Daytime activities are numerous with the main focal point being the Neptune Lounge, where everything from port lectures and enrichment seminars to line-dancing classes is held on sea days. A Crime and Punishment theme on our cruise was covered by two guest speakers: leading Scottish QC Herbert Kerrigan and BBC television crime correspondent and author of detective fiction Simon Hall. Both gave different and often highly amusing accounts of their experiences with the law. Gordon Bull, Professor Emeritus at Brighton University and expert on traditional jazz, gave a series of illustrated presentations about the social history and musical influences of New Orleans Jazz, and Greta Band presented a series of illustrated port lectures. Ballroom-dancing classes are available most sea days, and the ballroom instructors and dance hosts conduct dance sessions before the main entertainment begins each evening. There was a large group of dedicated bridge players on our cruise, which offered regular bridge lectures and tournaments. The show company hosted some unusual daytime events, including basic acting workshops and a jazz dance class. We were told that on world cruises there is a drama coach and choir master.
The usual quizzes and bingo sessions -- plus various other games from dolphin-racing to carpet bowls -- were held in the Lido Lounge. When weather permitted shuffleboard, deck quoits and other traditional shipboard activities took place, and daily creative craft sessions were held in the crafts room on deck 3. As our cruise was in November/December, the weather was not conducive to much poolside activity, but there were two hugely enjoyable sailaway parties in which most of the entertainment staff took part.
Evening activities begin in the Lido Lounge on deck 8, where cabarets are held most nights at 7:45 p.m. for second-seating passengers and 10:45 p.m. for those with the first seating. A resident trio of musicians alternated with different cabaret acts from members of the show company and an outstanding Big Band Show from the Balmoral show band. Late in the evening in the Lido Lounge, it's time for karaoke and a variety of specially themed quizzes. There are also two gaming tables tucked away in the Lido Lounge for roulette and blackjack.
The main evening's entertainment is in the Neptune Lounge, where the Balmoral Show Company of nine singers and dancers alternates its production shows with guest speciality acts. In our case, there was a comedian, a magician, a singer and a pair of instrumentalists. Each had two or three gigs during the cruise, all were exceptionally good, and the show company is a highly professional group with popular productions like Viva Las Vegas, Rock 'n' Roll Dream and Modelled by Motown. A highlight is the farewell show, when some Filipino and Thai crewmembers perform songs and dances from their homeland in gorgeous costumes. Shows are at 8:45 p.m. for first-seating cruisers and 10:45 p.m. for those with the second seating. After the show, the dance hosts return for late-night ballroom dancing.
The horseshoe-shaped Neptune Lounge is entered at deck 7, but it slopes down toward the stage with banquettes and swivel chairs for seating. Passengers are asked in the programme to place their drink orders before the show begins, but inevitably there are waiters bobbing about during the performance. Although they mostly try to crouch down when near the stage, this can be irritating. On one occasion, we ordered our drinks 10 minutes before the show began, but the waiter arrived just before the opening number began and stood right in front of us until we signed the bill.
The Observatory Lounge Bar on deck 11 is a beautiful space in daytime, with panoramic views of the sea and a pianist playing nostalgic tunes. At night it's a disco that's open until late. It has a great atmosphere, although it was not well attended on our cruise. There is music all over the ship at all hours, including sing-alongs in the pub until late.
Shore excursions are very well organised and reasonably priced. A package is placed in each cabin containing informative leaflets about the ports of call, and the excursions desk is very helpful. A charge of £5 may be made for use of a shuttle bus where applicable. On our cruise, passengers were warned in advance that the Cape Verde Islands are not yet fully developed for tourism and that the tour buses would not be the most luxurious. This was true, but the islands provided an unforgettable experience. With a number of elderly and disabled cruisers, the crew are outstandingly considerate and careful while getting passengers on and off the tender. On the one occasion when we had to go ashore by tender, the sea was fairly choppy. However, there were no incidents, and the operation went smoothly.
Balmoral Public Rooms
The atrium is the attractive, bright and colourful buzzing centre of the ship, with a range of boutiques on deck 7. Tables are also set out daily, selling a variety of souvenirs and novelty items. Leading off the atrium on deck 6 is a walkway that forms an art gallery leading to the Ballindalloch Restaurant. All the public spaces feature unusual pieces of artwork -- although some are not to everyone's taste. The upper deck of the atrium has comfortable seating and an outstanding string trio playing classical music for several hours every day. Real plants and flowers around the ship add to the atmosphere.
The library is well stocked with well-known board games, as well as a great selection of jigsaw puzzles stacked on one of the windowsills. With 11 days at sea during our journey to and from the Cape Verde Islands, the puzzles had each been completed and reboxed to make room for the next. Not a single one had been broken up by a passer-by, as sometimes happens on less-polite ships. Quizzes and a shipboard version of the Daily Mail are set out each day on the library table, and there are plenty of chairs facing daylight for the many keen readers. Next door is a large card room, fully occupied with a bridge club for most of our cruise. The Internet room has a number of computers, but the connection is very slow. There is also a Wi-Fi service with a number of access points throughout the ship. Two self- service launderettes are situated on decks 3 and 9.
Balmoral Spa & Fitness
Two pools, situated on decks 7 and 11, each have two Jacuzzis -- one on either side. The pool on the top deck is part of the stretched section, and it's a most attractive area with statuary and mosaics. There is ample room for sunbathing around the pools, with plenty of sun loungers made of metal with plastic webbing, but some of these have seen better days. Both pools have access to alfresco dining, with the Palms Cafe adjoining the pool area on deck 7 and the Marquee bar on deck 11.
The state-of-the-art Atlantis Spa and Fitness Centre is open daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and on occasional evenings. There is a well-equipped gym and a range of speciality classes. These include yoga, Pilates, stretch and relaxation, and exercise to music at an extra charge of £5 per session. There are also some free classes, such as aerobics and walk a mile. The beauty salon offers a wide selection of pampering sessions that include many types of facial and body treatments, manicures and pedicures, and various massage options. Prices range from £22 for a 30-minute express manicure to £66 for a 75-minute marine algae body wrap.
The promenade deck has a walking track; four circuits equal one mile. Golf clubs and balls can be borrowed from reception, and there is a golf net on deck 11, aft. Traditional deck games, such as quoits, are led by the entertainment staff.