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Mervyn Hancock

Age: 58

Occupation:Travel Writer

Number of Cruises: 16

Cruise Line: Fred Olsen Cruises

Ship: Boudicca

Sailing Date: September 29th, 2001

Itinerary: Baltic to Russia

Some of the most beautiful buildings in Europe, the world’s worst traffic jams and a lot of Vodka! Mervyn Hancock cruises the Baltic to Russia.

To my shame I had never heard of the Kiel Canal - a stretch of water which connects the North Sea to the Baltic! But then again, neither had most of the 700 passengers on MV Boudicca - the newest addition to the Fred Olsen stable of cruise ships.

All we did know was that some 1500 or so miles from Dover was the Russian city of St. Petersburg, and to reach it would take five days of steady sailing, with calls into Warnemunde, Germany, and Tallinn, Estonia, before we reached it.

I was amazed at the number of West Country people onboard this adventure to the other side of the former Iron Curtain - a butcher from Bristol, lawyer from Bath, a party of 10 pensioners from Somerset, and a couple from the Forest of Dean taking a break from making steam engines! A group of 24 would-be artists from Wiltshire were taking advantage of the “Art” theme of the cruise, and spending much of their time practicing water colors.

Unlike many of the larger cruisers, where passengers romp around huge sports areas, climb artificial mountains or even use the onboard skating rink, Fred Olsen provides a more gentle way of traveling the world, and the majority of customers are British. Indeed one evening is a dedicated “British Night” where everyone dons red, white and blue, joins in robust singing of old favorites, and enjoys fish and chips or steak and kidney pie!

The Boudicca is the sister vessel to the Olsen flagship, Black Watch, and until another ship - The Balmoral - is launched into service in 2008, is the biggest of the fleet. But with cabins for 839 and a crew of 320, it is still dwarfed by the majority of the new breed of super cruisers.

Cabins range from the least expensive inside selection to suites with their own balconies - but the great thing is that everyone shares in all the facilities of the ship, no matter how much you pay.

On Boudicca that includes three restaurants and an outside snack bar, well designed bars, which double as a theatre and dance area. There is also a library, internet room, card room, and small - but adequate - casino area.
Swimmers were also pleased that, despite the inclement weather, two pools were kept at over 34C for almost the entire voyage. An attentive staff provide fairly gentile games during both port and sea days, and of course there are organized tours when the ship reaches port.

At the end of the Keil Canal we found the wonderful town of Warnemunde - for most passengers the best stop on the entire trip. Dozens of stalls were set up with an array of fresh fruits, meats and sausages, together with fish being smoked on the spot, giving off pungent, and mouth watering aromas. Local bars and restaurants were inexpensive too, and those who ventured out of town on trips probably wished they had stayed.
Probably the low prices in this former military area, where the Germans launched many of their flying bombs during World War Two, added to the shock of shopping experiences in all of our other shore excursions. To put it mildly, prices were fairly horrendous! Even in Tallinn - the capital of the former Soviet run Estonia - rated as expensive as England. And there were more surprises to come. St Petersburg - Russia’s second city - doesn’t disappoint anyone with its magnificent churches, museums and fine buildings. But Russian bureaucracy begins from the moment you arrive in the city, with prices for visas to set foot on solid ground from the ship costing £75 per person.
Most chose the alternative, organized tours - using the ship’s visa included in the price - but these were marred by frightening traffic jams throughout the city, which sometimes meant an hour or more sitting in a coach to travel two or three miles.

There are plenty of shops, which are very expensive, and locals who seem to have thousands of Russian dolls and hats to sell. Unfortunately most of them are mass produced in factories, while the real ones cost a small fortune. We saw one small enameled box with a £7,000 price tag!

Some passengers did have a great time at the Ballet, and those who visited the palaces ands churches were impressed with the décor - but not the queues.

Boudicca spent two days in St Petersburg, and although it is well worth one visit, I don’t think anyone would hurry back there until the Russians sorts out its traffic and tourist facilities.

The next call on the itinerary was Klaipeda, Lithuania - a pretty city with interesting shops and lovely buildings and churches in the old part. We missed our next port of Karlskrona, Sweden, because the local pilot advised the captain that it was too windy to tender passengers to the shore. But that gave an unexpected bonus of extra time in Copenhagen, Denmark, where Boudicca docked in a brand new area for cruise ships, almost in the city centre, and with some excellent shopping right on the quay.

The country’s most famous symbol - The Little Mermaid - was just 100 meters away, and everyone was surprised at how small it really is. This truly is a beautiful city, and most people spent the day window shopping and visiting some of the excellent parks and museums.

The final port before our return to Dover was Oslo in Norway, where we were told the average wage is £28,000 per annum. And, oh boy do you need to earn some cash there! A pint of beer costs around £7, coffee £4 and a modest lunch £10. But with the ship providing an abundance of free food it was possible to walk the few hundred yards to the city, enjoy the sights, and then eat and drink onboard.

That’s the true advantage of cruising - your own floating hotel, where you can relax between forays into exciting new countries, and enjoy breakfast, mid-morning snacks, lunch, afternoon tea, a five course dinner, and midnight buffets - all included in the price. On Boudicca there was also free snacks available in the privacy of your cabin, and tea and coffee making facilities.

Onboard drinks prices were good too, around £2-35 for a pint of beer or a generous shot of spirit, a fabulous range of inexpensive wines, and cheery crew members to serve them.

My balcony cabin had a bathtub and shower, two small, single beds which had been pushed together to make double, and which, quite frankly, were not very comfortable. A double settee, armchair, dressing table and wardrobes left plenty of space to move around, and because we were on Deck 8 it was extremely peaceful, even when the engines were running.

Fred Olsen probably has the highest number of return passengers in the cruising world - many onboard Boudicca were on their fourth or fifth voyage with the company.  You do get three or more formal nights - depending on the length of the cruise - where gentlemen are encouraged to wear dinner suits, or at least a smart two piece suit, and the ladies have a chance to show off their finery. I didn’t like the idea of splitting the main dining room into two, and at times the buffet area was chaotic. But generally the food was excellent in both choice and presentation, and even at breakfast you could get a freshly cooked full English if you were prepared to wait. This was my fifth Olsen cruise, and like the others I would certainly book again. The smaller ship, The Braemar, is still my favorite, although I do look forward to the arrival of The Balmoral in 2008.

Mervyn Hancock and his wife Sue spent 13 nights on Fred Olsen Cruises ship Boudicca on a themed voyage called “Baltic Adventurer.” Their balcony suite on the Bridge Deck will cost £3198 per person for the same trip next June or £2994 per person next September. But prices start from £1287 per person for an inside, twin cabin. All cabins include food and port taxes.

 

 

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