Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines' flagship Balmoral is the largest ship in the four-strong fleet, yet is still small enough to navigate size-restricted waterways such as the Kiel Canal and offer a personal cruising experience to its 1,350 passengers.
Balmoral was launched in 1988 as Crown Odyssey, originally constructed for the Royal Cruise Line, and was operated by Orient Lines and Norwegian Cruise Line before being bought by Fred. Olsen in 2007.
When it joined the fleet it was "stretched", with a 99-foot section added midship. However, it retains the classic lines of what many traditionalists would deem a "proper" old-style cruise ship. This, combined with the onboard service and intimate atmosphere, is what draws loyal passengers back time after time -- many saying they would never travel on a big ship or with another cruise line.
Catering mainly to Brits, the ship provides a friendly, home-from-home atmosphere in increasingly stylish surroundings following Balmoral's extensive refurbishment in December 2017, which is part of an ongoing multi-million fleetwide upgrade. The majority of cabins have been completely redecorated and fridges and smart TVs added to every stateroom. The Grill speciality restaurant has been moved to a standalone venue and other new additions include a gelato bar. There have been other improvements throughout the ship, too, and more will take place when Balmoral re-enters dry dock in winter 2019, including the addition of the popular Oriental Room tea lounge currently found on Fred.'s Black Watch and Boudicca.
Solo travellers are offered a warm welcome with a higher-than-average choice of solo cabins, including balcony cabins, and special events such as social gatherings and teas.
The ship generally attracts a mature crowd who enjoy a mix of peace and quiet (ship announcements are kept to a minimum), lectures and a full programme of daily entertainment and excursions. However, that doesn't mean Balmoral is staid. There are sing-a-longs and karaoke in the lively pub and shore tours include plenty of active options.
Food is a mix of British fare and global cuisine and bar prices are extremely reasonable; possibly another reason why passengers are so happy.
Balmoral offers a mix of ex-U.K. sailings from Southampton, Newcastle and Rosyth and fly-cruises, with 2020/21 itineraries ranging from one-night taster cruises to a 70-night South American voyage.
The dress code on Fred. Olsen is designed to make passengers feel relaxed and comfortable. During the day, the accent is firmly on casual wear, such as T-shirts or polo shirts teamed with shorts, light-weight trousers or skirts, plus a sweater or fleece depending on the temperature.
Passengers wear bathing costumes, or shorts and T-shirts, paired with flip flops and sandals for lounging by the pool. Cruisers are asked not to wear vest tops or swimwear in the restaurants at lunchtime; however shorts and T-shirts are acceptable. Similarly, casual attire is worn on shore excursions. Layers, including a light rain jacket, are best in destinations where the climate can be changeable and comfortable walking shoes are always a must. For shore tours that include visits to churches, museums or cathedrals, it is advisable to dress a little more conservatively.
Most evenings are denoted as "smart casual". For men, this could be trousers, chinos or smart jeans, coupled with a polo shirt or shirt. Some passengers prefer to wear a jacket or tie which is also fine. Ladies' dress can range from tailored trouser suits and stylish dresses to casual separates and summer dresses; again, the emphasis is on what individuals feel most comfortable wearing. However, trainers, T-shirts, shorts and tracksuits are not allowed in the restaurants for evening dining.
Depending on the length of your cruise there will be one or more "formal" evenings on sailings of more than six nights -- usually one on a week-long cruise and two or three during a two-week itinerary. Most men opt to wear either a dinner jacket, or dark suit and tie, whilst ladies dress to impress in cocktail dresses, full-length ball gowns or evening suits. For passengers that prefer not to dress up on formal nights, Balmoral offers the Palms Cafe buffet restaurant where the dress code is "smart casual" every night.
There are also some optional theme nights, and most cruises of five nights or more have a patriotic "British Night" which proves hugely popular. Passengers are encouraged to put together a red, white and blue outfit, wave Union Jacks and sing-a-long during a night of British-themed food, music and entertainment.
The main entertainment venue is the Neptune Lounge situated forward on Deck 7. The 500-capacity venue has swivel chairs, banquettes and tables arranged in a horseshoe-shape around the stage. There are no awkward or unexpected stairs to negotiate and the sloping floor makes it easy and safe to get around.
Nightly entertainment -- with two performances geared towards first and second dinner sittings -- is a mix of song and dance shows by the talented and energetic members of the resident Balmoral Show Company and visiting guests. On our cruise the latter provided a diverse programme and included West End singer Shimi Goodman, virtuoso rock violinist Analiza Ching and comedy entertainer Martin Daniels. Another highlight is the farewell show, when some of the crew members perform songs and dances from their homelands in gorgeous costumes. An innovative touch is the circular forward section of the stage which rises during performances to give the audience a better view.
Keen dancers will be kept on their toes with a variety of classes and dance sessions held throughout the day in the Neptune Lounge. These range from classes for complete beginners through to the more experienced and are hosted by members of the Balmoral Show Company and two dance hosts who are available to lead solo passengers on the dance floor or dance with those who are sailing with partners in possession of two left feet. Ballroom dancing continues after the evening show. The lounge is also used for the captain's cocktail parties.
During the day, the lounge is also used as the meeting point for shore excursions, talks by guest speakers, classical recitals, interdenominational church services and light-hearted games such as dolphin racing.
Daytime events are numerous and varied, with an increase in activities on offer during sea days. By day, the Lido Lounge on Deck 8 is a multi-purpose venue hosting everything from darts, carpet bowls, table tennis and golf putting through to bingo and afternoon trivia. The area in front of the bar has a large screen TV, which is used to show various sporting events. Quiz fans can also attend morning trivia in the Morning Light Pub and there is a book club and afternoon music recitals in the Observatory Lounge.
Our cruise included a bridge coach who hosted classes for all levels, including complete beginners, in the Deck 7 card room -- a popular spot for the many bridge players onboard who organised their own tournaments and welcomed other players to join in. There is also a dedicated arts and crafts room and sessions typically include flower arranging, card-making and art, with materials and art packs available to purchase for a nominal amount.
Shore excursions were very well organised and reasonably priced. A package is placed in each cabin containing informative leaflets about the ports of call and shore tours on offer, and the members of staff at the excursion desk are knowledgeable and helpful if passengers have any questions. In addition to standard walking tours, Fred. Olsen offers some unusual and exciting shore excursions. On our cruise these included city tuk-tuk tours and a dolphin and whale watching trip off Funchal in Madeira (we had close-up views of both and it was an unforgettable experience).
Night owls are also spoilt for choice with entertainment in the various venues. Evening activities begin in the intimate Lido Lounge where cabaret shows are held for first and second sitting diners and later in the evening, it's time for karaoke, a variety of quizzes and jukebox dance parties. There are also two gaming tables tucked away at the back of the Lido Lounge for roulette and blackjack.
With its ever-changing light-studded ceiling, the Observatory Lounge on Deck 11 is particularly attractive at night and it is used for piano recitals and quizzes. In short, there is music all over the ship at all hours, including sing-alongs in the pub until late.
Notably, passengers can also expect some short evening excursions. On our sailing these included a night-time motorcycle tour of Funchal with one passenger riding pillion and the other sitting in a side car.
The ship has a good selection of bars and lounges of various sizes; each with its own character and virtually all of them were refreshed and upgraded during the last refit. The atmosphere in all of them is friendly and convivial, but never loud.
Each day different cocktails and wines of the day are recommended in The Daily Times cruise planner and available in all venues. Prices are extremely reasonable, particularly compared with ships that automatically charge a gratuity on top of the cost of the drink itself. The pricing is also nice and simple; for example all cocktails cost £4.90. Passengers can also opt to upgrade to an all-inclusive drinks package for a per-day fee, which covers a variety of wines by the glass, house spirits, branded beers, soft drinks, regular coffee and tea, fruit juice, and tea and coffee from the room service menu. It excludes premium brands and speciality coffee beverages from The Bookmark Cafe, but for passengers that enjoy a tipple or two it is very good value at £29 per person, per day, and also provides a 50 percent discount on drinks and cocktails not featured on the all-inclusive list, including bottles of wine. The package can be purchased onboard within 48 hours of departure.
Morning Light Pub (Deck 7): This midship maritime-themed venue boasts the largest onboard bar, stretching the width of the ship. As its name suggests, the Morning Light has the ambience of a British pub, with a laid-back atmosphere and plenty of comfortable armchairs. It is also the busiest bar onboard.
The Bookmark Cafe (Deck 7): A quiet lounge next to the coffee shop and library, this is popular with passengers who want to read.
Neptune Bar (Deck 7): Situated forward, this small bar is situated at the back of the main show lounge and passengers can sit at the bar and order drinks or there is waiter service throughout the lounge before shows and other events begin.
Lido Lounge (Deck 8): Situated aft, this multi-tasking lounge has sofas, armchairs and tables that are set around a small dance floor. Moving towards the back of the ship, the lounge leads into the area housing the two gaming tables and large TV screening sports events. All of these venues are served by the Lido Bar.
Lido Bar (Deck 8): This light and airy bar has panoramic windows overlooking the back of the ship and a beautiful polished wood floor. There are chairs and tables facing out to make the most of the views and it is also a good spot to have an aperitif before dinner in The Grill speciality restaurant, which is accessed from the Lido Bar.
Observatory (Deck 11): Right at the front of the upper deck, this elegant, sophisticated bar offers wonderful views of the sea from three sides, and a cocktail pianist plays throughout the evening. With armchairs set around small tables, this is a great venue during sail-away and for pre-dinner drinks or late-night tipples. A sparkling ceiling, where the lights change colour, was installed during the last refit and creates a magical atmosphere at night. The glass-topped tables are noteworthy as they are covered with old navigational charts that were once used on the bridge.
Marquee Bar (Deck 11): Out on deck and under a canopy, this is a very popular venue on sunny days and during pool parties, with lots of comfortable chairs and sofas where sun-lovers can enjoy a drink.
Two heated pools, situated on decks 7 and 11, each have two whirlpools -- one on either side. The pool on the top deck is part of the stretched section, and it's a most attractive area with statuary and mosaics. Both pools had new surrounds fitted during the last refurbishment. During school holiday cruises the pool on Deck 7 is designated as an adult-only pool and the upper pool is for families. Note: children are not allowed to use the pool unsupervised. The pools are filled with seawater, which circulates constantly whilst Balmoral is at sea. Both pools have access to al fresco dining, with the Palms Cafe adjoining the pool area on Deck 7 and the Marquee Bar on Deck 11. The pools are open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., although in rough weather, they might be emptied and closed for safety reasons.
Golf clubs and balls can be borrowed from guest services, and there is a golf net on Deck 11, aft. Traditional deck games, such as quoits and shuffleboard, are available for use at any time and there are also sessions led by members of the entertainment team, such as walking a mile around the promenade deck that are free of charge.
There is ample room for sunbathing around the pools with plenty of plastic web sun loungers and towels are provided, too. Passengers are asked not to reserve sunbeds, however there was no evidence of over-crowding or "chair hogging".
The main reception area -- called guest services -- is on Deck 6 and it's here that you'll also find the shore excursions desk, photo shop and an art gallery that displays some of the extraordinary 5,500 pieces of artwork that are dotted around the ship (rather than pieces for sale). The diverse art is from the Olsen family's private collection, and although some of it won't be to everyone's taste it makes the ship akin to a floating gallery and it is interesting to read the notes about the artist and the work next to some of the pieces. This area is going to be rejigged during the 2019 refit with the photo gallery being moved to make way for the Oriental Room -- which can currently be found on Black Watch and Boudicca -- selling exotic teas and other refreshments.
The atrium on Deck 7 is the attractive, bright and colourful buzzing centre of the ship, with a range of boutiques. Tables are also set out daily, selling a variety of souvenirs and novelty items. The library is well-stocked with fiction and non-fiction and passengers can help themselves for the duration of the cruise, with many leaving their own paperbacks behind when they have finished reading them. Quizzes and Britain Today, a potted version of a daily newspaper, are set out each day on the library table, and there are plenty of chairs facing daylight for the many keen readers. The card room was a popular spot for the bridge players onboard during our cruise and it was also stocked with board games and a great selection of jigsaw puzzles. Also on Deck 7 is the future cruise sales desk. With so many passengers now bringing their own tablets and portable devices, Balmoral has done away with the Internet room, however guests are welcome to borrow a table, on a first-come first-served basis, for the duration of the cruise when they sign up for an Internet package. A variety of Wi-Fi packages are available ranging from £26 for a 60-minute pay-as-you-go service to a seven-day unlimited package costing £73. On our cruise there was a fast and efficient connection in all areas of the ship.
There is a for-fee cabin laundry service, as well as self-service laundry rooms on decks 3 and 9 which are open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Washing machines are operated by a £2 token available from guest services. Tumble driers and ironing facilities are free.
Balmoral has a medical centre situated on Deck 3. This is open daily from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., and 24 hours for emergencies. Charges apply. The arts and crafts room is also located on this deck.
Smoking is allowed on designated sections of the outside deck.
Located forward on Deck 10, the state-of-the-art Atlantis Spa is open daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and until 10 p.m. on occasional evenings. It is an attractive and welcoming area and some of the treatment rooms overlook the bow of the ship, with the option to have the curtains open; particularly pleasant and relaxing when the ship is sailing.
The salon offers a wide selection of pampering sessions that include many types of facial and body treatments, manicures and pedicures, and various massage options. Prices range from £25 for a 30-minute express manicure to £85 for a 90-minute body wrap combining essential oils and sea mud. My Thai massage was outstanding and one of the best I have ever had on a cruise ship. As the spa is run in-house by Fred. Olsen the prices are very good value compared with onboard spas run by international spa chains; plus there is none of the dreaded hard sell of products afterwards.
In the same area as the spa there is a well-equipped and spacious gym with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the front of the ship; although it should be noted that the blinds are kept down after sunset and before sunrise so the lights don't interfere with the bridge situated on the deck below. The gym includes a range of treadmills, static bikes and elliptical trainers along with free weights and other equipment.
There is a separate studio area next to the gym which is used for classes such as Pilates, yoga, stretching and fit ball. These carry a charge of £5 per session. One-to-one personal training is also available, priced at £18 for 30 minutes and £35 for an hour, along with other for-fee services such as body composition analysis and nutrition advice. Passengers are free to use the studio when it is not being used for classes. Children under 12 are not allowed in the gym and youngsters aged 13 to 16 must be accompanied by an adult. The gym is open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.
In addition, the wraparound promenade deck has a walking track; four circuits equal one mile. Power walking and jogging are not allowed.
The choice of dining venues on Balmoral might not be vast -- being limited by the ship's size -- but there is still plenty of choice, in terms of both food and venues, to satisfy all tastes. From indulgent bottles of fizz that are served alongside the breakfast buffet to the time-honoured midnight buffet and 24-hour room service, there is never any danger of feeling thirsty or peckish. Plus, the two speciality restaurants are exceptional.
Food is a mix of regional dishes, which often reflect the destinations being visited, along with plenty of familiar British favourites; baked beans and Marmite at breakfast, curries and Sunday roasts, for example. There are also themed areas on the buffet, such as an Asian cuisine section.
Fred. Olsen operates the traditional two sitting dinner set up in its main restaurants, where you are allocated a table (and dining companions) for the duration of the cruise. If you are travelling with a partner or friend you can request a table for two, and plenty of these are available in the smaller Spey and Avon restaurants. Some people undoubtedly enjoy the chance to meet and make new friends, particularly solo travellers, but for those who prefer the freedom to eat when they want, and with whom they want, the only option in the evening is the informal buffet or for-fee restaurants.
Specific diets and allergies are very well catered for and, at the beginning of the cruise, both at embarkation and once onboard, passengers are invited to meet the maitre d' to discuss dietary requirements.
Thanks to everything from the excellent service to the range of dishes on offer, Balmoral can stand up to any cruise dining experience, and it has some special touches of its own.
Ballindalloch Restaurant (Deck 6): Seating 520, the main restaurant is traditional in style and stretches the width of the ship. Open for breakfast, lunch and two dinner sittings, it is an attractive and well laid out room that never feels overly crowded. This is helped by the fact that at breakfast and lunchtime, when there is open seating, passengers are shown to tables by waiters rather than having to wander around trying to find somewhere to sit.
Breakfast and lunch feature an extensive choice of buffet and served items and dinner is a five-course a la carte menu; although, of course, passengers can have as few or as many dishes as they want. Lighter fare is always available and in addition to the vegetarian options available on the standard menu, there is a vegan and vegetarian menu available on request where dishes have to be ordered a day in advance.
A children's menu features a selection of appetising choices for younger guests. It is advisable to request highchairs at the time of booking, if you need them.
Palms Cafe (Deck 7): This is the buffet restaurant, open for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and late-night Supper Club with a short break in between each service. It operates on a free seating basis and is ideal for passengers who prefer an informal dining venue where they can help themselves to whatever they want.
To improve flow at busy times, the central buffet is split into two sections with each side serving the same dishes; an extensive range of salads, hot and cold dishes, burgers, hot dogs, puddings and cheese. Drinks are served to the table.
Spey Restaurant (Deck 10): Situated aft on the port side, the Spey Restaurant is an intimate offshoot of the main dining room that seats 120. With panoramic windows down one side and along the back, it is a light and welcoming venue that serves exactly the same food and menus as the Ballindalloch with the same seating set up. On fine days, passengers can eat breakfast and lunch on the lovely al fresco deck area overlooking the back of the ship. This dining room is particularly well placed for passengers in upper deck cabins, however the evening seating allocation has nothing to do with cabin categories and any passengers can request to have dinner in either the Spey or sister Avon Restaurant.
Avon Restaurant (Deck 10): This restaurant occupies a mirror position opposite the Spey on the starboard side and, aside from a slightly different decor, is exactly the same.
Room Service: Complimentary 24-hour room service is available in all cabins with a good choice of soup, snacks, sandwiches and hot meals. Tea, coffee, juices and milk are also free, and any other drinks are chargeable. A Special Occasion Selection of canapes and party platters is available at various prices. There is a separate breakfast menu, which passengers fill in and leave outside their cabin door at night with the time they want it delivered.
The Bookmark Cafe (Deck 7): Offering a range of speciality coffees, the cafe also has an extensive choice of tempting handmade chocolates, which are sold singly or in packets. They make great gifts to take home -- if you can resist eating them.
The Poolside BBQ (Deck 7); £15: Each night the indoor and outdoor seating area at the back of Palms Cafe is transformed into the Poolside BBQ. The name belies what to expect as the food on offer is superb (think king prawns served with aquavit, cream and tarragon or calamari with lemon aioli) and goes way beyond burgers and bangers and elevates barbecue food to a whole new fine dining level. Passengers can book in advance or walk in on the night, and chefs cook to order.
Gelato Bar (Deck 7): Installed during the refurbishment, and situated between the Palms Cafe and outdoor deck, the bar serves a mouth-watering variety of ice creams and sorbets.
The Grill (Deck 8); £20: Relocated to the port side of the Lido Lounge during the refurbishment, The Grill is now a standalone speciality restaurant with its own entrance. It is an elegant and sophisticated venue with panoramic views out to sea, and ideal for a special occasion or simply a break from the main dining room. Succulent steaks, seafood dishes and vegetarian meals are paired with exotic starters and desserts. Served by ever-attentive staff, the food is imaginative and beautifully presented and even the menu itself is innovative as it lights up when you open it, making it easy to read. Such a great idea!
Observatory Lounge (Deck 11); £8.95: A "white glove service" traditional afternoon tea is offered a couple of times a week in the Observatory Lounge. This is a real treat and well worth the money. It includes speciality loose teas, finger sandwiches, mini pastries and warm scones with cream and jam. To make it even more special, passengers can order a glass of Champagne or a cocktail at an additional charge.
Recently refitted as part of the fleet-wide refurbishment programme, Balmoral has 710 cabins ranging from singles to luxurious Premier Suites. The ship has a higher-than-average proportion of single cabins, making it an attractive choice for solo travellers, and there are also accessible cabins offering wheelchair access. The latter have large, well-equipped bathrooms and a walk-in (or wheel-in) wardrobe with a hanging rail at a height that can be reached by wheelchair-users.
There are 21 cabin grades overall, including 121 with balconies and 14 with interconnecting doors. Apart from the single cabins, all have either twin or double beds.
The cabins have a fresh, bright look with splashes of colour and attractive artwork, and the refurbishment has provided a contemporary, airy vibe with the addition of new carpets, soft furnishing and lamps. There is plenty of storage space, and all cabins are equipped with climate control, an interactive smart TV, hair dryer, desk, phone, fridge (which can be stocked as a for-fee mini-bar), tea and coffee making facilities and, depending on the category, a shower or bathtub and shower. They are all fitted with European two-pin plugs (220 volts) so passengers need to bring three-pin adaptors. A small niggle is the lack of toiletries -- just a dispenser of combined hair and shower gel. Even the enhanced products in the suites don't include conditioner.
Interior: The smallest cabins in this category are the 130 square feet Single Interior Rooms located on decks 3 and 6. Single Superior Interiors and all other interior staterooms measure 160 square feet and are spread around decks 4, 5, 6, 8 and 9, offering a good choice for passengers who prefer to be on lower or higher decks.
Oceanview: Outside cabins are situated across four passenger decks -- 3, 4, 5 and 8 -- and are 140 to 160 square feet for Single Ocean View or Single Superior Ocean View respectively, and 165 to 200 square feet for double occupancy staterooms across four different categories. Outside cabins have either picture windows or portholes, and these are shown on the deck plan. The picture windows provide wider views, however the portholes feel very authentic and contribute a nautical feeling to the cabin.
Balcony: Balcony Rooms measure 180 square feet in size, and are located on decks 8 and 9. Verandas vary in size, but all have room for a table and two chairs and the balcony furniture was upgraded during the refit. Superior Balcony Rooms are slightly larger at 190 square feet and these can be found on Deck 9. It should be noted that some balconies are shady as they are covered by the decks above, so sun worshippers should check before booking if this is important.
Suite: There are five suite categories, including three 200-square-foot suites for singles on Deck 9; a nice touch. The Balcony Junior Suites for double occupancy are the same size and spread across decks 8, 9 and 10. Superior Suites, on decks 9 and 10, measure 275 square feet. The largest suites are on the uppermost deck. The pair of Marquee Suites, situated forward and closest to the spa and fitness centre, measure 390 square feet and have large sitting areas. The 14 beautiful Premier Suites are also located on Deck 10 and in a good position for passengers who want easy access to the spa and gym. They have extra-large balconies with a table large enough for a meal, plus two chairs and two loungers. These cabins have a divider that partially separates the sleeping area from the lounge area, which is furnished with a comfortable sofa and dining table. Another standout feature in these suites is the expansive walk-in wardrobes.
All suite passengers benefit from the Suite Dreams Package, which includes a welcome bottle of sparkling wine, a fruit basket that’s topped-up throughout the cruise, fresh flowers, daily afternoon canape service and complimentary bottle of water, replenished on request. Other perks include laundry service discount vouchers of up to £10 per week that’s credited to your onboard account, free pressing service for formal wear, bathrobe and slippers, luxury towels, daily newsletter with national and international news, and enhanced toiletries with shower gel, shampoo and body lotion (albeit no conditioner or soap bars). Binoculars, a world atlas and umbrellas are also provided to borrow throughout the sailing.