Above: Braemar leaving Dover
smaller ships rarely grab the headlines like the biggest ships do. However smaller ships, like Breamar, really do feel more friendly. Braemar is easy to navigate and you do not spend your entire cruise walking down miles of corridors, climbing hundreds of stairs or endlessly waiting for lifts. Although you get less choice of public rooms, how many do you really need anyway? Olsen’s food is very good and entertainment is often very good. Smaller ships usually have better connection with the sea than giant ones and Braemar is no exception. No cabin on the Braemar is far from the promenade or uppermost deck. Embarkation and disembarkation was a pure joy.
Norwegian family owned company, Fred. Olsen have a fleet of three small cruise vessels catering almost exclusively for British passengers. Olsen is very much of the mind-set that ‘small is beautiful’ and this is very much appreciated by Olsen’s many loyal followers.
I was undertaking a mini-cruise from Dover, on Braemar, visiting Honfluer (France) and Antwerp (Brussels), returning to Dover. I had cruised Olsen once before, and that was on the charming ‘Black Watch’ a few years ago. Interestingly, the previous ship I cruised on before Braemar was Cunard’s new 150,000 gross ton ‘Queen Mary 2’ so you can imagine the contrast.
Braemar is around 20,000 tons and was built in 1992, although she only entered the Olsen fleet in 2002. Many of today’s passenger/car ferries are bigger that this ship. However, even though she is a small vessel by modern standards, she still manages to accommodate up to 821 passengers
On paper she is a high-density vessel, but surprisingly she never felt crowded The only exception to that rule was at breakfast time in a port of call, but even then it was still possible to get a seat for breakfast without too much problem. Embarkation and disembarkation at Dover’s charming cruise terminal was a dream. All passengers were on shore side in about 1.5 hours, unlike the mega ships which can take half a day to disembark the thousands of passengers.
Dover has a very long and winding covered ‘walkway’ to the ship. I particularly enjoy the first few moments on a ship, and the long walkway certainly does a good job of getting ones adrenalin flowing. On boarding the Braemar you can immediately see that Fred. Olsen she has refitted her to the very highest standards and her decor looks very ‘classy’ indeed. She feels a little more contemporary than Black Watch, but she is a newer ship after all. Braemar has a small four deck atrium, with attractive murals and a sea view which is so much more tasteful than the overwhelming than Las Vegas types found on many of today’s mega ships operating in American waters.
Braemar actually has a small and tasteful ‘atrium’ with sea views and attractive murals. However the term ‘atrium’ should not be confused with those cavernous and glitzy spaces on many of today’s mega-ships.
Immediately on boarding at about 3.30 pm, I went on a quest for some food. I was assigned to the late sitting for dinner, so I had a long wait. I as pretty shocked to find Palms Cafe (lido buffet) closed. The only food on offer was a few silver platters of finger sandwiches. These were all quickly snapped up by hungry guests.
Braemar’s public rooms are mainly located vertically at the stern, with one of the main exceptions being the ‘Neptune’ show lounge, which is located at the bow of deck 5, and the ‘Braemar room being located amidships on this deck, too. I must say that I found this vertical arrangement a little odd, having been used to ships with public rooms distributed along the length of one or two decks. However, that is just my personal preference and there is nothing wrong with the vertical layout, apart from the fact that Braemar can suffer from some major vibration at the stern at times – more about this later.
Braemar has one main dining room, the Thistle, with two sittings. This is a charming and very tastefully decorated (‘understated’ as American say) room, accommodating around 400 passengers per sittings. There is a gold carpet with white walls and an interesting circular ceiling feature. It is an ideal sized dining room with tables that are well spaced, with windows on three sides, so no one is very far away from a sea view.
In addition to the ‘Neptune’ show lounge, the ‘Skylark Club’ at the rear of deck seven, is used for secondary entertainment, including the peculiar pastime of betting on horses and dog races shown on video. It has a small polished wood dance floor and during the late evening it becomes the ships disco.
The ‘Coral Club’ lounge at the rear of deck five, is perhaps the heart of the ships public spaces. This a circular room, has a vibrant orange carpet with blue shell patterns and matching blue furniture. It also has a small dance floor and a stage for musicians. However it was always very smoky and as a non-smoker, I found this room virtually unusable.
The non-smoking Braemar room is a very relaxing lounge, with ‘mood’ lighting, tartan carpet and comfortable tartan chairs. It often sports a pianist, but unlike the Black Watch does not have a self-service tea and coffee station. This is a major oversight as this facility works so well on the Black Watch. The Braemar’s ‘Braemar Room’ does have a small bar in the corner, which I suppose suits Olsen as this makes the lounge a revenue generating area, (unlike the Braemar room one on the Black Watch, which is not). However, I’d like to see this bar serve tea, in addition to alcohol, even if at a modest fee. I do hope that they change this during her next refit.
Addendum September 2007: Please Note that Fred Olsen has revised their smoking Policy. The Coral Club is now non-smoking. The only inside smoking allowed is on one side of the Skylark Club. All the cabins are all non-smoking as well.
If you require tea and coffee, the self-service station is in Palms cafe. Unfortunately, if you want this at pre meal times or late at night, your very presence in the Cafe appears to disturb the waiters clearing up and laying out the dining tables. In fact at times you only have the option to sit at a dining table which is fully laid out with cutlery. Any spillage of tea or coffee onto the new white table cloths is bound to very inconvenient for the staff. It really is not an ideal place for the self-service tea and coffee.
Although the number of public rooms on Braemar was perfectly adequate, ‘Black Watch’ at around 30,000 (approximately 10,000 tons bigger than Braemar) offers several more options.
Food & Service
The dining room food is very British and might be considered a little ‘plain’ by non-Brits, although few choose to cruise with Olsen. There are not too many fancy sauces here. However, the food is very good, with the cuts of meat and fish being particularly well prepared. Likewise the vegetables are un-fussily prepared, yet tasty.
The buffet breakfast and buffet lunches provide a reasonable selection, although on this little ship it is hardly a vast selection. The salads are refreshing and treats like smoked-salmon always seem to be available. One lunch time a ‘lamb curry’ to die for was on offer. (Curry has now become the most popular take-away dish in the UK, superseding Fish and Chips).
Palms Cafe,at the rear of deck 6, is two decks above the Thistle dining room. It is an attractive Lido buffet style cafe which offers buffet breakfast, lunch and ‘open sitting’ dinner as an alternative to the Thistle. Once again it is a very tastefully decorated room, with dark wooden floor and ceiling and some palm trees of course. Being at the stern of the ship, it was possible to pass through a door and dine in the open air, although the number of tables was quiet limited. There is also an external lido bar which is used in warm climates.
The male waiters and female maids, the majority of whom were Filipino, were generally efficient and charming. They were helpful yet reserved and knew when blend into the background. There smiles seemed genuine and the proof was when they all continued to smile on the final morning during our disembarkation, long after they had been tipped.
There are 376 cabins, but only twenty of these are suites with balconies. However the vast majority of the cabins are standard sea view and are little smaller than you would find on a newer cruise ship. However they are well laid out and perfectly adequate. I have heard it said (mainly by women) that the storage space for clothes is a little limited, especially for a long cruise.
There are cabins with a double bed, some with two singles and those with two single beds and two Pullmans making a four berth. There were also some cabins, that were once doubles, which Olsen has converted into spacious singles.
The bathroom is the standard ‘compact’ variety with an intimate shower, although the water pressure was pretty good. There were a number of mirrors on the walls that gave me views of my naked body that I had never seen before. Personally, I found it best not to look. On several occasions I flushed the toilet (the traditional type, not the barking-dog dog variety) and nothing happened for 30 seconds, then it sprang into action. Oh well, at least it worked – eventually.
I must just give a special mention the cabins on deck two, the ‘Marina’ deck, the lowest of the passenger deck. The outside cabins on this deck have twin port holes and are very the near the waterline. Although they allow sufficient light to enter, I can imagine that within a storm it would feel like you are watching two front-loading washing machines. If the seas become really severe, steel shutters would be closed over the port holes turning your cabin into an inside one. Although this can equally applies to most ships with cabins low in the hull.
Braemar would appear to have some significant engine vibration problems. They may well be linked to a particular cruising speeds and/or sea conditions, but never the less extreme noise and vibration can be felt in the Thistle dining room and certain cabins, particularly on the lowest deck, deck two (Marina). If you are a light sleeper don’t book deck two. Strangely the Black Watch is a much older ship and ever with her original engines (due to be upgraded in 2005) she generally vibrated a lot less. On a positive note, the cabins on the Marina deck do represent the best value, assuming that you a sound sleeper.
The Braemar has a reputation for being a rather poor ‘sea boat’. I certainly found that even light swells felt a little uncomfortable. If you are a bad sailor, at least pick a mid-ships cabin.
The Neptune Show Lounge is typical of the old style (non-theatre style) lounges that were popular before today’s floating theatres. It is attractively decorated with a red carpet and gold furniture. Unusually the stage is placed along the port side. This means that the distance from the stage to the back row of seats is not very far at all, although the seating does extend extensively to the far left and right of the stage. On the subject of seating, there are fixed rows with small glass tables, plus lots of mobile swivels seats placed in front of in table in pairs. Personally I think that this all too common layout is madness. Why put in fixed rows, then swivel chairs in front so people can sit in front of you and obscure much of your view? There are also a number of annoying columns which can also impede your view, but I suppose they need to be there to hold the ceiling up?
The musicians have their own podium on the right of the stage. This layout makes it impossible to watch the band and the singers/dancers on stage at the same time. However, it’s not all bad. It is a very attractive show lounge and even with its peculiarities, it still manages to work – especially if you turn up a little early before each show and pick the prime seats.
The singers and dancers forming the Dej’vu dance troop onboard the ship were certainly not the finest that I have ever seen afloat, and certainly not as good as I had seen onboard the Black Watch in the summer of 2000. I suppose if they were the most highly talented of performers, they would be working in London’s west end, not on the Braemar? Although I must say that one woman in particular, Jill Rennie who I had seen previously perform on the Black Watch, was an excellent dancer. The singers were particularly average and were often attempting songs far too ambitious for their limited vocal range and styles. However, for the combined dance/song routines lip-syncing took place, as is often the case these days.
On a positive note, the production shows were quite imaginative, and the troop was very energetic and enthusiastic, which compensated for the occasional over-stretching of their abilities. The popular medley’s which they sang on several occasions were very well written. The house band was very proficient, with two excellent brass players. The overall result was productions shows that were not perfect, particularly vocally, but never the less they were entertaining – which is the whole point, after all.
The range of activities that were offered during the sea days, they were definitely aimed at the active over sixty-fives. Although I did not expect a rock climbing tuition, ‘vegetable carving’ and ‘Bingo’ do not turn me on. Unfortunately, there is not a movie theatre on the Braemar unlike the Black Watch.
The Casino facilities are so minimal they are almost non-existent, but we Brits do not tend to be big gamblers anyway, so I doubt if few passengers missed them.
August 2004: I was undertaking a mini-cruise from Dover, on Braemar, visiting Honfluer (france) and Antwerp (Brussels), returning to Dover. Two charming ports 0f call. I did not bother with the excursions.
Fred Olsen cruises are mainly sold to Brits. I am informed that the Braemar does attract a slightly younger crowd than the other two Olsen vessels, but it is hardly ‘young’ by most people’s standards. In Olsen’s words they appeal to the over fifties. In my observations I would say ‘over sixties’. Of course it also depends when you cruise; cruise during the school holidays are likely to see more families with children onboard. I am also informed that the shorter the cruises attract the younger crowd, opposed to the two week variety.
In short, the Braemar is an absolutely charming vessel. Her itineraries are varied, the onboard experience is good and the fares are pretty reasonable. She is not really a ‘young crowd’ or ‘family’ vessel.
However, if you are NOT looking to share you cruise with 2000+ other people on a floating slice of Las Vegas, Braemar could well be for you.
Malcolm Oliver, 2004
Black Watch: http://wp.me/PfRKD-kv