Following two recent cruises with Celebrity (reviewed here on Cruise Critic), my wife and I returned to Fred Olsen's Boudicca for an In Search of the Northern Lights cruise. Obviously these two cruise-lines are very different, but we decide who we travel with purely on destination and value for money. We have no particular loyalty, although we are now at Gold Level with Fred Olsen, and Elite Level with Celebrity.
Fred Olsen are an enigma to me, they must spend a fortune marketing themselves as the friendly cruise-line but that message does not appear to have reached all of their staff, either on their ships or at their H.Q. One example of this is that on that three occasions I have written to them I have been ignored twice and fobbed off once. On a more positive note their ships may be older, but they have a certain charm and character that often can't be found on larger, newer ships.
I should mention as I review this In Search of the Northern Lights cruise, I have spent a great deal of time talking to as many of my fellow passengers as I possibly could in an attempt to ensure the review is as representative as possible. One last thing before I begin the review. We booked this cruise over a year ago in advance on another Fred Olsen cruise and were told then that there were very few cabins left (sound familiar?). Actually there were lots of empty cabins, I guess we should not be so naive.
We phoned Fred Olsen's H.Q. in the morning to ask when we could check in. We were told because of our low deck level this would not be until 3.30. Actually, it was a smooth, hassle free check in and boarding process, and we were on board and in our cabin by 2.30.
The terminal at Portsmouth is new and consists of a large seating area upstairs with a Costa Coffee and small bar. It says on their website they have wi-fi, but they do not, and according to the staff we talked to, people are always complaining about it, but nothing gets done. There is a small outside viewing area, and the bar serves a very nice Italian Chardonnay.
Here is a useful tip, we stayed in the Port Solent East Premier Inn, which was approximately fifteen minutes away, and we got free parking for the duration of the cruise.
We always choose a lower grade cabin because it means we can afford to cruise more frequently, but they do seem smaller on Fred Olsen. However our cabin was spotlessly clean and comfortable, although it was a bit chilly, even after a maintenance man came in and adjusted the heating for us. A lot of our fellow passengers who we talked to also remarked on their cabin temperature.
We had to change cabins after a few days because every time we were in port, there was always a lot of noise from the maintenance work. To be fair to the staff, this was remedied quickly and we were able to change cabins with no problem.
In Room Entertainment
This was extremely poor, with very limited TV channels and on occasions, virtually none at all. The Discovery Channel worked most of the time, something called an E Channel appeared it work all the time. BBC News was fairly consistent, as was Eurosport, but Sky News and Sky Sports News (the ones we really wanted) were intermittent. There was also a limited movie option which was fine if you were not one of the poor people struck down with a Gastro-intestinal problem, commonly referred to as the Noro Virus, in which case you were confined to your cabin for a couple of days, and must have been bored stiff. In the twenty-first century there is really no excuse for such a poor in room entertainment system.
On the subject of Noro Virus, you really cannot blame any cruise-line for the presence of this bug, in winter it is rife everywhere, but personally I do not think it is unreasonable to expect to be compensated for a lack of amenities
Put it this way, if you were checking into a hotel/spa resort and were told the jacuzzis and sauna were closed, there is a fair chance you are going to get sick and have to stay in your room for a few days, and by the way, the few limited tv channels we have will not work all the time, and you cannot play cards or any board games WOULD YOU STILL WANT TO STAY THERE and would you expect to pay the same price, as if all of these options were open to you ?
The Boudicca is tired in places, but she is a very clean ship, with plenty of space and welcoming lounges for all of her passengers. The waiters in the main restaurants are friendly and helpful, sadly the same could not be said for some of the staff in the Secret Garden. On the subject of restaurants, I think the food on the ship was of good quality, well presented, and with a good variety, although a little more of a problem if like my wife, you are a vegetarian. Also I made the mistake of going to the late night supper club one night. I say a mistake, because the food was delicious and I ate far too much! Overall I think Fred are pretty good on food.
One of the areas I used most on the ship was the gym. Fortunately it was not in great demand, I say this because when we boarded the ship in Portsmouth two of the cardio machines were not working, and this remained the case for the whole cruise. Added to this, one of the only three working treadmillls mysteriously disappeared towards the end of the cruise. Also, they had a ridiculous rule that you could not use the cardio equipment if a Pilates or yoga class was taking place, but to be fair, when I complained to the guest services manager about this, those classes were moved, so again a problem was instantly dealt with and no fuss.
As always there were plenty of activities on board, and a wide variety of enrichment talks. Whilst the speaker who gave the port talks was clearly very knowledgeable, unfortunately his speaking style was not very engaging, but Jane Ann Davey the expert on Norway, was by far the best speaker we have ever come across. She was both informative and amusing, and easily able to hold your attention. There was an astronomer on board who was a good listen too.
The lounge entertainment is always of a good quality on Fred Olsen, as was the ship's show company. I can't comment on the guest performers as none were of interest to us.
We chose this cruise because the itinerary was good, visiting Molde, two nights in Tromso, Alta, Kristiansund, and Bergen, in addition to cruising the fjords. We were very disappointed with the attitude of the man on the tours desk who we never saw smile once in the whole cruise, and who wasn't very helpful. As with many cruises, the tours were a little expensive and did not really represent value for money, and the best excursion we did was one we booked privately in Tromso, where we went out both nights with Artic Explorers, and were fortunate enough to see the beautiful northern lights for seven and a half hours, they were exhilarating to watch as they danced across the sky, forming a kaleidoscope above our heads. Oystein, the owner of the company was passionate about the lights, and it wasn't the case of a six to eight hour trip, and finish, regardless of aurora activity, he allowed us to stay out as long as we wanted. In the second night he picked us up at 5pm and we didn't return till 5.30 the next morning! Prior to the trip he took us to his warehouse, and kitted us out in thermal suits, boots, hats and mittens, and allowed us to choose our food etc. My tip is if you want to go out in search of the northern lights, choose a small group tour like this, rather than going out with a bus load of your fellow cruise passengers.
The other highlight for us was the Norwegian captain and his clear passion for his country, who unlike many of his officers, who we hardly ever saw, the Captain, Stein Bjorheim, was highly visible. He went that extra mile to ensure that the passengers were able to see all the awesome views. At one point he stopped the ship, and did a 360 degree turn, to ensure that everyone got a great view of a glacier, and we loved the way that in sub-zero temperatures he was often to be seen in his shirt sleeves! The man is a legend!
The disembarkation process was as smooth as embarkation, though the luggage collection point was a little cramped, surprising considering it is such a new terminal.
Overall, we enjoyed our cruise, though we were disappointed with so many of the facilities being closed due to the Noro Virus, and it does tend to affect your cruise when you are worried about catching it. Another tip would be to avoid buying anything in Norway as it is so expensive. But we set out to see the Northern Lights, and that's exactly what we did, and on many nights they were also visible from the ship.