We were encouraged to try a cruise after friends visited the Fjords last year and loved it. So as a sort of last holiday with older teenagers, us and 4 other families-17 people in total decided on a western Mediterranean trip for 14 nights departing Southampton.
We all booked separately through The Liverpool Cruise Club-and despite reviews I have read, they were very accommodating and helpful in that we were all sited near to each other on board, had the same time dinner sitting in the same restaurant on the same or adjoining tables with a wonderful view of the sea through huge portholes. TLCC were cheaper than booking direct and we made interim payments. We booked a year in advance due to the size of our party and are governed by school holidays, although better deals can be had if you are able to book at the last minute which many of our fellow travellers seem to have done and paid far less for better cabins.
As we are a family of 5 and the cabins only sleep up to a max of 4 (there are 2 pull down wall bunks)we had the extra expense of 2 cabins so paid full price as if for 4 adults instead of just 2. Despite this and the cabins being fairly spacious it would have been quite cramped with 4/5. Prices vary on which deck you are on-the higher up the dearer it is and also varies on inside/outside cabins. We were on Coral Deck 4 in inside cabins. They are dark so lamps are needed at all times. Next time I would have an outside cabin as I did miss seeing outside, especially on waking.
Embarkation at Southampton is painless and efficient. Lovely men take your luggage and the next time you see it is in your cabin. One of our cases did get damaged. We were given free parking vouchers but didn't use them as we all travelled together by coach. There was a bit of waiting around but nothing to moan about.
Each person is issued with a cabin account card. When swiped this contains your personal details and photograph. This is also your room key and for getting on/off at stops. All purchases are made using this and can be viewed on your cabin interactive TV so keeping a check on your spending is useful especially with children. Mostly you just tell them your cabin number then sign the chit, but obviously you should keep it with you at all times. We had Â£140 on board credit for each cabin but this was used up by end of the first week. The card is also printed with lifeboat number and assembly info. You will need sterling for playing bingo Â£2 per board, and the dolphin/greyhound racing-Â£1 per bet. (They are only cardboard dolphins!) On the last day the bingo costs Â£5 per board but some lucky chap won Â£635!
Cabins have huge storage space (cases fit under the beds) TV, air con, a self-combination safe, nice en suite with shower and only hand/shower gel in dispensers. There is a hairdryer fixed to the wall which is very slow so if you have long hair or get ready in a hurry, take your own. A european 2-pin plug is needed. Towels are provided as well as deck towels for sunbathing and can be changed for fresh at any time. However, you will need your own towels if you want to go to the beach at any of the stops. Beds are very comfy! There is very minimal noise from adjoining cabins. You have your own allocated hard working housekeeper who makes up your bed and turns it down each evening leaving you a chocolate on the pillow. There are tea/coffee making facilities and a large bottle of water which if you open, it is charged for.
The crew and staff are mainly Philippine's, very friendly, polite and hard working although there is a grumpy waiter in Ballindalloch restaurant who we avoided. The waiters and waitresses (especially Layla in the 'observatory' and Mary in the 'Lido')are wonderful with great senses of humour and can remember your name, drink and cabin number after only a few days. Don't miss the 'crew show' at the end of your holiday.
You are sort of expected to pay and charged to your account, 'tips' to your housekeeper and dinner waiter averaging Â£4 each per day from each person in your party which added up is quite costly (Â£40 per day for us which you wouldn't pay at home!) This can easily be removed by visiting reception during the first couple of days and telling them you wish to pay them directly at the end of your cruise. It's then up to you what you value their service at.
On board and during the first couple of days of sailing when its still too cool to sunbathe there is plenty going on (even for teenagers). We enjoyed the nightly shows in the Neptune, the show company are talented, young and enthusiastic and also around and about doing various activities during the day. 10/10 for them! A mention also to comedian Taffy Spencer who had us in stitches. We had 3 formal evenings-black tie/evening dress, 3 theme nights which hardly anyone bothers with dressing up, hence only all our 'men' in grass skirts and coconut bra's on Hawaiian night! We had a laugh but very strange looks from others. 'Sail-aways' are fun. Informal nights still require jacket or tie, 'smart casual' you can wear jeans but no shorts/crops-this the men found tough especially when it got hotter the further south we sailed.
As already mentioned an a la carte dinner is served you each night in the same restaurant, same time, same table. There is a good choice on the menu (these are posted outside during the day) and a children's menu. If you are a couple then you will be placed on a table with others. We were in Spey, Deck 10 at 8.30pm. The earlier sitting is 6.30pm or you can opt to go to the food themed evenings in Palms Cafe which is open seating. We enjoyed Indian and Chinese. All restaurants are open seating during the day. We loved supper club in Palms between 11.30pm and 12.30am. There is also morning tea/biscuits served as well as afternoon cakes/rolls and room service if you wanted it! We could not find fault with any of the food served anywhere on this ship (hence a 71b weight gain!) although talking to others they felt standards had dropped due to cost saving. Sara Sipek, the english executive chef and her team are amazing in that the same quality of food came out each time. Our restaurant waiters were Made (said Maddy) and Toddy who has the loveliest smile. They are whizzes at their jobs and Made was very entertaining with his after dinner tricks and posers. Unfortunately there was an outbreak of Gastroenteritis on Day 7 so self service was withdrawn which did slow down the process. You had to wait a while for toast or milk/sugar to go in your hot drinks. Even with the extra workload the staff were still polite and friendly. Sanitising your hands is a constant must!
Stops included Gibraltar (a 10 minute walk in to town) then a 15 minute walk to the bottom of the 'rock'. We paid a local guide 20E each for the tour up to the top, this included the 'cave' tour. Taking the cable car costs 18E excluding the cave tour. The views are amazing but watch don't touch the apes! Barcelona, catch the free courtesy bus from the port. We did the open top city tour which takes 1-2hrs and costs again 20E each. Palamos, the beach is a 5/10 min walk from the ship. Mahon-you dock right on the edge of the town, alas sunday so very few shops open but a small market at the port. Saw lots of dolphins and 2 small whales between here and Portimao-This is an anchor port and you are tendered in which if there is a strong swell takes an age. Not a lot to entice you here though some did get a taxi to the beach. Lisbon is lovely, loads of shops and we went up the tower with fantastic views over the city. Cost 5E pp. We did not pay for any of the organised ship excursions. There is lots of info in your cabin about each stop and The Daily Times delivered each evening is essential to what's going on next day and where, dress code, entertainment etc. Cruise director Joanne Haley and deputy Jamie Clarke are great assets to the Fred Olsen company. We really enjoyed hearing the ship's Master, Robert Bamberg's daily announcements from the Bridge.
On board there is a Spa with many treatments, beauticians, hairdressers, fully equipped, popular gym overlooking the ocean, launderette Deck 3(tokens Â£2 from reception, just press the button on the front for 5 secs for automatic liquid detergent dispensing)also free tumble dryers/ irons etc. There is a disco nightly in the observatory, Deck 11, which goes on quite late if your cabin is on or below that forward deck. There are also a jewellers (free to look and wish), a shop if you forget essentials or fancy a bit of choccy, a boutique and duty free with daily offers. Library and card/games room. Reception is expertly manned or I should say womanned and euro's can also be purchased here. Cabin accounts can be settled the day before by cash or euro's and the remainder taken automatically by credit card (this is registered when you board). Smoking is allowed in several places and on cabin balconies. You can use the free telephones around the ship to phone your's or other cabins. Loads of toilets on the decks and in all the right places.
Disembarkation. Suitcases are left out the night before-take a holdall for overnight. This is done by Deck, starting at the top, but is quick and stressless, don't pack your cabin card as you need this. Cases can then be found in a set area by deck number.
A few warnings: Loungers get snapped up very early around the pools on Deck 7 and 11. The pools are salt water and several times had to be emptied twice daily due to children being sick in them. The photographers are everywhere and catch you at your worst and best and not particularly bothered if they get somebody else in them too. We soon learned to always stand as a family rather than individually. They then charge you Â£6.50 for the small and Â£14.95 for the large prints. You are under no obligation to buy them. There was a mixed age range on board from a group on a lads only holiday, youngsters and elder teenagers with parents, up to the quite elderly. We did hear a few grumbles in passing from them about how many children were on board (only 77 up to age 16 out of 1350 passengers!)but hey ho our money is as good as theirs and they can go any time out of school holidays! In general we found most friendly, chatty and fun. Duty Free is limited to 1 ltr strong liqueurs, or 2 ltrs of fortified wine or 4 ltrs of still wine, 200 cigarettes or 50 cigars or 250g of tobacco. Customs staff are vigilant and were stopping many going through the green channel. It's your risk!
For our maiden voyage, Balmoral was everything we hoped for and more, we thought this was a last holiday with our boy's but they and the friends we travelled with loved it and all want to go again....guess we'd better start saving!
And from the Bridge......'All is well'.