Sue Bryant boards the Brabant, the ocean cruise line’s first river vessel – and speaks to commercial director Peter Deer about plans for next year and beyond
Small, friendly ships, imaginative itineraries and the company of fellow Brits, mainly of a certain age, are all part of Fred Olsen’s successful ocean formula. So the line’s jump into river cruise in spring 2018 seemed a logical move. It was probably a smart one, too, given the recent announcement by Clia that the number of Brits taking a river cruise had increased by 21 per cent in 2017.
Rather than build a ship, Fred Olsen has chartered the 156-passenger Amadeus Princess for 2018 and 2019 – a 12-year-old vessel that’s part of the Amadeus River Cruises fleet, sailing the Rhine, Danube and Moselle. A few changes have been made. A new name, Brabant, after a former Fred Olsen vessel, now adorns the white hull. Onboard pricing is in sterling and a Fred Olsen cruise manager sails with every voyage. The line has been quick to realise that Fred customers can’t do without their morning cuppa, so, for 2019, tea and coffee-making facilities are being added to every cabin.
So far, so good, but new riverboats nowadays come with anything from gourmet speciality restaurants to rooftop herb gardens. Does a new venture like this need something more cutting edge to succeed? I’d say, not if you get it right. So, the friendly atmosphere on Brabant, the itinerary and the fantastic food more than compensate for sailing on a slightly older ship.
It’s not as though Brabant really shows its age, anyway. Most of the cabins have floor-to-ceiling glass with a door that slides across to create a Juliette balcony. There’s a spa treatment room, where I had an outstanding massage, and a tiny plunge pool on deck. All meals are taken in the light-filled Panorama dining room, while the bright Amadeus lounge aft is popular for coffee, card games and watching the scenery. Granted, it’s not the Scandi-cool décor of Viking’s ships, or the sumptuous interiors of Uniworld, but then, you’re paying several hundred pounds less than you would for Viking or Uniworld.
Brabant’s food could certainly be compared to that of a more luxurious ship: fish in delicate herb sauces, pasta made to order, daily roasts and a delicious vegetable curry, a speciality of the Goan chef, George. I do think, though, the dining room could use one more waiter and there were teething problems at the beginning of the season over how Brits like their bacon in the morning. But these service issues have been ironed out, according to Fred Olsen’s commercial director Peter Deer. “Those first few cruises aside, we’re getting 97 per cent satisfaction ratings of ‘good’ or ‘very good’,” he says. “We’re very happy with that. We’re also getting a good mix of new-to-Fred Olsen and existing ocean customers – and people are repeating for 2019 at the same rate as they do on our ocean cruises.”
Excursions cost extra – a sensible move as Fred Olsen’s passengers are an independent lot and would probably baulk at paying for included tours they didn’t really want. Take-up was very low and, instead of trailing round behind a guide, people just did their own thing in port. On a scorching day in Strasbourg, I spotted several shipmates entrenched for an afternoon in a pavement café, tucking into tarte flambée and a bottle or two of chilled Alsace. In pretty Cochem, a half-timbered town in the heart of the Moselle wine-growing district, we climbed the hill to Reichsburg Castle to find the shaded terrace already packed with Fred Olsen passengers enjoying the view over a cool beer. The ship’s fleet of bikes was in constant use.
Evenings on board were fairly low key, other than a rowdy quiz night and a local duo who one night got our more extrovert companions yodelling and singing drinking songs. Nevertheless, plans are afoot for more enrichment in 2019. “We want to provide more themes and variety,” says Deer. “We’re planning to get some lecturers from The Arts Society and some who can talk about military history on the Rhine. Wine and music is an obvious pairing, so we are looking at that for the Danube. We’re also thinking about getting some more bicycles to allow for independent exploration or perhaps some guided tours.”
The 2019 season, Deer says, is already in a better position than this year. “We’re 15 to 20 per cent better sold already than we were at this stage for 2018,” he comments. However, the line has no plans to build its own riverboat. “What we’ve learned is that the complexities of river cruising are very different from those of ocean cruising,” Deer says. “Amadeus know what they’re doing and they’ve done it for many years. So, for the time being, we’re happy to charter and allow someone who has the expertise to operate our river programme.”