Tag Archives: ocean liners

WAS CAPTAIN SMITH CONCERNED ABOUT TITANIC?

CAPTAIN SMITH OF TITANIC
Captain Edward Smith in tropical white uniform, possibly on the bridge of the Olympic

Over the years, the much maligned and romanticised Captain Smith of the Titanic has posthumously come across as something of a casual, urbane chancer; a man whose breezy manner of doing things was the ultimate catalyst for the worst maritime disaster of the time. But was he really so blase about commanding the largest moving object on the face of the planet?

Smith was the senior captain of the White Star Line. As commodore, his £1200 a year salary was more than double that of his nearest rival. And no wonder; the socially adept and much admired Smith was considered the most popular skipper on the Atlantic, both by passengers and crew alike. He seems to have been one of those genuinely unique men that could forge bonds with people from across the world.

He was also famously in thrall to modern, twentieth century technology. In the summer of 1907, when he brought the then brand new, 24,000 ton Adriatic into Southampton to begin her maiden voyage, he said this to the assembled press;

I cannot conceive of any vital accident that would cause this ship to founder. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that….”

But did subsequent events shake that complacent view? There is no record of how Smith reacted to the sinking of another White Star liner- the Republic- just two years after he made that fatuous pronouncement in Southampton. But it cannot have failed to have impacted on him.

It certainly impacted on the management at White Star, but not in a positive way; all of the passengers and crew of the slowly sinking Republic had been safely evacuated to other, nearby ships by the liner’s own lifeboats. And this fact prompted a seismic shift of perspective that would impact the Titanic and her captain just as fatally as the iceberg itself.

Post Republic, the management chose to look on lifeboats in general as ferry boats that would simply convey passengers from a sinking ship to rescue vessels, summoned by the miraculous new wireless telegraphy. They completely disavowed the notion that those same lifeboats might have to serve as survival craft in themselves for everybody on board. This complacent, delusional self satisfaction was at least partly responsible for the fatal dearth of lifeboats on the Titanic on that fateful night in April, 1912.

As for Smith, his triumphant ascent to command of the stunning new Olympic in June of 1911 seemed inevitable. Now he stood on the bridge of a ship twice as large as the Adriatic; in fact, a ship that was bigger than anything else ever seen. And trouble was not long in following.

As the Olympic attempted to dock at her New York pier for the first time, the surge created by her propellers sucked in a harbour tug like a bobbing cork, before the whirling blades neatly severed it at the stern. All told, it took eighteen tugs a full hour to dock the new ‘marvel’ at the end of an otherwise triumphant maiden crossing. Did this incident send any alarm bells ringing in Smith’s ivory tower?

Just three months later, the Olympic began her stately progress down Southampton Water at the start of another crossing to New York. Proceeding on a parallel course on her starboard side was a Royal Navy cruiser, the HMS Hawke.

Somehow, the suction from the giant Olympic sucked in the relatively small cruiser, swinging her to starboard and instigating a collision that left the reeling cruiser’s bow resembling so much sodden cardboard.

As for the Olympic, the impact tore an eighty foot hole in her starboard side, right aft. By God’s good grace there were no casualties, but it did mean the abortion of the voyage, and a trip to Belfast for repairs that took a full six weeks.

At the time of the accident, Olympic was under the command of Captain Smith, though the local harbour pilot, George Bowyer, was in charge of handling the ship at the time. All the same this incident was by far the most serious that Smith had ever been involved in over his thirty seven year career. If that did not give him food for thought, it certainly should have done. Or did the fact that the Olympic survived with no loss of life merely deepen his faith in this new, more technologically advanced breed of super liner?

Whatever, the Olympic accident did nothing to dent White Star’s faith in it’s star commodore. April 1912 found him in command of the newer, slightly larger Titanic. Her sixteen day, round trip maiden voyage to New York and back was expected to be Smith’s last hurrah. Once done, he could look forward to a long, honourable retirement.

It all went pear shaped at the start. As the Titanic edged gingerly downstream from the White Star dock, the suction from her propellers pulled the smaller New York away from her pier. Mooring ropes on the old American liner snapped like cotton, and her stern swung out like a battering ram. Only the frantic action of stopping the engines on Titanic, and the perceptive intervention of a local tug, prevented a serious and embarrassing collision between the two ships.

Up on the bridge of the slowly proceeding Titanic, the same duo of Smith and Bowyer must have seen these events unfold with scarce concealed horror. It had almost been the Olympic and the Hawke all over again. And it did seem to have an impact on Smith.

That evening, after taking on more passengers at Cherbourg, Smith took the Titanic through a series of lazy ‘S’ turns. He continued this process all the way through the English Channel, and right up to the entrance to his last port of call at Queenstown, in Southern Ireland on the following lunch time.

What provoked this? It seems that this third mishap with an Olympic class liner in enclosed waters prompted some deep, residual concern in Smith. All three near disasters had occurred within the space of ten months, and all in plain sight of the self same captain.

In all, the speed and handling trials of the Olympic had lasted a scant two days. For the Titanic, they took up a mere eight hours. This, for the two biggest moving objects on the face of the planet; two ships that were expected to navigate both huge oceans and shallow, crowded waterways alike. Perhaps the truth of that had finally come home to Smith and, in making his series of lazy, meandering turns en route to Ireland, he was attempting to get a better sense of the intricacies of steering his awesome new command.

However, that concern seemed only to apply to enclosed waters. Once clear of Ireland and with only the open ocean in front of him, Smith reverted to a cavalier, increasingly upped rate of speed. Ultimately, he was doing exactly what he had done- and got away with- for thirty eight years. But this time, it would go horribly wrong.

The long odds finally caught up with this most highly regarded of captains just four nights later, when the Titanic ran pell mell into a vast, eighty mile region of floating ice. The rest is history. If only Smith’s belated concerns about sailing in harbour waters had extended to a more cautious approach to charging head long through ice filled waters, then things might have played out very differently on that starlit Sunday evening of April 14th, 1912.

SAILING 105 YEARS AGO TODAY; STEAMSHIP TITANIC, DESTINATION NEW YORK…..

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The Titanic begins her stately progress down Southampton Water on April 10th, 1912, in this famous photo by Frank Beken. The incident with the New York was behind her, and the big liner was now Cherbourg bound

Soon after noon on Wednesday, April 10th 1912, the ropes that had shackled the awesome bulk of RMS Titanic to her Southampton berth for a week were shrugged off like so many sodden strands, her trio of giant propellers kicked up the mud and sand of the River Itchen and, under the careful husbandry of six local tugs, the biggest moving object on the face of the planet began to inch gingerly forward to the cheers of a large crowd, gathered on the quayside.

Not everyone was glad to see her go. A contingent of six firemen had signed on to the ship, only to linger ashore over a last pint at The Grapes, a famous local dockside pub. By the time that they showed up to report for duty, the Titanic was already clear of the quay and, with the gangways down, the duty officer on board wasn’t taking their lateness as an excuse. That sudden excess thirst almost certainly saved their lives, but no one knew that then.

Those men watched in sullen silence as 46,000 plus tons of ocean liner, eleven decks high and almost nine hundred feet long, began her stately procession downstream. A wan springtime sun glinted against her quartet of towering, black and buff smokestacks as schools of whooping, shrieking sea birds wheeled and dived in her churning wake. The great siren on board boomed out an exultant, triple chimed salute to her home port, and Titanic began to pick up speed, her escorting tugs resembling so many panting puppies trying to rein back an agitated dinosaur.

Though the departure was intended to be low key, it would be full of high drama. Standing downstream, the wake from the Titanic snapped mooring ropes on the nearby steamer New York like so many cotton strands. The old American liner came loose, her stern looming out into the river until it came within mere feet of the startled, briefly stalled Titanic. As the crowds on shore gasped and strained their necks to see what looked like an imminent collision, one of the tugs got a rope on the New York. She was dragged back to her berth like some reluctant steer. With a sigh of relief almost audible from across the water, the Titanic resumed her stately progress downstream.

On board, the passengers had viewed the incident with a mixture of everything from amusement to outright horror. The ensuing delay while the New York was corralled and returned to the quay had cost the Titanic almost a full hour. Even as his ship skirted the Isle of Wight and dropped down past Ryde, Captain Smith was well aware that he would be late arriving in Cherbourg to pick up his passengers embarking on the continent. It couldn’t be helped; they would simply have to cool their heels until the Titanic made her delayed grand entrance into Cherbourg’s historic harbour.

Those were some very well heeled feet waiting for him, too. Among them was a substantial batch of platinum chip American corporate royalty; Astors, Guggenheims, Strausses, plus a whole supporting cast of railroad owners, property magnates, movie stars and professional sportsmen. There were art collectors, newspaper editors, and the simply rich. It was quite an illustrious roster in all; many of them had been regular passengers on the Olympic since her debut the previous summer. That giant ship- the first of the three great sister ships-had proved to be a marvellous advertisement for the newer, even more opulent Titanic. Bookings for both ships were very healthy right throughout that 1912 season.

This must have been a source of pride to both Captain Smith and White Star Chairman, Bruce Ismay, as the Titanic romped steadily across the sunlit English Channel. The sun shone; smoke from the first three smokestacks (the fourth one was a dummy fitted for aesthetic harmony) trailed back behind the ship towards home. On the aft mast, the White Star Line’s pennant fluttered gamely in the afternoon breeze.

Already, passengers were beginning to explore and exult in the ship that they were travelling on. In first class, afternoon tea was being served in the Verandah Cafe. Passengers in deck chairs took soup and sandwiches on the long promenade decks, bundled up in warm steamer blankets wrapped round them by solicitous stewards. People began making dinner reservations for the extra tariff, a la carte restaurant.

In the indoor squash court, the steady ‘thwack’ of ball against wall assumed a tempo that would be silenced only by the sudden inrush of surging, icy seawater some five nights later. The first passengers plunged boldly into the waters of the indoor pool nearby. Even braver souls surrendered themselves to the ministrations of trained masseuses in the garish menagerie of the Turkish Baths.

Others, more cerebral, lost themselves in a brand new book from the library, or wrote last, hasty letters home that could be sent ashore from Cherbourg and, later, Queenstown in Southern Ireland.

Late that afternoon, the coast of France emerged from the haze; a shimmering, low lying sliver that seemed to have a mirage like quality. But before almost anyone knew it, the Titanic arched a graceful turn, and came looming into the slowly darkening bay of Cherbourg. The anchor rattled down with a deafening crash right forward, and the huge liner swung skittishly at rest.

It was a brief break; that hours’ delay had helped nobody, and Captain Smith was anxious to begin his triumphant procession to the west, and the gala fire boat reception that awaited his glittering new command in New York. Two tenders- the Nomadic and the Traffic- came chugging out of the harbour towards the Titanic, like a pair of nervous courtiers paying homage to a new queen.

Aboard Nomadic were the first class passengers, and the mountain of luggage that always accompanied such people. As the Nomadic bumbled out into the bay, her irate passengers gasped in amazement at their first glimpse of the grand, stately Titanic, floodlit from bow to stern as the night took hold. They were ushered with apologies and assurances into the warm womb of the giant liner. A battalion of lift operators and bellboys stood ready at the adjacent trio of elevators to whisk these prized patrons off to their plush quarters, where the beds were freshly made and fresh flowers spilled out across almost every surface.

The second and third class passengers aboard the more plebian Traffic did not receive this kind of effusive, low key welcome. Instead, they and their much less substantial belongings were ushered through the steel shell doors of the hull, and into the belly of the brute. None the less, the same sense of barely disguised haste dominated the proceedings for all those embarking that evening.

As the two empty tenders backed away, the anchor was hauled up from the darkened briny. There was the clang and slamming of the shell doors along the liner’s hull. Once more, the great triple propellers- a full hundred tons of bronze in all- began to thresh up the waters around them.

The tender crews watched in awed silence as the floodlit Titanic swung through a graceful quarter circle, her quartet of great funnels standing like ramparts against the starlit sky. The deep, warm boom of the liner’s whistle echoed across the empty water like peals of slow, rolling thunder. And then, almost before they knew it, she had swept past them and disappeared beyond the horizon.

Disappeared, standing out for a noon arrival in Queenstown the following day, there to embark her last passengers. From there, it would be a stately romp across an agreeable, implausibly calm ocean for five days, before that first, glorious American landfall. Manhattan, and the promise of a freshly minted New York spring.

Several thousand miles to the west, a squat, glacial, salt water assassin waited patiently. Shrouded in darkness and black against the dark, still water, this potential killer- one of the truly deadly ‘great whites’ of the ocean- awaited it’s curtain call……

CRYSTAL SYMPHONY AND SERENITY TO GET NEW PENTHOUSE SUITES, DINING OPTIONS

CRYSTAL SERENITY
Crystal Serenity; sailing into a new era of excellence. Photo credit: http://www.cruisemapper.com

As part of a massive refurbishment project that will also include several new dining options, both Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity will be dry docked to allow for considerable enhancements to their current passenger accommodation.

Some existing rooms will be replaced with an entirely new class of room, designated as Seabreeze Penthouse suites. They will be pretty much the same size as the current penthouse suites aboard both ships, but will come with an entirely new design.

Approximately forty to fifty suites will be added to each ship and, as well as featuring new touches, some will offer use of the first ever washer/dryers ever seen in rooms of this size, the new, expanded suites will also have the effect of lowering the current guest capacity on each ship, thereby increasing the already generous on board space ratio.

In the case of Crystal Symphony, the count on board will revert from a current 922 down to 848. For Crystal Serenity, the figures go from the current 1070 guest down to a svelte 980- just over half of the 1800 routinely carried on the similar sized former Cunard flagship, QE2.

In addition, Crystal will introduce unlimited, free internet across both ships, 24/, for the duration of each cruise.

In stealing an edge on the competition, Crystal will enhance and revitalise the dining options available aboard both ships with a whole range of new eateries. These will include:

The Crystal Dining Room on both ships will be rebranded as the Waterside Restaurant, offering open seating dining and featuring a range of classic dishes and modern, contemporary favourites.

Tastes will morph into Silk, a venue that offers casual breakfasts, lunches, and family styled dinners that will showcase many Chinese style favourites.

The Lido on both ships will be restyled and reorganised as The Marketplace, offering buffet style tapas and ceviche during the day, along with other casual fare. At night, one part of the venue will become a Brazilian styled steak house- a churascaria- where succulent cuts of meat will be served up on skewers.

Silk Road will go on both ships, but will be replaced by a new Nobu venue entitled Umi Uma. In a nice nod to Crystal’s twenty seven years’ heritage, the phrase actually translates to ‘Seahorse’, the company logo. Suite guests will be entitled to unlimited dining in here, with other guests being offered one free dinner per voyage.

Popular Crystal stalwart, Prego, will remain and, once again, suite guests will be able to avail themselves of unlimited dining here. The Vintage Room will also remain, but with a modified menu that will also feature a ‘lunch and lecture’ programme on sea days, featuring fewer courses than the evening menu, and all paired with appropriate wines and beers.

With both the Crystal siblings going to open seating for dinner, entertainment options throughout will be redefined to enhance the roster of evening choices, under the supervision of former Norwegian and Costa entertainment guru, Keith Cox.

Overall, this programme of retrenchment and refinement to both of these fabled ships must be regarded as the most comprehensive in their history, and something of a leap of faith for Crystal Cruises itself. With expanded dining, accommodation and entertainment options, plus free internet and a higher guest/crew space ration than ever, these ships- like fine wine and good music- just seem to get better with age.

CELESTYAL OLYMPIA PART TWO: MYKONOS

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Eighties elegance at sea; the Celestyal Olympia sets sail from Piraeus for the Aegean

Once clear of the port of Piraeus, the Celestyal Olympia cut an elegant swathe through Homer’s ancient, wine dark Aegean as we settled on our course for Mykonos. Lunch was being served, both at the upper deck buffet and in the main restaurant downstairs.

I opted to go alfresco, picking at some delicious souvlaki as the ship slipped neatly between a string of shimmering, arid looking islands flung at random across the sparkling emerald carpet of the Aegean. Sunlight danced on the water in the two swimming pools as the sound of on board bouzouki music caught the ears of seabirds wheeling in our wake. Warm breeze, ice cold ouzo- life felt good that late September afternoon.

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Mykonos revisited……

All too soon, a familiar, fondly remembered shape stirred me from my daydream as it breasted the line of the horizon, filling our view as it spread across the sea. Low, rolling hills took on depth and definition as the sun began to dip, taking on a sharper aspect. Indistinct dots on a headland morphed into a quintet of shimmering, petrified white windmills.

Time to say ‘hello again’ to dear old Mykonos, the hedonistic queen of the Dodecanese.

Yes, Mykonos is expensive compared to many other Greek islands, and there are those who think that it is over rated. But for me, the island retains an inherent, ageless charm that no amount of tacky souvenir shops can erase. It’s a magical place, almost adrift in time and space.

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Windmills on the waterfront, Mykonos

The Celestyal Olympia docked at the new port of Tourlos, and I was amazed at just how much that port has developed now from just a small pier surrounded by arid hills, into more or less an extension of the main town itself. A chain of small, biscuit coloured beaches has been grafted onto the sea shore here, lined with a run of bars, shops and tavernas that now runs right along the waterfront.

As a result it’s now busier, more bustling and colourful than before, and the yacht marina near the pier is now blossoming into a beautiful, expansive place in its own right. But, inevitably, I found myself drawn back along that ancient, cobbled quayside, and back towards the old town centre.

In the winding streets, shop lights shone on white bordered crazy paving. Bouquets of flaming red and cherry plants overflowed from painted baskets that hung below balconies framed by bright, electric blue shutters. Tables and chairs spilled out across every conceivable space as evening revellers sought out a place to dine. On the crown of the hill where the windmills stand, crowds gathered to watch the ritual, world famous Mykonos sunset.

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Mykonos sunset; twilight of the old Gods

I would normally have joined them, but this time I chose to grab a veranda seat on the upper level of a bar overlooking Little Venice. From there, with an ice cold Mythos beer to hand, I watched spellbound as the vast, crimson ball of the sun sagged slowly into the Aegean like some flaming piece of performance theatre. In the background, I could hear Louis Armstrong’s La Vie En Rose playing. The sound of Satchmo’s soft, cool trumpet notes kissing the flaring purple Mykonos twilight was almost too good to be true. I hardly dared breathe, in case I shattered the moment forever.

It was the end of the season in Mykonos, and the night air somehow felt heavy with the feeling of the impending winter’s hibernation. White capped waves flailed and thrashed against the quayside on Little Venice like the heralds of the coming darkness. It felt beautifully mellow, nostalgic and sentimental all at once.

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Mykonos at dusk. Magnetic and compelling.

But Mykonos will awaken again. Come the spring, she will stir lazily and smile at the first, welcome rays of the returning springtime sun. Tourist haunts, closed against the bony stillness of winter, will reopen. Plants will bloom. Life will flood back like spring water. And I, too, will return.

I mused on this as I walked back to the ship. Floodlit from bow to stern, the Celestyal Olympia was a towering, majestic presence, at once welcoming and reassuring. As I walked back on board, the sound of an acoustic guitar caught my ears.

Later, I sat in the spectacular, twelfth level high Viking Crown lounge, drinking prosecco as the lights of Mykonos glanced against the window panes before fading from sight like so many dying fireflies. The gentle shudder of the ship brought me out of my reverie, and set me to thinking about the upcoming ports of call on the morrow.

FOOD, GLORIOUS FOOD- A CRUISING MYTH?

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Fillet steak, sir? Good choice…..

Ah, food on board cruise ships. Perhaps nothing over the years has been so eagerly anticipated by embarking passengers, or so hyped in the pages of glossy travel brochures. Few would dispute that, in terms of booking any cruise, food is right up there as the top priority as most people’s reason for sailing on a particular ship.

Whether we are talking about a basic, three star ship right up to the most uber luxurious six star floating paragon, food is always in abundant supply. And, indeed, for some, it is as much about quantity as quality.

Nowadays, thanks to an almost volcanic explosion in the size and stylings of modern ships, passengers can eat their way around the equivalent of a world wide range of tastes. From Mexican to Mongolian, Polynesian to French and classic Italian, cruise ship owners have found that offering the world on a plate is not only their oyster, but their fattened cash cow, too.

At sea, high end steak houses exist on most of the deluxe lines, and many of the premium ones as well. Further down the line, mainstream dining rooms offer more international fare. Buffets, however extensive, are often criticised as offering up the same food every day, while paradoxically finding a table in some of them seems like Mission; Impossible. Such are some of the dining conundrums of the modern cruise industry.

Of course, this diversity is a product of the cruise boom of recent decades. More people are taking to sea now than ever before, and from right across the social spectrum. In that mix, there will be those who are quite happy to stay in shorts and T-shirts all day, and eat every night from the buffet. Just as there will be others who keenly anticipate an evening of fine, themed dining every evening, and use the occasion as an excuse to put on their best glad rags. The point is, modern cruising can engage and entertain both of these viewpoints, at least by and large.

That said, the great majority of passengers fall somewhere in between these two fixed poles, and it is to the credit of the industry that it can accommodate- and largely satisfy- this teeming mass.

In truth, any line claiming to offer ‘gourmet food’ and ‘the best dining’ is putting itself in potentially stormy water. For nothing is as individually subjective on a cruise ship as taste. One passenger, sitting at a table on any given ship, might rave about their wonderful dinner while another, sat just feet away and ordering the same courses, might be disappointed, if not nigh on apoplectic. Not even the most detail accented, taste sensitive lines are going to please all of the people, all of the time.

So, just how does a prospective passenger plan for the best, food wise?

Look at the price for any cruise that appeals to you. It is obvious that the bargain, three star cruise adventure that you like the look of in the Mediterranean, is going to cost a hell of a lot less than a week of sybaritic slobbing around those same waters on a six star ship. If you pay to sail on the equivalent of a decent Hilton hotel, you just would not expect the upmarket care and personal attention to be found at a Ritz Carlton. Why would it be any different with a ship?

It’s a numbers game in other respects, too. Any ship catering for thousands of passengers at a time simply cannot provide ‘gourmet’ cuisine for the mainstream. There are insufficient staff; the per person per day food budget usually does not permit the chefs to buy the absolute top of the range, best quality ingredients while on the voyage. Practical as they are, they do the best they can within a regime constricted by such economies of scale, and the constant desire of shore side operations to pare down running costs.

It surely also follows that a much smaller ship can cater much more effectively- and edibly- to the far smaller number of passengers on board. These people pay for the best, and they expect to get it. A more high end clientele such as this, used to eating in the best restaurants at home and abroad, will not be fobbed off with second rate food and service. Quite right too, when you consider what they stump up per diem for the privilege.

Even in such a cocoon of rarified refinement, sometimes things do go wrong. Even the most talented and attentive chef can have an ‘off’ day, when all is said than done. In the words of the song, we are all human after all.

How graciously you deal with such a situation- and, indeed, how it is dealt with- well, that truly is a measure of your own, personal good taste, and that of others. Far more than a delicious dinner or an artfully flambed crepes suzette, that is what people will remember.

DINING WITH FRED; FOOD ABOARD THE BLACK WATCH

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Treats abound at The Grill aboard Black Watch
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Sumptuous Fillet Steak with Red Wine sauce at The Grill, Black Watch
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Edible chocolate cup with berries at The Grill

 

 

Fred. Olsen has always been a company that prides itself on the quality of its food and service. My recent return to the company’s Black Watch after something like twelve years provided me with a great opportunity to run the rule once more over the culinary landscape to be explored on this stalwart cruise line, a favourite of British passengers for more than three decades now.

FORMAL DINING The main dining room- the Glentanar- is situated in the middle of the ship, on Deck Six. It spans the full width of the ship, and offers tables for two to eight passengers at a time.Within set times for breakfast and lunch, the Glentanar is an open sitting venue. At night, it reverts to being a formal, two sitting venue- first seating at 6.15, secondseating at 8.30. Most of the passengers still seem to like it that way, and many do enjoy dressing up for the experience.

The food throughout the ship is tailored to the taste buds of the predominantly older, primarily British clientele that is Fred. Olsen’s staple diet, so to speak. There are typically five courses for dinner, with three choices for each dish, plus an ‘always available’ section that offers options such as Caesar Salad, Norwegian Salmon, and steaks. served with a variety of vegetables.

There are some nods towards continental tastes and twists, and also sometimes some Filipino styled options that passengers really do seems to enjoy. Tables are still set with traditional linen cloths, unlike many of the modern place mat style settings on newer ships. There is plenty of room around the tables, and the service in general is deft, attentive, without ever feeling overly intrusive. In terms of formal dining, the company can give any rival a run for its money.

THE ORCHID ROOM BUFFET

The preferred alternative for those who eschew the main dining room, Orchid Café is- most unusually- a completely indoor space, with floor to ceiling windows down one side. Located just behind- and adjacent to- the main dining room, it features many of the menu items offered in the Glentanar for breakfast, dinner and lunch but, being a buffet, the Orchid Room is open sitting for all meals.

There are a surprising number of tables for two here, a very welcome boon on such a relatively small ship. The Maitre’ D sets guests personally- a very nice touch. Again, there is plenty of space between tables. The two centrally sited, hot and cold buffet lines effectively divide the room in two, at least visually. The effect is to make the Orchid Room appear much more intimate than it actually is; a clever sleight of hand.

It has the look and feel of a sunlit French sidewalk café, and it is enormously popular. So much so that some tables in the adjacent Courtyard are sometimes also used for potential spill over passengers, especially in the evening. Because of the proximity to the galley, food comes out piping hot for all main meals. Quality wise, this buffet is far superior to many so called more upmarket lines, and a leisurely breakfast in this setting is one of the most pleasant dining experiences available on the British market cruise ships today.

As well as the three main staples, the Orchid Room/Courtyard area also serves up afternoon tea each day, with scones, sandwiches, and biscuits on offer free of charge. From around eleven each night it offers up late night snacks, including at least one main hot dish. Fish and chips is typical of this fare.

Both Glentanar and the Orchid Room post menus outside in advance of opening times, allowing passengers the option of shaping their evening entertainment and dining choices to suit their mood every night. On such a relatively small, intimate ship as the Black Watch, this works quite beautifully.

THE GRILL (Not available every day)

Situated outside aft on Deck Six, The Grill is something new to Fred. Olsen; their first extra tariff restaurant, which has now been rolled out right across the four ship current fleet.

While the choices are limited compared to many steak houses and a la carte restaurants on bigger ships, the food and ambiance is nothing short of sublime and- for a cover charge of £20 per person- it is one of the best bargains anywhere at sea. Specially commissioned glassware sets the scene, in a sheltered location just behind the superstructure, and adjacent to the swimming pool.

On a beautiful, mellow August night, I feasted (no other word is adequate) on a ten ounce Fillet Steak, complete with Asparagus spears and hand cut chips, served up in a gorgeous red wine sauce. There was a chocolate cup with berries to follow that looked almost too good to eat- I still ate it.

Complemented by a very fine red wine (extra charge) and a fulsome, frothy Cappuccino (included), this collectively constituted the best meal that I have eaten on any ship this year. Out in the open air, garnished with a side order of sea breezes and a stunning sunset as we sailed down Aurlandsfjord, The Grill is, quite simply, a must do when the weather permits. It really is that good.

ELEGANT AFTERNOON TEA (Not offered every day)

I mentioned the free afternoon tea served each day in the Courtyard earlier, but Fred. Olsen now also offers an extra charge (£7.95 pp) ‘elegant’ afternoon tea, served up in the forward facing Observation Lounge, with views out over the ocean. I got to sample this one day, too.

What do you get for your cash? Well, there are three tiers of beautifully presented finger sandwiches, cakes, biscuits and scones, together with all the gooey jams and clotted creams that anyone could ever desire. There are several kinds of teas- and these are refilled as often as you want. I tried a variant called Imperial Gunpowder, and it was love at first taste.

It’s quite Downton Abbey-esque, with a string trio playing genteel melodies as a backdrop. The setting, the stylings of the food offerings, and the deft service combines to offer something that is truly a little bit special, especially for a birthday or anniversary celebration. And all at a price that no London hotel could get anywhere near, either.

In sum, Fred. Olsen continues to punch way above its weight in terms of food offerings, the flair with which that food is prepared, and the finesse with which it is offered up to passengers. There may not be enough variety for some with more exotic tastes, but the range and sheer, well rounded and well thought out variety of the menus on board will leave most people on board more than happy to come back for more.

LEGACY; THE SS. NORWAY AND HER EFFECT ON THE CRUISE INDUSTRY

ss-norway-fjords
The SS. Norway in her adopted homeland during her 1984 summer season in Europe. Photo courtesy of Rob O’Brien at http://www.classicliners.net

When Knut Kloster first announced his intention of converting the laid up transatlantic liner SS.France into the world’s first mega cruise ship, the sound of jaws dropping worldwide was almost deafening, It was not long before the ‘experts’ started to offer a whole raft of dissenting opinions.

She was simply too big for profitable, week round cruising. She would consume too much fuel to be viable. She was too large to dock at any of the islands in the Caribbean. She was a twin class ship, a relic of the 1960’s. The list went on and on.

One by one, Kloster deftly demolished all of these splutterances. In April 1980, the reborn SS. Norway emerged from her six month long winter hibernation in Bremerhaven to gasps of awed amazement. Dazzling, shiny and resplendent, the ‘Playground of The Caribbean’ sent the opposition reeling in every direction.

From the start, the Norway was a stunning, triumphant splash; a ship without a peer on the ocean. So radical an update was she that the Norway completely shaped the entire modern cruise industry. Every mega ship in service today owes it’s very existence to Kloster’s bold, brave resurrection of an already legendary ship. Kloster’s $118,000,000 investment in his dream ship would make her a legend for the second time.

How so?

Firstly, the sheer size and scale of the ship allowed him to envisage, and then assemble, an entertainment roster unparalleled in size, quality and scale. It was the Norway that first staged near full scale Broadway musicals on board. She was the first ship to stage full, Vegas style fur and feather boa revues in a vast, two story, eight hundred seat theatre.

Platinum chip headliners featured on every sailing, too. Jack Jones, Phyllis Diller, Petula Clark and Sacha Distel were just a few of the big names to perform for the Norway passengers during her week long circuits of the Caribbean. There were mime artists, portrait painters, and even a resident fifteen piece big band.

That band played out on deck every sailing day, as the Norway sashayed downstream from Miami past the opposition, leaving them figuratively and literally in her wake. After the stunning smorgasbord of entertainment served up aboard the Norway, every company had to look to their laurels.

Secondly, by introducing economy of scale. As the France, the ship’s four propellers fed by two giant engines rooms, pushed her across the Atlantic at thirty knots. The fuel consumption was horrendous; the ship guzzled the stuff like so much cheap table wine.

All of that would change. Kloster shut down the forward engine room and removed two of the props. The remaining, aft engine room was modified to drive the two remaining ones. As a cruise ship, the reborn Norway would need to sail at around eighteen knots. In fact, she hit twenty five knots on trials that spring without even breaking sweat.

This drastic realignment had the immediate effect of cutting the fuel bill by a full two thirds. That torpedoed the economic argument completely, once and for all time.

And it was the little touches, too. The Norway boasted the first television station- WNCL- of any cruise ship afloat. And the Norway was also the first cruise ship to have colour television in every cabin on board.

Her two giant, twin tenders on the bow- Little Norway I and II- became almost as iconic as the great, winged smokestacks themselves over time. Capable of carrying a full four hundred passengers each, they waddled ashore from the ship each week at St. Thomas and Great Stirrup Cay, disgorging hordes of sunburnt dollar crusaders ashore with almost effortless ease. In one fell swoop, the need to dock alongside at every port was negated almost completely.

And there is no question that the ship felt incredibly lavish. Swathed from bow to stern in Art Deco, her vast interiors had a magical lustre all of their own; one that no other vessel on the ocean could truly match. The Norway looked and felt spectacular in every aspect of her public spaces. Looking along passenger corridors, the ship seemed endless at times.

In short, the Norway was innovative, inspired, almost impossibly dramatic and luxurious. Yet underneath all of that flourish and finery, she was a hard headed, well thought out, extremely workable cruise ship that predated the new generations that would follow her by a full decade.

The Norway quite simply set the gold standard. And even now, she remains an adored, enigmatic legend. Gone for a decade now, for many of her besotted fans she remains, quite simply, a ship apart.

Her immortal reputation deserves nothing less.