My wife and I booked this cruise more than a year ago, whilst on a cruise with Olsen's ship the 'Braemar'. We had a good experience with the Olsen 'brand' then, although we found the Braemar, with its flat bottom, rather unstable in anything more than a Force 4 so thought this larger addition to the fleet would be worth a try. Our cruise was the first of the Mediterranean cruises undertaken by the Balmoral, a fly-cruise out of Rome. Balmoral was only on its 8th voyage, having been extended earlier in the year with an extra section midships, and partially refitted in other areas.
We are both 60+ retirees,and veterans of seven or eight cruises with various cruise lines over the last six years, and we mostly prefer mid-size ships rather than the newer leviathans.
We travelled from Bristol with a Titan charter flight - a premier charter company who also - on their smartest planes - fly pop stars, the UK Prime Minister and such like! Champagne served whilst waiting in line at the check-in. The plane was most comfortable, more legroom than most charters and exemplary service. Really nice cold meal.
We had to collect our luggage from the baggage belt at the airport and identify it, but then porters took it away and loaded it onto lorries for transfer to the ship whilst we took an hour's coach ride to the port. That was fine. Check in was done in a few minutes and we were on board and shown to our cabin, a Junior Suite. We had originally ordered a Balcony cabin, but Olsen gave us a complimentary upgrade some 4 weeks prior to departure (without our asking). We did appreciate this, as the prices advertised for this cruise only weeks before our departure were significantly lower than we had actually paid (even with the early discount we had) and Olsen were clearly discounting trying to fill the ship. So the upgrade made up for the fact that we had paid something more than other passengers! In the event there were about 200 unoccupied berths on the ship.
Our cabin was on the Bridge deck, quite spacious, loads of storage room. All soft furnishings had been renewed, the beds were comfortable and the balcony big enough to accommodate the two chairs AND one sun lounger which were provided. There was a new door to the balcony. But the furniture and the bathroom fittings had not been updated, although perfectly clean. Our cabin stewardess was delightful and helpful. We had been told in advance that our cabin was to be a fixed double but it turned out to be a fixed twin, which could not be converted. We were OK with this, and didn't complain, but clearly Olsen head office don't yet seem to have the right info about which cabins are twins and which are doubles (other reviewers have said similar things). We pointed this out to reception, hoping that they will get their database sorted out.
Other reviewers have also mentioned the illogical layout of the ship, and we would concur to some extent. One of the interior staircases, in midships, was always difficult to find! There are not enough lifts, certainly. We thought the sun deck was fine, but on the few really hot days we had, there was not enough space on the sun deck. Also practically no shade. It isn't really practical to sunbathe on the top deck at the rear on sea days as soot particles are blown there from the funnel. The two pools and hot tubs are fine, and heated appropriately. The rear sunbathing area is the more 'lively' with music and events during the day, especially on sea days.
On the plus side, this ship is impressively stable in rough waters. A couple of times during the cruise we were in a Force 6 and you could hardly feel the ship moving at all. Its added length has added to its stability - and its speed.
There are four restaurants. The Palms is buffet style, no booking. We ate breakfast and lunch there most days. The choice at breakfast was good, but lunch offered a slightly restricted choice we felt, especially for cold food, which is what we ate mostly at lunchtime. For example, apart from green and vegetable salads, there was usually only one choice of either cold meat or fish. There seemed a better choice of hot food at the buffet.
Evening meals were served in two sittings. The main restaurant (Ballindaloch) is quite comfortable but noisy when full, tables a bit close together. There are two other restaurants on the 10th deck, much more spacious, open and very comfortable. Those with cabins on the 9th and 10th decks are allocated there (mostly) it seems, plus a few other favored passengers! (e.g. returnees, Olsen veterans). We ate in the Avon restaurant which was great, excellent service. The food in the evening is the same in all three main restaurants and I would rate the food as good enough, but not outstanding. Sometimes it looked like it had been kept warm for too long. But generally OK.
The bars were all comfortable, good service, and drinks reasonably priced. Also good range of wines on the restaurant wine list, including some excellent New Zealand wines from Napier, really good value.
Entertainment was a mixed bag. The main shows, done by the resident Olsen team were OK, but most used pre-recorded backing tracks, and in some instances pre-recorded voice, with miming from the team. This led to a lack of spontaneity and warmth and we felt that the musical standards are slipping. There were a couple of comedians, a jazz pianist (so-so) and great musical double act, instrumentalists and singers, called Melody Lane, these two were the highlight of the programme, we didn't get enough of them. The last night Crew Show was great. There was also a 'port lecturer' who was informative enough, nothing special.
Excursions (we took one booked from the ship in each port of call) were mostly OK, reasonable value for money. But on a couple of occasions we found we were wasting time in 'shopping traps'. Sometimes these stops had been notified in the itineraries, so we couldn't complain too much about that. However, on one occasion, on a tour run by a local agent in Turkey, we found ourselves at an unscheduled stop for 30 mins in a leather factory showroom, being subjected to hard sell by aggressive staff in a room with no exit sign! We almost felt we had been kidnapped, until we managed to find our way out into the sunshine. When we pointed out to the tour guide that this stop was not on our itinerary, she said that it was included in the description as 'free time in X for shopping'. That was not our idea of free time. The highlight of the tours was a day long tour of Ephesus, really excellent tour, and a stunning archeological site, which we had not visited before.
Disembarkation went smoothly, and another excellent flight home with Titan.
In all, we were happy, but felt that there are a few issues that Olsen yet have to put right on this ship. We got the feeling, talking to some people who had been on some earlier cruises on the Balmoral, that the early cruises did indeed leave something to be desired, but Olsen have been getting the ship organized since and it is much better. There had been an auxiliary engine failure on an earlier cruise, but they had installed a massive emergency generator system in a huge container on the forward deck, at the bow, just in case the ship's auxiliary engine went down again, so they are taking these issues seriously!! (They had not had to use it so far). Yes, we would take a cruise on this ship again, assuming the destination and price is right