Walking into the top of the range Premier Suite on Fred Olsen's largest cruiser - The Balmoral - my wife Sue and I were delighted by the sheer opulence of its design, space and amenities. The large bed, dressing table and side tables were in a room tastefully divided from the lounge, where we found a full sized dining table with seating for four people, a comfortable settee and two armchairs. En-route there was a large "walk-in" wardrobe with masses of space, and a bathroom complete with bath tub and shower. Another bonus was the large, very private balcony, with yet another full-sized table with chairs for four, and two comfortable sunloungers.
Purchasing a Premier Suite for the 23 day cruise from Dover to Turkey, via Gibraltar, Greece and Rhodes takes some planning and saving, unless you are a lottery winner! With a brochure price of almost £14,000 for two and some rather expensive shore excursions, you have to be prepared to dig into cash reserves. Of course, like any cruise, there is plenty of wheeling and dealing to be done with Travel Agents, and probably everyone onboard had paid a different price, but were keeping quiet about it!
If you do splash out on a suite on an Olsen ship there are some bonuses to be had. We got three decanters, filled with complimentary gin, whisky and cognac, which saved us around £70, a weekly discount of £10 on our laundry, complimentary shuttle passes, and use of bathrobes and binoculars. There is also a free pressing service for outfits worn on formal nights. Another nice touch is the daily replenishment of the fruit bowl.
This was our tenth visit to Fred Olsen's fleet, but a first experience of the Balmoral. The ship is roomy, without being overpowering, and we found the lounges comfortable, and plenty of places to either join in the fun or spend some quiet time. Shows are staged in the Neptune Lounge, and resident musicians play in rooms throughout the ship. Staff are there to help, but not in your face like some of the American cruisers. Quite frankly Fred Olsen is not the place to be if you want life on the wild side! The Balmoral is more like a country house than a holiday camp - and that's why many people choose the company over and over again. The majority of passengers are return customers eager to share their experiences they have enjoyed on other Olsen ships.
We left Dover at the end of October - my birthday - which resulted in a parade of waiters with a cake at dinner! They look at your passport for your birth date, and there is no escape from the very public serenade, which is enjoyed by fellow diners. The ship took three days to reach Gibraltar where there are duty free bargains to be had, and where smokers can still enjoy their nicotine fix in public bars and buildings.
The cruise was themed as a voyage to the Ancients, and took in many of the buildings left by the invasion of the Romans.Unfortunately it was Saints Day in our next stop at Cagliari, Sardinia, and an Italian Public Holiday, so for those not on official tours from the ship, only a handful of cafes were open - a disappointment after days at sea! Kalamata was my first visit to Greece, followed by the huge port of Piraeus which serves the capital city of Athens. A freidnly taxi driver charged us 40 Euros to visit the Acropolis, 10 miles from the dock and passsing some of the Olympic stadiums.
In Volos, Greece, we took a trip on a little train to a picturesque village - unfortunately the "steam" engine turned out to be diesel, but the scenery during the hour long journey through olive groves, was breath taking.
Izmir, Bodrum and Antalaya in Turkey were the next three ports of call, with a chance to visit some spectacular Roman ruins, and for the religious passengers, a house claimed to have been the home of the Virgin Mary! Bodrum was particularly lovely, with quaint streets, welcoming bars and restaurants, and powerful local beer at around £7 a pint!
Rhodes was my favourite stop - rows of shops and stalls within the ancient walls, courtyards containing small cafes under olive trees, friendly locals with a warm welcome for all, and brilliant November sunshine.
Unfortunately things started going wrong when we set sail from the island towards Malta, where many passengers were looking forward to celebrating Remembrance Day on this George Cross island. A passenger became ill and the ship had to turn back towards Rhodes to meet a helicopter which winched the unfortunate person off the ship. The Captain then announced that one of the engines had broken down and we would be travelling at reduced speed. This meant we would miss Malta and the next port Cadiz, and spend six days limping to Lisbon where a new part would be fitted. Passengers were given £80 each as compensation, but mutiny was only just avoided - people were not happy! Extra time in Lisbon - and for us a meal at our favourite restaurant - and complimentary wine at dinner calmed things down, and Balmoral eventually arrived back in Dover under full steam - albeit, slightly later than expected.
Overall I found the cruise good value for money, the ship very comfortable and the staff excellent. Food was exceptionally good, and plenty of it! Drinks prices were lower than on many rival cruisers, although shore excursions were as many seasoned cruisers would expect - rather on the pricey side. Alternatives are available and many people chose to do their own thing. My criticism would be the lack of sheltered places on the open decks and balconies - any type of weather might prove a problem, ranging from getting a soaking in the rain or burnt in the sun. There was also a distinct lack of information when things started going wrong. Tha captain eventually made extra announcements after being confronted by angry and worried passengers.
Fred Olsen is stilly my favourite cruise line, but we look forward to getting back to the Braemar in March.