We have just returned from the much-publicised Titanic Memorial Cruise on board the MS Balmoral and we'll never experience another cruise like it again.
My husband and I are veteran cruisers and this was our 29th cruise and 4th with Fred Olsen. The Balmoral is a similar size to the Titanic, being 43,000 tons against the Titanic's 46,000 tons.
We sailed from Southampton in the wake of the Titanic, 100 years after this luxury liner's ill-fated transatlantic crossing. When we boarded at the cruise terminal, the staff (and a lot of the passengers) had really got into the spirit of the thing by dressing in 1912 period costume, and this was to be a theme throughout the voyage.
I like the Balmoral because she is a proper, traditional ship and not a floating block of flats like some of the modern monstrosities. In fact we had been on the Balmoral when she was the Norwegian Crown in 2003, but the ship was refitted in 2008 and we didn't recognise anything from the NCL days.
As we were commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Titanic's maiden (and only) voyage, everything had been organised and carefully thought out to the finest detail. As well as the excellent food and service that FOCL are renowned for, we were offered the Titanic "dish of the day" so we could enjoy fare typical of that which was served on the Titanic. In addition, there was a string quintet that played music from the Titanic bandsmen's repertoire and on the formal evenings everyone made the effort and dressed in the sartorial elegance of a century ago.
Each day there were a couple of lectures / presentations given by maritime historians and descendants of Titanic passengers and crew members; they were superb and really gave Titanic buffs the chance to hear true stories that had been passed down through the generations, as well as dispelling some of the ridiculous myths that have sprung up about the Titanic in recent years.
The highlight of the voyage was the special Memorial Service that was given on the evening of the 14th/15th April. The Balmoral was in the exact spot in the Atlantic in which the Titanic struck the iceberg and sank, 100 years to the very minute later. After a memorial service we were invited onto the aft decks, where the ship's padre blessed three beautiful wreaths before they were cast into the sea. At 2.20am, the ship's whistle was sounded in salute and we all sang "Eternal Father, Strong to Save" (the hymn of the Royal Navy) before the band struck up - yes, they even had a band on board - with "Nearer, My God, To Thee". There wasn't a dry eye on the ship. They even had the White Star Line pennant flying from the stern mast.
The Memorial Service really did the Titanic victims proud, and was such a moving and dignified occasion. To be there in the exact spot 100 years later was quite an experience, and one that we'll never be able to repeat.
Titanic aside, the entertainment on board the Balmoral was very good. They have an excellent orchestra and the featured artistes were brilliant and had something for everyone. There were also three Captain's cocktail parties with copious free drinks and the Captain, Robert Bamberg, always used to end his noon announcements with "A very good afternoon Ladies and Gentlemen and, from the Bridge, all is well", which because an absolute catchphrase by the end of the cruise. :-)
As we were following the Titanic's route we only visited three ports of call and these were Cobh (formerly Queenstown)in Ireland, as well as Halifax, Nova Scotia and finally in New York. The ship stayed in port overnight in Halifax and New York, which gave a chance to explore these interesting places further. In fact it was nice to be on terra firma after seven nights in a very rough Atlantic ocean.
The only fly in the ointment of the entire holiday was the way we were just chucked off the ship and dumped in New York at the end. We had been told that we would be disembarking the Balmoral at 10.00am and would be taken, by coach, to the Milford Plaza Hotel in New York to await our airport transfers at 3.00pm. Instead, we were called to disembark just after 8.30am and just left on the pavement at the pier, where we had an hour and a half to wait for the coaches. It was chaos with several hundred people and their bags milling around outside the cruise terminal. When the buses did eventually arrive, we were taken to the hotel as promised, but just dumped outside. When we went into the hotel, thinking they would have a conference room and maybe some tea and coffee facilities for us, they had no knowledge of anyone from the Balmoral coming at all; they were not expecting us. We therefore had to kill about four hours before our airport transfer, lugging our carry-on bags with us everywhere. Maybe they thought they were doing us a favour, giving us a few extra hours in New York city centre, but our overall impression was that no-one was happy with this arrangement.
Nonetheless, we didn't let this spoil our holiday: the ship, the food, the entertainment and of course the whole Titanic theme were just first class and we'll be left with unique and priceless memories of this trip forever.