At 41 years of age, the Black Watch is one of the oldest and smallest cruise ships in the current UK cruise market. She has no rock climbing wall or ice rink. Dinner is still served in two fixed seatings. Entertainment is low key, end-of-the-pier stuff, and definitely best suited to an older passenger demographic.
In short, she is everything that the new, state of the art, amenity laden ships are not. And yet, despite sailing against a growing armada of these monolithic new floating resorts, the veteran Black Watch is more than holding her own. Since 1996, she has become a much loved, perennial favourite among generations of cruise passengers, many of whom would not even dream of sailing on any other ship.
How has this come to pass, when the ship seems to buck every contemporary trend in existence?
Firstly, there is the uniquely intimate atmosphere that Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines has created on board. What was already a classic design was skilfully upgraded to Olsen’s traditional, Scottish accented style and decor. Combined with a warmly welcoming, service oriented Filipino crew, it was a winning formula from the start.
And the intimate scale of the ship actually works for her largely older, less mobile clientele. Black Watch was built long and lean, with a beautiful clipper bow and excellent seakeeping qualities. And the fact that she looks like a throwback to the supposed ‘golden age’ of ocean liners does not hurt. In fact, with her funnel cowl and gracefully stepped aft decks, she resembles nothing so much as a pocket version of the much lamented Queen Elizabeth 2.
Her open decks are solid teak, traditional, and expansive for her 28,000 tons, and they come with a nice smattering of swimming pools, hot tubs, sun loungers and casual, outdoor eateries. The fish and chips served at the upper deck Marquee Bar and Grill are legendary.
In fact, food, and the quality of it, is one of the great strengths of the Black Watch as a ship, as indeed it is right across the Fred. Olsen fleet. Menus are largely geared to British tastes, with some evocative Scandinavian and European twists. It is hugely enjoyable, well served, and savoured in very pleasant surroundings that are designed to soothe, rather than stun.
Originally built as the Royal Viking Star in 1972, Black Watch was the start up ship for the legendary Royal Viking Line. A mid section was added in 1981 to bring her up to her present configuration. From her inception, she was built to be able to access the smaller, more intimate ports around the world that makes cruising such an appealing holiday choice.
This has enabled Fred. Olsen to compile some very appealing and innovative itineraries for this voluptuous, veteran lady of the seas. And, with itineraries ranging from a weekend Christmas shopping break, right through to complete, three month circumnavigations of the globe, the Black Watch offers a range of options to suit all tastes and styles.
Another factor that appeals to passengers is the fact that the prices- both for the cruise itself, and for services charged on board- are very realistic, and represent excellent value. Fred. Olsen was also very astute in putting a good number of affordable single cabins into both Black Watch, and the rest of her fleet mates. People understand and appreciate value when they see it.
Above all, people value what they see as the standards of continuity enshrined in the Fred. Olsen experience; it’s the equivalent of a comfort blanket for many. But the line has actually relaxed some of the old dress codes of late, in a small, but not insignificant nod towards a potentially younger clientele.
Moving both Black Watch and her equally doughty twin sister, Boudicca (the former Royal Viking Sky) around the UK to a number of seasonal home cruise ports, such as Liverpool, Newcastle, Belfast and Rosyth, has also helped in keeping them full. Taking the ships to what amounts to people’s home ports is a move that has been since emulated by others.
It is exactly the success of the Fred. Olsen formula that has led to the establishment of the similarly styled Cruise and Maritime Voyages, a gradually expanding operator that clearly has taken a bead on the Olsen operating model. This is a welcome addition, and also a testament to the continued success of ships like the Black Watch in bucking the trend toward ever larger, less personal ships.
It is to be fervently hoped that cruise passengers- and the travel community in particular- continue to cherish and support ships like the beautiful Black Watch, as well as her fleet mates and her potential rivals. There is room in the market for all of them.