Marion Ainge is a travel writer for YOUR HOLIDAY TV
As we lazed on the sun-deck just off the coast of Newcastle, our captain was changing course to steer the ship away from the path of an expected Force 11 gale. This meant The Balmoral would bypass highlighted port of call, Stavanger, in Norway, and head straight to Bergen, but passenger safety and comfort is, of course, always a priority. Happily, we visited Stavanger on our homeward route.
The smiling crew of the Fred Olsen ships are renowned for exceptional customer care and personal service. The Balmoral, named after the Royal Family's Scottish home, is the fleet's largest, newest vessel, but with 710 cabins and suites to accommodate 1,300 guests, is still smaller than most of today's cruise ships.
Please don't call The Balmoral a boat....the captain might clap you in irons.
My father was in the Royal Navy, and my sister and I were well-instructed in seafaring terminology. Just remember the loose definition - a ship can carry a boat but a boat can't carry a ship.
The Balmoral is elegantly, traditionally furnished, with none of the garish, swirly-patterned, headache-inducing carpets of her competitors. And much as I love my little grandchildren, this all adult environment, mostly shall we say, of mature years, is so relaxed and amiable. We travelled comfortably by Eavesway coach from Blackpool to Southampton - for us, an almost a door to door service.
The first two days at sea enabled time to settle in and get to know the ship. Choose from formal or buffet style restaurants. So much gorgeous food is an on board highlight, but you can walk a mile - four times around the deck - or visit the fitness centre, to help work it off.
There's a daily quiz, our team was competitive, bingo, craft sessions, dance lessons, card and gaming rooms, a spa, art gallery, library, two swimming pools, gym, classical concerts, nightly entertainment, and more......
Our destination, Norway, is the native country of cruise-line, Fred Olsen, which, as a shipping company, dates
back to 1848. Surrounded by mountains and fjords, vibrant Bergen was our first port of call. Huge, expensive yachts and other more humble, workmanlike craft line the sheltered harbourside, where tourists and locals eat, drink and laugh at cafes. Shop in arty outlets and quirky boutiques along the old merchant quarter Bryggen, of multi-hued, 18th century wooden buildings. The fish market is worth a look. At lunchtime, choose your fish, and wait in a tent while it's cooked for you.
Funicular cable car, Fløibanen, climbs to 320 metres above sea level in just a few minutes. En route, resident alight with their shopping. Imagine the views from their bedroom windows. At the summit, from this point, The Balmoral, in the harbour, looked like a toy boat afloat in a baby's bath.
But at our next stop, our ship was akin to the size of Gulliver in the Land of the Little People, anchored deep below the still, mirrored surface in the tiny harbour of Flam, surrounded by snow-capped peaks. This tiny hamlet is situated in the innermost part of the Aurlandsfjord. Beautiful Flam is famed for its scenic railway journey, and little else, but it's a must see. The one-and-a-half hour trip in a rattling, wooden train, enables spectacular scenery, frosted forests, frozen waterfalls and snow-covered terrain.
At Myrdal, snow was falling lightly. It was cold on the platform, and one Balmoral passenger giggled, admitting her decision to wear flip flops wasn't a good one. I didn't respond. Flam is popular with hikers and cyclists, and some plucky folk opt for the two to three hour cycle back to the valley base. On leaving the minuscule harbour, cameras and tablets were lifted aloft as the captain completed a nifty three point turn.
The maritime museum is a highlight in Stavanger, and along the cobbled streets of the old town, beautifully kept, white, wooden houses are flashed with flowers. Peeping through a garden, we could see our ship in the harbour. Around Stavanger, Lysefjord, in places, is as deep as the surrounding mountains.
For Joan Harris, of Carleton, near Blackpool, who travelled with a friend, it was a first time cruise. Joan said: "I loved every minute of it. The scenery in Norway was breathtaking, the ship was fantastic and I can't wait for the next cruise."
A similar Fred Olsen cruise in 2016, Scenic Fjords and Waterfalls of Norway, on board Black Watch, departs Dover, June 5, 2016. Prices for this seven-night cruise from £799 pp, based on inside twin-bedded cabin, inc food, on board entertainment and port taxes.
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