The Brit-friendly line offers a traditional cruise experience and the enhancements have been designed to ensure the ship retains the elegance and home-from-home atmosphere that passengers love, whilst giving the vessel a more contemporary look and feel; in short, providing the best of both worlds.
We're aboard Balmoral on an 11-night cruise to Spain, Portugal and Madeira. Here are some of our impressions:
"A Mature Lady of Modest Proportions"
Balmoral began life in 1988 as Crown Odyssey, and in a world of ever larger ships, she is probably best described as "a mature lady of more modest proportions". However, for passengers that like to cruise on a ship that, well, looks like a "proper" ship this adds to, rather than detracts, from her charms. Fans don't need to be alarmed about the refurbishment having a negative impact on Balmoral's character or atmosphere -- think of it as a tasteful makeover to enhance existing attributes rather than an aggressive Hollywood-style facelift.
We are impressed by the thought and attention to detail that has gone into different areas, such as the bright and stylish decor in cabins and public areas, including the sparkling (but of course classy) ceiling in the Observatory lounge bar along with the glass-top tables incorporating old nautical charts once used on the bridge. There are plenty of small touches too, such as floral decorations and pot plants placed around the ship to add colour and detail to different areas, particularly normally bare cabin corridors.
Top Notch Crew
The crew members are fantastic, from the tireless housekeepers -- seemingly around from the crack of dawn until they put a chocolate on your pillow at nightly turn-down -- to the friendly, attentive waiters, super helpful reception staff and various heads of department, who are a very visible presence around the ship and always have time to stop for a chat. Even though Balmoral is a relatively small ship there are still more than 1,000 people onboard, yet by day two the waiters knew our names and greeted us as we came into the restaurant. There is no doubt the friendly staff are one of the reasons Fred. attracts so many loyal passengers that cruise with the line time and time again. Many of our shipmates have clocked up thousands of nautical miles -- including back-to-back sailings and epic world cruises -- and told us they would never consider booking with another line.
Some spa treatments at sea have left us feeling decidedly unrelaxed and a bit "meh". First of all there are the eye-watering prices -- usually much higher than you'd pay at your local land-based salon -- coupled with an automatic tip on top. Not so on Fred. Olsen. Rather than handing over its spa services to a big-name brand, the line runs the Atlantic Spa in-house. As a result prices are reasonable, for example £30 for a 60-minute manicure and £65 for a one-hour massage with no time wasted on small talk or, one of our pet hates, the dreaded hard sell to buy pricey products. Some spa treatments are also a bit too fragrant and lightweight if you prefer a deeper sports-style massage. My traditional Thai massage (£75 for 75 minutes) was nothing of the sort after I told the therapist to go for it with a firm pressure; and she did. It was the best treatment I've ever had on a cruise ship.
A Reason -- (Well, Several) to Raise a Glass
Bar prices at sea can also be a tad sobering, particularly when you enjoy a tipple or two with your meals and a cocktail and nightcap in the evening. And, akin to the spa, many lines automatically slap a gratuity on top of every drink. First off, the bar menu on Balmoral is really good value, and probably less than you pay in your local. Beer starts at £2.15 for half a pint, wine is £4.50 a glass -- and the vast majority of cocktails are just £4.90. There's also the option to buy a beverage package for £29 a day, which also offers a 50 percent discount on any premium brand drinks and cocktails that aren't on the all-inclusive list. Finally, you can also get the day off to a sparkling start with the complimentary fizz served at breakfast. Cheers!
Extra Special Speciality Dining
The choice of dining venues on Balmoral might not be vast and are limited by the ship's size. But over and above the main dining rooms and buffet restaurant, what it offers in terms of speciality dining is standout. The refit saw The Grill being moved to a new standalone area on Deck 8 with panoramic views out to sea. Seating just 32 in sophisticated surroundings, it is a lovely spot for a special occasion meal or to simply treat yourself and the cover price of £20 per person is well worth it. The menus, which light up when you open them, proved to be quite a talking point as well as serving the planned purpose of being very easy to read; both innovative and practical.
Each night the indoor and outdoor seating area at the back of the Palms Cafe is transformed into the Poolside BBQ. The name belies what to expect as at first we didn't think it would be worth forking out £15 for what sounded like a glorified barbecue. We were wrong. Not only does the area look stunning, with different chairs and the tables beautifully set out for an evening meal, but the food elevates barbecues to a completely new level. Starters include mussels and king prawns served with aquavit, cream and tarragon or chicken and chorizo skewers, and among the choices for mains are marinated calamari with lemon aioli or grilled lamb chops with potato wedges and chimichurri sauce.
Fred. Olsen passengers are typically a mature and retired crowd, but many of them are enthusiastic, active and looking for new experiences. This is reflected in the shore excursions and there are certainly some unusual ones on offer on this cruise that go far beyond the standard city walking tours (although they are available too). Our particular favourites are an exciting RIB ride and whale watching adventure off Funchal, the chance to travel in a motorcycle side car or drive an electric-powered bubble car around Lisbon, and a tuk-tuk tour in both Funchal and Lisbon.
But, A Few Things You Might Miss
Aside from the buffet restaurant and speciality dining venues, Balmoral operates the traditional two sitting set up in its main restaurants for dinner where you are allocated a table (and dining companions) for the duration of the cruise unless you are travelling with a partner or friend and request a table for two. Some people undoubtedly enjoy the chance to meet and make new friends, but if you prefer an open seating arrangement and freedom to eat when you want, and with whom you want, then you might feel constrained in the dining room in the evening.
If you are particular about the type of toiletries you use then you will need to bring your own. Bathrooms in standard cabins are only fitted with a dispenser of combined hair and shower gel. Even the suites don't have hair conditioner, although there is shampoo, a separate shower gel and body lotion. So forewarned is forearmed and you might want to raid your own bathroom cabinet before setting out.
But other than those tiny points, we honestly haven't heard any grumbles from our fellow passengers who all seem to be having a great time and are loving the cruise.