Fred Olsen Lines by Reddave Balmoral December 29, 2009
It was our first cruise and my companion and I joined the MS Balmoral in Dover on a wet and windy December day. Check-in was acceptable with minimal delay and dealt with amiably by Balmoral staff. We were soon in our cabin on deck 6 (main deck) and were immediately impressed with the quality of décor on board. The cabin was really nice: roomy enough with a large bed, large window, good shower/loo compartment and flat screen telly. The lovely little cabin stewardess, Rose, welcomed us and introduced herself. We'd missed lunch in Dover so as soon as we'd unpacked we headed for the Palms Café for afternoon tea and tabnabs. Excellent: savoury rolls and sweet cakes.
Gale force winds delayed the departure slightly but soon we were heading down the channel. The stabilisers coped well and only the most susceptible fell victim to the slight pitching. The bad weather abated by the time we reached the Bay. We were allocated the Spey restaurant on deck 10 for the 2030 sitting: small, intimate and comfortable. I would request the same if I cruise again on the Balmoral. The food quality and choice was exceptional, with outstanding service from our waiters Danny and Uma. The wine waiter was an exception, being quite obtrusive and over-familiar in his attempts to get you to buy wine or digestifs. He had the habit of patting one on the back and I had to tell him quite firmly not to touch me. To boost their income (I presume) all staff serving drinks were a bit ‘in your face' and pushed you to have a drink if you were wavering.
We eschewed the organised trips ashore, preferring to do our own thing, and after talking to fellow passengers think it was a good decision. The company paperwork warns you that taxi availability cannot be guaranteed but that's just to frighten you into booking one of their overpriced trips. Taxis were always available. After three days we arrived at Agadir and took the shuttle bus into town (five quid). We negotiated an hour's taxi hire for €10. Good vfm but pay no more! We were taken to a spice shop, a Berber emporium and a mosque, but after that were glad to get back on the shuttle bus and return to civilisation. The other trips ashore were interesting and long enough: three Canary Islands, Madeira and Oporto (lovely place, could have done with longer there). At Leixoes, Oporto's port, we headed off the ship intending to get a taxi but found a double-decker bus just waiting for customers and bought a €12.00 ticket each. What a bargain! We had to wait for the bus to fill but were then treated to an hour's tour along the coast road to the Douro mouth and then along the river to the town. We were given over an hour in the town to do our own thing (dropped off opposite the statue of King Pedro IV of course) and then rejoined the bus for a further hour's tour on the return journey. Absolutely first class.
There was always plenty to do; I learned to play bridge. The evening entertainment throughout was first class. A preprandial drink in the Morning Light pub with Fletch's singing and humour in the background, or jazz/blues piano with Joy Ellis in the Observatory, followed by a delicious evening meal, followed by a show, was normal. I was glad to get home and have a night in! At breakfast and lunch you could choose in which restaurant to eat and we tried them all, with the Ballindalloch being large and friendly, but in the end we preferred the Spey. I was circumspect about the formal evenings and dickie-bows, but found that posh dining was really enjoyable, and on the morning of a formal night, champagne was available at breakfast. What a way to start the day!
Overall the cruise exceeded our expectations: food, service and entertainment. It was brilliant: I put on half a stone. The drinks were reasonably priced and I'm saving up to go again. On a less positive note, I was amazed at the few people who were prepared to moan. One miserable woman sat with us in the Spey with a plate full of English breakfast and then mumbled "breakfasts aren't very good". I wondered what she could have eaten at home! Probably said more about her than the breakfast.
Well done Fred Olsen.