a heartbeat as the RIB remains purposefully on track. The boat can turn on a penny; it’s ability to nip, swerve and shimmy is nothing short of remarkable.

It’s an exhilarating, adrenaline pumping run that really does take destination intensive cruising to a whole new level. As we raced back into the sanctuary of the Tyne, the RIB gradually slowed, like some shattered steed that had run itself into the ground. The roar of the engine died down to something like muted burbling, even as the welcoming, solicitous bulk of Boudicca loomed out of the mist to tower over us once more.

Secured and reassured, we trooped dutifully back up the gangway, shedding our sodden protective skins at what seemed like warp speed. There was piping hot coffee to welcome us back, and a series of awed, befuddled glances from some of the other people on board. Their eyes said it all: what were you even THINKING , being out there on a day like this?

For me, what I was doing was trying something radically different, something that was as exhilarating as it was rewarding. And, if this little taste of RIB riding got to me quite so much, then what must it be like to do something similar, sans wet suits, in the calmer, far warmer waters of, say, the Caribbean?

As an adventure, this is definitely one that should be on your bucket list.

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FRED GETS FESTIVE-SINGLE SUPPLEMENTS TORPEDOED ON 2019-20 SAILINGS

BOUDICCA AT SEA
The aft terrace decks on FOCL’s evergreen Boudicca. Photo copyright is that if the author

 

Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines is gifting potential single passenger with some early festive treats, as it removes single supplements on a whole raft of sailings over 2019 and into 2020.

The itineraries include both ex-UK sailings, and a series of selected fly cruises right across the entire, four-ship Fred. Olsen fleet. The only real caveat is that all travel must be booked by February 28th, 2019.

Among the options on offer are an eight night round Britain cruise, sailing from Liverpool aboard Black Watch on June 20th, 2019, and a fourteen night fly cruise on sister ship, Boudicca. That one begins in the Cypriot port of Limassol on March 5th, 2020, and finishes in Dover.

Another tempting option-also aboard Boudicca-is a  fourteen night foray to the ‘Fortunate Isles’- Madeira, Tenerife and Gran Canaria-departing from Dover on March 9th, 2019. This one in particular is a nice option for anyone desperate to dodge the last, dying days of winter.

Always famous for the warm, gracious service that is the hallmark of their smaller, more intimate ships, Fred. Olsen continues to offer superb on board cuisine, as well as one of the most highly rated shore excursion programmes in the entire cruise industry. Collectively, the four ships- Balmoral, Braemar, Boudicca and Black Watch- cover almost the entire globe on their yearly roster of sailings.

A great option for singles, to be sure.

SUMMER IN THE CITIES; BALMORAL TO THE BALTIC IN MAY, 2019

BALMORAL
Fred. Olsen’s classy Balmoral

While 2018 has been a banner year for travel here at TWA, it already looks as if 2019 is shaping up fair to be even more so. In fact, the bar on that one was raised considerably by some very welcome news I received yesterday morning about one particular, much anticipated trip.

It puts me back aboard an old favourite cruise ship of mine-Fred. Olsen’s spacious, graceful Balmoral- on a fourteen night run out of Newcastle’s Port of Tyne to the capital cities of Scandinavia and back again. Leaving in early May, it’s the perfect time to get up close and personal to some of the most stunning highlights of that beautiful cruising region.

The cruise showcases overnight stays in both Stockholm and St. Petersburg, both cities that cry out for more than simply a one day stay. There’s also vibrant, beguiling Copenhagen, still very much the fun, summertime capital of Scandinavia, plus a visit to cool, cosmopolitan Helsinki and fairy tale, Olde Worlde Tallinn, in Estonia.

Unusually for such an itinerary, there’s also a welcome call int at Oslo, Norway’s green, gracious capital, on the way back to the Tyne. Throw in no less than three full, idyllic sea days, and you’ve got an itinerary that ticks almost every box imaginable.

The visual highlights en route are almost effortlessly impressive. Imagine close quarter cruising among the scores of amazing, pine clad islands in the Stockholm archipelago in the long, lingering afterglow of the ‘white nights’, and the warm, whimsical fairground lights of Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens in the first, full bloom of the spring.

There’s the amazing waterside splay of splendid Italianate architecture that lines the still, silent canals of Saint Petersburg, where the enormous glut of gold and gilt at Petrodeverts serves as a timely reminder of past excess and corruption. The winding, cobbled streets of Tallinn are dominated by towering, tapered Gothic church spires and gaunt castle walls dating back to the Middle Ages. Here, in a city blighted by both communism and fascism, that darker past is never too far below the gingerbread veneer that exists today.

Helsinki flaunts green, open spaces, cutting edge architecture and timeless Art Nouveau elegance, along a waterfront where fleets of fishing boats sit at anchor, while scores of seabirds wheel and screech all around them. And, as a fabulous finale, the stately, sixty mile inland sail to Norway’s capital of Oslo is one of the scenic, sublime processions from open sea to city on offer anywhere in the world.

It’s a fabulous smorgasbord of a trip and, just like any great feast, there’s one key element and mindset at the heart of it all that sets the tone for everything else. In this case, it just happens to be the ship herself.

Balmoral is warm, welcoming and spacious. A ship that typifies style, rather than hype. the ‘gimmicks’ here are genuinely gracious service allied to fine food, served in a variety of venues, and a warm, welcoming sense of care and concern for the passengers on board. It’s as much serene as it is surreal.

With passenger numbers on board kept to just under 1400, Balmoral is majestic yet manageable in terms of on board space. She’s expansive, yet easy on the eye. For such a special itinerary as this, she’s the ideal ship; her size allows her ease of access to the prime berths in those historic city centres, while still allowing space enough for you to be as sociable or as secluded as you like.

Add to that the ease of a convenient local departure (Port of Tyne is literally a twenty five minute drive from my front door) and that special, sublime play of light on water that is one of the true highlights of the summertime Baltic, and you begin to understand why this trip has so much appeal to me.

There will always be those who assert that ‘familiarity breeds contempt’; in this case, I’d amend that to familiarity breeds contentment…..

Come aboard with me in May 2019, right here on TWA, and we’ll sail those epic Baltic idylls in fine, timeless style. Lovely stuff.

 

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…..

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?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
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