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For one night only: a Cunarder on Balmoral


Pushpit
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This is a multi part thread about my first ever trip on a Fred. Olsen mini-mini cruise, Edinburgh to Newcastle on 25 to 26 August 2023 on MV Balmoral. This part gives some background, the next posts the experience. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Cunard customer normally, this was the first time on another cruise company.

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Why did I book this trip?: The main reason was because I occasionally saw Black Watch on the Port of Tyne, where I very occasionally work. I made a mental note to go on her at some point, but then a lot of stuff happened, and Black Watch got pensioned off. I decided not to let Balmoral go without going on board. The other factor is that I know Northumberland and its coast well, but I have never properly seen it from the coast. So the one night option seemed a good idea. On Cunard I’ve done long and short voyages, but I’m a bit of serial shorty, I don’t always get the time for the longer trips.

 

What I liked:

  • Fred. Olsen’s website and App: I’m so used to the clunky and inadequate Cunard website it was something of a revelation to have a fully joined up experience! One login and everything is all lined up for you. Cunard’s customer experience a misjoining of separate systems and you can see the gaps. But Fred. Olsen was a breath of fresh air in comparison. One suggestion though: on the day of departure the countdown vanished and it was if my cruise no longer existed: why not replace it with that day’s Daily Times to allow a bit of anticipation planning?
  • Cabin information and selection process, again easier and more informative than Cunard.
  • More generally, the website had a good set of information and layout, though the gap with Cunard isn’t enormous here.
  • Getting to customer service on the telephone within a few minutes – it’s quite tricky to do this on Cunard.
  • The efficient dispatch of luggage labels by post. I would normally prefer to do it online but the professional quality of the tags brought back memories of how Cunard used to do this too. There was also a handy booklet about boarding at Rosyth. Overall FOCL sent out the right amount of information at the right time.
  • A 12:30 boarding time, though I suspect this was more thanks to the super short cruise time. Boarding on Cunard seems to be getting later and later.
  • Reasonable cost of drinks packages and even offered on short cruises. Cunard’s model is more about making money from ancillaries, so the soft drinks packages can be more expensive than Fred. Olsen’s alcohol packages. I am teetotal though, so it was academic.

 

Not sure

  • Online check-in is a more lightweight affair on Fred. Olsen, compared to photos and preauthorisation of credit cards on Cunard. [It turned out that FOCL is pretty slick at check-in].

 

What I didn’t like

  • The cost! For a single person Fred. Olsen is expensive, I paid more for an outside than a balcony on Cunard. Maybe it’s difficult to compare since the Cunard will actually give away cabins at rock-bottom prices if necessary since they’ll get money from alcohol, wifi, spa, shops, the casino – the list goes on. Whereas I got the impression that Fred. Olsen is more cabin focused for revenue, everything else seems a bonus.
  • The cost changing! Originally the cost for this cruise wasn’t disclosed online, and I had to call up. The cost then did appear online right up to close to departure, but I could have saved £80 on the £316 fare at one point. Cunard isn’t adverse to a bit of this too, but usually they do fill their ships close to departure so there isn’t so much down-pricing at the last moment.
  • Rosyth! I reached this conclusion well before departure. Was this really the best place for boarding? Somewhat awkward compared to the other Edinburgh options.
  • I guess I am also too used to balcony cabins, though I fully appreciate that Balmoral was built in a different era, and that the size of the vessel has both positives and negatives.

 

More posts to come, I’ll try and break away from the usual trip report format.

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Friday 25 August 2023

 

Off to my first ever Fred-dot-olsen cruise all the way from Edinburgh Rosyth to Newcastle North Shields. I live between the two cities, and I elected to park my car at the Newcastle end, then I took the LNER train to Edinburgh Waverley, navigating a 3 minute connection to the commuter service to Inverkeithing. All on time and I was in the station with the codename of INK at 11:41. No taxis waiting, so I called a local company and one arrived within a few minutes. £8.80 on the meter.

 

So I arrived at the Rosyth Cruise Terminal just before midday, so 30 minutes ahead of the advertised arrival time. The setup there is security then reception desk to a quick and friendly check-in, then a short bus ride to the vessel. I got to my cabin around 12:15 which was about as good as it gets. There wasn’t a luggage portering service, I presume because almost everyone was just on the one night hop. The other thing I noticed was a desk for dietary restrictions by check-in. The cabin wasn’t really ready yet, but I could chuck my bag in and off to lunch.

 

My cabin was on the main deck, an Outside cabin, B grade, with big windows. I normally prefer balcony cabins, usually the lowest priced one, but at the time of booking it was all done on the telephone so I was really able to compare cost very easily. Had I left it a few weeks or months I could probably have got a balcony room for similar money. No big deal, and the window and view from this cabin was excellent. As a Cunarder what surprised me was how much more of a marine experience this was – I could see birds and seals very clearly from my cabin.

 

So departure lunch was in the Ballindalloch restaurant, and was for me a hybrid experience with buffet for the food, but wait staff setting up and getting drinks, quite different to the Cunard approach. There again, getting lunch on departure day isn’t so straightforward on Cunard.

 

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After lunch I then had an explore, and see dear MV Braemar, the poor thing.

 

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Then I made my only trip to Palms, the buffet restaurant, to see what afternoon tea looks like – and the answer is not a lot, though they were provided and clearly ship-baked, since it turns out that afternoon tea is more for sea days.

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Interlude: vicariously tonight.

 

I manage to snaffle a copy of tonight's The Daily Times, for the trip today from Newcastle to Norway. I'm not on this cruise, but I thought it would be interesting to see what passengers on MV Balmoral are doing right now. I will post The Daily Times for my cruise Edinburgh to Newcastle later on.

 

As with most images on Cruise Critic, you can get a bigger photo by clicking on them.

 

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So why do we go on cruises? I guess the dining experience is a big part of this so:

 

Dinner in Ballindalloch was single sitting at 7 pm. They were also using Spey, but not Avon. Someone told me they only had 400 guests on board,  so that fits numbers wise.There was a £10 special offer for the two Alternative Dining options, Colours and Vasco.

 

There was an interesting demographic, quite a lot of younger people, not so many children, but quite a few “aging Scottish Hen parties”, not that I would dare say that to the participants. On our dinner table (5 out of 8 seats taken, 2 must have eaten elsewhere) was a solo German traveller and his amusing view was that half of Scotland was born on 25 August. Now the rousing renditions, stretching into 3 verses, of Happy Birthday from the crew is not something we get on Cunard. And certainly not with more gusto and tambourines that would embarrass the Salvation Army. In the course of the evening I think there perhaps 7 renditions? Plus one at lunch.

 

Anyway we all had a good chat and the evening slipped away so fast that I didn’t really see much of the coastline before darkness fell. So that got in the way of one of my objectives. However unlike on Cunard vessels, even though my table was in the middle of the restaurant (114), you could easily see out of both sides of windows, in this case on Fife on one side, and North Berwick on the other. I felt it was quite tastefully done, clearly not modern, but it was an inviting and comfortable space.

 

 

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The table structure on Balmoral tends to sharing tables, which was fine by me, but generally on Cunard I end up on a table for 2 in close vicinity to other tables, which means it's easy to engage or not engage with your neighbours. As you can see from the plans, there aren't that many 2 seater tables, but there was a 2 hour slot with the Maître d' advertised in The Daily Times and I doubt anyone ended up with something they really didn't like, given that the ship was less than half full.

 

The food itself was of good quality, probably had the edge on Cunard really. The portion sizes were in the sensible plus area, and compared to Britannia restaurants there was a lot more option choices.  This came from having an “always available” menu plus plenty of daily selections. Speed of service was good, we had a good lead waiter (Forge). Here is the menu.

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I went for the potato skins, lemon chicken, house salad, surf and turf. Dessert options were selected later and they had some extra items, I went for the banoffee ice cream.

 

After dinner I went on a walk around the promenade deck 7 to see the lights of Scotland. This is just as impressive as on the existing 3 Cunard ships, being a good wrap-around deck, advertised as 0.25 miles on circulation. There were two big improvements on Cunard here. Firstly the front lookout on MV Balmoral was fantastic, which a wide beam view over the bow. This photo doesn’t really give it justice, but for me it's a big advantage of MV Balmoral.

 

 

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Secondly the stern section of the promenade deck connected into the stairs going up to deck 11, where there was also a decent promenade section. So outdoor life on the vessel was excellent.

 

Final comments relate to the evening entertainment, which was the house company doing a song and dance routine based on the Eighties – so a-Ha, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Queen, Belinda Carlisle. Music pre-recorded, live singing.

 

I’m not sure what to make of that really, some in the audience really got into it, standing up and dancing. The 8 performers were 4 male, 4 female, half were singers, they all danced but 4 were dance specialists. They were technically good at singing and dancing, but I guess I got a bit distracted by the costumes (I certainly remember the 80s and dress sense and hair styles weren’t quite that bad!). And distracted by the fact that the performers would have a year of birth beginning with 2, so their parents wouldn’t necessarily know the 80s that well.  I’m probably a bit strange in my musical tastes, being an OAP who prefers Stormzy.

 

Neptune is the performance space, it’s quite intimate compared to the Royal Court theatre spaces on Cunard, but it was somewhere easy to get refreshments during the performance, so another difference there.  I guess there’s space for about 350 people here?

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(Yes, the seats are pointing the wrong way).

 

More updates to come.

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Thanks for the reports, we only had a week on a Fred Olsen ship but there were a lot of birthdays!

It was amusing the first night but we got really tired of waiting for food because our waiter spent so much time singing Happy Birthday. 

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Saturday 25 August 2023 - disembarkation

 

We have covered lunch, and dinner, so as day follows night, we are now on to breakfast.

 

The breakfast options are full self-service buffet in Palms, or part buffet in the restaurants. In this case it's once again Ballindalloch. This was open from 06:15 to 08:00. 

 

 

I felt that I slept quite well but nevertheless woke up before 5 am as we went past the lighthouse on the end of Tynemouth North Pier. Probably should have ensured the curtains were more resolutely drawn.

 

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Since it was now daybreak I got out and had a look at the ship while most were asleep. It was interesting to see the port from the ship, but there’s not much of a view really, there location is too far out to see Newcastle, which would be in the middle of this photo.

 

My cabin was on deck 6 so the restaurant was just around the corner, whereas Palms is up a deck. I gather this is standard but most guests in Ballindalloch use the buffet, however a la carte is also available. I took some fruit and salmon from the buffet, but ordered the English off the menu. The toast station is staffed, it's not make your own.

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I asked for no mushrooms but got them anyway, not a big deal, I do occasionally eat them but prefer to avoid food wastage. Otherwise it was a very good breakfast and better than the Cunard equivalent. I don't recall fried bread for example.

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So with that, I gathered my things, departed the vessel, taking the bus again for a slightly longer trip to the main terminal building. It’s more usually known as the DFDS terminal since there is a daily service to Amsterdam from there. This is a more welcoming location than Rosyth and some attention has been made there in respect of passenger comfort.

 

I then walked to the Nexus bus stop in Chirton Way. There were plenty of taxis waiting but I wasn’t in a hurry. Also waiting were the coaches taking many people back to Rosyth, they were leaving in the 07:30 to 08:00 hrs area.

 

Note the footpath to the public service bus stop is just to the far left of the terminal building, when facing the main entrance. It is not signed but there are zebra crossings to indicate the way. Under 500 metres, and it’s bus service 317 to either Percy Main or Howdon metro stops, in one direction, or Whitley Bay in the other.

 

More to follow.

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I think this is a really helpful model even if it doesn’t do all the details. The lower deck of portholes is deck 3. Then deck 4 and 5 mostly have the picture windows, and deck 6 has the large picture windows. So my superior outside B category was on this deck and it did give a good view out. Then above that is deck 7 the promenade deck, also Palms aft, and Neptune fore, and note the view across the beam and bow.

 

Top deck 11 is filled with seating around the pool but it’s still good for walking around and is connected to promenade deck 7 at the stern by a series of stairs. The Observatory bar is in the top section surrounded by windows, so very similar to Cunard’s Commodore Club, but the seating and fabric on Balmoral wasn’t a patch on the swish set up of the three Commodore Clubs. The Marquee bar is aft of The Observatory. The outdoor area fore of The Observatory on deck 11 is not accessible. The other big bars are Lido towards stern of deck 8, and the Morning Light pub is mid deck 7.

 

This is the public information service post. Let’s start with that old favourite question: is there storage space under the bed? And the answer is yes, that’s an A4 sheet of paper, and I’d say 32cm is a safe depth for suitcases, maybe a little more.

 

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And then the power sockets. This is in an Outside category B, so it may be different in the more expensive cabins. Here there are 2 European sockets, 1 UK socket, all 220-230v, no 110v and no USB. Note also the cabin kettle has a UK plug so if I was on a longer voyage I would be bringing my Europe-to-UK adapter, which happens to have a USB socket on top, and a blue light that comes on if current is detected. There are also 2 European sockets under the bed for the table side lights.

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Here was the departure information leaflet for Newcastle. It’s a lot more straightforward than the Cunard version. I just left around 07:20 hrs having had breakfast an hour earlier, it was fairly straightforward, just go to deck 5, scan yourself out, and walk down the gangway. The option of walking to the terminal building was incorrect, and the layout at Port of Tyne meant this was infeasible, whereas the shorter distance at Rosyth would have been walkable in my view. But they don’t want random old dears waltzing around the dockside so you can see why the buses were there.

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And here is The Daily Times for the voyage that I took. It’s quite interesting and clear on one level, I particularly liked the clear layout of restaurant and bar options. But I did miss Cunard’s tabulation of events, in time sequence, which makes it very easy to plan your day and see what trade-offs have to be made. Well, trade-offs wasn’t really the issue on Balmoral, it was an one night service, early arrival. So no lectures, no day time activities. But the evening activity list was a bit short I felt, and the live music options limited.

 

 

 

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There was the Balmoral Show Company – apparently drawn from the UK’s numerous talent colleges – mentioned above. There was also a Filipino String Trio and a showtime singer, Paul Burton.  There was also a 4 member band, Family Affair. But I think that was it. On the next day’s cruise off to Norway there was also mention of the Balmoral Orchestra, so presumably more musicians were joining there.

 

The Entertainment Manager was very visible and hands on, he even does the church service on Sundays. During the Neptune performance I noticed he was carefully analysing the show and also the audience reactions. I’ve never been aware of that on Cunard.

 

The Family Affair band did make an appearance at the outdoor sail away party but the timing was unfortunate. It was interrupted by a brief Scottish shower and had to be cut short to avoid the risk of electrocution, and of course when the last item was stowed, the shower stopped. This was somewhat unfair for all concerned really, not least because I suspect the band would have done those covers that would have appealed to the passengers.

 

More to come….

 

 

 

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Edited by Pushpit
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I’m enjoying reading your comparison with Cunard.  I’ve very recently done Norway and Spitsbergen on Balmoral from Rosyth.  We were on deck 6 I think, superior suite, which sounds fancier than it actually is!  The decor is dated (orange carpet and curtains) but it’s perfectly comfortable.  In fact the décor throughout is dated but it’s an elderly ship.  Like you I really liked the promenade deck and doing a mile round it became my daily exercise.  I am amazed and interested that you found some aspects superior to Cunard since Cunard is still considered by many to be the epitome of cruising.  Never been on a Queen, mainly because I haven’t found an itinerary that is enough of a “must do” for me to compensate for the trek to Southampton.  I enjoyed the trip to Norway and in fifteen days I didn’t get a meal I couldn’t eat, some food was inventive and delicious, some was okay and some was a bit boring but nothing to complain about. 
 

Rosyth being half an hour away for us is a big plus.

 

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3 hours ago, teenieleek said:

  I am amazed and interested that you found some aspects superior to Cunard since Cunard is still considered by many to be the epitome of cruising.  Never been on a Queen, mainly because I haven’t found an itinerary that is enough of a “must do” for me to compensate for the trek to Southampton.

Thanks for the comments and feedback. I'll develop the Cunard v Fred. OIsen in my final post, but the key words are "some aspects" since on a number of area Cunard is in my view much better, not least the décor and fabric of their vessels. I did have to stop myself referring to the Balmoral as Sealink! The huge advantage Cunard has is that they made their vessels to order, and they have never been owned by anyone else, so they are just right, and by design, for the Cunard proposition.

 

I fly to Southampton from Newcastle, it's less than an hour on Loganair and getting from Southampton Airport to the Mayflower terminal is a piece of cake. NCL airport to Mayflower can be done in well under 2 hours. Those who live in London will struggle to do that!

Edited by Pushpit
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So this is a bit of a mixture today.

 

Buffet / Palms

I only visited this briefly – it’s not that big but there is a rear section stretching to outdoors behind, and that includes an ice cream bar. Here are some menus from that. Supper Club is served 10:30 or 11 pm.

 

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For the dinner menu, apologies that the picture is a bit blurred, so the mains are

Pan fried sole with almond and caper butter

Grilled sea bass in tropical sauce

Grilled veal escalope

Sauté green beans

Vegetable and tofu tikka masala

Fusilli with tomato and marscarpone

Prawn and vegetable stir fry

Zucchini and cheese lasagne.

Interesting that there were 4 vegetarian options and only 1 meat dish, it may have been a one night coincidence, the main dining rooms had plenty of meat on the menu. Overall I didn’t rate it much, the Cunard Lido / Kings Court were better by quite a way in terms of choice, space, windows and seating.

 

Public areas

In a single night trip I’m not sure you get much feel for the public spaces, so this is a bit of a rapid first impression. But I really liked the set-up and ambience of the Bookmark Café, which is the coffee and cake area. Food and drink is chargeable here, around £4 for most items so not unreasonable, but the range of both was enticing and the seating looked relaxing and welcoming. Victoria really misses out on this one, though Elizabeth and QM2 do have something similar. Bit unusual of Cunard to miss an upselling opportunity! The morning pastries are included on Cunard. On the other hand the Oriental Tea Room was smaller and less impressive to my mind, I didn’t find it that inviting. Balmoral’s small library attached to Bookmark wasn’t as good as Cunard’s versions.

 

Morning Light pub: well, this is what you get when you ask Norwegians to come up with a typical British pub. With comfortable seating, good lighting, plenty of space and utterly unfug like, it had zero approximation to any pub that I know! The stained glass windows were the clues as to intent, but it is closer in feel to the bar area is a moderately upscale hotel. Cunard’s The Golden Lion is much more authentic and inviting to those who like pubs.

 

The other two main bars were Marquee and Lido, and neither really left much of an impression with me, either positive or negative. I didn’t get as far as the spa.

 

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Here’s a photo of my cabin – it was comfortable enough, though as with Cunard I do wish there was a way to switch off the a/c. This had a temperature adjustment which was effective and efficient, if somewhat old school. Superior means bigger windows, and thus on Main Deck 6. It's not clear in the photo but there is quite a large ledge under the window, which is quite useful for storing items. Just as well really since the table was a bit cramped to my way of thinking. But overall I was quite OK with this cabin, even though I tend to go for the lower cost balconies on Cunard. It was entirely pleasant sitting on the seat overlooking the sea views.

 

 

Maps and weather

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Cunard used to do this, but put it on TV and it’s not as good in my view. There is a map put up somewhere obscure such as by the tennis tables on Queen Victoria but it’s not as well maintained as this display in the middle of Balmoral.

 

Tomorrow I’ll complete my series of posts with some parting thoughts.

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Some parting thoughts

 

Overall I enjoyed this cruise and would go on another if the time and price were right.

The highlight for me were a number of design features of the vessel and some of the public areas. This made the cruise experience great fun and enjoyable. This would be followed by the food variety and quality, and the relatively good value of the various add-ons such as drinks.

 

One point that I haven’t touched on is that MV Balmoral is very much “right sized” so it can do things like go up the Seine as far as Rouen and through the Kiel Canal. I’m not sure they take full advantage of this to go to unusual places, but certainly around the Nordics, Balmoral goes to some very different places than Queen Victoria or QM2 and their future bookings seem less formulaic compared to Cunard.

 

This means they also pick up from many places in the UK, such as Liverpool and Dover, helping those who don’t want to fly – not a big deal for me, since I enjoy flying as well as floating.

 

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One opportunity that Fred. Olsen doesn’t exploit is that they could run a few Crossing services if they want to, they do send their vessels between the UK and Canada/USA quite frequently and I think they could market a few split off sectors such as Southampton to St. John’s, for those who just want to get across the Atlantic without flying.

 

I thought that the staff were friendly and customer focused, this was particularly the case at the Purser’s desk – on Cunard one rarely comes away from this area with a positive experience, they seem perpetually grumpy, but Fred. Olsen’s staff were quite different and wanted good outcomes for their guests.

 

On the flip side I don’t think the crew were quite as polished or professional as Cunard crew, particularly the wait staff. Things getting forgotten, not being sure what to do when things go out of script. I wouldn’t want to over-stress this area, it wasn’t a big deal and they stayed friendly.

 

The IT and Oceans (frequent sail programme) continues to impress, just so straightforward compared to Cunard / Carnival’s equivalents. I now have 1 Point in my Bronze level, so proud.

 

The biggest downside was that the entertainment and activities programme is much reduced compared to QV, QE or QM2. Now I obviously didn’t get full exposure to this on a one-nighter but I would wonder if there was enough for me on anything longer. I noticed that on the programme for the next cruise to Norway that their two speakers were a TV personality (slightly) famous for being a (UK) TV personality, and Stuart Kirk. Now he writes for the Financial Times on things like investment opportunities in Japan and has at least a few acerbic lines of argument on green investing.  Now that might well work for me, but I can see it’s not what Cunard would want, equally I’m not sure what the old dears would make of it.

 

The next biggest downside is that Cunard’s vessels are just a lot more swish. There are sometimes moans on the Cunard board that there’s a bit of rust showing here or there, but overall the three Cunard Queens are in extremely good shape compared to Balmoral, which is 35 years old and has had a number of previous owners before Fred. Olsen. That’s not to say Balmoral is in a bad way, it’s clean and tidy, and places like Bookmark Café were particularly inviting. But she is a little dowdy overall, whereas Cunard has invested hugely in their more modern infrastructure and it shows. Some areas just look better on Cunard, such as the Golden Lions, the Commodore Clubs and the various dining rooms

 

But overall, I enjoyed the trip and I’m actively thinking of booking another. This time I will be screening all those promotional codes that pop up if you wait long enough, there are bargains to be had.

 

Happy to take any questions or points.

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Like you, we are regulars on Cunard, but we have also done more than a dozen on Fred Olsen with 5 on Balmoral including the same one-nighter as you (in 2019) and also in her previous incarnation as the Crown Odyssey.

 

I don't think there's a single comment or observation that you've made that I disagree with. An excellent comparison.

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  • 3 weeks later...

Thanks really enjoyed reading your review, we are also Cunarders  Diamond members and have been seriously considering Fred for a while now, we were  especially looking for a cruise departing from Newcastle but are also considering a January 24 cruise to the canaries which I now feel confident we will book.

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  • 2 weeks later...

So I came here curious after finding an offer from Fred.Olsen for this November coming, same itinerary as the one we have booked with Cunard for 2024, but less than half of the price (even much less if you consider all drinks are included in the FO one).

I thought the boards would give me at least some info on the line, as so many people here have been instrumental in making our sailing with Cunard in September a much better experience, you, @Pushpit , being one of the main fabulous info people, what a delightful surprise to find in the very first posts this amazing one from you, this is almost as if I had ask for the comparison between lines! Thanks so much for this!

I think we can see ourselves going for the MV Balmoral, but decided to keep our Cunard booking and keep looking for a Fred.Olsen offer for April/May next year, will keep an eye on their site nearer the time, as, as you well point out, one can get very good prices nearer the sailing date. Thanks again!!!

 

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55 minutes ago, MrsPeel55 said:

I think we can see ourselves going for the MV Balmoral, but decided to keep our Cunard booking and keep looking for a Fred.Olsen offer for April/May next year, will keep an eye on their site nearer the time, as, as you well point out, one can get very good prices nearer the sailing date. Thanks again!!!

Thank you for the kind words, as ever your positivity goes before you!

 

I think that's the right approach - if a bargain pops up and you have a slot in your diary then that's the time to swoop in. Fred. Olsen does many interesting things and I'm sure you will make the most of it. Moreover in your case, the vessel is so much more compact that the three, soon to be four, Cunard ships that you should find it easy to get about and make the most of it. I did see some people in wheelchairs on board, so that's not an issue, but the distances are shorter so maybe that won't matter too much for you anyway.

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