Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines has a reputation for offering very good value-for-money to its mostly 60-plus British clientele, which enjoys traditional cruises with a smart -- but not too "tiara and sequins" -- dress code. First impressions on a three-night Southampton roundtrip to northern France confirmed much of this, although there were far more 50-somethings and even younger couples on completely sold-out Braemar, which can accommodate 929 passengers.
Braemar may not be the flashiest ship at sea, but it's definitely one of the friendliest. Wherever you sit -- out on deck, in the lounges or waiting for a drink at the bar -- you are guaranteed to be able to turn around and have someone to engage in a pleasant and warm conversation.
Braemar was originally built in 1993 as the 19,089-ton, 727-passenger vessel Crown Dynasty for the now-defunct Crown Cruise Lines. It joined the Fred. Olsen fleet in 2001.
In 2008, Braemar went into dry dock at Hamburg's Blohm + Voss shipyard where it was given a massive overhaul and facelift. The ship emerged as a shiny, new, 23,000-ton, 929-passenger vessel with an extra 31.2 metres in length in the mid section. (Editor's note: When you are standing next to the ship in port, see if you can make out where the cut was. It's pretty easy to spot!) Along with this addition came 70 new cabins, a new lounge (The Observatory), a second restaurant (The Grampian) and an expanded sun deck with one new pool and plenty of room for bathers.
One of the biggest changes that past passengers will notice is the Braemar Room on Deck 5 -- it leads into the new Scottish-inspired Morning Light Pub (which debuted on sister ship Balmoral in early 2008). Prior to the refit, the area was more of a walkway, but now the extended Braemar Room has become more of a public room in its own right, with Aztec and nautical-themed decor. The area is also home to a library, card room and Internet room.
Braemar is clearly a ship that attracts repeat passengers, and much of this is due to the friendliness of the passengers and the camaraderie a small ship engenders. Many conversations on my cruise started with "Last time I was on Braemar..." or "We sailed on the ship before the extra space was added...." But, instead of acting cliquey, the repeat passengers were very welcoming, even offering cruising tips to Fred. Olsen newbies.
Braemar is a really lovely ship, light and airy with decor that's mostly cream and gold or shades of blue, with some truly elegant public rooms. Its 2012 refit has left it dazzlingly clean, although refurbishment takes place all the time: there are two upholsterers among the crew to deal with daily wear and tear.
It's the perfect ship for those who enjoy the simple things when it comes to cruises. There's a new gym with sea views, a small spa and salon, a new crafts room, two swimming pools, two whirlpools, golf nets and deck games. There is also a card room and Internet room near the library. In addition to the main Thistle Restaurant, there's the more intimate Grampian Restaurant and a self-serve buffet, plus a choice of bars and two evening entertainment venues.
The cabins are reasonably large and bright but a little old-fashioned, most without balconies or floor-to-ceiling windows, and the bathrooms are standard but underwhelming. Although better bathrooms should be a priority, we didn't think there were many other areas that needed serious improvements.
The upside of staying on this pleasingly classic cruise ship is that it doesn't feel like any other -- so there's no deja vu like you get on some modern vessels.
Braemar is a truly British ship -- with tea served in abundance, British guest speakers and a Daily Mail print-out paper available each day in reception. It's also quite traditional, with formal dining and plenty of enrichment classes. For this reason, the ship attracts the senior crowd, particularly in the winter. However, during the summer holidays you will find children onboard and the kids do have a daily programme. Because of this, die-hard Fred. Olsen fans should probably avoid the school holidays.
Braemar used to be based mostly in the Caribbean, but with Caribbean flights growing increasingly expensive, it will now spend winter in the Canaries and West Africa, early summer in the Baltic and Norway, and high summer in the Mediterranean.