Updated: Jul 18
Testing the waters with Fred Olsen Cruises. WOW!
Here's a YANK's review and photo montage of my captivating first time experience with Fred Olsen Cruises - I was one of about three to four others from the USA...
If you have a liking for anything British, small ships, no crowds (except for the ques at showtime), impeccable service, an array of inviting bright lounges and bars, well-appointed and spacious staterooms, world-class baked goods, a confectioner's dream bar that forces you to have more than one, a dining experience with creative fresh menus and food that is served hot and a wonderfully engaging staff and crew that knows your name after day one, then Fred Olsen is for you. Fred Olsen transforms one back to an era of what cruising once was and does it with class and finesse. It was dejavu - my first cruise was in 1967.
Small ship cruising is all about the intimacy and ambiance where everything is about guest satisfaction - a rarity among the majority of today's ocean going fleet of cruise ships .
Join me on this spring voyage to Norway on Fred Olsen’s Braemar – a stretched (now 25,000-ton) ship with less than 1,000 fellow guests who are, you guessed, primarily British. Fred Olsen’s cruises depart primarily from the UK so there’s a lot of backyard cruisers. Those who hop in their car or rail to the pier the day of the sailing. Not me, I flew in from Miami for the dual purpose of sampling FO and returning to Norway - one of my favorite places on earth.
I like everything British. I also appreciate family run operations since the difference when ownership is directly involved with the day-to-day operation speaks volumes from the moment you step on board. White gloved uniformed staff guide guests to wherever they need to go; the delicately perfumed aroma and flowers wafting through the reception area create an almost dream-like first impression. First impressions are everything and albeit for the hike up about a 30-stair gangway, my first impression was: why did I wait so long to test the Fred Olsen waters?
Simply stated: Fred Olsen operates older ships maintained in pristine condition that deliver unparalleled service. Tens of millions of dollars are spent when Fred Olsen acquires a ship. The brand, fit and fixtures, and product standards in a twenty-plus year older ship are some of the highest caliber I have witnessed. When Fred Olsen acquired Braemar, it is estimated the company invested some $80 million (USD) and stretched her in order to optimize economies, revenues, and efficiencies. On board, there's no smoke and mirrors, no sugar coating. Everything is real and it's really good.
The "stretch" added a second pool and a dramatically large deck space for a 25,000 ton ship. There are sunbeds as well as cozy,casual and comfortable seating areas on the entire topside of the ship - dedicated entirely to open air sunning and relaxation. Well done!
Braemar received new lounges as well as a superbly designed and upscale library along with this "stretch." A second restaurant, "Grampian", was added aft and a necessity since the Braemar's main dining room wouldn’t have been able to accommodate the increase in capacity. Grampian is a marvel of a venue. High end and spacious with great views aft from the oversize circular, nearly floor to ceiling windows. Entering Grampian compares to many five-star eateries I have dined in anywhere.
Lounges abound from the company's trademark "The Bookmark Café " to a very unobtrusive and serene library to "The Observatory Bar" above the bridge...
At night, there’s classical music in the "The Bookmark Café" (Fred Olsen’s classy coffee and tea bar) and a solo country-type singer in the Morning Light Club. “The Observatory.” unlike many lounges on other ships forward and above the bridge was nearly packed every night. It’s one of the nicer topside lounges on ships I’ve sailed on. Soft notes from the piano add a touch of elegance and sophistication to this attractive and popular spot. During the day, the views over the bow are commanding.
This was an eight-day cruise to Norway departing from Southampton. It was an overcast 18th of May. We untie and head out for our sail through River Itchen up through the English Channel for a day at sea and our first port; Kristiansand, followed by Oslo, Arendal and Eldfjord. Heading back to Southampton for two days at sea, a cruise through Lysefjord was clearly one of the if not the highlight of the journey. As a photographer, I captured some of the most inspiring and captivating landscape images ever. It’s all in the timing.
From quiet Arendal (seldom visited by cruise ships) to Pulpit rock; Lysefjord, Fred Olsen knows Norway like no other. It's all in a name.
A few key observations which define Fred Olsen’s relentless pursuit to satisfy and deliver a unique and impressive onboard experience included a problem with my stateroom forcing a move. Within one hour a bellman had transferred my belongings; a bottle of wine (nice, but I'm a non drinker) was delivered followed quickly by a note on my door from Guest Services asking if the arrangements were satisfactory, apologizing for the dilemma. These little notes are the trick. Anytime you call reception with an issue, a question, or a problem (if you encounter one) a personalized note is on your door ensuring that a resolution was satisfactory, or the issue was resolved signed by a staff member. Who does this? Fred Olsen. It’s all about the details.
I also appreciated the printed surveys delivered to the staterooms after each port visit. They are called “Destination Survey”…did it meet your expectation?...did it leave a memorable experience?...and so on. This is important since they compile details about each guest’s experience whilst fresh in the mind right after the ship sails from the port. Not a week later or when you get home. Fred Olsen knows their guests like life-long friends.
The “Daily Time’s” found each evening on one’s bed features the next day’s activities. Again, Fred Olsen knows its guests. Ports tours, Church services, seminars and concerts are scheduled throughout the day, every day, as well as presentations by speakers the company transitions between ships. The British love their shows and the line (que) begins a good thirty-minutes prior to the start of each of them – every evening. With 900 guests on board and a forward theater/show lounge that accommodates about half that, the line seems endless sending guests well into the two lounges aft of the theater. Always packed if you arrive late it’ll be standing room only. By the way, the shows are solid performances by dancers, comedians, and vocalists. The second smaller show lounge (Coral Club) caters to those who want a less formal production and want to get out and dance. There was a duo from the UK and a singer who grabbed the audience each night he performed.
Dinners in the main dining room (Thistle) at a table for eight facing the wash from the stern's picture windows was bliss. I was immersed with the wake for most evenings. The food is at the top of the industry’s game. Fred Olsen knows ingredients and provisions the ships from reliable quality vendors (I suspect.) The soups and starters were simple yet presented artistically. Salads were fresh and crisp, and the mains typically included two fish entrees (it’s a Norwegian company, right?) Liver for the British was common, and the beef was tender and aged well. Most notably, every dish that was meant to be served hot was exactly that and always delivered by a commanding wait staff. Featured daily was a savory “British Dish of the Day” such as chicken leek and ham pie or bangers and mash.
Sadly, this is one cruise my weight went north. The deserts on this ship are insane thanks to the fine bakery on board. The baker is a magician. It wasn’t just the bread or deserts at dinner. Lunch time presented some irresistible choices and no sooner, thanks to the British, there’s tea at 3:45PM served around the ship with, yes, more tasty treats. For serious tea takers, spend a bit extra for the enhanced event up in The Observatory.
The Palm Court is the ship's buffet and while not enlarged during the ship’s stretch, it was never overcrowded to my surprise. Fred Olsen serves its passengers well and it’s evident many prefer dining in either Grampian or the MDR. Again, even the food in the buffet is creative, extremely well presented, and HOT!
Braemar is a fascinating little gem. The ship boasts a wraparound promenade with access to the bow (when cruising in fjords) and a four-story atrium. Find these attributes on a ship under 30,000 tons and I’ll send you a quid. The added lounges, extended pool deck with two pools with a great outdoor ambiance, observation deck above The Observatory and bridge plus a tiered fantail few ships feature today are all a bonus. I’ve sailed on over 50 ships, 150 cruises and crossings and Fred Olsen and Braemar take the cake for one of my top ten experiences on a cruise placing Braemar as one of my favorite ships of all times. I respect what cruising is today.
My first cruise was in 1967. I've sailed on 160,000 ton gigaships with 5,000 other fine people and it's all good. However, if you're looking to set the clock back, or discover for the first time where this massive industry came from, how it all started - sample a small ship cruise. In my world of ships, size does not matter. Not an easy decision but one with merit and highly deserving.
While Fred Olsen’s cruise ticket prices at first glance may appear a bit higher than average, the cost is seemingly offset by lower than industry rates for ancillary items including WIFI, drinks, laundry, spa services and port tours. Less than what one would pay on a mainstream or premium cruise line for those incidentals which can add up - significantly.
ELEMENTS OF BRAEMAR
Are there any cons? A few and by design only, Deck Six which has a large portion of exterior nicely appointed staterooms have obstructed views meaning you’re looking out at a lifeboat or tender. Some are semi-obstructed, a few are not - not uncommon for most ships. The rest of the ship’s staterooms feature large picture windows and ample storage. There are a limited number of suites with balconies since the ship was built in the early nineties. Several were added during the stretch as well a couple of balcony suites for singles – nice touch. Fred Olsen favors singles seemingly more than other lines by offering several categories of staterooms for those traveling solo such as myself. I’m a paying passenger so no bias here.
Some final thoughts. In Oslo, I joined a "RIB" high speed ride through Oslofjord to the seasonal residence of the Olsen Family. The home, plus very well curated museum featuring the history of the company (back to its roots as a merchant sailing venture in the 1800's) are the highlights but as much as the tranquility of the place - perched above the waters of Oslofjord, it sets one in a trance even as local workers renovate and restore some of the local historic homes.
"Today, the Olsen companies are as diverse and unique as its owners. Since they branched out into renewable energy in the 1990s, Olsen’s companies have invested more than $1 billion in wind power. Olsen is now the biggest independent, meaning non-utility, provider of wind electricity in Britain. His principal crusade is protecting the Arctic from the drilling and shipping traffic that fracture the polar icecap." (Fortune Magazine.) Learn more about this family and their operations, principles and aspirations and you'll be re-markedly inspired and intrigued. Where's the book? Evidently, the Olsen's are quiet people, but not in the way Daughter Anette and Fred Jr. present and operate their small cruise line. Clearly, they have set a standard which few in the industry match.
The family's presence and passion is everywhere on board and nearly flawless evidenced for example by senior Olsen's choice of art, somewhat old world in nature while the younger Olsen's selection is more modern and contemporary - all sprinkled about in lounges, hallways and stairwells in a museum-like fashion throughout the ships of Fred Olsen Cruises.
If there were any missteps during my eight days aboard Braemar, they weren't worth accounting for or simply worthless - out-shadowed by the wonderful experience I had sailing with Fred Olsen Cruises for the first time. From the nearly invisible well-mannered stewardesses who tidy up the staterooms to the masterfully trained staff and crew, I have no complaints except for the weather at times (misty and damp.) Ah, but that’s a British thing.
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P.S. If you've never been to Norway, GO !!!
Never again say "I Should have..."
(...and sail with Fred Olsen - they know the place, well)
More photos loading soon...on BRAEMER's SHIP page...