Balmoral France and Northern Spain Oct 2012: Balmoral Cruise Review by soccerref

Balmoral 4
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Balmoral France and Northern Spain Oct 2012

Sail Date: October 2012
Destination: Europe - British Isles & Western
Embarkation: Southampton
This review will be quite detailed and is only my opinion but, as I'm a bit of a compulsive note taker, I have recorded information on the ship and ports which may be useful to others so here goes...........
This was our first Fred Olsen cruise but our 30th ocean cruise...... can you tell we like cruising? My husband and I are in our mid 60s and I have some mobility problems. My husband and I are from the Midlands in the UK and we chose this cruise because it was very reasonably priced and fitted in with our holiday dates.
Travel arrangements
We travelled down by car from our home on the day before the cruise and stayed at the Premier Inn Central in Basingstoke which is roughly 30 miles from the dock in Southampton. I booked this hotel well in advance and got a room at a very reasonable rate (£36). The hotel is conveniently situated about 1mile from the town centre and within a leisure park with cinema and chain restaurants.
Car Parking
We More pre-booked car parking with 'Cruise Parking' which is situated a 20 minute mini bus drive from the port area. The cost once again, was reasonable, especially compared to the port 'on site' car parks. The whole process was very straight forward. We drove into the site, handed over our keys and transferred our cases onto the mini bus trailer. From drop off to arriving at the port terminal took no more than 30 minutes.
On arrival back in port we saw a representative from the company standing right outside the customs clearance area and he directed us to a waiting coach. Once again, it was approximately 30 minutes from getting out of customs to getting into our car. We will certainly use this company when cruising from Southampton.
Unlike many other cruise lines, it is not worth arriving early at the terminus as the ship did not start boarding until just after 2.00p.m. We had been given 2.30p.m. as our embarkation time and we actually got on board at 2.45p.m.
- Check-in was fairly quick -- about 20 minutes from arriving at the terminal (cases were whisked away) to completing the security checks and sitting down in the lounge.
- There is a magazine stand just outside the departure lounge with many free travel and concept magazines.
- There is plenty of seating inside the departure lounge together with toilet and snack facilities.
- There was a stand advertising 'silver service afternoon tea' at £6.50pp. The same food is available without charge in the Palms Buffet.
- Passengers are given a boarding number and groups of 20 are called to go through. This prevented a mad rush to get on board.
- Once on board we were directed, not shown, to our cabin.

Balmoral - the ship.
My husband and I actually sailed on this ship in 2005 when it belonged to NCL and was Norwegian Crown. When it was sold to Fred Olsen the ship was stretched to add extra cabins and some new facilities. It was good to see that some of the original features still remained and we recognised the dining room, rear pool and buffet area.

Balmoral is 43,500 tonnes with 1,300 passengers and 500 crew so a relatively small ship in comparison with many of today's liners. I felt it was geared towards the more mature passenger and had a definite British ambiance although there were a few guests from other countries on board and, as it was half term for many UK schools, there were over 50 children who appeared to be well catered for by the designated crew members.

Muster Drill
This took place immediately prior to sail away and the muster stations were all indoors. We took our life jackets, listened to the safety talk and then were asked to put on our life jackets.
Dining options
Palms Buffet
- Food is not available 24 hours in the buffet.
- The set times for breakfast 07.00 -- 09.30 Lunch 12.00 -- 14.30 Afternoon tea 15.30 -- 16.30 Dinner 18.30 -- 21.00
- IMHO the food was generally good with a fair variety of hot and cold dishes.
- I did like the fact that the tables were set with a flower decoration, table mats, fabric serviettes, side plates and the correct amount of cutlery.
Dining rooms
- Evening Dining is traditional set times and tables -- early sitting is 6.15p.m. and late sitting is 8.30p.m.
- Breakfast and Lunch servings are open seating in all 3 main dining rooms. Breakfast 08.00 -- 10.00 and Lunch 12.00 -- 14.00
- There are 3 dining rooms -- the largest, Ballindalloch Restaurant, is on deck 6 and the 2 smaller ones, Avon and Spey, are on deck 10.
- There are several tables for 2 available.
- I found the service to be efficient without being intrusive.
- The menus were varied and always included a 'British traditional favourite'.
- Food quality varied but I never had a bad meal.
There are no speciality restaurants.
- There is no casino but there were a couple of Roulette and Black Jack tables available in the evening in one corner of the Lido Bar on deck 8.
- The 'Morning Light Pub' was the main bar with comfortable seats and musical entertainment in the evenings.
- There is a large Library with comfortable chairs, a good selection of books available to borrow, British news paper each lunch time and quizzes, crosswords and Sudoku challenges each day.- There is an internet room with computers but we didn't use it so I can't provide any information.
- There were a few shops selling jewellery, clothes, cosmetics, alcohol, cigarettes and general items etc.
- The Marquee lounge and the Observatory lounge on deck 11 provided quiet areas with good views.
- The Neptune Lounge on deck 7 was the main show lounge and had sofas, swivel chairs and small tables. There was a fairly large dance floor which rose up to form a stage for the shows. My DH and I are keen ballroom dancers and we were in heaven.....there was ballroom and sequence dancing every evening and there were dance hosts (4 gentlemen and 1 lady) for people who needed a dance partner.
- There were 3 production shows which I thought were among the best I have ever seen on a ship, a comedian who had most of the audience laughing (me included), a singing magician who, in my opinion, was poor and a terrific 'crew talent' show......definitely the best I have seen afloat.
- There were 2 formal evenings where probably 70% of the passengers wore formal/semi-formal clothes plus a 'tropical' night and a 'rock and roll' night where approximately 30% of passenger dressed up.
- There was a Captain's welcome and a Captain's farewell reception with free drinks and canapes.
- There were quizzes, lectures, recitals, card competitions, craft classes, cookery demonstrations, dance lessons etc on sea days.
Wow!.......I know it is a bit strange to get excited about launderettes but, with creased clothes, modern airline baggage weight restrictions and longer cruises, I find the launderette particularly useful and the 2 on Balmoral are the best I have come across on cruise ships.
- There are 2 launderettes -- 1 on deck 3 and 1 on deck 9.
- They are both quite spacious rooms and fitted out in a similar pattern.
- Each room has 8 front loading washing machines and 8 driers.
- Deck 9 has 2 irons and deck 3 has 3 irons.
- A wash costs £2 (tokens available from the reception desk) and that includes detergent which is automatically dispensed onto the clothes at the push of a button as the wash cycle starts.
- Driers and irons are free. Remember to empty the water condenser at the top left corner of the drier to make drying more efficient.
- If the washer door has been closed on an empty machine, there is a yellow tag to pull down on the left corner of the washing machine.
- Opening hours are from 08.00 to 23.00
Cabin 5218A inside superior (deck 5 mid-ship)
We were pleasantly surprised with the size, layout and comfort of the cabin.
We knew when we booked this grade of cabin that the beds would be arranged in an 'L' shape so were quite happy with that.
- I found the bed to be reasonably comfortable and the pillows were soft and fluffy which I like.
- I found the duvet to be on the heavy side but my DH thought it was a perfect weight....everyone to their own!
- I loved the fact that there was a kettle with coffee and tea sachets provided along with sugar, sweetener and milk cartons. It was lovely to have our early morning cuppa and I really don't know why the American cruise lines do not offer this facility on all their ships.
- There was ample storage with plenty of drawers and hanging space in the wardrobes.
- There was a bucket style chair and small glass table along with a large dressing table.
- The safe was in the wardrobe and you input your own number.
- The cabin had very good lighting which could be varied to make it darker or lighter.
- There is a flat screen TV with BBC news, Sky news and sports channel, a film channel, bridge cam and interactive options -- pay films and access to your OB account.
- There are plenty of plug sockets but they are US/European style. I brought an adapter and 4gang extension and this worked well.
- I thought the bathroom was a reasonable size compared to our experiences with standard cabins on other cruise lines.
- The best thing is the largish shower stall which had ½ glass wall/ ½ shower curtain so NO sticking curtain. The shower power was good and hot water was plentiful.
- Toiletries were basic but reasonable quality -- liquid soap on the counter and liquid body wash in the shower. You could request things like shower caps, solid soap etc.
- Towels and wash cloths were changed on request.
Ports and ships tours.
Our ports of call were -- La Rochelle, Getxo (for Bilbao), Aviles and La Coruna
We had already visited all the ports except for Aviles. We decided to do 1 ship's tour and that was to Ile de Re just outside La Rochelle. We chose this one because a French friend holidays there regularly and we wanted to see the places he talked about. We also chose this one because it did not have 'compulsory walking' (Fred Olsen's description of their tours contains this information) and I have some mobility problems.
- A set of port maps was left in each cabin during our 1st sea day. I thought this was a nice touch.
- Ship's tours departed from the Neptune lounge.
- All ports were industrial areas
La Rochelle
The dock is approximately 5 miles from the centre of La Rochelle and is a controlled area.
- There was a free shuttle bus to the dock gates but there is nothing to see there and it is a very long walk from there into the town.
- There is a small terminal building with a shop, toilets and tourist information desk.
- FO ran a shuttle bus into the centre of La Rochelle for £10pp with unlimited transfers. These run from the car park outside the terminal building
- The town is easily walkable with some pretty streets, an interesting small harbour area, outdoor cafes and many shops. Unfortunately, many things were closed or opened late as it was the end of the holiday season.
- The Ile de Re tour was quite interesting. We saw the best of what was on offer including the Monastery ruins and some pretty fishing villages - La Flotte, Sainte-Marie-de-Re and Saint-Martin-de-Re were the most notable. There was 45 minutes free time in Saint-Martin-de-Re which was definitely not enough to explore the quaint streets and pretty harbour.
Getxo and Bilbao
Getxo is a thriving suburb of Bilbao and has its own charm.
- Again it is an industrial port area so, although you could walk out of the port, it was a long way to the town centre.
- There is a small terminal building with a shop, toilets and tourist information desk.
- There were maps available in there.
- FO ran unlimited return shuttle buses into the centre of Getxo for £5pp. The bus stopped 100 metres from the metro station where there are frequent trains into Bilbao.
- There is a very nice beach just at the edge of the port.
- There is a shopping complex just outside the port.
- Getxo centre has cafes and shops.
- There are some beautiful and imposing villas along the coast road.
We had been to Bilbao twice before when I was more mobile and we had seen the main attractions already -- the Guggenheim Museum, the river front promenade and the Old Town -- so we decided not to do a ship's tour but to get the metro and then make our mind up what to do when we got into town.
The metro was easy to use:
- Ticket machines have an option to have information displayed in English.
- It was €3.20pp return for the 20 minute journey.
- We decided to get off at 'Abando' station which was nearest to the Old Town and was a short walk across the river. After coffees and a croissant at a pavement cafe (€3.50 which we thought was extremely good value) we caught the tram (€1.40pp single journey) along the river front to the Guggenheim Museum where we got off and sat in the sun in the park area for a while just enjoying the sunshine and people watching.
- We caught the metro back from the San Marmes station
We had a lovely few hours for a very reasonable price.
Aviles was a revelation and turned out to be, by far, our favourite port. The old town area was very attractive with some most unusual cafes, little food shops and fabulous arcades.
This is a relatively new destination and, I believe that Balmoral was the first cruise ship to use the port earlier in the year. There is a lot of building work going on to extend the dock area.
- You cannot walk directly from the ship so there was a free shuttle bus to terminus at the edge of the old town.
- The terminus is just a tent with a few chairs and tourist information.
- It is quite a long walk from the drop off to the town as you have to cross the river and the railway line by bridge first.
- There is a very helpful Tourist Information centre at the beginning of the street which takes you to the Town Hall square.
- The streets which radiate from the square are all quaint and there are some beautiful buildings, speciality food shops and gardens.
- The newer town is to the right of the old town and has a nice food market and a shopping Mall.
- We had beautiful weather and enjoyed sitting out in a cafe and people watching.
La Coruna
Unfortunately, the weather changed as we got to La Coruna and it became cold and overcast with torrential rain showers. It was also November 1st which is a national holiday in Spain the vast majority of shops and many restaurants were closed. These 2 factors combined to make it a disappointing port for many passengers. Fortunately we had visited La Coruna before and remember it in better weather and as a bustling shopping centre.
- The ship docks in walking distance of the town centre.
- There is a small terminal building with a shop, toilets and tourist information desk.
- 2 minutes from the terminal building is a huge shopping mall with cinema, restaurants and upper market shops.
- There are lovely walks around the promontory and a beautiful beach at the other side of the peninsula which can be reached by walking about ½mile through the town centre.
- The Old Town has a large Town Hall square with many cafes and restaurants. It's approximately 10 minutes walk from the ship.
And finally
We were so impressed with the Fred Olsen product as a value for money option that we have booked 2 more cruises with them. Balmoral was not the glitziest or most modern ship we have been on but she was one of the friendliest and had many things that we really enjoyed. Less

Published 11/15/12

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