As seasoned travellers with many years of road tripping under our belts (to most parts of the UK, Europe, Eastern Europe & Canada) we wanted to try a tour of Norway, a country we'd never been to before but had been considering for ... Read More
As seasoned travellers with many years of road tripping under our belts (to most parts of the UK, Europe, Eastern Europe & Canada) we wanted to try a tour of Norway, a country we'd never been to before but had been considering for quite some time. However, as we started planning it, it became evident just how expensive such a trip would be, plus there was also the issue of there being no ferries to Scandinavia from the UK anymore, which would have meant a very long drive via Holland, Germany, Denmark & Sweden before we even reached Norway.
We’d never tried a cruise before, but as an alternative to a road trip we looked at some Norwegian offerings, which appeared to be a more cost effective way of getting / staying there than going by road. We eventually ended up booking with Fred. Olsen for a cruise on the 'Black Watch' leaving Liverpool on 11th May bound for the Norwegian ports of: Alesund, Hellesynt, Gerainger, Olden, Bergen, Eidfjord & Stavanger.
The Black Watch is quite small for a cruise ship, it accommodates just over 800 passengers, its compact size meaning it can access the smaller fjords. Being so early in the year meant that we were the only ship in most ports on a given day which was a plus..
The first thing that struck us about the ship as we embarked was how 'well used' and dated it is. On board it's quite jaded in places and in need of a good spruce up and some modernisation. Some people - Fred. Olsen and a few dedicated fans of cruising - call it charm, we call it, 'wearing out'. The exterior of the ship also looks quite bad with it's many “battle scars”, looking at it close-up at the ports of call reveals some nasty looking dents in the hull, and some rust appearing in several places.
There seems to be a never ending painting programme going on to cover up the rusty bits. In every port we called at, out came the bucket of paint & rollers to conceal a bit more of it. What this poor 43 year old lady really needs is to go into dry dock for a spell and have the rust properly treated – or better still she should be gracefully retired as her best days are most certainly now behind her. We’ve been on nicer cross channel ferries.
When we booked the cruise, we opted for the 'all inclusive' drinks package at £220 for the 2 of us. Like a lot of other things with Fred. Olsen the details of this were very vague until we got on board and found out that 'all inclusive' actually isn't. Water is available at the bar as part of the deal but only by the glass so it can't really be taken back to the cabin and is probably only the tap water anyway. Bottled water in the cabin has to be requested and paid for. Coffee and tea and a kettle is provided in the cabins but in the bars aren’t covered under the all inclusive deal.
Only very cheap wines and spirits are part of the all inclusive package on-board, the house “whisky”, as an example, is some cheap Spanish brew which is quite rough, if you want even the lower end brand blended Scotches, like Bells or Grouse etc you have to pay a 50% surcharge – despite it being listed as only 10p dearer than the nasty house whisky in the bar price list. The same applies to other spirits and wines, although it has to be said the red 'house' wine is more palatable than the spirits. For draught beers there’s very little choice – lager or Boddingtons bitter were all that was on offer in the bars. No Guinness or any other dark beers on draught – only tins & bottles which again are not part of the All Inclusive package so attract the 50% surcharge .
Olsen need to be a little more transparent regarding things like this because the way things stand it's all just a little too vague in the pre booking information and can catch out the unwary. If we'd known beforehand that the all inclusive package included only the cheapest unbranded whisky and other spirits that nobody outside of the ship has ever heard of we'd never have taken it, we'd have paid for our drinks as we went along and bought the cheap branded stuff on offer, but having to pay 50% extra, even for the likes of Bells, Grants and Grouse made us feel a little cheated. Calling it 'all inclusive' is very misleading.
We used the complimentary cabin service on a few days when we arrived back at the ship too late for lunch or dinner and found it very good. Our order was usually at the cabin door within 10 mins of phoning it through. Only things like sandwiches & soup and a few deserts were available but they were of good quality – better than the main restaurant food in some cases.
Food in the main waiter served “Glentanar” restaurant was pretty average at best, with more emphasis being placed on the presentation rather than the taste & texture. To be honest it's all just a bit pretentious on what is a rather tatty little ship, especially the formal evenings where passengers have to dress accordingly for dinner. A lot of folk did seem to like that sort of thing though, which only added to the pretentiousness of the whole affair.
We only ate in the main Glentanar restaurant on a couple of occasions, on our second and final visit our rather pompous waiter was quite rude to an elderly gent at our table who had complained about his soup. On that particular night we had what was allegedly pheasant which it has to be said was disgusting, it all looked very nicely laid out on the plate in nouveau cuisine fashion, but eating it was like chewing an old inner tube. I'm no expert on pheasant but I'm sure it shouldn't have been that tough and dry. After that experience we elected to eat in the Braemar Garden Café which is a self service buffet restaurant and the food all the better for it. This was a far less ostentatious atmosphere and the waiters were marginally more pleasant.
We didn’t eat too may lunches on board, preferring instead to stay out using the limited time available to explore wherever we were docked, as no matter where we’d arrived it was always more interesting than on board the ship. We partook of breakfast most mornings, but found the cooked offerings to be invariably cold to lukewarm. The first morning we tried it the fried eggs were barely warm, as were the beans, sausage and bacon. The cold scramble egg was the particularly unappetising “piece de resistance”. The following few mornings were no better in either restaurant so we opted for the cold continental breakfasts after that which were an improvement even if the croissants were miniscule.
We'd booked a couple of shore tours before we left home. The first was from Gerainger by coach up the Eagle Road which was spectacular and well worth the cost. Sadly the second one from Stavanger was a huge disappointment. This one consisted of a trip on the so called Jaeren Railway to Egersund which cost us £75 each. It promised wonderful views as we travelled through the “Breadbasket of Norway”. The reality was a ride by coach through Stavanger at rush hour to the railway station, where we got on to a commuter train. We then travelled for over an hour and a quarter through some pretty underwhelming countryside to the lacklustre town of Egersund where we then boarded the coach for the run back to Stavanger by road which was only slightly better. We did have an hour to kill in Egersund though so rather than stay with the tour guide (who at least had the decency to look a bit embarrassed), we took off to find a coffee shop instead. Talking to other participants of this tour back on the ship afterwards it transpired that we weren't the only ones who felt disappointed by it. We could probably have done the same trip ourselves for less than £20
Norway is undeniably beautiful, the cruise showed us a mere glimpse of what this wonderful country has to offer and we will return there, but next time will be a road trip - and hang the expense, it'll be worth it. As far as cruises go for us, never again. I'm too young even in my mid 60s. If this particular cruise is typical of most then they seem geared more to passengers in the 70 – 80 age group who's idea of fun and adventure appears to be stuffing themselves with as much food as possible, a game of bingo and a quiz chucked in now and then.... and dressing up for dinner whilst on an ageing ship being the icing on the cake.
Just short of 3 days to get to and from Norway is excessive, and boring, I’d have preferred a quicker cruise and more time in Norway. Having experienced the open road for years, we simply felt trapped inside the ship. Having too little time to explore the places we saw became frustrating as we had to keep a constant eye on the time in order to get back in time for departure and we hated the stress of clock watching whilst on holiday. I can see the appeal of cruising for some people, but it's not for us I'm afraid. In future I’ll be firing up my car or the motorbike again and taking off for some real travel adventures Read Less