M V Braemar Christmas Caribbean Cruise 22/12/08 - 08/01/09
Gatwick was typical chaos but Miami was surprisingly problem free, taking only 1 hour from plane to transfer bus.
We joined a ship that had been extended in the middle and generally upgraded everywhere in Summer 2008. It had been on several bedding down cruises since then but there was little comment on cruise review web sites as to how these changes had been received. Fred Olsen seems to get very little web comment and it's internet room on board was virtually empty on all my visits - may be something to do with the abnormally high average age of it's passengers.
The weather in the Northern Caribbean was stormy force 6 with a 3 meter swell and overcast for the first week. This had it's affect on health and moral. Poor weather restricts deck activities as well as the head count at dinner. Several injuries were recorded. The first ports of call where Nassau (the town itself was very disappointing) and Montego Bay (Not a nice place). The main sunbathing deck with very small pools was totally overcrowded when the sun came out - we retreated to our balcony.
The weather in the second week improved a bit - force 4 and 2 meter swell. Unfortunately for many, the Flu outbreak worsened. It also included two of the best ports of call, Aruba and Curacao in the Dutch Antilles off the coast of Venezuela. Delightful ports with gaily painted buildings designed in old Dutch style, well presented shops and both places that we will return too. Santa Marta in Columbia was also interesting. No evidence of their famous drug trade! The weather continued to improve a little bit as the week went on. St. Georges in Grenada has improved enormously over the last decade, despite or due to two bad hurricanes. A new marina and Harbour have been built and also a new relocated cruise terminal and shopping centre. Avoid the water taxis to Grand Anse Beach in choppy weather as they are very difficult to climb into and they try to pack 16 people in to a small boat and delay leaving until full which can involve a wait of over half an hour both ways. The smell of leaking petrol cleared my sinuses.
Bridgetown Barbados has a well organized Cruise Terminal and Port and taxis are available for the mile or so trip into town. The private buses are great fun on which to travel about. 1 US$ gets you a trip up the west coast with the locals to Hole Town. Also, sharing taxis is commonplace but not as cheap as you think. Bargain hard! This west coast is well developed to quite a high density and rather commercialized but the local roads can barely cope resulting in many traffic jams - which gives plenty of opportunity to gaze at all the famous hotels.
Castries St Lucia and St. John's Antigua were forgettable experiences, the latter due to the very restricted 4 hour stop. We have been to Antigua before and Nelsons Dockyard , on the other side of the island is a must if time permits and circumnavigation of the island by catamaran is an unforgettable experience if you get time.
So, last few days at sea with sun and reasonably calm seas cruising up to Key West, a lovely Port at the bottom end of Florida with a super town centre and well worth the visit. Finally, an early morning arrival back at Miami with 20 hours of travel (and waiting around) to look forward to.
First the plus points ... It's cheap to cruise this The Fred Olsen Line with all the bargains available, including free upgrades. We landed up in a suite and Premium economy aircraft seats for £2300 each for this 18 day Christmas cruise although don't expect 'luxury'. The prices on board were in British pounds, an advantage over the Dollar charging ships when the £ only buys $1.43. This rate, charged for cash changing on the ship stayed the same every day, even when the Dollar sank to $1.35 to the £. Bar prices and restaurant wines (£13 for a decent bottle) were cheap compared with others we have been on. You could also buy English bottled beer - Spitfire and draught Stella Artois.
The Filipino staff are a delight - always smiling, greeting you by name, remembering what you drink, making you feel important. They made our holiday. What an asset to the company!
Unfortunately, the bad points outnumber but many of these were not down to Fred Holstein or the Bromide crew. The average age was noticeably higher than we have experienced in the past, even at Christmas - 75% of passengers was 70+. The Fred Olsen 78 - 90 club! We thought that elderly American cruise passengers were rude on previous trips (Insignia & Diamond Princess) - until we experienced a few days a sea with the British counterpart. We suspected that whole community centers for the elderly had been forcibly removed from Basildon and placed on this ship. Seriously, the heavy pre-Christmas discounting seemed to have attracted some strange people! Statistically, a third of the passengers where from Lancashire, a third from Yorkshire and 50 % from Essex (Well it felt like it!).
This ship had more cruise snobs and moaners per deck than any other we have experienced. - those that holiday once a year on a cruise, moan about everything, swear that they will not come again - and then announce that this is their 5th. time on the ship. - those that have sailed with all the top notch lines in the best cabins, although are mysteriously camping out in a basic inside cabin on deck 2
One of the reasons for choosing this cruise line was due to recommendations from some friends and the thought that, with 18 days at sea, they would serve some good traditional British food occasionally. i.e. Roast Beef. We were rather disappointed. The food is adequate 'Torquay Hotel food', prepared by mass catering chefs in conjunction with their checked accountants. For example, chicken and pork were always available because they are cheap and were often reheated (sometimes with an additional sauce). Beef was rarely available in any form. The one steak was part 'cooked' in the basement main kitchen, reheated in the holding kitchen on deck 8 and served ... In this time, it had lost it's will to please and totally lacked any normal British accompaniments i.e. chips, onions, roasted vegetables etc. However, in fairness, their Beef Wellington was good. Desserts were mostly disappointing, with excessive use of Creme fresh cream, Jelly, Moose. No Apple pie or other traditional desserts, no custard, rarely any ice cream. But they did have bread & butter pudding several times - to use up the old bread. Christmas and New Year dinners lacked style, substance and flavor and served with miniscule portions, both sadly disappointing.
The smell of diesel oil, particularly on deck 5 Starboard and often in the air conditioning in our cabin was very noticeable and unpleasant.
So Fred Olsen, my scores out of 5.
Food 2.5 Sometimes quite good but often disappointing Food Service 4.5 Restaurant excellent. Palm Cafe mediocre Cabin Comfort 4.0 Most normal cabins are disappointingly small but comfortable. Balcony suite was good. Cabin Service 3.5 OK Free champers & fruit on arrival for us Bar Service 4.75 Always good to the point of brilliant Entertainment 2.5 Have experienced far better. My own appearance in one show was brilliant Both lectures were boring! Internet 0.5 Don't bother. Too slow. No wi-fi connections TV 2.0 Poor world news, poor daily info Cruise info / daily letter 2.0 Poor, amateurish and cheaply sourced Tours 2.0 Only did one which put me off. Used taxis Laundry 4.5 Dry cleaning very efficient
Summery A cruise line for those on a budget, offering good value for money. Very popular with the elderly and those from the Northern Counties and Essex. Despite extension and refurbishment, the ship falls well behind P & O, Princess and others in terms of amenities and comforts but it does charge much cheaper prices and leaves tipping to the discretion of it's passengers. It's relatively small size - 988 passengers - is an attraction. Choose your cruise itinerary carefully, as many Caribbean ports are scruffy and uninteresting. Coach tours are typically pricey and rarely offer good value. Have the guts to hire a taxi (very affordable with 4 people) and do your own thing with the drivers help and knowledge. Do not bother to smuggle your own spirits on board. The cabin prices are duty free .i.e. £15 for a liter of Jameson's Irish whiskey! Bring plenty of books and treat yourselves to a balcony cabin to avoid the crowds.