Friends know I have always wanted to go to sea. My dad was a Chief Officer in the Merchant navy and as a child I wanted to follow his footsteps . . . as a ship’s cook. Life took a different turn but the initial desire remained unchanged. I had reservations about ‘cruising’ – some of which were confirmed, but being now too old to cut the mustard in a ship’s galley it seemed the only way to get the sea out of my system. My dad was on the Atlantic convoys and did the Murmansk run during World War II, so going to Iceland was in a sense a pilgrimage too.
We chose Fred Olsen because ‘The Black Watch’ was a smallish ship with the bonus of starting from and returning to Liverpool. But what was it like? The demographic was a bit on the old side. Walking through the various lounges after or before lunch was – on occasions - like walking through a care home, and many of those sitting there looked like they didn’t have long to go before they were in one for real. An insensitive statement, also a melancholy one since we're all heading in the same direction. It’s a one-dimensional statement too.
One of the great pleasures, I discovered was talking to random strangers. Some were peculiar or boring as hell. Most were fascinating with stories to match, and suddenly age ceased to matter. Having said that, there were an alarming number of ‘Fred Olsen’ obsessives. It would begin with an innocent question: Was this our first cruise? And then you’d catch the missionary glint and within moments you’d hear how wonderful ‘Fred’ was. How this was their ninth or tenth cruise with ‘Fred.’ After a time I had this image of ‘Fred’ as Nordic Colonel Sanders figure, avuncular and benign. I think they probably prayed to him at night.*
Even so, in terms of drawbacks, age wasn’t really a factor, and there was more than a sprinkling of younger people with curious minds.
When we talked about it afterwards, the main reservation proved to be the ‘lack of control.’ The cruise was hassle free with none of the stress of airport travel and nothing at all to worry about, and the Filipino waiters and staff were beyond criticism. They worked twelve-hour shifts at peak efficiency and radiated charm and good humour throughout. Unbelievable.
For the younger ones, it was a way of seeing the world with full board and lodgings, and a tax-free wage they could save or send home. Our waiter was supporting three sons studying computer science, dentistry and medicine, his greatest lament being he only saw them three months a year.
And that in itself was a source of guilt. We’d paid a large sum in advance —one meant to cover all our tips—and yet it didn’t seem large enough. The other source of guilt, which is strange coming from a Catholic, was the relentless consumption of food and drink.
We were always eating, always drinking. Why? Because we’d spent (for us) a king’s ransom on merely being there, as well as on an extra £200 all-inclusive drinks’ package. (You’ll be relieved to know I made £75. 50 profit on that one, though it was hard work and my liver needs time to recover.)
As for the food – huge breakfasts of incredible variety, mid morning tea and biscuits, three course lunches, full mid-afternoon teas with every kind of cake, three course dinners – and for the truly Falstaffian, late night supper buffets ranging from German sausages to Indian curries.
The chart below is a breakdown of the food consumed though, unfortunately, it doesn’t indicate whether it is a daily breakdown or the totality of the 10 day cruise. Either way it confirmed my youthful decision not to follow a career in catering. Too much hard work.
Right, Iceland next week but as a taster the ship berthed at Akureyri – unbelievably Iceland’s largest town after Reykjavik
(The real Fredis fascinating)