The flagship of Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines’ fleet has a colourful pedigree. Originally built in 1988 for the now defunct Royal Cruise Line, the 1,350-passenger Balmoral sailed with NCL as Norwegian Crown before it was purchased by Fred. Olsen in 2007. The vessel underwent a major refurbishment the following year, including the addition of a central section to the hull which increased the capacity and provided extra public room space for this mid-size vessel.
On a recent cruise to the Norwegian fjords – a destination where Fred. Olsen has creative itineraries – I was able to appreciate what makes this ship such a firm favourite. Nowhere is this more evident that in the easy to understand layout of the ship. The Marquee Deck (Deck 11) is devoted to outdoor pursuits, while the Lounge Deck (Deck 7) is the venue for entertainment and leisure. A Scottish theme runs throughout the ship with the names of restaurants being influenced by the Highlands: the Ballindalloch, Avon and Spey.
Where to sleep
There is a large range of accommodation in 21 grades, ranging from cosy Inside cabins at around 160 sq ft; through Ocean View cabins ranging from 165 to 200 sq ft; plus Balcony cabins at approximately 190 sq ft; as well as top of the range Suites with Balcony that come in at between 200 sq ft and 430 sq ft. An outstanding feature of Balmoral is the number of dedicated single cabins across several accommodation grades, making solo travel affordable. These include 15 Inside cabins; 39 Outside cabins; and three Balcony Suites. Apart from the single cabins, all have either twin or double beds.
All cabins come with a Smart TV, hairdryer, safe, air-conditioning, and tea and coffee making facilities. A high proportion of cabins come with a bath tub and there are shower gel and soap dispensers. Balconies vary in size and many are shaded by the deck above. In a break with current practice, smoking is permitted on balconies. The on-board amenities and perks increase with the level of accommodation and culminate with the ‘Suite Dreams’ benefits which make for a truly indulgent cruise.
What to do
The Neptune Lounge features lavishly-costumed revues of West End musical favourites, as well as guest stars from the small screen and big stage. On my cruise the ‘Ministry of Rock’ production by the Balmoral Show Company was little short of ground-breaking for this cruise line, whose entertainment is normally more subdued. This show was edgy and the nine singers and dancers gave competent performances of great rock anthems. Another memorable show was given by Phamie Gow – a modern harpist, pianist and vocalist. Special ‘Theme Nights’ – such as British Night; 60’s and 70’s Night; and Tropical Night bring their own magic – none more so than the Crew Show.
Named after Fred. Olsen’s first ship, the Morning Light Pub has a vibe more in common with an ‘All Bar One’ than the ‘Rovers Return’, but popular entertainment is provided by a guitarist and comedians. Probably the most serene room on-board is the Observatory Lounge, where a pianist enhances the ambience during cocktail hour as well as after dinner. In the Card Room, passengers can enjoy bridge tournaments and social games; there is also a well-stocked library. Scattered throughout the ship are original British and Scandinavian artworks from the Olsen family collection.
Where to eat
The traditional Ballindalloch Restaurant stretches the width of the ship; there are also two smaller, attractive restaurants, the Avon and the Spey, high up on Deck 10 which have extensive views from floor-to-ceiling windows. All three have open-seating for breakfast as well as lunch, which is never more impressive than when the Sunday Roast or Seafood Buffets are served in the Ballindalloch. Sumptuous five-course à la carte dinners, offered in two sittings, allow the chefs to demonstrate their immense culinary skills. The Palms Café has open-seating for all meals as well as theme nights such as the Asian Dinner Buffet, plus a nightly supper club if you get a late onset of the munchies.
The Grill at the stern of Deck 7 incurs a supplement of £20, but I relished the fine cuisine in an inspired setting looking out to sea. There is also a lavish Traditional Afternoon Tea served in the Observatory Lounge; a veritable banquet for an additional £7.95. It is worth noting that Fred. Olsen was recently a recipient of the prestigious ‘Britain’s Best Cruise Line for Food’ accolade in the Holiday & Cruise Channel’s ‘Telly’ Awards, which are voted for entirely by viewers.
What I loved
There are some unexpected surprises such as the Gin Menu in the Marquee Bar, and anyone taking advantage of the All-Inclusive Package for drinks for £25 per person, per day, can enjoy unlimited premium drinks and cocktails. The wine list in the restaurants is also comprehensive and well-priced.
On-board the beautiful Balmoral, the ambience is relaxed and refined, with Brit-popular activities such as ballroom dancing, lectures, arts and crafts, and carpet bowling. Passengers tend to go all out for formal nights, donning cocktail dresses, black tie and even kilts.
What I didn’t
There were often queues for the Palm Court Buffet, especially when afternoon tea is served. Also, some passengers tended to hog the sun-loungers - even putting books on them - in an attempt to keep them for when they returned - often much later.
Traditions might be writ large at Fred. Olsen Cruises, but this new chapter is a page-turner.