Across the North Sea

We were up early this morning to make the most of our last sea day (in fact, our last night on the Black Watch) before our arrival back in Newcastle tomorrow morning.   😦

I got showered and sorted before we went up to the Neptune Lounge to listen to a lecture by polar expeditionary /historian Dr Ian Stone, with the intriguing title “Polar Bears and How to Stay Alive When They’re Around”.  This interested us as we had had very close encounters with wild polar bears when we spent some time on the sub-Arctic tundra in Canada in 2011.

The lecture was very informative as well as amusing in places, as Dr Stone accompanied it with some fantastic photos he’d taken of polar bears in Svalbard, some of them just having killed seals ready to eat.  Polar bears are majestic and beautiful animals but their sheer strength and power can never be underestimated.   🙂

After the talk we went back to cabin 4085, dragged our cases out from under our beds, and started packing away the things we wouldn’t need again this cruise.  It was then time for us to go up to lunch.  We ate it out on the Marquee Deck in the sunshine, but as we were now in the North Sea and the ship was doing a fair rate of knots, there was quite a brisk sea breeze, so we needed to find a sheltered spot.

We enjoyed a couple of drinks with our lunch, then went back to the cabin where I read my Kindle.  I am reading The Chess Men by Peter May which is the third book in the “Lewis” trilogy, about Scottish detective Fin McLeod and set on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.  Like the first two books in the series, there are plenty of twist and turns in the plot and it’s hard to put the book down (or my Kindle, in this case).

Around 3.00pm we went back to the Neptune Lounge for another lecture, this time called “A Lifeboat on the Road” by Howard Nichols, who trained with the NHS Ambulance service but who then went on to train RNLI crews the length and breadth of Britain, touring around in his articulated Mobile Training School.  During his talk, he took us on a virtual tour of many different lifeboat stations, some of them in the remotest locations imaginable.  It was very interesting.

We then spent an hour or so pottering around the ship before it was time to start getting ready for dinner, the “last supper” as it were.  We enjoyed our meal as ever, along with some chilled rosé wine and some after-dinner port, then said goodbye to our table companions for this cruise, Ted and Fiona.  🙂

Then it was, as ever, off to the Neptune Lounge again for tonight’s Grand Farewell show, which featured little snippets of all the entertainers and the Black Watch Show Company and was as good as ever.  🙂

After the show we went along for the quiz – nope, we didn’t win, only losing by one measly point.

When we went up to the Lido Lounge, it was absolutely packed.  I think everyone was making the most of their last evening on the ship and of the free booze (I certainly was!).  We sat with our friends John and Lynda Colbert who had already done all their packing.  We hadn’t finished ours yet, but I was reluctant to go back to the cabin until I absolutely had to.  All the cases were supposed to be placed outside the cabin door before 2.00am, but as the clocks go back another hour tonight to take us back to Blighty time, it effectively meant another hour’s drinking.   🙂

So it was around 1.00am when we dragged ourselves back to cabin 4085, finished our packing, and put the cases outside ready for collection.

In the morning when we woke up we were back in the Tyne; as Geordie folk group Busker sang, it was Home Newcastle and the end of another fabulous cruise.

Copenhagen and Carlsberg

Friday, 19th July 2013

It was another bright and sunny day when we woke up this morning, with nary a cloud in the sky.  But there were little black clouds forming above our heads as we tried to shake off the depressing fact that our holiday was fast coming to an end.   😦

We weren’t due to arrive in Copenhagen until around 2.00pm, so we had the whole morning to spend at leisure.  We decided, therefore, to try out the Black Watch‘s swimming pool, which we’d thus far not managed to do.

We put our cossies on under our clothes, then made our way to the pool deck on Deck 6.  Although there were a lot of people relaxing on the sun-loungers or in the chairs scattered here and there, no-one was actually in the water.  Dipping a toe into the pool to test the temperature, we found it pleasantly warm, so in we went, and had the pool all to ourselves.

It was so nice in the water we spent a good half hour having a swim.  During our time in the pool, we noticed some of the bar staff setting up an “International Beer Festival” stall, consisting of many types of canned and bottled beer from all around the world.  We recognised various brands: San Miguel (Spain), Carlsberg (Denmark), Carib (Trinidad), Red Stripe (Jamaica) to name but a few – there were about 20 different types.

When we got out of the pool I went and got dried and changed back into my clothes, then we decided to have a pre-luncheon bevvy.  I chose a ‘Carib’ which is beer that is sold all over the Caribbean; we’ve had it in St. Lucia and in St. Maarten so it brought back good memories.  Trevor tried the South African version of ‘Carling Black Label’ and we enjoyed them very much.    🙂

We took our damp cossies and towels back to our cabin then went up to the Marquee Deck for our lunch; just something light like a sandwich or bowl of soup.  Then I went back and washed and blow dried my hair before it had a chance to be ruined by the pool’s salt water.

By this time we were just about ready to dock in Copenhagen.  There were another couple of (larger) ships there; one was the MSC Musica and the other was the Seven Seas Voyager.  We were moored up about half a mile from the famous Little Mermaid which we’d seen and photographed on our two previous visits here; on the Queen Victoria in 2007 and the Caronia in 2002.  But who could ever tire of Copenhagen?   🙂

We disembarked the Black Watch and decided to walk into the town, as we felt we needed the exercise!  Along the quayside were many ‘hop-on-hop-off’ city tour buses touting for business, but we decided we would take a ride on one of these tomorrow, as we had the whole day here.

We took a leisurely stroll into the town, passing several statues; one was of a polar bear with two cubs, one of a large bare-breasted mermaid, another was a statue of a soldier, erected in memory of the fallen in WW2 and, of course, Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid, which predictably had crowds of tourists round it.

We passed little souvenir shops selling postcards, t-shirts and beachwear, as well as ice-cream and snack stalls and another kiosk selling beer.

In the town we had about a mile to walk to get to the main drag.  I bought some postcards and we sought out an attractive pavement café to write them out; it had the added bonus of free wi-fi.  The beer cost about 8 quid a pint!   😦

After our drinks we walked back to the Black Watch and enjoyed some more (free!) booze up on deck in the bright sunshine.  Then it was back to our cabin to get sorted out for dinner.  Tonight we weren’t going in the Glentanar restaurant but were partaking of an Asian buffet that they were putting on in the Garden Café.

The Asian buffet was delicious; there were dishes from India, China, Thailand and Indonesia.  We tried a little bit of various dishes, then I spotted Chicken Satay skewers with the distinctive peanut sauce.  There were also some noodles which I smothered in an appetising sweet chilli sauce.

The chilli sauce took me by surprise; it was really hot!  I do love spicy foods and can usually eat the hot ones (such as vindaloo) but this sauce was something else!  I needed three glasses of iced water to douse the flames.   😉

After the delicious buffet we spent the evening in our usual way; off to the Neptune Lounge where it was a double-bill once again; the leader male vocalist from the Black Watch Show Company was putting on a mini-show he’d written and choreographed himself, called The Ringmaster, and this was followed by a reprise from one-man-band Bruce Thompson.  An excellent evening’s entertainment once again.  One thing I will say about the Black Watch evening shows – at least they are original and not just the same old tired excerpts from musicals that we saw on the Adonia in May.   🙂

Then it was off to the quiz (which we didn’t win – I think our prizes have dried up now!) and we finished the evening by going up to the Lido Lounge where resident entertainers “Serendipity” and Shat Pannon were performing again.  We spent some time sitting outside on deck in the warm evening air, watching the lights coming on all over Copenhagen, then it was off to bed, once again well after 1.00am.

Saturday, 20th July 2013

We were up at 8 o’clock this morning as tonight was the last formal night and we knew, from past experience, that this would mean there would be a free ‘champagne’ breakfast up in the Glentanar restaurant, where, along with the various fruit juices, bottles of bubbly and flutes would be available in case you wanted to enjoy a nice Buck’s Fizz.   🙂

I enjoyed a breakfast of smoked salmon, ham, salami and fresh fruits (melons and pineapple) washed down with coffee and three glasses of the free bubbly.   🙂

Then it was back to the cabin where we got together our stuff and disembarked the Black Watch to get one of the ‘hop-on-hop-off’ city tour buses.

Once again the sun shone brightly from a sapphire sky and the day promised to be another scorcher.  We boarded one of the waiting buses, bought our ticket then went up to the open-topped upper deck, where we plugged in our free ear-phones to listen to the commentary as the bus wended its way through the busy, Saturday morning streets.

We had to change at the civic centre for the bus that would take us to the Carlsberg Brewery, but as this bus wasn’t due for over an hour, we decided to go for a coffee and browse the shops.

Looking around some of the stylish shops and boutiques, I spotted a shoe shop (!!!) that was having a sale.  There were quite a few nice ones I saw in the shop window, so we went in (Trevor giving a sigh of resignation as we did so) and had a look round.  I spotted some lovely orange shoes with 5″ heels and open toes, tried them on and they were a perfect fit.  So I bought them – that’s two new pairs of shoes I’m going home with after this trip, ha ha.  I have shoes from all over the world, including Brazil, USA, Australia, Spain, Costa Rica, Tortola, Thailand, Japan and Malaysia.  Some of the styles and more colourful and unusual than the ones you’d get back home, so that’s why I can’t resist them.   🙂

By this time we had to go and get back on the bus, so off we went to continue our city tour, alighting at the famous gates, flanked by two bull elephants, of the Carlsberg Brewery.  Last time we were here in December 2007, we had to rush round it as we only had an hour until the last bus, so we didn’t do it any justice at all.  This time we could take as long as we liked – and we intended to.  😉

We bought our tickets and had a good look around.  We read about the history of the brewery, founded by J. C. Jacobson in 1847 and named after his son Carl, and we learned that the Carlsberg Group (which also brews Tuborg) is the fifth largest brewery in the world.

We then went into the stables, where the brewery’s dray horses are kept.  In reality, of course, the drays are no longer horse drawn, but the horse here are considered ambassadors for Carlsberg and are often hitched to old-fashioned dray carts for photographic and publicity purposes; you could also book a half-hour ride in the wagon pulled by a couple of these massive, dignified animals and we saw them doing a roaring trade, the horses’ hooves clip-clopping on the cobbles in the sunny courtyard outside the stables.

By this time, we were ready for our first free glass of beer (our ticket included two vouchers each that we could trade in any of the four bars for two half-pints of beer) so we sat at a shaded table in the courtyard and took advantage of the free wi-fi as well as enjoying our cold beer immensely.   🙂

We then continued our tour of the brewery which contains the world’s largest collection of different unopened beer bottles; to date there are over 22,000, displayed behind glass on floor-to-ceiling shelves.  We learned about the brewing process and the different brands, then decided to go back outside for our second glass of beer.

All in all, we spent three hours in the brewery, then went to catch the 2.30pm bus as we needed to be back at the Black Watch by 4 o’clock as I had an appointment with Mark in the salon; today he was doing my make-up as well as my hair.  In any case, all passengers had to be back on board by 4.30pm at the latest, as the ship was due to sail again at five.

The bus dropped us back at the Little Mermaid and we walked the half-mile or so back to the ship.  On our way, we passed the stall selling the cold draught Carlsberg at 5 kroner a pint and as we needed to get rid of the last of our Danish money we bought one and shared it between us.

Back on the ship I went to the salon and Mark, as usual, did a brilliant job of my hair and my make-up this time for a very reasonably price; I ended up giving him a tenner as a tip for the three hairdos he’d done for me, all of which had received many compliments.  🙂

It just remained, therefore, for me to put on my dress, jewellery and wrap and for Trevor to put on his DJ, before it was time to go to the Captain’s farewell cocktail party.   The Black Watch was underway by this time so the next time the ship reached land it would be back in Newcastle.    😦

We enjoyed three free glasses of ‘champers’ each and Captain Tom Hansen gave another little speech, summarising the cruise and the various ports we’d visited in his dryly amusing way.  Then it was time for us to go to dinner, where we enjoyed another sumptuous meal, followed by the traditional “Baked Alaska” parade by all the chefs, waiters and busboys.

The show tonight in the Neptune Lounge was the Crew Extravaganza, where we were treated to a display of singing, dancing and martial arts, some of them in their national dress.  It was an entertaining and colourful show and we really enjoyed it.

Once again we only lost the quiz by a point, then finished off the evening in the Lido Lounge, where we spent some time talking with Dave Kristian, the Geordie comedian, and enjoyed more of the free drinks.  I really will have to diet when I get back home, this lifestyle cannot be good for my liver!  But home was another world away, and tomorrow we had our final sea day to look forward to.   🙂

Rule Britannia!

The first thing we did when we woke up this morning was look out of our portholes to see what the weather was like.  Smaller wavelets indicated to us that the wind had dropped, and the sun was peeping out now and then through the fluffy white clouds.  So it looked as though it was another fine day.   🙂

I got showered and dressed and did my hair, dressing a little smarter than my normal cruise ‘day wear’ as, at 11.15am, they were holding the Fred Olsen Oceans Club cocktail party in the Neptune Lounge for Silver and Gold members.

Like many cruise lines, Fred Olsen has its own loyalty club for regular customers, and the membership grade (Blue, Silver or Gold) is dependent upon the number of nights you’ve spent cruising on a Fred Olsen ship.  Blue is for 1-30 nights, Silver for 31-100 nights and Gold for those who have done more than 100 nights.  Trevor and I are currently Silver and after this cruise we’ll have 66 nights total.

We went along to the Neptune Lounge for the free ‘champers’, wine or cocktails and canapés.  The fact that we’re cruising all-inclusive this time means that all the booze is free, so the freebies at the cocktail party sort of lose the thrill compared to cruises where they are the only free drinks and we try to have as many as possible.   😉

Nevertheless, old habits die hard so we enjoyed three glasses of the free ‘champers’ each as well as one or two tasty nibbles.  Captain Tom Hansen came on and did a little speech about how nice it was that so many people who cruised with Fred Olsen came back time and time again; he made everyone laugh when he said we nearly ended up holding the cocktail party in St. Petersburg because the Black Watch didn’t want to leave!   🙂

They then made presentations to two of the passengers who had the most nights’ cruising with FOCL; one lady who had over 400 nights and a bloke who had spent an astonishing 1000+ nights on board Fred Olsen ships.  That’s like staying on the ship for over three years solid.  Blimey – that would take some doing.

The announcement also came that, because one of the tender boats was out of operation (a fact that had come to light during an earlier inspection) there had been a necessary change to the cruise itinerary; we would not now be visiting Karlskrona in Sweden but would be arriving early afternoon in Copenhagen instead, where we would stay in port overnight before leaving on Saturday evening.  That was a bit of a disappointment as we hadn’t been to Karlskrona before and were looking forward to going; although we like Copenhagen we had already visited twice before.  But, as we’ve discovered often, things like this cannot be helped in cruising; sometimes changes are unavoidable.

The cocktail party finished in time for lunch, and as the weather was really warm and the wind had dropped to merely a gentle breeze, we went up to the Marquee pool bar, and enjoyed a sandwich and cold drink up there and sat around for a while in the sun.  However, the combination of late nights, hot weather and the cocktail party had a soporific effect so we decided to go back to our cabin for a nap.

Once back in the cabin though we just crashed out, and it was actually 4.30pm when we woke up!  We sluggishly sorted ourselves out and got showered and changed ready for tonight’s theme, which was red, white and blue attire or British Night.

Trevor wore black trousers, a white shirt and looked very smart in a Union Jack waistcoat and bow tie, and I wore white trousers, a Union Jack t-shirt and carried a massive British flag, which I wore draped around my shoulders.  We saw lots of other people had made the effort and there were quite a few Union Jack clothes and red-white-blue combinations.  Trevor had quite a lot of compliments about his attire, rightly so.   🙂

After our dinner we hot-footed in along to the Neptune Lounge to make sure we got our usual front row centre seats for tonight’s show, which was called “Britannia Rocks”.  Beforehand, however, the entertainment team got everyone roused into a good old British singalong, with lots of patriotism and flag-waving.  Everyone spontaneously stood up at the end to sing Land of Hope and Glory.

The show was absolutely brilliant.  It showcased British pop and rock music through the decades (60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s) before going into a bit of the old Pomp and Circumstance.  The audience were joining in and waving their flags, singing Rule Britannia and other patriotic songs, and it really was quite stirring in a way.  Fantastic stuff.

We all left the Neptune Lounge on a high, then went along to do the quiz as usual – no prize again.  Then we finished the evening off in the Lido Lounge where “Serendipity” and Pat Shannon (who we’d nicknamed Shat Pannon) were performing.  It was a late finish once again, after 1.00am (we weren’t tired because of our mega-nap earlier!).  However, we had to put our clocks back one hour, so we’d have a bit of a lie-in in the morning anyway.   🙂

Staying in St. Petersburg

Tuesday, 16th July 2013

This morning we woke up to find ourselves in St. Petersburg, Russia.  We had actually been here before; in 1996 when we stayed here for three days as part of a tour of Russia, and in 2002 when we had an overnight port of call on board the Caronia.  Today was the first of a two-day (one night) stay and we were spending the first day just staying on the Black Watch.

The reason for our not going ashore today was because we hadn’t bothered to get an individual Russian visa.  They cost over 100 pounds each and we didn’t think it was worth getting one, particularly since we’d already been to St. Petersburg.  In any case, if you book an organised excursion and go ashore as part of a group from the ship, you can use the ship’s visa to do so, so that’s what we were going to do tomorrow.

Today, therefore, would just be spent pottering around on the ship.  We had intended having a swim in the pool, but the wind up on deck was really strong.  Although it was sunny, the wind must have been gale force, and it was not pleasant to be out on deck.  No wonder no-one was in the pool!

I decided therefore, to use the time to re-colour my hair.  I use the ‘Mystic Violet’ colour by L’Oréal Feria; as its name suggests it is a dark purple colour. Doing it myself is much cheaper than going to the salon.   🙂

Once my hair was done, we just spent the time reading and relaxing and whiling away the time.  We looked at the Fred Olsen future cruise brochure again and saw one that we fancied doing next year (2014!) in Norway; it was called In Search of the Northern Lights and it means going all the way up beyond 70° north in November; at that time of year there would be little (if any) daylight at those latitudes so the chances of seeing the aurora borealis would be fairly good.  The ship is the Boudicca which we were on in 2008 when we went up to Spitsbergen.   🙂

The wind simply didn’t let up all day, which was a pity as the entertainment itinerary for tonight was called “A Night Under the Stars” and there was supposed to be dancing on deck to live music plus a late-night barbecue and the “Crew Cabaret”, where talented members of the Black Watch crew sing and perform for us.

We went along to the Lido Lounge at 3.30pm to take part in the “Name that Tune” quiz.  We usually do pretty well at this, particularly if it features 70’s and 80’s music.  We had to listen to 10-second clips from various songs, and give the title of the song or tune.  We scored 15/20 and tied with another team – just our luck, we lost the tie-breaker.   😦

We then stayed for the next quiz which was general knowledge and we didn’t win that either; in fact, the same team who won “Name that Tune” won the general knowledge quiz as well!  I laughingly asked if we could be on their team next time!   🙂

When we got back to our cabin, it was without any surprise that we heard the announcement which said that all outdoor entertainment tonight would be cancelled due to the unexpected windy weather.  The cruise director, Anthony, then advised us where the music, etc. would be moved to instead.

At 4.00pm, when the future cruise booking office opened, we went along and booked the cruise to Norway, so that’s three holidays we have booked for 2014 already.  🙂

We then got ourselves sorted out, had our dinners, then went along to the Neptune Lounge at 8.00pm for the Crew Cabaret.  Although they were all very good singers, we were a little disappointed that there was only singers as we wanted to see some of the traditional dancing and comedy acts that the crew members sometimes put on.  We were, however, advised that there would be another crew show later in the cruise.   🙂

Then, as ever, we went along to the Braemar Room for the quiz.  This time we were joined by David, Sandra and Margaret (who have been in our team before) and – wonder of wonders – we actually won!  So that’s two nights on the trot, so maybe we’ve now got our brains in gear!   🙂

After the quiz we just sat for a while, talking and drinking, then it was back to our cabin and off to bed.

Wednesday, 17th July 2013

After breakfast this morning we could see the sun shining so we eagerly went out on deck to see if the wind had dropped.  No such luck though, it was just as strong as ever.  However, if you could find a spot in the sun sheltered from the wind, it was actually quite hot, so we sat out by the pool for a while.

We weren’t due to go on our walking tour of St. Petersburg until 1.30pm, so we had the morning to pass on the ship, but it’s a pity the wind seemed to be spoiling what would have been lovely weather.

After a light lunch we assembled in the Neptune Lounge and got our tickets for the tour bus that would take us into the centre of the town to commence our 2½ hour walking tour.  On the bus, the guide gave out radio ear-pieces that would allow us all to hear what she said through her microphone.  At least that was the idea, but once we got off the bus the wind took hold, and mostly all we could hear was the wind rushing down her microphone, interspersed with the guide’s voice every now and again, so not an entirely successful exercise.

Not to worry though; the sun was out and we were in St. Petersburg.   🙂   We walked along the famous Nevsky Prospekt and saw a statue and monument dedicated to Catherine II.  We then went into a really posh and unusual delicatessen called Eleseevsky Store; I think it was Russia’s version of Fortnum and Mason.  The building’s architecture and decor were very grand, and the front window was filled with grotesque animated puppets; I thought some of them looked a little scary.

We passed the famous Hermitage art gallery and museum (we have been there before, in 1996, when we spent a whole day looking around and still didn’t see everything!) then we came to a park where there was an Eternal Flame in memory of those who had lost their lives in the 900 day siege of St. Petersburg during WW2.

There is so much to see in St. Petersburg; a day or two spent there doesn’t really do it any justice.  The architecture, buildings and churches are so interesting, and of course one of the most famous and iconic sights is the magnificent Church of the Spilled Blood with its ornate turrets and onion domes.  This was where our walking tour allowed us to have an hour of free time.  We didn’t go into the church as we had been before, plus I was dying for the loo, so we decided to find a bar or café, have a drink and use their toilet facilities, as there didn’t seem to be any public loos anywhere.

We went into the Paradise bar and sat on their terrace and enjoyed a cold Russian beer each.  I wanted to have a ‘Baltika’ beer (their own well-known brand) but the bar didn’t sell that type, and as we can’t read the Cyrillic alphabet I don’t actually know what the beer was called, but it was very nice.  🙂

We then rejoined our bus for the return journey to the Black Watch.  The wind was still just as strong and it was unsurprising that no-one was out on deck; in fact the flag flying from the mast was sticking straight out, straining against its ties.  We had about an hour to get showered and changed for dinner, so we got ourselves ready and, at about 6.00pm, we were aware that the Black Watch had slipped her moorings and was slowly making her way back from the dockside.

When I say “slowly” however, that’s exactly what it was.  It soon became clear that the strength of the wind was causing the Black Watch some difficulty getting away; as fast as she was trying to leave the dock, the wind seemed to be blowing her back again.  There was no way she was going to get away without the help of a couple of tugs.

We went up to the Glentanar restaurant at our usual time of 6.15pm and, from our table by the window, we could see two Russian tugs, once at each end, going full steam ahead to try to pull the Black Watch clear of the dockside.  Slowly, slowly she came round, moving almost imperceptibly at times.  But eventually we were underway by 6.50pm – it had taken us a full fifty minutes just to get away from the shore; we’ve never known that happen in the 33 cruises we’ve been on.

We later found out that the weather forecast had predicted a wind speed of eight knots; the actual wind speed was 38 knots, at times even reaching 40.  Quite a gale!

After our dinner we went along to the Neptune Lounge and got our usual seats at the front just before 8 o’clock.  The show wasn’t on until later, but in the meantime the entertainment team wanted three couples of volunteer for “Mr and Mrs” (called The Marriage Game in the US) so Trevor and I put our hands up, as we’ve played (and won!) this on previous cruises, notably on the Queen Elizabeth in 2010 and the Marco Polo last year.

Well, we achieved our hat-trick as we won “Mr and Mrs” this time as well, scoring 60/60 – full marks.  Our prize was quite good; it was a bottle of Fred Olsen Chardonnay as well as a pair of boxed matching champagne flutes.  The prize was worth about 30 quid according to the on-board prices if we’d bought the items.  They also gave us a leather bookmark and luggage tag, so we’re going to go home laden with Fred Olsen branded goodies after this cruise!   🙂

The show tonight saw a reprise of a couple of great acts we’d seen earlier; singer Suzi Woods and comedian Dave Kristian – both were excellent once again.

Then it was into the Braemar Room as ever for the quiz, and once again we scored well, but not well enough to win.  But we’d had three prizes three nights running, so we weren’t going to complain.   🙂

Back in cabin 4085 we settled down for the night; we had another whole day at sea to look forward to tomorrow, so we hoped the wind would drop by then.

Touring in Tallinn

Our port of call today was Tallinn, capital of Estonia.  We had visited here once before, on the Caronia in 2002, so we were looking forward to seeing how it had changed, particularly since Estonia had joined the EU since we were last here.

Today we were doing a half-day excursion that would give us a good all-round taster of this lively city where the past and present blend to form a very interesting experience.  Estonia, of course, used to be part of the Soviet Union (along with its neighbours Latvia and Lithuania) but since their independence in the early 1990’s the people are a fiercely patriotic and proud nation.

We boarded our tour bus and set off through the Old Town with its medieval city walls with their ramparts and turrets; the town was built from the 13th to 16th centuries and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  We came to a massive park with a huge stage/amphitheatre and were told that this is where the Estonian Song Festival is held annually; about 30,000 people attend, all wearing national costume, and sing patriotic songs.  Our guide explained that it really is an impressive and even quite moving sight to see.

Next we visited one of the old Guild Houses where we enjoyed a good cup of coffee along with some Estonian cake, while being treated to a folkloric dance show.  It was very entertaining.  Then it was back out into the sunshine to continue our tour, which took us past a lovely residential area of private homes and the Pirita Marina which had been used for yachting when the Moscow Olympics were held in 1980.

We then had some free time to browse around the craft market in St. Catherine’s square as well as look in the shop windows.  Our guide said that we could either get the bus back to the Black Watch or could walk it; she told us it was only about a 20-minute walk and showed us which direction to go.  Trevor and I decided we’d do some exploring on our own and then walk back to the ship; after all the food and (free!) booze we’d been indulging in it would be nice to have the exercise.   🙂

At this point we broke away from the rest of our party and had a good look around the shops and streets and stalls.  There were many trendy pavement bars and cafés doing a roaring trade from the two or three cruise ships that were docked in Tallinn.  We bought some postcards and stamps and then wandered around, looking for an ideal bar to sit and write them out.  We spotted an Irish bar called Shamrocks (fancy coming to Estonia to sit in an Irish bar!) which had free wi-fi so we went in, ordered a pint each of their local beer, and sat outside in the shade to enjoy our drinks, people watch, write out the postcards and check our emails.   🙂

After spending a pleasant hour in such a way, we decided to take a slow walk back to the Black Watch.  We set off on our way, looking in the shop windows, and I spotted a shoe shop that proclaimed that a sale was on and some of the shoes were only five Euros (less than a fiver at home!).  So I couldn’t resist going in.   🙂

I didn’t see any of the five Euro shoes that I liked, but I then spotted a pair, in my size (37) that I just had to have.  They are a sort of beige colour but they have metal studs and spikes at the toe and some more studs and spikes at the heel, as well as a 5” stiletto heel.  Talk about kick-arse shoes! I would have to be careful when crossing my ankles not to spike myself!  The shoes were 36 Euros (about 33 quid) so not too bad.  I decided I’d wear them tonight.   🙂

Back on the Black Watch we dumped our bags in cabin 4085 and went and had something to eat and drink.  We then sat out on the deck for a while in the sunshine before going back and having an afternoon nap, before just generally whiling away the afternoon, reading my Kindle and looking at some of the offers Fred Olsen Cruise Lines had for booking a future cruise with them.   🙂

We then got washed and changed and for dinner.  Tonight, however, we didn’t go to the restaurant on our usual table; but instead we went to an Indian buffet they were holding in the Garden Café.  It was delicious; I had a spicy lamb biryani and some tandoori chicken washed down with a cold bottle of Kingfisher beer, yum yum.  We love Indian food and tend to have a takeaway at home every couple of weeks or so.

Later on, in the Neptune lounge, we laughed ourselves silly at Bruce Thompson, who was billed as the ‘king of the one-man bands’.  I am always fascinated when watching these types of musicians; they play the guitar, mouth organ, drums, cymbals and tambourine, all at the same time, with the drums operated by strings attached the the heels.  So just dancing and tapping your feet makes the drums beat – it’s great to watch.  Bruce also threw a bit of comedy into his act and invited someone from the audience, who (reluctantly!) came to have a go.  He was a big fat man and he went backstage to get equipped with his drum kit and other stuff, including cymbals strapped to each knee.  Watching him trying to bang the drum and play the cymbals and blow on a sort of kazoo was hilarious, and the guy was a good sport.  So all in all, a good night’s entertainment.  🙂

After the show we hoofed it along to the Braemar Room for tonight’s quiz, where we were joined by Geordie John and Linda.  We got 15/20 which we didn’t think was a sufficiently high enough score to win, but unbelievably, we did.  Not before time, ha ha, as we’d had plenty of near misses.  John started singing Queen’s “We Are The Champions” and mocking some of our rival teams, but when I told him we’d won because our team was called Mega Mackems he went mad and tore the quiz paper up, lol   🙂

We shared a bottle of the Fred Olsen bubby between us and sat and talked and laughed and shared a bit of banter until there was only the four of us left in the lounge!  Most people had gone to bed early because we were due to arrive at St. Petersburg, Russia in the morning.  We left the Braemar Room around midnight and returned to our cabin, for another night cruise on the Baltic.   🙂

Saaremaa and Singing

We were up at 7.30 this morning as we had to be ready to go on an excursion at 8.30am around the island of Saaremaa, off the Estonian mainland. Saaremaa is a new port to us, so we were looking forward to exploring.

From the top decks of the Black Watch we couldn’t see much of Saaremaa apart from dense pine forest on the shores of the sparkling Baltic sea.  We went down the gangway and boarded our waiting bus, then set off into the countryside.  Our guide told us that 75% of Saaremaa is forest, and that lumberjacks and loggers lived in small villages amongst the trees; indeed we saw huge sheds stacked floor to ceiling with logs sawn ready for the cold Estonian winters.

Our first stop was merely a photo opportunity as we found ourselves at the top of a rugged cliff called Panga Bluff, which is the highest cliff at 70 feet with forest behind us and superb sea views before us.  We had about 10 minutes to walk around and enjoy the scenery and sunshine until it was time to go back on the bus to continue our tour.

Next we visited Kaali Lake, a big round pond filled with green water which had quite a lot of lily pads on top.  The lake was actually formed as a result of a meteor striking the island about 3,000 years ago; we were looking at a crater about 120 metres in diameter filled to a depth of six metres.  Blimey!

We continued on our way through the quiet and sun-dappled trees, only occasionally coming across a cluster of houses or farm buildings, on our way to Kuressaare, the main town in Saaremaa.  This was a lot more commercialised, with shops, restaurants and bars.  On our way we stopped to have a look at the impressive Bishop’s Castle, which dated back to the 14th century.   Just outside the castle grounds we saw a mobile shop selling soft drinks as well as beer, so we each bought a can and sat on a nearby bench in the shade of the trees, to enjoy the cold beer.   🙂

After our guide had rounded us all up and we were back on the bus, we continued our trip until we came to an old 19th century farm which is now actually an open-air museum.  Looking around the buildings, with their original contents, was fascinating; we saw old farm tools and field implements, old byres and stables, and even a working blacksmith’s forge.  I was intrigued by the smithy; I’ve never actually seen horseshoes being made and seeing the guy heat the iron to just the right temperature, then hammer it into shape on the anvil, was very interesting.

Our visit to the farm was the final place on our tour, and we got back on the bus and enjoyed the rural field and forest scenery on our way back to the Black Watch.

As it was after 2.00pm when we arrived back on board and we hadn’t yet had lunch, we went straight to the Marquee Deck and enjoyed a light lunch along with a cold drink, before returning to our cabin for an afternoon power nap.  🙂

Later that evening the dress code was smart-casual or you could dress in the costume of tonight’s theme which was Rock ‘n’ Roll.  As that isn’t our era (in fact I hate the music and fashions of the 1950’s) we didn’t bother to dress up; but we saw lots of “Elvis” wannabes complete with sideburns, quiffs and inflatable guitars, as well as ladies wearing the circular skirts and bobby-socks.

Needless to say, the Show Company in the Neptune Lounge put on a production called “Love Me Tender” which featured the songs of Elvis Presley as well as other rock ‘n’ roll legends of the time.  Despite not really liking 50’s stuff, we actually enjoyed their show very much. So far we have found the entertainment on the Black Watch for this cruise to be excellent over all.

After the show we headed up to the Lido Lounge, not for the quiz this time, but because they were having a Prize Karaoke.  Yay!  A chance for me to get up in the limelight for a few minutes, and apparently every singer who got up to do a number won a prize (allegedly).   🙂

I put my name down to do Dido’s White Flag and I was the first one called up.  There were 20 prizes on offer, ranging from fairly good ones (e.g. bottle of bubbly, a round of drinks for four persons, half a carafe of wine, free cocktail of the day, Fred Olsen goodie bag etc.) to some really crap ones that couldn’t actually be called ‘prizes’ (e.g. a free glass of tap water, a tea bag, free use of the swimming pool or a toilet roll!).  Knowing my luck, I’d get one of the rubbish prizes.

I sang my song and randomly selected a number from 1 to 20.  Just my luck – I ‘won’ the free glass of water. Big deal!   🙂

Next up was a bloke who did a really good rendition of Frank Sinatra; it turned out he used to be a club/pub singer.  He won free use of the 24-hour coffee station (ha ha, it’s free anyway!).

I decided to try my luck again and got up to sing These Boots Are Made for Walking by Nancy Sinatra – this time I won a free half-carafe of house wine, but as we are travelling “all inclusive” it wouldn’t really make any difference (typical!).  But they allowed me to trade it for a free cocktail of the day, so I enjoyed a nice cold mojito.   🙂

One of the barmen got up to do a really good (and funny) version of Stayin’ Alive, complete with the Bee Gees trademark falsetto notes.  He won a free bottle of bubbly which he donated to another passenger in the room.  Typical how the crew won one of the better prizes!

Other singers got up, winning anything from fridge magnets to keyrings to some of the booby prizes like free use of the gym.  Then there was a break while the resident singer, Pat Shannon, got up to do a few numbers.  During that time the lounge filled up with more passengers, including Geordies John and Linda, who came over to join us.

The second half of the karaoke started off with Jackie, the deputy cruise director, and Lynn, the female half of duo “Serendipity” doing the really difficult Enough is Enough by Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer.  Lynn picked a number and won the Fred Olsen goodie bag which is a cool bag filled with useful knick-knacks like a shopping bag, alarm clock, notebook, folding sunhat, sewing kit and other things – I think it was the best of the prizes on offer.

After another couple of singers got up, no other names were on the list to sing, so I volunteered to get up and do one more.  I sang Sinead O’Connor’s Nothing Compares 2 U and got a massive cheer and round of applause, even from Geordie John who said I sang very well “for a Mackem”.  My ‘prize’ this time was a Twining’s teabag, whoopee!   :-/

Just then, Lynn from Serendipity came over and donated her Fred Olsen goodie bag to me, as she said she felt I deserved it when I’d got up and sang three times and only won rubbish prizes.  So that was very kind of her and it meant I got the top prize after all!   🙂

Cruising the Baltic

Another sunny and warm day when we woke up this morning so we were looking forward to just lazing about the ship and not doing much in particular. 🙂

At 11.00am we attended a fascinating lecture in the Neptune Lounge called “The Life and Works of Carl Fabergé”, who was famous as jeweller to the Russian Tsarina.  Perhaps Fabergé is most well-known for the series (50 in total) of fabulously intricate eggs he was commissioned to design for the Russian Royal family between 1885 and 1917.  Fabergé eggs are instantly recognisable around the world and have often been copied, or jewellery has been created based on the egg designs.  The presentation slide show showed us lots of examples of the eggs and when they were commissioned; the detail was amazing.  During a holiday we had in Russia in 1996, we visited the Kremlin in Moscow and saw their collection of Fabergé eggs (19 in all) and they are stunning.

The presentation finished in time for us to go and have some lunch, which we ate up on deck before sitting at the stern of the ship in the sunshine for a while.

So we didn’t really do much today at all, apart from socialising with our fellow passengers, eating, drinking the (all inclusive!!) booze and relaxing but, as ever, the time passed quickly and soon it was time to get ready for dinner, as once again tonight was formal evening.

I went to the beauty salon where Mark, the hairdresser, backcombed and curled my hair and swept it all over to one side in a fabulous up-do.  On Fred Olsen ships the prices in the hairdressing salon are really reasonable; it only cost me 20 quid to get my hair put up which is cheaper than what I pay back home (£25.00) and considerably cheaper than what I was charged on the Arcadia in January; it cost me £45.00 for a far inferior job.  So Mark had done a lovely job for less than half that.   🙂

I took my time getting ready as I had already decided I wasn’t going to go up to dinner tonight.  I’d had a decent lunch and it is always far too easy to overeat on a cruise ship; missing a meal certainly wasn’t going to do me any harm.  I only went into the Glentanar restaurant in time for the coffee stage, then Trevor and I went along to the Neptune lounge for tonight’s entertainment.

Tonight it was the turn of the excellent Black Watch Orchestra to show themselves in the limelight instead of just accompanying the other acts.  Each musician is very talented and excellent in his own right, so tonight they were doing a tribute to the Big Band Era and their show was fantastic; I really enjoyed it.

Then we went along, as we always do, to the Braemar Room for tonight’s quiz. There were two of us in our team (me and Trevor) and we got talking to some other people we’d seen around the ship;  Dave and Sandra and her mother Margaret, who asked us to join forces with their team as the maximum team size is six.  We did so, and felt that we’d done well, scoring 16/20, but there was no less than four teams on 17 points, so there was a four-way tie-breaker. So once again we were finding the free bottle of Fred Olsen bubbly to be most elusive this cruise!   😦

Then it was back to cabin 4085 for a good night’s sleep and whatever delights tomorrow had in store for us.