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   Cruise Travel - Cruise Ships


Fred Olsen Cruise Lines

MV Black Watch

Rating:Four Stars
Submit your review hereSubmit your review
Operator:Fred Olsen Cruise Lines
Year Built / Last Refurbished: 1972 / 1996
Length / Tonnage: 674 / 28,492
Number of Cabins / Passengers: 421 / 807
Officers / Crew: Norwegian /British cruise staff, Filipino crew
Operating Area: Africa, Canaries, Mediterranean, Scandinavia and Baltic, Caribbean
Telephone / Fax: Tel 110 4507 / Fax 110 4554

Review by Mark Goldberg and Christopher Smith,TravelPage.com, Cruise Editor and Associate Cruise Editor

When Norwegian shipowners forged a new path into the uncertain waters of full time cruise ships in the late '60s and early '70s....inadvertently spawning an entire new multi million dollar industry, two trios of companies backed new cruise lines to trawl for the yankee dollar. One group, Wilhelmsen, Skaugen and Gotaas Larsen backed what became Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, while Bergen Line - an important Norwegian company operating both freighters and several of the Hurtigrute (mail) boats, Nordenfjelske - also a Hurtigrute operator, and freighter operator Klaveness backed Royal Viking Line. As with the RCCL trio, each company was the official owner of a new cruise ship purpose built for the new line.

The big difference between these two outfits was that from the moment Royal Viking was founded, its San Francisco based operation, under the tutelage of passenger line veteran executive Warren Titus (whom we will meet decades later at Seabourn), claimed to have developed a world class product. In fact, I think we can trace that expression "world class" back to Royal Viking's earliest days....it had never been used before RVL's public relations man came up with it. They had to develop some way to distinguish what is was that an intending RVL passenger would get in these ships, because a) Norway, for quite a few centuries a poor country, had developed no traditions of haute cuisine, nor high standards of a hotel service in the traditions of Paris or Vienna...and b) Royal Viking was looking for newly monied people or people with old money new to vacationing at sea, and RVL wanted people who were in the dark about what first class ocean travel really meant. Because contemporary Norwegian mores did not permit men to clean toilets, Royal Viking announced they would staff cabin blocks with stewardesses only, thereby expunging cabin stewards and cabin boys from the crew list....and saving a few kroner on monthly payrolls. People who knew first class ocean travel did not buy Royal Viking's advertising or concept, and balked at RVL's excruciatingly high prices, considering the per diems asked.... it was too much to bear for 160 square feet of long and narrow cabin with beds in an "L" shape. Others were horrified by the screaming tones of yellow, orange and lime green buffeting the decor of those rooms.

But RVL appealed to a lot of people the world over...people who willingly plunked down thousands and in many cases, tens of thousands of dollars, in a Royal Viking ship. Intending to win the continued business of their group of repeaters, a core group the company hoped would include everyone who ever sailed, RVL specifically attempted to minimize the personality of any single ship, going so far as to name them all Royal Viking "S". The idea was, they didn't want you to say, "Oh, what a great time I had on the -----------". They wanted you to say, "What a great time I had on the Royal Viking". Yet, human nature being what it is, each of the three white sisters developed her own personality....the result of great crew stability....people worked the same ship for several years at a time, and repeat passengers would come to have friends on any one or two, if not all three sisters. As these ships were building in Helsinki's Wartsila yard....to hulls virtually identical with those of RCCL's "Song of Norway" trio, if there was a premium cruise line in the world, and there was, it was Swedish American Line, whose KUNGSHOLM and GRIPSHOLM were extraordinary vessels, both beautiful internally and externally. Anyone trying to top them would have a hard road to hoe....and given the rivalry between Sweden and Norway, an interesting competition was about to develop. Add to this mix Norwegian America Line, a company so conservative and tradition bound that an ordinary crew member risked termination of employment should he or she address either a passenger or officer without having been addressed first....NAL's famous "fjord" ships had been crossing the Atlantic since 1913, and cruising since the '20s.

In the post World War II years, as passenger aircraft took more business away from the liners, NAL's ships spent more and more time cruising, and each succeeding "fjord" liner was built with an eye to spend much time off the liner lanes cruising her way through warm waters. But by its very nature, conservative Norwegian America Line could not and did not stray far from their two class ship concept....and because egalitarian Norway had not yet reaped the benefits of all of that North Sea oil...NAL's OSLOFJORD, BERGENSFJORD and SAGAFJORD were primarily tourist liners, and though built as RVL's ships were entering service, NAL's last ship, VISTAFJORD was so much a development of the SAGAFJORD that she too must be considered a tourist ship...certainly the large number of tiny cabins in her give that away. Somehow, and maybe it was through the attrition of the older established lines who just walked away from the passenger end of the business, and because NAL did operate some very long cruises like an annual world cruise, they began to be recognized as the top cruise line in the world....at least by people new to the sea.

Swedish American Lines' departure from the scene in 1976, the result of recalcitrant Swedish unions' refusal to permit the company to reflag the ship at Bermuda and lower operating costs to try to wipe out tens of millions of dollars of losses the Swedish crews cost, was a godsend for both Norwegian America and Royal Viking Lines. For in a stroke was gone the genuine article...and in its place was a perfect seventies plastic replacement. Lest you think us too harsh, remember, we were there!

At Royal Viking, the departure from the scene of competitor Swedish America Line was met with unrelieved glee. But their joy didn't necessarily mean more money for RVL, whose ships, with a capacity limited to 550 passengers and high crew costs, could not make a profit. In 1981, the ROYAL VIKING STAR cut short her summer cruise season by a couple of weeks, when she arrived in Bremerhaven. Over the next three months, she remained at Lloyd Werft, whose talented work force split her in two...and inserted a 95 foot section between the two halves, and then put her back together. Increasing her tonnage from an original 21,847 to 28,221, the ROYAL VIKING STAR could now carry 758 passengers. Her two sisters followed, the ROYAL VIKING SKY a year later, and the ROYAL VIKING SEA in March, 1983. It's not said that they were better before or after, as that was strictly a matter of personal taste. One of us preferred them before, the other preferred them stretched. It remained to be seen, though, if there was indeed a market to fill these three ships, as well as the SAGAFJORD....along with a couple of tiny newcomers named SEA GODDESS I and II.

By then, the Reagan years were in full swing, and spending was ostentatious and greed was good...so for a while, at least, these ships were all filling up at brochure prices. As time passes, the new becomes old and either you build new ships or others will, and in the case of Royal Viking, both things happened. When the ROYAL VIKING SUN arrived in Miami in December, 1988, no one knew that the three white sisters were coming to the end of their Royal Viking road. First to go was the ROYAL VIKING STAR, the eldest of the trio, and she was transferred to sister company Norwegian Caribbean Lines in the winter of 1991. She was renamed WESTWARD, and with her cabins able to accommodate a total of 829 passengers in her 401 cabins, she began a series of cruises from New York to Bermuda in the summer and Los Angeles to Mexico in the winter. Even at reduced rates, there really wasn't a market for her any longer, and in the spring of 1994, she was again transferred within the Kloster family, this time to Royal Cruise Line....Kloster had wanted to make Royal a top notch premium line, and needed this ship to help him do it. Combining the independent element of her original Royal Viking name with Royal Cruise Lines' familiar "odyssey" name made this ship the STAR ODYSSEY. Over the next two years, she cruised some of the most exotic seaways of the world, ranging as far afield as Kenya, the Seychelles, Sweden and Canada...and when Kloster pulled the plug on Royal Cruise Line in January, 1996, it remained to the STAR ODYSSEY to finish out Royal's life and operate as much of the summer season as possible.

She had been sold even before that, in Kloster's scramble to raise capital to stay in business. The new owners were able to resell her, finding a buyer in Norway's fine old Fred. Olsen Line, now one of the oldest shipping companies in the world. Never operating a passenger vessel larger than 12,000 tons was no obstacle to Fred. Olsen, whose experience in understated, high class service in well maintained up to date vessels led them to confidently assume custody of what was by then a truly classic cruise ship. Fred. Olsen promised to endow this ship with the warmth and care for which they were long famous, and they certainly have succeeded, lavishing money within and without to make the Black Watch the ship to cruise for people in the know.

What a treat it is to see this ship now. She's like a long lost old friend now wearing new clothes.....a style of clothes she should have worn from the beginning. I'm just thrilled that a ship intended to be a floating exhibition of the highlights of early '70s Scandinavian modern has been refurbished in such a way that while she retains some of the best elements of that aesthetically chancy era, her new outfit is warm and cozy...never before has she been so warm and welcoming.

Public Areas
Whether she's full to her 798 passenger capacity based on two to a cabin, or sailing with every one of her 897 beds and berths taken, the Black Watch has a lot of public spaces. While you will find her deck chaired clad wrap around open promenade deck as enticing as we do, you might occasionally feel energetic enough for some of her topsides sporting areas....and she has good exercise spaces, both outside and in a very well equipped gymnasium. You might also wish to swim, because she's got a fairly decent sized pool for a cruise ship...and if you wish to be wet and lazy, a few steps aft of the Marquee Pool Bar are a couple of pristine jacuzzis, ideal for baking out those aquavit based hangovers. Now that I think about it, in the right weather, you could spend all your time outside, and hardly notice that you had not been inside at all, so extensive and lavishly arranged are this ship's deck areas. But there is so much for you inside that you're going to want to spend sometime within the ship, no matter what the weather. The only problem you're going to have is deciding when, where and what you're going to do.

We've always loved her observation lounge. Located on Deck Nine, and now called the Observatory, it retains its full service bar, and those big floor to ceiling windows, through which we love to watch the ocean pass by...it's pretty nifty in port, too, great for a birds eye view of whatever. In all these former RVL sisters, it's been our favorite place to take an after dinner drink and we've always marveled at how empty it is....and we could never figure out why people use it only for tea time or when the ship is entering or leaving port. In fact, so unwilling to come up to Deck Nine have passengers proved, that at least in this ship, what had once been a strikingly decorated lounge complete with bar and dance floor has been converted into a large card room, big library and small smoking room... Fred. Olsen put a lot of thought into the concept and a lot of money into the execution of these spaces....sometimes, when I sit and muse....a Fred. Olsen 1999 brochure in front of me, I think hmmm....if I could afford either a Premier or Marquee suite, I could live on Nine Deck and be perfectly happy without exploring further afield. Suite dreams aside, I think I would miss a lot of the other public spaces, because many of them are not only well thought out and planned, they are nicely furnished, very comfortable and I like the atmosphere.

Something else we like about the Black Watch....giving up single sitting dining for two sittings, the after section of the original Royal Viking dining room has been put to very interesting uses. On port side, the forward section is now the Orchid Room, and it is used as a regular dining room and highly sought after by people who like their meals served in a more quiet, intimate atmosphere. Just behind it is the less formal Garden Cafe. But the bulk of the former dining room is now the Braemar Room, one of those nice lounges where you can sit and chat with friends....and you're not going to be pestered to spend money. In fact, that may be what we like best about this operation....they do not badger you for cash.

Popular as ever on the continent is the breakfast buffet...because the slop we Yankees tend to eat for breakfast - rashers of bacon, scrapple, giant omelets with three jumbo eggs....you know what we mean....where diners help themselves to a wide variety both good and bad for you, Black Watch breakfasts are where we like to start a lot of our days. We're less convinced that lunch buffets poolside are right for us, because the old problem Royal Viking had still has not been solved....somebody's going to have to carry that tray either up a flight or two of stairs in the hopes of finding a table, or someone's going to have to balance a tray in one hand, get a heavy door open, climb over the lip, and bring it into the main lounge....no....better to eat in the dining room....because there are the occasional buffets set up in there.....Norwegians love a koldtbord (the buffet table). The big Glentanar Restaurant and smaller Orchid Room serve dinners in two sittings, but Fred. Olsen has provided for you fans of "alternate" dining, serving a different menu at an open sitting by reservations only, in the Garden Cafe.

Need we tell you that all cabins have private facilities, TV, and hairdryer? They do, and they also excel where so many other types of cabins both standard and deluxe falter. They have one of the best and most cleverly arranged system of storage space we've ever seen at sea....it's one of the reasons Royal Viking had such an easy time explaining away the fewer square feet each standard cabin had. Ninety percent of them are outside rooms, all with either two portholes or a nice big window. Another area where this ship excels is how she accommodates single travelers....there's none of this "singles can book a double cabin but they're going to pay through the nose for it"....no, no, no, not here. The Black Watch has four types of singles....inside, outside, and superior outside....and while not cheap, there's no exorbitant supplement for them either. If you want a single cabin, don't dally in deciding.....these wildly popular cabins sell out almost a year ahead! But for two traveling together, you have thirteen kinds of cabin categories to consider. Honestly, folks, let's forget category "I" because these are the first to sell out. So let's look at the six kinds of standard cabins. Besides some new cabins, the standards include all of the original ROYAL VIKING STAR cabins, and you already know that they all have private facilities and great storage space...and yes, they do tend to have the beds in an "L" shape, but the furnishing has been updated and much improved. Cabin aficionados that we are, we would take any of them.

That said, we would still angle for a junior suite, if not something even more grand...and let's remember that the first modern cruise ship besides the DAPHNE and DANAE which introduced big suites with private balcony in 1976 and 1977 was the ROYAL VIKING STAR.. Royal Viking Line knew a good thing when they saw it, and didn't mind cribbing. A very nice thing about the top grades of accommodation on the Black Watch, the three "premier" and six "marquee" suites....they're in their own private little area on Nine Deck and arranged in such a way that passengers who don't live in one of them invariably feel sheepish walking through the corridor on which the entrances to these suites are located.

Who Goes
Smart people who want a great vacation at sea.....heavily British, a Black Watch passenger list is certain to include scads of congenial people, many of whom are nearly as well traveled as the ship herself. The Black Watch goes everywhere, and because she does, and because her cruises aren't based on a standard seven day formula, she tends not to attract much of a party crowd...and as a result, is distinguished by a much more sophisticated group.

The Black Watch begins spring with a series of sailings, mostly ten or fourteen nights long, to the Canary Islands, Morocco and the Iberian peninsula. As the weather warms, she'll be in the Western Mediterranean before heading north to summer in the Baltic and Scandinavia....on cruises ranging from seven to fourteen nights duration. She'll return to the Mediterranean in the late summer, with October slated for the eastern part of that region....then Black Watch will head from England to the Caribbean, rounding out the year with a series of thirteen night cruises from Barbados....these cruises, by the way, are almost exclusively filled with British passengers.....there's no air package conjuncted with them for Americans.

In January of 2002 she will set sail for a 69 day "Out of Africa" extended voyage from Southampton to Cape Town and back.

This is not a ship where you're going to see the resident singers and dancers performing a "Hey, hey U.S.A." variety show as a matter of course. You're not going to find the entertainment or style emphatically geared to a largely American crowd. The Black Watch caters primarily to British passengers, and let me tell you, we really do speak the same language....and we really do enjoy many of the same jokes. The very fact that we are not going to be treated to a chorus of "Oh Beautiful, For Spacious Skies" in an Indonesian accent so thick....comforts us greatly...for we have long resented foreign cruise lines attempting to sell a few more of their drinks while preying on our patriotism.

If you cannot tell by now, we love the Black Watch....and whenever time permits, we'll return to her again and again. Some would say that it's sad that she's the only one of her kind in existence....and to that, we say, as good as she is she's enough. And we know thousands of happy Black Watch passengers agree with us. So if yours is not too raucous a personality, and you appreciate people of a calm demeanor, and like things that are pleasant, you can cruise this ship with confidence, secure in the knowledge that you are welcome here....you'll see some marvelous places, and you'll see them in comfort at an affordable price.

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