Fred. Olsen’s regional departures are a big plus for the cruise line’s loyal passengers. Bridget McGrouther discovers the appeal as she sails on board Black Watch
Stepping out on the decks of Black Watch as the ship silently glided down the Geirangerfjord in Norway was like stumbling into the pages of Gulliver’s Travels. Suddenly we felt as dwarfed as Lilliputians, enveloped by a gargantuan landscape rearing up on either side. I imagine our ship’s overwhelming presence must have had the same effect on the tiny bobbing kayaks far below us.
In this craggy wilderness of turquoise-blue glaciers, crystal-clear waterfalls and vivid-green ravines, myths of trolls and giants are rife. I half-expected Bilbo Baggins to scuttle into view pursued by a fire-breathing dragon.
We would gaze at snow-capped summits and tumbling waterfalls, like the Seven Sisters and their spurned ‘Suitor’ melting into the depths of the fjord below, mesmerised by the reflections and ripples over the ravine.
I hope I never forget the way my sister Helen’s face lit up as each bend brought more picture-perfect portraits into view. We seemed so close to the plummeting slopes and shallow, jagged shores that when we reached the village of Geiranger at the end of this cavernous cul-de-sac, I wondered where the ship could go next.
As Black Watch began to turn round, the whole ship breathed in – like willing ourselves into the slinkiest of outfits after a few days dining on board. No one could quite believe we were making this tight manoeuvre, but we had every faith in our experienced Croatian Captain Jozo Glavic, ably assisted by his Norwegian pilots. Within no time we were heading back the way we had come.
Of course, not every cruise ship can navigate such needle-thin Norwegian fjords, but the petite Black Watch only holds around 800 passengers which means that it reaches the ports that other ships can’t.
Refreshingly, we had also been able to board Black Watch from a regional departure point – Newcastle. It was a convenient halfway point for my sister and I, as I live in Yorkshire and my sister had travelled down from central Scotland.
We both took the train and it made a welcome change not having to fly or make the long journey to the south coast, where most UK cruise ships set sail. Familiar accents from both sides of the border soon made us feel at home, while passengers also shared a sense of humour.
Although our Meadows & Mountains to Rivers & Railways cruise was almost full, the ship never felt over-crowded. Being in our 50s, my sister and I had wondered whether we would feel out of place with the mainly retired guests. Yet everyone was so friendly (including the sweet-natured crew) that we soon felt like one big, happy family. The intimate numbers undoubtedly helped the bonhomie as we recognised faces we had met before, while a few were even ‘younger’ than us, including a handful of children.
We enjoyed a whole repertoire of entertainment from comedians, singers, dancers and orchestral music to lectures, Pilates and quizzes. To my relief, there were no high rope courses or flumes at the outdoor pools and hot-tubs, while (perhaps due to the threatened fee), sun loungers were never ‘bagged’ by towels.
The bars and restaurants all had their own ambience – The Observatory boasted splendid views, Café Venus served speciality coffees and to-die-for chocolates, while after showtime at the Neptune Lounge was liveliest with cabaret and late-night dancing.
We loved the Glentaner Restaurant for lunch and dinner with our smiling, attentive waiters, but preferred the views and quieter self-serve Garden Restaurant at breakfast. On sunny days, we would treat ourselves to fish and chips at the outdoor Marquee Grill on deck. The only complaint I have about the food is that I gained half a stone in a week.
Our spacious stateroom on Deck 5 may not have had a balcony (not many on Black Watch do), but there was a large picture window and en suite shower room. I was also glad that we’d opted for the £10 per day all-inclusive package as it covered the cost of house wines, standard spirits and some soft drinks, as well as half-price cocktails and other beverages. You don’t need to drink like a fish to make this cost-effective, though it made us laugh that a sparkling water was more expensive than a G&T.
In fact, with so few extras to pay (£4 per day in crew gratuities; speciality coffees; wifi; spa treatments and shore excursions, priced from £28), I’m not surprised Fred. Olsen won the Best Affordable Cruise Line award at the Cruise Awards in 2012 and 2013.
In Nordfjord, Europe’s highest sea cliff Hornelen pierces wispy clouds. At 860m, it is even taller than Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. On our adventurous boat safari to Briksdal Glacier, we had front row seats in our tiny dinghy when large shards of ice crashed into the mirror-glass lake, sending roars echoing around the amphitheatre.
A real highlight was on the Flåm Railway – one of the world’s most spectacular train journeys. At a steep 55 per cent gradient, we went over bridges and through tunnels past waterfalls, meadows and fairy-tale villages.
The 360-degree view from 866m-Myrdal Plateau was extraordinary and when we stopped by the Kjos Waterfall, a ‘Huldra’ (lady of the forest) unexpectedly photo-bombed our shots, luring us into the mountain with her seductive singing. Views from Ålesund’s Mount Aksla and Bergen’s Fløibanen Funicular were just as jaw-dropping while on the one afternoon it rained, the clouds and shrouded mist only added to the atmospheric vistas.
Basking on deck with complimentary rum punches, I reflected that navigating Norway may have spoiled me forever. Wherever in the world I next go on a cruise, I’ll end up pining for the cliff-hanging drama of the fjords.
GETTING THERE: A seven-night Glaciers, Fjords & Waterfalls of Norway cruise from Newcastle on 26 July 2015, calling at Bergen, Ålesund, Hellesylt, Geiranger and Olden, starts from £799pp*. For more information visit fredolsen.co.uk/0800 035 5242.
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