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Mervyn Hancock

Age: 59

Occupation:Travel Writer

Number of Cruises: 17

Cruise Line: Fred Olsen Cruises

Ship: Black Watch

Sailing Date: February 26th, 2007

Itinerary: Western Caribbean

A group of Somerset card players were in full voice! Dedicated Bridge players during the day, they were now celebrating the 60th birthday of one of their number, with the help of around 15 Filipino and Indian waiters - brandishing a guitar and tambourine, and having some difficulty getting their tongues around the strange, English Christian name. Delivering birthday cakes, anniversary wishes and around 2,000 meals each day is all part of the routine for the crew onboard Fred Olsen’s flagship, MV Black Watch - but to delighted passengers each delivery seems to have a personal touch, earmarked especially for them.

Arthur Organ and his wife Sally had the dubious honor of being in the cabin opposite me and my wife Sue! One of the newly added balcony suites, which came with a comfortable bedroom, sitting area, veranda, and bathroom complete with two sinks a tub and shower.

Sue and I had hopped on the Black Watch in Dubai for the final leg of the vessel’s journey around Africa, and our 25 night cruise would take us back to Southampton via Oman, Jordan, Egypt, Crete, Malta, Spain - passing through the famous 101 mile long Suez Canal.

Most of the 700 or so passengers being tended by 300 enthusiastic crew members were British, though a handful of Americans had joined the ship for its full 107 night journey, and declared the whole experience to be “AWESOME!!”

That means it was pretty good, and the Olsen company - which specializes in voyages to interesting and far flung ports which many of the bigger liners can’t reach - was delivering its promise of a more traditional and up-market approach to sailing the Seven Seas.

With the advent of more and much bigger cruise ships being launched around the world, many companies are filling cabins by lowering standards - especially when it comes to the dining experience. So-called “freestyle cruising” usually means you can turn up for meals when you want, and in a pair of shorts if you are too lazy to put on trousers or a dress.

The Black Watch dining areas were casual places for the hearty breakfasts and four course lunches - but in the evening, dress codes were in place, which created a more pleasurable ambience, and gave the ladies ( and gentlemen) a chance to show off their finery. Especially during formal nights, when smart suits or dinner jackets were demanded.

Olsen is now using Monarch Airlines to convey guests from British airports to the ship, and I was delighted to discover that this charter airline is beginning to realize that they are conveying humans rather than sardines. As well as Premier Class, which offers wider seats and more legroom, the company has started to remove rows of seats in economy, giving those vital extra inches for people to at least get their legs to fit into the available space.
We only managed a brief stay in Dubai, which seems to be a permanent building site, and visited the array of shops which are sandwiched between mushrooming hotel developments.

I had last visited our next port of call, Fujairah, overlooking the Gulf of Oman, with the Royal Air Force during the first Gulf War, and things looked much the same - a country filled with hardy people waging their own daily battles against Mother Nature, amidst sand dunes and steep mountains.

Oman is a Biblical country, and the source of frankincense - the pungent offering made to Christ by the Three Wise Men. We actually saw one tree, in the middle of the desert - but were told that the climate is perfect for growing them, and products are exported all over the world.

The highlight of our cruise was a 13 hour return journey from Safaga in Egypt to the famous Valley of the Kings. Through the country’s busiest city, Luxor, you make your way to an area which resembles one of the quarries in the Mendip Hills back home, and then to an amazing array of caves, which were carved into solid rock by the ancient Egyptians, as a final, secret resting place for their kings.

Not such a well kept secret though! Traitorous workers are believed to have sold the secret of the hidden tombs almost before the dust could settle. The result was that all of them were plundered, the treasures removed, and modern visitors see a spectacular feat of engineering, wonderfully decorated walls and ceilings - but vast, empty spaces.

We managed brief visits to three tombs - you are not allowed to dilly dally because apparently human visitors increase moisture levels, which damages the décor! Cameras were banned for similar reasons - although a few, well placed dollars would ensure that the security guards would look the other way.

The tomb of the famous boy King, Tutankhamen, was closed - until another fistful of dollars opened the gate to allow the curious a quick glimpse of the empty interior.

Luxor is not only the gateway to historic Egypt - with hundreds of river cruisers offering trips up and down the Nile - but also offers a lush, green contrast to the surrounding desert. The Egyptians are fully aware of the problems caused by terrorists, who recently launched attacks on tourists, and visitors travel in convoys of coaches, each guarded by an armed policeman, and there are regular checkpoints with menacing gun turrets to discourage any would-be attackers.

On to Jordan where we managed an illicit visit to the Palace of the late King Hussein. A sandy colored complex, near the Iraq, Israeli and Saudi borders, it is heavily guarded by soldiers who remonstrated with our taxi driver for bringing infidels to this forbidden area. Many of our fellow passengers took a 10 hour trip to Petra, an area frequented by Dorset soldier, Lawrence of Arabia, which provided a backdrop to the film of the same name, as well as Indiana Jones.

Sharm El Sheik in Egypt is a holiday resort much loved by British tourists, who appear to be happy to stump up £5 a day to sit on the beach, or try out some of the hubble-bubble pipes offered in the Bedouin-style cafes and restaurants. As temperatures soared into the high 80s we retreated to our ship and a lunch of cold lobster salad.

For many of the older passengers, the long voyage through the Suez Canal to Port Said was a trip down memory lane. Old soldiers and sailors recalled serving in the armed forces during the Suez crisis, when the canal was closed, and almost sparked World War Three. Today it is still heavily guarded on the desert side, while on the other bank the developers have moved in and houses and towns are springing up.

Onboard the Black Watch the deck nine fish and chip shop was doing brisk business, while bar staff delivered inexpensive beers and wines to quench desert thirsts. Some people just couldn’t leave their games of Bridge - a game with an amazing following among the cruisers!

Back in the Mediterranean the weather cooled, although Spring was beginning to arrive, and we called into Crete, Malta and Cartagena, Spain, before heading across the - surprisingly well-behaved - Bay of Biscay to home.
Cruising is a thoroughly enjoyable way of spending a holiday - a floating hotel which really is home from home. Depending on the cabin you choose, it has also become very affordable, considering you get all your food included in the price, together with entertainment and lashings of sea air.

Olsen has a fleet of four ships - The Black Watch, Black Prince, Braemar and Boudicca - and a fourth , the Balmoral, setting sail for 2008. It is not the luxury end of the market and lacks the razzamatazz of the big American ships. But for me it provides the perfect setting - peace and quiet and few children - for a relaxing and adventurous break.

Mervyn Hancock and his wife Sue sailed on the Black Watch for a 25 night cruise. Prices started at £2508 per person for a twin, inside cabin. That included flights from Gatwick to Dubai, all food and entertainment onboard. Allow for extra costs for drinks, laundry, excursions and gratuities.

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