When I told people I had booked a mystery cruise the most common response was “Great, where are you going?” At first I thought this was an attempt at humour but, the more often the question was posed, the more I realised it was asked in all seriousness! My reply was that I was sailing from Newcastle and returning to Newcastle but the 11 nights in between were unknown until Balmoral arrived in port each day. For some, not knowing where you will be taken is not exciting (and this proved so with a few passengers). However, for myself and every fellow guest I spoke with it was great fun trying to guess where we would be the next day.
Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines advertised this mystery cruise as 11 nights, visiting a different country every day – quite a challenge. Many guests had calculated that we would likely head to The Baltic Sea from Newcastle, in order to visit 10 different countries, and I was one of them.
So, on 16 September 2019, Balmoral departed Port of Tyne, somewhat later than scheduled because her arrival in Newcastle was delayed due to inclement weather in the North Sea. With all on board navigation screens turned off, and a request that mobile devices were not used to spoil the surprise for others, the only way to know where we were heading for was to follow the stars! I jest.
On rising the following morning, the position of the sun and having land to starboard, I realised we were travelling south. This was unexpected and I quickly tried to assess Balmoral’s speed to glean a notion of where we would be visiting. The captain had informed us the previous evening (as would be the norm for this voyage) that we would be in port appoximately 13:30. I had read, shortly before the cruise, that there was a new push to attract cruise ships in Great Yarmouth and I began to discuss this option with other passengers in the Observation Lounge. Most looked at me as though I was mad, stating we were promised a different country every day, so not a UK port. I felt this too, but Fred. Olsen had not stated that every country would be ‘abroad’. However, I was seriously surprised when Cruise Director, Elliot, announced that we would be alongside, in Great Yarmouth, UK in one hour. Unfortunately, because of the late departure from Port of Tyne we had lost a few hours in Great Yarmouth and one all day shore tour was cancelled.
The next port was Dunkirk, France, although the town is roughly 20 kilometres from the cruise berth and required a lengthy transfer bus trip to reach.
I mentioned shore tours previously, perhaps I should elaborate now. As I had booked a mystery cruise I was very surprised to receive a Shore Tours Booklet several weeks prior to the cruise. However, this was cleverly presented in that each port offered a choice of two tours, each having an oblique description that did not give away too much, an indication of time, cost, and how much walking entailed. I am sure some passengers may have worked out some of the destinations but I did not feel the need to do so.
Port 3 was Antwerp, for a whole day call. Antwerp is a really nice port because one simply disembarks the ship, crosses the road, and there is the city! An almost compulsory stroll around the city to purchase wonderful Belgian Chocolates to take home to loved ones, and to observe wonderful shop window displays of hundreds of local brewed beers, was order of the day for me.
On to mystery port 4, Ijmuiden, The Netherlands. It is here that the DFDS ferry service from Newcastle completes its voyage, and many of my fellow passengers from the North East of England, and Scotland, were pleased to find where their local service went to. Ijmuiden is not the prettiest of ports and is often slated as the port for Amsterdam, where cruise passengers are usually bussed into the Capital City. On this occasion there was a shuttle bus to Ijmuiden town, which was not well received by some passengers, and consequently a report appeared in one of the British national newspapers telling of a ‘passenger mutiny involving hundreds refusing to leave Balmoral.’
My comment is that I did not go ashore at this port, because I have been there previously, but I really did not speak with anyone who approved of the actions of a few, who contacted the media in order to tarnish the image of what was, in fact, a very pleasant mystery cruise. Many people commented that if one wanted to vet ports of call, one should not book a mystery cruise – which is a slightly more polite statement than my personal feelings portrayed! The fact is that this cruise would involve several short days in port, rather than typical whole days, because the itinerary created necessitated many countries in consecutive days. In my opinion transferring passengers to Amsterdam by shuttle bus was not viable for a half day call.
So, on we travelled, to enter the locks of the Kiel Canal, Germany at 08:30 next morning. We then had a wonderful day ‘at sea!’ transiting the Kiel Canal until 17:30 when we encountered the locks to exit, near Kiel itself. We were blessed with a lovely, mainly, sunny day which enabled long opportunities to sit on deck and wave at the many German locals who seem to throng to the canal banks to wave, cheer, salute, every cruise ship that passes by. One can observe twitching net curtains, before residents open their doors and stand (sometimes run to the banks) to observe the ship as she serenely glides by.
Of course, Balmoral was now approaching the Baltic Sea, but where would we visit in the ensuing days? I am totally confident that no one guessed correctly, when we awoke next morning in Poland – but not Gdynnia, for Gdansk, as would have been my choice. We were actually in Swinoujscie, only a few kilometres from the German border. This is a very charming, clean, and busy ferry port – and unheard of to the vast majority of passengers and crew.
Mystery port 7, and by now many aboard had worked out that we needed to cover Scandinavia to achieve the promised different countries. I favoured, Visby, Sweden, Skagen, Denmark, and Kristiansand, Norway.
In keeping with most of my predictions, we arrived in Malmo, Sweden, where I ventured ashore by foot. Because the city was in walking distance of the ship there was no shuttle bus, but the walk was a little too long for many who abandoned their plans and returned to Balmoral. I chose to explore Malmo a little before finding a taxi to return – partly because of an old leg injury causing soreness, but also because I had Swedish Krona burning a hole in my pocket.
Next morning I awoke in Skagen, Denmark (joy at being correct!) and on arriving in Spey restaurant at the stern of the ship for breakfast, was surprised to see Boudicca berthed behind Balmoral. The Daily Times, placed in the cabin every evening, giving details for the day ahead, had stated that Boudicca was at sea heading for Dover. Apparently, she was diverted because of a fault in one of the locks on Kiel Canal, so there were two Fred. Olsen ships in Skagen. I have visited Skagen before. it is a very ‘quaint’ town with wide streets and many shops (which tend not to open until 10:00) and it was a joy to walk round again, on a rather crisp yet dry morning.
Mystery port 9 was Stavanger, Norway, another port that is just a short walk in to the town. Another wonderful port to visit with many narrow streets, full of shops, restaurants and bars. However, as with most of Scandinavia, Kroner and Euros do not go very far here.
So there we were, in south west Norway with one port/country remaining. Some passengers speculated we could make a dash for Germany as we had not stopped in that country, before returning to Newcastle. I offered Scotland, either Kirkwall, Orkney Isles, Aberdeen, or Dundee, but others felt Kirkwall was too distant from Newcastle. I countered that Balmoral was offering Afternoon Tea in The Observatory, which is usually reserved for sea days, meaning we could depart Kirkwall lunchtime and make it back to Newcastle.
Discussions were terminated when the captain announced that inclement weather approaching from the west meant that Mystery Port 10 had been aborted and we would instead make a steady, comfortable return to Newcastle, utilising a sea day. He did add that the missed port was to have been Kirkwall – right again!
We arrived in Port of Tyne on time on 27 September.
In summary: I have taken nearly 70 cruises and my aim, when choosing an itinerary, is to be taken to at least one new port. I decided to take this Mystery Cruise because I did not need to study brochures greatly, to achieve my aim. I was comfortable with the idea that I didn’t mind being taken somewhere I had visited before, because I had no say in this. I was absolutely delighted to visit four new ports on this cruise: Great Yarmouth (never on a ship), Dunkirk, Swinoujscie, and Malmo. Ports that I had visited before were all very pleasant and well worth returning to, and any passage of the Kiel Canal, during daylight hours, is a real joy.
Finally, I cannot review a cruise for ports alone. So, briefly, I want to congratulate the Captain, his officers and wonderful crew, for making my experience of a mystery cruise so very enjoyable. The voyage planners at Fred. Olsen Head Office, deserve credit for devising an interesting itinerary too. As usual, with any Fred. Olsen cruise, the galleys provide adequately fine dining experiences, with some exceptionally good dishes; the entertainment is also very good quality, and absolutely finally, Balmoral’s quite recent refurbishment has really enlivened the ship.