The main entertainment venue is the Neptune Lounge situated forward on Deck 7. The 500-capacity venue has swivel chairs, banquettes and tables arranged in a horseshoe-shape around the stage. There are no awkward or unexpected stairs to negotiate and the sloping floor makes it easy and safe to get around.
Nightly entertainment -- with two performances geared towards first and second dinner sittings -- is a mix of song and dance shows by the talented and energetic members of the resident Balmoral Show Company and visiting guests. On our cruise the latter provided a diverse programme and included West End singer Shimi Goodman, virtuoso rock violinist Analiza Ching and comedy entertainer Martin Daniels. Another highlight is the farewell show, when some of the crew members perform songs and dances from their homelands in gorgeous costumes. An innovative touch is the circular forward section of the stage which rises during performances to give the audience a better view.
Keen dancers will be kept on their toes with a variety of classes and dance sessions held throughout the day in the Neptune Lounge. These range from classes for complete beginners through to the more experienced and are hosted by members of the Balmoral Show Company and two dance hosts who are available to lead solo passengers on the dance floor or dance with those who are sailing with partners in possession of two left feet. Ballroom dancing continues after the evening show. The lounge is also used for the captain's cocktail parties.
During the day, the lounge is also used as the meeting point for shore excursions, talks by guest speakers, classical recitals, interdenominational church services and light-hearted games such as dolphin racing.
Daytime events are numerous and varied, with an increase in activities on offer during sea days. By day, the Lido Lounge on Deck 8 is a multi-purpose venue hosting everything from darts, carpet bowls, table tennis and golf putting through to bingo and afternoon trivia. The area in front of the bar has a large screen TV, which is used to show various sporting events. Quiz fans can also attend morning trivia in the Morning Light Pub and there is a book club and afternoon music recitals in the Observatory Lounge.
Our cruise included a bridge coach who hosted classes for all levels, including complete beginners, in the Deck 7 card room -- a popular spot for the many bridge players onboard who organised their own tournaments and welcomed other players to join in. There is also a dedicated arts and crafts room and sessions typically include flower arranging, card-making and art, with materials and art packs available to purchase for a nominal amount.
Shore excursions were very well organised and reasonably priced. A package is placed in each cabin containing informative leaflets about the ports of call and shore tours on offer, and the members of staff at the excursion desk are knowledgeable and helpful if passengers have any questions. In addition to standard walking tours, Fred. Olsen offers some unusual and exciting shore excursions. On our cruise these included city tuk-tuk tours and a dolphin and whale watching trip off Funchal in Madeira (we had close-up views of both and it was an unforgettable experience).
Night owls are also spoilt for choice with entertainment in the various venues. Evening activities begin in the intimate Lido Lounge where cabaret shows are held for first and second sitting diners and later in the evening, it's time for karaoke, a variety of quizzes and jukebox dance parties. There are also two gaming tables tucked away at the back of the Lido Lounge for roulette and blackjack.
With its ever-changing light-studded ceiling, the Observatory Lounge on Deck 11 is particularly attractive at night and it is used for piano recitals and quizzes. In short, there is music all over the ship at all hours, including sing-alongs in the pub until late.
Notably, passengers can also expect some short evening excursions. On our sailing these included a night-time motorcycle tour of Funchal with one passenger riding pillion and the other sitting in a side car.
The ship has a good selection of bars and lounges of various sizes; each with its own character, and virtually all of them were refreshed and upgraded during the last refit. The atmosphere in all of them is friendly and convivial, but never loud.
Each day different cocktails and wines of the day are recommended in The Daily Times cruise planner and available in all venues. Prices are extremely reasonable, particularly compared with ships that automatically charge a gratuity on top of the cost of the drink itself. The pricing is also nice and simple; for example all cocktails cost £4.90. Passengers can also opt to upgrade to an all-inclusive drinks package for a per-day fee, which covers a variety of wines by the glass, house spirits, branded beers, soft drinks, regular coffee and tea, fruit juice, and tea and coffee from the room service menu. It excludes premium brands and speciality coffee beverages from The Bookmark Cafe, but for passengers that enjoy a tipple or two it is very good value at £29 per person, per day, and also provides a 50 percent discount on drinks and cocktails not featured on the all-inclusive list, including bottles of wine. The package can be purchased onboard within 48 hours of departure.
Morning Light Pub (Deck 7): This midship maritime-themed venue boasts the largest onboard bar, stretching the width of the ship. As its name suggests, the Morning Light has the ambience of a British pub, with a laid-back atmosphere and plenty of comfortable armchairs. It is also the busiest bar onboard.
The Bookmark Cafe (Deck 7):A quiet lounge next to the coffee shop and library, this is popular with passengers who want to read.
Neptune Bar (Deck 7): Situated forward, this small bar is situated at the back of the main show lounge and passengers can sit at the bar and order drinks or there is waiter service throughout the lounge before shows and other events begin.
Lido Lounge (Deck 8): Situated aft, this multi-tasking lounge has sofas, armchairs and tables that are set around a small dance floor. Moving towards the back of the ship, the lounge leads into the area housing the two gaming tables and large TV screening sports events. All of these venues are served by the Lido Bar.
Lido Bar (Deck 8): This light and airy bar has panoramic windows overlooking the back of the ship and a beautiful polished wood floor. There are chairs and tables facing out to make the most of the views and it is also a good spot to have an aperitif before dinner in The Grill speciality restaurant, which is accessed from the Lido Bar.
Observatory (Deck 11): Right at the front of the upper deck, this elegant, sophisticated bar offers wonderful views of the sea from three sides, and a cocktail pianist plays throughout the evening. With armchairs set around small tables, this is a great venue during sail-away and for pre-dinner drinks or late-night tipples. A sparkling ceiling, where the lights change colour, was installed during the last refit and creates a magical atmosphere at night. The glass-topped tables are noteworthy as they are covered with old navigational charts that were once used on the bridge.
Marquee Bar (Deck 11): Out on deck and under a canopy, this is a very popular venue on sunny days and during pool parties, with lots of comfortable chairs and sofas where sun-lovers can enjoy a drink.
Two heated pools, situated on decks 7 and 11, each have two whirlpools -- 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. Both pools had new surrounds fitted during the last refurbishment. During school holiday cruises the pool on Deck 7 is designated as an adult-only pool and the upper pool is for families. Note: children are not allowed to use the pool unsupervised. The pools are filled with seawater, which circulates constantly whilst Balmoral is at sea. Both pools have access to al fresco dining, with the Palms Cafe adjoining the pool area on Deck 7 and the Marquee Bar on Deck 11. The pools are open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., although in rough weather, they might be emptied and closed for safety reasons.
Golf clubs and balls can be borrowed from guest services, and there is a golf net on Deck 11, aft. Traditional deck games, such as quoits and shuffleboard, are available for use at any time and there are also sessions led by members of the entertainment team, such as walking a mile around the promenade deck that are free of charge.
There is ample room for sunbathing around the pools with plenty of plastic web sun loungers and towels are provided, too. Passengers are asked not to reserve sunbeds, however there was no evidence of over-crowding or "chair hogging".
The main reception area -- called guest services -- is on Deck 6 and it's here that you'll also find the shore excursions desk, photo shop and an art gallery that displays some of the extraordinary 5,500 pieces of artwork that are dotted around the ship (rather than pieces for sale). The diverse art is from the Olsen family's private collection, and although some of it won't be to everyone's taste it makes the ship akin to a floating gallery and it is interesting to read the notes about the artist and the work next to some of the pieces. This area is going to be rejigged during the 2019 refit with the photo gallery being moved to make way for the Oriental Room -- which can currently be found on Black Watch and Boudicca -- selling exotic teas and other refreshments.
The atrium on Deck 7 is the attractive, bright and colourful buzzing centre of the ship, with a range of boutiques. Tables are also set out daily, selling a variety of souvenirs and novelty items. The library is well-stocked with fiction and non-fiction and passengers can help themselves for the duration of the cruise, with many leaving their own paperbacks behind when they have finished reading them. Quizzes and Britain Today, a potted version of a daily newspaper, are set out each day on the library table, and there are plenty of chairs facing daylight for the many keen readers. The card room was a popular spot for the bridge players onboard during our cruise and it was also stocked with board games and a great selection of jigsaw puzzles. Also on Deck 7 is the future cruise sales desk. With so many passengers now bringing their own tablets and portable devices, Balmoral has done away with the Internet room, however guests are welcome to borrow a table, on a first-come first-served basis, for the duration of the cruise when they sign up for an Internet package. A variety of Wi-Fi packages are available ranging from £26 for a 60-minute pay-as-you-go service to a seven-day unlimited package costing £73. On our cruise there was a fast and efficient connection in all areas of the ship.
There is a for-fee cabin laundry service, as well as self-service laundry rooms on decks 3 and 9 which are open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Washing machines are operated by a £2 token available from guest services. Tumble driers and ironing facilities are free.
Balmoral has a medical centre situated on Deck 3. This is open daily from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., and 24 hours for emergencies. Charges apply. The arts and crafts room is also located on this deck.
Smoking is allowed on designated sections of the outside deck.
Located forward on Deck 10, the state-of-the-art Atlantis Spa is open daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and until 10 p.m. on occasional evenings. It is an attractive and welcoming area and some of the treatment rooms overlook the bow of the ship, with the option to have the curtains open; particularly pleasant and relaxing when the ship is sailing.
The 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 £25 for a 30-minute express manicure to £85 for a 90-minute body wrap combining essential oils and sea mud. My Thai massage was outstanding and one of the best I have ever had on a cruise ship. As the spa is run in-house by Fred. Olsen the prices are very good value compared with onboard spas run by international spa chains; plus there is none of the dreaded hard sell of products afterwards.
In the same area as the spa there is a well-equipped and spacious gym with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the front of the ship; although it should be noted that the blinds are kept down after sunset and before sunrise so the lights don't interfere with the bridge situated on the deck below. The gym includes a range of treadmills, static bikes and elliptical trainers along with free weights and other equipment.
There is a separate studio area next to the gym which is used for classes such as Pilates, yoga, stretching and fit ball. These carry a charge of £5 per session. One-to-one personal training is also available, priced at £18 for 30 minutes and £35 for an hour, along with other for-fee services such as body composition analysis and nutrition advice. Passengers are free to use the studio when it is not being used for classes. Children under 12 are not allowed in the gym and youngsters aged 13 to 16 must be accompanied by an adult. The gym is open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.
In addition, the wraparound promenade deck has a walking track; four circuits equal one mile. Power walking and jogging are not allowed.
There was only one couple with a small baby on our cruise, but Balmoral does welcome families, although there are no designated areas for children or teens. There are some family cabins, with third and fourth bunk-style beds, folded away when not in use.
During school holiday cruises members of the entertainment team host the Little Skippers Club for children between the ages of five and 11. Activities include arts and craft sessions, discos and treasure hunts. A list of the day's events is shown in the Little Skippers Club's mini-version of the Daily Times, which also shows the separate pool times for kids. Activities also stretch across the evenings, to suit the individual needs of families on board. Children under five can attend the club sessions, however parents must provide supervision at all times. Note: the club operates subject to minimum numbers being achieved.
Balmoral does not offer a babysitting service.
There is no club or specific activities for teenagers.