Booked BL004 as all research indicated Olsen ships were great and this would be a good opportunity to meet a lot of Brits and have some glorious conversations. We thought we had a confirmed balcony cabin but for various reasons we ended up with a Class A on Lido deck. Specifically requested a twin bed arrangement but at check in found it was a double bed (8019), not even Queen size. Requested upgrade but apparently none available so settled for a downgrade - same deck but handicapped cabin with twin beds (8084). Recompense was offered and accepted, big mistake as upon occupation it became apparent that the ship refit had missed most of this cabin; cracked and missing bathroom tiles, cracked sink, stains everywhere, filthy windows with rust stained frames and a completely obstructed view. So OK we screwed up but we'll make the best of it - left explicit instructions at reception to give us first refusal if any upgrades became available. Learned later from a fellow passenger that indeed a mini-suite on deck 11 had been emptied but Customer Service Manager said carpenters were working in there so it remained unavailable. Poor communication from staff, not a good customer relations episode but press on.
Embarkation for us was fairly painless, we'd driven from the Florida west coast to Miami (got lost in Miami) but finally found our parking garage and were shuttled over to the ship. The only unexpected event at check-in was the retention of our passports - never happened before on any cruise line - excuse was something to do with Bahamas immigration. Later on board we were called to line up with a completed Bahamas form and have it added to our passports. This passenger said no way and demanded his passport back as they should not be out of ones possession - it was reluctantly returned with the growled caveat that I would be woken at 8am at all ports of call to attend immigration if I intended going ashore. Disembarkation at Nassau and all other ports was standard procedure - use ones ship ID card and carry your Passport if a photo ID is required - very unusual. Further words about this unidentified idiot running the passport fiasco, he was extremely rude to a number of passengers who were asking very pertinent questions (how long are we going to line up here?) - another customer relations screw up.
Anyway overall impressions of the Balmoral = from dockside quite sleek and clean. Once aboard a different story. Last impressions first to set the stage: the ship, after lengthening and refurbishment was not ready for service and neither were the crew, but more of that later. The new center section stands out like a sore thumb, all new and shiny, the older bits show their age and are quite disgraceful on a cruise ship. Rust stains everywhere, misfitting panels and pins etc around the exhaust surround on deck 11, filthy decks around the lifeboat stations that haven't seen soap and water nor paint for ages, a general need for paint in areas where one would not normally look (indications of a skimped job?), cracked varnish on the handrails and so on and so on - overall the ship does not compare favorably with it's contemporaries. Mechanically one wonders; we had one delay of several hours because an auxiliary engine would not start - finally announced that a fuel pump was changed - how long to diagnose and fix a non-starting problem?. Then there is heavy vibration mostly at the stern when the ship goes astern or maneuvers to dock, high amplitude and low frequency that shakes glasses off tables a condition that makes one wonder about the engines; were they refurbished at refit? But the ship is seaworthy and rides well in a heavy swell with very little roll so the stabilizers are effective. The exhausts however did spew a lot of soot on the aft deck and the aft swimming pool, and there were a number of unidentified odors - a mixture of diesel fuel, urine and rotten fish perhaps - that occurred on deck 11 and were hosed away by the crew, and inside the corridors and by the elevators which dissipated on it's own but returned occasionally.
First impressions of the crew were not too good, they were either poorly or inadequately trained and passengers seemed to be a hindrance initially. However things did change somewhat as the cruise progressed but there was always the feeling that the ship was understaffed in some of the areas important to passenger comfort. The staff at the reception desk were somewhat inattentive to questions and complaints and the Customer Service Manager was a promiser but not a producer. The old interior has a half-finished look, new carpets and furnishings but many old and rather scabby bits. And the layout leaves a lot to be desired - large unoccupied spaces with a load of "modern"art that serves no useful purpose as far as I could see. As for the much vaunted English pub the " Morning Light" it's about as much like an English pub as a pea is to a pear. No charisma, no character, no charm, many Brits likened it to a union meeting hall - seats around the walls and very few tables and a snug that ain't. Not warm and cozy and conducive to good conversation.
The Palms buffet is another shortcoming - absolutely no ergonomic design thought in the layout - too small, buffet in the wrong place and the only coffee station on the ship almost inaccessible. Coffee, the staple of most yanks and apparently a lot of Brits, is a joke; the wait staff line up to fill absurd coffee/tea pots which then are circulated around the tables and by the time they reach you the contents are tepid. And trying to fill a cup by yourself takes courage as you fight waiters all the way, but this is the quickest way to get a fresh cup or a refill. Try it in the early am if you're an early riser and enjoy a cup on deck!! As for toast it's as rare as gold in a lead mine. If this ship is to make a mark in the US market it needs two more coffee stations, one forward and one amidships plus a supply of half & half, coffee with skimmed milk or even whole milk if there is any won't hack it. As for restaurants we used the Ballindalloch and after some early criticism to the Maitre-d ended up with a first class waiter and assistant. Service initially was aimed at the restaurant not the customer - 9:30 closing time for breakfast, now 10:00 for those who like to kip a little longer, table clearance and reset as soon as patrons left even if other people were still seated at an adjacent table -it is rather bad form to have a new table cloth waving around next to you, being sprayed with water to lay it flat and the have cutlery etc laid while you're still eating dessert, that no longer happens. Then there is the coffee story again, didn't get any after dinner on the first night but it did show up after much discussion thereafter; And thanks to an excellent waiter we also got cream instead of milk. The menu did not impress myself or my wife as it was pretty bland and again unimaginative - lamb showed up three or four times and as much as I like it I do like a variety. Lobster arrived once, at least if you were a trained detective you may have discovered a few minute pieces in a bed of rice, and shrimp (prawns in the UK) were around but certainly not the jumbo kind. Overall I was not impressed with either the menu selection or the presentation. Tried the Spey restaurant once for lunch - oh my they don't serve coffee at all - not impressed as all the menus are the same. Anyway I was not impressed with the food and breakfast anywhere, buffet or restaurant, was just the good old staples.
Now to bars, my favorite was the Lido (close to our cabin) but well laid out at the stern of the ship. BUT: be prepared if you sit at the bar with a friend and try and converse because you will be constantly interrupted by waitresses leaning across you to place orders for guests seated at tables. Why there is not a waitress station at one end of the bar remains a mystery. Stella and Boddington were always, for reasons unknown, poured in the kitchen space behind the bar and arrived as a glass full of foam (but they did recover), but Stella ran out a few times which required a new Keg to be elevated out of the ships bowels hence some delay in the arrival of a pint. Cans of tonic, diet coke and some other sodas ran out before the trip ended, no tonic for the gin - disaster.
There are only four elevators on the ship, two forward, two aft so we got quite used to walking and climbing stairs. If you head for the Atrium put your walking shoes on. And be prepared for a surprise if you think you can get to deck 3 by taking the aft elevator to deck 4 and going down one flight of stairs; no way Jose, the top flight of descending stairs ends at a blank wall. So then you back track and either walk forward on deck 4 to the center stairs or the forward elevators or take the aft elevators back up and go forward - good to know if you're headed for the Arts and Crafts room on deck 3. And the elevators do not always go where the arrow points, you may go up or down depending I think on the phase of the moon: one thing for sure you will encounter an elevator that either will not shut the doors or will shut them and then refuse to move and every one will give you a vibratory thrill when it does start to move. Deck space has increased with the new center section but so has cabin capacity with the result that deck chairs are the spoils of good early morning con games - I badly wanted an inflatable doll so that I could peg her to a chair before breakfast and have a reasonable feeling that the chair would be available post breakfast.
Prices on board were reasonable - by the glass gin or vodka with tonic about four and a half bucks (30ml) but you will need a magnifying glass to find 10ml of scotch at about the same price so have ice with your scotch. There is no liquor shop on board but bottles are available from the barmen or the wine stewards - don't buy they are grossly overpriced; go ashore in Belize or somewhere and find it much cheaper - I brought Tanqueray gin in Belize for 13 bucks.
A few words about the entertainment - absolutely first class. The Balmoral troupe of dancers performed wonderfully - great scores and wonderful costumes; the equal if not better than many other cruise ships that we've travelled on. Great comedy acts with one outstanding - Bob Webb - cockney type accent perfect timing, great innuendo and kept us in stitches for almost an hour.Then there was the Dorsey band with the 40's swing and the Music of your Life group that kept us going in the Lido lounge. The outstanding event was the last night's show where all the entertainers gave individual and one great big collective performance - The Farewell Variety Show in the Neptune Lounge - it must not be missed. The audience joined in with a rendition of "Ould Lang Syne" and the only thing missing was "The Land of Hope and Glory" to close the Albert Hall Pops concert. This was, without a doubt, the only thing that other cruise directors could well copy from this ship and use to their own advantage.
Comments from other passengers, particularly Brits ranged from very good to bloody awful about the ship in general with the Brit stiff upper lip being very prominent, they are so bloody complacent at times that it hurts. But by God didn't they speak in one voice about their treatment at Miami airport on arrival - what a disgusting introduction to the States - they likened their welcome to cattle being herded in a barn where they stayed for two or three hours waiting for Customs and Immigration and there were no amenities nor seats for the elderly or infirm. My wife and I were disgusted that visitors from an allied country should be so treated.
Disembarkation somewhat turned the issue around though as the ship could not be cleared until all non-US passengers had cleared Customs and Immigration so we yanks were stuck aboard - however in much better conditions than the arriving Brits. As soon as the ship was cleared we were the first to debark. Summing up I will say that in spite of many shortcomings we enjoyed ourselves and made many new acquaintances which hopefully will produce a whole new spate of Christmas cards and maybe some lasting friendships. The itinerary was changed because of the mechanical malfunctions but it didn't affect us personally although there were a lot of disappointed Brits who wanted to see Key West. As for Fred Olsens entry -into the American cruise market I fear that it will not succeed unless some major changes are made to the ship, the crews general attitudes, the food, and bringing the ship in line with with American expectations. With things as they are now Olsen ships cannot compete with the many other cruise ships serving the Caribbean from the Miami/Fort Lauderdale area. Alan Freeman Cruise BL004 3/13/08 through 3/24/08