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Having a ball cruising on Balmoral

PUBLISHED: 18:11 12 March 2011

Balmoral cruise ship sails into the sunset.

Balmoral cruise ship sails into the sunset.

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Sun, sea and sightseeing - Brian Caldecott escapes the miserable weather at home and sets sail for the Canaries.

San Miguel church in Teguise, Lanzarote.

Sailing away is always a thrill and leaving port on a miserable evening in the depths of the big freeze is enough to send a pleasurable tingle down the spine.

And the prospect of two weeks of calm seas and visits to enchanting Atlantic islands in the sun made the journey from Norwich to Southampton all the more pleasurable for Tricia and me.

At Southampton a coach delivered us to the docks where our luggage was unloaded and by the time we had negotiated customs and boarded the Fred Olsen cruise ship Balmoral it had been delivered to our cabin. This came with twin beds, toilet, bathroom and shower. It had comfortable chairs and handy-sized dressing table with colour TV, phone, hairdryer and tea and coffee-making facilities. Tricia was delighted to find plenty of wardrobe hanging and shelf space as well as useful drawer storage.

From the picture window we watched as shore crew prepared for departure, then headed for the Observation Lounge which was festooned with Christmas decorations.

With accommodation for around 1,300 passengers, Balmoral is the biggest vessel in the Fred Olsen fleet. The master, Capt Atle Knutsen, a genial Norwegian, led officers, staff and crew totalling around 550 and representing more than 20 nationalities. Staff are mostly from the Far East – Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and India – and a delight, greeting us always with courtesy and smiling faces. One of our favourite waitresses, Yuly, was even from a town on the island of Bali where Tricia lived for a time.

Balmoral is named after the ancestral Scottish home of the Royal Family and all the delightfully-appointed public rooms are titled on Scottish themes. Ballindalloch is the main restaurant and there are two other formal restaurants, Avon and Spey, where the choice is waiter service or self-service buffet.

We took a table in the Spey where dining at all times was both a treat and a challenge with a huge choice of first-class fare from dawn until late at night. Occasionally we settled for the less formal Palms Cafeteria. The Daily Times delivered to cabins indicated the restaurants’ evening dress code which ranged from formal dinner suit/tuxedo and evening dress to casual or maybe cowboy, Caribbean or red, white and blue Brit.

Onboard entertainment ranged from good to first class, whether music for dancing, a top-drawer stage show in the main Neptune Lounge or a string trio or solo piano in the Lido Lounge.

Among the highlights for us were concerts by Colin Bryant’s Hot Rhythm Orchestra which lived up to its reputation as one of the most professional jazz and swing bands on today’s music scene. This great theme was continued in video lectures by big-band aficionado Colin Prescott. The crew show, too, with participants dressed in traditional costumes, was a special delight and at times eye-wateringly hilarious. Party nights as we departed foreign ports were tremendous fun with music, song and dance – and a tipple or three – on deck. Drinks prices were very reasonable – £6.20 for a pint of draught beer and a glass of decent wine.

Overseeing the entertainments scene was assistant cruise director Ricky Jermy, 24, from Thetford. After gaining experience in the sports and leisure sectors at Breckland Leisure Centre and Center Parcs, the former lifeguard joined Fred Olsen in 2006 and has worked on two other ships in the line.

He said: “I was sports co-ordinator on Black Prince then cruise director on Braemar but had always wanted to join Balmoral.

“I love what I do and I’m very proud of what Fred Olsen offers.”

The East Anglian connection was maintained by Jamie from Felixstowe, who presided over bingo sessions – and also showed great talent as a cabaret singer.

During our first three days at sea we used the library, enjoyed cards and dominoes and joined new friends Jim and Pat at daily quiz sessions where we performed creditably, gaining marks for knowing Jimmy James and the Vagabonds but failing to net the hippocampus. Other options included everything from carpet bowls, craft classes and cocktail-making to line-dancing and shuffleboard.

After skirting the Iberian peninsula we enjoyed warm sunshine as we berthed at Casablanca from where it was a 90-minute coach trip to Rabat, Morocco’s capital since 1912. It’s a modern city, laid back and European in feel, with numerous parks and tree-lined boulevards. It’s also home to the Royal Palace, official residence of King Hassan II.

Other must-see sites include the Unesco-recognised Hassan Tower, a red sandstone minaret, only part-finished owing to the death of Sultan Yacoub al-Mansour in 1199, when construction was promptly abandoned; the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, one of the country’s finest examples of modern Alaouite dynasty architecture, completed in 1971; and the Kasbah of the Udayas, home to Rabat’s oldest mosque – the 850-year-old Jami al-Atiq.

Another day at sea and then we reached Arrecife on Lanzarote, an island more dramatic than picturesque as a result of volcanic eruptions in 1730. We travelled north, passing Teguise, the former capital, and Haria, known as the Valley of a Thousand Palms, before reaching the Mirador del Rio, a mountain eyrie that looks across a narrow strait to the tiny Isla Graciosa.

Continuing along the eastern coast we arrived at the beautiful Jameos del Agua cave, its saltwater lagoon home to white crabs which are found nowhere else in the world. Our return journey took us farther south to Guatiza where artist Cesar Manrique converted a natural gravel mine into a Cactus Garden with more than 1,000 species.

Balmoral sailed in the early evening to deliver us at breakfast-time to Gran Canaria. Its capital, Las Palmas, the biggest city in the Canaries, has a distinctly Spanish feel and a rich history. The Conquistadors, attracted by palm groves and a broad bay, founded the city in 1478 and today its palm tree-lined streets are clean, well laid out and richly endowed with floral displays.

Tricia and I drove on to the quaint old town of Teror, with its colonial mansions and one of the island’s prettiest churches, dedicated to the Virgin of the Pine. We also explored the volcanic interior, a surreal moonscape of craggy gorges and gaping craters.

Next stop was Tenerife, largest of the Canary Islands, dominated by the snowcapped 12,402ft peak of Mount Teide. We took a shuttle bus to the port gates at Santa Cruz, a city founded in the 15th century, and as the temperature reached 84F, walked along a broad tree-lined promenade before crossing the busy avenue to check out a parade of boutiques, cafes and restaurants. Streets running inland from the seafront contained shops displaying fine jewellery and silver goods as well as bargain-basement shopping malls.

Last of our Canaries visits was to La Palma, most north-westerly of the islands and the location of one of the world’s largest volcanic craters. The Caldera de Taburiente is almost 17½ miles wide and nearly half a mile deep, and because it’s home to rare animal and plant life, it has been designated a national park. It’s still an area of volcanic activity where an eruption took place as recently as 1971. In the capital, Santa Cruz, we walked through attractive tree-lined squares to the central Plaza de Espana to admire the town hall and its portico, carved ceilings and colonnaded façade.

Sadly, the sun had retreated by the time we reached Funchal, capital of the Portuguese island of Madeira, renowned for its floral treasures and breathtaking views. Tricia took a bus into town while I trudged through the drizzle, partly along a commercial quay, for half an hour. After sampling the shops and enjoying snacks and coffee while listening to singers and folk bands in the festive festooned squares we visited a couple of friendly bars before heading back to our floating haven for three more pleasurable days at sea returning to Southampton.

We had had a ball aboard Balmoral, enjoying fun evenings at sea and sightseeing outings with new friends. And throughout the trip hardly a glum face was seen – which just about sums up a memorable adventure.

Brian Caldecott travelled from Norwich to London Liverpool Street with National Express East Anglia. For information on best-value fares visit nationalexpresseastanglia.com. From Waterloo we went to Southampton with South-West Trains (visit southwesttrains.co.uk or phone 0845 6000 650).
Music and laughter with a jazz theme are promised when Fred Olsen’s Boudicca sails from Portsmouth on December 20. A 16-night Christmas cruise will visit Casablanca, Lanzarote, Gran Canaria, Tenerife, La Gomera, La Palma and Madeira, returning to Portsmouth on January 5. Inside twin cabin from £1,789, outside twin from £2,149, suite from £3,319. Visit fredolsencruises.co.uk or phone 01473 742424.
Info: Eyewitness Travel guide to the Canary Islands (travelDK.com; £12.99) was invaluable, with a wealth of information on everything from sightseeing and shopping through mountain walks and wildlife to fun nights and festivals. Quality maps are easy to follow and there are also comprehensive listings on hotels and restaurants.

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