My wife, Laurel, and I were objects of curiosity, even puzzlement, as we sailed on the Black Watch.
“How did you know about this ship?” Esther asked on this, the first of the five nights of our July cruise from Liverpool, England, to the “Scottish Lochs, Highlands and Islands,” as it was called. She and Craig, her traveling companion, were seated at the table next to ours in the Glentanar Restaurant, the ship’s main dining room.
Good question. The Black Watch, named after a Scottish infantry regiment, is elderly by cruise standards. It was built in 1972 as the Royal Viking Star, and though Norwegian-owned, the clientele is “veddy, veddy British.” Of the 695 passengers on our voyage (standard occupancy is 799), only three were Americans. We never did meet the third.
But we had sought the ship specifically for its traditional look and feel. In many ways, it is a throwback. When built for the Royal Viking Line, it was the crème de la crème of cruise ships, and with multiple refits over the decades, it has aged gracefully.
On a dreary, drizzly afternoon in Liverpool, the Black Watch slipped its lines, swung out into the Mersey, and headed for the Irish Sea and our brief Scottish adventure.
The “Three Graces” — the Royal Liver Building, Cunard Building and Port of Liverpool Building — presided over our departure, a marvelous cityscape that has been doing that for Liverpool shipping for more than a century.
The day’s clouds would follow us north to Scotland, though the rain mostly stayed put.
“You’re not from around here,” a man next to me at the railing observed as he pointed out the shore-side sights. Our accents gave us away again and again, but we were always made to feel welcome.
Dinner conversations with Esther and Craig — as 40-somethings, they were at the young end of the ship’s demographic—educated us on Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines, which dates to 1848 when Fredrik Christian Olsen founded it with a pair of small sailing ships. The company operates the Black Watch and three other heritage vessels.
The Black Watch is not for everyone, and those accustomed to typical ships cruising in the American market could be disappointed. Evening shows in the Neptune Lounge (decidedly not a theater) by an engaging young company of singers and dancers are unmistakably low tech, though entertaining.
“Casino closed,” a sign read, because technically we never left Britain. Had the ship ventured into international waters, the green covers would have come off the two tables — all there was of the casino. It was in a small annex of the cozy Bookmark Café, which contained a small but well-chosen library. We would go there for our wake-up cappuccinos. (Brits being Brits, the coffee we ordered delivered to our cabin the first morning tuned out to be packets of Nescafé and hot water.)
Contemporary cruisers expect cabins with twin beds that can be configured as a king. On the Black Watch, the beds in our cabin, a modestly priced ocean view with two portholes, were deployed L-shaped and fixed. The well-organized and attractively decorated stateroom was close to everything. Of course, on a ship this size, most cabins are.
Our first day aboard featured a sail-around of Fingal’s Cave on Staffa, a small, uninhabited island part of the Inner Hebrides, while Mendelssohn’s “Fingal’s Cave Overture” played over the public address system. This was a low-key day, ideal for exploring a ship new to us and sizing up cocktail venues, dining options and preferred spots on deck.
For cocktails, we settled on the Observatory, high and forward, for views and pleasant piano. For dinners, we stuck with Glentanar. For decks, it was the open, walk-around promenade, tables outside the Lido Lounge, and a few private, out-of-the-wind nooks we discovered.
Kirkwall, on one of the Orkney Islands to the far north of Scotland, was our first port. As would be the case with the next two ports, the ship offered a variety of tours (at an additional cost). Nothing wrong with these, but we preferred to venture on our own. We walked first to the working harbor, then through the town’s winding streets — quiet because it was Sunday, which meant that the Orkney Museum and some shops were closed.
Focus on food
Meals on the Black Watch were as important as they are on other cruise ships. There were even “midnight buffets” from 11 p.m. to midnight — Irish, Indian, Scottish, American or Western Supper Club, depending on the night — a tradition generally abandoned by other lines.
Because we were at a 8:30 sitting for dinner, we weren’t tempted. The Black Watch Room, the elite dining experience with an attractive menu, was intimate and handsomely furnished, but we were satisfied with the Glentanar Restaurant and chose to save the $26-per-person fee.
At breakfast and lunch in Glentanar, we could order from the menu or browse an extensive buffet, or both. On the one “sea day” with everyone aboard, lunch was a bit frantic, but otherwise serenity reigned
Our five Glentanar meals ranged from disappointing (only one) to superb, and the stewards for our table were skilled and gracious. The worst, to quote Laurel’s diary: “dry salad Nicoise, boring pork, gummy orange crème brûlée.” The best came at the gala dinner: shrimp with lobster mousse, lobster bisque (can’t get enough lobster), salmon on asparagus risotto. Other excellent entrees: sliced lamb loin and pork belly.
Other than the ship itself — its size, its traditional layout of decks, public rooms, and cabins, its plethora of outdoor spaces — what we will remember most is Tobermory, the picture-postcard yet not precious port on the Isle of Mull.
It was an “anchor port,” ideal because the tendering logistics were excellent. Bright, multi-colored buildings (typical of other northern places we’ve experienced, such as Greenland, Norway, and Alaska) ringed the harbor.
After a tour of the Tobermory Distillery (capped by drams of its two single-malt scotches, one peaty, one milder), we lunched on cullen skink, a delicious smoked haddock chowder that’s a local specialty, in front of the fire in the pub at the Mishnish Hotel on the harbor. Then we took a walk that offered us a chance to admire the lovely lines of the Black Watch from ashore. This reminded us how happy we’d be to be back aboard.
The sea, the ship and the striking vistas of lochs and islands were what we’d wanted—and what we found. The last evening, sailing from Greenock, the final port, was especially exquisite: sun-drenched, verdant shores and cobalt seas as we steamed down the Firth of Clyde.
As we basked at a table aft of the Lido Lounge, we toasted two Fred. Olsens, the founder and the current chairman: “Skoal!”
If you go
Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines specializes in small-ship cruising, with four ships, all traditional, and itineraries that span much of the world. On Aug. 21, the Black Watch will make a cruise nearly identical too ours, and about that time two eight-day Scotland cruises.