We had volunteered for this, most definitely. Had paid our money, but no choice. A 12-day Mystery Cruise on Fred Olsen’s flagship, Balmoral. I met with some resistance from my husband: “What do I pack? It’s November.” Answer, everything. We would have light clothes for warm weather, and sweaters, jackets, coats, scarves, boots, for cold weather.
Fortunately, we were sailing out of Southampton, and returning to Southampton, so a car journey down, and a hotel stay the night before, meant no luggage restrictions. Just cases, and cases and cases.
We boarded the Balmoral – a big ship for us, with some 1,300 passengers – and started to explore and meet people. We were the newbies, never having sailed with Fred Olsen before, but everyone we met, and I do mean everyone, was a Fred Olsen returner and enthusiast. We may have been foolhardy; new line, new ship, going to who knew where; they just had faith in Fred Olsen.
But there was still the problem of the weather. Moreover, I was a total novice in sailing terms, with port, starboard, decks and gangways being part of what I couldn’t understand, amid the many speculations of the experienced sailors on board.
So, fortunately for me, we came to the end of the English Channel and the captain turned left, not right. We had heard that another captain on a previous Mystery Cruise, also turned left on the first day, then, on the first night, did a huge circle and the passengers woke up heading for Norway. Sneaky.
But here we were, heading south, and then our first port of call, Malaga. The crew were very good at keeping secrets, only a few knew where we were heading – and only as we came into dock at each port, did they announce “welcome to...” And the weather was sunny and warm.
We sailed on to Gibraltar, Cartagena, Cadiz, Lisbon and A Coruña, our six ports, before heading back to Southampton. We did some tours, notably to Mijas, one of the blindingly white villages high in the hills of the Costa del Sol, and we explored the tiny cobbled streets and wide marble plazas, and peered into a tiny chapel in the rocks, whilst also marvelling at the fact that every other shop seemed to be selling exactly the same style of leather coats, jackets and bags. Another mystery: how do they survive?
The most entertaining trip was inland to Betanzos, another fine town, where we were taken to the House of Cheese and given a demonstration of cheese making, with wine tasting, all whilst being entertained by a Spanish comedian and player of the bagpipes. The Spanish/Basques insist they invented the bagpipes, but this comedian was savvy enough for his final rendition to be “Scotland the Brave”.
At other ports we just walked into the centre, for Balmoral is small enough to moor close in, and walking around, checking out the main sights, finding some small café or bar, and people watching was entertainment enough. Cadiz was elegant and sunny, Gibraltar, rainy and dreary, Lisbon as vibrant as ever (and with custard tarts!) and most interesting was Cartagena. One of Spain’s naval bases, there were warships in the harbour and sailors mingling with the families out enjoying the weather and cheering on marathon runners racing through the city, giving a carnival atmosphere. And we discovered the art in the streets; an exhibition of photography and a huge statue of a man, beaten and cowering down into his plinth. How the sculptor achieved such fragility and vulnerability in this Memorial to the Victims of Terrorism in a bronze 4.8 metres high and weighing some two tons is testament to his artistry.
Back on the ship, life was interesting too, for as our fellow passengers constantly told us “that’s Fred”. Norwegian-owned, but very British in style, there was entertainment of many and various kinds to satisfy this market, with music from country to classical recitals, talks and lectures and the usual shipboard activities: bridge, whist, deck quoits, trivia quizzes and, for the more energetic, dancing, pilates and yoga. We also attended a cookery demonstration in which the head chef was “helped” by one of the visiting comedians, with variable and even life-threatening results.
What could be better on a Mystery cruise than a Murder Mystery Group? The young and enthusiastic team of six actors from DBY Interactive presented us with two Murder Mysteries to solve, and two Murder Mystery Workshops where we were guided through the best of drama school training and taught how to build a character. Were some passengers frustrated thespians? Judging by the fervour with which they threw themselves into character and situations, the answer was a most entertaining yes.
Other entertainment was excellent. The Balmoral Show Company of singers and dancers were most professional, and I was often left feeling breathless at the sheer energy of the performances. There was comedy, most notably from Mandy Muden, a magician from whom the front row shrank as she trawled for audience participation. Her teetering walk in high heels - an endearing cross between Mrs Thatcher and Daffy Duck – and a cheerful way with an insult, amused everyone, including her victims. Her magic was impressive too.
Also, we ate and drank. Variety was provided by superb steaks in The Grill specialist restaurant, a very wallet friendly and calorific afternoon tea in the Piano Bar high above the waves, a friendly mingling of passengers at a wine and cheese event, and a terrific seafood Gala Buffet lunch. Never have so many lobsters… All these were in addition to the regular three-course and buffet menus in the designated restaurants, and I should add a huge thank you to the person who sited the freshly-made gourmet chocolates counter to one side of the coffee bar in the Bookmark Café. Good coffee, with a choice of chocolates, in a library setting. Bliss.
In my defence I countered all these by getting some good advice from the personal trainer in the gym and had a great massage in the spa, where the treatment rooms have the very best view of the sea.
Our fellow cruisers certainly seemed to enjoy every last thing, no matter which port we arrived in, but most insisted “the ship’s the thing” so a Mystery cruise was no problem for them, and we were very impressed by the cheerfulness, patience, and above all, kindness, of the mainly Filipino crew in dealing with elderly and somewhat infirm passengers.
Almost all passengers were of a certain age and a mixture of all things British, including our gloriously eccentric table companion, who beat off allcomers on British Night as a walking union flag. “Everything is red, white and blue” she said “and I do mean everything.” Most entertaining, very Fred, and we didn’t need our coats and wellies.
Fred Olsen Cruises’ calendar has three Mystery Cruises in 2019 leaving from Southampton, Newcastle, and Rosyth with fares from £799 per person – (www.fredolsencruises.com – 0800 0355141)