In early October I received an email offer from Fred Olsen for a November 20th sailing on the Boudicca for a 21-day cruise to the Canary Islands and Cape Verde. The price was quite good at less than 100 GBP per day although it was for what Fred Olsen terms an Anchor Fare (i.e. a guaranteed cabin with no choice in assigned dining time). When I went to book I discovered that Fred Olsen now uses a different American booking agent and the change is not a good one. They used to use Borton Overseas Travel based in Minneapolis which is a very good company, but now they are using something called World View Travel based in New York and they are terrible. They rarely answered emails or the phone and knew almost nothing about the cruise line; my cruise documents barely arrived in time and then only after I left phone messages asking where they were. It’s a pity that Americans cannot book directly with Fred Olsen as it would be so much easier. However, this itinerary was so interesting and the Liverpool departure location meant the opportunity to visit relatives in the area so I could not pass up the chance. And I was fortunate to snag some last minute frequent flyer tickets to the U.K. so I was off!
I expected travel to the embarkation port in Liverpool to be a breeze from Altrincham where I was staying, but I did not take into account last minute rail works, which altered my itinerary, nor the surprise that some 30,000 crazed rugby fans would also be making their way to Liverpool that same morning for a world’s final match between Australia and New Zealand! Nothing says “adventure” like fighting your way onto a two-carriage Northern train at Manchester Piccadilly with hundreds of others while carrying two large suitcases and then standing the whole way to Liverpool holding onto your cases one stacked upon the other. Once at Liverpool Lime Street the station taxi cue barely moved as fans ran out to the street and snagged many of the available taxis there. Those of us left in the cue started finding fellow Boudicca passengers and joined up to share whatever taxis we could find. Once at the port, though, things went very smoothly. Luggage disappeared out of the taxi before I even alighted and was already waiting in my cabin when I boarded about an hour later. Check-in was already in progress when I arrived at 1:30 pm and at 2 pm embarkation began by group starting with the upper class cabins and those with elite status. The Liverpool terminal is fairly basic, but had plenty of seating for all of us. Toilets were in a separate trailer-like building just outside. The walk to the ship was a bit long and covered at least most of the way; however, it would not have been a pleasant walk, though, had it been raining. I believe assistance was provided to those passengers who needed help getting to the ship.
My second unwelcome surprise that day came when I arrived at my cabin. When sailing on the Black Watch this past summer I had been told by the Future Cruise Consultant that the Boudicca was a sister ship, meaning they had the same layout. Since I booked exactly the same cabin category (category N, inside solo cabin) and even was assigned the same cabin number (4107) on this voyage I expected the same cabin facilities. However, instead of the nice wide bed I had on the Black Watch, I had a bed that was all of 30 inches wide—something I would provide for a child, not a full grown adult. And in place of a desk with drawers, there was a small triangular shelf that held a phone, small lamp and barely room for anything else. Even the closet was smaller with only about 16 inches of hanging space. The Black Watch bathroom had nice counter space and a real medicine cabinet, whereas this Boudicca bathroom had a pedestal sink with just a single shelf along the bottom of the mirror. Even the door hit the toilet which meant you had to sit sideways unless the door was fully closed. I went to the service desk immediately to ask about changing cabins, but was told I would need to speak to someone else who was not readily available. The staff person did, however, get on the phone, and within 20 minutes a crew member turned up with a nice small three-drawer cabinet to add to my cabin which provided me with enough additional storage to unpack. I think that had I booked a Freedom Fare (regular cruise fare) I might have had a chance to change cabins to something larger as the ship was not sailing full. On the plus side I love this location on the ship as it’s very quiet and convenient to both the mid-ship stairs/elevators leading to the dining and public areas as well as the aft stairs/elevator that lead to the pool area and laundry room.
Fred Olsen ships are older ships without the glamour of the newer behemoths that many cruise lines have launched, but the ship is very comfortable and just the right size at 800 passengers for me. All the necessities are provided (pools, gym, both formal and informal dining spaces, bars, a library, etc.) as well as lots of places to sit both inside and out, with the exception of the promenade deck which could use a few more chairs. Smoking is contained to two outside aft locations and to private balconies. There is a full wrap-around promenade deck as well as additional walking space on the top deck. Indeed, walking seems to be one of the most popular activities on Fred Olsen ships. One of my favorite locations is the Bookmark Café where you can order up hot drinks as well as select from a variety of chocolates while browsing the library collection of books and then sitting in a comfortable armchair with a nice sea view. Those folks who are sun worshippers could choose from quite a number of lounge chairs on several decks. The major public space on the ship is the Neptune Lounge where lectures, entertainment and some activities such as dance classes were scheduled. The layout here is not ideal as it’s all mostly on one level with just one step up to a second level around the sides and back of the space. They do provide some video monitors on this upper level to assist those in back to see the screen or stage area. Some of us early on figured out the best place to sit and would just arrive extra early to grab our favorite seat for any even we wanted to attend.
The dining experience on Fred Olsen is decidedly British with a significant emphasis on seafood and geared towards night folk rather than morning people like myself. Breakfast began at 7:30 or 8:00 am, depending on dining venue, except on some port days when one of the venues would open at 7:00 am. Prior to that, the coffee/tea area would be set up at 6:30 am. This was another change from the Black Watch which had a 24-hour coffee/tea area. Lunch began at noon and tea with snacks was served at 3:45 pm. The dining room had two fixed-seating services, one at 6:15 pm and the other at 8:15 pm. For the main dining room there were some designated formal nights, although I noticed that many passengers dressed up a bit for diner here even on regular nights as well. The informal Secret Garden café provided buffet style dinner at 6:30 pm. At 11:30 pm each evening an additional supper would be served, usually with a theme meal. As a morning person and one, whom for medical reasons cannot eat much of anything after 6 pm, this schedule provided quite a problem. To compensate I would try to find something to eat at tea time or put together a sandwich from items on the breakfast buffet to save for later. The ship does provide room service from 11 am to 10 pm, but it is a very limited menu of soup, a few salads and cold sandwiches only. I called and tried to just get a bowl of ice cream one evening and was told that was not possible. I ended up just ordering a glass of milk each night. Except for that standard breakfast every morning the menus varied daily and did provide some gluten-free and sugar-free options for those that needed them. I found the overall quality of the food on this sailing not quite as good as on the Black Watch this past summer. I’m not sure why this was the case.
The activities on board are geared toward the general age group that Fred Olsen attracts which is the over 60s. There was a small gym on the top deck, but I found some of the equipment rather old and was quite turned off by the horrible metallic rock music played by the gym attendant. Why he possible thought our older generation wanted to listen to that music was beyond my understanding. He also offered some deck games during the day on the promenade deck. There were two saltwater pools, an exercise pool, and some hot tubs—all wonderfully heated to just the right temperature. As I mentioned before, though, walking the deck seemed to be the most popular physical activity on this sailing. The ship also offered trivia games, dance lessons, a passenger choral group, and painting and craft classes. My preferred activities were the lectures. We had a port lecturer who was quite good, but they limited him to only 45 minutes per port—not enough time really. We also had three other very good lecturers, but I was surprised on their topic choices (Hollywood stars, 18th Georgian England, and assorted political/historical topics). Aside from a lecture on Columbus none of these lectures had any connection to our itinerary, unlike our summer Arctic cruise where we had nature and maritime history lectures that fit the bill.
The entertainment on board such a small ship is limited because of facilities. We had a few musicians who played at tea time and there were two scheduled shows in the evening, none of which I attended as they were so late. The cabins had small televisions with terrible speakers; it was so difficult to hear without turning up the sound but then you worried about disturbing your neighbors. Channels included BBC News, Sky News and an ITV station with an occasional show from some other mystery station. There were also two movie channels but the Daily Times often had errors in the schedule so I often found I missed a movie I wanted to see. And I really question the movie selection on this sailing as there were a large number of very old movies while the newer movies tended to be about aliens and/or Marvel comic heroes—not really of interest to the older passengers. Again this differed from the Black Watch cruise on which we had some really good recent movie selections.
Service is one area in which Fred Olsen really stands out from many other cruise lines. The majority of their staff has been with the company for many years and has the most amazing ability to remember passengers’ names and preferences-even passengers who have sailed with them before. My cabin attendant was a very sweet and quiet young woman who kept my cabin spotlessly clean and had no difficulty with my requests upon arrival to remove several items from the cabin to reduce clutter/improve storage space. When I mentioned to one of the ship’s photographers that Cape Verde would be my 100th foreign country visited, he made a special effort to follow me around that day to get pictures of me with the little sign I made for the occasion. And I cannot say enough good things about Hannah in the Shore Tours office. She was just great and the best provider of any information I needed while on board.
Fred Olsen offers a good range of shore tours in ports and they are, in general, more reasonably priced compared to many other cruise lines. I booked tours in the all the ports and was only really disappointed in two of them--Mindelo (too many people booked for the accommodations) and Santa Cruz de Tenerife (poorly run tour).
The one major negative aspect and one very frustrating for me is Fred Olsen’s refusal to provide specific port times in advance for any of its cruises. They provide only vague information such as “Early AM arrival” which can mean anything from 5 am to 9 am. Even if you ask for port times once on board, they refuse to provide them until they appear in the Daily Times the night before saying “things can change”. What good is that? It’s too late to make any adjustments to shore tour bookings or make any independent arrangements. And in the case of this cruise, twice the “Early AM” information was not correct. Our “Early AM” arrival in Lisbon turned out to be planned for 12 noon. I’ve sailed with nine other cruise lines, both British and American, and they have all provided ports times at the time of booking. Cruise companies have to pre-book specific times with the port authorities and with their on-shore tour companies so they do know the times in advance. And, sure, anyone who has sailed before knows that occasionally sea conditions, port staffing issues, or medical emergencies, etc. can cause a change in port times, but at least you do get to plan your port time in advance. I will say the frustration with this lack of information was the one reason that kept me from booking a future cruise deposit with them while on board.
Disembarkation at Liverpool went very quickly and smoothly. Breakfast was served starting at 6:30 am and we were told to be out of our cabins by 8 am. We docked at 7 am and disembarkation began about 7:45 am once luggage had been off-loaded. As usual those guests in the upper deck suites and balcony cabins were called first followed by the other decks downward. This is another advantage of sailing on a smaller ship as the luggage was easy to find in the terminal and the cue for taxis outside was almost non-existent. I was off the ship, in a taxi, and at my hotel by 8:45 am.
Although I’ve pointed out a number of negatives on this Canary Island/Cape Verde cruise on the Boudicca, in particular in comparison to the wonderful Arctic cruise on the Black Watch this past summer, I still believe that the Fred Olsen cruise line is a good company to sail with. Their smaller ships and level of personal service really make them stand out from the crowd. And what, to me, is the truly outstanding feature is the people—you really feel you have become a resident in a wonderfully charming English village with all the marvelous characters one might encounter there. Passengers are very friendly and really care for one another. Even though I’m an American, my mother was English so I feel a part of that heritage. I never had a chance to meet my English grandparents but talking to one retired Cumbrian railroader at early morning coffee with his crazy stories made me feel as if I’ve “found” my grandfather, whom I was told was himself a great story teller. Helping my elderly neighbor up a steep ramp or the memory-challenged gentleman across the hall locate his cabin upon occasion or getting an invitation to stay at their home from the charming couple I met at breakfast—these were all wonderful connections, the type of connections I’ve rarely found on any other cruise ship except perhaps on Swan Hellenic, another small ship British company. So, yes, I expect to be back again on Fred Olsen; I just beg their home office to reconsider providing passengers with port times in advance and please let Americans book directly with your office.
This was a solo inside cabin. The location on deck 4 between the midship and aft stairs/elevators is excellent for being quiet and convenient. You do get a little vibration but it's a stable location in rough seas. This bed is rather firm and far too small for a full-size adult as it's only 30 inches wide. This category of cabin on the Black Watch had a double bed. It's best to specifically ask what size bed comes in any cabin on Fred Olsen ships as they apparently vary greatly. There was no desk but just a small triangular shelf below the mirror. It held the phone and a small lamp but left little room for much else; it would not be big enough for a laptop computer for example. There was another small shelf with shelf space below next to the bed. This held a small lamp that was fixed in place. Fortunately my new CPAP respiratory machine is quite small as their was just room for that, a small clock and a water bottle. Had I had my old larger machine it would not have fit. In addition there was a straight back chair and another chair with wooden arms so sitting was sufficient. The wardrobe was too small for a long cruise. There were plenty of hangers but only 16" of hanging space and small area below for shoes (maybe 3-4 pairs). There were 4 drawers and 5 shelves but one shelf held the life-jacket, one the coffee/tea service and another was taken up mostly by the small safe. In the bathroom there was a pedestal sink with a long shelf below the mirror but no other storage. The bathroom door hit the toilet so it had to be fully closed or you had to sit sideways. The shower was sufficient size, but had only a small holder for a bar of soap or one shampoo bottle. The television had a small screen and terrible speakers so it was difficult to hear unless you turned it way up, but that was a worry as you did not want to disturb your neighbors. I had this exact same cabin number on Black Watch and it had much better storage space.