Once again, we were fortunate to be sat next to a lovely group of people for dinner. Sadly, they were not representative of the other passengers we came across on this ship.
As we’ve said before, there didn’t seem to be any “quiet corners” on this cruise, so most coffees and drinks included a side of other people’s loud conversations.
Conversations like “how can you pretend that Sir Mo Farah is British?”
Discussions about no longer watching rugby because “most of the team aren’t really English”. To say nothing of limitless excitement about the return or blue passports and the end of immigration.
To be clear, this was not a single conversation, but a sample of the many that were taking place around us. We appreciate that, being based in London, we are probably the “out of touch metropolitan elite” - frankly, I’ll take that over whatever this group were any day.
This is to say nothing of people on one sofa audibly judging the drinking habits of strangers around them; weird arguments over seating priority in the card room and the aforementioned restaurant incident.
It may be coincidence or bad luck, I can’t imagine Fred Olsen has a policy of marketing themselves exclusively to deplorables, but I’m in no rush to take a second sample. On no other cruise ship have we felt so out of place or so eager to escape.
In a nutshell, trivia quizzes and bridge. A lot of people on this ship seem to take bridge very seriously.
There’s also a bit of live music in various bars and shows in the main theatre. But, as we’ve said previously, this is not a massive ship, so don’t book expecting ziplines and Broadway musicals.
One of the advantages a smaller ship, like Balmoral, has when cruising in Norway is the ability to sail slowly right into the fjord systems. Much of this voyage was spent gliding serenely between vertical sheets of rock in Lysefjord and Hardangerfjord, pausing at some of the more notable waterfalls. If your prime concern is spectacular scenery, this cruise cannot really be faulted.
There were two ports. In Bergen, cruise ships dock in the centre of the city, which is perfectly sized to explore on foot.
We also spent a day in Eidfjord, which is pretty but tiny - Balmoral dominated the town’s small hotel and a SPAR shop. There really wasn’t much to do, along with hundreds of other passengers, we walked up to a nearby lake, much to the bemusement of some campers who clearly thought they had the place to themselves.
Balmoral doesn’t have a vast spa and thermal complex as you might find on newer ships, however, we were massively impressed with it. In part thanks to the excellent massage, but mainly because there was no hard-sell on products during or afterwards.
Be warned though, the walls in the treatment area, perched above the bows, are very thin - we could hear every detail of the conversation taking place in the neighbouring room.
Fred Olsen has made a big move towards all-inclusive drinks packages - there was one attached to our booking and most people we me seemed to have one. So, we’re going to begin, a quick primer on why I think these packages are, in general, a bad idea before we discuss why Fred Olsen’s approach to them is particularly vulgar…
Fundamentally, drinks packaged are designed to be given away. The headline daily prices are a fiction, inflated so that cruise lines can claim to be giving you “thousands of dollars in free extras” when they are, inevitably, offered as an early/late/Easter/Christmas/Summer/full moon/royal wedding booking bonus.
Because they are designed to be free, most of the drinks included within them are awful - terrible wines and mixed drinks which are mainly sugar. On some lines, the “free” allowance acts as a baseline, and a few dollars more lets you drink a decent wine or a top-shelf mixed drink. Fred Olsen is not one of these lines.
Firstly, even for those of us willing to pay, half of the wine list is no longer available. A waiter told us that since the push on all-inclusive started, other wines were not being restocked. Exasperated staff did find us a few really great bin ends, but the all-inclusive wine is bad. Properly bad.
Secondly, Fred Olsen’s approach to minimising the cost of this scheme appears to involve using the staff to throttle distribution - service is very slow.
The spirits selection onboard is also pretty limited. We like to use a Grey Goose martini as a benchmark drink for these reviews, but that wasn’t available - the only premium vodka option is Chase. The Chase vodka martini was poor - watery and weak.
In keeping with current trends, there was a separate “Craft G&T” menu, in partnership with Fever Tree mixers. However, by mid-cruise, they had sold out of Fever Tree mixers so were just substituting it with Britvic tonic, which we find unpalatable.
Still, if you want to spend your day nursing pints of lager or buckets of cheap wine, good news, we’ve found the ideal cruise line for you.
There are cruise reviewers and bloggers out there who speak of the food aboard Fred Olsen in tones of hushed wonderment. Honestly, we were excited.
The main dining room on this ship is supplemented by two smaller rooms, which serve the same menu, but offer a nicer setting - most of the ables having views. We were lucky enough to be allocated a table in one of the smaller dining rooms, which, I assume, suite passengers are given priority on. However, I’m at a loss to explain why Fred Olsen haven’t used these two spaces for alternative, or premium, restaurants - instead, “The Grill” uses a roped-off area of the buffet each evening.
Breakfast was OK. The fruit, particularly the segments of orange and pink grapefruit were fresh and, throughout the ship, the baked goods were of high standard; rolls were excellent, but even croissants and pain au raisin were tasty, without the waxy dullness so often found on airlines and cruise ships. The cooked options for breakfast didn’t look too appetising, but people seemed to be keen on them.
Lunch in the main dining rooms was probably the most consistently successful meal - calamari fritti followed by lasagne being typical.
Dinner was odd. The Indian option seemed to be the best bet each night - a vegetable curry on the first night and a curried butter fish later in the cruise being very good. Other choices failed to deliver - particularly a really bad roast turkey and the worst soup we’ve ever had the misfortune to sample. It was listed as “chilled papaya and chilli”; so help us, we imagined some sort of interesting re-interpretation of gazpacho. Instead, what arrived was pale pink cream. It was indescribably bad - tasteless, freezing cold, awful mouth feel. Desserts were, well, traditional and, seemingly, sized to suit a calorie controlled diet.
It should be noted that all portions in the Main Dining Room were laughable - always very small. You will have noted the generous serving of two whole rings of calamari in the picture above. We were also served a slice of cheesecake the size of a pinky - they surely had to use a medical scalpel to slice them so thinly.
Service in the Main Dining Room was pretty slow, although our waiter did become particularly attentive - I suspect because we were the only people ordering wine that wasn’t on the all-inclusive list, so the only ones signing a bill and tipping him.
We did eat in “The Grill” premium restaurant one night - service was good, but the menu was unimaginative. None of the steak options appealed, so we ended up with a caesar salad then an overcooked “fish mixed grill”. As mentioned earlier, this “restaurant” is in an odd location, at the back of the buffet. The evening was also slightly marred by a very odd couple seated at a table nearby who clearly had an issue with us, asked to move, then sat across the room, glaring at us and clearly discussing us with the, presumably disinterested, family now seated next to them. We never did establish what the issue was - the, clearly mortified, waiter was discrete. The thought that we were talking too loudly occured (one of the party has hearing issues) but that had never been a problem in three previous decades of eating out. Maybe we were dressed to casually, although we did double-check that the formal dress code did not apply in The Grill. All very strange; although, as we’ll detail in a subsequent post, Fred Olsen does seem to attract a higher proportion of people we’d normally try our best to avoid than any other line we’ve come across.
Finally, there’s the buffet - it’s not huge, but the food was passable. The selection below comes from fajita night. The guacamole was not great - it was that weird shiny staff that comes with an unfeasibly long Use By date.
Being an older ship, cabins with a balcony are few and far between on Balmoral, so we opted for a standard outside twin.
The cabin didn’t have much to commend or condemn it - comfortable, if tired, is about as much as can be said.
The bathroom was, however, a sensible size - the shower far more spacious than the tiny corner that’s provided in standard cabins on most new ships.
Nobody is booking a Fred Olsen cruise expecting waterslides, surfing simulators or go-kart racing. Instead, they want a tastefully decorated ship with “traditional” amenities and, by in large, we’d say that Balmoral delivers that effectively.
There are very pleasant pool areas, with mattress pads provided on the loungers when the sun makes an appearance, although, on a sunny day in the Norwegian fjords, the staff did seem a bit slow off the mark in recognising that people were actually using the loungers and might like the mattresses.
While some of the decor verges into Ye Olde Maritime Theme Park territory it does so with beautiful models of old Fred Olsen sailing clippers, rather than with plastic and foam mouldings. To our surprise, the ship features some really nice modern art, both paintings and sculpture.
There is a small fitness centre and a token casino - a couple of tables are set up in the Lido Lounge of an evening.
In keeping with the “traditional cruising” motif, there are also a card room, library and craft room. But we reiterate again, this was the most crowded ship we’ve sailed on - seating was at a premium in all lounges and bars. Indeed, we almost witnessed a stand-up row in the card room when people looking for a place to play dominoes were deemed to be encroaching into the territory marked out for a bridge lesson.
This was our seventh cruise embarkation in as many months and it was by far the worst. As with ticketing, Fred Olsen’s apparent hatred of technology was front and centre during the embarkation process.
Even reaching embarkation was a trial - the paperwork simply stated “Port of Tyne”, making no mention of the fact that there parts of the port on both sides of the river. Our local driver first took us to the southern side, where we ended up being questioned by a security guard who then sent us back out and through the Tyne Tunnel to the other Port of Tyne, fifteen minutes away.
Inside the terminal things are best described as “chaotic” and “slow moving”. There was clearly no effort to enforce the allocated embarkation times, people were just split into lines for even and odd decks so that the antiquated system of finding a pre-printed room key then associating it with you and a credit card could be gone through.
Again, I understand that many of Fred Olsen’s older guests may not want a computerised
system, but there should be an online check-in option available for those of us capable of using it.
I think it’s fair to say that technology is not a strong suit at Fred Olsen. As, I’m guessing, most of their passengers book through a travel agency, this probably isn’t an issue. However, as direct guest, the whole process was frustrating.
Information that was provided then vanished from the booking, resulting in numerous phone calls asking for it again. The line insists on having the details of your travel insurance policy, which I suppose is fair (they would, I assume, be left with the bill if something happened to an uninsured guest), but seemed to be required rather early on. There was also an issue with a drinks package, which I was, initially, charged for, despite it being included - a discrepancy which only came to light when we decided to upgrade our cabins.
I know they’re aiming at a different market, but the comparison with the larger cruise lines is stark and I do wonder if the reliance on travel agents is wise - there is a growing segment of the population who have never used one.