As I drove through Dock Gate 10 in Southampton, the vast bulk of Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas ship soared into the sky above me. The North Star, the glass pod that lifts guests 300 feet above sea level, was up and seemed to be trying to scape the base of the dark rain clouds looming low over the port. The lumbering mall of a craft dominated the dock, brashly demanding attention. Its huge expanse of balcony cabins stretched along the quayside, like a modern block of glass-fronted flats dwarfing a neighborhood of low lying buildings. It took a while to notice the seemingly diminutive shape of Fred Olsen Cruise’s Balmoral huddled at Dock 102 waiting to greet me, just in front of the monster looming over it.
The ship looked positively tiny, and almost apologetic, situated next to its large nautical compatriot. The Anthem can carry between 4,200 and 4,900 guests, while the Balmoral takes just 30% of that. It did, however, look unmistakably like a ship and not an apartment block. There was no doubting on first sighting that she was from a different era. The bow looked lean and mean, designed to slice through challenging seas. Her sleeker low profile was peppered with portholes and large scenic windows, and she was not showered with balcony cabins all over. There was a broad promenade deck visible. All attributes of an older and more traditional ship design aimed to equip her to ply major sea routes in all weathers, and not just drift around the more accommodating Caribbean and Mediterranean waters in benevolent seasons.
The Balmoral is almost 30 years old. It was built in 1988 and joined the Fred Olsen fleet in 2007 when it was extended and renovated. It had previously sailed as the “Crown Odyssey” and “Norwegian Crown” for Royal Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line and Orient Lines.
I had cruised on the Anthem of the Seas the week before, and had experienced the technology, modern interiors and impressive array of features such as multiple dining venues, dodgem cars and surfing Flow-rider. I wondered if stepping back onto a more classic ship would be underwhelming and less invigorating.
Embarkation was definitely less efficient than the technology-infused Royal Caribbean. Their pre-boarding online check in has tech-savvy travellers taking about 10 minutes from arrival to boarding. However, looking around the terminal, Fred Olsen travellers were clearly a mature crowd of couples and appeared more old-fashioned in their ways. This could explain why there was no online option even available. It meant I had to join a line to scan my passport, have a security photograph taken and my credit card processed. I was allocated a number and had to wait to be called to go through security. My fellow guests seemed comfortable with this approach, and happily used the time to meet and chat to other guests. Most were comparing their cruising expertise and experiences. This seemed to be a frequent cruise crowd.
I did find it more frustrating when modern technology can streamline this tiresome process and get me onto the ship faster. However, once I boarded I forgot the wait.
Impressions of the ship
As soon as I stepped on board I was taken with the ship. Despite its age, it was very well maintained with a traditional and classic-inspired decor. It felt spacious, uncluttered and seemed to have plenty of open spaces to sit, relax or catch-up with people without feeling swamped and cramped. But more than anything, I loved the feeling of being on a proper ship.
Unlike her more contemporary cousins, who focus on making the ship a destination and have large spaces without views of the sea, all around the Balmoral are windows enabling you to connect with the ocean – or destinations you are in. There are huge floor-to-ceiling or enormous circular windows everywhere. It makes the public spaces bright, and immerses you in the experience of being at sea. Of special note are the Observatory Lounge on Deck 11 with views on three sides, the Café Venus coffee shop with big windows on both sides and the restaurants, like the Spey where I was dining, which have circular scenic windows and glass doors out to the deck. On the large mega-ships I have traveled on, I almost forget I am at sea as they totally immerse one into the resort they have created. On the Balmoral you are guaranteed the sense of being on a journey – as the sea or destination surrounds you on all sides. I loved this. I adore being at sea and being constantly reminded of this was magnificent.
The traditional approach to cruising is followed through to most aspects of the on-board experience. There are two sittings for dinner, 6:15pm and 8:30pm, in three restaurants: Avon, Spey and the larger Ballindalloch. Guests are allocated one of these and a set table. The meals consist of starter, soup, choice of five main courses and dessert. Most evenings are smart casual with two formal nights of dinner jacket or suit and tie, which are accompanied by a Captain’s reception. There is the Palms Café buffet restaurant alternative, which offers The Grill as an alternate steak dinner for a supplement on some nights.
The show lounge offers nightly entertainment, mostly provided by a youthful company of singers and dancers. Their cabaret-style shows were themed around the songs of Abba, theatre musicals and famous films. There were two shows a night, one for those on first and the other for those on second seating. There is no casino, only a roulette and blackjack table.
A week of the unexpected
My cruise on Fred Olsen Balmoral, as it unfurled over the week, contained a number of unexpected events. The ship provided a pleasant alternative to what I had expected, weather blew up causing disruption to our schedule and a gastroenteritis outbreak further messed with our plans. However, the line and guests largely embraced and took it all in their stride. This is what travel can be. Anyone that expects the expected is naïve.
The day after leaving Southampton was spent at sea as we cruised the 600 nautical miles to Norway. The day on board was a quiet and sedate one. Unlike modern cruise lines intent on providing non-stop distractions, on Balmoral we were left to potter about and fill our time through our own initiative and devices. There was a schedule of diversions if we needed some – such as port talks on Bergen, Flam and Olden, line dancing lessons, a craft class, bridge lessons and a guest speaker talking about World War II. The shops opened and set up some tables offering handbags, crystal ornaments and watches. Every now and then people would stroll by and lazily peruse them. Groups of ladies would huddle around the 2,000 piece jumbo jigsaw puzzle in the library and chat, while attempting to make inroads on it. Every now and then a trio would perform a civilised set of light classics in the bar. People were mostly quietly reading in the various lounges around the ship or sitting out on deck taking advantage of the welcome warm sun.
The main excitement of the day came when Captain Stoica, a permanently cheerful man, announced in his 12 Noon update that there was a Gale 11 storm ahead of us, and so we would not be heading to Stavanger the next day. Instead he was attempting to avoid it by going straight to Bergen, our second stop, and stay there overnight. People shrugged, and returned to their relaxation and enjoying the ship for the rest of the day.
His plan worked, and we had smooth sailing all afternoon and through into the next day. Just before lunch we started to ease through the channel into Bergen. We were surrounded by rolling hills with white covered mountains visible in the distance. The wind was brisk and had a chilly edge to it, presumably from cascading over the snow caps and down to greet us. Despite this, large quantities of passengers donned their fleeces and hats and hurried outside and filled the front and sides of the ship to watch the sights.
On the Balmoral there is a sweeping walkway overlooking the bow of the ship providing spectacular views and, as we eased closer towards Bergen, this proved to be a large draw. Many guests, most with impressive cameras with long lenses, were out on deck to view the attractive houses peppered across the hills and passing yachts and boats. The other popular spot for taking in our arrival was at the rear of the ship. Some sat inside drinking in the Lido bar, whilst others embraced the Norwegian wind and clung to the railings watching the white wake from the ship roll out behind us on the otherwise dark green glassy water.
We docked in the port as dark rain clouds drizzled over us. This is not an unusual habit for Bergen, which is renowned for having rain virtually every day of the year.
Bergen is the second most populated city in Norway, and an important fishing and support centre for off shore oil and gas platforms. Large strange-shaped commercial boats huddled around the pretty harbour, which is topped by the famous fish market next to an ultra-modern building housing the Tourist Information Centre and some trendy restaurants. The walk from the ship into town is short, about 700 metres. It takes you past leaning and miss-shaped wooden buildings in the Bryggen area. These used to be where rich merchants would operate from, but are now full of stylish decor shops, places to eat and souvenir shops. Once in town there are picturesque streets with gorgeous brick Norwegian buildings with layered roofs. The funicular that runs every ten minutes up Mount Floien is easy to reach, and is where you can enjoy gorgeous panoramic views of the harbour and ships. It is the second highest viewing spot in the city after the cable car on Mount Ulriken, which requires a taxi ride to.
While many guests chose to head off on Fred Olsen tours, Bergen is compact and easy to access from the ship and so I chose to self explore. The hop-on hop-off bus companies, of which there are two, stopped right outside the harbour gates and were a popular draw for many passengers.
After spending that afternoon and the next day there, we set sail for Flam, cruising out through a series of gorgeous Fjords.
Around 8:30am the next day, the cheerful Cruise Director (Anthony Borradaile) came over the ship’s announcement system to excitedly welcome us to Flam. This town, of around 350 full-time residents, is at the inner end of the Aurlandsfjorden, a branch of Sognefjorden. It is best known for the 20-kilometre Flamsbana Railway that travels 876 metres in 50 minutes to provide spectacular views of the region. Anthony informed us that locals had told him that the area had a remarkably thick cover of snow across the hilltops for May, creating an even more picturesque vista than expected. From my cabin beyond the quaint village, I could just see the soaring black rock faces and peaks splattered with generous swathes as he had described. This news made it more disappointing for me, as I had become unwell overnight with a mild dose of the gastroenteritis bug that was spreading through the ship, and so had to miss exploring.
Flam is a place I have long wanted to visit. I have been attracted to images of the soaring hillsides, peaceful waters and the magic of being transported up the mountain. Instead, I had to listen to the ship grow increasingly quiet as guests streamed off to travel on the railway or on the chairlift that also was offered as an alternative tour. Later hearing about it, and seeing the magnificent pictures fellow guests had taken of the immaculate scenes all around the town, made missing the port even more painful.
Olden was due to be our next stop. I had booked to go on a hike to view the Briksdal Glacier. However, the Captain and Fred Olsen had decided to shorten our cruise as the gastroenteritis problem was still affecting guests, although by now I personally was feeling back on form. We were to sail to Stavanger, and then return to Southampton a day early.
So we headed out of the quiet and scenic Flam and journeyed through the slow sunset along beautiful narrow fjords with sheer sides and dark water. Occasionally we would drift past villages huddled on patches of flat land, or sail past the ferries or smaller ships that scurry between them and the bigger towns carrying people, goods and vehicles.
Stavanger is usually a busy cruise port, but we had the privilege of being the only ship in that day. The rescheduling had meant that the planned tours could not be reinstated and, so while some headed off the alternative excursions of the town and area, most headed off to self explore. The cruise port is right in the heart of the old city and you step right off into streets of restored wooden houses, old storehouse buildings housing shops, bars and restaurants and the modern petroleum museum. Close to the Balmoral were the hop-on hop-off tour stop and the boat offering a 3-hour journey down the breathtaking Lysefjord to view the 548-metre high “Preikestolen” or Pulpit Rock.
The city is the fastest growing in Norway, transforming from a slightly-run down and stodgy fishing town into an important commercial centre after the opening of the North Sea Oil Fields ignited growth. The city itself is pleasant enough and can be explored on foot. However, as there is not a lot to see in the town, the best excursion is to catch the boat. I decided to have a quiet day and, as I had been here before, to reacquaint myself with the area around the ship. I stocked up on traditional Norwegian souvenirs from the gift shops peppered around the port. Fluffy animals, ugly trolls, wooden trinkets, shiny Christmas ornaments and t-shirts and pencil cases proudly displaying the Norway flag. Things that the people I gave them to probably will put in a cupboard – but proved impossible to resist on the day.
Homeward bound. Early.
From there we headed back to the North Sea for our day of cruising to Southampton. The weather was not as warm as on the way out, and so guests spent more time in the ship attending the talks, shopping the stalls, doing the quiz, playing bingo and attending the talks. In the evening, the crew put on a talent show that was a mixture of traditional dance from the Philippines and Thailand, singers and two highly amusing musical numbers. One was the Deck Department performing a tight, and highly polished, routine to a medley of Village People songs, and the other a manic Engineering Team performing a crazy dance dressed as little people with faces drawn on their stomachs and their backs and faces turned into big hairdos by bin bags. It was a great show and an engaging way to end the cruise.
Ship with a heart
As I disembarked from the Balmoral I looked back at the ship, this time docked at the very City Terminal where the Anthem of the Seas had been the week before. Unlike her, she did not soar above the building, dominate the skyline or look gleaming, glitzy and new. She simply looked like a humble but self-confident ship, one that I had seen has a heart and soul that fosters and connects passengers with the traditions of cruising. I hope to be back soon.
I travelled as a guest of Fred Olsen Cruises. If you are interested in finding out more about the cruise they offer visit FredOlsenCruises.com. To get more of my Tips For Travellers articles, audio and videos about the line visit TipsForTravellers.com/FredOlsen.