Updated: Jul 18, 2020
An epic journey to the Arctic and Norway with Fred. Olsen Cruises
"Black Watch" at rest / Trondheim, Norway
Norway & The Arctic | 31 January ~ 14 February 2020
This experiential epic journey warrants several posts - the ship, the ports of call, newfound friends, and everything in-between. Below is a condensed review recounting the highlights of this exceptional, spellbinding adventure in one winded review: Travel on...
(For details on my new book, "NORWAY, A PHOTOGRAPHIC ODYSSEY, click HERE.)
An introduction to "Black Watch"
The year was 1972. Royal Viking Line was launching the most luxurious cruise ships ever built in the day; a trio of Norwegian business partners had deployed "Royal Viking Sea", "Royal Viking Sun" and "Royal Viking Star". These Finish built, finely crafted, six-star ships served a demanding luxury market on lengthy voyages to exotic destination around the globe. Fine ships they were when delivered and remain that way as astonishingly, each one is operating today. "Boudicca" ("Royal Viking Sky") and "Black Watch" ("Royal Viking Star") are lovingly maintained, sailing for Fred. Olsen Cruises while the "Albatross" ("Royal Viking Sea") is sailing under the Phoenix Reisen flag. All three were stretched in their later years adding public rooms, capacity, and staterooms - many with balconies.
I am on a mission. After sailing on over 50 ships, 150+ cruises and crossings, I'm looking for the uncommon out-of-the-ordinary experience with respect to the ship I sail on and where it goes. Price is relative and a key factor. I love small ship cruising. The reasons and justifications are obvious. A level of personal service and attention one garners; quality of the product including food, entertainment and on-board amenities far exceed those on today's giga-ships with 3,500+ other passengers. MSC's new ships will carry a combined 10,0000 crew, staff,and passengers. Out of my orbit.
I count perhaps less than 10 small ships sailing today operated by accessible companies defined as affordable, comfortable, and refined with less than 1,200 passengers. The exploration-cruise sector has several newbuilds with less than 300 passengers but I'm not there yet. Fred. Olsen's fleet was an obvious choice when last year I sailed on "Braemar" - the biggest little ship I've sailed on - a real charmer. You can review my post on "Braemar" to Norway in May 2019 here.
Few Americans know of Fred. Olsen cruises. Fewer sail with FO. This attracted me since I love everything British. The people, the tea, the country and for good reason. Last year I learned from an Ancestry DNA test that I'm actually 67% British! The balance: Norwegian and Finnish. Imagine that.
After an accident last year which forced me to cancel a Spain and Portugal cruise on "Black Watch" I was offered an opportunity to sail to Norway and the Arctic on that same ship. It took me a split second to confirm the cruise which brings me to the second part of my mission - finish a book I am producing on Norway which I initiated during my recovery. I am a photographer and graphic designer and have been to Norway three times in the past three years prior to this cruise. This newest adventure on "Black Watch" would provide me with the opportunity to add new photos, capture the Northern Lights and expand the ports of call to this book effort of mine, a photographic odyssey, and finally sail on "Black Watch" !
Packing for 15 days was a challenge. One 20kg suitcase for on-board wear, another 20kg suitcase for winter and Arctic gear! My Norwegian Air ticket from Miami to Gatwick included two checked bags so I was safe. It was the carry-on camera equipment and my backpack with computer and electronics (I work when I travel) that brought my total weight to about 60kg (132lbs) of baggage. Of course, I wore about half of what I packed.
I travel to the UK frequently on transatlantic crossings and have friends throughout Great Britain. A couple living in Berkshire (Reading) expressed an interest in joining me on this Norwegian and Arctic adventure booking passage just days later. Nothing like traveling with mates from the old country. Karen and Gareth scooped me up at the Holiday Inn S'hampton on January 31st and we were off to meet "Black Watch".
Boarding was delayed thanks to WIFI problems at the Queen Elizabeth terminal and if you sail from S'hampton, you know of these problems. We boarded at 13:30 and, as was with "Braemar", it was love at first sight. I travel solo, stateroom #4041. My friends were steps away - #4055. These staterooms were larger than expected and featured seemingly brand-new bathrooms with possibly the largest shower at sea I've experienced and upscale soft goods. You'd never expect this from a 48-year-old ship. It's all about the family-run principles, standards, and dictates of this small, privately-held enterprise.
Thanks to the delay in boarding, our bags had already been delivered. I opted first to explore this wonderful ship rich with history combined with Fred. Olsen's elements of design. A palette of colors, fabrics, fittings and furnishings fit for its primarily British clientele. As with "Braemar", the lounges match: Bookmark Cafe, Morning Light, The Observatory, Neptune Lounge and so on. At 28,000 tons one can tour all of the public rooms in less than thirty-minutes. Three stairwells make it simple and nearly effortless unless you require elevators which work well and efficiently.
I love the Norwegian origins of this ship. The warm woods and artwork furnished throughout by the Olsen's. It's simplistic minimalism and distraction-less parallels that of an English manor and the most comfortable shoes you own.
A Quick Tour Inside "Black Watch"
We sailed promptly at 18:30 navigating through Southampton waters then northeast into the English Channel for two sea days before arriving at our first port of Alesund, a new discovery for me, my friends, and my book.
My traveling partners were impressed as they as well quickly discovered the qualities and ambiance "Black Watch" exudes, the appeal Fred. Olsen offers through the company's proven approach to cruising. Prior to sailing I made sure these friends of mine were aware of what small ship cruising was. There would be some motion and while the amenities and features on-board "Black Watch" were excellent, they were less than the ships they had sailed on. Overwhelmed with the whole sense of this adventure, the ship itself and the Fred. Olsen product, we rejoiced - and then unpacked.
Small ship cruising is all about the intimacy and ambiance where everything is about guest satisfaction and quality - a rarity among the many of today's ocean going fleet of cruise ships .
We dined in Glentanar's Orchid Room each night for the exception of one night out while on tour and one night in "Black Watch's" optional dining venue: "The Black Watch Room - The Grill". Menu's in Glentanar were varied, creative, exceptionally presented, plated and hot, a rarity among many cruise lines today. Our nightly wait staff Jon and Elvis were on their toes setting the stage each evening with diligent, prompt service and attention to detail learning quickly how many twists of the pepper mill we preferred, who drank what, and how we took our coffee (more on the coffee later.)
The "Black Watch Grill"
FO's desserts are the problem, best in the business if you ask me. Start out with a nice lunch at either the ship's self-serve option, "Brigadoon" "Black Watch's" buffet-only dining feature; the Glentanar, where buffet and à la carte choices are available at lunchtime, then tea commencing promptly at 15:45 and finally dinner. The desserts follow at every event with sweet treats plentiful and delectable. I couldn't restrain from just having one. If those dining events ending with a dessert frenzy aren't enough, wander up to the Bookmark Cafe for more treasures of insanity and an enormous fresh selection of chocolates, pastries, cakes, and biscuits displayed in museum-like fashion. Don't forget the coffee. At the Bookmark Cafe, The Observatory, and Morning Light only the most potable coffees can be procured.
Fourteen days of this routine was bliss. We slept well (those single beds are fabulous), dined and regaled, inhaled the freshest air one could breath and visited some of Norway's most illuminating ports of call as we did in the following order on a world-class small ship:
Ålesund, Trondheim, Tromsø (overnight)
Alta (overnight), and Kristiansund.
I opted for tours in each port. While I had been to Tromsø and Trondheim on previous cruises, I wanted to expand my horizons by visiting previously undocumented key points of interest for myself and my book. This would also be my first winter visit. Snow would be the game changer and a new element and facet on this adventure. I was well prepared.
ÅLESUND: We embarked on a tour through the city then over roadways learning about the significance of the furniture industry in the region. It's big business and employs many of the local residents with modern factories and shipping points. Our destination was Stranda Mountain which would require a fjord crossing on a ferry (a simple feat in Norway even on a coach.) The fjord from the mountain top is Geirangerfjord - one which I had sailed through en-route to Geiranger in 2019, Norway's most visited fjord with over a million visitors a year.
Our tour featured a Norwegian buffet at the mountain-top lodge and ample time to explore and savor the view which, as you can see, is mesmerizing and not far from the top of the world, literally.
The return back to the ship was equally impressive with a stop at Ålesund's infamous Aksla viewpoint, 441 steps up from the city-center where photos of the most recognizable images of Ålesund are captured. According to National Geographic, "Ålesund could be the backdrop for a Nordic fairy tale - with a modern plot twist." Most of the city of Ålesund was leveled by fire which occurred on 23 January 1904. It nearly destroyed the whole city centre, built mostly of wood like the majority of Norwegian towns at the time. The town was rebuilt in the then contemporary style of Jugendstil (Art Nouveau). Modern historians have concluded that the fire was actually positive in terms of city development. The pre-fire city centre was extremely crowded, consisting mostly of old and cramped wood housing with only rudimentary sanitary facilities (WIKI).
Our second port, Trondheim, was a repeat visit for me and there was much to see. A tour to the war memorial museum (Forsvarsmuseet Rustkammeret) and adjacent Nidaros Cathedral built over the burial site of King Olav II c. 995-1030 were first on the list. Trondheim was the scene of a mass fire in 1681 which destroyed most of the city. The Germans also had a significant influence during WWII all of which was thoroughly disclosed in detail at the war memorial museum. Kristiansten Fortress was built after the city fire to protect the city against attack from the east (Sweden.)
Northbound Arctic Circle Crossing: 13:30 ~ 5 February 2020.
An overnight port call in Tromsø was next. Enter the Arctic Circle ! On a previous visit, I had taken the cable car to the top of the mountain (Storsteinen) - this time around wanting to photograph the vista with its snow was not going to happen. The peak was shrouded in clouds and it was snowing hard. At 1,381 feet (421 metres), the weather changes fast. Next time? Next time also for the Northern lights in Tromsø as our seven-hour trek towards Finland and back proved to be too overcast for any hope of an evening display. Others on tour found the lights thanks to some clouds that strategically dispersed and perhaps a more advanced navigator. Let's try for Alta?
Day two Tromsø, the sun reached out and delivered glorious view of the sights and scenery. Our sailing time prevented me from another journey up the mountain so I wandered around town capturing images featuring the town's people, streets, the Edge hotel to the harbour just as the sun set - around 15:00.
Following a day at sea we arrived for an overnight stay in Alta.
69.9689° N, 23.2716° E, part of Norway's Finnmark country with a population of less than 15,000, our most northern port and evidently the largest northern-most town in the world.
Gliding through Alta-fjord or any fjord in wintertime is drastically different in winter. The landscape is pristine, evoking yet stark. Much of my photography is black and white and as you can see, it's the right choice in the case below.
Previously I'd only sailed through Norway in springtime and summer - this journey was different.
Speaking of sailing through fjords, I was curious monitoring the wave and weather forecasts (as I do) in the North Sea as it can be treacherous in wintertime. Thanks to the size of"Black Watch", we navigate through the Norwegian public coastal route referred to as Hurtigruten transporting passengers that travel locally, regionally and between ports of call, and also cargo between ports north of Tromsø (WIKI). No forty-foot seas for us albeit we did travel through some rough spots. "Black Watch" was built for world cruising and she handles the open ocean with aplomb.
At first light upon arrival in Alta, my traveling partners and I ventured off ship to see the Northern Lights Cathedral (Borealis). I had to grab some shots of this architectural wonder. The sun was brilliant, the church priceless.
ALTA would be our final opportunity to capture the Northern Lights. Long story short, we were transported to a camp about fifteen minutes from the ship. Tents, fires, hot chocolate, banana cake and the Northern Lights greeted us. Blink and you'll miss them since out of a point system of 1-10, we struck a 2. With camera and tripod in hand we captured and alas witnessed the organic beauty of the atmosphere dancing in the night.
Excuse the picture. One aspect of photography I'm no pro at is shooting at night.
I got the photo ... carry on. Not bad for a low energy sky!
Thanks to "Black Watch's" Supper Club (late night buffet), we returned in time for some tasty bites including crispy chicken wings, pasta and of course, the pastries, biscuits, puddings and more. While the sausage rolls and hot chocolate were a nice touch back in Tromsø at 02:00, the hot buffet at 23:30 was sublime. Bedtime.
Set to sail at 15:00 with the wind blowing and snow falling, I didn't have much time except to wander out and catch some shots of "Black Watch", I had spent the morning photographing her interiors which explains why many of the people in my photos are missing. They're on tour. Our sail-away in the snow was memorable as we headed south through the channels of Hurtigruten safe from the North Sea (for the most part) towards Kristiansund, our final port.
Sea days are perhaps my favorite time spent on a ship. One can lose touch with reality particularity with the backdrop of Norway in winter. We would sail through these channels' past town and villages, some with less than 100 residents. Our Captain's home was one of these small village and sailing south, we glided closely past, for the second time, the Arctic marker on Vikingen Island; a monument posted on this tiny island indicating the precise location of the Arctic Circle here:
Our final port of Kristiansund was icing on the cake. The weather turned in our favour and a tour to the Atlantic Road and a 1,000-year-old church (Kvernes Stave) were on the agenda, neither of which disappointed. Water was the subject of the coach ride as a record setting high-tide flooded seaside barns and homes. With sunshine and the crisp clear Norwegian air, the church setting brought a sense of tranquility and serenity. The birds were chirping. You knew, at least I did, we were in the presence of a igher power greater than ourselves. It was one of those moments in life when replayed, life challenges and issues seem to vanish.
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A sunset departure from Kristiansund left me in awe and reignited. My second trip to the Arctic, forth cruise through Norway, the 56th ship I have sailed on, new-found friends and a complement of joyous, happy, and wonderful people particularly the exceptional staff and crew. Just a few of the memories etched in my mind and forthcoming book: "NORWAY, A Photographic Odyssey" representing the 14 ports and seven fjords I have sailed to and through experiencing the most spectacular sights one could imagine. It's why I love Norway and Fred. Olsen cruises. It's all about the journey.
With two days at sea before disembarking in S'hampton, I had ample time to wrap up my picture taking on-board "Black Watch". I'll post a full photographic review of the ship detailing her wonderful elements and expand on the images found in this blog.
I'm a seafarer by default, photographer, and designer and love what I do. Ships and oceanic travel inspire me to further my growth and purpose in life. If you've never been to Norway - go. One of the best sayings I took note of arriving at Heathrow a few years back was
"Never say I should have again..."
Lief Erickson standing guard over "Black Watch" | Trondheim, Norway
FIND YOURSELF, SEEK OUT, AND EMBARK...
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The Book: Launching June 2020
(Click on the book for details)
Featuring Norway + four ships (including Braemar & Black Watch)
and over 12,000 miles sailing to 15 ports and 7 fjords in Norway.