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.