Fred Olsen has made a big move towards all-inclusive drinks packages - there was one attached to our booking and most people we me seemed to have one. So, we’re going to begin, a quick primer on why I think these packages are, in general, a bad idea before we discuss why Fred Olsen’s approach to them is particularly vulgar…
Fundamentally, drinks packaged are designed to be given away. The headline daily prices are a fiction, inflated so that cruise lines can claim to be giving you “thousands of dollars in free extras” when they are, inevitably, offered as an early/late/Easter/Christmas/Summer/full moon/royal wedding booking bonus.
Because they are designed to be free, most of the drinks included within them are awful - terrible wines and mixed drinks which are mainly sugar. On some lines, the “free” allowance acts as a baseline, and a few dollars more lets you drink a decent wine or a top-shelf mixed drink. Fred Olsen is not one of these lines.
Firstly, even for those of us willing to pay, half of the wine list is no longer available. A waiter told us that since the push on all-inclusive started, other wines were not being restocked. Exasperated staff did find us a few really great bin ends, but the all-inclusive wine is bad. Properly bad.
Secondly, Fred Olsen’s approach to minimising the cost of this scheme appears to involve using the staff to throttle distribution - service is very slow.
The spirits selection onboard is also pretty limited. We like to use a Grey Goose martini as a benchmark drink for these reviews, but that wasn’t available - the only premium vodka option is Chase. The Chase vodka martini was poor - watery and weak.
In keeping with current trends, there was a separate “Craft G&T” menu, in partnership with Fever Tree mixers. However, by mid-cruise, they had sold out of Fever Tree mixers so were just substituting it with Britvic tonic, which we find unpalatable.
Still, if you want to spend your day nursing pints of lager or buckets of cheap wine, good news, we’ve found the ideal cruise line for you.
There are cruise reviewers and bloggers out there who speak of the food aboard Fred Olsen in tones of hushed wonderment. Honestly, we were excited.
The main dining room on this ship is supplemented by two smaller rooms, which serve the same menu, but offer a nicer setting - most of the ables having views. We were lucky enough to be allocated a table in one of the smaller dining rooms, which, I assume, suite passengers are given priority on. However, I’m at a loss to explain why Fred Olsen haven’t used these two spaces for alternative, or premium, restaurants - instead, “The Grill” uses a roped-off area of the buffet each evening.
Breakfast was OK. The fruit, particularly the segments of orange and pink grapefruit were fresh and, throughout the ship, the baked goods were of high standard; rolls were excellent, but even croissants and pain au raisin were tasty, without the waxy dullness so often found on airlines and cruise ships. The cooked options for breakfast didn’t look too appetising, but people seemed to be keen on them.
Lunch in the main dining rooms was probably the most consistently successful meal - calamari fritti followed by lasagne being typical.
Dinner was odd. The Indian option seemed to be the best bet each night - a vegetable curry on the first night and a curried butter fish later in the cruise being very good. Other choices failed to deliver - particularly a really bad roast turkey and the worst soup we’ve ever had the misfortune to sample. It was listed as “chilled papaya and chilli”; so help us, we imagined some sort of interesting re-interpretation of gazpacho. Instead, what arrived was pale pink cream. It was indescribably bad - tasteless, freezing cold, awful mouth feel. Desserts were, well, traditional and, seemingly, sized to suit a calorie controlled diet.
It should be noted that all portions in the Main Dining Room were laughable - always very small. You will have noted the generous serving of two whole rings of calamari in the picture above. We were also served a slice of cheesecake the size of a pinky - they surely had to use a medical scalpel to slice them so thinly.
Service in the Main Dining Room was pretty slow, although our waiter did become particularly attentive - I suspect because we were the only people ordering wine that wasn’t on the all-inclusive list, so the only ones signing a bill and tipping him.
We did eat in “The Grill” premium restaurant one night - service was good, but the menu was unimaginative. None of the steak options appealed, so we ended up with a caesar salad then an overcooked “fish mixed grill”. As mentioned earlier, this “restaurant” is in an odd location, at the back of the buffet. The evening was also slightly marred by a very odd couple seated at a table nearby who clearly had an issue with us, asked to move, then sat across the room, glaring at us and clearly discussing us with the, presumably disinterested, family now seated next to them. We never did establish what the issue was - the, clearly mortified, waiter was discrete. The thought that we were talking too loudly occured (one of the party has hearing issues) but that had never been a problem in three previous decades of eating out. Maybe we were dressed to casually, although we did double-check that the formal dress code did not apply in The Grill. All very strange; although, as we’ll detail in a subsequent post, Fred Olsen does seem to attract a higher proportion of people we’d normally try our best to avoid than any other line we’ve come across.
Finally, there’s the buffet - it’s not huge, but the food was passable. The selection below comes from fajita night. The guacamole was not great - it was that weird shiny staff that comes with an unfeasibly long Use By date.
Being an older ship, cabins with a balcony are few and far between on Balmoral, so we opted for a standard outside twin.
The cabin didn’t have much to commend or condemn it - comfortable, if tired, is about as much as can be said.
The bathroom was, however, a sensible size - the shower far more spacious than the tiny corner that’s provided in standard cabins on most new ships.
Nobody is booking a Fred Olsen cruise expecting waterslides, surfing simulators or go-kart racing. Instead, they want a tastefully decorated ship with “traditional” amenities and, by in large, we’d say that Balmoral delivers that effectively.
There are very pleasant pool areas, with mattress pads provided on the loungers when the sun makes an appearance, although, on a sunny day in the Norwegian fjords, the staff did seem a bit slow off the mark in recognising that people were actually using the loungers and might like the mattresses.
While some of the decor verges into Ye Olde Maritime Theme Park territory it does so with beautiful models of old Fred Olsen sailing clippers, rather than with plastic and foam mouldings. To our surprise, the ship features some really nice modern art, both paintings and sculpture.
There is a small fitness centre and a token casino - a couple of tables are set up in the Lido Lounge of an evening.
In keeping with the “traditional cruising” motif, there are also a card room, library and craft room. But we reiterate again, this was the most crowded ship we’ve sailed on - seating was at a premium in all lounges and bars. Indeed, we almost witnessed a stand-up row in the card room when people looking for a place to play dominoes were deemed to be encroaching into the territory marked out for a bridge lesson.
This was our seventh cruise embarkation in as many months and it was by far the worst. As with ticketing, Fred Olsen’s apparent hatred of technology was front and centre during the embarkation process.
Even reaching embarkation was a trial - the paperwork simply stated “Port of Tyne”, making no mention of the fact that there parts of the port on both sides of the river. Our local driver first took us to the southern side, where we ended up being questioned by a security guard who then sent us back out and through the Tyne Tunnel to the other Port of Tyne, fifteen minutes away.
Inside the terminal things are best described as “chaotic” and “slow moving”. There was clearly no effort to enforce the allocated embarkation times, people were just split into lines for even and odd decks so that the antiquated system of finding a pre-printed room key then associating it with you and a credit card could be gone through.
Again, I understand that many of Fred Olsen’s older guests may not want a computerised
system, but there should be an online check-in option available for those of us capable of using it.
I think it’s fair to say that technology is not a strong suit at Fred Olsen. As, I’m guessing, most of their passengers book through a travel agency, this probably isn’t an issue. However, as direct guest, the whole process was frustrating.
Information that was provided then vanished from the booking, resulting in numerous phone calls asking for it again. The line insists on having the details of your travel insurance policy, which I suppose is fair (they would, I assume, be left with the bill if something happened to an uninsured guest), but seemed to be required rather early on. There was also an issue with a drinks package, which I was, initially, charged for, despite it being included - a discrepancy which only came to light when we decided to upgrade our cabins.
I know they’re aiming at a different market, but the comparison with the larger cruise lines is stark and I do wonder if the reliance on travel agents is wise - there is a growing segment of the population who have never used one.
In our Introduction to Fred Olsen, we mentioned that Balmoral was the largest ship in their fleet; she is almost 44,000 Gross Tonnes and carries 1200 passengers. That’s about 50% smaller than most of P&O’s fleet, and well under half the size of P&O’s newer ships, which many Fred Olsen customers seem to consider far too large.
Interestingly, after purchasing the ship from Norwegian Cruise Lines, Fred Olsen enlarged it by adding a new 30m central section, as shown in the video below. Onboard, you can tell when you are in the new part of the ship - the cabin doors are completely different.
Onboard, the ship has numerous bar areas, but not the variety of restaurants that you’d find on a newer vessel. And while the standard of decoration is high and clearly uses more natural material than we’ve seen on larger ships, we did find that the public areas were exceptionally crowded - far more so than on much larger vessels.
Owned by a Norwegian family and focused on the UK market, Fred Olsen runs a fleet of four ships. Two, Black Watch and Boudica date from 1972 and, when delivered to the Royal Viking Line as Royal Viking Star and Royal Viking Sky, were considered to be among the most luxurious vessels afloat. Fred Olsen’s two other ships are slightly newer; Braemar, the smallest in the fleet was launched in 1993 as Cunard’s Crown Dynasty, while Balmoral, Fred Olsen’s largest ship began life in 1988.
Given the age and more traditional style of these ships, balconies are rare on Fred Olsen sailings - reserved for only the suites and highest stateroom categories.
The line seems to attract a very loyal customer base - many of whom seem to have switched from P&O or Cunard, unhappy that they shed their smaller ships and focused on large, or, in the case of P&O, super-large newbuilds. In a similar vein to CMV, Fred Olsen sails from a number of UK ports, but seem to be aimed slightly upmarket of CMV - certainly if the average fare is to be taken as a barometer.
Fred Olsen aims for a “Scottish Country House” atmosphere and there are few of the more garish facilities you might find on other cruise lines. Even the casinos, a big money earner for other ships, are a small and spartan affair on this line.
We were intrigued to sail with Fred Olsen, as online reviews gush rapturously about excellent food and attentive service. Full details of what we experienced will be published in subsequent posts...
So, to summarise our feelings about CMV Columbus…
No, no and no again. On a short cruise it was almost amusing in a sort of Fawlty Towers way, anything more than two nights would be utterly intolerable.
There is simply no escaping economics - you get what you pay for and when you’re not paying much, once the cost of fueling and maintaining a ship is accounted for, there’s precious little left for food and creature comforts. If you have a a small sum of money to spend on a short break, do not spend it on a budget cruise - you will eat and sleep better in a reasonable hotel.
CMV think that sailing from Tilbury is a great attraction - I would argue that unless you live in East London or East Anglia, Southampton isn’t that much more of a hassle. Certainly, heading East, towards London, from Tilbury following the, typical, early morning disembarkation is a study in traffic misery.
Even if we assume that, by now, the refurbishment of Columbus has been completed and all the various restaurants and public spaces are open, I can’t see the food or the drinks improving significantly and you are still going to be stuck on an old ship, with few balcony cabins and a clientele which features more than its fair share of loudly rude octogenarians.
Fearing that such regular interaction with cruise ships would see us either going native or become inured to the peculiarities of cruising, we decided to take along an extra set of eyes - somebody both new to cruises and not too eager to become familiar with them...
'I’m sorry but your room doesn’t have a balcony,’ I was informed in the e-mail with our trip details.
Me: I am ABSOLUTELY FINE with not having a great big hole in the side of the boat, thanks.
As a cruise novice, Cruise Sceptic kindly invited me to join them on this, the maiden voyage of the CMV Columbus. Or, if you prefer, Carry On Up The Container Port: an epic tale of heavy industry, carved vegetables and frozen cocktails.
For our Cruise Epic Part the First, we roared into the CEMEX yard car park at Tilbury Docks in a tiny red Polo and stepped out blinking onto a small gray transfer bus. It’s how Joan Collins does it, no question. Tilbury Docks is not natively glamorous, but as a self-proclaimed container port aficionado I don’t dislike a bit of industrial zoned landscape (‘check out those TEUs!’).
The ship décor was an odd mixture of brand new and ‘we haven’t bothered about this bit much’. And when I say not bothered, I mean ‘we’ve literally just put black and yellow Do Not Cross tape across this gaping door into the room with the broken Formula One simulator inside.’ None of the pools or hot tubs were filled. The much-advertised steak restaurant didn’t open once during the entire four days. The Crafting Lounge had been taken over by staff as some sort of control HQ. It was mystifying. The solution to these conundra, as so often, was drink, and we found an inoffensive table beside some terrifying jungle themed wallpaper and had some surprisingly delicious rosé watched by one-dimensional monkeys.
We were parted for the lifeboat drill, held in the onboard theatre, which seemed… under rehearsed. Stand up. Sit down. Then stand up again. 400 people doing the hokey cokey in orange foam lifevests. At no point were we shown where our actual lifeboat was to be found. Helpful, if there had actually been a panic. Though as the voyage went on I realised I’d literally rather drown than get in a raft with some of these people.
We had opted for the formal dining room. Wisely, as it turned out, since when we went for a little pre-dinner espionage (snacking) the highlight of the buffet was a raft of slightly withering carved fennel gurnards with radishes for eyes, and a carved watermelon saying ‘Welcome On Board’ in bas-relief. Probably the most edible things on the buffet, too.
Because the buffet’s full horror was revealed the following morning at breakfast. A giant semicircle of steel cafeteria trays layered with sliced meats simultaneously wobbly and stiff, extruded yellow cheese and prunes (who REALLY eats prunes at breakfast? Oh yes – elderly people, of which this ship was plenty full) glistening limply in the overhead lighting. Condensation from the steam tables rose to bathe flabby bacon and sausages in sinister coils of porky vapour. The bread and baked goods were much better, but our stomachs had turned slightly, so we tried for a cup of coffee. Except, no cups. How can you have a breakfast service on a fully stocked ship and run out of coffee cups during breakfast? Things became shrill; the poor staff were mobbed every time they came through the swing doors bearing another tray of freshly washed mugs. Pensioners denied of tea first thing can get vicious, it turns out.
There was also great pressure on the inside tables, so we opted for the rear deck, where we ate our underwhelming breakfast in a lightly dieselled hurricane, admiring Amsterdam’s wharves in a balmy 11C June gale, watching burly Dutch stevedores undo the little snafu with the gangplank that eventually delayed our disembarkation by an hour.
A quick swing round the Rijksmuseum,fruits de mer for lunch, a stroll past the traditional Dutch brass lizards to a stationery shop and we managed to miss the red light district entirely, despite intentionally looking for it. Columbus? Nope, not us.
A brief overnight jaunt down the Noordzeecanal (verdict: North Sea: choppy) and we were in Antwerp. Pretty town, amusing bread shops, less of a hangover today, mercifully. Got a text from traveling companions onboard begging me to bring back a bottle of water. Any water. We arranged to meet at the spa; it was slightly unnerving to have a massage effectively 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea but the reflexologist was very good, and remained mercifully silent on the subject of my throbbing liver, though the squeals as he pressed the corresponding foot-spot could have been heard on the upper decks.
Speaking of upper decks. We decided a spot of sunbathing and cocktail sampling would be an elegant and refined way to pass the afternoon, since the weather had cheered up. We snagged two sunbeds tucked in a corner near the trampoline (yes) and ultrafog release vent (no idea), flagged down a passing waiter and settled in with a couple of frozen piña coladas (premixed frozen cocktails? no good on land, entirely perfect on ships). And were immediately hissed at by a vituperative pensioner telling us to make less noise. In a public space, surrounded by 499 other laughing, happy people (and our very own leathery-bosomed gorgon). We dubbed her The Essex Serpent and laughed at our own wit whilst plotting her unhappy death.
Underway again down the Scheldt, passing flour mills, fuel storage vats and the Doel nuclear power plant (so scenic! such lovely warm water and three-eyed fishes!) and at sunset we found ourselves in the Dome Observatory, well-positioned for the excitement of the entire ship passing through a lock. The perfect time for a dry martini, we thought.
Well. What arrived was warm vermouth with a lump of ice, a breath of gin and an entire quarter of a lemon. I am a notoriously tolerant and easygoing person, but I have made gin my life’s work, and it’s fair to say I know my way around a dry martini. I took this dilute misery back to the bar and remonstrated politely with the barman. Who said, worriedly, ‘but I have made it to the cocktail book specification, madam?’ At this point I became a little definite in my insistence that there need be less vermouth than the full pint in a dry martini, and made him show me this fell recipe. And there it was, in print indeed. It should have been consumed by tongues of flame.
I felt desperately sorry for this poor gentleman, who had clearly never served behind a bar before and was now caught in the headlights between the twin pincers of the mutinous, martini-denied customer and the recipe specified by his employer. And there were some splendid (terrifying) cocktails on that list indeed, one involving Advocaat, grenadine and Champagne. Valuing our stomach linings, we did not try it.
Safely through the lock, and dinner with the embarrassing staff parade over, we nosed out into The Channel and headed for home. We woke in the morning to the shores of Beloved Blighty, and another view of the sewage treatment works: Tilbury, mon amour.
To sum up, then. Bits of this were wonderful: excellent spa treatments, charming cabin stewards, going through a lock in a 250m-long ship, my genuine thrill at container ports. But I was unconvinced by the lacklustre food and the unfinishedness of décor. Though if I ever need a four foot Vishnu carved out of butter, I know where to find one.