I had a leisurely drive down to Southampton finally arriving at the City Cruise Terminal at 11.45. Dropped off the luggage and then the car to ABP and then waited in the main hall for check-in to open at 12.30. Through security and then to check-in where I was the first passenger to check-in - no.100! There was then a very long wait as it transpired Balmoral was undergoing her 6-monthly port inspection. Boarding didn't start until around 2.30pm and even then the cabins were not ready so we were directed to the Neptune Lounge for tea or coffee (brought round by stewardess) and cakes and sandwiches (self-serve from buffet table). I then walked around the promenade deck and so missed the announcement at 3.15 that cabins were ready. Found my way down to Cabin 3012, an inside single, forward on the lowest passenger deck 3. My cases were already outside so I unpacked before muster drill at 4.30 - again delayed by half an hour as some passengers had not yet arrived. I was wandering round with my lifejacket when a lady asked me if we needed them - I said yes to take up to the deck for muster drill - and she thought I meant every time we went out on deck we had to carry a lifejacket! My muster station was in the atrium in the shop area so there was nowhere to sit while the station officer held up a board with Lifeboat No 6 on it ! Once everyone was ticked off a checklist and had listened to the usual full spiel about how to abandon ship we were allowed to leave. Eventually we sailed late at 5.30 as we then had to wait for a tug, so I watched sailaway from the Observatory with a glass of wine - no champagne or fizz on sale on deck anyway.
The cabin was a very good size and from what I saw, may have once been a four-berth when the ship was built, as I had 4 glasses in holders in the bathroom and four wardrobes. There was plenty of floor space to leave my cases standing. There was a wide bedside table with 3 drawers and a console with light switches, radio (3 stations) and toggle button to hear tannoy announcements. The dressing table had four small drawers each side and two lights either side. There was a new Phillips 18" TV with interactive programme so you could view your cabin account online, book wine for dinner and watch (very old) films. Newer films were pay-to-view. There is no cinema on Balmoral and only once was a film shown in the Neptune Theatre on an afternoon. I had a dressing table chair as well as a small tub armchair, glass table (which I used to put the hospitality tray on) and a wonderful 4 -foot wide bed with duvet and two pillows. The mattress was one of, if not the, best I have ever had - a Milbrook pocket sprung around 8 inches deep. Blankets were available on request if you preferred them to a duvet. There were three narrow wardrobes all with top shelf, then hanging, then a drawer inside at the bottom. This meant full-length dresses dragged on the floor! The fourth wardrobe had a top shelf, open area, then 9 small drawers suitable for underwear, socks etc. They all had mirror doors. The bathroom had a good-sized shower although the shower head was poor and however hard I tried to screw it tight, water shot out of the screw fixing. The whole thing was controlled by a mixer tap so took a fine degree of adjustment to get temperature and pressure right and of course the stewardess changed it every day when she cleaned it! There was lots of shelf space and open storage and a rather weak hairdryer fixed to the bathroom wall. This meant you had to stand in the bathroom to dry hair - not good when it was steamy and if two of you are in a cabin it would prevent use until you had finished. There was hand wash and shower gel in pump bottles and a set of complimentary shampoo, conditioner and more shower gel, all in in tiny plastic bottles with computer-printed labels, together with sewing kit, shower cap and shoe shine in a fancy voile bag.
I changed and went up for dinner with some trepidation - that nervous moment of meeting your table companions for the next 14 nights! I need not have worried. I was on a table for 6 in the Avon Restaurant. There are three main dining rooms - the Avon and Spey Restaurants at the top on deck 10 with fabulous panoramic views through floor to ceiling windows. These are quite narrow rooms down each side of the ship so every table gets a good view. The other main dining room is the Ballandalloch on deck 6 - a more traditional restaurant spanning the full width of the ship.
The food was much better than I had been led to expect from various reviews. It was tasty, hot and interesting. However, there was a lot less choice than on say P&O. In fact at this stage, FO reminded me of a weird mixture of Cunard and P&O. The buffet restaurant - The Palms Cafe - for example was like QE2 in that at breakfast and lunch, the tables were all laid with mats, cutlery, glasses, cups and saucers, milk in jugs etc. So you chose your food (a waiter would often then carry it for you) and took it to your table, but teas, coffee and toast and rolls were served to you at the tables. For open sitting lunches two of the three main restaurants were also open (as well as the Palms) and, again, rather nicely, both had a buffet area as well as a limited table menu. This meant you could mix and match. Have for example a soup or starter from the menu (brought by a waiter), then go and choose some salad or a main course from the buffet and have dessert from buffet or menu. I did like this flexibility. However, I didn't like the very limited meal times which meant if you were not up in time for breakfast which finished at 10am, you couldn't have anything to eat (except for room service) till lunch at 12.30. And again in the afternoons, tea was served for an hour and then nothing till dinner at 8.30pm. It is not that I want to eat a lot but it was easy to get distracted and miss the "windows of opportunity"!
On the downside, there were no wine waiters. Wine was ordered from your waiter at dinner, but had to be topped up by yourself usually. Service was quick - too quick in some instances as courses were put in front of you sometimes before your companions had finished previous ones.
Bar service was prompt and cheerful, as was my cabin stewardess. The production company I thought excellent with much better singers than on P&O in my opinion. But the Cruise Director was barely visible and I was not impressed at all in that regard. She only really seemed to come into her own when marshalling tours etc.
Now the odd part. Considering this ship was 4 years younger than my favroutier ship - Artemis - it felt very old-fashioned in design. For example, all the cable winches etc were on the open foredeck. When the big gangway was brought on board at one port, they used a winch from the foredeck! The dEcor was mixed. The main atrium was quite glitzy with lots of brass and mirrored surfaces, whereas I found the Morning Light pub very boring and even depressing, especially since you could not see out of the windows as every one had a (very nice) stained glass panel of a sailing ship on. The lifts were unbearably slow and I got stuck in one twice, as did many other people. To get out onto the promenade deck you had to negotiate two steep steps or a sloping ramp, which if windy and when trying to hold the door open, was not easy. There were two pools and four Jacuzzis and a nicely tiered stern. What I did like was that you could go from Deck 11 (Sun deck) down to the promenade deck (7) down external stairways at the stern. However, the only place to get a forward facing view outside the ship was on the narrow part of the open promenade deck at the bow (just like Vistajord/Caronia). I felt the open deck space was more limited than Artemis - a similar size ship - and there was lots of clutter on the sun deck but the rattan tables and chairs etc outside the Marquee bar were nice to have a cup of coffee. The sun loungers were surprisingly comfortable and a good height but looked horribly tatty. Also the library was extremely small and limited. It operated on an honesty system where you wrote in a book what you had borrowed.
FO seemed remarkably laid back about security etc. Only once out of six ports was I asked to go through a security screen or put my bags through x-ray. On arrival at the ports, there was no long lecture about "trip hazards on the dockside etc". On tours, no one had to wear stickers (which in fact could make it hard to identify fellow excursionists on occasion). As soon as everyone was known to be back on board, the ship left - even if half an hour before scheduled departure. No sounding of horns or announcements about "all the pre-departure safety checks have now been completed....". All very low-key.
Day one was spent crossing the North Sea. It was flat calm and sunny. After breakfast I explored the ship some more and then sat on the Sun Deck. At 11am a Stewardess walked round ringing a little bell to announce that coffee and biscuits were now being served - charming. They also served Bouillon - a real throwback to the liner days! There was a large crowd with quite a few from my area. We all had a choice of free champagne, Bucks Fizz or juice. We also met the dance hosts - three men and one woman. All the men were very good dancers - far better than Cunard and I managed quite a few waltzes, quicksteps and the odd rhumba over the following evenings, although the only real opportunities to dance were around 7.30 - 8pm most nights. I then spent a very lazy afternoon chilling before getting ready for the Captain's Welcome Party. It was the first cocktail party I have been to where everyone sat down. This was because it was held in the Neptune Show Lounge so there was nowhere to circulate and chat to people other than your neighbour. However, there were plentiful canapEs and very free-flowing drink with unlimited top-ups - hic!
The following day was, for me, supposed to be one of the highlights of the cruise - a daylight transit of the Kiel Canal from Brunsbuttel to Kiel. I even got up at 6.45 am to watch and grab a prime position in the narrow part of the Prom. Deck at the bow. However, the Germans decided to undertake some maintenance and so we waited and waited to be allowed to enter the locks. I should have taken the hint when we sailed past the entrance a little way and dropped anchor! Now that was a sight to see. Since, again it was all on view on the foredeck, as they freed the shackles to let the cable drop, rust and sparks flew off in a great shower from the winch. Finally we raised the anchor and entered the first lock at 5.30pm. As I was on second sitting I was able to see Balmoral leave the lock and sail the first part of the canal, and then continue watching from the Observatory and restaurant (taking my map and camera with me) until it got too dark to see any more.
The next day was spent at sea, and trying to catch up on the 10 hours lost waiting for Kiel before we arrived at our first stop - Saaremaa. This is a large island off the coast of Estonia. This was when I discovered why my single cabin had still been available so late into booking period! I was very close to, and the wrong side of, the exit and security tapes! Every time I wanted to go to the cabin in port I had to wave my card and get them to let me through but more importantly, I was woken by the rattling and banging that went on when they opened the gang port and dragged the gangways into place on arrival. On the other hand, it was handy when going ashore on my own.
I had chosen an architectural walking tour of Kuressaare, the main town on the other side of the island. We set off first for an open air museum where five wooden windmills typical of the island, had been preserved and were back in use. The countryside was mostly forested with farmhouses dotted here and there. Although in a smart modern coach, part of the road we travelled on was still being built and two or three times we had to stop for bulldozers etc in front of us shifting stones and gravel. Amongst the woodland were small pretty cemeteries and wooden churches and everywhere were great swathes of bright yellow flowers. We next stopped at a medieval Lutheran church with wall frescoes and pagan symbols (hedging their bets ?) before arriving at Kuressaare, We started at the castle, which contained a museum of island history, I found the most interesting part here was a reconstruction of a soviet-era workers flat. The guide was not very good at marshalling tourists and we could see our free time slipping away whilst we all waited for those bringing up the rear so a couple of us asked to explore on our own for a bit and meet back at the coach. We then re-boarded the coach for a drive around the town before going back to the cruise dock again. It was just a short hop across to the Estonian mainland and Tallinn so we arrived at 11.30pm that same night. Once again - I got the banging and rattling and shouting of an arrival at port, despite it now being 1am so I complained to reception. They said it should stop very soon once the port officials had gone, and to phone again if it didn't. It did, thankfully!
At Tallinn we were filling the ship to the brim with fresh water, hence the very early arrival. With a top up tomorrow in Helsinki it would keep us going until we left St Petersburg. Apparently the water in the Eastern Baltic is very muddy and not suitable to put through the on-board desalination plant and Captain Sovdnes didn't want Russian fresh water either.
As I was doing my own thing in Tallinn, I had to buy a shuttle ticket for £5 to get from the dock into the centre. It is a beautiful old city with medieval city walls and very interesting architecture. The shops were full of Baltic amber and linen - both household items and clothing. I was walking down one narrow cobbled street and spotted an entrance way up to the top of the walls - 3 euro. Big mistake. Halfway up the metal spiral staircase I began to get vertigo. Told myself this was silly and kept going but at the top on the walkways it is very narrow and parts are just wooden planking and I couldn't stand it and had to come down. I am sure that you could get lovely photos of the red-tiled roof tops if you weren't a chicken like me ! Back at the dock Balmoral had been joined by MSC Orchestra and the market stalls on the dockside were now open for business selling souvenirs, knitwear, furs etc. After some food, I spent the afternoon sunbathing on deck. I wasn't really expecting hot sunny weather but so far, so good, aside from the showers at Kiel. For some reason, also I wasn't expecting to have daylight at midnight, but as we sailed to Helsinki - we had maybe half an hour of dusk at the most.
Day 7 and Helsinki.
I had last been here in 1977 with my parents so I was interested to compare how it might have changed - very little it seemed. Balmoral was berthed some way out because high winds had been forecast later in the day which might have prevented her leaving from her original berth. For this reason a free shuttle had been laid on for those of us not on tours. I wandered round the harbourside market and then round the corner to the yacht marina, before climbing the hill up to the Russian Orthodox Uspensky Cathedral. The shops were full of the most beautiful Scandinavian designer clothes and furniture (at a price!!) but by midday it had started to drizzle and was very cold, so clutching my new Finnish silver and spectrolite pendant and CD of Sami music, I made my way to the shuttle point and the ship.
Day 8-10 - St Petersburg
I woke to a stunning morning as Balmoral was slowly sailing into the new docks at St Petersburg. Very few had gone to the bother of personal visas and so most people were on tours here. The first day I had chosen to go to the Peterhof in the morning and do the evening visit and recital at The Hermitage. The Peterhof was superb as the golden domes glittered against the clear blue sky. It was everything I expected from a Romanov Palace. You are not allowed to take photos inside this palace and have to wear fabric overshoes which did make the floors very slippery to walk on. The guide was excellent and carefully arranged for us to be waiting outside at five minutes to eleven ready for when the magnificent fountains are turned on. These work entirely by gravity so first one starts and then another until gradually all the fountains, waterfalls and rills are working. They stop naturally in the evening while the water refills the tanks to start again the next day. It was truly wonderful as a fanfare heralds the first and tallest fountain and the sun created rainbows through the spray. We walked round part of the grounds before driving back through St Pete's to the ship. I was recommended the evening tour by a friend - thanks Jac - and it was well worth the high price as there were just 80 of us with the Hermitage to ourselves. There was no rush so we could all get close to the Rembrandts and da Vincis etc. The tour ended with a 45 minute concert for us by the Symphony Orchestra of St Petersburg in the Skylight Room where the acoustics were superb and we could listen surrounded by paintings by Canaletto etc, all followed by glasses of Russian "Champagne". Magic.
The middle day I had chosen the 13 hour tour to Novgorod on the Leningrad-Moscow Highway! St Petersburg is a very European-looking city, whereas I wanted to see a real Russian one as well. Although somewhat nervous about this one, it turned out to be one of the best I have ever done. It was a three-hour drive through the city and then through birch forests and small villages of wooden cottages. We made one comfort stop at a petrol station, mainly to refuel the coach, but the guide said there was a rare free toilet in the shop there so we all trooped off and just as we got to the door a burly guy in uniform locked the whole shop for a 15 minute "technical break", whatever that is. We had to wait anyway for the fuel, and when they did reopen it turned out there was just one - yes one- unisex toilet, so that short comfort stop took one hour !! When we got to Novgorod, once the capital of Russia, we stopped for coffee, a sort of pastry with pickled cabbage inside and an apple cake before driving round the centre. There are hundreds of churches in this city and we stopped at one complex of two for photos, before reaching the centre and getting out for a walking tour of Yaroslav's Court and Marketplace, over the river Volkhov and into the Kremlin (Castle) with the oldest church in Russia - St Sophia's cathedral, founded in 989ad. It was beautiful. We then had a typical Russian lunch - salads, root vegetable soup and a sort of pot roast followed by pancakes, before driving to a monastery and another church. We ended up at an open-air museum of old wooden houses, windmill, churches etc . A bell-ringer had been waiting for us to give a concert on the carillon bells on one of the churches and at that moment a real Russian wedding procession came out of one of the buildings. I think a bride has never been quite so photographed (excepting Kate of course!). This was the point at which we were all getting eaten alive by mosquitos and to this day, my bites are still itching like mad! The cottages were a mixture between typical log cabin style and what I can only describe as gypsy caravan style with lots of carving and coloured paint. Our 13 hour tour then turned into a 15 hour one as the President and Prime Minister both decided to visit St Petersburg for a big meeting that weekend and many roads were closed so the traffic was even more horrendous than usual, which is saying something.
Sunday and our last day in the city. I was visiting the Catherine Palace that morning, leaving at 7.15am! The tours were arranged to be very early as groups were allowed in an hour or so before private visitors and so it was quieter. It is a one hour drive out of the city at Pushkin, and yet another stunning vision of gold, blue and white. I paid 4 euros to be allowed to take photos inside this palace, excepting the legendary Amber Room, now reconstructed to match what was looted by the Nazis and never recovered. The whole palace is an amazing feat of reconstruction following near total destruction in 1944. Back on the ship I had a leisurely afternoon before we sailed at 3.45. There had been a whole fleet of cruise ships coming and going over our three day stay - Discovery, Seabourn Sojourn, Saga Pearl, Pullmatur Empress, Costa Pacifica and Norwegian Sun, but most stayed just one or two days.
The next day was a much-needed sea day.
Tuesday and it was Copenhagen. We were not scheduled to arrive until noon, but were staying until 10.30pm so a nice lie-in. The Captain's 9am broadcast explained that the channel into Copenhagen is 7.7m deep and Balmoral's draught is 7m so a tight fit and the ship had to be trimmed to as even a keel as possible. We also had to notify air traffic control of our height as the entrance to the port is right under the flight path to the airport! In the Observatory Bar the tables are all "decorated" with an old nautical chart under glass and I found one that was for Copenhagen so was able to track our progress to dock. This was my seventh time in Copenhagen so I just wandered up to the shops, drooled over the Danish furniture in Ilums Bolighus, wandered round Ny Havn and then back again. I just got back inside and was showering when I heard that many people had been caught in an horrendous thunder storm - fortunately a short one - with hail and lightning, so was glad to have got back when I did. We sailed at 10.30 for Aalborg, also in Denmark.
Wednesday - Aalborg
It is a long sail upriver to Aalborg but was so worth it when we arrived as it is a lovely town with half-timbered or brick buildings and 17th century "Slot" or castle. Balmoral was the first ship to use the newly-built berth so we arrived to a band, carnival floats etc and the Captain had to perform the official ribbon-cutting ceremony. There was a stand giving us free Danish hot-dogs all morning which the crew were making full use of. I guess cruise ship food gets boring after a while ! I explored on foot. It was very cold with showers. We only had half a day here and I would have enjoyed longer. We needed a tug to help turn us on departure as the Captain said the depth here was at the limit of Balmoral's draught and that technically we had been aground while berthed!
That evening was the Captain's Farewell Cocktail Party - same format as the Welcome Party in reverse with free-flowing drink and canapEs. That evening and the next day Balmoral was fighting a Force 8 headwind, as well as sea currents. Together it meant our arrival in Southampton would be delayed by several hours. Morning entertainment of a sort was put on for us but I'm not sure many people went to carpet bowls and dance lessons. We still had to vacate the cabins by 9am, but they set up a room to leave hand luggage in and we got lunch as well as breakfast. Nearly everyone just sat around and waited ...and waited. We could buy drinks from the bar with cash so that helped. As we came past Portsmouth we were treated to the sight of the largest aircraft carrier in the world - the USS Ronald Reagan - in port for Obama's visit, and the trippers out on sightseeing boats got two for the price of one with Balmoral sailing past. We finally docked at 1pm and as I was on the lowest deck I got off at 3pm.
So - final impressions of my first time with Fred Olsen: I don't know. I can't put my finger on what it is but I seemed to me to be lacking something - atmosphere? Hard to define. It might be that on this cruise there were not only lots of people new to Fred Olsen (like myself) but also brand new to cruising. The dress code was abysmal ! Jeans on formal night! In fact I only wore a long dress on the first formal night and wore what I class as semi-formal on the others as I felt so overdressed. Perhaps their terminology confused newbies - informal rather than semi-formal. That aside, much as I enjoyed the cruise - would I go back with them? I don't know. Maybe, if it was a bargain (which this one was most definitely not!), and the itinerary appealed. They certainly win on the unusual itineraries and I do like the size of ship. I know lots of you love Fred Olsen and I accept this one may not have been a typical example so all I can suggest is if you like a traditional cruise experience - try it for yourself.