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Ian Hourston

Age: 74

Occupation:Retired Medical Practitioner

Number of Cruises: 3

Cruise Line: Fred Olsen Cruises

Ship: Black Prince

Sailing Date: June 10th, 2006

Itinerary: Baltic

My view of Black Prince can't help but be colored by two strokes of luck. One: the weather was simply beautiful throughout our cruise. Two: while the cruises immediately before and after ours were hit by the Norwalk virus gastroenteritis bug, ours wasn't - except to the extent that we lost a day, and one port of call, through the extra time needed to deep-clean the vessel before sailing (for which we were amply compensated financially by the cruise-line.

Four things attracted me to the ship. I had seen Black Prince several times, since my home county is on one of her regular itineraries, and I liked her rather old-fashioned looks; the National Trust for Scotland called her 'the friendliest ship afloat'; she was bound for an area my partner and I had for long wanted to visit; and, most compelling of all, she began and ended the cruise at Leith, within 50 miles of my partner's home.

My previous experience of cruising was limited and of a more specialized kind, so I didn't really know what to expect. Such concerns as I had were to do with engine noise, comfort, cabin space, and whether that 'friendly' reputation would hold up. I needn't have worried. Contrary to some others' experience, we found engine noise was subdued (and soporific at night) even on Marina deck where our cabin was. The bed and fold-down sofa-bed were perfectly comfortable, and the cabin design used space so well we never felt cramped. As for friendliness, it could hardly have been bettered. Friendliness between passengers is probably the norm at sea; the amiability of the crew was the wonderful thing.

The Captain clearly preferred conning his ship to schmoozing with his passengers, and was none the worse for that. He wasn't entirely at home in the English language - and as a Norwegian, why should he be? Nevertheless his welcoming and farewell cocktail parties went off very well. The fact that Black Prince was an efficient ship, slipping into and out of her berths and proceeding without noise or fuss, was rather more important.

The rest of the ship's company - said to embrace 16 nationalities but largely Philipino and Thai - were equally beyond reproach. Their ability to multi-task was amazing. You watch a most entertaining theatre troupe (American and British) on your first night on board, then find them efficiently conducting your boat drill next morning. Your beautiful barmaid, performing a traditional Thai dance in the staff concert, is back in uniform serving your late-night drinks minutes later. A stocky gentleman emerges from the kitchen (which produces first-class food by the way) and blows you away with his great baritone voice, accompanied by the seemingly infinitely versatile 'cocktail' pianist.

The cost of shore excursions has been raised by some critics, and certainly we couldn't claim they're cheap. But our most expensive one - a nine-hour trip in St Petersburg, costing £78 per person - included lunch at a good downtown restaurant, with champagne, vodka and music from a harpist, which in most places would have accounted for half the cost of the whole excursion. Add the delights of the Catherine Palace with its world-renowned Amber Room, the St Peter and St Paul Cathedral, and St Isaac's Cathedral, not to mention 50-odd kilometers of 'touring' in a comfortable coach, and the price doesn't seem unreasonable.

Our experience was almost entirely positive. Repeated outbreaks of Norwalk virus could kill a cruise-ship, or even perhaps a cruise-line, through loss of public confidence. This mustn't happen to dear old Black Prince. Don't let it. It's not the ship's fault. Everyone we spoke to had nothing but praise for the way the crew and the Fred. Olsen company coped with the problem.

My partner and I 'caught the bug' in a different sense. We'll be cruising again before long.


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