We have seen the Northern Lights on a previous cruise on the Marco Polo but that was in February. When we saw this trip advertised we thought it worth another go and we would try out a Christmas Cruise at the same time. When we joined the roll call and saw people booking whale watching trips we wondered if they realized it would be dark all day.
The Black Watch is not one of the newest and in some ways shows her age. Being of the smaller size one should expect comfort and convenience rather than the lavish entertainment of the bigger 3000+ ships. We found this so, and the experience was comparable to other smaller sized ships we have sailed on. Things that we liked about the ship were; walk round promenades on decks 7 and 10, tea and coffee facilities in the cabin, plenty of seating in the public lounges, the cinema on deck 3, just like a real cinema (although projecting DVDs), and being in the center of the ship, well down, just the place to ride out a storm.
There were plenty of activities scheduled to keep one amused, which were advertised the night before in the Daily Times (patter). We didn’t attend many of these so we are not able to review them.
Port & shore excursions:
These we thought were of a high standard and cheap compared with other cruises we have been on. There was one exception which was the Northern Lights excursion at Tromso. The excursion itself was well organized by the tour company but the ships photographer attended too, and ruined it for everyone else by setting up LED lighting on a tripod to take photographs of people against the northern lights despite the instructions from the organisers for people to turn off their flash units as they would not help and it would annoy everyone else. The ship’s photographer would have done better by taking these shots on board with a projected background and controlled lighting, as in the event her results were pretty poor. We saw the lights, but few good photographs were taken due to this thoughtless behavior. She did pack up in the end, but only after the best of the lights had faded. Not directly attributable to F.O. but they should consider replacing the ships photographer.
Travel to embarkation Port:
This was easy for us, we live in Essex half an hour from the port so just travelled in by car after lunch. We had a car park sticker placed in the windscreen and were directed to an unloading bay where a porter took our cases and my wife took her hand luggage and went to book in. I followed the directions to the long stay car park. The spaces between the notices were quite large and one was fearful that somehow the turning had been missed, but it was very straight forward, there is only the one road and the turn off was clearly marked. Within 10 minutes I was back at the terminal on the shuttle bus and we checked in. Within half an hour we were in our cabins and our cases were already there.
See my review of cabin 4055 in the deck plans section. It was a category D, two porthole, outside view cabin on deck 4, the Atlantic deck.
This is one of the areas in which there could be some improvement. The main problem is that there are just the two dining rooms, the Glentanar restaurant and the Braemar Garden café. There is an extra grill but it is bookable, surcharged and not available in inclement weather, so can be discounted on an arctic cruise in the winter. There is nowhere, that we found, where you could obtain a light snack or a sandwich. If you missed breakfast then you had to wait until lunch. If you want to make up a packed lunch for a private excursion you cannot do so, unless you can find what you want at the breakfast buffet.
We didn’t try the Braemar Garden Café but we understood it had a similar but simplified menu to the main restaurant, but was open seating. The main dining room was fixed seating in two sittings. The Breamar Garden Café also had specialist menus on some occasions such as Chinese or Indian and had a supper club between 11:00 p.m. and midnight.
Food was of good quality with a few exceptions, (fish and chips, cruise ships just don’t seem to be able to match the UK chippys). Choice was not so good. Sometimes there was nothing that one really fancied, at other times there were many things, so that choice was difficult, but the quality was always fine.
Service was not so good on the open seating days; no menus, no bread, no coffee. Waiters slow. This was particularly bad at lunch time which was supposed to be á la carte as well as buffet. It was hard to get a waiter's attention and they never offered bread or coffee, you had to ask for it. When we were with our normal fixed seating waiters service was ok.
We did not attend any of the shows or entertainment but from reports at the dining table it was of the usual smaller ship standard, magicians, musicians and dancers. We didn’t go to the port lectures but watched them on the TV and found them useful and informative. We also attended some of the enrichment lectures on Astronomy but found these less satisfactory. His first lecture on the history of what we have learnt about the universe from light covered too much ground including the history of astronomy as well. We have studied at college level and are amateur astronomers but found it overwhelming. Another lecture, repeated through popular demand, on the Northern Lights was disjointed and confusing. I think he knew the subject but was not a natural communicator.
When we found it was an “all leave the cabins by eight” system we had trepidations, having experienced this on the Marco Polo. We planned well for it. I got up first and went to find a place in the Neptune Lounge. When my wife was ready and had checked the cabin thoroughly, she joined me and I went to breakfast. On return she went to breakfast. In the event it was a much more leisurely affair than last time, the key being that there are plenty of seats for everyone. We thought being on deck 4 we would be one of the last but they called deck 9, deck 7 orange, three organized groups (coach transfers to airports, Wales, etc) and then us on deck 4 odd numbers.
We found whole gangs of people gathered around the stairs and lifts despite being told not to do this. Why are people so thoughtless? In the terminal the luggage was segregated by deck, but mixed up within each area, so it took some finding. We were luckily just in time to grab hold of the last two trolleys. My wife waited in the reception area while I took the shuttle to fetch the car. The shuttle driver asked why I hadn’t got any luggage. I said I was fetching the car for it. They don’t like that, still it’s up to you. I risked it and it was no problem at all. Still if we had known we could have gone straight to the shuttle, caught an earlier one and then gone straight home form the long stay car park.
No Wifi in cabins. Jigsaws take priority in the internet room! The only table of suitable height for lap top use is in the internet room with four places but is reserved for jigsaws! Other hot spots have no tables or coffee tables. Reception has one small table but they often commandeer this to put notices on. The passenger information lists the Braemar lounge as a hotspot, as does the Daily Times, but although there are two wifi services there, neither provides connection for passengers. The card room is an alternative to the Internet room, but not when card games or bridge lessons are in progress. The jigsaw table was moved in to the Internet room when casino tables were introduced to the library replacing the tables that were there.
There are better solutions to this problem then they have come up with so far. They could put the jigsaw table against the back wall, as there is only room for two jigsaws anyway and get some ordinary small table for laptops. They could consider putting Wifi in a few selected, cabins and charging extra for it; this would be popular with many, it could be spun as free Wifi. They could remove the pamphlets from the big circular table in the library, put those on a stand, put in some chairs and use the table for laptops. The existing hotspots in the lounges with coffee tables will cater for those with smart phones.
Compared with other cruise lines Wifi is cheap with F.O., £30 for 24 hours with smaller packages available (£20-180m, £10-60m, £5-30m available from reception). There are two terminals in the internet room in which you can swipe your cruise card and pay as you go.
We enjoyed the itinerary, we enjoyed the cruise and we will cruise on the Black Watch again. Whether we will take an artic cruise in the middle of winter is not so sure. What has spoilt it for us is the few people who got on the boat with stinking colds and didn’t have the sense to stay in their cabins until they were well enough to mix. We knew we were in for trouble with the sneezing in the lifts on the first day. By day four nearly everyone on board had coughs or colds. Those people who blow their noses on their table napkins do not help either.
This cabin is equipped with portholes, bathroom with shower, hairdryer, television and tea/coffee making facilities. As the ship is getting on a bit it was a bit noisy in the cabin on the first night. It is strange that for a steel ship it sounds more like an old wooden sailing vessel, with all the creaking of timbers. I guess the metal flexes with the stresses and the fitted wardrobes have to follow suit and it is them making the creaking. We soon got used to it, as we did the motion of the ship. There were times however when we were out at sea and didn't have the shelter of the off-shore islands along the Norwegian coast, these were sleepless nights.There are two bunks, in an L configuration, one under the portholes and the other along the flank of the cabin. This gives a choice for who is susceptible to roll or pitch. The bunk under the portables has space for a torch, alarm clock, etc. at the head of the bunk, but the other bunk does not, although it is possible to move the pillow to the other end and use the desk at the expense of being able to switch the reading light off. If you used the bunk under the portholes, one end of the bunk was underneath the television and its mounting bracket and those of a nervous disposition might be concerned at sleeping with their head at that end in a rough sea for fear of the bracket working loose. The bunk under the portholes was convertible to a settee, the back rest being hooked up out of the way at night. There was a tendency for this fall down in the night, particularly in rough weather. I was able to fix this by tying it up with my spare extension lead.The wardrobe and drawer space was more than adequate, we didn't use all the drawers. There was no cabin safe but two of the drawers were lockable, using two keys which fitted either drawer, but one of the drawers could be unlocked just by turning the lock with the fingers. Key safe facilities are available at the front desk.There is a dual voltage system, 220v on continental round pins and 110v on USA flat pins. I used the 220v with an extension lead for my needs, powering my laptop and usb devices. I had to unplug to use the kettle but the laptop will run for 3 hours when charged so no problem for ten minutes.The TV is a modern flat screen one and is adequate for occasional use and the informational channels. It would not be so good for serious DVD watching, but the Black Watch does have a nice cinema on deck 3 for this. Despite what is said in the F.O. FAQ that portable DVDs can not be connected to the TV, I noticed that it did have the three phono connectors (yellow, white, red) for video and sound. Perhaps the TV control did not have a source button, I did not check this. In any case serious DVD watching would be limited by the screen size.The bathroom was OK though the plumbing tended to gurgle sometimes in the night. Once or twice the suction on the toilet was non functional, which could be worrying as a fresh ration of water was supplied on each flush attempt. Suction always came back before we had an emergency. The key is to not panic and overflush.There is no WiFi in the cabins. It is available on decks 5, 7 and 9 in public lounges. There is however a kettle with tea and coffee sachets. This was a big bonus for us and made up for the WiFi. If Fred Olsen can provide pre-checked kettles, then I don't see why other lines can not do this instead of hiding behind H&S and fire risk. After all, laptops can catch fire but are not banned.The only thing unsatisfactory about the cabin was the time it took to get made up. Sometimes it was late afternoon despite being out of the cabin from breakfast to lunch time. This maybe because the stewards are understaffed and have too much to do.