We were hooked on cruising a couple of years ago, as a result of a very enjoyable week on the Thomson Spirit and have since cruised with Thomson again, Transocean and Fred Olsen's Braemar. On each of our cruises we have enjoyed ourselves immensely.
The criteria we use for choosing a cruise were modified for this occasion. To our usual requirements, i.e. 1. No more than 1,000 or so passengers. 2. Under £100 each per night. 3 No unexpected service charges added to drinks etc. we added at Mrs B's request 3. Not the Med in mid August. and 4. Could we avoid flying?
A regular check on cruise line web sites identified an offer we could not refuse from Fred Olsen for their Boudicca Baltic cruise. Actually we did refuse and got an even better deal by phoning around the specialist travel agents, but, whisper, do not reveal how much you paid to your fellow passengers.
Travel to port of embarkation
Embarkation was from Southampton and the car down from Birmingham seemed the best option. Parking can be £140 plus on the quayside, a little cheaper over the river with a shuttle bus to the port, or our chosen option, B&B at the Holiday Inn Extra West Southampton including 15 days parking for under £75. A 15 minute taxi ride to the cruise terminal for less than a tenner is bookable from the hotel.
We arrived at the terminal a bit early, about 2 hours, but were booked through to the departure lounge where we had the delights of free lifestyle magazines, a Stannah stairlift demonstration and a view of the Boudicca being loaded with cases of Heinz baked beans. Embarkation was slowish, queue, photograph by a ship's wheel, queue, squirt of disinfectant, queue, photograph for your ship's pass, then find the cabin.
Our allocated cabin was on main deck 5, a superior outside with a window rather than portholes. It had a double bed which left very little access space around but was comfortable despite having two single duvets. More than enough storage, hanging, shelves and drawers was provided. The bathroom was larger than some we have been in, with a shower, w.c. and vanitory / wash basin unit. Dispensers of hair / shower gel were provided both in the shower and by the wash basin. As a tip we find that if we take one of those squirty air fresheners that stick to the wall, then the bathroom atmosphere can be that bit more pleasant. In the cabin there was a fairly large dressing desk but could have done with a light for the mirror. Four round pin continental sockets and one three pin square socket were provided serving the kettle (tea and coffee facilities provided but no biscuits) desk lamp and television. The hair dryer is in the desk drawer.
The cabins walls were not very soundproof, marital disputes could be heard from next door, but paradoxically any passenger announcements from the ships system could only be heard by opening the cabin door.
We missed the Braemar flat screen TV with its facilities to check your onboard account and to order wine.
The ship has some quirks with its layout, the dining rooms can only be accessed from the midships stairs, try the forward stairs and you will be politely directed back via reception. The pool area can be accessed through the Neptune lounge but not during shows, lectures or rehearsals. There is a 'secret' staircase near the stern, by the laundrette on deck 5, which gives access to the pool area.
What impressed us was the number of lounges around the ship where a book could be read, the passing scene observed or perhaps a post prandial nap. Our favourites were the Icini lounge (the former smoking room with a depiction of the 'Grim Reaper' on the end wall) and the Observatory with its 180 degree views and complimentary binoculars.
There are four dining rooms, the Four Seasons, the Tintagel, and the Helligan sharing a circular buffet area and waiter service, and the Secret Garden a limited buffet restaurant for those preferring more informal dining.
We were in the Four Seasons and found it lacked atmosphere and that the waiters, although very good and friendly, seemed short staffed at times. We shared a table of eight and had a very enjoyable time, apologies to other tables for the laughter coming from ours.
The weather put a stop to most outdoor activities, ice carving in a gale is not perhaps wise, but there was plenty to occupy, talks from poetry to plagues and lessons including dancing, bridge and (I think I have this right) making a dog shaped Kleenex box cover.
Service was excellent from our cabin steward to the waiters and up to the captain who always had time for a few words with passengers on his strolls around the ship.
Shows each night in the Neptune lounge and music in the Lido bar the Secrete Garden and Observatory. The Neptune Lounge is disappointing with most seats crowded onto a flat floor. Visibility is impaired and the chairs can be quite a nuisance if you try to swivel them. The best nights seemed to be the crew show and the performances by the show troupe. Other acts, particularly comedians, should realise that even if this is your first cruise, all the jokes regarding the amount of food you can eat have been made before the end of week 1.
Port and Shore Excursions
Our biggest complaint regarding the ports was the poor and false information given by the ship's staff.
Our advice is to do your homework, check the ports on sites like this, print off the information and take it with you.
The only ship's excursions we went on were those in St. Petersburg and were efficiently run with knowledgeable guides. Please note the journey times to some destinations, Peterhof for instance is more like 90 minutes each way from the ship, subject to traffic, making the tour of the house and garden fairly rushed. If you are expecting to see the fountains we were told that these are not turned on till 11.00.
We did find that, apart from in the Hermitage shop, prices were quoted in Euros in souvenir shops and stalls.
Warnemunde and Rostock
Get your ticket for the train from Warnemunde to Rostock from the ticket office rather than trying to understand the machines, it's easier. The ticket office is in the building to the right next to the information office.
There is also a ferry service from Warnemunde to Rostock but we did not investigate this nor was it mentioned in the briefings.
We were told that the easiest way into the old town of Rostock from the train was by tram. What we were not told was that the tram stop was underneath the station in a tunnel.
We asked at reception for information on the entrance fees for the Vasa museum and were told that it would be 80 kn but as it was a public holiday in Sweden, it would not be open. We had noticed that one of the tours was due to visit the museum so went anyway. It was of course open, entrance was 95 kn and we could have paid in Euros. We travelled from the quay in front of the Royal Palace by a hop on hop off ferry.
"Euros are not accepted in Tallinn. It is a 15 minute ride on our shuttle bus to the town walls tickets € 4 each. Passports must be carried" all statements from the ship announcements. Euros are accepted from the first line of shops within the port and in the town. It took us 12 minutes to walk from near the bus to the town and no one wanted to look at our passports.
It tipped it down, not Fred's fault, but those who had booked tours by boat and bus could not see through the windows making the whole tour pointless. Requests for refunds did not seem to be considered.
We walked up to the Mermaid 10 minutes, photographed her, walked back past two swans with cygnets, photographed them (ugly ducklings), 10 minutes back to the ship, absolutely drenched.
A dream, time for a last breakfast, called within ten minutes, strolled into the suitcase shed, waved to a taxi and off back to the car.
Please not that any aspect of the ship that I have not criticised was either, first class, comfortable, cheaper than I would have paid in my local or so tasty that I must go back for seconds. Fred Olsen really do try to make you feel at home and I look forward to our next FOCL cruise. Just hope Melody Lane are not playing on that one as well.