by Robert Lidster

My wife and I were departing Dover onboard the Balmoral, the largest of the Fred Olsen cruise ships, we had sailed on her before back in March 2008 on a Caribbean cruise out of Miami, this time we were embarking on a twelve night Norwegian Fjord cruise. Back in 2008 the Balmoral had only just started service with Fred Olsen having been purchased by them in 2007 and then refurbished including being stretched with a new middle section.

Balmoral is some 715 feet long and weighs in at 43,537 tons, she can accommodate in the region of 1,400 passengers and has almost 500 crew so a good crew to passenger ratio ensuring good service and a high level of passenger satisfaction. Her onboard amenities include two swimming pools (both outside), four whirlpools, a casino, a self service launderette, a theatre, a library, internet room, shops, various bars and lounges and a spa offering various massages, hairdressers and gym.

The ship itself is a most handsome one with classic lines and painted all white, she benefits from a full walk-around teak deck where four laps equals a mile. The handrails are finished in varnished wood and the interiors are tastefully decorated and the public areas have an open airy feel to them. There are various cabin grades to chose from, ours was a standard inside cabin on deck 4 which although not enormous was of a reasonable size and had everything we needed for our stay, we were in twin beds which were positioned in an L shape. There are ocean view cabins as well as ones with balconies and of course the larger suites, the higher up the ship you go the more expensive the cabin with the suites being on deck 10.

The food onboard is of a very high standard and there is a good choice of restaurants, the main restaurant Ballindalloch on deck 6 has two sittings for dinner as do the two smaller restaurants the Spey and the Avon on deck 10. The Palms Café on deck 7 is a more casual eatery with open seating and self service food. All restaurants have open seating for breakfast and lunch, giving you a wide choice of places to eat. Besides breakfast, lunch and dinner there is also morning coffee and afternoon tea served in certain lounges and a supper club at 11:45pm in the Palms Café so no need to go hungry.

Fred Olsen are very much a traditional cruise line and have a very loyal following, the age group tends to be mostly over sixties and mainly British. On a cruise of this length it is normal to have three formal nights and a couple of themed nights as well as informal and casual nights, so you need a big suitcase to pack all those changes of clothes.

The entertainment onboard was of a good quality and was varied with something to please all tastes. The main shows were held in the Neptune Lounge on deck 7 and these could be anything from a comedian to the Balmoral show team putting on mini musicals. In the various bars and lounges were trios and solo artists, as well as karaoke nights, race nights and quiz nights and of course bingo. During the daytime there were lectures, talks on the ports of call and various presentations and classes. Plenty to do or you could chose to do nothing and relax by the pool in one of the many deckchairs. We were lucky with the weather for even though we were sailing in the North Sea at the end of August and beginning of September, we had some really warm days with blue skies and very little rain.

Our itinerary for this cruise would include two days at sea as well as port calls in Amsterdam (Holland), Invergordon (Scotland), Stavanger, Eidfjord, Skjolden, Olden, Molde and Bergen (all in Norway) with a final call on the way back to Dover in Antwerp (Belgium). Unfortunately our luck with the weather changed on our way from Bergen to Antwerp and we hit a gale force 11 which not only spoilt the cruise for several of the passengers who were laid up with sea sickness, but it also meant that we couldn’t make the speed we needed to in order to reach Antwerp. We were therefore, diverted to Rotterdam in Holland, a big disappointment for me as I have visited Rotterdam on a couple of occasions and although it is a perfectly nice city, I would have much preferred to have gone to Antwerp, a place that I have yet to visit.

We didn’t book any of the ships tours as we intended to make our own arrangements. This was not only in order to keep costs down but also because as we had never been to Norway before, we didn’t see the sense in paying to go further a field when all our ports of call would be new to us. Most of our berths at the ports of call were within easy walking distance of the town or city and for those that were a little further to walk we were provided with courtesy buses to take us in.

For the most part we just strolled around, taking in the views but in Amsterdam having caught the courtesy bus to the central station we walked to Anne Franks house, I had been before but it was the first time for my wife, it is a very moving experience and well worth the 8.5 Euro entrance fee. In Eidfjord we took the little road train which for a fare of about £10 will take you on a 55 minute ride up through the surrounding hills with great views of the Fjord and the cruise ship, taking in Viking burial grounds and the towns churches and wood carving centre. In Bergen after walking around the fish market and sampling some delicious fish, we took the Funicular to the top of Mount Floyen (a height of 300 metres) with its wonderful views of Bergen and delightful walks through forest and lake area. The Funicular runs constantly and takes about 7 minutes to get to the top and costs about £7.

The scenery in Norway is spectacular, the air is the freshest I have ever breathed and for the most part the towns and cities are clean and safe. I personally preferred the smaller ports of call such as Eidfjord and Olden as these represented everything I had come to expect from Norway. It was a most relaxing, enjoyable cruise, one I would very much recommend.