A cruise on ‘Black Watch’ – second half

SUNDAY 17th December – Amsterdam

I should have mentioned before: I am sick to death of Michael flippin’ Bublé.  It seems that every time there’s piped music playing around the ship, it’s him.  Don’t like him at the best of times, but when he’s murdering Christmas songs all day and night, I’m ready to kill someone.

Neither of slept well.  George had been feeling a bit queasy, and I had a painful itch in one foot, but we both eventually dropped off and woke to a bright and sunny, if chilly, day.

Our morning was just a relaxed time, reading, chatting to our fellow passengers, and watching the ‘scenery’ as we approached Amsterdam.  The only thing we did, really, was a late-morning quiz, and a brisk mile walk (five laps!) around the deck.  That blew the cobwebs away!

We’d discussed eating today, as we would be ashore in the evening and so miss dinner.  We opted in the end to grab a decent meal at lunchtime, and maybe afternoon tea, to see us through.  Well, George had a decent lunch (roast pork), but I struggled to find much to interest me.  The buffet selections on here are really very limited, especially if like me you can’t eat shellfish.

I listened to a guest speaker in the afternoon.  His subject was the Lusitania: I already knew a fair bit about it, but he came up with some interesting facts and figures that were new to me.  His talk was followed by the Grand Tea Dance: George joined me for take to the floor a few times, though his shoulder was hurting him too much to stay in formal ballroom hold for long (a result of all that digging in the snow earlier in the week), so we didn’t dance too much.  But the tea, sandwiches and cakes were welcome!

We had watched our arrival into the first lock of the North Sea Canal system after lunch (quite amazing to see, but nothing compared to the Panama Canal) and we finally docked while we were dancing.  We had a couple of hours to kill before our evening tour, so we investigated the free wi-fi in the cruise terminal which was pretty good.  We managed to read our emails, download the daily paper, and have a quick look at Facebook.

Then it was time to go off on our tour “Evening Canal Cruise”.  Fred.Olsen had chartered a barge, and I guess there were around 30-40 of us on board.  It was lovely, especially as Amsterdam was holding their annual Festival of Light.  We were taken along both major and minor canals, where we saw Christmas and Festival decorations, and examples of the architecture that is such as feature of this city.  The only shame was that it was raining the whole time, so the boat’s windows kept steaming up.  We got as far as Anne Frank’s house before heading back towards the cruise terminal.

And all through we had wine, cheese and nibbles on each table.  George and I both fell in love with a Gouda cheese that had speckles of something in it.  We both recognised the flavour, but couldn’t place it: it turned out to be cumin, of all things!  One to look for tomorrow…

Back on Black Watch, we were far too late for dinner (and pretty full of cheese, anyway!), so just went up to the Observatory lounge for a drink and a late-night quiz.

Exploring Amsterdam on foot tomorrow!

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MONDAY 18th December – Amsterdam

Best night’s sleep we’ve both had on this ship, and we woke relatively late.  But we were still breakfasted and ready to go ashore fairly early, and by 10.00 am we were walking through the nearby Centraalstation on our way to the Daam, the centre of the city.

As we walked along we browsed in many of the shops, but didn’t buy anything until we headed back later.  Some shops we spent less time in than others, mainly due to the pungent smell of cannabis wafting around.  Although we knew how relaxed the Dutch are about drugs, it still came as a bit of a shock to see (and smell) just how openly they smoke the stuff.

It took us about half an hour to reach the Daam square, where we turned off into some of the small side streets where the quieter, narrow canals are.  Coffee was drunk, and many photos taken!

And we found the cumin Gouda cheese!  There was a lovely shop-cum-cheese museum on the Damrak, where we stocked up: I think we have enough Gouda of various types to last us until Easter!

We got back, foot-sore, to the ship in time for a late lunch, and after returning briefly to the cruise terminal building to grab the free wi-fi again, we both relaxed for an hour or so.

We had a bash at another quiz mid-afternoon, before preparing for the second formal night on board.  Dinner options included Christmas dinner (with crackers), not that that interested me – I ended up with pasta again.  But the chat and jokes between our table and the next made it an enjoyable couple of hours.

Yes, I said a couple of hours.  We sat down at 8.30, and only left shortly before 10.30.  We didn’t particularly want to see the Neptune Lounge offering (the Crew Show), but our companions had to rush across from the restaurant to get seats before curtain-up.

We just had a final drink before bed.

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TUESDAY 19th December – Antwerp

Strange noises woke us in the early hours, which may have been explained this morning by the Captain’s announcement.  It seems Antwerp was under thick fog and we couldn’t progress down the river until it lifted, so the anchor was dropped and the ship sat around for a couple of hours until we were cleared to progress on to the city.

We were on the move again before 11.00 am – straight into more thick fog.  There really was nothing at all to see outside, not we really wanted to go outside as it was bitterly cold all morning.  So we just found somewhere comfy to sit and read, until we finally docked just after 2.00 pm.

We were quickly making our way ashore (along with most of the ship, I think!) to have a brief look around and get our bearings.  Just across the road from where we were docked was the start of the Christmas markets, which extended into the Grote Markt.  It was beautiful: dozens of stalls selling gifts, decorations, food and drink of all types.  Everywhere was decorated with trees, greenery and lights, and there were loads of large patio heaters around to keep the chill off.

In the Grote Markt itself a large skating rink had been set up.  It seemed very popular, with dozens of youngsters whizzing around and showing off their skating skills – or lack of them!  We stood watching for a while, munching on sugar waffles we’d bought from a nearby stall.

By now it was getting dark, and our ears were getting cold.  We went back to the ship, and collected our woolly hats before returning to the fun in the city.  We wanted to see it all again, but at night.  And it was just stunning.  We even came across singers outside the cathedral: around 30 schoolgirls, all dressed in Santa hats and green capes.  Worth listening to, even though we couldn’t understand what they were singing about!  “Why are these Brits staring at us?” maybe?

We’d agreed to give dinner on board a miss, and grab some street food instead.  Have to say I’m rather impressed with the braatewurtse!  And as for the hot chocolate – well, this Belgium!

We stayed in the city for well over an hour, soaking up the atmosphere, but returned ‘home’ just in time to catch the theatre show from the Black Watch Company – this one called “Musicality”.  Pretty good, if a bit confusing at times.  And we ended our evening in the Observatory Lounge, doing a quiz about famous women, which was okay.

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WEDNESDAY 20th December – Antwerp

Neither of us slept particularly well as a light from the port terminal seemed to be shining straight into our cabin.  Oh well…

Today our grandson is four years old.  I left a message with our daughter asking her to ring whenever was convenient, just so we could wish Oliver “happy birthday”.  In the end he wouldn’t come to the phone: too taken with his presents!  Never mind, we’ll see them next week.

We went back into Antwerp mid-morning, and as we were too early to go into the cathedral we went wandering – and managed to get lost.  And this is a city where that’s not an easy thing to do!  Fortunately we did manage to find our way back in the end, and spent a good half an hour or so in the cathedral, mostly admiring the Rubens paintings there.  A stunning building.

We just had time for a bit of souvenir and chocolate shopping before we had to be back on board.  Even though there was still quite thick fog around, Black Watch left on time, which was good.

But the fog meant that there was very little to see as we sailed back down the river, so we spent our afternoon packing and relaxing.  We had an early(ish) dinner in the Brigadoon restaurant before heading to the Neptune Lounge for the Captain’s Farewell Cocktail party, which was even less enthralling than his ‘welcome on board’ one.  Never mind, it was another chance to chat to people we’d not come across before.

And I had quite an interesting encounter as we waited to go into dinner.  A lady came up to me and said “excuse me, is your name Deb?”  A bit warily I said yes – and it turned out she’d recognised me from my Facebook profile picture!  A photo, I might add, that had been taken at our daughter’s wedding in 2006!  The years must have been kinder than I thought!  And it turned out that she was a fan of George’s books, and just wanted to say ‘thank you’ to him.  How nice was that?

We weren’t overly keen on hanging around to see the show in the Neptune Lounge (described as comedy and music, a combination that always makes us go “umm?”), so had a drink in the Observatory before having a bash at the quiz, followed by a final drink in the Morning Light bar.

Our final ‘job’ was to put our cases outside the cabin and set the alarm for the morning.  It’s been a nice cruise, with lovely cities to explore, and we really like the ship.  But our big disappointment has been the food: nicely cooked, but not a great choice at any meal, and a distinct lack of vegetables.

Ah well, some you win and some….  And it’s only just over seven weeks until our next cruise, on the lovely Oriana!

 

A cruise on ‘Black Watch’ – first half

THURSDAY 14th December

After three days of serious snow, and George and some of the neighbours trying to dig us all out, we finally managed to get away yesterday afternoon.  But our journey down to Southampton was horrible, with filthy spray being thrown up by all the lorries.  But we arrived and checked into the Holiday Inn around 5.00 pm, had a meal there and settled down for the night.

This morning after breakfast we wandered around the West Quay shopping centre before our taxi arrived to take us to ‘Black Watch’ for 1.00pm.  Check-in was very straightforward (and quiet – this is a TINY ship with not many passengers), and we were on board and finding our cabin well before 1.30pm.  The cabin seems fine: our only grump is that the beds are fixed-singles (which we knew when we booked), and due to the layout one bed had no bedside table.  But no doubt we’ll manage.

George grabbed a deck plan, and we wandered off to try and get our bearings a bit – never easy when it’s your first time on a ship!  We went deck by deck, forward and aft., and although we found most things we’re not sure if we’ll find them again for a few days!

Back in the cabin, we unpacked before going to the Brigadoon restaurant for a late lunch.  It was okay, but the tea was FOUL.  Discovered later that they use UHT skimmed milk – ugh.  And that’s pretty much the same all across the ship.  There’s no semi-skimmed at all.

We carried on exploring until it was time for what Fred calls “guest assembly” – muster drill, to most people.  That was straightforward as we didn’t have to take our lifejackets, just watch the crew demonstration.

Then we had a couple of hours to kill before our second sitting dinner, and managed to catch most of the Hamburg port talk, though as we’d pre-booked a tour there it was only of general interest to us.  And as well as having a bit of a dance we made a start on making the most of our fully inclusive drinks package!  Then at 8.30 we were sitting in the Glentanar restaurant with two very pleasant chaps, perusing the evening’s menu.

Again, our meal was okay.  I have yet to understand why Fred passengers rave so much about the food: it’s neither better nor worse (apart from the milk!) than we’re used to on P&O.  But we had an enjoyable hour or so with John and Bob, which is always a bonus.  However, all four of us felt that second sitting was too late, so we’re not sure how many evenings we’ll get together again.

We rounded off our first day by watching the Black Watch Show Company performing “Musical Legends” which amused us for an hour.  But I came away thinking Fred should invest in new costumes, as one of the men was wearing trousers at least 3″ too short, and all the girls had holes in their tights.  I just felt it came across as a bit shabby, which was a shame as the singing and dancing were really good.

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FRIDAY 15th December

We both slept better than we expected, and although we’d seen forecasts for Force 7+ in the night the ship was pretty stable, which was a surprise considering how small Black Watch is.

We returned to the Glentanar restaurant for a buffet breakfast.  Not as wide a choice as P&O provide, but there was eggs benedict available, and bottles of bubbly open by the fruit juices so you can make yourself Buck’s Fizz, if you can face alcohol first thing in the morning!  And we went back there for lunch later on, though I can’t get my head round some of the meal being a buffet and some served to your table.

We went to the port talk on Amsterdam, and as a result booked an evening canal cruise.  There’s currently a Festival of Lights in the city, so the boat trip looks like being extra special.

There was a quiz later in the Lido Lounge.  We went along to see what standard of quizzers are on board with us.  Not overly-brilliant, I have to say – the pair of us scored 11/20, and the winning score was only 13.  We did better in the lunchtime “Name That Tune”, scoring 26/30, just two marks down from the winners.

The sea was still pretty flat-calm as we sailed into the North Sea.  We both opted to have a bath late in the afternoon, rather than a shower: the bath’s a very good size, none of this knees-up-under-your-chin nonsense some cabins have.  Sadly the same can’t be said for the bath towels, which are barely bigger than the hand towels.  Note to Fred.Olsen – must do better.

They also need to do better with scheduling entertainment for late-sitting diners.  They was literally nothing for us until our “welcome on board” drinks at 7.45 pm, leaving us with over two hours to kill.  We sat up in the Observation Lounge drinking and playing Trivial Pursuit.

After our cocktail ‘party’ we went to dinner.  As yesterday, it was okay but not outstanding, and service was a little slow.  The evening show was billed as a “TV Comedy Impressionist”, a chap called Christopher Gee.  Personally I didn’t find his impressions that good, and the comedy just wasn’t funny.  George chuckled a few times, but I don’t think I did at all.  Not good.

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SATURDAY 16th December – Hamburg

George didn’t sleep well last night, mainly due to the noises of the various docking procedures as we arrived in Hamburg before dawn.  But we’d been to breakfast and sorted ourselves out in plenty of time for our 10.30 am tour, “Hamburg and Christmas Markets”.

Our guide turned out to hold a doctorate in archaeology, a very intelligent man who spoke excellent English.  He was funnier than last night’s ‘comedian’, though his singing was a bit ropey!

We started our tour with a ride along the Reeperbahn, and a chance to gawp at some of the seedier establishments where The Beatles made a name for themselves.  It’s been tarted up a little since the 1960s, but not much.

Our coach dropped us off by the Rathaus (town hall) where we had 90 minutes or so to wander through the huge Roncalli Christmas Market.  It was lovely, everything you associate with Germany at Christmas, and it must be magical when it’s lit up at night.  We were each given a mug of gluhwein to warm us up before we were let loose amongst the stalls.  We found a few items to buy, and a bit later had a bratwurst for lunch, but mostly we just soaked up the atmosphere.

Back on the coach we were taken on a ride round the city, with photo stops in the Warehouse Quarter (all done up and posh now), St Michael’s church and the Aussenalster (Outer Alster) lake.

Overall a very enjoyable tour, even though by the end we were nearly asleep!

Back on the ship we went straight up to the Brigadoon restaurant for the “enhanced” afternoon tea laid on for those of us on tour who’d missed lunch.  I have no idea what was ‘enhanced’ about it – just like yesterday, it compared badly to P&O’s offering.  So we just picked up a mince pie (enhanced by being warm, maybe?), a sandwich and a drink before having a doze in the cabin.  We returned to the Brigadoon for dinner, as we’d missed lunch and wanted to eat earlier than our 8.30 second sitting allocation.

This evening was the themed ‘British Night’, which we weren’t interested in (though I did wear a red dress!  No white or blue, though).  The entertainment/shows seemed to revolve around flag waving and “Rule Britannia”: we gave it all a wide berth and just had a quiet drink and a game of Trivial Pursuit, and joined in with a quiz later on.

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