Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Cruising the Caribbean aboard the Fred. Olsen Balmoral

I've just returned from a Caribbean cruise on Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines' newest ship, the 1340-passenger Balmoral.

Sailing roundtrip from Miami on March 3, the cruise was the first Fred. Olsen voyage from an American port. For those of you who aren't familiar with this British-based cruise line, I strongly recommend you check out their website and future offerings.

The Balmoral -- previously the Norwegian Crown when it was owned by NCL, and recently lengthened and refurbished after joining the Fred. Olsen fleet -- is a beautiful ship, dating from 1988. I was especially impressed by the five-tier aft deck space and the wraparound promenade deck that calls out to daytime power-walkers and moonlight strollers.

Forget stereotypes about British food: the Balmoral's shipboard cuisine is first rate, with inventive dishes spanning the Continent and the Caribbean, and outstanding ambiance in its three dining rooms (one grand and two more intimate, and none requiring a special supplement). How about a four-course meal of Jamaican aubergine (eggplant) fritters, mussel soup, chicken tikka with coriander-yogurt dressing, and pannacotta in raspberry sauce? (and that's just for lunch).

There's also a casual cafe that features buffets, as well as a number of bars and lounges. My favorite was the Observatory Lounge on Deck 11, great for sunset cocktails and munchies including my new favorite: Twiglets, a British pretzel-like snack that is something of an acquired taste. I acquired it so rapidly the bar ran out.

I also liked the low-key atmosphere: loudspeaker announcements were limited to a couple a day by the captain and one or two by the cruise director to let passengers know when we had been cleared to enter port. Entertainment was provided mainly by the Music of your Life at Sea crew, featuring Buddy Morrow and The Dorsey Seven (descendants of the Tommy Dorsey orchestra) and a variety of musicians and vocalists performing longtime standards.

Cabins were comfortable with plenty of storage space, flat-screen TVs (BBC and a free movie channel) and little British touches like trays stocked with tea bags, cups, and water heaters. A nice feature is that the Balmoral has about 70 single cabins, so if you are traveling solo, ask about landing one of those.

Because it sailed from Miami, this Fred. Olsen cruise drew a larger American clientele than typical for the line: about 170 out of 1,340 or so aboard -- nearly all the rest were British, though an occasional smattering of French, German, Spanish, and Swedish could be heard in the dining rooms. I found it a great way to get to know people from across the pond, and several English couples told me they enjoyed getting to know some of the "colonists."

For formal night, I almost felt underdressed in my dark suit and tie; virtually all the British men onboard were decked out in tuxes or white dinner jackets, and a Scotsman or two were resplendent in kilts (watch out for that breeze on deck!). While most passengers were of an age to appreciate the brand of music being featured in the lounges and show rooms, there were enough younger people on board to make a nice mix. (Virtually no children, though: families tend to take Fred. Olsen cruises only during school holidays.)

Starting tomorrow, I'll chronicle our day-to-day itinerary that took us to an interesting variety of ports: Grand Turk; Gustavia, St. Bart's; Phillipsburg, St. Maarten; and St. John's, Antigua. (I had to leave the ship in Antigua, but most of the rest of the lucky passengers got to continue to St. Kitts and Tortola before returning to Miami.) St. Maarten was a last-minute addition to the itinerary, since we weren't able to safely stop in Samana, Dominican Republic (due to high winds; it's a tender port).

The Balmoral has three more departures from Miami this month and next: a 10-night Caribbean cruise embarking March 24 (with prices starting at $840 per passenger, double occupancy); an 11-night Caribbean cruise departing April 3 (with prices starting at $720); and a 17-night repositioning cruise to Rome departing April 14, with prices starting at $1145.

The ship won't be returning to Miami next season, but another ship in the Fred. Olsen fleet will. I'll talk more about that in a later post.

Balmoral photos courtesy of Peter Knego. Click here to read about Peter's experience aboard the Balmoral.

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