INFO: £1173pp, 15 nights, Deck 4 inside cabin, grade G, midships. We were happy with our price, booked late Jan 09 through Thomson. Best deals seem to have been had by booking via Virgin in December (but some of the worst pre-sailing customer service apparently. Most paid approx £980 but had to arrange own transfers and stay 1 night pre sailing in Miami (hotel cost included but meant extra transfer to port), some got cabins with obstructed view on deck 6 so that was a good deal!
SHIP: Has a tendency to 'sway' whatever the weather conditions. Some say the recent 'cut and shut' have made it worse, others say it's better now!!! Was aware of it 24x7, particularly on the gale force 6 day, but although usually prone to seasickness, can't say it bothered me at all. Others had minor probs but apparently the seasickness injection worked a treat and cost £25. I never even needed my Stugeron, much to my relief.
Smart inside without being too ostentatious. Crew friendly and polite but not sure they have quite enough to cope properly, particularly cabin stewards and bar staff. They work very hard and I think the 'cut and shut' means 250 extra passengers but no extra staff.......but maybe I'm being unfair to Fred Olsen.
DINNER: 3 restaurants. Assigned seating, menu and waiter service in smallest Grampian, same in larger Thistle and more casual open seating buffet only in Palms. Suitable dress codes (there are 4 'dress' levels) will be clear with your tickets and also dependent on where you are sailing I believe (Caribbean doesn't really have the jacket/tie level because of the climate). Ours were 3 formal evenings (majority in DJ's but some in suits didn't look remotely out of place), mix of cocktail dresses and long frocks for us women. Rest of the time it was smart open necked shirts/trousers and summer dresses/smart separates. Don't forget, some areas of this ship are bl**dy FREEZING, air con too fierce so bring a wrap or a cardi.
Themed food evenings held in Palms cafe/restaurant, buffet style. Tables must be booked at reception. Assume guest who usually eat in Palms must either book as well or move to their assigned restaurant. We went to an American and a Chinese one. Didn't enjoy the food on the American evening and on the Chinese evening the restaurant was packed and BOILING HOT!
LUNCH: Thistle and Grampian restaurants also have open seating for brekky and lunch combining buffet with a menu service. You can combine menu order with something from the buffet if you want. Can wear shorts and tee shirts but NO flip flops. Not as formal as you'd think for AM and lunch but don't try to get in wearing poolside attire - that goes for the Palms as well though it is marginally more casual, that refers more to the food service than your clothing. Don't go in shirtless, your saggy belly, pasty skin and hairy armpits simply aren't going to be allowed, even if you are "only getting a cup of coffee" from the self-serve area!!!
DRESSING UP: There were 3 'themed' dressing up evenings but too 'Butlins' for us so we didn't participate, though it was amusing to see those who did. Caribbean night, British night and Country & Western night. So if you're in to all that then bring something suitable to wear, about 1/3 of the guests participated. FO give fake floral lei's, Union flags and checkered neckerchiefs so guests could get in the swing of it. Quite funny.
CABINS: Very clean and tidy, ours seems to have been part of recent refub during the 'cut and shut' operation to make this ship bigger. Bathroom well stocked, towels changed if left on floor. Shower the smallest I've ever seen outside of a caravan! You will get used to it though, (just don't drop anything in there unless you can pick it up with your toes.] Rarely cleaned before lunchtime but frankly, we weren't bothered at all by that. Sort of 'turn down' service at night and a brief tidy round, she did a good job. Plenty of wardrobe space, though I did take about 15 or my own hangers so I could get everything out of the cases.....yes, all 47kg of it. Cases fit under the beds though I gather FO will store them elsewhere if they are too big - IF they have any empty cabins that is.
ILLNESS: 5 suspected cases of Norovirus and probably quite a few more who simply didn't report it to the ship's doctor. Those who did were confined to their cabin for 48 hours, any excursions booked were refunded and FO gave a voucher for discount off a future cruise. If your favorite waiter/waitress suddenly stops giving you nuts with your cocktails, or mentions the words "code orange", it's a sure sign that passengers are dropping like flies. CLEAN YOUR HANDS constantly and make full use of the sanitizing hand facilities, you'll have no choice on entering dining areas. Most public toilet notices recommend exiting using tissues to open the outer doors after handwashing, bit of a contortionist act doing so but not a bad idea if you want to avoid getting sick. Also remember when you're sliding your hand down the public banisters.......unless the ship is rolling is it really necessary - who touched it last! Norovirus spreads like wildfire.
FACILITIES: Ship has well stocked library and good shop selling toiletries, shampoo, hairspray, sunscreen etc Unlike other ships, guests don't seem to greedily grab the best books leaving none for later boarding passengers. Daily 'newspaper', crossword, quiz etc. Washing machines/dryers/irons, think it cost £2 per load. Personally, I think passengers caught doing the laundry whilst on holiday ought to be thrown overboard. Cost £2 to get a tee shirt cleaned via cabin service and a tiny washing line in the shower to hang up a couple of 'smalls' (or your swimsuit).
ENTERTAINMENT: Plenty of on board entertainment, had a dance/singing troupe of 8, pop band, tiny orchestra with singer, solo singer, trio, disco, 2 guest comedians, pianist plus an additional guest one, daytime speaker and a watercolor artist and bridge teachers. Something for everyone at some time or another and various daytime activities particularly on sailing days eg golf, bowls, darts, line dancing blah blah blah.
SUNBEDS: Most on deck 8 and blimey, what can I say, the usual 'sunbed baggers' abound, if you want one in the shade on sailing days you better have your backside on it by 7.30AM. In the sun it's not such a great problem until about 10.00AM. More beds on deck 9 but be warned, topless bathing is allowed up there and some female FO cruisers don't appreciate that it's been 30 years since they had pert 'up where they should be' boobs. Past a certain time in life it's best to keep them supported and covered.
EXCURSIONS: Plenty to choose from and fairly well organized. If you experience any problems you must provide feedback. You will always be accompanied by a crew member but most trips undertaken using local companies. We had rubbish guides at Chichen Itsa, complained at the time to the crew member and followed it up back on board. Got 50% refund for trip. Complain nicely, it's not FO staffs fault.
FOOD: Should be something for all tastes, but be warned, it's mainly LUKEWARM. Don't think FO did HOT very well at all, for anything (including soup). Even menu ordered food will turn up lukewarm so go with that in mind and you won't be surprised or disappointed.
AFTERNOON TEA: This was pretty much rubbish, boring 'samey' cakes and curly sarnies. Boy, FO don't do this at all well. Not helped by passengers acting like they've not eaten for a week, all elbows and pushing and shoving. FO do rather take the line that "when it's gone, it's gone" so if you don't want to adopt the push/shove attitude it's best to do as we did - don't bother to go.
All in all, we had a great time and would definitely use FO and the Braemar again without hesitation. However, the guests are all SAGA card carriers, FO is aimed at the older market and some cruises (usually about Christmas time) can have predominantly 70+ age range. Ours were mostly 50+ rising right up to the 70+ group - fine for us, only had 1 child on board (& as it wasn't a British school holiday he shouldn't have been there anyway).