The choice of dining venues on Balmoral might not be vast -- being limited by the ship's size -- but there is still plenty of choice, in terms of both food and venues, to satisfy all tastes. From indulgent bottles of fizz that are served alongside the breakfast buffet to the time-honoured midnight buffet and 24-hour room service, there is never any danger of feeling thirsty or peckish. Plus, the two speciality restaurants are exceptional.
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Food is a mix of regional dishes, which often reflect the destinations being visited, along with plenty of familiar British favourites; baked beans and Marmite at breakfast, curries and Sunday roasts, for example. There are also themed areas on the buffet, such as an Asian cuisine section.
Fred. Olsen operates the traditional two sitting dinner set up in its main restaurants, where you are allocated a table (and dining companions) for the duration of the cruise. If you are travelling with a partner or friend you can request a table for two, and plenty of these are available in the smaller Spey and Avon restaurants. Some people undoubtedly enjoy the chance to meet and make new friends, particularly solo travellers, but for those who prefer the freedom to eat when they want, and with whom they want, the only option in the evening is the informal buffet or for-fee restaurants.
Specific diets and allergies are very well catered for and, at the beginning of the cruise, both at embarkation and once onboard, passengers are invited to meet the maitre d' to discuss dietary requirements.
Thanks to everything from the excellent service to the range of dishes on offer, Balmoral can stand up to any cruise dining experience, and it has some special touches of its own.
Ballindalloch Restaurant (Deck 6): Seating 520, the main restaurant is traditional in style and stretches the width of the ship. Open for breakfast, lunch and two dinner sittings, it is an attractive and well laid out room that never feels overly crowded. This is helped by the fact that at breakfast and lunchtime, when there is open seating, passengers are shown to tables by waiters rather than having to wander around trying to find somewhere to sit.
Breakfast and lunch feature an extensive choice of buffet and served items and dinner is a five-course a la carte menu; although, of course, passengers can have as few or as many dishes as they want. Lighter fare is always available and in addition to the vegetarian options available on the standard menu, there is a vegan and vegetarian menu available on request where dishes have to be ordered a day in advance.
A children's menu features a selection of appetising choices for younger guests. It is advisable to request highchairs at the time of booking, if you need them.
Palms Cafe (Deck 7): This is the buffet restaurant, open for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and late-night Supper Club with a short break in between each service. It operates on a free seating basis and is ideal for passengers who prefer an informal dining venue where they can help themselves to whatever they want.
To improve flow at busy times, the central buffet is split into two sections with each side serving the same dishes; an extensive range of salads, hot and cold dishes, burgers, hot dogs, puddings and cheese. Drinks are served to the table.
Spey Restaurant (Deck 10): Situated aft on the port side, the Spey Restaurant is an intimate offshoot of the main dining room that seats 120. With panoramic windows down one side and along the back, it is a light and welcoming venue that serves exactly the same food and menus as the Ballindalloch with the same seating set up. On fine days, passengers can eat breakfast and lunch on the lovely al fresco deck area overlooking the back of the ship. This dining room is particularly well placed for passengers in upper deck cabins, however the evening seating allocation has nothing to do with cabin categories and any passengers can request to have dinner in either the Spey or sister Avon Restaurant.
Avon Restaurant (Deck 10): This restaurant occupies a mirror position opposite the Spey on the starboard side and, aside from a slightly different decor, is exactly the same.
Room Service: Complimentary 24-hour room service is available in all cabins with a good choice of soup, snacks, sandwiches and hot meals. Tea, coffee, juices and milk are also free, and any other drinks are chargeable. A Special Occasion Selection of canapes and party platters is available at various prices. There is a separate breakfast menu, which passengers fill in and leave outside their cabin door at night with the time they want it delivered.
The Bookmark Cafe (Deck 7): Offering a range of speciality coffees, the cafe also has an extensive choice of tempting handmade chocolates, which are sold singly or in packets. They make great gifts to take home -- if you can resist eating them.
The Poolside BBQ (Deck 7); £15: Each night the indoor and outdoor seating area at the back of Palms Cafe is transformed into the Poolside BBQ. The name belies what to expect as the food on offer is superb (think king prawns served with aquavit, cream and tarragon or calamari with lemon aioli) and goes way beyond burgers and bangers and elevates barbecue food to a whole new fine dining level. Passengers can book in advance or walk in on the night, and chefs cook to order.
Gelato Bar (Deck 7): Installed during the refurbishment, and situated between the Palms Cafe and outdoor deck, the bar serves a mouth-watering variety of ice creams and sorbets.
The Grill (Deck 8); £20: Relocated to the port side of the Lido Lounge during the refurbishment, The Grill is now a standalone speciality restaurant with its own entrance. It is an elegant and sophisticated venue with panoramic views out to sea, and ideal for a special occasion or simply a break from the main dining room. Succulent steaks, seafood dishes and vegetarian meals are paired with exotic starters and desserts. Served by ever-attentive staff, the food is imaginative and beautifully presented and even the menu itself is innovative as it lights up when you open it, making it easy to read. Such a great idea!
Observatory Lounge (Deck 11); £8.95: A "white glove service" traditional afternoon tea is offered a couple of times a week in the Observatory Lounge. This is a real treat and well worth the money. It includes speciality loose teas, finger sandwiches, mini pastries and warm scones with cream and jam. To make it even more special, passengers can order a glass of Champagne or a cocktail at an additional charge.