Baltic Cruise, Fred Olsen's Balmoral, 13 - 27 May 2011
I'm writing this critique to provide some balance to the other reviews of this cruise on Cruise Critic - I found them pretty unrepresentative of my experiences and recollections
After a trouble-free drive to Southampton from Essex, we got on board Balmoral with Fred Olsen's usual efficiency. For balance, Balmoral was undergoing her 6-monthly port inspection so boarding was later than expected (about 2-30pm), but once it started it went quickly. Tea or coffee was brought around, and cakes and sandwiches were available. The cabins were soon ready - well 9019 was anyway. We sailed at about 5.30.
Cabin 9019 (a mini suite with balcony) was spacious, clean and well provided for, with fruit and flowers. Cases fitted under the beds, which helped keep the cabin tidy throughout the cruise. There was an inter-active TV, radio and tea/coffee facilities.
We went down for dinner (late sitting (8-30)) and met our table companions for the first time. We'd asked for a table for 6 in the Spey Restaurant. Our thinking was, if we had a table for two it would be a bit lonely, and a table for 4 could 'go bad' if we don't get on with our other two table companions - tables for 8 or more are impossible since it's very hard to get a table-wide conversation going over the noise. The Spey Restaurant is aft and on a high Deck (8 or 9, I can't remember), It has lots of large windows, so you get an excellent view outside.
As it turned out, our dinner table companions were excellent company throughout the cruise, and we enjoyed many happy (sometimes hilarious) meals with them.
The food was much better than I'd experienced on other cruise lines I used - there's always one or two things you wished you'd not selected from the menu, but the general standard was excellent. The buffet restaurant - The Palms - was also very good, and convenient for a quick lunch, or a dinner on 'special menu nights' (like the Indian Night).
Day 1 & 2
North Sea transit followed by a passage through the Kiel Canal from Brunsbuttel to Kiel and cutting off the need to go around Denmark. Being one of the larger ships allowed through the canal, we had to wait for a slot along the canal when nothing too big was coming the other way.
We put to anchor in high winds waiting for our slot. When it came, the ship had a problem getting the anchor up again - the high winds had caused it to drive deep into the sand/mud. After several circuits around the anchor, it came free and we set off down the canal (about 5-20pm) on Day 2.
At sea making up the time lost waiting for entry into the Kiel Canal (and the anchor problem).
Our first stop was Saaremaa. - large island off the coast of Estonia. The port is new, but very far from the main town of Kuressaare. Independent travel (other than by taxi) is virtually impossible so the shuttle provided by the ship is highly advised.
We undertook an independent walking tour of Kuressaare, taking in the fortress, the main shopping area and friendly coffee shop in the town centre. All-in-all, a good experience and a good insight to rural Estonian life. But I was left thinking, "surely there's somewhere more interesting in the Baltic".
Tallinn - a town that gatecrashed our list of the top three cities in Europe, even though we were only there for a day.
We were very impressed. We did our own thing in Tallinn, having walked into the town from the port (very close by). In summary: old city, medieval city wall, fantastic city square and open market, friendly people, bustling shopping centre. Don't miss the city walls and several viewing points over the roof-tops of the city.
I never knew it, but Tallinn and Helsinki are only 40km apart, hardly more than Dover to Calais.
I have to be honest - I didn't make the most of our time in Helsinki. We didn't have a plan and it was raining for most of the day. We walked around the harbour-side market, checked out the Cathedral and spent the balance of the day in the Museum of Finnish History (very interesting but not a natural first choice, more rain-determined than anything else).
Day 7-9 - St Petersburg
I was amazed when we arrived in St Petersburg - they had a completely new cruise terminal, complete with duty-free shop and several other souvenir shops. The down-side was that the terminal was quite a distance from the centre of the city.
Visitors have a choice - get their own Visa (ahead of sailing of course) and arranging their own trips/visits, or booking trips via the cruise line. The visa is £125 per person. Our normal preference is to travel independently, but £125 pays for three good trips in St Petersburg, so that's what we decided upon for this stop-over.
Our three trips were: Fountains of Peterhof, night at the ballet, and shopping/souvenirs. In our experience, the cost of 'trips' from cruise ships are always over-priced, so assessing value for money is a bit more difficult. That said, our trips were very worthwhile, educational, spectacular to some extent and well 'worth what paid for'. The fountains at Peterhof are a particularly good trip, especially if you get the hydrofoil from the city centre out to Peterhof. The night at the ballet was interesting (especially since this is a far-from-normal activity). It was made especially interesting because the Russian choreographer chose to change the ending - the lead swan lived!!! By the way, the "souvenir/shopping" trip is an excellent way of getting into St Petersburg and having a few hours of self-directed touring and sight-seeing (with no need for a visa).
Day 10 - This day was a sea day.
This gives me a chance to comment on Balmoral's day-time entertainment programme and facilities. We took part in: deck quoits, quizzes, shuffle-board, bingo, and carpet bowls - all were well run and good fun. We have five 'wins' and traded in our vouchers for a pedometer and a key-ring. Of course, these types of events will not suit everyone, but our dinner-table companions enjoyed their time at whist sessions, the bridge lessons and other activities. Naturally there will be some people whose interests were not catered for, but no ship can do that .....
Day 11 - Copenhagen.
We arrived about noon, and had a scheduled sailing time of 10.30pm.
We found Copenhagen a charming place; everything from the Little Mermaid (oh, by the way, look out for the Big Mermaid (on the quay-side)), to the shops, cafes, restaurants, and other attractions.
Here's a tip: the city tour bus drops in at the cruise port, very close to the ship's berth. Grab a copy of their flyer - it includes a city map, and the routes the bus uses. Then, just walk the Red Route - is easily do-able in the available time, and takes in most of the best of the town's features.
If you walk the main shopping street (Stroget), look out for the Norden Cafe - try their smorgasbord, ot the Norden Tapas platter. Not cheap, but absolutely excellent, as is their coffee.
As trailed by the Captain, we sailed at 10.30. As an aside, the Captain is quite an interesting character. Called Olav Sovdsnes, he's a practical joker, musician and an excellent reporter on the ship's progress and status. His daily (sometimes twice daily) reports are very informative, accurate (a bit number-based for some possibly), and always entertaining. He's particularly accurate with his weather forecasts (which he never got wrong on this cruise).
Day 12 - Aalborg
Balmoral was the first cruise ship to use the new cruise berth close to the twon centre. We arrived to dancers, a band, a free hot-dog (as if we actually needed more food) - Captain Sovdsnes performed the official ribbon-cutting ceremony to open the new berth..
We explored the town on foot. It was quite cold and there were a few slight showers, but these did not detract from our enjoyment of Aalborg.
We had a full half a day so we were able to walk most of the principle streets - the word for it is 'charming', we enjoyed the place immensely.
Day 13 - At sea
From the moment we headed for home, the seas got up and we had a serious head wind. All in all, we lost 5-6 hours in the Skagerrak and crossing North Sea. It meant we arrived in Southampton at about 1pm (verses 7 - 8am).
I have nothing but praise for the way the ship's crew managed the ensuing problems. People had time-limited rail tickets, had booked taxis, were booked onto flights, were being met at the port, and so on. The ship made contact with all the parties involved, communicating the situation and making alternative arrangements for passengers. Not only that, they laid on a morning's entertainment for us, and gave us lunch. An excellent response and very much welcomed.
Overall Impressions: I'm very happy with our Fred Olsen/Balmoral experience. A slight tinkering with the itinerary and it would have been nearly perfect. Well done FOC.