Braemar is one of the most welcoming cruise ships you're likely to experience. Crew greet passengers with friendly smiles and welcome drinks, and wherever you sit -- out on deck, in the lounges or waiting for a cocktail at the bar -- you are guaranteed to be able to turn around and have someone to engage in a pleasant and warm conversation. First impressions are of a beautifully furnished and well-laid-out ship. It also features some truly elegant public rooms, many of which were given a facelift during a 2017 refit.
Originally built in 1993, Braemar joined Fred. Olsen Cruise Line's fleet of four ships in 2001. In 2008, it had a major refurbishment, during which it was "stretched" (cut in half and a new section placed in the middle -- you can spot the join on the outside of the ship), which created extra space for more cabins and large, luxurious public rooms.
Fred. Olsen is well known for having a devoted following of older passengers, but depending on the time of year and destination, you may find it skewed more towards middle age, with a handful of young adults and an even smaller handful of kids. The general atmosphere is informal and friendly, but this doesn't affect the usual programme of formal nights. On a 14-night cruise, expect three formal nights and one British night, on which passengers were invited to dress in red, white and blue and participate in a traditional British sing-along in the show lounge. Non-British cruisers were invited to dress in colours of their own national flag.
There is a range of entertainment for all tastes throughout the day, especially on sea days, but there's always plenty to do on port days, too, for those who don't want to go ashore. The large library, with excellent seating and a wide range of books, is also the Wi-Fi centre for those who don't bring their own device and want to keep in touch with the outside world. There's the age-old tradition of a jigsaw puzzle spread out in the library for passengers to add a few pieces in idle moments. A newsletter of world news is available every day from Guest Services.
Adjoining the library is the Bookmark Cafe, serving a selection of speciality coffees and teas from Taylors of Harrogate, as well as handmade chocolates, in relaxing surroundings.
For more lively entertainment, there's music in various lounges and bars, karaoke at one end of the ship and a cocktail pianist at the other. During the day, there's shuffleboard, deck quoits and quizzes. Of course, also on sunny days, there's the Marquee Deck with plenty of sun loungers, two swimming pools and two hot tubs.
Service is excellent, from a friendly and always-helpful crew. Even on a small ship it's still easy to lose your way for the first day or two, but there's always someone on hand to point you in the right direction.
On sailings of five nights or fewer, there are no formal nights. On 14-night cruises, there are three formal nights, and seven-night cruises have one. (Sailings of fewer than seven nights have no formal nights.) On formal nights, men are expected to wear black tie, and the majority of them do, although many also wear dark suits and ties, which is equally acceptable. Ladies are expected to wear cocktail or evening dress, and this could be described as restrained and elegant with a few exceptions.
The remaining nights are Smart Casual, which indicates comfortable attire for both men and women, with "casual elegance". The majority of men went without jackets but with smart shirts, while the women were in general a little more glammed-up. Shorts and swimwear are not appropriate gear during evening mealtimes, nor are they allowed in the restaurants.
On British Night, passengers are encouraged -- but not required -- to dress in red, white and blue.
Featuring a show lounge format, the Neptune Lounge -- the ship's main theatre on Deck 5 -- is set sideways on to the ship, so the dance floor is wide but short in length and surrounded on three sides by seating. Curved tiers of seats in wide arcs mean that sight lines are better than in some show lounges. During the 2017 refit, additional seating was added, with plans to add even more during an upcoming refurbishment.
The Braemar Show Company and orchestra are talented. The variety and quality of costumes and quick changes are quite incredible, especially in "Non-Stop Europa", described as a whirlwind tour of Europe's song and dance.
Vocalists, a comedian and an electric violinist alternated with the production shows, and the traditional crew show was excellent, made special by the gorgeous national costumes worn by the crew and other nationalities performing their national dances.
Ballroom dancing (with dance hosts available) takes place before and after the evening shows. The Neptune Lounge is also used for a range of other activities, including classical piano concerts and occasional feature films during the day.
Quizzes, bingo, darts, chess, live music, table tennis, dance classes, singing classes with a voice coach and craft classes are all on offer.
Music is in all the main venues, plus dancing, karaoke and disco. There is no casino, but two gaming tables (blackjack and roulette) -- seemingly an afterthought -- are open in the evenings in the corridor near The Bookmark Cafe.
The lounges vary in size but all are well appointed and welcoming -- friendly but never boisterous.
Cocktails and wines of the day are recommended in the daily programme and are served in all venues. Beer is also available. Prices are reasonable, but cruisers can choose to upgrade to an all-inclusive package for a per-day fee. Passengers purchasing the add-on can choose from fizzy drinks, house wines, selected beers, house spirits, juices, coffee and tea, excluding premium brands and speciality coffee beverages from The Bookmark Cafe.
Morning Light Pub (Deck 5, forward): This venue boasts the largest onboard bar, stretching the width of the ship. It also serves as a venue for games and quizzes throughout the day, plus nightly bingo. Live music and song are also provided. As its name suggests, the Morning Light has the ambience of a British pub, with a laid-back atmosphere, comfortable armchairs and plenty of relaxed entertainment.
Coral Club (Deck 5, aft): The Coral Club, which recently received a facelift, is a show lounge and bar featuring more song and dance shows by the Braemar Show Company in a more intimate setting than the Neptune Lounge. Sofas, armchairs and tables are set around a small dance floor, with music throughout the evening from the In Tune band onstage. There's a well-attended karaoke (with prizes on certain nights) and a late-night disco, as well.
Observatory (Deck 8, forward): This elegant, sophisticated bar offers panoramic views of the sea, and a cocktail pianist plays throughout the evening. With armchairs set around small tables, this is a great venue for stunning views during sail-away, pre-dinner drinks or late-night tipples with super music in newly refreshed surroundings, courtesy of the 2017 refit.
Marquee Bar (Deck 8 midship): Out on deck but under a canopy, this is a very popular venue on sunny days, with lots of comfortable chairs and sofas where sun-lovers can enjoy a drink near the pool, weather permitting.
Ample sun loungers surround two swimming pools, appropriate to the size of the ship, plus two hot tubs and a paddling pool.
Passengers will find traditional deck sports, such as shuffleboard, deck quoits and golf putting.
The forward section of Deck 8 is given over to a large sunbathing area with standard quality sun loungers. Further along the deck are luxurious sofas and armchairs surrounding the Marquee Bar. Stairs lead from the sun deck to an upper deck with more sunbathing spaces.
The reception desk (Deck 5) is open all hours for information and advice; it's also where you can make reservations for high tea and The Grill speciality restaurant and purchase tickets for the shuttle bus offered by the line in each port (a lovely touch). Nearby is the shore excursions desk and shops selling a variety of souvenirs, personal items and clothing. A spacious arts, crafts and card room is on Deck 3, and on Deck 5 is a well-stocked library where cruisers will also find a selection of board games and a communal jigsaw puzzle. There is a for-fee cabin laundry service, as well as a self-service launderette (Deck 2), with washing machines operated by a £2 token available from Guest Services. Tumble driers and ironing are free. A four-page Daily Mail printout of national news is distributed from the reception desk. The ship's medical centre is located on Deck 2.
The Atlantis Spa on Deck 3 is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., housing two treatment rooms and a wide range of offerings, including an express pedicure (£25), a collagen facial (£65) and a special Indian head massage, which includes a wash and blow-dry or set (£55).
Facilities also include separate male and female saunas.
The fitness centre on Deck 7 aft is considerably spacious for a ship of Braemar's size. It has a staff of qualified instructors and a good selection of gym equipment -- stationary bikes, rowers, treadmills, ellipticals and steppers -- plus sea views that can be enjoyed while using the machines. Other equipment includes hula hoops, balance balls, step boxes, foam rollers, yoga mats, ab wheels and free weights up to 30 kilograms. A water fountain, towels, changing rooms and separate male and female saunas are also available. A wide range of classes includes Stretch and Relax, yoga or Pilates, all at £5 per class. Daily walks around the deck (four times around equals 1 mile) are organised by the staff.
Standards of food, service and presentation are excellent in all three restaurants, and there is a buffet service in the Thistle Restaurant for breakfast and lunch and Palms Cafe (all meals) for those who prefer more informal dining, with extensive menus of hot and cold food. This is far more attractive than the standard eateries on larger ships, as the buffets are placed within restaurants, with waiters showing diners to their seats and serving tea and coffee at the table. Self-service tea and coffee are available in the Palms Cafe 24 hours. Breakfast and lunch are open seatings and staggered slightly between the three restaurants to allow more freedom of choice. Free afternoon tea with sandwiches and assorted cakes is served in buffet form in the Palms Cafe from 3:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Additionally, for-fee tea can be found daily at the ship's Bookmark Cafe (cream tea, £2.95) and on sea days in the Observatory Lounge (high tea, £7.95).
Thistle Restaurant (Deck 4) and Grampian Restaurant (Deck 8): Thistle is the main restaurant onboard, with tasteful, sophisticated décor and windows on three sides, offering wonderful aft views. Although the atmosphere is lovely, we noticed that the ship's engine vibration can be extremely disruptive during meals when the ship is sailing, causing everything to rattle.
The smaller Grampian main dining room offers a more formal and intimate atmosphere. Elegant décor and large, round windows on either side make this an attractive dining area.
Breakfast and lunch are waiter served from a menu in Grampian, while they're either buffet-style or ordered from a menu in Thistle, depending on what you're craving. Items like sausages, bacon, fried and hard-boiled eggs, hash browns, fruit, cereal, muesli, doughnuts, breads and pastries, meats and cheeses can be found at the buffet, along with made-to-order omelettes. Menu selections might include quinoa and berry bowls, Eggs Benedict, American pancakes or a full English breakfast. Lunch is similar, with choices that might include salads, pies, a selection of carved meats (ox tongue, marinated clams, pork belly, chicken), fish, rice and vegetables, as well as a selection of cakes for dessert.
Waiters will seat you at both breakfast and lunch and will bring you coffee, tea and water, regardless of whether you choose to order from the menu or grab your own food from the buffet.
Dinner is first sitting at 6:15 p.m. and second sitting at 8:30 p.m. with waiter service. A typical menu selection would be: tropical papaya cocktail or chef's duck pate for starters; chicken vermicelli, cream of tomato or chilled carrot and orange soup; house salad with choice of dressings, or grilled salmon flakes with salad; steamed halibut with basil-infused vegetables, grilled pheasant breast, roast leg of lamb, Tagliatelle Alfredo or a deli platter as mains. Desserts might feature Bavarian lemon cream, Napoleon slice, rich chocolate fudge cake, sugar-free Napoleon slice, ice cream and sorbets, and a selection of British and international cheeses.
Always available as a main course are grilled fish of the day, grilled chicken breast, omelettes and pasta, and all dishes can be served with a daily selection of well-done vegetables, French fries and boiled or baked potatoes.
Both of these venues recently received new carpeting, chairs and lighting, enhancing their ambience.
Palms Cafe (Deck 6): This buffet venue -- which was spruced up with a new buffet island and soft furnishings during a 2017 refurbishment -- offers a less formal atmosphere, but it's more elegant than cafeterias on larger ships. Tables set with cutlery and napkins are regularly renewed by the attentive waiters as passengers come and go.
The buffet is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and selections featured at each meal are similar to what's available in the dining rooms.
The daily programme announces Today's Tasters at the Palms Cafe -- Sunday roasts, for example -- and Supper Club specials with themes like American, German, Italian, British Pub and Western.
Oddly, no food is available at the Palms Cafe between roughly 10 a.m. and noon and 4:30 p.m. until dinner begins. Passengers hoping for a between-meal snack are forced to order cream tea from the ship's Bookmark Cafe.
The Poolside (Deck 8): Weather permitting, a relaxed alfresco lunch, known as "The Poolside," is served near the Marquee Bar, with comfortable seating provided close to the swimming pools. Menu items are themed for the region in which the ship is sailing and include soup of the day, fish & chips, pizza, burgers, sandwiches and ice cream.
Room Service: A free service is available for Continental breakfast, which is served in the cabin between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m., but the order must be hung on the cabin door before 2 a.m. In-room dining is also available free of charge from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. The menu includes soup of the day, various fish or meat platters, sandwiches and desserts.
A selection of special occasion canapes is offered. Chilled are 90 pence each or 20 for £17. Warm are 95 pence each or 20 for £18 respectively. Party platters are also available, ranging in price from £16 to £28. A wide variety of wines, beers and soft drinks can also be ordered through room service.
The Grill (Deck 6, outside the Palms Cafe): In warm weather, a premium a la carte menu is served on deck in The Grill restaurant from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. and some lunchtimes, for a premium of £20 per person. Starters could include shrimp avocado and papaya tower, seared herb crusted beef carpaccio or Caesar salad. Main courses might consist of grilled mixed seafood, grilled prime ribeye steak, sirloin steak or fillet steak with choice of side dishes. Dessert examples are panna cotta or chocolate cup. Bookings are made at guest services. Try for an uncovered table by the railing; early dining on a night when you're sailing away from port is ideal for great views. Be warned, though, that black soot from the ship's funnel can make its way onto your table.
The Bookmark Cafe (Deck 5): Found on all ships in the Fred. Olsen fleet, this is an intimate coffee shop serving coffee and tea from Taylors of Harrogate, as well as a mouth-watering selection of a la carte chocolates. A daily cream tea is also offered, and it's outstanding, featuring a huge scone and some of the best clotted cream we've ever tasted.
Cabins vary enormously, from the single inside cabins on Deck 2 at 130 square feet to a superior suite on Deck 7 at 499 square feet. Although some grades are small and fairly basic, all cabins are in good condition considering their age, and all have hair dryer, safe and tea-/coffee-making facilities. Each cabin also has an interactive TV with a small selection of news channels, onboard programming and a large variety of music and movies to choose from.
During the 2017 dry dock, all cabins were outfitted with mini-fridges, new soft furnishings, bed runners and lamps. Additionally, cabins on Decks 6, 7 and 8 were outfitted with new carpeting and upholstery, and some cabins' bathtubs were replaced by shower cubicles.
Liquid hand wash and body wash dispensers are provided in all bathrooms. Items such as shower caps, shoe mitts, sewing kits, vanity kits, shampoo, conditioner and small bars of soap are obtainable from the cabin steward on request.
There are four wheelchair-accessible cabins, equipped for use by passengers with disabilities, but these are not fully adapted for wheelchair users.
Interior: Twin inside cabins are all approximately 130 square feet. Some have movable beds that convert into one double bed. The bathrooms are very small; the dressing table is also small, but shelves above help to eliminate clutter. One big plus is that, being on a lower deck, the cabins have less movement than the upper decks in rough weather.
Oceanview: Outside cabins vary from approximately 130 square feet to 175 square feet for a large superior outside cabin. Some have picture windows, some portholes, and some have two movable beds that can be converted into one double bed. A lot is packed into a small area, but all the necessities are there, and we had bright and attractive curtains and bed covers. There is ample drawer and wardrobe space for two-week sailings. In common with many of the other cabins, these have small bathrooms with limited room for toiletries.
Balcony: Deluxe balcony cabins are approximately 315 square feet. Superior balcony cabins are approximately 248 square feet. All are luxuriously appointed with attractive soft furnishings and picture windows, and they feature all aforementioned amenities.
Suite: Suites range from roughly 291 square feet for a single balcony suite to 499 square feet for a superior suite. The following grades are available: Superior Suite, Balcony Suite and Single Balcony Suite. All suites have a spacious living area with elegant furnishings. All grades are eligible for the complimentary Suite Dreams package, consisting of a welcome bottle of sparkling wine, fruit basket, flowers, free pressing service for formal wear, afternoon canape service, daily newsletter, shuttle coach vouchers, bathrobe and slippers, luxury towels, binoculars, world atlas and a pair of compact umbrellas for use ashore.
Cabin stewards leave the Daily Times -- the onboard newsletter -- in passenger cabins each night during turn-down service. Additional hand-outs left by stewards, which we thought were nice touches, include destination surveys following days in port and a cruise log, which is distributed on the last night of each sailing and contains a recap of sailing dates, ship stats and officers, each day's port of call and corresponding weather conditions and fun facts like how much meat and ice cream were consumed during the voyage -- a great keepsake for scrapbookers.
Our cabin steward was friendly and accommodating, introducing himself on the first day and kindly bumped our two single beds together upon request.