We’re going to split the Royal Caribbean embarkation process into shore side and on-board, because there was a dramatic difference in the experience each end of the gangway.
In the terminal at Southampton, check-in was running like a well-oiled machine - from taxi to ship, through check-in and security, took a matter of minutes. We were aboard by 1130 and advised that the cabins would be ready by one.
On the ship, the situation was less impressive - mainly because some cruise lines sailing in Northern Europe seem unable to react to bad weather. The large indoor bars, such as the Cosmopolitan Club, were not opening until one, when people would, presumably, be heading to their, freshly available, cabins. Outdoors, at the poolside venues, barmen valiantly kept vigil over empty decks as every sensible person took shelter from a nasty storm. The buffet was open and, predictably, was mayhem.
As an aside, on this trip we experimented with coach travel, on National Express, rather than train or car to reach Southampton. That won’t be happening again. Ten minutes after boarding we realised that we were sitting in a damp seat - we shudder to dwell on what the liquid might be, but tell ourselves it was spilt mineral water. Fifteen minutes after boarding, the coach pulled off to a service station for a thirty minute comfort break.
Coming on the heels of planning cruises with CMV and Fred Olsen, Royal Caribbean’s website was a dream.
Planning spa treatments, specialty restaurant bookings making payments worked smoothly - as well it should in 2018. Check-in was also seamless, with credit card details taken online, and the baggage tags printing flawlessly on European (A4) paper - a feat some other large lines fail to manage.
At just shy of 140,000 gross tonnes, with a capacity of almost 4000 passengers, Navigator of the Seas was the world’s largest cruise ship from her launch in 2002 up to 2005, but is, incredibly, now a mid-sized member of Royal Caribbean's fleet.
The ship does, however, have many of the amenities found on its newer, larger, sisters, including multiple bars, restaurants, and endless distractions for children.
Aboard, two things about the ship are striking. First, it’s width. This isn’t so obvious inside the huge broadwalk area, but when you’re on a high deck, looking down on spaces that have two swimming pools, side by side, you realise that this ship is massive. Secondly, the space available, despite the 4000 other passengers, is remarkable - it was never difficult to find a quiet space in a bar or lounge.
The ship also contains a surprising amount of art, including some Dale Chihuly glass sculptures.
What we’re trying to say is that you shouldn’t be put off by the large size or mass-market position of this ship - it’s actually quite pleasant.
Royal Caribbean has, perhaps more than any other company, defined what we now expect in modern mass-market cruising. Back in the early 1970s, when Carnival and Norwegian were sailing a motley collection of aged ocean liners and warmed over ferries, Royal Caribbean order three purpose-built ships, launched in consecutive years, from 1970. Song of Norway, along with her sister ships, Nordic Prince and Sun Viking, introduced features that have no become trademarks of the Royal Caribbean experience, notably the Viking Crown lounge, wrapped around the funnel.
Since then, Royal Caribbean has continued to introduce new ship classes which represent a step-change from what came before them, from the first modern megaship, 1988’s Sovereign of The Seas, through to the 6500 passenger leviathans of the Oasis class, four of which have been launched since 2009.
Royal Caribbean ships are filled with features to keep the whole family entertained, from rock climbing walls to surfing simulators. The large size of most of the ships in the fleet mean that there are plenty of options of eating and drinking, many of which are arranged around an internal “broadwalk” that has become a hallmark of the line. These vast internal spaces, lined with the windows of interior staterooms with a “view” highlight just how large these ships are and lead to charges that the whole experience has become too removed from the sea and the ports - everything on the ship faces inwards. If you’re holiday choices are dominated by the need to entertain children and teenagers, you may not think this a terrible idea.
Now that we’ve got a fair few sailings under our belt, we thought it was time to start casting some (more) judgement. First off - Battle of The Brits.
Having cruised with P&O, CMV and Fred Olsen, we’ve pretty much sailed on all the popular lines aimed at the British Market. We haven’t sampled Marella (formerly Thomson Cruises) yet, maybe someday. Maybe not.
We’re not including Cunard in this, given that the onboard currency is the US dollar, or any of the boutique lines sailing the in the Highlands and Islands.
So, of the three, which would we suggest? I think it’s clear that, in an ideal world, we wouldn’t choose any of them for our holiday, but, on balance, P&O wins.
Firstly, if travelling with children, do not even consider CMV or Fred Olsen. It’s not an option on many of their sailings, but they do offer “multi-generational” voyages during the school holidays; your children will be bored to tears and will make wretched every dull day. Most of P&O’s ships (some are adult only) do cater well to kids, particularly the latest ones.
Many people seem to favour CMV and Fred Olsen because of the smaller ships - professing fear at the prospect of a boat “crowded” with thousands of people. In practice, we found public space at far more of a premium on those smaller ships that we did with P&O. Of course, this may be because people are happier to remain in their cabins on the newer P&O ships, which offer a large number of balconies - something reserved for only the highest cabin grades on the older vessels of Fred Olsen and CMV.
One of our reasons for choosing P&O may be slightly contentious, but we value the wider range of opportunities to pay extra for food. We know that the all-inclusive aspect of cruising is important to many and the main dining room food on P&O is, possibly, the worst of the three. However, the extra-cost restaurants on P&O were good, particularly the Indian. And, while it may be a bit better than P&O, I wouldn’t want to eat Fred Olsen’s included food every day for a week.
What might make you choose CMV or Fred Olsen? If you really want to sai from a regional port, rather than Southampton, P&O isn’t going to help you. On a tight budget, CMV is probably an good value way to get away for a short break. Conversely, Fred Olsen seems to be the most expensive of the three and I have no idea how they justify that.
The overall verdict on Fred Olsen? Tolerable, but not for us.
The problem is that nothing was outstandingly good. In terms of soft product, the service was friendly, but slow, the food was mediocre and the selection of drinks and wines was poor. Being an older ship, the hard product is also not competitive - there are few rooms with balconies and none of the additional or expanded features (such as a large spa) that you’d find on a modern vessel.
We also found this ship far more crowded than much larger ones we’ve sailed on - finding a quiet place to sit was a challenge.
Furthermore, this was not a cheap option, like CMV, Fred Olsen’s average daily rates are at the higher end of the mass market, which makes their penny-pinching refusal to accept American Express all the more exasperating.
We won’t be rushing back.
Given that this was a short cruise, we carried our own luggage off, the entire process taking only a few minutes.
There’s plenty of pickup space at the Port of Tyne, so arranging and then finding an Uber wasn’t a problem and the city centre and train station is only a short drive away.
Once again, we were fortunate to be sat next to a lovely group of people for dinner. Sadly, they were not representative of the other passengers we came across on this ship.
As we’ve said before, there didn’t seem to be any “quiet corners” on this cruise, so most coffees and drinks included a side of other people’s loud conversations.
Conversations like “how can you pretend that Sir Mo Farah is British?”
Discussions about no longer watching rugby because “most of the team aren’t really English”. To say nothing of limitless excitement about the return or blue passports and the end of immigration.
To be clear, this was not a single conversation, but a sample of the many that were taking place around us. We appreciate that, being based in London, we are probably the “out of touch metropolitan elite” - frankly, I’ll take that over whatever this group were any day.
This is to say nothing of people on one sofa audibly judging the drinking habits of strangers around them; weird arguments over seating priority in the card room and the aforementioned restaurant incident.
It may be coincidence or bad luck, I can’t imagine Fred Olsen has a policy of marketing themselves exclusively to deplorables, but I’m in no rush to take a second sample. On no other cruise ship have we felt so out of place or so eager to escape.
In a nutshell, trivia quizzes and bridge. A lot of people on this ship seem to take bridge very seriously.
There’s also a bit of live music in various bars and shows in the main theatre. But, as we’ve said previously, this is not a massive ship, so don’t book expecting ziplines and Broadway musicals.
One of the advantages a smaller ship, like Balmoral, has when cruising in Norway is the ability to sail slowly right into the fjord systems. Much of this voyage was spent gliding serenely between vertical sheets of rock in Lysefjord and Hardangerfjord, pausing at some of the more notable waterfalls. If your prime concern is spectacular scenery, this cruise cannot really be faulted.
There were two ports. In Bergen, cruise ships dock in the centre of the city, which is perfectly sized to explore on foot.
We also spent a day in Eidfjord, which is pretty but tiny - Balmoral dominated the town’s small hotel and a SPAR shop. There really wasn’t much to do, along with hundreds of other passengers, we walked up to a nearby lake, much to the bemusement of some campers who clearly thought they had the place to themselves.