We've travelled on Fred Olsen ships before, and on one or two of the larger ships (Royal Carribean and Ocean Village), but for a summer holiday for my husband and I, our 11 year old son, and my 80 year old parents, we chose a week on the Black Watch sailing around Iberia. Although the Fred Olsen ships are not aimed at families with children we had taken our son once before, and he quite enjoyed it. My parents have very low mobility, so a smaller ship was a must this time, and the Black Watch was ideal.
Embarkation was very easy. We arrived to the cruise terminal in Southampton at our allotted time (about 1pm), leaving our car with valet parking and our cases with staff. We queued for around 20 minutes or so to check in and then waited in the lounge until boarding. The waiting area was clean and spacious and it wasn't long before our number was called.
Our cabin was an outside three berth on main deck. There was plenty of space, and loads of storage. One of our suitcases was too large to store under the bed, and the cabin stewardess took this away for us, and returned it on the last day. My parents had an inside two berth on the deck below. This was smaller, but they were happy with the size and space available. Our cabin was ideally located for us - being right by the stairs leading up to the pool above. It did suffer from some vibration and noise when the ship was manoeuvring into dock, but otherwise we had no noise problems.
We'd asked for first sitting and to share a table with my parents and this worked well. The waiters are superb. I had been on the Black Watch back in April with my mother, and one of the waiters passing me in the corridor on the first day of this holiday not only remembered my name, but asked how my mum was, and even remembered which table we had been on!
The food was excellent. There was a good selection and it was beautifully presented. Our son wasn't too keen on the sauces, and the waiter was very helpful and flexible with his choices. More than once he had two main courses instead of a starter - nothing was too much trouble. My mum can only eat gluten free food, and this was superb. Her special bread arrived on the table as she sat down each night, the waiters were knowledgeable about what she could and couldn't eat, and the chefs would prepare special versions of the main courses. My dad is diabetic and this was also very well catered for. I can't think of any other holiday where the different requirements of all our family members were met so well.
There were two formal nights on board and most people dressed the part (including the children). There were three 'theme' nights, a country and western, tropical, and British (red white and blue) night. Unfortunately our ticket pack only mentioned the country and western night, not the tropical or British night, so we did not pack any suitable clothes. As a result the second two theme nights were not as well supported by the bulk of passengers.
The entertainers onboard the Black Watch were good, if a bit predictable. The Black Watch Show Company (four dancers and three singers) put on four shows with plenty of energy. There was a very good comedian and magician too. A bonus was having Jim Bowen (of Bullseye fame) as one of the guest speakers, and he was extremely good and very popular. One of our favourite parts of the ship is the Lido lounge on Deck 7 where we would end up most nights listening to a Duo (called Timeline) and a piano player (called Alan, I think) who would alternate during the evening. And also loosing our money on the roulette table just outside the Lido bar!
As mentioned before, Fred Olsen Ships are not aimed at children, and they do have an 'older' passenger profile. But with this break being during the school holidays it did attract families. There were around 60 children on board, and the ship had some children's representatives and a 'Junior Cruiser' programme for children. This was mainly taken up by the younger children. Our son was friendly with another boy on board who was slightly older and they amused themselves - joining in with events aimed at all cruisers such as the Dolphin Racing, and Wii sports, but also using the pool, the putting green and other facilities, or just finding a quiet spot on the ship and playing with their consoles! On the final day the Cruise Director as part of his thank you to staff praised all the kids - and I have to agree. All those we saw on board were polite, well behaved yet having fun. It was a pleasure to see them and from what I could see the generations all mixed well.
There were four ports of call on the itinery: La Coruna, Gibralta, Lisbon and Vigo. The main problem was that we did not have enough time in the ports. Most stops were only half days (especially in Gibralta) which made trips on shore too rushed. We also felt that the shore excursions were too expensive, and child prices were almost as much as adult prices. We did most of our exploring independently (of which more below).
I have never been a great fan of the port talks on board, usually finding that they provide limited information about the port, and are mainly a way of selling the port excursions. However, alongside the standard port talks there were three port 'enhancement lectures'. These were excellent, providing the history of our ports and lots of ideas of things to do in them. We got many ideas, and would like to return to all of these ports for longer in the future.
We berthed near the town and walked into the 'old town' where we saw traditional dancers in the Maria Pita Square. We then walked to Roman Tower of Hercules, a lighthouse that has been round for almost 2,000 years. There was a small charge to go in, and we climbed the 239 steps to the top. Well worth it for the views. We then walked back to the ship as we had to be back by early afternoon. This was quite a long hike in total for us, but there were trams available which we saw others catching.
It was a fairly easy 20 minute walk to the main shopping street, and we continued walking to the cable car for a trip to the top of the rock. Unfortunately the cable car was closed due to strong winds. We decided to walk up the rock which in hindsight was not a good idea, even though we are keen walkers. The Rock is not designed for walkers - it is not clear where to go, and we kept having to step off the narrow roads to let tour buses and taxis past. We did not have enough time to visit the main attractions such as St Michaels Cave as we had to be back at the ship by lunchtime, and were also unlucky enough not to see a single ape! However the views from the (empty) Ape's Den half way up were great, and we had a nice walk back into town, picking up our duty free from the many cheap booze shops on the way.
Gibralta was very busy the day we were there. We were moored next to the Independence of the Sea (our ship looking like a dinky toy). So there were lots of tour buses and competition for the taxis. Some friends of ours who had done the ship's tour of the rock said there were 'traffic jams' of the tour buses trying to get up the rock. And they also didn't get to see any apes!
We were berthed a couple of miles from Lisbon and the ship provided a shuttle bus service (£5 each, with our son at 11 travelling free). We wanted to visit Lisbon's Oceanarium as this is one of the world's largest aquariums, but thought the ship's trip (at £140 for the three of us) was too expensive, so we did it ourselves. We took the shuttle into Lisbon and then the Metro to the Oriente Station. The metro was incredibly easy to use - the ticket machines even have a button to press to get the instructions in English, and the return trip cost around 6 euros for the three of us. A family ticket to enter the Oceanarium was 29 euros, and we thoroughly enjoyed it, spending nearly 2 hours there. If you are visiting Lisbon with children I would recommend it. We returned to Lisbon centre, did a little sightseeing and relaxed at a cafe before boarding the last shuttle bus back to the ship at 3pm.
Vigo was our last port of call, and again we only had half a day there, having to be back on the ship by lunchtime. We berthed near the town. It was very hot, so we ambled up to the old castle and explored an iron age settlement. Then returned to the town, admiring the many sculptures, relaxed in a cafe and then returned to the ship.
Final disembarkation was as easy as embarkation on the first day. Our car was waiting as we stepped off the boat. And we're already planning our next cruise!