A bit of a mixed bag. We had been on Balmoral before and it was not as good this time.
Superficially the cabin appeared spotless but there was a large accumulation of dirt under the beds and it obviously had not been cleaned for a long time. The water in the bathroom was seldom more than lukewarm and ran very slowly. The shaver points were hanging off the wall. The toilet paper was thin and poor quality. The TV picture kept breaking up because of "incompatibilty with the onboard transmitting equipment".
The beds and pillows were comfortable.
We were booked on the 2030 dinner sitting by Fred, we didn't ask for it. This was far too late for us so we asked the maitre d' if we could change to 1830. He told us there were over 200 people wanting to change and he couldn't do anything for us. From an earlier review it seems that if money had changed hands a change would have been possible. As it was we had little choice but to eat in the self-service buffet every night, not exactly a prime dining experience.
The food was generally quite good with a large choice. The coffee, however, was very poor indeed, almost totally lacking in flavour. Cups and glasses were often less than clean, with lipstick or stains on them. We found the waiters to be very offhand, bordering on surly, with a lack of manners in many cases. The waitresses, whom we encountered only in the Neptune Lounge, were better, with the odd exception.
The Captain's cocktail party was a farce. It consisted of walking past the captain and officers at the entrance to the Neptune Lounge (a theatre), getting a free drink, the captain speaking for a couple of minutes, a few words from a sample of crew members, and that was it. Hardly a party.
The entertainment was of mixed quality. The onboard company of singers and dancers worked hard and were very good across the piece. The "guest" classical pianist was excellent, the guitarists less so, often playing obscure material. The comedian was excellent. The pianist in the Observation Lounge seemed to simply tinkle away tunelessly in a totally disinterested manner on the occasions we went up there in the afternoons. The trio in the Bar were wasted; they were far far better than the inconsequential material they were required to play.
The tours provide by Fred were, as always, grossly overpriced and exceptionally poor value for money. Doing-it-yourself, using local transport etc was far far cheaper and enabled close contact with local people, who were unfailingly helpful.
The port call at Invergordon, a very small town, was clearly settled upon as a prime opportunity for Fred to sell his tours as there was very little to do there.
On the way back to Newcastle (North Shields in reality) we left Lerwick in the Shetlands at 2300 on a Friday. We arrived at North Shields at 0600 on Sunday two days later, a journey of 31 hours doing approx 10 knots. It would surely have been possible to leave Lerwick earlier, call in at another port on the Saturday, perhaps Aberdeen, sailed a little faster than a crawl and still get into North Shields in time for a turnaround for the next departure. It felt very much like a wasted Saturday, and a missed opportunity.
Take the local bus from Lerwick down to Sumburgh. You'll get a very good view of the scenery and enjoy a chat with the friendly locals, who all know each other. Cost £2.90 per person each way.
Take a tour on the local Stagecoach bus from the bus station, making sure Michael is the driver. He gives a commentary, although he is not obliged to and the bus visits all the major attractiona. Cost £12 per person, extremely good value compared to the Fred Olsen tour which covers the same places.