Fred Olsen's Balmoral--A Unique Cruising Experience
If you've never heard of Fred Olsen Cruise Lines, it's probably because it is not usually marketed to the American megaship cruising market. It is a very British cruising experience, similar to P&O Cruises (or so I've heard), but on smaller ships. The Balmoral is Fred Olsen's newest and largest ship. When I sailed in spring 2008, it had been refurbished only months before. Previously, it had sailed with Norwegian Cruise Lines as the Norwegian Crown but had been completely refurbished and undergone a "chop and stretch" before joining the Fred Olsen fleet. When I sailed, it had a new-ship feel and my cruise experience was wonderful, though very different from what you would find on an American megaship.
Because we live in South Florida, we were able to take a taxi to the Miami pier. There was a bit of a wait but the embarkation experience was not terrible. Our passports were pulled unexpectedly, which worried us a bit, but it turned out it was only because we had booked fairly last-minute and the cruise line hadn't gotten our passport information. (Note: The Balmoral no longer offers Caribbean cruises out of Miami.) Our stateroom was a basic indoor cabin. There were two twin beds in an L-configuration and a third bunk. It was about average size for an indoor cabin. The ship is small compared to the megaships we are used to sailing on, but not as small as some of the other ships in Fred Olsen's fleet (mid-size is a good term). On the lowest deck, the Marina Deck, are cabins and an Arts & Crafts room, which is plainly decorated and so poorly marked (just a simple sign above the door) that it is easy to miss (we had trouble finding it at first). The only furniture are a couple of tables that are sometimes replaced by ping-pong tables. Pool toys are also stored here, and a few games for children. The Coral and Atlantic Decks are cabins only. The Main Deck also has several cabins, as well as the bottom of the two-decks-high atrium, the main offices, the photo gallery, the art gallery, and the Ballindaloch restaurant. The Lounge Deck has the Neptune Lounge, a showlounge (unlike on the megaships, it does not have a balcony). Also on the Lounge Deck are two small shops; the second deck of the atrium; the very nice library and card room; a room called the Braemer Lounge (there are tables, chairs, and couches, but no bar: you have to get your drink from the Neptune Lounge or Morning Light Pub and bring it with you); the Morning Light Pub, a very nice traditional English pub that serves beer, cocktails, and specialty coffees; the Palms Cafe, the equivalent of the all-you-can-eat buffet on the larger ships, except much smaller and not as casual (you can't just run through and grab a sandwich; you will be escorted to a table by one of the waiters); and the aft pool, which is the main pool area on the ship and the site of activities like horse racing and themed parties. A very wide promenade goes around the entire deck. The Lido Deck, despite the name, has no pool; it has the Lido Lounge and Bar, which is a sort of second show lounge where concerts, cabaret shows, and lectures are held. There are stairs leading from the small outside deck to the aft pool. The rest of the deck is large cabins and suites, and you have to make your way through a maze of hallways to get to the Lido Lounge if you come up on the wrong elevator. The Highland Deck has the beauty salon and fitness facilities (no spa), more cabins, and the very nice Avon and Spey restaurants. The uppermost deck, the Marquee Deck, has the rarely-used Sun Deck Pool, the Observatory Lounge, a jogging track, and a golf net. Dining is one of the areas in which the difference between this ship and a larger, more mainstream ship is most easily seen. There are two "classes" of dining. Most passengers dine in the larger Ballindaloch Restaurant, but passengers in suites are assigned to either the Avon or the Spey. This applies to dinner only; for breakfast and lunch, anyone can dine anywhere. The menus are identical, but the Avon and Spey are high on the ship, with large windows that let in the sun, at least in the daytime. The two are nearly identical, except with opposite floor plans (they are on different sides of the ship), and the fact that the Avon has blue chairs and the Spey green. The Avon and Spey are nicer for breakfast and lunch, but I personally don't know if I would have liked to eat there for dinner, as the Ballindaloch had a grandish mood. The food is excellent; fine quality ingredients expertly prepared. However, it is certainly not the healthiest and is heavy on red meat, including dishes you may not be familiar with, such as venison soup and reindeer (Nordic night only). Breakfast and lunch are served buffet-style, even in the main dining rooms. The Palms Cafe is a self-serve buffet but with a small selection compared to the buffets on other ships. Afternoon tea is also served in the buffet.
Activities are similar to what you might find on the larger mainstream ships, but on a much smaller scale. There is horse racing on deck, daily bingo, and ping-pong tournaments in the arts and crafts room. Other than those and a few other activities, you entertain yourself. This cruise was definitely more relaxing than exciting, but conversation with other passengers is generally good (except for the occasional weirdo). There is no spa, but there is a pretty decent, if small gym. There was a watercolor artist on board who gave lessons. You had to pay a one-time fee of about 10 pounds for materials, after which you can take as many classes as you like. There were few children on board, and no children's activities of any kind. There were some children's games and pool toys stored in the arts and crafts room. Most of the older children participated in adult activities, including art classes, bingo, and ping-pong. The service was excellent. Most of the crew was Filipino, and service is what you would expect from the premium mainstream lines.
Evening entertainment was varied. There were a few production shows advertised in the daily program, but we did not attend them, so I can't really review them here. On one of the last nights, there was a "crew cabaret", which we confused with the "crew show" and attended. It turned out to be a sort of talent show in which the various crew members sang and danced oldies hits. Except for one entertaining interpretation of "Achy Breaky Heart", it was an extremely dull hour and I do not recommend it. There was a hilarious comedian who appeared a second night in the Lido Lounge. It was British humor, but very good. There was also a passenger talent show. Other than that, there were creative theme nights (find out before you sail if there are any on your voyage, so you can bring appropriate clothes). Some of the best entertainment was an Irish singer-guitarist who sang everything from Irish folk songs to modern rock hits in the pub. There is zilch entertainment after 11 pm; this is definitely an early-to-bed ship with no nightclub or disco.
The itinerary was a big winner, stopping in Nassau, Jamaica, Cozumel, Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, and Key West. The only shore excursion we took was in Cozumel, where we looked at a coral reef from a semi-submarine (a boat with an underwater section). The excursion was great. Belize City was fairly nice but extremely hot on the day we went. Very few passengers liked Guatemala, except those that took one of the excursions to see Mayan ruins, but we took a boat tour around the bay and found it gorgeous (we sometimes talk about staying there for a week or two someday). Roatan Island, Honduras was by far the best port of call of all. We went snorkeling over a gorgeous and very shallow reef at a tiny little place where we had practically the whole reef to ourselves (although that will likely change now that Carnival has unveiled its "plans" for the island).
In summary, the Balmoral is definitely a unique cruise experience. Don't go if you like spending all day participating in crazy pool games, huge theaters with acrobatics, chorus lines and pyrotechnic and hydraulic special effects, being pampered at a huge, elaborate Asian-style spa, dining at an exclusive specialty restaurant run by a land-based celebrity chef, or hanging out without your kids. But if you want a slow-paced, relaxing, intimate voyage among an international crowd on a mid-size ship with beautiful public rooms, great food, and friendly service sailing to off-the-beaten-path ports of call, you will love the beautiful Balmoral.