Introduction

My first taste of cruising was on board the long-gone, but much loved QE2, more years ago than I care to remember. I had two voyages on board her, to the Norwegian fjords and to the Med. While I could not help being impressed by her grandure and elegance, I found her rather large (despite being small compared to the modern “floating blocks of flats”), and I was always uneasy about the rigid class system on board.

When I resumed cruising a little later, I looked around for smaller, friendlier ships, and tried a week-long cruise back to the fjords on Fred. Olsen’s Black Watch. I found the small ship very much to my liking, being able to reach tiny places at the ends of fjords, and the smaller number of passengers meant places were less crowded or busy, and I stood much better chance of actually meeting the same person twice.

Once hooked, one or two cruises a year followed, gradually increasing in length, and sometimes on the other three ships in Fred. Olsen’s fleet – Boudicca, Balmoral, and Braemar. I saw and photographed many wonderful places around Europe, particularly loving both the coast and fjords of Norway, the highlight was definitely the cruise to Svalbard,  which was stunning in clear blue skies and bright sunshine for all 24 hours of the day.

Move forward 9 years, and I am just starting my 17th cruise on Fred. Olsen ships. Due to changing circumstances I am now very fortunate to be able to take more frequent and longer cruises than ever before. To record all these adventures for myself, and to share them – and some of the photographs I take – with others, I thought it was more than time I started this blog. I hope you enjoy sharing my travels

 

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W1801 – Two sides of a CD

Just a short extra post about life on board ship…

Yesterday afternoon they held a ‘fun and games’ session around the rear swimming pool – free ice cream and some of the Entertainments Team and Show Company played volleyball in the pool:

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Amongst those watching the proceedings was Michelle, our Cruise Director:

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At the end of the match her team ganged up on her and unceremoniously threw her into the pool fully dressed:

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That evening was a formal night, and when Carol and I went up to the dining room we found that our table had an extra place laid up – for the very same Cruise Director, this time looking much more glamorous:

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All in a day’s work for a hard working Cruise Director!

W1801 – Bermuda Shots

In my last post, W1801 – Whether they do, weather they don’t, I described our curtailed visit to the Azores, and how we set sail for Bermuda a day early in order to avoid the worst of an incoming Atlantic storm. Initially the seas were quite lumpy, the skies grey and winds strong, but each day since then the conditions have improved. The Captain kept his foot down as it were, hoping that we would be able to dock in Bermuda late the day before we were originally scheduled to arrive. We were told that due to a narrow and difficult approach to the port we could only arrive in daylight and if the winds were not too strong, and after some careful negotiations with the local authorities the Captain finally announced we would be docking around 5pm a day early as he had hoped.

Bermuda is a British Overseas Territory in the North Atlantic Ocean, located approximately 1,070km east-southeast of Cape Hatteras in North Carolina, and it has a subtropical climate. It’s economy is based on insurance and tourism, and it enjoys one of the world’s highest GDP per capita. Its first capital, St. George, was established in 1612, and the islands became a British colony in 1707. It’s largest town, Hamilton, was established in 1790, and it was named after Governor Henry Hamilton. The colony’s capital relocated to Hamilton from St. George’s in 1815, and Hamilton has been the political and military heart of Bermuda ever since.

Carol and I went up onto the topmost deck to watch us sail into our port, which was the former capital St. George. It was soon very evident why there were the restrictions on sailing into the port, for we had to negotiate a very narrow gap between two islands. As we squeezed our way through, we could see locals gathered on the shore to greet us, including a town crier ringing his hand bell:

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Also clearly visible from the ship were the multicoloured houses everywhere with their smart white-painted roofs – most were lovely pastel shades while a few were more brightly coloured. By the time we reached the quayside, the town crier had made his way there, and he called out a greeting to us all in a loud voice before ringing his bell once more – a lovely welcome to the island:

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St. George is a much smaller and more quaint town than the capital, Hamilton, the latter is where we were originally announced as docking when the cruise was first published. This suited Carol and I fine, and we were keen to get ashore and have a look around as soon as we could, so instead of going to the main restaurant at our allocated time we decided to go ashore first and eat later in the onboard café. By the time we had clearance to go ashore it was dark, and it was good to get a chance to see and photograph our ship lit up at night:

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We enjoyed wandering around the narrow quaint streets, but being a Sunday evening, all the shops were closed. Quite a few fellow passengers as well as crew members had also come ashore, some to look around like us, some to frequent a couple of bars that were open, but many just to find some free WiFi – it seems so sad that for so many people on board the priority on reaching a new port is not to explore it, but due to the extortionate charges on board it is to find cheap WiFi instead.

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The next day we were booked on a 5 hour shore tour called ‘Quintessential Bermuda’, which would take us right around the island. The daily information newsletter tells us what time we need to check in for our shore tours, and we were surprised to see our check in time was later than we expected, so we made a more leisurely start to the day than anticipated. This changed when a tannoy announcement was made that the time printed was incorrect, it should have read 9:05 not 9:55! Fortunately we were able to finish our breakfast and be ready on time, and we soon boarded our 20-seater mini coach for the tour.

Our local guide, Paul, was brilliant. Rather than just recite endless facts, figures and dates, which frankly soon tend to go in one ear and out of the other, he told us about life on the island, with suitable pauses, and he made the whole tour very interesting. An example of this is that he told us that residents are limited to one car per household. Usually it is the wife who uses the car to go to work or the shops and to take the children to school, while the husband uses a motor scooter or motorbike.

Our tour took us along the north coast to Hamilton, then on to the formal Royal Navy dockyards, before returning via a viewpoint at a lighthouse.

We left St. George’s Island and crossed a bridge onto St. David’s Island, which is mainly taken up by the airport – here Paul told us about the new terminal facilities currently under construction. We then crossed a long causeway to the main island – Bermuda Island – and took the road that runs along the north coast. Here Paul kept pointing out the remnants of the old railway line which used to run between St. George and Hamilton – this is now used as a recreational facility for walking and cycling. After a while we arrived at Flatts Bridge, where we stopped for a short photo stop. The water flows very fast under the bridge as the sea flows in and out of Harrington Sound. The Aquarium is located here, and outside this we could view a tank with some very large turtles swimming around. The area looked very attractive with the houses, restaurants and other building gathered around the water:

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We then drove on to the centre of Hamilton, where we were given 30 minutes of free time. Carol and I just walked along the main street for a while, and browsed in a couple of souvenir shops. On the way to Hamilton I had noticed some chickens just wandering beside and across the road, and even in the centre of Hamilton there was a cockerel just strolling along the pavement:

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Leaving the city centre the coach took us past some of the many insurance offices, and past the headquarters of Bicardi Ltd – famous for their rum – before stopping briefly to view the statue of Johnny Barnes, a Bermudian native famous for waving to passing traffic at the Foot of the Lane roundabout in Hamilton from roughly 3:45am to 10am every workday, rain or shine, saying “I love you, God loves you,” to passing commuters. We later made a further short stop to view a clump of huge banyan trees in the grounds of a former residential home, now a park owned by the Bermudan government:

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Reaching the south coast of the island we could see some lovely beaches before making another short stop outside Warwick Camp. Our guide Paul explained that this is where young Bermudans do their compulsory military service – after a two week induction they have to attend one evening a week and one weekend a month – very much part-time service:

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Very soon we passed the sign for Southampton Parish – this caught my eye as for the majority of my life I lived just outside the city of Southampton back in the U.K.. We passed more lovely beaches before making a photo stop at Somerset Bridge, which is reputed to be the smallest drawbridge in the world. Planks just 32 inches wide can be lifted by hand to allow a boat’s mast to pass through the bridge:

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Passing many more churches – Paul said that Bermuda had one of the highest densities of churches in the world – we drove on over the chain of islands out to the former Royal Navy Dockyard located on the north-western-most tip of Bermuda. This has now been converted into a leisure area, with shops, cafes and restaurants, and we enjoyed another 30 minutes of free time here:

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On the return journey back to St George, we stopped briefly outside a typical Bermudan house, where our guide Paul explained how the tiled roofs are sealed with cement and then painted white, and the low angled wall near the edge of the roof channels rainwater into a down-pipe leading to a large tank either beside or below the house. This is the water supply for the house as they are typically not on a mains water system as used in other countries. By now rain had set in, which made photography of the many more lovely beaches that we passed very difficult through the coach windows. We made one last photo stop at a viewpoint next to Gibbs Hill Lighthouse, but the poor visibility spoilt the views:

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Once we returned to the ship, I set out on my own on foot for a short walk around the town as I wanted to get some more photographs, this time in daylight. The inside of St. Peter’s church – reputed to be the oldest Anglican church in the Western Hemisphere – was particularly impressive. There were several other churches to be seen, including an unfinished one:

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I returned to the ship for some much needed refreshments before Carol and I went up on deck to watch us set sail from the beautiful island – definitely on the list of places we might return to one day.

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We were setting sail for what will probably be one of the highlights of this cruise – Cuba – which should be the subject of my next post.

W1801 – Whether they do, weather they don’t

Our first two ports of call on this second Around the World cruise were due to be Ponta Delgada and Horta, both in the Azores. The Azores are located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, much further north than Madeira, which was our first port of call last time around, so it was always going to be questionable whether the weather would allow us to land in these ports safely.

We had quite rough weather as we sailed out into the Atlantic Ocean, and the Captain during his Noon reports warned us that it might not be possible for us to dock, especially as another storm was heading west towards the Azores from Florida.

As things turned out, Tuesday – our day in Ponta Delgada – proved to be favourable, and as strong winds on our stern en route had propelled us along faster, we had a full day in port instead of the planned half day. As we approached the cruise terminal there were a few waves crashing against the shore, but we were soon safely docked, and from the ship the port was looking lovely in the winter sunshine:

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This was Carol’s first visit to the Azores, but I have visited the islands several times before. From Ponta Delgada, located on São Miguel Island, I had twice made tours to see the twin crater lakes at Sete Cidades on previous cruises. While in the right conditions the nearer lake is supposed to look green and the far lake look blue, on both my previous visits the weather was poor and both lakes had just looked grey.

When our coach reached the high viewpoint overlooking the crater and the twin lakes the conditions were much more favourable – the sun was out and the visibility was good. Although the lakes looked much more colourful, we still could not say that they looked to be different colours:

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Our tour coach then took us on to a second photo stop, this time overlooking the green hilly countryside:

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After returning to our ship for lunch, Carol and I set out on foot to explore a little of the town, which is very close to the cruise terminal. We walked past the three arches of the city gates and past the cathedral, before exploring some of the smaller back streets. Here we found a few painted doors, which brought back lovely memories of our first walk together in Madeira to see the numerous painted doors there, although these were not nearly so numerous or so good:

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Before we set sail, the Captain came on the tannoy to announce that our planned visit to Horta the next day was cancelled due to the incoming storm, and that instead we would sail first south then west towards our next port of call, Bermuda.

The following morning the Captain gave us a presentation in the theatre about the weather conditions and why it was necessary to cancel the visit to Horta, which we thought was excellent PR. The Captain said that the winds would have been too strong to dock unaided in Horta, and the only tug boat was broken, so it made it an obvious decision to cancel the visit and use the extra time to head further south away from the storm. He said that at this time of year the chances of docking in the Azores is less than 50%, which makes us wonder why the cruise was scheduled to go to those islands in the first place. He said that at the start of the cruise he did look at going to Madeira instead of the Azores, but there would not have been time to get from there to Bermuda on the appointed day.

Two days on, the sea is still quite lumpy and the winds quite strong, even on the more southern route he selected, so we are quite glad he diverted away from the original route and the storm itself.

W1801 – Oh yes they did!

A couple of nights ago they put on something quite different for the evening show. The Entertainment Team (the folk that do the quizzes, deck games etc) and the singers and dancers that make up the Black Watch Show Company combined forces to put on a pantomime – Snow White. Oh no they didn’t! Oh yes they did!
There were a few things to bear in mind – the stage is quite small and moving around with the motion of the ship, there wasn’t an ounce of scenery, and it’s unlikely that the ensemble had much acting training between them. So, was it a late Christmas turkey, or was it a late Christmas cracker??
Actually it was an absolute cracker, and both Carol and I laughed out loud the most we had done for years. There were plenty of groan-worthy puns and jokes just as you would expect, and also in-jokes about life on board, such a references to the expensive WiFi and Snow White having to use hand sanitiser before picking up and biting the apple. Star of the show was Jack from the Entertainments Team as a very buxom Dame, but the four dwarves (apparently the other three were away doing the quiz) also had us in hysterics trying to walk on and off the stage on their knees in their costumes. Another highlight was four of the characters rushing around the stage to pick up various unlikely collections of objects at the right moment as they sang ‘the twelve days of Christmas’ slightly rewritten to be ‘the twelve days of cruising’. Of course at times lines were forgotten or things went wrong, but in a pantomime that only adds to the fun and inspires some good ad-libbing.

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The following day we talked to some of the Entertainment team to congratulate and thank them, and they said they very nearly didn’t put on the show as some people were worried it was too long after Christmas. Thank goodness they went ahead as it was such a cracking show and really got our long cruise off to a flying start.

W1801 – Around again!

It’s only five days into the new year, and already I find myself writing my first blog entry! It is a very significant one too – for my new wife Carol and I are embarking today on our ‘official’ honeymoon cruise (regular readers may remember that our first honeymoon cruise was in October last year to the Baltic). I met Carol at dinner on the first night of the World Cruise we made between January and April last year, and very soon into the voyage we became good friends, fell in love and became engaged. When it came to selecting our official honeymoon, I said there could only be one choice – another World Cruise – and after at least half a seconds consideration, Carol agreed! So today Carol and I are excited to be re-boarding Black Watch for another cruise all the way around the world!

Once again we are sailing west, across the Atlantic Ocean, through the Panama Canal and across the Pacific, then back home across the Indian Ocean and through the Suez Canal. Although quite a few places and countries are as before, we are very happy to be returning as we get to spend more time there, and in many cases get to do a different shore tour.  Also on the last time around I was unwell in the South Seas and in Australia and was not able to go ashore, so fingers crossed I will get to see these places this time around. There are also a number of new and exciting places to explore – these include Bermuda, Cuba, Mexico, Myanmar, India, Jordan, Turkey, Greece and Italy. Here is a map of our route this time:

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This cruise is for a staggering 108 nights – one night longer than last time – meaning we once again miss all that horrible winter weather in the UK (that’s the third year in a row I will have avoided it!). We won’t be returning to the UK until late April – I know it sounds a great hardship, but well someone has to do it!!

I will be blogging about this cruise for time to time – when I have affordable WiFi – but I hope you will understand that as this is our honeymoon cruise, this will not be a priority for my time, and therefore any posts I make are likely to me much shorter than last year. I will still try to add a good few of my photographs if I can to help you get a flavour of what we are seeing and experiencing out and about.

This cruise got off to a different start – for the first time we travelled for an hour or so up from our marital home in Poole, Dorset, rather than the short local taxi ride from my former home just outside Southampton.

Our first ports of call are in the Azores, after three much needed restful days at sea. I have visited the islands several times before, but this will be Carol’s first time there.

So our secret is now out – we are going all around the world once again! So farewell UK, see you in a few months time.

L1724 – Baltic in style

Introduction

In my last post, M1716/7 – Back-to-back on Braemar, I documented two back-to-back cruises that my fiancée Carol and I took on the Fred. Olsen ship Braemar to the Norwegian Fjords and the German Waterways. This post is to document our latest cruise, which was for 13 nights on the Fred. Olsen ship Balmoral, sailing to five ports in the Baltic Sea, via the Kiel Canal in both directions.

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We do

Regular readers will know that I only met Carol at the start of the Around the World cruise that I took between January and April this year. She was on the same table as me for dinner each night, and over the course of the voyage we first became good friends and then fell very much in love, and secretly we became engaged when I proposed to her under the stars in the South Pacific.

I am thrilled and delighted to reveal that in mid September Carol became my wife at a wonderful ceremony in a beautiful old hotel in her home town, Poole. It was everything we wanted – small & informal, and filled with laughter and joy – just like our lives together. Here are a few of the many wonderful informal photographs taken on the day by Sarah Cotton:

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Being greedy, we are having not one, not two, but three honeymoons! The first, immediately after the wedding, was a few days away in London, partly to see the sights and a show, and partly to get our passports renewed – Carol’s with her new name – which we needed to get done urgently as the then imminent  Baltic cruise involved a port call in Russia, which we knew to be much more strict on immigration than the European countries that we would also be visiting. The second honeymoon was the Baltic cruise, documented in this post, and our third honeymoon will also be a cruise – a very special one – so watch this space!

 

Suite dreams

As this cruise was our honeymoon, we decided to do it in style, so for the first time I stayed in a suite. Not just any suite though – we stayed in the Owners Suite – the largest and most luxurious suite on the ship! Carol had seen inside the suite before when visiting fellow passengers on an earlier cruise, but I had no idea what to expect – I wish someone had been videoing me as I entered the suite for the first time to film my jaw drop to the floor at the size and luxury of it all. There was a living room, with huge dining table, two sofas, two armchairs and other furniture, a separate bedroom with three built in wardrobes as well as a huge double bed, two bathrooms – both with a bath and one with a separate shower, a huge walk-in wardrobe and a simply vast balcony accessed from huge patio doors to both the living room and the bedroom. One of the bathrooms was around the size of the internal cabins I used to stay in, and the whole suite seemed around the same floor area as my house, and would have made a lovely one bedroom apartment on land:

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Left on the dining table were a lovely arrangement of flowers, champagne, a bowl of fruit and canapés – the last two were refreshed late afternoon on each day of the cruise:

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Sailing from Southampton

With so many wardrobes at our disposal unpacking was a bit different – instead of finding places to put things, it was a case of finding things to put in places! All too soon it was time for the regular lifeboat drill prior to departure, after which we went out on deck to watch us set sail:

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Kiel Canal Transit

After a day at sea, the next day was due to be spent in transit of the Kiel Canal, the 98 kilometre fresh water short-cut from the North Sea to the Baltic Sea. We were due to enter the canal around 8am, but very heavy rain in Germany meant that one of the lock gates at the start of the canal was out of operation while the water levels in the canal were corrected. Eventually we entered the canal around four hours late, and not long after we had cleared the entry locks heavy rain set in again, preventing any further photography of our transit:

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Copenhagen

Slightly later than planned the next morning we sailed into our first port of call, Copenhagen, which has been the capital city of Denmark since the early 15th century.

This was the first time that either of us had visited the city, so we had booked to go on a coach tour around its main sights. The first stop was of course it’s most famous attraction, the Little Mermaid, a bronze statue by Edvard Eriksen depicting the fairy tale character created by the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen:

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After another brief photo-stop we reached our main stopping point, Amalienborg, the home of the Danish Royal Family. It consists of four identical classical palace façades with rococo interiors around an octagonal courtyard. In the centre of courtyard is a statue of Amalienborg’s founder, King Frederick V. Here our excellent guide gave us plenty of information about the palaces and their residents – the Queen, and the Crown Prince & his Australian wife. Afterwards he asked us if we knew how he obtained all this information, and then rummaged in his bag to find a copy of “Hello” magazine!

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Our tour continued in the coach around the city – we would have loved to have been able to make a stop at the Nyhavn with its brightly coloured houses along the banks of the canal:

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When our tour returned to the ship I went for a short walk around the port area to photograph more statues that I had observed from the coach:

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We both enjoyed Copenhagen, but felt perhaps it did not quite live up to our expectations, possibly not helped by the indifferent weather we experienced there. Often it seems that we remember one feature as the theme of a port we visit – in this case it was definitely the (mermaid) statues.

 

 

Tallinn

After a further day at sea we reached our second port of call, Tallinn, the capital and largest city of Estonia. It is situated on the northern coast of the country, on the shore of the Gulf of Finland, 80 km south of Helsinki. Tallinn is one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe.

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On this our first visit to the port we had not booked a ship’s tour, instead we just took the shuttle bus into the centre of the town and went walk-about, exploring the beautiful old parts of the town, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was soon obvious what the theme for this port would be – the figurines outside many of the shops:

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We thoroughly enjoyed exploring the old narrow streets with their beautiful old buildings, climbing up to Toompea Hill, which is 30 metres above the rest of the city. Here we saw the amazing Aleksander Nevski Katedraal, as well as stunning views from the city walls:

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After a long walk around the city, we were both glad to be able to sit and rest on the shuttle bus as we made our way back to our ship.

Tallinn is a beautiful and amazing place, and well lived up to its fairytale reputation with its walls, turrets and old buildings.

 

St Petersburg

Very early the next morning we sailed into our third port of call, St Petersburg in Russia, which was for most people on board the highlight of the cruise. I had visited St Petersburg once before, but this was Carol’s first time in the city. When I visited before we moored on the river in the centre of the city – one of the privileges of being on a small ship – but this time we were moored in the cruise terminal out on the edge of the city. What was surprising about this cruise was that we were only in port for one day, usually cruise ships stay for two or three days as there is just so much to see – as shown by the fact that they offered 17 different tours to somehow choose from.

St Petersburg is second-largest city in Russia after Moscow, and is situated on the Neva River, at the head of the Gulf of Finland on the Baltic Sea. It was founded by Tsar Peter the Great on May 27th 1703, and between 1713 & 1728 and between 1732 & 1918 it was the capital of imperial Russia. It is a city of many names – in 1914 the name was changed from St Petersburg to Petrograd, in 1924 to Leningrad, and in 1991 back to St Petersburg.

Like nearly all the passengers on board we had elected to book ship’s tours in St Petersburg to avoid the expense and hassle of obtaining a Russian visa, a requirement if you leave the ship not on an organised tour. We eventually decided to book two tours – an 8 hour tour around the city during the day, then after a short break, a river boat tour in the evening.

For our daytime tour we had an outstanding tour guide – we found out that she also trains other tour guides and it was clear they would be in good hands. One of the features of the tour was to give us an inside into daily life in the city, which we obtained not only from the places we visited such as the Metro and a farmers market, but also from the information the guide told us about her own and her family’s life. An example of this was when she told us about the process of getting a family car under the old communist regime. Her husband had to go to his trade union office to make his application, and before it went forward they looked at his work record, whether either of them had ever spoken out of turn etc – finally they were told that they could expect to receive a Lada car in 17 years time! In reality the communist regime fell long before that date, and they were free to buy a car of their choice when they wanted. She also spent some time contrasting life under the communist regime to the current day – pointing out how while many things are better, not everything is, and how some older people in particular are finding the huge rate of changes difficult to cope with, and therefore they preferred the dependability of the old days.

Fortunately our visit was on a Sunday so the traffic was light, and our coach soon brought us into the city centre. We had a couple of photo-stops and the obligatory stop at a large souvenir shop before we started our exploration of the Metro system. We were issued with a metal token for our journey, and warned about  how deep underground we would be travelling. Many of the Metro stations are richly decorated with marble and polished granite, mosaic pictures, elaborate light fixtures and sculptures, and everywhere was clean and free of litter and graffiti – quite a contrast from the London Underground system we were used to. The first escalator seemed to travel downwards for ever – eventually we reached a platform level only to descend even further on a shorter second escalator.

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The trains are frequent, fast and reliable, and after changing trains once we were soon at the Metro station close to the farmer’s market.

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After a tour around the market, we were driven a short distance to the restaurant where we were to have our lunch. After a three course meal accompanied by a shot of Russian vodka, we were taken for a photo-stop to the Cruiser Aurora – the preserved ship who’s gun fired the blank shot which marked the start of the October Revolution in 1917:

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Then it was on to another photo-stop outside the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood.  This stunning church was built on the site where Emperor Alexander II was fatally wounded by political nihilists in March 1881 – the church was built between 1883 and 1907. In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, the church was ransacked and looted, badly damaging its interior. The Soviet government closed the church in 1932. During the Second World War the church was used as a temporary morgue for those who died in combat and from starvation and illness, and it suffered further significant damage. After the war, it was used as a warehouse for vegetables, and then in 1997 it reopened as a museum of mosaics after 27 years of restoration work.

Both the outside and inside of the church are fabulously decorated – the walls and ceilings inside the church are completely covered in intricately detailed mosaics of biblical scenes and figures covering every square inch of the walls and ceiling – over 7500 square metres. During the photo-stop we only had time to view the outside, but we were soon dropped nearby for some free time, and I took Carol back to see the inside as I knew just how jaw-dropping it was from my previous visit to the city.

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After visiting the Church we had a short walk around the area until it was time to rejoin our coach for the drive back to the ship in the growing darkness:

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We just had time for a quick meal in the ship’s cafe and a brief rest before it was time to check in for our evening tour. I have taken the river cruise tour during the day on my last visit and very much enjoyed it, but doing it in the dark evening in the rain was unfortunately a different story. It was fine while we sailed the open Neva River – through the narrow windows in the shelter of the cabin we could see all the lovely palaces beautifully lit up, but once we sailed into the canal network it was difficult to see anything but the walls of the canals. Unfortunately our guide was sadly lacking too in contrast from the daytime tour – just relating a canned script in a monotone voice.

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Carol and I both thought the daytime tour was wonderful in both the things we saw and the guide we had to bring them to life. We were both left very much wanting to see and experience more of the city, and frustrated that this cruise was strangely only there for the one day.

 

 

Riga

Fortunately we had a day at sea to rest and recover before we sailed into our next port of call, Riga, the capital and largest city of Latvia. The city lies on the Gulf of Riga, at the mouth of the Daugava River. Riga was founded in 1201 and is a former Hanseatic League member. It’s historical centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, noted for its Art Nouveau and 19th century wooden architectures.

Neither of us had visited Riga before, and the tour we had booked there was to ride on a restored tram – this proved to be a popular tour, and our slot to take it was unfortunately not until the afternoon. This meant we had to do our walkabout around the town in the morning ahead of the tour – we prefer to do it the other way around, so that we can get our bearings and identify places we would like to go back to see for a longer look.

The other unfortunate thing was the weather – it was a very wet day, meaning it wasn’t very pleasant walking around, and making the photography very difficult – and next to impossible from the tram in the afternoon. Despite the conditions we very much enjoyed exploring the old town in the morning, and found plenty of beautiful old buildings and quirky objects and shops to see:

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However between the rain, wet and steamed up windows, and a disinterested tour guide we were left rather underwhelmed by our tour in the afternoon.

 

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After riding the tram for well over an hour we returned to the town centre where we were supposed to have an hour’s guided tour, but feeling cold and very wet we decided like many others on the tour to bail out and head directly back to the ship to dry out before dinner – I did manage to get some photographs on the way back:

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Despite the awful weather, Carol and I both loved Riga, and would definitely like to return for another visit – hopefully in much better conditions.

 

 

Warnemünde

We had a further day at sea before we reached our fifth and final port of call on this cruise, Warnemünde, a seaside resort and a district of the city of Rostock in Mecklenburg, Germany.

Once again it was the first time either of us had visited the port. The tour we chose was to visit Rostock using a variety of transport – river boat, tram and coach. Our tour started with the river cruise – we walked just a short distance from our ship to board the river boat. At first we sat up on the open upper deck to enjoy the views as we sailed upstream towards the centre of Rostock, but all too soon the rain set in and we had to retreat to the enclosed lower deck. Fortunately the rain abated before we reached Rostock, and I was able to go back on deck to take some photographs of a tall ship we passed and the approaching city:

 

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Once ashore in Rostock, our good local guide took us on a walking tour around the city centre, passing some lovely old buildings that had survived the war as well as a rather strange set of statues:

 

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We then entered the cathedral just in time to see its famous astronomical clock, which dates from 1472, strike the hour.  This medieval clock is the only one of its kind still in working condition with its original clockwork,  and it has three parts:

  • at the top: when the clock strikes the hour, the Apostles pass before Jesus for a blessing before entry into eternal bliss, but the last, Judas, is shut out
  • in the middle: a clock showing the time, month, moon phases and zodiac sign
  • at the bottom: a calendar which is only valid until 2017 – our guide told us that they are preparing a new one for use from next year onwards

 

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We were then given some free time to explore the city on our own, during which we went back for a longer look around the cathedral and of course went to a chocolate shop for Carol to stock up!

 

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Once everyone was back at the appointed time, we boarded an especially charted tram for the next part of our tour. Our guide continued his commentary about the various buildings we passed:

 

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The tram took us out to a tram station, where we transferred to a coach for the final part of the tour back to our waiting ship. As we approached the ship the guide pointed out a new hotel with its rooms made out of old shipping containers:

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After lunch and a rest on board ship, Carol and I went ashore to explore Warnemünde on foot. When we walked to the river boat in the morning we had passed some sand sculptures which were all covered up in plastic to protect them from the wind and rain. We were hoping that they would have been uncovered for us to see them properly, but alas they were still covered and I could only sneak this one picture though a gaping cover:

 

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To reach the town centre we had to take a subway under the railway line, and once past that we discovered a very attractive and interesting seaside town:

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Carol and I were very impressed with both Warnemünde and Rostock, and once again we both felt that they were places we would be very happy to return to on a future cruise.

 

 

Kiel Canal Transit

The next day we sailed back through the Kiel Canal, fortunately this time the weather was a lot better and we sailed though pretty much on time. This was the same direction as we had sailed it back in July, but this time with the cooler Autumn weather we just went out onto our balcony from time to time to watch our progress, unlike in the Summer when we enjoyed sitting out on deck watching the countryside slip past:

 

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On board ship

As well as enjoying such a fabulous and luxurious suite, this cruise was also made extra special by the company we enjoyed at dinner and during the evenings – two lovely couples, Stella & Peter and Rosie & Simon. We hope that our paths will cross again on some future cruise:

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We enjoyed some great shows from the excellent Show Company and from the Cabaret acts (all of which we had seen before on previous cruises):

 

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In addition in Warnemünde we were treated to a special show from a German male voice choir who sang a selection of sea shanties and other nautically themed songs:

 

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As always the highlight show of the cruise was the one put on by the ordinary crew members showcasing their local songs, dances and costumes:

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One thing that was slightly different on this cruise was that the Gala Buffet was held at lunchtime rather than late in the evening, the idea being so that there would be less wastage of the stunning food, which is to be applauded. The food looked as astonishing as ever:

 

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Conclusion

As I said earlier, this was the first cruise I had taken in a suite, and for our honeymoon cruise this was ideal as it provided plenty of space to relax in, away from our fellow passengers, and we both absolutely loved staying in such luxurious surroundings. However a suite comes at a considerable extra cost compared to a standard cabin, and in future both Carol and I would rather do more cruises in standard cabins than fewer in suites.

Having completed five magical cruises this year, for an astonishing combined total of 152 nights, we are now ashore for the rest of the year – very much looking forward to more special cruises next year and sorting out essential prerequisites such as visas for them.

M1716/7 – Back-to-back on Braemar

Introduction

It is a sign of how much my life has changed this year that I find myself starting to write a cruise blog almost exactly a month since the cruise set sail – or rather cruises – for as you have probably guessed from the title of this post, it was two consecutive cruises taken ‘back-to-back’. Regular readers will know why I have stopped blogging cruises as I actually take them, and this time my much busier life with my fiancée Carol has meant it’s been almost two weeks after our return before I have found the time to sit and write this – I hope I can remember enough about what happened on the cruise to make this post interesting!

The two cruises in question were M1716 – Scenic Fjords & Waterfalls of Norway (8 nights), and M1717 – German Waterways (10 nights).  The first and third cruises I made with Fred. Olsen were to the Norwegian fjords, way back in 2007 and 2008 – and they are so beautiful I was very glad to be making a return visit. By contrast the German waterways were completely new to me, other than making a transit of the Kiel Canal which I did on a Baltic cruise in 2010. The two new cruises were on the Fred. Olsen ship Braemar, the same ship as we had sailed the Rivers of France and Spain on a few weeks earlier.

The new cruises had originally been selected to be particularly suitable for my elderly friend Barbara, who was due to join Carol and I, since if she did not feel up to leaving the ship while it was in port, she could still enjoy plenty of scenery as we sailed the fjords and waterways. Sadly however she was too unwell to join us for either cruise after all, so unexpectedly Carol and I found ourselves on our first cruises by ourselves.

This was the first time either of us had done ‘back-to-back’ cruises, and we were interested to see how it would all work out, especially on the changeover day. Unfortunately we had to change cabins for the second cruise, but we had been reassured that this was made as simple and easy as possible for us. There would also prove to be a number of other ‘firsts’ on these cruises – more on this later…

 

M1716 – Scenic Fjords & Waterfalls of Norway

 

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As you will see from the map, the main emphasis of the first cruise was sailing many of the most scenic fjords in central and southern Norway, with just three ports of call – Eidfjord, Skjolden and Bergen.

 

Sailing from Southampton

We sailed from Southampton around an hour earlier than usual on a lovely sunny afternoon, which meant not only we could enjoy good views of Southampton Water and the Solent, but also we could stay on deck for further than usual before having to go below to have our dinner, which allowed me for once to take some photographs as we sailed past the Isle of Wight and Portsmouth:

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Cruising Lysefjord

After a day and a half sailing up the English Channel and the North Sea – the latter thankfully calm with distant views of many oil rigs – we reached our first fjord and began our scenic cruising. Unfortunately someone had forgotten to tell the weather, for it was very damp and misty, which meant we all but failed to see the two significant features to be seen in Lysefjord – Preikestolen and Kjeragbolten.

Preikestolen – otherwise known as the Pulpit Rock – is a mountain plateau that hangs 604 meters above the fjord. It has an almost flat top, some 25 by 25 metres in size, and many people hike there to stand and admire dramatic views of the fjord below. On my cruise in 2007 I had taken a tour on a small boat from Stavanger around Lysefjord on a bright and clear sunny morning, and had had wonderful views of Preikestolen, but this time we only caught a brief glimpse of it between the low clouds and swirling mist – the contrast between the two days and experiences is quite striking:

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Further up the fjord lies Kjeragbolten, a 5-cubic-metre rock wedged in a crevasse on the Kjerag mountain, suspended above a 984-metre deep abyss. Like Preikestolen it is a popular tourist destination, and is accessible without any climbing equipment. My tour in 2007 had not ventured far enough up the fjord to see Kjeragbolten, so it was a great disappointment that this time the low clouds and mist completely obscured it.

Here are some of the other photographs I struggled to take in Lysefjord before we retreated to the warmth and dryness of our cabin:

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Cruising Hardangerfjord

With fingers firmly crossed for better conditions, I was up on deck bright and early the following morning to enjoy and photograph our sailing up Hardangerfjord towards our first port of call – Eidfjord. Cruising in the very early mornings in Norway – whether it is up the inner channel of the coastline, or up the fjords – is an absolute highlight for me – everything is so serene, peaceful and beautiful. In the early mornings the water is flat calm and acts like a mirror – giving amazing reflections of the mountains. When I was first on deck – around 5:10 – I was the only one there, and even by the time we had sailed under the Hardanger Bridge and reached Eidfjord around an hour and a half later there were only a handful or so of us to witness breathtakingly beautiful conditions and scenery. I find it astonishing that the vast majority of passengers – Carol included – would rather be in bed than witness this spectacle:

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Eidfjord

The village of Eidfjord lies around 15 kilometres east of the Hardanger Bridge at the head of Eidfjorden, an inner branch of Hardangerfjord. It is the largest settlement in the Eidfjord municipality, but only has a population of around 550 people. As we approached the small quay several blue lights flashing in the village caught my attention, and I could see that they were on fire engines, and a number of firemen on tall ladders were tackling a house fire:

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As we ate our breakfast in the small restaurant  high on the ship we had good views of the village below in the bright sunshine, and afterwards Carol and I went out on deck to take some photographs in the bright clear conditions:

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The tour we had selected in Eidfjord was to the Hardangervidda National Park, where we would see the mountain plateau, a waterfall and a lake & dam; having first visited a Nature Centre providing information about the Park. At the Nature Centre there were exhibitions and displays featuring live fish and stuffed animals & birds, and the inevitable gift shop, but the clear highlight was a twenty minute film about the Park. This was shown in a cinema with five large screens displayed in an arc, and was mostly aerial scenes shot from a helicopter swooping over the landscape, with an excellent soundtrack. It was easy to feel that the whole building was banking and turning as the helicopter swept over the fjords, waterfalls and lakes. It made a very dramatic and memorable experience, and I was so impressed I bought a DVD of the film, even though I knew that on a normal television it could not possibly have the same dramatic impact. (On returning home Carol and I have watched the DVD a couple of times, and have been impressed how good it still looks on a single screen).

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Leaving the Nature Centre we took the narrow twisting road though the narrow valley of Måbødalen, with its many hairpin bends, climbing steadily up onto the Hardangervidda mountain plateau. The plateau is the largest peneplain (eroded plain) in Europe, covering an area of about 6,500 sq km, with an average elevation of around 1,100 metres. The plateau consists of barren moorland, interspersed with numerous lakes, pools, rivers and streams.

Our first stop was at the Fossli Hotel, which is situated on the top of a high cliff overlooking Vøringfossen, a stunning waterfall with a total drop of 182 metres, and a major drop of 163 metres. While most people on the tour retired to the hotel for a coffee, I was more intent on photographing the waterfall from each of the many viewpoints provided:

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We then drove on across the plateau to the Sysen Dam, where we had another photo-stop. Here we walked part-way across the dam, admiring the views of the lake and of the surrounding countryside, as well as the many tiny flowering plants which struggle to survive in this high and difficult terrain:

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Our coach then took us back the same way to Eidford, but here the guide asked the driver to take us through a different part of the village so that we could see both the old and new churches. As we returned to our ship we could see that the weather was closing in once more, so Carol and I quickly set out for a walk around the village. We found some interesting sculptures, including two faces – one of which was convex and one was concave – I will let you decide which was which:

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The rain then set in, and Carol returned to the ship while I pressed on to quickly grab some photographs of the churches and an impressive war memorial nearby:

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By the time I returned to the ship it was raining heavily, so as I had watched us sail up the fjord that morning, I didn’t bother to go up on deck to watch us sail back down.

 

Cruising Nærøyfjord, Sognefjord & Lustrafjord

The following morning we cruised Nærøyfjord,  an 18 kilometre branch of the large Songefjord. Nærøyfjord is stunningly beautiful, and is only 500 metres wide in places. It has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2005, and the National Geographic Society rated it number one natural heritage site, jointly with Geirangerfjord.

While normally I would have been up on deck bright and early to watch and photograph every moment we were in Nærøyfjord, unfortunately that morning was also Carol’s birthday, and celebrating that took precedence. By the time we got up on deck we were already sailing back down Nærøyfjord towards Songefjord. To my delight the sun was out, and I was able to take plenty of photographs of this stunning fjord:

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We were also interested to watch the videographer they had on board flying his drone around the ship, taking videos of her as she sailed this beautiful fjord:

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Skjolden

Having returned to Songefjord, and sailed further up this fjord to Lustrafjord, we eventually sailed into our second port of call, Skjolden, early in the afternoon. Skjolden is located at the innermost point of the Songefjord system, over 200 kilometres from where the fjord meets the open ocean. It is a very tiny village of some 200 people, but even so there was no time to look around as we were only there for the afternoon and we were due to be out on a ship’s tour to the Jotunheimen National Park.

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The Jotunheimen National Park covers over 1,150 square kilometres of the Scandinavian Mountain Range, and is a very popular area for hiking and climbing. It contains the two highest mountain peaks in Northern Europe, Galdhøpiggen at 2,469 metres, and Glittertind at 2,465 metres; and over 250 peaks rise above 1,900 metres, with numerous valleys carved by glaciers in between.

Crossing the Jotunheimen National Park is the Sognefjell Mountain Road, a national tourist route, and at 1,434 metres it is the highest mountain crossing in Northern Europe. Our tour took us along this mountain road, and as we climbed high into the mountains there was plenty of snow to be seen, despite it being mid-summer. There were two photo-stops, the first at a viewpoint on the way up into the mountains, and the second longer one beside a lake on the high plateau:

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On the way back to our ship we had a final photo-stop to view the dramatic Asafossen waterfall:

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Bergen

The next day we sailed into our third and final port of call, Bergen, the second-largest city in Norway. Bergen is a busy port, with over 300 cruise ship calls each year, bringing nearly half a million passengers to the city. The city was founded in the 11th century, and for a short while it was the capital city of Norway. From the 13th century it was a bureau city of the Hanseatic League, the commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and their market towns. A range of wooden quayside commercial buildings from the Hanseatic trading period known as the Bryggen are on the UNESCO list of World Cultural Heritage sites and a very popular tourist attraction.

Both Carol and I had visited Bergen before, and were therefore content to just go ashore by ourselves and wander around the city for a while, rather than take a formal tour. Knowing that there were several other cruise ships in port, we decided to leave the ship early and try to get ahead of the crowds. Walking from our cruise terminal towards the city centre we first passed the Bryggen, and stopped to look around the lovely old wooden buildings with their narrow alleyways in between before they got too busy:

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Bergen is famed for its high rainfall, indeed nearly all of my previous visits there have been on wet days. Unusually this time it was dry and just partially cloudy, so I wanted to take the opportunity to take the Fløibanen, a funicular railway which runs up Mount Fløyen, from which there are stunning views across the city. I had last been up there way back in 2005, but since then had never had the weather to make the trip worthwhile. Regular readers may remember that Carol is not good with heights, but she bravely agreed that we could take the trip, provided the queues for the train were not too long, which to my relief was the case. Once at the top, Carol hung back while I went to the edge of the viewing areas to take some dramatic panoramic shots:

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When we returned to the city station we found that the queues for the railway were now stretching way down the street, so our early start had definitely paid off – at least from my point of view!

We then spent quite some time wandering around the city’s streets and parks, and as usual we were on the lookout for the quirky or unusual for me to photograph:

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Cruising southern fjords

The next day we had one final morning of cruising the Norwegian fjords before we returned to the UK. We cruised an array of fjords in Southern Norway – Hidrasund & Strandsfjorden, Flekkefjorden & Stolsfjorden, Fedafjorden & Listafjorden and Rosfjorden. While these were very attractive, especially in the bright sunshine, they lacked the drama brought by all the high mountains featured in the earlier fjords in Mid Norway. We did see several oil rigs that had been brought up into the fjords for either repairs or storage, and at one point we passed though a very narrow gap between the shore and an island, which emphasised how steeply the sides of a fjord descend into the water:

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Returning to Southampton

We then spent the next day and a half sailing back to our home port, Southampton. There is a definite rhythm to a shorter cruise on Fred. Olsen, including the formal nights at the beginning and end, the British Night part way through, and the crew talent show & gala buffet at the end. I am not sure how conscious or subconscious the decisions were, but we found that we went to the British night sing-along and show on the first cruise, and the crew talent show & gala buffet on the second cruise, thus as it were merging the two cruises into one longer cruise with the same rhythm.

 

Changeover Day in Southampton

It did seem rather strange not to be packing everything up in our suitcases on the final day of the Norwegian cruise, and on the day we arrived back in Southampton while we still had to be up very early for breakfast, we could just sit back and relax while almost all the other passengers were anxiously waiting in their coats for the call to disembark the ship.

We had been told that the crew would take all our clothes hanging on hangers to the new cabin using a set of rails on wheels, so all we had to do was gather together our things in drawers and on shelves. Once our new cabin was ready, a crewman duly arrived to wheel our stuff there – most of our bags also went on the bottom of his trolley. By around half past ten we were all unpacked and installed in our new cabin, and we were able to set off and enjoy an almost empty ship. It all seemed very peaceful and quiet, and we almost resented it when the new set of passengers began boarding around half past one:

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When I first booked these back-to-back cruises, I was told that what happened for lunch depended on how many people were also staying onboard. If there were enough they would open a restaurant for us, otherwise we would need to use room service. In the event there were only half a dozen of us staying on, and when we returned to our new cabin around midday we found a tray had been left in the cabin for us. All that was there for the two of us were half a dozen finger sandwiches and a few small pastries.  This was the one aspect of handling the staying on board we didn’t think they got right, for when we went up to the cafe a little later so that Carol could have a hot drink, we found they were serving soup, one main course and a hot dessert up there, as well as a range of sandwiches and cakes for the boarding passengers – surely it would have been simpler and better all round just to have directed us up there too.

 

M1717 – German Waterways

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As you will see from the map, the second cruise took us to four ports of call in Northern Germany – Flensburg, Travemünde, Hamburg and Bremen – sailing a fjord, the Kiel Canal and several rivers on the way.

 

Sailing from Southampton

Once again we sailed at the earlier time  from Southampton, but the contrast between the starts to the two cruises was quite marked – while the first cruise set off in warm sunshine and we could stand and watch from the bows of the ship, this time we sat huddled at the sheltered stern of the ship, and after a while retreated under an awning when it started to rain.

This time we had two full days at sea, retracing our steps though the channel and up the North Sea, but this time looping over the top of Denmark before sailing south again in the Baltic Sea towards our first port of call, Flensburg. Once again we were blessed with calm seas.

 

Unexpected award

Fred. Olsen operates a loyalty scheme called Oceans, each night you spend on board earns you an ‘Oceans Point’, and there are different membership bands providing different rewards for the number of points accrued. There used to be three bands – Blue, Silver and Gold – but recently more were added so now there is Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum and Diamond Elite. Following our long World Cruise earlier this year, Carol is a Gold member, and I am now Platinum. During each cruise a cocktail party is held for members who are Silver and above, and during the party an award is made to the person with most points on that cruise, who has not already won the award in the same 12 month period.

I have known the award to go to people with points in the high hundreds, or even over 1000 points – so I was greatly surprised to find I was to get the award on this cruise with my 476 points! Apparently there were two ladies on board who had around twenty points more,  but they had already won an award this year.  The Oceans scheme is administered on board by the same lady who does future cruise bookings, and we knew the lady on board this cruise as she was also on our world cruise and had done a cruise booking for us then. She know about how Carol and I met and got engaged on the World Cruise, and asked if the Captain could tell our story when he presented my award at the cocktail party. I received a voucher towards another cruise and a bottle of bubbly, and Carol received a lovely bouquet of flowers from the Captain – another ‘first’ on this cruise:

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Flensburg Fjord

On the third day I was up on deck just before 7am to watch and photograph us sail up Flensburg Fjord, the westernmost inlet of the Baltic Sea. After the high mountains surrounding the Mid Norwegian Fjords, and the hills around the Southern Norwegian fjords that we had seen so recently, the surrounding countryside seemed very flat. However it was a lovely still and sunny morning, and once again there was hardly anyone else also up on deck to see the lovely scenes unfold. I was particularly taken by the cute little black pilots boat:

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As we approached our first port, Flensburg, located at the far end of the fjord, the numbers on deck did increase. We docked against a quay which was clearly normally used for sand and gravel – there were no luxuries here like cruise terminal buildings, the gangplank just let down to a gap on the quay where the piles of sand and gravel had been pushed aside:

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Flensburg

Our first port of call in Germany, Flensburg, is located just south of the German-Danish border at the innermost tip of the Flensburg Fjord, and is Germany’s northernmost mainland town. It was founded around 1200 by Danish settlers, who were soon joined by German merchants. It never became a member of the Hanseatic League, but it was still an important and busy port, especially for the export of herrings which were sent to almost every European country. Later in the 18th century the rum trade became very important, it was refined in the town from cane sugar imported from the Danish West Indies.

Following the Second Schleswig War in 1864, Flensburg passed from Denmark to the Kingdom of Prussia, and since then the German language has prevailed in the town. In 1920 the League of Nations decided that the German-Danish border would be settled by a vote, and while some of Flensburg’s northern neighbourhoods returned to Denmark, Flensburg itself voted to remain in Germany. Even to this day around 25% of the population of Flensburg remain Danish, who run their own schools, libraries and Lutheran churches from which the German majority are not excluded.

In May 1945, Flensburg was the site of the last government of Nazi Germany, the so-called Flensburg Government led by Admiral Karl Dönitz. This was in power for just one week from 1 May (when Hitler’s death was announced) until the German armies surrendered and the town was occupied by Allied troops.

Carol and I had originally booked a longer tour from Flensburg, but having seen and heard in the port talk on board ship how attractive and interesting it looked, we changed our booking to a half day tour in the morning so that we could explore the town during the afternoon. Our tour was to visit the nearby Glücksburg Castle, one of the most important Renaissance castles in Northern Europe, and to view the roses in its nearby Glücksburger Rosarium.

There were two coaches in this tour, and our coach visited the Rosarium first, while the other visited the castle. The Rosarium covers more than 10,000 square meters, and is home to over 500 different varieties of rose, including English, modern, rambler and common wild roses. We were given a guided tour by two guides, the first giving detailed information about the types and varieties of the roses, along with their propagation methods in German, after which the second guide translated this information into English. While for those passengers who were keen gardeners all this information might have been very interesting, but there were many like Carol and I who found all this rather slow and tedious, and we began to wander off by ourselves. We thought it would have been better to say at the start of the visit that they would be a guided tour with detailed information for those who want it, and for the others just a time and a place to reassemble so that they could freely wander off on their own.

Unfortunately the roses were just past their best, but I still managed to get some good photographs of them. We were also entertained by a pair of very large and hairy dogs next door, especially when one of them stood up on his back legs leaning on the gate – looking for all the world like a man dressed up in a dog suit:

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We then walked around to the Castle, which looked very dramatic being mostly surrounded by water. The castle was built between 1582 to 1587 by Nikolaus Karie, for John II, Duke of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg. It was built at the site of a former monastery, and building material from the monastery was partly reused in the castle. Once complete, the grounds of the monastery were flooded to create a lake which almost entirely surrounds the castle.

The castle is built on a 2.5 metres high granite foundation that emerges from the water. The base area is a square with sides of nearly 30 metres, consisting of three separate houses with their own roofs. The great halls and the vestibule are situated in the middle house, while the living space is located in the two side houses. A chapel is part of two of the houses. On each corner of the castle there is a tower with a diameter of seven meters. On the court yard front there are two stair towers, these form the only connection between the floors of the castle. The castle is the seat of the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg and was also used by the Danish kings.

We were given a guided tour around the insides of the castle by a local guide dressed in historic clothing:

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As we walked back to our waiting coach I was able to get some good photographs of the castle surrounded by the lake:

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After returning to our ship for lunch, Carol and I set off to explore the town on foot, having taken the shuttle bus from the quay to the town centre. We loved walking around the old buildings, and found plenty of quirky things to photograph too:

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Travemünde

The following morning we sailed into our second port of call on the German Waterways cruise, Travemünde. Travemünde began life as a fortress built by Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony, in the 12th century to guard the mouth of the River Trave Trave in Lübeck Bay, and the Danes subsequently strengthened it. It became a town in 1317, and in 1329 it passed into the possession of the free city of Lübeck, to which it has since belonged. The fortifications were demolished in 1807.

Travemünde has been a seaside resort since 1802, and is Germany’s largest ferry port on the Baltic Sea with connections to Sweden, Finland, Latvia, Estonia and Russia. The old lighthouse is the oldest on the German Baltic coast, dating from 1539, but this is no longer in use, having been replaced by a light on top of a hotel tower block which dominates the seafront. Another attraction of Travemünde is the Flying P-Liner Passat, a museum ship anchored in the mouth of the Trave.

I went up on deck to watch our approach to the port, and as we did so I could see rows and rows of the strandkorb wicker beach chairs that are a feature of nearly all the seafront resorts in Germany. Constructed from wicker, wood panels and canvas, they usually seat up to two persons, with reclining backrests, and are designed to provide comfortable seating and shelter from wind, rain, wind-blown sand and the sun. There were also good views of the old lighthouse, the Passat and another tall ship Mare Frisium, and the lovely old buildings along the river bank:

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The tour that Carol and I had booked in Travemünde was a simple coach transfer to the historic city of Lübeck, where we had free time to walk around and explore by ourselves. We were provided with a map of the old city, which we used to make our way around. While there were many lovely old buildings to be seen, we were both a little surprised just how many modern buildings there were in between, largely as the result of extensive damage sustained by the city during the second world war. There was still more than enough to occupy our time before we rejoined our coach for the return journey to the ship, and we left feeling there would be plenty more to see if we were ever to return that way:

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After lunch on board the ship, Carol decided to rest on board, so I set out alone to explore Travemünde itself. I set out along the river waterfront, where many stalls were being set up, heading towards the beach area as I wanted to take some closer photographs of the strandkorb wicker beach chairs:

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I then headed inland to see the train station, famed for having two clocks – an analogue one showing the current time, and a digital one showing the time of the next train – said to be so that people on the beach can see when the next train is due to leave. From there I walked through a wooded parkland area, where the birds were singing – it was a most unexpected bonus to have such a woodland walk in the middle of a cruise! The path brought me back to the two roads running parallel to the river waterfront, and just as I finished exploring those the rain started in earnest, so I quickly made my way back to the ship:

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Shortly before we set sail late that afternoon a male voice choir from the Passat sailing ship had been due to sing to us from the quayside. The heavy rain meant this had to be relocated to the ship’s theatre, which was fine for us passengers, but the crowd of locals and tourists that had assembled on the quayside were left disappointed. We were treated to just a short concert, as the same choir were booked to provide a much longer one while we were docked in our next port, Hamburg, three nights later:

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Kiel Canal Transit

It was another early start the following morning, to watch the ship enter the lock at the eastern end of the Kiel Canal at Kiel-Holtenau at around 6:30. The Kiel Canal is a 98-kilometre long freshwater canal passing through the German state of Schleswig-Holstein, and links the North Sea at Brunsbüttel to the Baltic Sea at Kiel-Holtenau.  The canal was finished in 1895, but widened between 1907 and 1914 to meet increasing traffic and the demands of the Imperial German Navy. After World War I, the Treaty of Versailles required the canal to be open to vessels of commerce and of war of any nation at peace with Germany, while leaving it under German administration. The government under Adolf Hitler repudiated its international status in 1936, but after World War II the canal was reopened to all traffic.

An average of 250 nautical miles (460 km) is saved by using the Kiel Canal instead of going around the Jutland Peninsula. All permanent, fixed bridges crossing the canal since its construction have a clearance of 42 metres. The maximum length for ships passing the Kiel Canal is 235.50 metres, and the maximum width is 32.50 metres, meaning only smaller cruise ships like those belonging to Fred. Olsen can use the canal. Despite these size restrictions, it is the busiest artificial waterway in the world.

As we passed through the lock at Kiel-Holtenau we were joined by three sailing ships. As the water level difference is small, there is no requirement for the mules we saw in use on the Panama Canal earlier this year (see W1702 – A man, a plan). Once again I was surprised how few people were up on deck to watch us transit the lock:

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Once we were safely through the lock, I joined Carol for breakfast in the restaurant on the upper deck. It was lovely, but slightly surreal, to sit on a cruise ship watching the countryside slip past as we sailed down the canal, especially as it was not possible to see the water from that height. We then spent much up the time sitting up on deck at the stern of the ship watching us drift along the canal:

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After some time we reached the impressive Rendsburg High Bridge, which carries the railway line between Neumünster and Flensburg across the canal. The bridge was erected between 1911 and 1913 to a design by Friedrich Voss and replaced earlier swing bridges. The steel viaduct has a length of 2,486 metres and is supplemented by embankments that bring the overall length of the structure to about 7.5 kilometres. The cantilever main bridge is 317 metres long, has a main span of 140 metres and provides the required clearance of 42 metres above the canal’s water level.

Beneath the railway track there should be a Schwebefähre (suspension ferry) – a gondola that carries up to four cars and foot passengers across the canal forming a transporter bridge. Sadly the gondola was struck by a cargo ship in January 2016, and sustained severe damage, and has had to be removed. A replacement gondola is currently under construction. I had seen the gondola in operation when I went through the canal in 2010, and was disappointed not to see it in action once again:

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By mid afternoon we reached the lock at the western end of the canal, at Brunsbüttel. This time there were plenty of people up on deck to watch us pass through:

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Once clear of the canal, we then sailed up the River Elbe, and arrived in our third port of call, Hamburg, mid evening. Carol and I had considered going ashore to explore once we had docked, but on seeing we were docked next to a huge building site, we decided to wait until the morning and full daylight.

 

Hamburg

Hamburg, officially Freie und Hansestadt Hamburg (the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg) is the second largest city and a state of Germany, with a population of over 1.7 million people. The official name reflects Hamburg’s history – it was a member of the Hanseatic League, a free imperial city of the Holy Roman Empire, a city-state, and one of the 16 states of Germany. Before the unification of Germany in 1871 it was a fully sovereign state, and prior to the constitutional changes in 1919, the civic republic was ruled by Hanseaten – a class of hereditary grand burghers. Although the city has  repeatedly suffered great damage – by the Great Fire of Hamburg, the floods, and military conflicts including WW2 bombing raids – the city has managed to recover, and emerged wealthier each time.

Located on the River Elbe, Hamburg is a major port, and it is also a global service, media, logistics and industrial hub, with headquarters and facilities for many international companies. It is also a major European science, research, and education hub, with several universities and institutes. Hamburg has been an important financial centre for centuries and is the seat of Germany’s oldest stock exchange and the world’s second oldest bank. The Reeperbahn is among Europe’s best known entertainment districts, and famous for where The Beatles first started.

After breakfast the following morning we went out on deck so that I could take some photographs of the huge building site that had greeted us the night before:

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We were docked close to HafenCity, a vast urban regeneration project of part of the former Hamburg free port, which is the largest urban redevelopment project in Europe by landmass – around 2.2 square kilometres. The ground-breaking ceremony was held in June 2001, and the whole project is not expected to complete until sometime between 2025 and 2030, by when the area will be home to around 12,000 people, and be a workplace for around 40,000.

Carol and I were booked on two shore tours, one during the afternoon and one in the evening. Knowing the weather forecast was not good, we set off early to explore the local area in foot. We passed an array of modern buildings in the first part of HafenCity to be completed. The architecture of one or two of these was interesting – a rounded tower block with balconies twisted like ribbon, and the striking Elbphilharmonie concert hall with its complex curved roof – but all too many were just boring boxes:

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Just a little further we came to an area where the old brick warehouses had sympathetically been restored, and the contrast was very apparent. I felt it a shame that the design for all the new buildings did not at least give a nod to the heritage they were built in by echoing in some way the old warehouses so close to them or even each other. It seemed to me as if a whole load of architects had each been asked to design a building, without being shown what was there already, or what each other had designed.

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Before long the rain really started to set in, so we made our way back to the ship, and rested there ahead of our tours later in the day.

The afternoon tour was in two parts – a coach tour with a couple of photo-stops around the city centre, then a visit to Miniatur Wunderland – the largest model railway in the world. The first stop on the coach tour was at the Rathaus – the town hall – a lovely building in the heart of the city. It was constructed between 1886 & 1897, and still houses its original governmental functions with the office of the First Mayor of Hamburg and the meeting rooms for Hamburg’s Parliament and Senate:

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On the square outside the Rathaus the local guide pointed out a man in fancy dress busy sweeping up. He told us that the local tradition is that if on your 30th birthday you are still single, you must sweep the square until released by being kissed by a virgin!

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Our coach tour continued around the city, passing along the Reeperbahn, once infamous as a red-light district, but now theatres and music halls have moved there it has become a popular entertainment district:

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Our second photo-stop was at St Michael’s Church, the largest baroque church in Northern Germany, with a 132-metre high spire. The church is the third to be build on the site, construction was completed in 1786. Here we were supposed to view the inside of the church and hear an organ recital, but unfortunately a posh wedding was about to take place and we were not allowed to enter it.

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Instead our guide took across the road to see Krameramtsstuben, or Grocer’s Apartments. Built between 1620 and 1700 as homes for widows of members of the Grocers’ Institute, these timber-framed buildings form the last of the 17th century enclosed courtyards of Hamburg. They demonstrate how close together the houses used to be built, and therefore how easily fire could spread within the city. For some reason these signs hanging at the end of the street amused Carol:

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We were then driven to Miniatur Wunderland, which is located on the top two floors of one of the regenerated old brick warehouses we had seen on our walk from the ship that morning. On hearing that we would have two hours to view the attraction, Carol was concerned that she might get bored, but in the end we both said that we would have both like much longer to really see everything there was to see in this fascinating attraction.

It was started by two men showing off their model railway system, but it has grown and grown over the years to be the largest model railway in the world – although it is really so much more than a model railway. Currently, there are 9 completed model layouts: Austria, Knuffingen, Middle Germany, Hamburg, USA, Scandinavia, Switzerland, Knuffingen Airport and Italy. More layouts are planned, with proposed construction dates listed right out to 2028 – it looks like we will have to wait until late 2021 to see England and Scotland represented. Here are some of the astonishing statistics from their website:

  Current (Autumn 2016) Current Planning Until 2028
Leased Floorspace 7,000 m² 10,000 m²
Layout Size 1,490 m² over 2,300 m²
Construction Areas 9 13
Track Length 15,400 Meters approx. 20,000 Meters
Trains 1040 approx. 1,300
Wagons more than 10,000 17,000
Longest Train 14.51 Meters 14.51 Meters
Signals 1,380 1,900
Switches 3,454 4,000
Computers 50 64
Lights approx. 385,000 over 500,000
Buildings and Bridges 4,110 6,000
Figurines 260,000 400,000
Kidnapped Figurines (annually) 3,500  
Cars 9,250 11,000
Trees 130,000 200,000
Man Hours 760,000 900,000
Staff 360 360
Construction Cost 20,000,000 € approx. 25,000,000 €

It really was the case that the more you looked, the more there was to see, with so many little touches and details to amuse and fascinate you. Every so often the lighting would change to night-time. Here are just a few of the 280 photographs I took there:

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We only had a short turn-around time back at the ship before it was time to set off on our evening tour, a cruise by boat on the city’s waterways. We were taken by coach to the city centre to board our boat. It turned out that the boat we were supposed to use was broken, so instead we got to use a very modern electric one – it’s glass roof was covered in solar panels – and it glided silently around the Inner and Outer Alster Lakes. We could see many interesting buildings on the banks of the lakes, but at one stage we were overtaken by an old steam boat!

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On the way back to the ship our coach took us for a shorter tour of the city, including back along the Reeperbahn once more:

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Our ship remained in port for a second night, and set sail for our final port, Bremen, very early the following morning. We spent that day sailing down the River Elbe to the sea, and then around to the River Weser which we then sailed up, reaching Bremen around 9pm that evening.

 

Bremen

Our fourth and final port of call on this cruise, Bremen, lies some 60km south of the mouth of the River Weser. The area has been settled since around 12,000 BC, and the city’s first stone walls were built in 1032. Part of the Hanseatic League, the city grew as a major port, but silting of the river now prevents access for larger ships, which now dock at Bremerhaven at the mouth of the river – Bremen and Bremerhaven together comprise the state of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen. Bremen is the second most populous city in Northern Germany, and a major economic and cultural hub.

The tour we had booked in Bremen was a guided walking tour around the historic old town. A coach dropped us close to the market square, where our excellent guide began our tour of the many wonderful old buildings and statues to be seen in the city, including the UNESCO-listed Rathaus or town hall, the Cathedral, the statue of Roland the city’s protector, and the famous status of the donkey, dog, cat and rooster from the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale ‘Town Musicians’:

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Our tour included a visit to the Schnoor, a small, well-preserved area of crooked lanes, fishermen’s and shipper’s houses from the 17th and 18th centuries, now occupied by cafés, artisan shops and art galleries:

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The tour continued along part of the riverbank, then looped back to the market square once more:

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At the end of our tour we elected to remain in the city and explore some more by ourselves, returning to the ship later by shuttle bus. Later that afternoon we reluctantly set sail for Southampton and home.

 

Dinner at the Captain’s Table

On our last formal night which was on the way back to Southampton, Carol and I received another unexpected invitation – this time to have our dinner at the Captain’s table. This was another ‘first’ on this cruise – on all the twenty something cruises I have made with Fred. Olsen this has not happened before.

As well as the Captain and his fiancée (they also met on board ship), there were 10 passengers at the dinner table. At the pre-dinner drinks we asked the Captain how people were selected, he said that the Oceans award winner was always chosen (hence our invite), and then a mix of longstanding passengers and new ones. It was a lovely meal and evening, at the end of which we were presented with a photograph of everyone there, complete with a personal message from the Captain written on its folder:

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Conclusion

These were a most enjoyable pair of cruises, and it was lovely to be reacquainted with the stunning Norwegian fjords, and to discover how attractive and interesting the historic towns and cities of Northern Germany are. The cruises were made even more memorable by the ‘firsts’ we experienced – remaining on board for a ‘back-to-back’, receiving the Oceans award and having dinner at the Captain’s table.  Doing short cruises ‘back-to-back’ works well and is definitely something we would consider in the future, as otherwise they would be over far too quickly having got used to sailing on very long cruises.