Artist, photographer and all-round creative polymath, Paul Joyce, takes on one of cruise culture’s most esteemed trips, the Arctic. But, as with most polar adventures, not everything goes to plan…
Not many ships visit Greenland, certainly not with an itinerary that lasts just short of a full month, crosses the Arctic Circle and visits Norway, the North Cape, Spitsbergen, Iceland and Greenland. This means that the cost factors were comparatively high, and the ship was – at least initially – full to capacity.
Things got off to an inauspicious start after a drive to Tilbury found me and three suitcases (plus numerous other confused passengers besides) on a dockside with no ship in sight. In the event our vessel was stuck at Dover, for reasons I learned later, so emergency coaches had to be quickly ordered amid many hundreds of people asking why they had not been informed of this so that they could have made their way there directly. The subsequent explanation that it was simply not possible to contact everyone at short notice looked all the more half-baked when they had been sending passengers sms texts for some days reminding us all of arrival times and various amenities. A lack of refreshments aside, our more pressing issue in August was the coach driver’s lack of command of the air-conditioning, as one passenger’s plastic walking stick somewhere towards the coach’s rear began to melt. Hardly a fitting introduction to a voyage to the Arctic Circle.
Once the fleet’s flagship, Fred Olsen’s Black Watch is now, clearly, an ageing vessel and one desperately in need of either severe updating, if not a complete refit, or putting out to pasture. The carpets were manifestly ancient and everywhere – corridors and public areas – covered with stains suggesting previous passengers might have expired in places. The staff tried to cope with this on a more-or-less daily basis by soaking them thoroughly then aiming massive blower heaters on them – further compounding the rise in humidity levels for ocean-going in the height of summer.
My cabin – outside, with view – was the size of a cramped prison cell with what seemed to be beds for four. Each inhumanly narrow at no more than 20” wide with two further metal ones slung from the walls, presumably to accommodate a family, and reminiscent of primitive holiday conditions more suited to Butlins in the ’50s. The aforementioned outside view was provided by two (I assume) original portholes bolted shut, if not sealed so judging by the rust on the outside. I asked for a change of room, for which I was fully prepared to pay additionally if necessary, but none was available, and I was not informed of any subsequent vacancy in spite of passengers leaving throughout the voyage. The walls were not well soundproofed and a noisy party next door allowed me to participate in most conversations, should I have chosen to.
Here I must introduce another cautionary note: this cruise is adult only and attracts a comparatively aged group of guests. Indeed, I think the average age was well over pension age, and to be amongst such a group was certainly a double shock; firstly, in the realization that oneself is now probably perceived as an “older person” but, secondly, as to how infirm many of the passengers are. Imagine wheelchairs, walking frames, and many with sticks struggling in the public areas, particularly in rougher seas. I was unable, amongst the 750 or so guests on board, to spot anyone under the age of 50: the downside of a combination of destination, price, length of voyage and ‘adults only’ appellation.
As for Black Watch’s onboard attributes, the food was reasonably good but, on sea days, always taken in very crowded conditions. Entertainment varied in execution with an enthusiastic troop of young dancers who barely, if understandably, mixed with passengers unless obliged to (on Captain’s Cocktail Night), a good trio, an excellent guest violinist and a commendable pianist for the lounge areas.
One thing I have noticed with Fred Olsen is that extras such as photography packages are increasingly ‘pushed’ at guests, as are future cruises with added discounts and inducements. I suppose people fall for these ploys or else there would be much less activity of this sort, but it is a very unwelcome part of the Olsen cruise experience, in my opinion.
What is also unclear is precisely what is covered by such things as the ‘£10 per day drinks package’ – rather, it is unclear to the bartenders. This, dear reader, requires retelling. When I challenged a bogusly-billed Bloody Mary at Guest Services one afternoon it evolved into a dramatic encounter enjoyed by many staff and guests. In transpired that while ‘house spirits’ were included in the £10 package, the Bar Manager was called to explain that a Bloody Mary was a cocktail requiring ‘expert preparation’, hence the charge. When I explained that I had been making them for years simply by putting these ingredients together, I was repeatedly told, again and again, that it was classed by Olsen’s as ‘a cocktail’.
When I further suggested this should have been made clear by the bar staff and that I considered £8 a little excessive for six drops of Worcester sauce a guest listening nearby remarked, “Do be nice!” “That’s all very well, madam,” I countered, “but it is not your bill that’s been docked twenty-four quid!” Having pulled more teeth than most of the guests possessed, I was eventually promised a complete refund and left the scene through a wave of clapping from excited and supportive passengers. Fletcher Christian undoubtedly had an easier time of things cleaning decks on the Bounty than tackling Guest Services on Black Watch.
The departure from Greenland and the subsequent 3-4 days at sea proved a terrific strain both on the inner resources of the ship and the passengers, many of whom did not cope well with rocky conditions. It was, I later learned, due to engine problems resulting from a fire on a previous voyage (and which accounted for our alternative departure point). With speed reduced to approximately 8 knots (from 14 knots), thereby prolonging our sentence at sea, to compound matters the ship began a series of circular manoeuveres transmitting a much greater degree of motion on board, sending many passengers to their cabins. Frustratingly, to keep schedule, we steamed rapidly past the Faroe Isles, which seemed to me to be madness given that everyone was begging for a break from the lengthy sea days, and many would have given their high teeth for the chance to stretch their legs on dry land.
From the reactions I canvassed from many guests, most thought well of the cruise and enjoyed much of the itinerary, although quite a few criticized the cost of many of the shore excursions, which were all extras to the original cost. A mandatory £90 for a ‘guided’ 2-mile walk on one of the islands, for example, otherwise easily accessible from the ship on one’s own, and therefore unguided and potentially cost-free.
At this juncture you might be asking what this cantankerous old grouch was doing on the ship in the first place. I went for three reasons: Icelandic waterfalls, Greenland icebergs, and to complete the draft of a novel in inspiring and romantic circumstances. Frankly, I was not too interested in local craftsmen weaving winter apparel from seal dung, or whatever regional materials they use. So this made my reasons for travelling quite specific and probably unusual. But for those in general I noticed a measure of ‘British stiff-upper lip-ness’ which, I have to say, I admired, but did not feel obliged to participate in.
The woes, sadly, continued; the cabin TVs looked like something out of Crossroads [a reference to a dated soap opera, for our younger readers]circa 1960 and performed about as well. Internet access was unreliable at best and, naturally, very expensive, and I insisted of refunds of £41 and £13 respectively for connection to the server but thereafter not to the internet itself. If few other passengers complained then someone was making a bucket load of cash out of this failed service. I resigned to waiting for a port day and connecting to wi-fi in a local café for cost of a coffee (if often entirely free). There are, really, some elementary lessons for service provision here, and I do hope Olsen, hitherto very high on my performance scale, remedy many of what now should be simple and standard offerings for what is, often, a once-in-a-lifetime trip.
If you require dance lessons, kindergarten craft and art classes, basic lectures on ports of call, geology, being sold overpriced jewelry and branded goods, expensive snaps of your voyage et al, then this might be the trip for you. But, much as it pains me to say, as I have travelled in the past with Olsen, enjoyed many a trip, and have a soft spot for Fred Senior’s determination to continue with his pet loss-leader, this one is not for me, not again – not even with the 5% plus 4% plus 5%-off special offers I was frequently presented with.
For more information about Fred Olsen Cruises, including 2017 and 2018 schedules, offers and packages, departure ports and ideas on ‘different ways to cruise’, visit www.fredolsencruises.com.
Photos by the author