I went in search of culture and history on a Fred Olsen Cruise Lines cruise to Northern Europe on an itinerary entitled "Rivers, Canals, and City Overnights".
After lunch on a mid-March Friday I boarded Balmoral at Southampton and sailed 1,283 nautical miles in a week visiting Antwerp, Hamburg, and Amsterdam.
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The 1,350-passenger capacity Balmoral is one of the smallest ships I have sailed on, promising a real family feel. Small does not mean cramped, especially on an older ship. This ship rarely felt busy, and the ratio of passengers to public space seems greater than on modern mega cruise ships.
Built in 1988, Balmoral is one of the last remaining classic cruise ships in service. In an age when new mega-ships launch at a rate of knots, it is nice to see a cruise line holding onto a piece of history.
The cruise line is popular with older cruisers, solo travellers, and widowers, all looking for a small ship experience. The cruise line attracts a small share of younger cruisers.
You will not find the headline attractions found on mega ships. But speaking to many of my fellow passengers this precisely was why they had opted to sail with Fred Olsen Cruise Lines. Guests sought a traditional, classic cruise experience on a small and intimate ship.
While Balmoral is the largest in the fleet, it is not unwieldy large. There is a strong sense of family and belonging on the ship. Friendships are easy to make so even if you travel on your own like I did, you will not feel alone onboard.
Balmoral Deck Plan
Decks 4, 5, and 9 are entirely made up of cabins. Deck 3 has a small arts and crafts room. Decks 3 and 9 have self-service laundry rooms.
Deck 6 is a mix of cabins, an oddly large space used as an Art Gallery, the Guest Services Desk, the Shore Excursions Desk, a small shop selling branded merchandise, a small photo gallery, and a tiny kiosk that is home to the photographer. The main Ballindalloch restaurant occupies a large space at the rear of the deck.
At the aft of Deck 7 is a beautiful outdoor swimming pool and a pair of hot tubs, all wrapped in teak decking. The Grill, Palms Café, Morning Light Pub, and The Bookmark Café are on this deck. The library seamlessly merges into The Bookmark Café, but still somehow manages to be a quiet space. The card room is unbelievably popular just like the Future Bookings desk. Two boutiques surround the upper tier of the small, double-height atrium. The Neptune Lounge, home to nightly shows, is at the front of the vessel. A small teak promenade deck wraps around the outside of the ship, providing an excuse to get some fresh sea air.
Deck 8 is mostly formed of cabins, although the rear is home to the Lido Lounge, complete with gaming tables and a bar.
The best suites are on Deck 10, along with the Atlantis Spa and Fitness Centre, as well as the cosy Spey and Avon Restaurants. The spa has several treatment rooms and a beauty salon. It offers a variety of treatments for men and women. I can wholeheartedly recommend the reflexology massage which is the perfect antidote for tired feet after lots of walking.
Deck 11 is a mostly outdoor deck with plenty of sun loungers available. On a cold weather cruise like the one I sailed on these were never used. A pool and two hot tubs form the centrepiece of the open space. Behind the funnel is a golf net for lessons. Head to the front of the ship, beyond the Marquee Bar, to find the enclosed Observatory Lounge which offers unbroken views out to see in a warm setting.
Cabins are available in four flavours - Interior, Ocean View, Balcony, and Suite. Cabins boast ample floor space, a feature often lacking on most modern vessels.
Interior cabins are usually the cheapest available onboard, and as the name suggests, these do not have an outside view. Ocean View cabins have a view through either a porthole or a picture window depending on the category booked. Balcony cabins come with the addition of a private balcony space as do Suites, although these are much larger and far more comfortable on longer sailings.
Selected Interior, Ocean View, and Suite cabins are wheelchair user accessible.
Where the cruise line excels is in its provision of single cabins for solo occupancy. Selected Interior, Ocean View, and Suite cabins are designed exclusively for solo travellers.
My cabin, Superior Ocean View cabin #6038, was roomy. I enjoyed gazing at the views out to sea through the large, salt splashed picture window.
The room came with twin beds, two chairs, a writing desk, a small glass desk, and ample cupboard space. The bathroom was reasonably sized and came with a deep bathtub - perfect for a soak after a long day traipsing the streets of Europe. An over-bath shower head offered an alternative means of washing although if you are taller than six feet, you will have to bend down to get underneath the spray.
The location on the port side of Deck 6 was just a few steps from Guests Services and the airy two-deck atrium.
I toured a selection of solo, balcony and suite cabins and was surprised by the generous floor space each offered, particularly with those cabins designed for single occupancy. I loved the suites, but they are only a necessity for sheer luxury or maximum comfort on long world cruises. Even a balcony was unnecessary on this particular itinerary due to the poor weather.
Dining is an area that the ship excels at, and I don't think Fred Olsen Cruise Lines shouts about this enough. The food was plentiful, delicious, and varied.
Do not expect gourmet fine dining cuisine but instead, you will find wholesome and honest food. Dishes varied each night and catered for British tastes as well as allergies and intolerances.
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner buffets were busy, but by timing it correctly, I had little trouble finding an empty seat. As a solo traveller on this trip, I usually ended up sitting with newfound friends each time.
Room Service, free as part of the cruise fare, offered a good range, and this became my preferred option for lunch. It took around 30 minutes for orders to arrive, and plates were generously filled. Cake of the Day became an indulgent highlight.
Outside mealtimes options were limited. Late night supper was held nightly at the Palms Café for a pre-midnight snack. The Bookmark Café served a variety of hot drinks and chocolate truffles. For in-cabin dining, Room Service was also an option.
The cruise line undeniably caters for older cruisers, and it does an exceptional job at making solo travellers and widowers feel particularly welcome. Of course, there are younger cruisers that sail with the cruise line, but these are looking for a traditional, British cruising experience on a small ship.
Twice-nightly live entertainment shows proved to be very popular. Acts included the house troupe of singers and dancers, guest comedians, and even crew members made an appearance in a talent show.
I feared British night, expecting it to be a tacky affair, but instead it turned out to be the best night of all. Do not underestimate the power of a patriotic party!
Dancing sessions hosted in-between the live evening shows was just as popular, as were the nightly games of Bridge.
During the day events included quizzes, arts and craft sessions, seminars, and discussions. Traditional afternoon tea, that quintessentially British affair, was usually well-received despite the cost of £7.95 a head.
Liver performances from talented musicians rounded off the hosted entertainment.
Aside from that, many people chose to relax in the cafés or lounges, thanks to the cold temperatures outside. Only the brave ventured into the outdoor heated pools and hot tubs. The shops on Deck 7 were busy, but the biggest surprise was the roaring trade at the Future Bookings desk. There was always a long queue at the desk whenever I passed - a testament to how many people enjoyed themselves.
The ship sailed from Southampton to Antwerp. Having not visited the city before, I found it to be a fusion of Brussels and Bruges. Quiet squares bordered by beautiful examples of detailed architecture jarred with the hustle and bustle of the city. The port area felt a little run down and had an uneasy quality at night.
I took a walking tour of the city. The first stop was to take in 15th-century Baroque interiors of Sint-Joriskerk (Saint George church). It is best known as the final resting place of artist Peter Paul Rubens, and his grand artwork decorates the interiors.
A visit to chocolate shop The Chocolate Line then followed. This brand is my favourite haunt in Bruges, and so I was thrilled to discover this was the unnamed chocolate shop we were to visit. Needless to say, I stocked up on plenty of chocolate!
The tour finished with a walk through the rear entrance to Stadsfeestzaal Shopping Centre. The group confusedly followed the tour guide who escorted us into what opened out into the grandest shopping centre I have ever seen, complete with gold guiding. Historic and modern architecture meld into a unique and functional shopping centre.
The next port of call was Hamburg for an overnight call. I had booked onto a city tour which visited Miniatur Wunderland. Intricate small-scale recreations of real world destinations cram into this exhibition.
The attraction is relatively small, but they have managed to include a diverse range of cityscapes - and there are more in the planning. The only disappointments were the sheer volume of people at the attraction (it was half term in Germany) and the limited time available here on this tour.
My afternoon was free, and a quick walk around the port area became a trek from Altona port to Hamburg city centre and back again, mostly along the beautiful waterfront.
In the morning I had booked onto another city tour. While this was largely the same tour as the first, it covered slightly different areas. Sadly the promised early morning organ recital at St Michael's Church (Hauptkirche St. Michaelis) failed to materialise, blamed instead on a printing error.
The final port of call was Amsterdam. Having visited the city several times before, I knew I wanted to jump onboard a canal boat tour. So I embarked on a sightseeing tour and finally got to experience the city from the waterline. The experience was not too long, which was good as the seats were uncomfortable, and I spent the journey facing backwards.
Aside from the ports of call, this cruise also included a lot of scenic river cruising, something usually only reserved for river cruise boats. Cruising is not just about the destinations. It is about the journey - and Balmoral did not disappoint.
Balmoral Mini Cruises
Fred Olsen Cruise Lines has a good range of mini cruises under five nights in duration. Better still, these are often available in ports dotted around the UK. For a complete list of upcoming Fred. Olsen mini cruises take a look at this list.
If you have never sailed on a cruise before or have never sailed with Fred Olsen Cruise Lines, choose Balmoral. She is the perfect size to begin with - large enough to offer plenty of space and activities but small enough to feel very comfortable.
If you are a seasoned cruiser and have sailed with Fred Olsen Cruise Lines previously, you may wish to opt for the smaller, more intimate vessels, Black Watch, Braemar, or Boudicca.
Balmoral is a lovely small ship with a warm atmosphere onboard. The crew were friendly and appeared to gel as one big family. The ship is clean but dated. Food is plentiful and entertainment is varied. A visit to the spa is a must, especially having enjoyed a day on one of the well-organised shore excursions.
Read more in this series
- Fred Olsen Cruise Lines' Balmoral Review (you are here)