Fred. Olsen In for Busy Year

August 1, 2007

Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines (FOCL), the U.K.-based line that specializes in small-ship voyages to exotic ports of call, is entering a particularly busy era. The cruise line, which made headlines recently for more unfortunate reasons (an outbreak of Legionnaires' Disease on its Black Watch over the weekend), held a press conference in London this week to outline its future plans. Cruise Critic U.K.-based correspondent Kari Reinikainen was on hand to fill us in.

In January, Fred. Olsen will introduce Balmoral, its biggest ship, measuring some 43,000 tons and offering 1,348 berths after a surgery that will add 30 meters (97.5 feet) to its length and increase its tonnage by about 9,000. The ship's capacity will increase by 350 berths in the surgery to be carried out at the Blohm + Voss Repair yard in Germany. Balmoral is currently sailing as Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Crown.

In a similar operation, the 19,089-ton 1993-built Braemar will be lengthened, also at Blohm + Voss in Germany. This time the work means adding a 31.2 meter-long section to the 163 meter-long ship. The construction is set to begin in mid 2008. The 60 million euro ($81 million) project will increase capacity from 727 to 977 passengers. As the cost of cutting the ship and rejoining the parts does not depend on the size of the midsection, it makes commercial sense to lengthen the ship as much as is technically possible. Extra public space will include a bar designed around the concept of a traditional British pub. In addition to further balcony suites, the new Deck 8 space will accommodate a restaurant and an Observatory Lounge similar to those found on other Fred. Olsen ships. There will also be plenty of extra deck space, and a second swimming pool with an area for children to play safely will be added.

Both operations are aimed at providing more balconies and other premium accommodations, which have been in short supply on the two vessels. With its 1,348 berths, Balmoral will be the only ship in the FOCL fleet that takes more than 1,000 passengers, and company officials admit they are excited about the response the ship will create.

On the other hand, Balmoral isn't really that big. A ship that may have been regarded as large 15 years ago would be small by modern standards, officials pointed out. They maintain it's possible to create an intimate atmosphere on a larger vessel by providing the passengers a choice of several, smaller public rooms with a different ambiance in each, a fact that is particularly important on long cruises.

FOCL is entering the U.S. market for the first time next spring when Balmoral (named after the Scottish country residence of HM Queen Elizabeth II) starts its program from Miami. The company plans to target those Americans who appreciate a traditional, British cruise experience rather than people who are keen on gaming and expect to find a large casino or want to do rock climbing on their cruise. It expects some 20 percent of the passengers on these cruises to come from the U.S. At the same time, FOCL is fostering its business in the Netherlands, where groups are its principal target, and in Ireland. However, Britishness will remain the core building block of the FOCL experience, company officials assured.

On the itinerary front, Fred. Olsen's five vessels will call at 306 ports -- 21 of which are new for FOCL -- in 116 countries between January 2008 and April 2009. Among the new ports of call? Alaska and British Canada sailings that call at Vancouver, Seattle, Seward, Skagway and Ketchikan; U.S. west coast stops at San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles; India's Chennai; Russia's Petropavlovsk; Japan's Yokahama and Kagoshima; and China's Shanghai, Tianjin and Xingang.

Starting in November 2008, Boudicca will be based in Barbados, taking over the traditional 14-night cruise program from Braemar, which will then be moved to Miami to offer another program of 14-night fly/cruises in the Caribbean. Braemar will also offer a series of Mediterranean fly/cruises, based mainly at Civitavecchia, from July to October 2008, thus introducing FOCL's first dedicated fly/cruise program in the region.

This will be the first time Fred. Olsen has offered Caribbean fly/cruises from two different homeports -- Barbados and Miami -- and the number of regional airports included in the fly/cruise program have also been extended to 21. In addition to Gatwick and Manchester, customers can now fly to a Fred. Olsen Caribbean cruise from Belfast, Birmingham, Bournemouth, Bristol, Cardiff, Doncaster/Sheffield, Dublin, East Midlands, Edinburgh, Exeter, Glasgow, Humberside, Leeds Bradford, Liverpool, Newcastle, Newquay, Norwich, Stansted and Teeside.

Editor's Note: "Fly/Cruises" is a British term that simply means most folks will have to fly, rather than drive, to embarkation ports.

In early 2009, FOCL will operate two around-the-world cruises that sail in opposite directions and cover different hemispheres. Black Watch will sail from Southampton on January 6 and head west for a 97-night cruise via Panama to Australia and South Africa, with a call at Takoradi in Ghana in West Africa on the way home. Balmoral, meanwhile, will stay in the Northern Hemisphere on its 104-night odyssey that starts from Dover on January 14. Heading east, the ship sails via Suez to Oman, India, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam on to China, and will call at the Russian port of Petropavlovsk on the Kamcahtska Peninsula prior to heading to Alaska and the west coast of North America. The voyage continues via Panama and the Caribbean back to Dover.

Regional ports will remain on FOCL's menu, as Black Prince, its smallest ship, continues to operate from Liverpool and Greenock year-round, and Boudicca makes a series of cruises in the summer from both Leith and Newcastle. As before, Dover and Southampton remain the principal ports for cruises that depart from the U.K.

--by Kari Reinikainen, Cruise Critic's U.K.-based correspondent