My second trip with Fred Olsen Cruise Lines saw me reunited with the Balmoral. My earlier trip took me from Southampton to the scenic Norwegian Fjords. This one took place as Autumn rapidly descended on the United Kingdom and it whisked me, and around 1,300 other guests, to catch seven days of the last rays of European sunshine and warmth in northern Spain and France. We set sail from Southampton at the start of the October half-term holidays, and so our sail-away on deck required being wrapped in warm clothes. However, by the time we arrived in La Coruna in Spain these could be packed away in the cupboard as temperatures had edged up to the early 20s Celsius. It remained like this for the entire trip. A welcome diversion from the crisp mornings and evenings at home.
Much about Fred Olsen and the Balmoral was the same as my earlier journey. With one noticeable exception. The hull was transformed from the rather plain all white one to a more stylish dark grey and red. This dramatic look made the ship look more impressive. The ship, as I spoke about in my article about my earlier journey, is not a modern one and dates from 1987. It follows a more traditional ship design, and not the more contemporary ones that look more like block of flats mounted on a hull. I like the classic design and layout over those that look and flow more like hotels on land.
Being half-term there were some children on board. Most seemed to be part of multi-generational parties travelling together, rather than families travelling by themselves. To cater for this Fred Olsen had brought on board crew to arrange and run Kids’ Clubs. Most of the guests though were similar to the type I had travelled with last time. The age range skewed older, almost all British and couples. Although I did meet a few solo travellers. Most travellers also seemed to be die-hard loyalists to the line. Fred Olsen seem to know how to please this core audience, and I found very few that would contemplate switching to another line. They told me they like the good value fares, reasonable costs of things on board (drinks, spa, excursions etc.), the British experience encompassing entertainment to food, the no-fly departures and return to UK ports, friendliness of the crew and the range of food. The fact that there are still two formal nights and a themed British red-white-blue night appealing to this audience as well.
Bay of Biscay
Our transit to Spain required us crossing the unpredictable Bay of Biscay on our first day. It was well-behaved and we had a smooth passage, despite this time of year having some risk of more stormy seas. The lack of rolling and movement led to my table companions sharing their Bay of Biscay stories. I felt that there was some disappointment that it had been so calm as most clearly love being at sea and enjoy the motion – especially at bed time.
I took advantage of the sea day to enjoy some of the activities on board. In the morning I had a relaxing Swedish Massage in the Spa. High up on Deck 10 overlooking the bow of the ship, I had my tensions kneaded away with the gorgeous sight of the ocean stretching into the distance through the floor-to-ceiling windows. On most ships I avoid the Spa, despite loving having massages, as I feel the prices are too high and not worth it. Not so on Fred Olsen, as my massage was £60 and no automatic gratuity added. I did leave one, but liked that this was left to my discretion.
In the afternoon I indulged in Tradition Afternoon Tea. This magnificent event takes place most sea days and costs just under £8 (again with no automatic gratuity) and consists of a tower of sandwiches, cakes and scones. There is a choice of leaf teas too. It was held in the Observation Lounge on Deck 11 (just above the spa). A pianist played as I worked my way through the treats. A visit to the well-equipped fitness centre later my way of counter balancing my guilt!
La Coruna Spain
Our first port of call was La Coruna in Spain. I had not heard of it and had no expectations about what would greet me there. I attended the port talk to learn more, discovering it used to be the capital of the region until 1982. Based on what I heard, I decided to self explore and not take one of the tours. I liked that these talks provided a good balance between providing practical advice and tips on how to go independent as well as explaining and promoting the tours. As we docked within walking distance of the old town area it took minutes before I found myself touring the winding streets and beautiful plazas, armed with the maps from the local tourist board that had set up a stall in the cruise terminal. The highlight of my day was visiting the Plaza of Maria Pita, a local heroine who had helped rally the city to fight back against the English in the 1500s.
The next day we arrived in Gexto, the port for Bilbao. We docked just before lunch and stayed here overnight. This gave lots of time to see the city. The port ran a shuttle bus to the nearby Metro station, and then it was a twenty-minute ride into the centre of the city. I spent the afternoon visiting the Guggenheim Museum. The unusual building has become a worldwide recognisable symbol of the city, and helped to rejuvenate the city and attract tourists. I found the artwork inside interesting enough, but was more excited by the huge sculptures around the building itself.
On the next day I ventured back to the city by Metro and walked around the Old Town. It is full of grand buildings and lots of tight winding streets with restaurants and coffee shops.
La Pallice France
Our last port of call was La Palace in France.This port allowed guests to venture to see La Rochelle or the scenic landscapes around the city. The most popular excursions were the tours of La Rochelle itself and the two transfer options (half or full day). Most people wanting to see the city, like, me booked one of the tour options, as otherwise it meant catching the port shuttle bus to the dock gates and then finding the No 1 bus that ran every 20 minutes into the city.
It was the second of our Formal Nights, and I had the privilege of being asked to join the Captain’s table for dinner. There were seven other guests and we all met for a cocktail before heading to the main dining room. It was a chance to meet more people and ask the Captain about the line, ships and how things work on the ship. The invitation was a rather grand one (as the picture below shows):
All too soon it seemed that the week had evaporated and we were heading back to Southampton. While the fare on Fred Olsen includes all meals, including a five-course dinner, there is an alternative dining venue on the Balmoral called The Grill. For a £20 per person charge you can have a delicious steak dinner. I went there for fillet steak followed by a chocolate dessert which was extremely delicious!
We docked back in Southampton by 6:30am a week after we had departed. Back in the crisp English Autumn after an escape to get a week-long top up of sunshine and warmer weather, I soon was making my way off the ship and to a taxi to get to the station for my train back home in London feeling well fed, relaxed and recharged.
Is Fred Olsen the right cruise line for you?
Watch my video where I share five things you need to know to help decide if Fred Olsen Cruise Lines is the right line to go on your cruise vacation with:
Note: I travelled as a guest of Fred Olsen Cruise Lines on a 7-night Spain and France Autumn break. If you want to do a similar trip this is an eight-night ‘Espana Verde’ cruise on board Balmoral, departing from Dover on 7th May 2017. Ports of call include: La Coruna, Gijon, Santander, and Bilbao (from Getxo), returning to Dover on 15th May 2017.
Current prices start from £769 per person, based on an interior twin-bedded room, subject to availability, and includes all food and entertainment on board, and port taxes. For further information on Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines, visit the website at fredolsencruises.com or call Reservations on 0800 0355 242 (Monday – Friday, 8am – 8pm; Saturday, 9am – 5pm; Sunday, 10am – 4pm).
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