Fred Olsen Cruise Lines, MS Boudicca
In this age of mega-ships, owned by giant American corporations, it is very refreshing to find a family business that operates a small fleet of four intimate vessels.
The company originated in 1848 in Hvitsten, a small town in Norway, when the three Olsen brothers bought their first ships and began an international shipping company, originally specializing in cargo. Olsen now has various business interests, including the cruise line, which is very much geared towards British tastes. Five generations later, Fredrick Olsen (junior) is chairman of the company. The Olsen family have a love of Scotland and a home there, which is reflected in the names of their ships and public rooms, also the décor.
Boudicca, pronounced Boo (as in glue) de-ca, is the most recent addition to the Olsen fleet. Her maiden cruise for Olsen was in February 2006 at 34 years old. She’s a mere 28,388 tons and carries a maximum of 900 passengers in 437 cabins.
Boudicca’s refit and ‘Olsenization’ was carried out by ‘Blohm and Voss’ of Germany, in late 2005. I can report that they have done a great job. Although ‘Black Watch’ and ‘Boudicca’ are twin-sister ships, with similar public spaces (although not identical) the décor of Boudicca makes her feel like a completely different ship to Black Watch.
Embarkation and Disembarkation of Olsen’s vessels tends to be a joy. In less than two hours it is possible that every passenger can be embarked or disembarked. This process can take twice as long on mega-ship. You may even find that your luggage betas you to your cabin. On a mega ship you may have the stress of sailing before you actually know if you luggage is onboard.
The only negative is that Olsen tends to embark from 3.00 pm. Once you are onboard no food is served apart from a few finger sandwiches and tea and cake. Now if you missed lunch on your journey to the port and your assigned dining time is at 8.30 pm, you are going to experience some serious hunger pains. Now on an American ship the full buffet would be at your disposal. This seems rather mean of Olsen especially when one considers that us Brits often pay a minimum of £100 per day for our cruises. This makes an Olsen ‘day one’ not particularly good value for money.
On entering the ship and heading to ‘Main Deck’ (deck 5) you will not find an ‘atrium’ (definition: a large empty void); yet we are none the worse for it. You will find a reception desk, shore tours desk, photo shop/gallery, a ‘future cruise sales’ office and several shops, are all arranged in a long wide corridor. There are also two odd looking tall orange chairs which obviously were meant to be delivered to a Carnival ship, but arrived there by mistake.
Most of the public rooms are on the appropriately named ‘Lounge Deck’ (deck 6). Above that the ‘Lido Deck’ (deck 7) has about 50% of its aft-space devoted to public spaces. However, the beauty of smaller ships is that you never have to walk too far to get anywhere.
Dining Rooms Boudicca has a modified dining room layout when compared to the Black Watch. She appears to have a little mores space dedicated to dining than the Black Watch currently has, at the expense of losing some lounge space. I would suggest that this is essential with the extra passenger capacity that was created by the addition of suites on the bridge deck (deck 9). (However now Black Watch has extra suites too, so I’m not sure how she manages to accommodate the extra passengers for dining).
You really need to view the deck plans of both ships to compare the differences between the dining areas, but I will attempt to explain verbally. The Black Watch has one main dining area, the ‘Glentanar Restaurant’ which is spread over the entire width of the ship. She also has two smaller adjoining dining rooms on the port side called the ‘Orchid’ Room’ and ‘Garden Café’. A large lounge spanning two thirds of the width of the ship is located adjacent to the three dining rooms and is called the ‘Braemar’ room. It also has the occasional pianist and a self-service tea and coffee station nearby. This makes it the perfect spot to gather for a cuppa, after coming back ashore, to compare adventures. However as it had no bar, so it was not an income generating space. Such a creature is becoming rapidly extinct.
The Boudicca essentially has the space occupied by Black Watch’s ‘Glentanar’ split down the middle to form two main restaurants, the ‘Four Seasons’ on the starboard side and the ‘Tinatgel’ on the ports side. An overspill area called ‘The Heligan’ in attached to the Tintagel. All passengers are pre-assigned a seat in either the ‘Tintagel’ or ‘Four Seasons’ at one of the two sittings, 6.30 or 8.30 pm. Breakfast and lunch were always operated on an open seating basis.
On Boudicca a large part of area where Black watch has it’s ‘Braemar’ lounge is taken up by a very up-scale looking dining area called the ‘Secret Garden’. It has an oriental look about it and is divided from the surrounding lounge area by attractive ‘Japanese’ style screens. I must admit that the name amused me a little, as it’s in the middle of a lounge and is hardly a secret. However, it is not an Asian restaurant at all, this is Boudicca’s alternative buffet dining room used for breakfast, evening meal and the midnight buffet. However buffet’s can also be served in the other dining rooms.
Although some lounge area remains around the outside of the secret garden, it is much reduced compared to the Black watch’s ‘Braemar Room’. There is no self-service tea and coffee. So where does one get the traditional British Cuppa now? Fortunately morning and afternoon Tea and coffee are served at set times each day. However, Olsen has one more trick up his sleeve. Each cabin has a kettle! This is a brilliant addition and also must take some pressure of ‘room service’. All ship should have this facility in my opinion.
The wait staff are meticulous in providing every passenger with a squirt of antibacterial foam on their hands when boarding and before every meal to reduce the risk of the Norwalk virus being spread.
I did read a recent comment that Boudicca did not have enough public lounges. In the earlier history of the ship, deck nine had a large lounge. The ship has since been stretched and suites added where the lounge was to increase her passenger capacity.
I would suggest that most ships are built on the principal that not every passenger will be in the public rooms at once. However, at peak times, such as after the second sitting of diner has finished, every passenger may well be in the various lounges and bars. Sea days are also a busy time. Personally I think Boudicca has enough public rooms, but little extra capacity. At peak times you may struggle to find that quiet corner that the brochure promises.
The Lido Lounge is at the stern of the ship and is both a bar, lounge, disco and small venue for singing duo’s etc. There is no longer a dedicated disco, but Olsen regulars are not big disco dancers; ballroom dancing is their preference. In the absence of a ‘Braemar’ room the Lido lounge is the ‘heart’ of the ship. The one factor that spoils it for me is that smoking is allowed in one half of the room, yet cigarette smoke knows no boundaries. Anyway, assuming that it’s not too Smokey, it is a pleasant and fairly intimate room. The repercussions of this are that it is difficult to get a seat after the later show until people head off for bed.
The Neptune Lounge, the main show lounge. It is the largest lounge on the ship and has a bar, so it can be used as a regular lounge when events are not taking place. There is an attractive Library and a card room, often featuring the occasional thousand-piece jigsaw, which is Olsen’s challenge to RCI’s in-line skating and Rock Wall. The Fitness Centre (Gym) and Beauty Centres are limited by modern standards, but provide the basic requirements. There is a small Internet room. The Casino is almost non-existent. There is one roulette table and one blackjack table, in the corner of a lounge area. However, us Brits are not big gamblers, so I doubt if anybody onboard would want a Las Vegas style facility anyway, and they would definitely not appreciate the glitz.
The ‘Observatory’ (deck nine) is a lounge located directly above the navigational bridge and is u shaped with a bar in the middle. It has panoramic windows and overlooks the bow of the vessel and it often features a pianist. Binoculars on chains were provided for serious observers. It is one of the ships most attractive spaces, but unfortunately it is not big enough to hold the crowds, especially when the ship is entering or leaving port. However at sea if can be too far away from the main deck for some passengers to make the trek, so it can be quite uncrowned.
The teak wrap around promenade deck and fantail stern are absolutely charming. The outer deck has a surprising number of layers, reached by stairs, so it may well be possible to find a quiet spot, unless everybody is on deck at once. Up by the funnel there are several golf nets. Topless sunbathing is permitted on the ‘Sun Deck (deck ten).
There is one main swimming pool on the lower rear deck, with two Jacuzzis and a SwimEx ‘Exercise Pool’ (the type with a flowing current). There is also sometimes a pool side buffet, weather permitting. The Marquee deck above (deck 9) has a plunge pool and bar which also serves light grill meals.
Olsen’s food is squarely aimed at the British pallet. Although many exotic dishes are featured on the varied menu’s such as duck, veal and seafood, I often enjoyed the Brit favorites of tender meats and simple vegetables, one of Olsen’s specialities in my opinion. The fare would probably be considered a little bland by American tastes, but us Brits do not always require the fancy sauces if the meat or fish tastes good itself.
For example I had lamb, which was so tender it fell from the bone when I sneezed. The Beef was cooked to perfection. The soups were often thick and tasty, the Salads interesting, and the ‘puddings’ were often typically British, such as ‘Steamed Syrup Pudding with Custard’ – and why not! One ridiculous decision is that you cannot have a cup or coffee at you dining table at the end of your lunch, how ridiculous! You are expected to drink iced water – how very un-British. The wine list was reasonable, with a French house red and white at £10 per bottle.
The midnight buffets take place in the ‘Secret Garden’. The food selection is not vast, but it and featured both European and Asia dishes on occasions. Each night a different selection was provided and it was perfectly adequate for those who vowed “never eat on an empty stomach”.
The standard of evening ‘al a cart’ food on the Boudicca equalled my Black Watch experience of 2001. For the record, my Braemar experience of 2004 fell a little short of both. So once again Boudicca scores a ‘very good’ for food, although probably not an ‘excellent’.
Part of Olsen’s success must surely be due to their mainly Pilipino staff. The wait staff were generally very competent and efficient. Apart from a few verses of “Happy Birthday to You” they do not sing and dance, they just quietly got on with serving the food. They never got my order wrong. I never waited long for each course. They were friendly and always helpful. Likewise the cleaning staff kept a low profile did their work almost invisibly.
The ships officers were mainly Norwegian and Captain Jan Thommessen was a wonderful character. During the ‘Captains Cocktail’ party he gave us a jazz rendition of ‘When the saints go marching in’ on his trumpet. His playing was not just that of an amateur, it was excellent. The only negative is that the free cocktails that were served were undrinkable and tasted more like meths to me. What’s wrong with the traditional glass of sparkling wine?
There are some twenty grades of cabin on Boudicca, spread over seven passenger decks. There range from ‘inside’, ‘twin port hole’, ‘picture window’, ‘suites’ and ‘balcony suites’. Each ship has more than the average number of single cabins. Due to the high average age of the passengers, many widows cruise with Olsen. Some disabled cabins are also available.
Boudicca’s cabins are a little smaller on average that you would find on a modern ship. They range from 150 sq ft to 250 sq ft, with an 80 sq ft Balcony. The vast majority of cabins are the sea-view variety at 160 sq ft which is perfectly adequate but not over generous.
In addition, there are only 45 balcony suites, which occupy the ‘bridge deck’ (deck 8 ) and 19 balcony suites on the ‘Marquee Deck’ (deck 9). There are also some non-balcony suites on the ‘Lido deck’ (deck 7) with some of them overlooking the port and starboard promenaded decks. However three of the suites on this deck face directly forward overlooking the bow. Some of the suites on the bridge deck have a restricted view due to the lifeboats which are suspended outside their balconies. As suites are in short supply compared to mega-ships, they are sold at a premium fare, the top grade sometimes being sold at 2.5 times the cost of the cheapest cabin.
I would recommend that you think carefully about booking a cabin on the first passenger deck, deck 3 (Marina deck) of any Olsen ship. Although these cabins represent the best value, they can experience severe vibration and rattling from the ships engines, generators, propellers and drive shafts. On occasions, it can be loud enough to make sleeping difficult. This is despite Boudicca and Black Watch being re-engined in 2005. However this does not affect all of the cabins on the Marina deck, but it is impossible to know which ones are quiet, without inside knowledge. However, those at the stern are particularly vulnerable. Maybe cruise brochures should not only highlight ‘restricted view’ cabins but also that experience a high levels of vibration, too.
The cabins all feature showers, toilet, sink, telephone, TV, hairdryer, kettle and safe. Some cabins, even at the lower grades, also feature a bath as well as a shower. The water pressure for the shower was very good. Facilities within the suites vary a little between grades, but the top suites feature a separate sitting area, a balcony, a mini-bar, DVD player, refrigerator and flat screen TV. As with all ships the cabin beds come in both single and double configurations, with some cabins being 3, 4 or 5 berth.
The main entertainment venue is the ‘Neptune Lounge’. This is a traditional style ‘show lounge’ with the absence of raked seating, rather than a tiered ‘multimedia’ theatre that you find on all modern ships. Although adequate, I doubt if it has state of the art sound and light equipment either. However I’m not convinced that hi-tech facilities actually improve the shows significantly, only talent can do that.
The Neptune Lounge has a mixture of fixed and moveable seating with fixed glass tables. However the moveable chairs are so heavy it would take the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger to move them very far. Maybe this is a deliberate ploy. Alcoholic and soft drinks are served during the shows. Personally I find the disruption that this causes a bit annoying, but it of course generates more revenue.
I estimate that Boudicca’s ‘Neptune Lounge’ is a little smaller than Black Watch’s. Therefore it was not surprising it was full to capacity each evening. If you wanted a seat other than at the back of the Lounge, you would need to finish your sweet and coffee promptly, if not a little early, to beat the rush. The disadvantage of such a space is that most of the audience will have their view obstructed by someone else’s head. There are also four strategically placed supporting columns to avoid as well. During one show where the dancing girls performed sixties number in ‘hot pants’, it was very amusing to watch all of the men doing impressions of ‘Mere Cat’ on the lookout, as they all sat up, tiring to get a better view. However, the more intimate size of this room almost certainly does add to the atmosphere.
There is a small dance floor and ballroom dancing often takes place before each show. There are also ‘dance host’ to partner the single ladies for ballroom dancing. Movies are occasionally shown in the Neptune Lounge too. It is also a meeting place for excursions.
The success or failure of Olsen’s entertainment relies on the talent of the guest entertainers such as singers, jugglers, magicians, comedians and instrumentalists. During a two week cruise quite a wide variety of guest acts will be performing. In general these tend to be fair and occasionally very good.
The Cruise Director, Michael Burke was ill named, as he was actually very competent and not too ‘cheesy’ compared to many in his profession. The dance troop is very young on Boudicca and their enthusiasm sometimes outweighed their talent, especially in the vocal department.
The production shows tend to be aimed at the more mature clientele that Olsen generally attracts. One show which feature song and dance from the 1950’s and 1960’s relied more on nostalgia than performance, but never the less, most of the audience really seemed to enjoy the trip down memory lane. The ships orchestra were competent and led by a rather good trumpet player.
I would image Olsen tend to get an overall score of ‘good’ for entertainment, on the feedback form.
Olsen’s unique selling point is that it is a ‘family business’, which operates ‘classic’ intimate ships that are well maintained, with an onboard British culture. People book Olsen’s ships because they don’t have 16 decks, are not 1000 foot long and do not have a climbing wall. They do not want a vacation on a floating slice of America. Olsen’s regulars are pretty traditional and enjoy dressing for diner. They are prepared to overlook the shortcomings of their older vessels, and enjoy the charm and advantages, in the same way the owner of a vintage car does.
Although Olsen does attract passengers from the full range of age groups, they do tend to appeal to the Grey pound. Although young families are reasonably well catered for in the School holidays, there are more child-friendly ships out there.
At first glance it might be difficult to see the reasons for Olsen’s growing success. However Fred Olsen provides good food and service, but it’s not the finest afloat by any means. The fares are about the norm when compared to most other cruises from British ports, but hardly cheap. Many other cruise lines offer similar itineraries, too. For example, the Saga cruise line represents one of Olsen’s main rivals as they also have a fleet of ships of a similar size and age. Like Olsen P&O also offer a British experience from UK ports, but using increasingly bigger and newer vessels. Never the less, Fred Olsen do have a very loyal following who love the charming Olsen fleet with it’s friendly British onboard atmosphere.
You can now ignore the occasional negative observations in the above text; all ships and cruise lines have their shortcomings. If you want to try a smaller, friendlier vessel, I can recommend the Boudicca. She has quickly integrated into the fleet and I actually heard several regulars say that they preferred her décor to her sister, the charming Black Watch.
Black Watch review: http://wp.me/PfRKD-kv
Braemar Review: http://wp.me/PfRKD-g
Balmoral review: http://wp.me/PfRKD-kq