VIKING OCEAN CRUISES- ROYAL VIKING LINE MARK TWO?

There is little doubt that the ongoing emergence of Viking Ocean Cruises has absolutely galvanised interest in cruise travel on a scale unseen for many decades. The whole concept has distinctly nostalgic overtones, wrapped in a state of the art modern package, and deliberately marketed to evoke memories of a more exclusive, intimate cruise experience. Simply and unashamedly, the company draws inspiration from an illustrious, very storied predecessor.

in the annals of vanished cruising legends, the Royal Viking Line evokes a level of whimsical nostalgia perhaps equalled only by the equally salubrious French Line. The company was established by Warren Titus in the early 1970’s with one simple aim; to create the most elegant and exclusive cruise experience available to passengers anywhere.

He envisaged, and then delivered, a trio of stunningly elegant sisters, suffused in Scandinavian chic from bow to stern, that would offer spacious accommodation and gracious service at the pinnacle of luxury cruising. Those three sister ships were, of course, the Royal Viking Sea, Royal Viking Star, and Royal Viking Sky.

This tremendous, triumphant trio succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. The three sister ships became the collective benchmark for elegant travel, and the first choice of the savvy, sophisticated cruising elite that demanded nothing but the very best. Just as likely to turn up at Tromso as Tahiti, the three sister ships carved out a niche in modern maritime history that every subsequent luxury cruise line- from Crystal to Silversea- has aspired to ever since. They truly were game changers.

The sheer, enduring excellence and elegance of their design is borne out by the fact that all three vessels are still in service for other lines, more than forty years after their original genesis. And, despite no longer being the sybaritic showstoppers that they once were, each of these three wonderful ships is still instantly distinctive as ex-RVL royalty.

Titus emphasised space, splendour, and matchless cuisine and service as the bench marks for his three sisters. And now, like a modern day echo heeding that timeless old call, a new class of vessel is gradually taking shape, echoing those age old standards in a series of new, yet startlingly familiar sister ships.

Viking Ocean Cruises is the long anticipated offshoot of the hugely successful river cruise line. It combines the polished, Scandinavian flair of the original RVL with the best features and attributes of the river cruise experience that Viking has come to dominate to such a large extent.

Again, the company decided on a trio of congenial, compatible sister ships. The first of these- the 48,000 ton Viking Star- entered service last year, to reams of critical acclaim from passengers and travel trade alike.

Just the appearance of the ship drew awed gasps from the not easily impressed. There it was once again- that graceful, sharply raked prow that had been the trademark of the Titus trio, and the single proud funnel, placed just aft of midships. The hull- as brilliantly white as an Arctic glacier- hinted at the cool, pristine perfection of those classically styled Scandinavian interiors. In almost every respect, Viking Star is a graceful, beautifully executed nod to her three predecessors.

Next year will see a pair of sister ships- Viking Sea and Viking Star- that will round out the initial fleet (though there is an option for a fourth vessel in the class). Between them, this trio of vessels will take passengers ‘back to the future’ with a kind of intimate, endearing twist of the old days. In so many ways, this is Royal Viking 2.0.

And yet….

This new trio of ships offers a natural, luxurious progression from those 1970’s built ships that makes them as salubrious and state of the art as can be. Every single cabin- and even the smallest measures in at a capacious 270 square feet- comes with its own private balcony. In the old RVL days, balconies on cruise ships were almost non existent.

The symmetry between Royal Viking of old and Viking Ocean of new is hardly a happy accident. Viking CEO, Torstein Hagen, was actually the CEO of Royal Viking Line between 1980 and 1984.

In a mirror image of their river going siblings, the Viking Ocean trio will also offer a full, complimentary range of shore excursions, and many overnight stays in ‘greatest hits’ ports such as Bergen and Barcelona. This is intended to make them fully competitive with the likes of Azamara Club Voyages and Oceania- lines that Viking Ocean will inevitably be compared to.

Viking Ocean will also offer complimentary beer and wine with both lunch and dinner- just like the river boats and another rival operator, Voyages to Antiquity. This is not quite the fully inclusive largesse of, say, Regent or Seadream and, if the line is to really raise it’s game, then fully all inclusive is a must do. For now, this is not the case.

Viking chairmen, Torstein Hagen, has been smart enough to conceive a trio of classically cool, state of the art vessels that are already garnering a tidal wave of attention in the travel industry. Like their RVL predecessors, they emphasise superb food and personal service in casually spectacular surroundings.

But these ‘new’ Vikings offer a whole range of indoor and alfresco dining options that the old RVL trio never did. This is not so much revolution, more the evolution of a classically elegant kind of style and service.

All things in, Viking Ocean is a very alluring prospect; a kind of ‘less is more’ sense of enhanced elegance, shorn of casinos, rock climbing walls and roller rinks, and instead suffused in a cocoon of expansive style and space, in ships that are large enough to be eminently seaworthy, and yet still remaining intimate enough to make fast in the smaller, more exclusive ports that their larger competitors will be obliged to sail past.

Something old, something new, on an ocean that remains eternally blue. A subtle revival and the ageless thrills of a stylish arrival. Hagen is clearly onto something here.

The question is; will anybody else follow in his wake?

From Greenland to Genoa, Viking Ocean Cruises is ushering in a new kind of ocean going exploration.

From Greenland to Genoa, Viking Ocean Cruises is ushering in a new kind of ocean going exploration.

FRED’S FAB FOUR- A BIG DAY OUT FOR FRED. OLSEN CRUISE LINES

Today’s first, historic rendezvous of all four Fred. Olsen cruise ships in Bergen is ample cause to celebrate the more intimate style of voyaging that the company is famous for. But, way beyond even that, it is the celebration of a Norwegian company, long imbued with deep and historic links to Great Britain, that enjoys a unique travelling relationship with the British public.

As such, I thought it might be worth a quick look back at each of the ‘Fab Four’ as they line up for their big day out in what remains one of the most beautiful and popular ports of call on the company’s cruising roster.

BLACK WATCH was originally built in 1972 as the Royal Viking Star, the first of three nearly identical new sister ships commissioned by the then fledgling Royal Viking Line. She sailed with that legendary company through until 1991, when she was transferred to Norwegian Cruise Line, sailing first as the Westward and then as the Star Odyssey.

She was bought by Fred Olsen, entering service for them in November, 1996 as the heavily refurbished Black Watch. Ever since, the ship has enjoyed consistent, popular success as an elegant, highly styled cruise ship, offering itineraries ranging from two night mini cruises, to full, three month round the world voyages. At a svelte 28,000 tons, the Black Watch carries some 820 passengers in total.

BRAEMAR was originally ordered as the Crown Dynasty for the now defunct Crown Cruise Lines, and entered service in 1993. After a long spell as the Norwegian Dynasty of NCL, the ship was laid up at Aruba, where she was purchased by Fred. Olsen, and then extensively updated in Germany.

She entered service for Fred. Olsen in August, 2001 as the Braemar, and she soon became very popular indeed with her yearly season of winter Caribbean fly cruises, based out of Barbados, for which her intimate size was perfect. In the autumn, she also cruises from the Canary Islands, sometimes as far south as West Africa, and the recent winter resumption of her Caribbean itineraries after an absence of a few years, has been very well received.

Coming in at around 24,000 tons, Braemar currently has a capacity of around 929 passengers.

BALMORAL is currently the company’s flagship, and the largest passenger vessel ever to fly the Fred. Olsen flag. The 43,000 ton Balmoral was originally built in Germany as the Crown Odyssey in 1988, for the now sadly vanished Royal Cruise Line. In the late nineties, one of her fleet mates was the Star Odyssey, now also sailing for Fred. Olsen as the Black Watch.

She was an elegant and luxurious ship from the start, famed for her beautiful art deco interiors. After stints with both Orient Lines and NCL, for whom she sailed as the Norwegian Crown, she came over to Fred. Olsen in 2008.

After a thorough and very comprehensive refit, the ship entered service as Balmoral in 2008. Ever since, she has operated on longer, globe spanning voyages each January, and offered a full season of cruises to Norway, the Baltic, the Adriatic and Iberia during the rest of the season.

Updated for British tastes, this wonderful ship still has much of her original striking features and styling intact. She continues to be very popular with passengers wanting to cruise on an elegant, eminently seaworthy vessel that still offers an intimate, more personalised style of cruise experience. She has a passenger capacity of around 1,778 in total.

BOUDICCA is the near identical twin sister ship of the Black Watch. She, too, began life for Royal Viking Line as the Royal Viking Sky back in 1973, as one of the most exclusive and luxurious vessels anywhere at sea. She sailed with that company for eighteen full years, until 1991.

There was then a period where she was briefly used by Birka Line, NCL, Princess Cruises, Iberocruises, and even Star Cruises out in Asia. But this period of rapid change came to an end with her purchase by Fred. Olsen.

She entered service in February, 2006, after a massive refurbishment and with new engines, as the Boudicca, named for the legendary queen of the former Iceni tribe. In this new role, the ship has been very popular, offering itineraries as diverse as two night party cruises, right through to full, thirty two day round trips, out to the Caribbean and back.

Boudicca has also been something of a trail blazer for the fleet, sailing on cruises form ports as diverse as Belfast, Tilbury, Greenock, and Port of Tyne. With a tonnage of 28,000, the Boudicca can accommodate some 900 passengers in all.

DID YOU KNOW??

* All four of the ships in the current Fred. Olsen fleet have been cut in half and lengthened in the course of their careers.

* All four of them have sailed for Norwegian Cruise Line at some stage in their history.

* The entire number of berths offered across the entire fleet is still less than those aboard the monolithic Oasis of The Seas.

*  Next year, Balmoral will replace Boudicca on her summer season of cruises from Port of Tyne, the cruise port for Newcastle.

Art Deco lobby staircase on the Balmoral

Art Deco lobby staircase on the Balmoral

FOUR FOR FRED; OLSEN ORGANISES HUGE FLEET DISPLAY IN BERGEN

In what amounts to a historic first, all four cruise ships in the current Fred. Olsen fleet will meet up in Bergen on Tuesday, July 28th.

Balmoral, Braemar, Boudicca and Black Watch will all arrive in the Norwegian city at around 0800, and depart to a specially arranged fireboat salute at around 1800 that same evening. Between them, the popular quartet are expected to deposit around four thousand passengers ashore to enjoy highlights such as the Fish Market, Mount Floyen, and the historic harbour front warren of the Bryggen.

Clearly inspired by the huge publicity surrounding Cunard’s series of rendezvous featuring the ‘three Queens’, Fred. Olsen has chosen one of its most popular and perennial ports of call as the backdrop to the fleet gathering. The event is collectively being tagged as the ‘4B’s in Bergen’.

It will also mark the first time in many years that Boudicca and Black Watch- still fondly remembered as the Royal Viking Star and Royal Viking Sky respectively- have been seen together in what was once their traditional home waters.

At the end of what is sure to be a momentous and historic day for all concerned, the fleet will put to sea, one at a time, in the following order; Balmoral, Braemar, Boudicca, Black Watch.

Flagship Balmoral was originally built in 1988 as the Crown Odyssey for the now defunct Royal Cruise Line, while Braemar started life in 1993 as the Crown Dynasty of Crown Cruise Lines. She came to Fred. Olsen in 2001, after several years sailing for Norwegian Cruise Line as the Norwegian Dynasty.

Interestingly, all four ships have undergone ‘chop and stretch’ operations at some stage, each of which involved the cutting in half of each ship, and the addition of a prebuilt mid section. It’s a distinction that is unique to the Fred. Olsen fleet.

All things considered, this should be quite a special event, and I’m sure it will attract a fair bit of coverage on the day. As always, stay tuned.

All four cruise ships in the FOCL fleet will meet in Bergen this coming July 28th

All four cruise ships in the FOCL fleet will meet in Bergen this coming July 28th

BALMORAL COMES TO THE TYNE FOR 2016

Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines has just announced that it’s flagship, the 1,350 passenger, 43,000 ton Balmoral, will come north to operate a series of eleven cruises from Newcastle between May and August of 2016.

The ship, originally built by Meyer Werft in Papenburg as the Crown Odyssey back in 1988, is the largest vessel in the current, four ship FOCL fleet, and will take the place currently occupied by fleet mate Boudicca, originally the fabled Royal Viking Sky.

The addition of the ship will increase the seasonal summer numbers sailing from Newcastle by an estimated forty five per cent. Ironically, it might also see Balmoral reunited from time to time with her former Orient Lines’ fleetmate, Marco Polo, which now sails for the rival Cruise And Maritime Voyages from the Tyne in summer.

The programme for Balmoral commences on May 21st, with a five night Norwegian fjords cruise. Standing out among the mostly Scandinavian itineraries is a rather attractive, eleven night cruise that showcases the best of Spain, Portugal and Guernsey.

Rightly famed for her beautiful, Art Deco styling and wide amount of open outdoor decks, Balmoral is an elegant, supremely comfortable vessel, decorated with great style, and features the excellent levels of service and cuisine for which the Fred. Olsen brand is well known in the cruising fraternity.

Her arrival in northern parts definintely ratchets up the increasing high profile of Newcastle/Port of Tyne as an ideal departure point, especially for the highlights of Scandinavia, Iceland and Greenland.

An interesting development, for sure. As ever, stay tuned.

Balmoral is Tyneside bound for summer 2016

Balmoral is Tyneside bound for summer 2016

THE SURVIVORS; NORWEGIAN NOMADS STILL AT SEA

Balmoral, once the beloved Crown Odyssey

Balmoral, once the beloved Crown Odyssey

In the mid eighties, in what ultimately proved to be a case of ‘too much, too soon’, NCL went on what amounted to a buying spree straight out of the Carnival play book. Over fourteen years- from 1984 to 1998- the Caribbean cruise line originally founded by Knut Kloster absorbed a trio of famous cruise brands.

After suffering the maritime equivalent of acute indigestion, the restructured company aborted these same brands, and either sold their ships to other lines, or ultimately watched them go for scrap.

But many of those same names are still sailing, often easily recognised as their former selves. For lovers of cruise ships and ocean liners, there are few things more poignant than the sudden sighting of an instantly familiar ship, years later and half a world away. Familiar and wistful at the same time. It’s like seeing an old flame with a new hairstyle, often as not knowing that she’s now with another love. Bittersweet, indeed.

So let’s look at what is still out there these days, and just where they ended up….

ROYAL VIKING LINE

That company originally flaunted a trio of sleek, bridal white show stoppers- the Royal Viking Sea, Star and Sky. They emerged in 1972-73 and, despite each ship being lengthened in 1981, all remained tremendously popular and upmarket; in fact, they were the benchmark for the likes of later, sybaritic show stoppers from Crystal to Silversea.

Marco Polo is Tilbury's 'year round' cruise ship

Marco Polo is Tilbury’s ‘year round’ cruise ship

Happily, all three of these classic ladies are still sailing. The Royal Viking Sea today sails for the German company, Phoenix Seereisen, as the Albatross. The other two sisters were to enjoy a reunion, and are now both running in tandem for the Norwegian owned Fred. Olsen Cruise Line.

For Fred. Olsen, the Royal Viking Star now sails as the Black Watch, while the Royal Viking Sky is now the Boudicca.

In 1989, in an attempt to regain past glories,  Royal Viking Line built a new flagship, the Royal Viking Sun. After a shaky period with Cunard/Seabourn, she also happily still sails on as the Prinsendam of the venerable Holland America Line, the company’s self-styled ‘Elegant Explorer’.

In 1990, the line took delivery of a small, 10,000 ton ultra deluxe cruise ship, the Royal Viking Queen. After a brief spell with Royal Cruise Line in 1996, she was sold to Seabourn Cruise Line, where she rejoined her two original sister ships under her current name of Seabourn Legend. She is currently slated to join the fleet of Windstar Cruises next spring.

ROYAL CRUISE LINE

The first major eighties pre- Kloster new build for this company was the glorious, 1988 built Crown Odyssey, a ship that soon gained a reputation for elegance and on board excellence rivalled by few.  After Royal Cruise Line was wound up, this lovely ship spent four years being employed like a ping pong ball between NCL and its last acquisition, Orient Lines.

Sold to Fred. Olsen in 2008, the ship was taken to Germany, and enhanced with the addition of a new mid section. Now sailing as Balmoral, she is the flagship of the Fred. Olsen fleet, as well as the largest ship. Cruising mainly out of Southampton, she remains a tremendously popular ship to this day.

Some of you will also remember the funky little Golden Odyssey, the diminutive little start up ship for this line. The 1974 built little beauty is still sailing today, though only as a casino ship out of Hong Kong. A far cry from her one time glory days.

ORIENT LINES

Gerry Herrod’s legendary, as -was one ship line was bought by NCL in 1998, but the Orient Lines brand was struck from the company portfolio of offerings in 2008. Happily, the 1965 built Marco Polo continues to sail on for UK company, Cruise and Maritime Voyages. Still popular and beautifully styled, the veteran former transatlantic liner celebrates her fiftieth anniversary in 2015.

Long may all of these great, highly regarded and affectionately remembered ‘ladies of the sea’ continue to grace the oceans they still sail with such proud, singular style. Each and every one of them is an important, intrinsic link to our maritime past. And for the current, massively resurgent Norwegian, these are still the self same ships that proudly ‘flew the flag’ and enabled the brilliant, world class fleet of today to come to fruition.

HOMECOMING QUEEN- THE SS. NORWAY 1984 CRUISES IN EUROPE

The SS. Norway in Flam, Norway. Probably 1998 or 1999

The SS. Norway in Flam, Norway. Probably 1998 or 1999

When Knut Kloster completed his amazing ‘Sleeping Beauty’ style resurrection of the SS. Norway in May of 1980, it was with the express intention of sailing her on year round, seven night cruises from Miami to the clear, sunny waters of the sultry Caribbean. When the still not quite complete ship sailed out of Southampton for New York on May 7th, 1980, few ever realistically expected to see her back in Europe again, other than for routine dry docking.

Several factors appeared to back this up; firstly, the deep draft of the SS. Norway- well over thirty feet- would make it difficult for her to access the smaller, more desirable ports in Europe. And, in those days, even many of the bigger ports still did not have the infrastructure to cope with a ship and passenger load like the Norway could deliver. Plus, the immensely profitable, seven night circuits in the Caribbean were enormously popular.

Just how profitable the Norway was in the Caribbean was highlighted by a brief, three month recession that kicked into the Caribbean cruise run over the summer of 1983. For weeks on end, the average, seven days ships- with capacity for around eight hundred passengers each- were going out half full on average.

At the same time, the SS. Norway- with a capacity well in excess of two thousand passengers, was averaging an occupancy rate of some ninety- three per cent, week in and out. That is a stunning figure; proof, if ever it were needed, of Kloster’s brilliance and foresight in resurrecting the giant liner in the first place.

So the 1984 return to Europe of the SS. Norway to operate a short, summer series of seven night cruises came as a real surprise. NCL trumpeted it as ‘the cruise sensation of the year’, and not without good reason. The news had the same shock effect as a brick thrown through a window. In fact, NCL took advantage of the ship’s return to Europe to schedule a three week dry docking for her.

The plan was to sail the giant ship on a series of alternating, seven night cruises from Amsterdam. One run would encompass the ‘greatest hits’ of the Baltic circuit such as Hamburg, Oslo, Stockholm and Copenhagen- but, interestingly, not Saint Petersburg. This was 1984, and the Cold War had not quite yet thawed out.

The other run would take the SS. Norway back to her adopted country; here, the vast, beautiful ship would make a stunningly implausible sight in such ports as Flam, Geiranger and Gudvangen. There would also be one longer, spectacular cruise to the top of the North Cape and back, a truly epic odyssey for the graceful giant. This would presage the shorter, seven night runs.

Kloster had intended for his giant baby to sail from New York to Southampton on a nostalgic Atlantic crossing. However, the Hudson River had silted up so much that it would require extensive dredging to safely accommodate the Norway. The harbour authorities were reluctant to go to such expense for what they not unreasonably expected to be a one off visit.

So, the SS. Norway instead sailed up to Philadelphia. After a two night party cruise to ‘nowhere’, she embarked 1,000 passengers for an eight night, eastbound crossing to Europe. Still, some eight feet of her mainmast had to be removed so that she could pass safely under the Walt Whitman bridge.

The Norway arrived in Southampton on July 26th, joining the Queen Elizabeth 2 and the Royal Viking Sky in the Hampshire port. That evening, she left on a two day party cruise to Amsterdam, arriving on the 28th. From here, her season of seven night cruises began.

Prices for the seven night cruises began at $1,140 per person, while the fourteen night North Cape fiesta had fares beginning at $2,190. The seven night cruises were also able to be combined to create one amazing, fourteen night, back to back trip.

That short, high summer season of European cruises was a tremendous success; in fact, it was a sell out. Following her three weeks in dry dock in Hamburg, the Norway returned to Miami via the ‘sunny southern’ route, on an eleven night transatlantic crossing. Leaving Southampton on September 24th and sailing via Bermuda and Nassau, the Norway arrived back ‘home’ in Miami on October 5th, ready to resume her Caribbean circuit.

Despite the success of her short summer season, it would be 1998 before the SS. Norway would return to offer another full season of European cruises. By then, time and new builds had passed her by, and she was no longer the totally dominant force that she had once been. None the less, the fabled ship remained a hugely popular draw. Unable to compete effectively in the Caribbean with newer, more fuel efficient and amenity laden ships, she spent the next few summers in Europe, where her history, heritage and elegance would make her a constantly popular choice for starry eyed nostalgia buffs from  all over the world.

TIMESLIP: QE2 AND THE SS. NORWAY IN SOUTHAMPTON, JULY 26TH 1984; A FIRST HAND ACCOUNT

The Grande Dame; the legendary, beloved SS. Norway at Southampton

The Grande Dame; the legendary, beloved SS. Norway at Southampton

On July 26th, 1984, the UK was in the middle of the second term of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. The miners’ strike was front page news almost everywhere. In the charts, Frankie Goes To Hollywood were in the midst of a nine week run at number one with their second big single, Two Tribes.

In a sunny, beautifully warm Southampton, Thursday, July 26th was also the scene of a very special reunion. On that day, the two biggest passenger ships in the world would meet again in the famous Hampshire port for the first time in decades. And, naturally, such an event brought out both the cameras and the crowds.

In fact, there were three ‘ladies of the sea’ in Southampton that day. Bringing up the rear of the line- quite literally- was the exquisite Royal Viking Sky. Still sailing today as Fred Olsen’s Boudicca, RV Sky was by far the smallest of the trio in terms of size. But in terms of style and elegance, she was a finely sculpted, gigantic presence.

At her regular berth at the terminal that bore the name of her Godmother was the Queen Elizabeth 2. For the first time, that legendary ship now wore the full, traditional Cunard colours; charcoal hull, white upper works, and black and red smokestack. When I first saw her from the land, she was a tantalising vision; one just out of reach. But I was not too worried. I knew I’d get a very close look at her in a few hours.

A few hours before that, a third, unmistakable presence had come looming out of the darkness. For the first time since her rebirth in 1980, the SS. Norway had made a transatlantic crossing back to Europe. After four years’ of hugely profitable employment in the Caribbean, the world’s largest cruise ship was making her cruising debut in Europe. Based in Hamburg, the Norway would be making a string of seven night Baltic cruises, with an alternating, seven night run up to the fjords of western Norway.

Canberra was another Southampton stalwart in the eighties

Canberra was another Southampton stalwart in the eighties

Naturally, she had first to cross the Atlantic. It had been planned to sail her from New York, but the Hudson river had silted up to a dangerous level. The Port Authority was unwilling to pay for massive dredging for what they knew would be a one off visit. So, instead, the Norway embarked a thousand passengers in Philadelphia.

Even then, problems persisted. Some eight feet had to be lopped from the top of her mainmast, so that the Norway could pass safely under the Walt Whitman bridge. But, once that was done, things went very smoothly.

Quite literally, as it turns out. For eight days, the Norway surged gamely eastwards on a glass clam, sunlit Atlantic. She embarked Petula Clark, Sacha Distel, and her own, resident fifteen piece big band for a leisurely voyage, back on her old run, to Southampton.

By the time she swept into Southampton on that gorgeous Thursday morning, the Norway was immaculate; resplendent in her royal blue and white paint scheme. Rumours persisted later that Captain Aage Hoddevik had paint crews over the side in the small hours, touching up any unsightly blemishes, as she stooged just off the Isle of Wight. Heaven forbid that madame should not have her make up just perfect for her reunion with her royal cousin.

QE2 has never been forgotten in her home port

QE2 has never been forgotten in her home port

The SS. Norway docked at Berth 106, regular home of the rival P&O consorts, Canberra and Oriana. I boarded her there that afternoon, awed as always by those graceful, winged stacks and the beautiful sheer of her lines. Settled in, and with lifeboat drill over, I made it up on deck just in time to see the Royal Viking Sky begin her stately progress downriver. Swinging loose behind us, the languid, Scandinavian beauty was quite a sight.

Early evening sunlight turned the water into what looked like a sea of blazing straw as she came on. The long, flared bow loomed black and massive in it’s light, cutting the swell as smoothly as a hot knife through butter. As she drew level with the far larger Norway, passengers on both ships waved back and forth, though mostly on the Norway. With her single, elegant funnel framed perfectly against a vivid, petrol blue sky, this beautiful ship- graceful and poised as a swan- swept proudly past us, on her way to yet another epic adventure.

And then, it was our turn.

With an absolute minimum of fuss or ceremony, the magnificent Norway warped slowly clear of Berth 106. There was no band, streamers or crowds; the sight of that enormous, thousand foot long hull looming slowly into the stream was ceremony enough in its own right. Our only clue that we were underway at all was the slowly widening strip of sun dappled water that yawned open like some spectacular theatre curtain as she stood out into the stream. And, as that fabulous bow nudged slowly forward, all eyes were locked like lasers on the other principal actress in this performance.

Bathed in mid summer sunshine, the QE2 seemed to shimmer like some ethereal, other worldly presence. Her trim, back and red smokestack loomed ramrod straight, pointing at the vapour trail of some jet, ghosting across the sky high above her. And, as the two ships drew closer, what looked like an army of ants could be seen on board her, scurrying across to line the rails on her starboard side boat deck.

Many came to cherish this view

Many came to cherish this view

At the same time, a human tidal wave flooded every single vantage point on the port side of the Norway. And, as the two biggest and most legendary ships of the post war era drew level with each other, the air erupted with the sound of four thousand voices as they offered up one huge, single cheer.

Seconds later, and a pair of sirens boomed out across the water, as Norway and QE2 saluted each other. Time seemed to stand still as the crowds on both ships whooped, shrieked and waved across to each other. It was a stunning moment; a unique little bit of history. The adrenaline on both ships was flowing like Niagara Falls.

Mellow evening sunlight filled the slowly widening gap between the two divas, as the Norway stood slowly out into mid stream. And, looking back at the elegant, slowly receding enigma that was QE2, I knew beyond doubt that I would soon have to return to her, too.

BLACK WATCH; BUCKING THE BIG SHIP TREND

Fred. Olsen's Black Watch in the Kiel Canal

Fred. Olsen’s Black Watch in the Kiel Canal

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. 

Aft pool deck on the Black Watch

Aft pool deck on the Black Watch

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.

Black Watch can take you just as easily to Antwerp, or across the Atlantic

Black Watch can take you just as easily to Antwerp, or across the Atlantic

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.