'Easter in Iberia'
As a family this was our second cruise and the first on Black Watch. Our previous cruise had been on board P&O's Arcadia so this had a lot to live up to for us. We were recommended this cruise because it fitted into the school Easter holidays and as our two younger children would be with us it was important they did not have any term time off. I say younger but they are 15 and 16. Yes...that age!! As with most cruise reviews this is subjective, others on the same cruise might agree or disagree.
First point, and to this day I do not know exactly why this happened, but we were not as excited about this cruise as our last and even up to the day we left it had not been spoken about that much. My daughter (15) was convinced the ship would be tiny, this was caused mainly because her size is 28,000 tons against 65,000ish for Arcadia. My son (16) in truth, was not that keen on going at all, unless you overheard him talking to friends.
We arrived at Southampton docks in plenty of time, put the car in the care of Andrews, handed our luggage over to a porter and headed of to the pre cruise waiting area. Check-in was swift and painless. We then had an hour or so wait in the main terminal prior to the 3 o'clock boarding. Boarding was spot on time, something you get used to and then take for granted on a Fred Olsen ship as it soon becomes apparent that everything is spot on time.
On board the welcome was very friendly and of course there was the obligatory welcome photograph. We had booked a superior outside 4-berth cabin on the main deck, first impressions were very good. I had not seen a 4 berth cabin on either the ships video or the brochure and as similar 2 berth cabins had the L shape layout I had wondered how the bunks would be. Relief, they are parallel to each other and not in the L shape. Cabin was a good size, not huge but comfortable for 4, wardrobe and drawer space was also fine, in fact far more than Arcadia. As my wife had packed for a world cruise even though this was only 10 nights, the extra space was welcome. When empty, suitcases slid under the bed very easily. Cabin presentation was very good, very clean, tidy and not a bad place to spend the next ten nights.
There was still enough time prior to sailing to explore the ship. On the main deck was the main reception, tour office, booking office for future cruises and two shops, one small and one decent size. Very clever use of mirrors made the area look far larger than it was, very effective. Black Watch does not have an atrium; instead there is a walk way through the middle of the ship with chairs and couches in various places. All very tasteful. Up one deck there was the main lounge with large picture windows down one side looking out to sea, this became one of out favourite parts of the ship and this is also were the complimentary tea and coffee is. Through this lounge is the main restaurant, more of that later. On the opposite side to the lounge is the main show lounge. This has both fixed and movable seats. The stage is at the front with a dance area directly in front. Gentleman hosts are on Black Watch if required.
We were due to sail at 18:00 and I always make a point of being on deck for sailaway and dockings. At spot on 18:00 the ship left, smoothly and effortlessly. A few blasts on the ships whistle and we were away.
Time for dinner, we had requested 1st sitting and a table for 4 and that is what we were allocated. Set tables were only for the evening meal, at all other time it was free sitting. The restaurant was very nicely laid out and as if to emphasize cleanliness all passengers were given bacterial hand wipes entering the restaurant, every time and before every meal. Service was very good and very efficient and nothing too much trouble for the waiting staff. Food always arrived hot and well presented and despite being first sitting we never felt rushed or hurried. On a personal note I would have preferred more variety on the menu, especially for children and teens, as not everything was to their taste. A notable difference also between Arcadia and Black Watch, Arcadia has silver service, Black Watch does not.
As well as the menu service Black Watch also has an excellent buffet available every meal and you can mix and match, here you can help yourself to a wide variety of starters, main courses and deserts including a separate salad bar. I have read on other cruise sites that passengers feel well treated if they have more than one lobster on a cruise, on Black Watch they're part of the buffet, help yourself. Most days we ate all our meals in the restaurant although we also ate 'Al Fresco' on deck some lunch times. This was hamburger or fish and chip style but don't think of a chip shop or burger joint, they were excellent. One special point, the 23:30 midnight buffets. These were every held every night, to call them a buffet is an injustice, yes there were sandwiches and salads but if you wanted hot thick carved roast beef or pork it was available, chips to go with it, no problem. It was worth staying up just for this. There was though one main buffet of the cruise when all the stops were pulled out. Note to other cruise lines, if you want to know how to offer mid night buffets book someone on a Black Watch, get them to take notes, then learn. Overall the food was very good, well served, well presented and in very pleasant surroundings.
We all look forward to the entertainment in an evening and go to as many shows as we can. This cruise had the usual mix of a comedian, a couple of singers and the house shows. I know I should but I cannot remember the names of any of the performers as it was a while ago. The comedian was a 'family, comedian except for one late night show and yes he was very funny. The singers were a husband and wife team. He used to be in the 'Average White Band' and worked with the Beatles, while his wife was a West end stage singer who stared as Sandy in Grease. The Black Watch DEjà vu Company also put on a different review show every night. All in all very entertaining. The theatre though is probably one of the ships weaker areas as there are a number of obstructed views and the movable seats in-between the fixed seating do cause congestion for both passengers and waiters. If bingo is your thing this is also held in this area prior to the main evening shows.
A nice point worth mentioning was on Easter Sunday all children (16 and under) were presented with an Easter egg by Captain Arnie, (here is a weather update, nothing to add from my last report), Solsberg, a very nice gesture. The children's names were taken from the ships passenger lists so no one was left out. At all times the ships crew were always friendly and as helpful as they could be. A number of times I passed a member of the engineering crew and was always acknowledged with a smile and good morning/afternoon. I thought this was a nice touch as the engineering section is not usually in contact with passengers.
Maintenance is ongoing at all times throughout the ship, painting, varnishing, cleaning, polishing and never obtrusive. The sight of someone painting the outside of the ship with a household paintbrush or a roller is amusing and brought a number of smiles. Only down side was the lack of a pool for most of the cruise, technical problems kept it empty more often than not and not a pleasant colour when it was.
Other public areas of the ship included a smaller Pipers bar, casino, and very nice library and Internet room plus my personal favourite part of the ship the observation lounge on the top deck. Here you can find binoculars, chained down, to watch the world, and other ships pass by. Black Watch also has a cinema although in truth it could show a more up to date selection of films. (Please change the seats in here, they are not the most comfortable). My overall impression of the ship was very clean, comfortable, showing some signs of age here and there but nothing drastic. There is a very welcoming and friendly feeling on board and most fellow passengers and crew were easy to talk to. No one was in any particular rush and if you had to wait in a short line for afternoon sandwiches then so be it. It did after all offer some more conversation time, very pleasant. I have tried to come up with a reason why I feel the way I do about Black Watch (unsure) and I think it's because one thing she lacks is the 'wow factor'. I cannot remember going into any room or area for the first time, drawing a deep breath and saying Wow. Ask your self this question though; what would you rather wear, brand new shoes or worn comfortable slippers? The answer to that question will give you a far better idea if Black Watch is for you than any review. For most it must be the slippers as passengers come back time and time again on Black Watch, in fact we soon discovered that Fred Olsen line as a whole has a loyal following verging on fanatical and one that most other cruise companies would love to have. They must be doing something right.
As for the ports of call, La Coruna was an amazing experience, for me the second best port of call on the cruise. I do not know if La Coruna has a strong maritime history but it seemed as though half the town turned out to see Black Watch in port. The sail away will stay with me forever, crowds lined the dock waving, cheering, and shouting. Private charter boats carrying passengers circling the ship as she left, horns and whistles blowing. What an experience and worth the cost of the cruise on it's own. I don't know if it was a coincidence or not, I'll stick with the 'it wasn't' (keeps it romantic). On leaving the port Black Watch gave the customary blasts on the whistle, this was then followed straight away by the ringing of the church bells and they were the last sound we heard sailing away from this wonderful port. This was the only port of call I have ever been to that this happened.
Cadiz was second followed by Casablanca. Then came our favourite port of call, Gibraltar. What an amazing place, if you have never been to Gibraltar go, especially now, as who knows what will happen there in the future. We had pre booked the dolphin watch trip but this was called of due to bad weather, what a blessing in disguise, without this cancellation we would not have experienced this British haven in the Med. If circumstances and money would allow I'd move there tomorrow.
From Gibraltar is was on to the French port of Brest, the best thing about this port of call was we were only there for half a day, oh and a lone piper welcoming everyone back to the ship after a morning in the town.
Now the fun started. Captain Arnie informed us that there would be a little bad weather leaving Brest (noon) but once we turned into the English Channel the weather would settle down. Up to then though the cruise may be a little bumpy. What an understatement, bumpy. The next 18 hours or so was a bit like riding the Big One at Blackpool and not getting off. I have never seen waves so big. Cargo ships either side were completely hidden from view for long periods, water cascading of their decks when they were, giving me some idea of what Niagara Falls must look like. There were some very loud bangs throughout the ship that I can only assume were caused by waves hitting the ship. Lower deck outside cabin windows were covered over, door leading outside were closed, and everything that could be fastened down was.
In truth both my wife and myself loved every minute of it and spent most of our time in the lounge looking out of the window. I have never seen the sea so rough or so powerful. Black Watch though seemed to take it all in her stride and rode the waves exceptionally well. Seasoned cruisers reckoned it was a force 9, I would not know but would not argue with them. If it was then all credit to Black Watch, she handled it magnificently. Next morning, the storm, was the main topic of conversation. Out on the top deck everything was coated with salt. More seasoned cruisers I overheard during breakfast agreed that other ships would not have handled the conditions quite so well. It was certainly a great way to end the cruise and gave a few interesting stories to tell at home. I must add though that this is not how I would like to end every cruise.
To sum up Black Watch is a very friendly ship and that includes both her passengers and crew. Offering good food and entertainment, she feels welcoming and comfortable. Black Watch is not a modern state of the art ship, but she never pretends to be. In places she does look a bit tired but nothing a lick of paint or new carpet and drapes won't fix. The brochure says it best, a small British country hotel, she is and there are times when that's all you want. Would we sail on her again, yes we would although we would like to cruise on Braemar first.
One final point. Whenever possible I like to order a video of any ship I have booked on before I go, just to give me an idea of the ship, what it's like and what's where. It's not so strange then when going on board. The video for Black Watch does not do the ship any favours at all and it is time that Fred Olsen looked at producing a new video that concentrated on the ship, the whole ship and nothing but the ship. When filming the video please remember that the cruise line is Fred Olsen not Saga, I don't recall seeing anyone under 70 on the current video, my son and daughter were very unimpressed and I think one of the main reasons for not looking forward to the cruise was down to the poor video.
Fred Olsen have a great ship in Black Watch, show it off at it's best, show the very mixed age range the ship attracts, it's not a floating Derby and Joan club.
If your thinking of Black Watch then go for it, just remember it's not Carnival, Princess, Royal Caribbean or even P&O. Enjoy the ship for what she is and for what she offers, accept her flaws and remember her good points. Above all have a memorable cruise.
Next year were booked on Grand Princess, talk about a contrast.