Fred Olsen compared to P&O
Fred Olsen has a loyal, and very protective, group of followers. They will hear no complaints about the ships, the service, or the crew.
In other words, it is very similar to the P&O faithful.
Having just returned from a cruise on Fred Olsen’s Black Watch I have tried to make a comparison between the two cruise lines, but please note that it is very much a personal view, and not meant to upset either side.
Firstly there is the most obvious fact that the ships of the Fred Olsen line are smaller with far fewer passengers. So I have based much of my thoughts as a comparison with our experience on P&O’s Adonia earlier this year before she was whisked away yet again.
Black Watch has recently undergone a makeover. Listening to several of the regulars on board with us, it has really brightened up the ship and furnishings compared to what it was. I must say it does look clean and the wall colours are light making the ship feel quite airy. The chairs and sofas all appear quite new, and there are several styles to choose from around the various venues. It appears that all the Fred Olsen ships have had, or are going to have, a similar refit.
About Black Watch
This ship started life in 1972 as the Royal Viking Star. In 1991 it moved from the Royal Viking fleet into the Norwegian Cruise Line and became the Westward. There was another move in 1994 to the Royal Cruise Line as the Star Oddyssey and in 1996 she changed flag yet again and became the Black Watch in the Fred Olsen fleet.
In her present form Black Watch has a tonnage of 28,600 and can entertain some 800 passengers in 423 cabins and looked after by a crew of 330. She is 205 metres long, and to give you some comparison, P&Os Oriana is 245 metres.
The ship has 10 decks and the lowest accessible one is lowdown deck 3 where there are inside and outside passenger cabins as well as the Marina Theatre (cinema) and the medical centre. Moving up to deck 4 it is all passenger cabins. The outside cabins on these two decks have a double porthole.
Deck 5 (known as Main Deck) was where we were, and here there are inside and outside cabins again which now have the more modern rectangular windows. In the central section this deck also houses the reception desk, various shops, photographers, and the tours desk. The shops are all in a line and although they sell the usual over-priced stuff as on P&O ships, they didn’t spread all over the corridors.
The photos are cheaper than on P&O ships, and they offer various packages to tempt memory searchers.
Deck 6 is referred to as the Lounge Deck with Glantanar Restaurant at the front, and the theatre (Neptune Lounge) at the rear. Between these two major rooms there are various eating and drinking areas. On one side to the rear of the main dining room are two smaller eating areas called the Orchid Room and the Brigadoon buffet. The Orchid room seems to act as an overflow for either the buffet or Glentanar restaurant. Behind the other side of the main dining room is the Morning Light Pub, which is where we spent a lot of our time. In between the pub and the Brigadoon buffet is the Black Watch Room which is now called the Seafood and Steak select dining room.
Going further to the stern there is the Neptune Bar on one side with access to the theatre area. On the other side is a smaller lounge area with a 24 hour tea and coffee self service area, plus access to the theatre again.
Deck 7 has the small but full wrap around promenade deck with more cabins inside the front half, which now have balconies. Incidentally, five laps of the deck is the equivalent of a mile. Inside in this deck at the rear is a small card room (with jigsaws) and then the Bookmark Café that is the library, plus a reasonable area to have coffee plus the Future Cruises Desk. Behind that is the Lido Lounge and the second major bar area where quizzes take place throughout the day. There is also access to the stern seating area that overlooks the lower swimming pool and Jacuzzis below.
Deck 8 (Bridge Deck) is for the passenger Suites with nothing else.
Deck 9 (Marquee Deck) has further Suites in the central section and then the Observatory Lounge at the front. This is the equivalent of P&Os Crow’s Nest bars and has a late night quiz. At the rear end, this deck has another swimming pool and Jacuzzis with a larger area to enjoy any sunshine and of course another bar.
Finally up to deck 10 (Sun Deck) which speaks for itself, but it also gives access to the Fitness Centre.
Deb and I explored most of the inside areas plus took a couple of strolls around the promenade deck, but the temperatures were pretty cool, so I am sorry but and we didn’t bother too much with the outdoor decks.
As I said, our cabin was on deck 5 and it was a superior outside room. It was smaller than some cabins we have experienced in the past, but was comfortably large enough for us. It had plenty of hanging space, but a little short of drawers. The dressing table was the only source of drawers. It also had the power sockets, with two familiar UK sockets, plus another two continental ones and also a USB socket to charge those mobile bits. On the wall was a good size television with interactive facilities to keep an eye on our account.
In one wardrobe was a fridge (not stocked) the usual safe, and tea making bits. Sadly there was no socket available in the wardrobe, so the kettle had to be moved to the desk to boil.
Now the cabin did have an obvious weakness. The twin beds would only fit with one against the window wall, and the other at right angles at the other end of the room against the bathroom wall. Although perfectly adequate for sleep, there was no bedside storage for the bed against the bathroom. I had to use the upturned waste bin for my clock and night-time bits.
The beds had a very good space below them for suitcases, and our quite large cases fitted easily, with room to spare.
The bath room was a good size with a virtually full size bath, with the shower over it. The toilet and sink were fine, and cupboard space was better than I expected. The toilet flush was the usual vacuum gulper, but it seemed to be far more effective than those on P&O ships. Of course it was therefore a little noisier for a longer period, making it impossible to not hear the adjacent cabin toilets being used.
Being near the mechanical level of the ship, we were aware at times of engine noise, and most definitely the thruster motors. Apart from that we had the usual jiggling and juddering movement and expected noises from wave action. Fortunately we had rather good sea conditions for most of the cruise, so I didn’t discover how angry seas affect the ride.
For the majority of passengers who use the cabin to sleep and dress in, this cabin was perfectly acceptable, and it was good enough for us on this very good deal.
Alternatively, Black Watch has a wide range of cabins to choose from. There are inside, and smaller outside cabins plus balcony options and suites. Now we were quite happy with what we had, and never even considered a balcony for a December cruise. This proved to be a good decision as the standard balcony cabins had balconies that opened onto the Promenade deck…
…Yes I mean actually ONTO the Promenade deck allowing anyone on the promenade deck to look into the cabins or have a neighborly chat as they passed by. The better suites on deck 8 were one deck up and still completely open to inspection by the walkers on the Promenade deck. That little bit of private fresh air provided by a balcony did not exist unless you had the suites on the higher decks.
Deck 9 suites were the only really private ones.
The Food and Dining Experiences
Facebook forums suggest that everyone has a very positive view about the food on Fred Olsen ships, so we were hoping to enjoy our meals.
Black Watch has a main dining room on Deck 6 called the Glentanar restaurant where all passengers are allocated either first or second sitting. Because we booked late we were put onto second sitting which was not our favoured time. Fred Olsen offer a chance to choose a dining slot by paying a £5 per passenger per night supplement, but the first sitting was already fully assigned, so no changes could be made. We ate there on the first night, and the two formal evenings.
On the three nights we ate in the in the main Glentanar restaurant, the food was well prepared, and of a good quality, but it was no better than we have had on any P&O ship. Sadly the choice wasn’t very varied with a great deal of sea-food. The meals were ready plated and came with quite small amounts of vegetables that were designed for the dish. Deb discovered that if you didn’t like the vegetables, the waiters weren’t too keen on getting an alternative. She even asked for a plate of food without gravy one night but was told that wasn’t possible.
Another negative in the Glentanar was the slowness of the service. Arriving at 8:30 we were slightly disappointed to not get our sweet course until well after 10:00. This meant forgetting coffee, and a rush to get to the Neptune Lounge for the late shows.
There is also a buffet option in the Brigadoon restaurant which is again on Deck 6. It has a circular server in the middle of bistro style tables and chairs. But it is small and rather popular meaning queueing was quite common through our week’s cruise.
We ate here on two occasions and the selection available was of a reasonable standard, but the choice was limited. Sadly I hadn’t noticed the on demand stir fry option available at a hatch on the side of the restaurant which might have been a very good choice. Strangely while we were the stir fry didn’t seem that popular so I cannot comment on it.
The third dining option we found was in the Black Watch room with a special menu featuring Seafood and Steak dishes. It is designed to be a special place to eat as a treat, but it comes with a hefty £20 price tag per passenger. To be honest the supplement looks to be set too high, and the restaurant did not attract many people.
Breakfast was available in the Glentanar and Brigadoon dining rooms. We always ate in the main dining room where it was a buffet style, or waiter service if you didn’t want to get your hands dirty, or fancied something from the ‘a la carte’ menu. The food was as good as any ship we have been on, including Bucks Fizz for anyone interested.
The Brigadoon buffet offered the same food, but the only waiter element was to bring the tea or coffee.
My problem was lunchtimes.
The choice is to eat in the main dining room, or the Brigadoon buffet. We prefer the grab and go option but the buffet is rather compact, and the servery counter made it feel a little like a traffic jam on a roundabout. The choice was far less than for a typical P&O lunch menu, and seating was limited.
We again stuck to the main dining room for lunch where once more there was a buffet option, with two separate servery counters.
With this available, I don’t quite understand why people chose to eat in the Brigadoon buffet.
The main dining room also offered an ‘a la carte’ menu option as well for waiter service, so the room was a mixture of casual buffet eaters alongside those who preferred the waiter to go and fetch from the kitchen, or even from the buffet selection for some.
Hence it was a little confusing.
On the plus side, the main dining room was never crowded and we regularly chatted to new people. Hence so much better than the cattle crush in the Brigadoon buffet.
Choices were not always the best we have seen however. An example was the Sunday carvery where the only meat on offer was pork. This was fine for my personal tastes, but it would have been nice to have a choice.
For late night moments of hunger, the Brigadoon buffet offered food from 10:30. There was a choice of simple biscuits right through to full blown hot meals. It gets busy of course, but we simply grabbed a piece of cake and then went to the self-service tea bar and sat there.
The ship’s show troupe consists of four singers plus four dancers. The Neptune Lounge has a small dance floor that is where the shows take place, with the ship’s orchestra using the stage. The shows were as professional as those on P&O, but just on a little smaller scale. They performed three shows of which one was a British Night with flag waving and the usual songs. This was the one we didn’t go to. Like sail-away parties, I think the format has been overused by the cruise companies. Many people still love these moments, but a lot of us would prefer something different.
Visiting cabarets included a comedian/impressionist that we thought might be fun, but it left us rather cool. The impressions were standard ones used by various acts over the last decade or so, and his jokes were similarly well tried and tested.
There was also a traditional crew show with various people from the show troupe and many of the other crew members singing and dancing. We didn’t see it but it was enjoyed by all those who I heard talking about it.
There are musicians and singers performing all over the ship during the evening, and the ones we listened to were very talented. When they were resting, the ship’s piped music took over, and this was a little less exciting. The Christmas songs and carols were delightful to listen to with the ship in full Christmas decorated mode. Sadly someone has decided that Michael Bublé is loved by everyone, no matter what he is singing. The endless loop of Bublé Christmas songs took over the daytime and whenever the live musicians were missing. Many of the songs were seasonally special, but Bublé has turned classics into jazzed up or over orchestrated versions. OK to listen to once in a while, but not six hours a day in all the venues.
I wonder what P&O are playing on their ships during this season?
During the daytime there were morning and afternoon quizzes in the Lido Lounge that were very well attended, as was the late night one in the Observatory Lounge. There were also a couple of fun and games moments with Reindeer racing with large wooden models of animals. I didn’t see how it worked but it certainly created a lot of laughter.
Even in the cool weather, hardy passengers took on the usual deck games. The Jacuzzis were quite popular, and a small number of people even used the swimming pool. It was kept very warm with the captain making a point of announcing it was up to 29°C. It certainly looked warm with steam rising from the Jacuzzis.
Our unwanted late dinner time showed up a weakness on this ship. When first sitting is busy filling their stomachs, the ship ceases any virtually all organized entertainment. Our only activity during the early evening was sitting in various lounges playing trivial pursuit, or reading, as we made the most of our all-inclusive drinks deal.
Those on an early dinner can occupy their time once their meal is over, and have far more attention than those on the late meals.
Service and Crew
There is a good ratio of crew to passenger numbers, and they looked after us very well.
All the cabin stewards on this ship were girls, and our chambermaid was bright and bubbly as she labored to look after her 15 cabins. She never stopped smiling during her 10 hour day. Just as with the good P&O cabin stewards, she listened for doors closing and quickly glanced to see who it was. There was always a wave and by the time we got back from breakfast our cabin was spotless again.
Waiters in the restaurant do their best to keeps eaters happy by continual checks if we were happy. They worked hard, but always seemed to have a smile on their faces.
Drinks in the bars were served by girls (in the main) and they were fast and efficient at taking orders and getting what we wanted. Again, they were always smiling, and willing to have a chat and a joke with the passengers.
One extra point here, they all wore shoes that fitted them. On P&O there seems to be a lack of smaller sized shoes for the girls.
And another positive compared to P&O is that they don’t pounce on people the moment they arrive in a lounge. They wait for passengers to sit and relax for a moment before asking if they want a drink. I have been annoyed with the way the P&O cocktail waiters work like packs of wolves following people to a seat and demanding an order before they have even sat down.
I know they all make commission on the drinks purchased, but the pressure on P&O to sell, sell, sell, is annoying and verging on frightening at times.
The ship does externally show her age with lots of corrosion around the window outside. But inside everything looks bright and well decorated. I have to say that after our short seven day trip on Black Watch we liked her.
Fred Olsen ships are all older and all smaller than PO ships. They do bob and jiggle around in rough seas, but the service appears better with polite and helpful staff always with time to make conversation as they make their commission.
The Black Watch self-service tea/coffee bar is available 24/7 with decent on tap coffee as well as coffee sachets and various teas.
The entertainment is as good as PO but on a smaller scale.
The drinks package is good value if pre-bought (£15pppn) compared to £25 if bought on board. This varies from cruise to cruise I believe.
Tips are £4 per person per night, and the crew members always smile. Perhaps less people are opting out at this price compared to PO.
This ship destroys the myth that small ships are more expensive to run, and that service levels have to be cut to keep them economical. Fred Olsen cruise prices are very comparative to P&O but standards and service levels are better than current P&O offer.
P&O experts suggest that the smaller ships should be removed from the fleet as they are all old and uneconomical. I personally believe that there are good reasons for the giant ships, but also a place for the smaller traditional ships.
I don’t know if it will happen, but my personal view is that if Fred took on a little bit bigger ship, many of the traditional PO passengers might consider changing fleets.
I still like P&O as their medium sized ships offer a little more choice of venues and entertainment, and less propulsion noise in the cabins. But, our two experiences of Fred Olsen ships have definitely been enjoyable, and added to our list as possible options to get as much cruising time in as possible.
If you still scoff at the thought of sailing on a Fred Olsen ship, think again and look out for the amazing late deals they offer. They go to some amazing ports that larger ships struggle to put on the itineraries.