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Review: Black Watch

Cruise - Ocean Cruise

Black Watch World Cruise

  • By SilverTraveller Dave

    4 reviews

  • 2009
  • Partner
  • Special occasion
  • Outside

163 people found this review helpful

My love of cruising began in 1961 at the age of eight when my family emigrated to Australia on Orient Line’s 20,000 ton Orontes. The ship was built in 1929 and was on its final voyage. We called at Athens, Port Said, Aden, Colombo, Fremantle, Adelaide and Melbourne. The voyage cost just twenty pounds for a family of four! Three years later we returned to England on Sitmar Line’s Fairsea, a ship roughly the size of Fred Olsen’s Black Prince, and called at Sydney, Auckland, Singapore, Colombo, Aden, Port Said and Naples.

Five years ago, I persuaded my wife, Frederique (Fred), to try a mini-cruise on the Braemar. She wasn’t particularly keen as she tended to get seasick crossing the channel but we both loved the experience so much that we had booked a Baltic cruise before disembarking. As teachers we were limited to short cruises during the school holidays for the next few years, but a year ago I took early retirement and my wife decided to change her career. So we dipped (very heavily) into our savings and booked a world cruise – a once-in-a-lifetime adventure!

We chose the Black Watch for several reasons. Most importantly, it was going to exotic places we’d never even heard of such as Rarotonga and the Marquesas Islands, and the weather would be hot for over three months! I’d always wanted to visit Australia again and we’d be there for more than two weeks. We had been on the ship three times before and, although it’s a bit old and creaky, we love the spaciousness of the wide open decks and the extremely friendly crew. We also like the size – a few hundred passengers rather than a few thousand; and we wanted to see the world from a real ship, not a floating city. The Black Watch’s four metre-wide promenade deck is open to the sky above and the sea is close enough to watch flying fish, dolphins and sea turtles without binoculars. (We passed OV2 in Curacao and I couldn’t work out how anyone could see the sea except through a window!) By the way, I’ve read many times on this website that small ships are less stable than big ships; this is, of course, nonsense. The Black Watch was built for long-distance cruising and we met many experienced cruisers who said they found her more stable than much larger ships. The only really rough weather we encountered was crossing the Great Australian Bight; we set off from Adelaide just behind a ship which dwarfed us in port – we were delayed by three hours, but they were eight hours late arriving at the next port!

We booked the cruise several months in advance. We chose the best cabin we could afford – one with portholes near the back on deck 4. We were thrilled when we were upgraded to a cabin with a window near the back on deck 5 and ecstatic when we were upgraded again to a mid-ships cabin on 5!

I’ll get to the main point of this review soon (that is, the places we went and the things we saw) but there is something else I must praise Fred Olsen for. Once the cruise is paid for and the excursions have been booked there really are no other charges. Shuttle buses are free, there are no surcharges, no compulsory tipping (yes, we did tip quite generously if you’re wondering), bar prices are reasonable and all other drinks (e.g. tea and coffee) are included. Our £1000+ on-board credit lasted most of the voyage. Not everyone lived as cheaply as we did though; we heard of one couple (who seemed to be drunk most of the time) running up a bar bill of £8000!

I’ll move on now to the voyage itself. The route was this: From Southampton to the Canaries, across the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean, through the Panama Canal, across the Pacific Ocean, around and under Australia, across the Indian Ocean, under Africa and up the west coast back to Europe. I think there were about 26 ports of call – not many compared with other world cruises – but several were two or three day stops which allowed us plenty of time to explore places like Sydney and Cape Town.

With so many possible places to talk about I’ll have to be selective and focus on those we most enjoyed. Having said that, everywhere was exciting and offered something new for us to experience.

For me, the highlight was the South Pacific islands. Everyone knows the Pacific is big, but nothing prepares you for just how vast it really is. It took eight days after leaving the Panama Canal to reach the first land, the Marquesas Islands. For eight days we saw no ships or aeroplanes, just the occasional atoll and sea life such as turtles. Eventually, we anchored off Hiva Oa but the captain judged that the sea swell made tendering risky so we sailed on to nearby Tahuata. Captain Cook came here in 1774 and we were only the second cruise ship ever to visit the island. Tahuata is a tropical paradise and the tiny population gave us a wonderful welcome. This was where Fred and I first went off on our own little expedition – we followed a track to the top of the island and looked down on the other side!

We made six other stops at Pacific islands. Tahiti, Fiji, Tonga and New Caledonia are developed and quite bustling with sizeable towns, buses, etc. but I preferred the picture-postcard perfection of Moorea (where the film South Pacific is set) and Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. On Rarotonga, Fred and I trekked though dense forest to reach the centre of the island; with hindsight, a stupid thing to do since no one knew where we were going, but a fantastic experience and we returned safely! On Moorea, we went by boat to a perfect little island in a lagoon where we spent the day snorkelling amongst beautiful fish and coral.

There were many people on the cruise for whom Australia was the highlight. The mischievous side of me points out that many people thought my perfect tropical paradises were boring or (in the case of Tonga and Fiji) scruffy. One passenger told me he didn’t go ashore on Tahuata because it didn’t look like there was anything worth seeing! I think there are a lot of people who just want to see ‘civilised’ parts of the world from the comfort of an air-conditioned coach.

But I digress… Australia has a lot to offer; the scenery is certainly spectacular, the wildlife is amazing, and the people seemed extremely friendly. For me, the highlights were Sydney – especially sailing past the opera house and under the bridge – and the two ‘non-city’ stops at Burnie in Tasmania and Albany in Western Australia. Both were as I had remembered Australia: lovely old places with wide, quiet streets, a slow pace of life, and beautiful countryside. Fred and I did another expedition on our own in Burnie. We walked miles to find a place called Fern Glade where platypuses are supposed to live but we didn’t find any. We did see lots of wallabies though!

We spent more than two weeks in Australia visiting every major city and going on several well-organised fascinating excursions. It was a fantastic experience but I was left with the impression that there is also something very peculiar about the place. I’ve travelled pretty extensively in first, second and third world countries but I’ve never experienced a system as paranoid as Australia’s. In most countries, passengers are clear to go ashore within about 30 minutes of docking; a port guard generally waves you through without really looking at your ship’s card. Not in Australia! Before we arrived in Brisbane passengers had to queue for up to an hour so that passports could be verified by officials. Then it took more than two hours for clearance to be granted before we could go ashore. Nothing edible could be taken ashore – in fact the only consumables permitted were one pack of cigarettes and a sealed bottle of water per person. We were searched by guards with sniffer dogs and scanners and filed past signs with dire warnings about infringing the rules. You may think this only happens when passengers go ashore, but it was often worse coming back. On one occasion, as we entered the port area the shuttle bus was boarded by a security man who carefully checked everyone’s card. The bus drove about 20 yards and another guard got on and repeated the process! I could go on but, suffice to say, I wasn’t alone in describing Australia as a ‘police state’! It was a pity the authorities didn’t make us feel welcome, and it was a real shock. Don’t get me wrong; the people and their country are lovely; it’s just the system that feels repressive.

Back to a positive note! Africa provided some absolutely unforgettable highlights. We went on a game drive in northern South Africa and saw almost every animal we hoped to see: giraffes, water buffalo, baboons, rhinos, warthogs, impala, and a huge elephant – all just yards from our land rover. Fantastic! We spent three amazing days in Cape Town where the ship berthed almost touching a dockside hotel and seals swam around the harbour. By now, we had a bit of a reputation for exploring so we took on our greatest challenge of the cruise – we climbed Table Mountain! It took about three and a half hours but we made it; the views on the way up and from the top were spectacular and it was certainly worth the effort. (I’ve posted a photo of Fred approaching the summit on the photos pages of this website.) In Namibia we went on a ‘desert adventure’ excursion and this was definitely one of our most memorable experiences of the cruise. The seven hours were spent climbing huge sand dunes on foot, racing down them in a land rover, spotting wildlife such as jackals and snakes, and having an amazing champagne lunch among the dunes. It cost a fair bit, but it was worth every penny!

One thing which sets a world cruise apart from shorter cruises is the relatively high proportion of sea days. Inevitably some people complained of boredom, while others kept themselves occupied with the vast range of traditional activities on offer – deck quoits, bridge, quizzes, short tennis, lectures, dancing and art classes, darts, table tennis, etc. Yes, I know some contributors to this website have scoffed at such ‘old-fashioned, carry on cruising’ type pastimes, but this is what most Fred Olsen cruisers want and it’s what they get. ‘Nuff said! We easily settled in to a sea day routine: Fred joined the ‘Passport to Fitness’ scheme whereby for £84 she could take part in any gym class for over three months. Given that she averaged about five half-hour pilates, yoga, etc. classes a day it was a real bargain! I used the gym equipment (for free) while she exercised and became so attached to the rowing machine we bought one when we got home! When we boarded the Black Watch in January I was out-of-shape (to put it mildly) and my first attempt at rowing almost killed me. Three-and-a-half months later, I had lost ten pounds and felt fitter than at any time in my life. Cruising can be good for you. (We spent the remainder of our sea days eating, sunbathing and recovering from our gym time!)

We loved every moment of our world cruise. Of course there were some negatives: minor irritations (i.e. some fellow passengers) and disappointments, but only one worth mentioning. I had imagined that Fred Olsen would see a World Cruise in the same way as I had – something really, really special; something to be mentioned often and celebrated. As it turned out, the ‘all-rounders’ were in a small minority (about 270 I heard) and almost everything to do with the ship’s organisation seemed geared towards people doing sectors, so it often felt like we were doing a whole series of back-to-back cruises instead of a Grand Voyage. But if the company didn’t make much effort to make us feel special, the crew and entertainment staff certainly did – they were delightful!

Would we do a world cruise again? Absolutely, but we’d need to win the lottery! Would we go with Fred Olsen? Yes, even if money was no object. We truly had the most exciting time of our lives.

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This review is solely based on the opinion of a Silver Travel Advisor member and not of Silver Travel Advisor Ltd.

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Silver Travel Advisor Recommended Partner: Fred Olsen Cruise Lines

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