Took the train to Southampton to spend a week finishing my Christmas shopping with Fred Olsen.
Not my first time on Fred Olsen having sailed on Black Watch and Black Prince over 7 years ago. The reviews here on Cruise Critic read quite positive about Balmoral and eased away the reasons why I had not booked with Fred Olsen since 2003. It did not take long to bring those memories flooding back, and how I wished I had remembered before I had booked and parted with some of my hard earned savings.
Arriving at Southampton at 11.30am I searched for the shuttle bus arranged by Fred Olsen. At 12 midday a coach arrived with a Fred Olsen sticker in the window. Coach driver got off, opened the luggage compartments, took my suitcase, put it in the hold and then stood back leaning against a wall. No smile, no response and no interaction. This repeated its self until there were 20 or so passengers on board and we drove to the Mayflower Terminal. Oh, the driver did say one sentence before we drove off 'If you haven't got luggage labels on your bags you wont get them in your cabin'. Mayflower Terminal was cold as we waited until the ship was ready. No boarding as you arrive here unlike P&O, Royal Caribbean, Princess.....
The Balmoral looked a fine ship as we stood and waited in the cold in the terminal. On embarkation Balmoral continued to look a fine sea going ship full of comfy seats, excellent artwork, very pleasing public rooms, super library and card room, real ship 'feel' with proper wood decks, lifeboats with davits, and real wood handrails everywhere (not metal poles covered with veneer).
Going into my cabin was again a pleasing surprise. My cabin on deck four being one of the new cabins fitted during the 'stretch'. 165 sq ft, big picture window and excellent bedding and furniture. Shower and toilet again of a very good standard. All clean and very tidy. However, the money spent on these had been taken from paying for the cabin sound insulation. During the cruise there was no privacy. I could here people in the next cabin coughing, sneezing, snoring and using the toilet. Yes, USING the toilet - not just dropping the toilet lid. If I was washing by the sink and someone next door was using the toilet I could hear them. And if I could hear them then they could hear me and that was not a nice thought.
Entertainment on board was so-so and aimed squarely at the age range of Fred Olsen's passengers. There was no 'wow' effect, just secure and comfortable.
All cabin TV movies were for a fee until 3 days into the cruise when we received a list of films that were no charge. Otherwise the cabin TV was Sky news/sports news and BBC World News.
Hand hygeine enforcement resulted in you being faced with being squirted with hand gels at every occasion. Boarding you were gelled, entering dining rooms you were gelled, you were gelled everywhere and even then (it was pre-announced) that at all functions the captain would not be shaking hands with you.
The itinerary was Gothenburg, Copenhagen, Kiel Canal, Hamburg and Amsterdam. So much of the cruise was disrupted by the severe winter cold that it would not be fair on Fred Olsen for me to make any negative comments. The Captain kept us informed of late arrivals and changes to timings, and in a comforting way the Norwegian captain certainly gave the impression that he was competent, sensible and able seaman.
I cannot say the same about the majority of the crew. Again to be fair, please note that it is the male crew members that I mention here. Ship life revolved around and was for the benefit of the crew. I heard the word NO more times on this cruise than I have ever done on over 30 other cruises taken since 1995. For example, The Palms Cafe, a self-service alternative eating venue. Set open dining times for breakfast, lunch and dinner, turn up, help yourself and leave. BUT DONT YOU DARE TRY THAT BEFORE THE STATED OPENING TIME. Try to serve yourself one minute before and you were shouted at, had your plate taken away and/or asked to go and wait at a table. I witnessed one lady who went to serve herself soup out of the soup cauldron told (not asked) to sit down. The staff member would not put the soup ladel into the soup until the opening hour had chimed. No offer of 'Sit down Madam and I will bring a bowl over to you', it was 'No! No! No!, we are NOT open!' There were numerous other occasions when other passengers attempted to help themselves to juices out of jugs, collect bread rolls or foolishly began to walk towards the servery areas a minute of two before the opening time only to be greeted with No! No! No! Waiting staff reaching across you to pick up used plates and cups as they chatted amongst themselves was also a regular occurrence. This was witnessed in the Spey and Avon restaurants as well.
There was no effort in meeting passengers needs and eventually we did rebel. The last morning as usual we were stopped from helping ourselves. Opening time was 6.30 am as it was disembarkation day. It was 6.27am. The staff were ready and they were standing around. I noticed a lady lift a jug of juice which was immediately followed by the start of the 'No' dawn chorus. I went up to this lady and said to the approaching waiter 'You are all here standing and waiting, the food and drink is all ready and waiting, and we are all here waiting and I am, after this lady has finished pouring her drink, going to do the same myself' The waiter retired muttering and looking at us as if we had just broken a cardinal rule.
This attitude was noticed throughout the ship and we were left with the feeling that for most of the time we were no more than an inconvenient irritation to a large proportion of the staff that we encountered on the ship.
I would be the first to admit that for other passengers on the ship they would state that they had no problems or issues with service and attention. I would be the first too also recognise that Balmoral is a very popular ship that they return to her over and over again.
But for me? A great deal of work has to be done by Fred Olsen to train its staff in customer service and react to customers needs before I will book again with Fred Olsen.