I undertook a mini-cruise to Rouen on Fred Olsen’s ‘Balmoral’ in August 2009.
At 43,537 tons and carrying around 1,400 passengers, ‘Balmoral’ is the biggest ship in the Olsen Fleet. Her tonnage and passenger capacity was increased when Olsen added a 30-metre mid-section. For Olsen regulars she may be a ‘big ship’, but by modern industry standards she is still less than half the size of most newer ships. I assume like most mini-cruises, she was nearly full to capacity, but she still felt spacious.
Her décor is tasteful and very contemporary, with the exception of the original atrium décor and some stair cases which have an abundance of mirrors and coloured glass – 1980’s style. It is quite easy to see which parts of the ship are new and which are original due to the stark differences in décor. Art work is abundant throughout the ship and it ranges from attractive to weird, so there is something to suit every taste.
Olsen may be a Norwegian family business, but the on-board experience is British with more than a hint of ‘Scottish’ thrown in. The Avon, Spey dining rooms, Braemar room and Morning Light Pub (named after Fred. Olsen’s largest sailing ship) are all excellent new spaces. The card room is the biggest I’ve ever seen.
Embarkation at Dover terminal 2 (the new one) was very quick an efficient probably helped by the fact that the ship is not a modern leviathan. Most of the passengers embarked the ship early to mid afternoon. Now just about every other cruise line opens up their ‘buffet’ and allows the embarking passengers to have a lunch (or late lunch). Olsen doesn’t, they only provide afternoon tea. Now this can comprises of a few finger sandwiches and tea. Now if you have had a long journey, did not already stop for lunch and were assigned an 8.30pm dining time, your stomach would probably be complaining all afternoon. I can only conclude that this is penny pinching, once again.
My cabin, 5171 (deck 5, aft) was a standard window cabin. There were two single beds arranged in an L-shape, one under the window and the other along one of the walls with a Pullman (3rd) berth above it. The cabin was quite spacious for a basic grade and probably bigger than many similar cabins on the other Olsen ships. There were three full length wardrobes and an unprecedented 23 draws. There were even enough coat hangers for my wife and she does not travel lightly. A safe was provided in the bottom of the wardrobe. A nice modern touch was there was an LCD flat screen TV, with interactive features for ordering wine for the table and checking your cashless account etc.
Relatively new for Olsen is the fact that a Kettle for tea making is provided in the cabin, which is a very welcome addition for us Brits. It also takes the pressure of room service. The bathroom was perfectly adequate and the shower maybe a little bigger than many. One minor complaint is that the toilet is so near the under-the-sink bathroom cupboard, it does not give one much room to fit ones left leg between the toilet and cupboard (and I’m not particularly tall). My other minor complaint is that the hair-dryer was located on the bathroom wall, above the toilet. It was the type that blows hot air down a flexible tube. It looked rather dated and rattled terribly. The corridor was rather hot in the vicinity of our cabin (due to nearby machinery?) but fortunately the in-cabin Air Con worked well.
5171 would have been perfectly comfortable, but unfortunately it suffered from very server vibration/noise. This may have been due to the ‘cavitation’ effect as we proceeded 70 miles up the Seine at a slow speed in shallow water? Nevertheless it was very disturbing in the early hours of the morning. There were also pipes above the cabin ceiling which clunked all night, every night. Just to add insult to injury, this cabin was just above a loading hatch used for taking on supplies in port, so more banging and crashing could be hard after docking each morning. Other nearby cabins must also have been affected by these noises. One couple on deck six, aft, also told me that they could hear the vibration and noise.
Balmoral has three ‘formal’ dining rooms, the largest being the almost unpronounceable ‘Ballindalloch’ on deck 6 and the ‘Avon’ and the ‘Spey’ on deck 10 , Which are new additions added to the rear of the deck during the Olsen-ization of the ship. (The spare teak was removed and used to fill the gap on the prom deck so you can’t see the join).
The Avon and Spey are really two sides of the same restaurant, sharing one kitchen. These rooms are very light with many ceiling to floor windows and some very attractive big round windows, all of which provide excellent sea views. The only negative aspect of these two dining rooms is that they are particularly subject to any roll of the ship, being so high. Balmoral has no alternative ‘speciality’ restaurant.
For breakfast, Balmoral offers a buffet in the three dining rooms along with so items which are served. I found this confusing. For example my wife ordered American Pancakes and Scrambled egg. The waiter told her that she could get the eggs from the buffet. Personally I like my formal dining rooms to be serviced leaving the self-service options in the ‘lido buffet’. Having said that, the breakfast buffet in the Avon and Spey was reasonably extensive and of good quality (they share one buffet station). The plates were pining hot and some of the items like baked beans were actually bubbling.
I was assigned to the ‘Ballindalloch’ for evening meal. This was an attractive white and glitzy room, offering some sea views, although being largely original it was not as contemporary in feel or as intimate as the Avon and Spey. However the distance between the tables was quite good. I found the food to be rather mediocre and the choice on our three night cruise to be uninspiring. There were five courses, but the portions were the smallest that I’ve even had on any cruise ship. One cannot help feel that Olsen’s Chef have been told to ration the food in an effort to reduce costs. Don’t get me wrong, if you ate all five courses most people would be sufficiently full, without being bloated. However, if there were Americans on-board, used to very big meals, they would have mutinied. Unfortunately the soups were bland (half a small bowl) the two choices of salad lacking in taste, even if some did sound exotic. One evening, one salad option was a small portion of Coleslaw with four red kidney beans. Surely that’s a garnish for a salad, not a ‘course’? Another evening I opted for the mixed grill. I’ve had better in a ‘greasy spoon’ cafe. It came with chips which were soggy, the meats lacked taste, and it was covered in thick brown gravy. I’m sorry Fred, but this was a quality of meal that should not appear on any cruise ship menu. Another evening we has a ‘mediocre’ lamb (fatty) and portion of plaice that was acceptable.
In addition to the formal dining rooms, there is also there is also ‘Palms Cafe’ which is the casual lido buffet. There is an afternoon tea served on a daily basis in the Palms Cafe, although my wife was very disappointed than Scones and cream did not appear as a choice. The dining times in general were not as flexible as on-board some other cruise lines. Breakfast finished at 10.00am which I consider a little early if one is having a lie in. Likewise lunch finished at 2.30pm. A ‘supper club’ (is that American for midnight buffet?) is held in Palms each evening at 11.30pm. Although there is a good choice of cheese, meats and bread, the hot dish choice was pathetic. There are only two choices such as sausage rolls and lasagne one night and of shepherd’s pie and pasties another. The addition of a curry would have gone down well with the late night British palette.
Olsen needs to keep a close eye on their customer feedback and the competition, as there is now more ships than ever sailing from British ports. Some of their rivals are consistently providing higher quality food than I experience on this cruise.
I would imaging most passengers rate Olsen’s entertainment as ‘good’ if not ‘very good’. The Neptune show lounge looks dated with no raked seating found in modern auditoriums. Sign line are not all great and finding a seat if you arrive late is not always easy. However it is relatively intimate. The dance floor rose to become a stage, which impressed me. Olsen utilised a mixture of guest acts, along with their on-board entertainments team. (The budget lines often rely solely on their on-board troop). The production show ‘swing’ was of a reasonable standard. The team of ten young singers and dancers worked hard, although there dancing was generally better than their singing ability. Some of the singers appeared to have to sing songs unsuited to their voices and not always in a comfortable key for them. Sadly, most of the accompanying music was not from live musicians. The two guest acts, a comedian and a magician were competent. The lido lounge offers an attractive alternative dancing and entertainment venue.
The ‘Observatory Lounge’ is quite large for a small ship. Curiously the ships gym, directly under the lounge had the best views in the ship, with the Observatory Lounge windows in part looking over the gym’s roof. However the ‘Observatory Lounge’ hosted the disco of an evening. I’ve never seen a Fred Olsen disco so enthusiastically received, although I expect the mini-cruise crowd were more of a party-crowd than the normal Olsen clientele.
Fred Olsen’s strength is their charming fleet of small ships, with a British on board experience and friendly crew. Balmoral’s refit is excellent and she makes a fitting flagship. Although I did not do a long cruise on her, she is probably my favourite Olsen ship. Olsen’s product continues to generally appeal to the over 55’s although it appears the average age has dropped a little from when I first cruised with them in 1998. Families with children are now attracted during the School holidays.
Although the Olsen fleet each have plenty of public rooms, you will not find the range facilities and choices that you will on board a mega-ship. You also do not find the queues to embark, disembark and a lack of intimacy.
Fred Olsen’s main weakness is that the food can be inconsistent from ship to ship, and possibly over time. On Balmoral it appeared that the Chef’s were not being over generous with the food portions in the Ballindalloch dining room.
Potential cruise passengers should also beware that some cabins on all of Fred Olsen’s fleet, suffer from vibration and engine noise.
Boudicca review: http://wp.me/PfRKD-b
Black Watch review: http://wp.me/PfRKD-kv
Braemar Review: http://wp.me/PfRKD-g