GLT editor Keeley Rodgers joined group travel organisers for a Scottish Lochs, Highlands & Islands cruise with Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines.
Hands warmed by a steaming cup of mulled wine, the wind in our hair and the fresh sea breeze filling our lungs, we approached Fingal’s Cave on the Isle of Staffa. The dramatic sounds of Felix Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides filled the ship’s decks as we neared the equally climactic basalt columns that make up the sea cave.
I snapped away with my camera, already knowing that the pictures couldn’t do justice to the astonishingly symmetrical work of nature. Thankfully, the binoculars were on hand, allowing us to get an even closer view of the cave while learning that it shares its geological origins with the Giant’s Causeway.
Our home for the week, allowing us to get up close and personal with such destinations, was the Black Watch, Fred. Olsen’s sleek and intimate ship recently refitted as part of a major refurb programme. Offering a spacious and familiar feel, it was like a home-from-home at sea and, with various dining options on offer, we were very well fed and watered throughout the trip.
In good company
Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines (FOCL) is no novice when it comes to looking after groups. It’s won the ‘Best Cruise Line for Groups’ category several times at the Group Leisure & Travel Awards, and its dedicated team have received plaudits for the service they give GTOs.
Our five-night ‘Scottish Lochs, Highlands & Islands’ familiarisation cruise took us from Liverpool to the Orkney Islands, Tobermory on the Isle of Mull and into the Scottish Highlands, all with equally breath-taking scenery and sights. It gave the opportunity for the cruise line to showcase its ship and cruise experience first-hand to just some of the group organisers it works with. Not to mention the beauty that can be enjoyed a little closer to home.
The first excursion for our group was to the Heart of Neolithic Orkney; an area designated a World Heritage Site due to its wealth of pre-historic archaeology. After a scenic coach drive, we made it to the 5,000-year-old village of Skara Brae, only discovered 150 years ago, before a tour of Orkney’s finest manor, nearby Skaill House.
A personal highlight for me was the spellbinding stone circle that is the Ring of Brodgar, hauntingly beautiful and unsurprisingly the most photographed attraction in Orkney (again, photos don’t do it justice). Our group enjoyed a windswept walk around the 27 stones that survive today (there were originally 60).
The magical landscape continues around the island and with excavations still revealing new and exciting finds, I have a feeling there’ll be a few more visitors to Orkney in years to come.
From one period in history to another; our evening entertainment was topped off by one of the shows on board the ship, All You Need is Love, performed in the Neptune Lounge and devoted, of course, to the music of The Beatles.
Every night had something to offer, and either a comedian or magician to get us up on stage (note to self – don’t sit in the front row, especially when coming in part-way through a set). And each evening began with a delicious meal in the Orchid Lounge alongside great company; one night we were treated to an extra special a la carte dining experience in the newly opened grill restaurant, The Black Watch Room.
All of the group commented on the quality of the food, and service, on offer on Black Watch, with one saying “the attention to detail is amazing; the staff in the restaurants especially are very friendly and attentive”. Passengers can either choose to dine in the more formal Glentanar and The Orchid Room restaurants or opt for more relaxed dining, for example in the self-service restaurant The Brigadoon, which offers tasty afternoon tea too.
Having not been on many cruises, I underestimated the ‘wow’ factor of waking up in your cabin and opening the curtains to see where you were each day; one morning we were even treated to a memorable display by dolphins swimming underneath the ship. The ‘deck cam’ available on the TV in our cabin tipped us off that they were there – by showing lots of excited photographers at the front of the ship.
Getting up close and personal
The smaller, more intimate size of Black Watch, FOCL’s smallest ship, means that it can get ‘closer’ to destinations that many of the larger lines can’t reach – a benefit that stretches across Fred. Olsen’s entire ocean fleet. The only tender we had was a ten-minute journey into Tobermory, the capital of Mull. And yes, you’re right, its colourful harbour-front buildings provided the setting for the children’s TV show Balamory. But here’s something I didn’t know; the producers couldn’t call the show Tobermory because the name is copyrighted to… The Wombles, we were informed by our guide for the day, who interestingly was an extra in the children’s TV show.
With our floating home in the distance, we were given a tour of the vibrant harbour, complete with fishing vessels and a gem of an ice-cream shop, with a very interesting previous life (I won’t spoilt it). Then it was time for a wee dram, or two, at the Tobermory Distillery after learning about the process. Sailing away from Tobermory on to our next destination provided some beautiful scenery to view – the blue water glistening in the afternoon sun – including the magnificent 14th century Duart Castle.
Our cruise came to an end in suitable style, with a boat trip on the stunning Loch Lomond, in the heart of The Trossachs National Park. The journey there, from the Black Watch, was equally as picturesque, with a ferry across to Dunoon and a coach ride through the idyllic Cowal Peninsula.
Gin (a local brand of course) and tonic in hand, we sat back for a leisurely cruise on the largest inland stretch of water in the UK, reflecting on the whole trip, one of the GTOs already talking about bringing their group to experience the itinerary. While agreeing that pictures didn’t do it justice, we’ll certainly be sharing our memories as inspiration to others, just like Fingal and his cave.
About Black Watch:
- Having undergone a major refurb in 2016, the ship features 423 rooms accommodating up to 804 guests on board.
- Facilities include swimming pools, a spa, gym and jacuzzi as well as five restaurants and six bars and lounges.
- Groups also have the opportunity to take their journey to another level with a new RIB powerboat experience, at an extra cost.