In May 2016, I spent 5-nights aboard Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines Balmoral sailing from Port of Tyne and exploring the Norwegian Fjords, and it was a fantastic cruise. The ship herself ticked all the right boxes for me and I couldn’t wait to sail away on her again, so within a few weeks of returning home, I started looking at other itineraries aboard the same ship and I came up with ‘Mysterious Morocco and Seductive Spain’ which departed from Southampton on October 7.
It was a 14-night itinerary that offered calls in Cadiz, Cartagena, Malaga, Gibraltar, Melilla, Casablanca and Lisbon. I had visited all the ports previously, except for Melilla, and I knew there was one person who would love to join me on the adventure, my American friend TravelShopGirl.
I arrived at the port at around 5pm. I’d travelled down with Eavesway but we had left later than usual to compensate for Balmoral’s later arrival into Southampton that day. When I got to the port TravelShopGirl was waiting for me, and as we still had at least 3 hours before check-in would begin, we left our luggage at the port, jumped in a cab and spent a few hours in Southampton before returning later in the evening and checking in.
We had an outside cabin on Deck 5 which was almost identical to the cabin I’d had on Deck 6 in May – the only difference being that this cabin did not have a bath. I always find the accommodation on Fred. Olsen ships very comfortable and the cabins are always far bigger than I expect them to be, which is always nice! I tend to pack more than I need for every cruise, so that extra space is always appreciated.
Our first few days onboard were spent at sea and it gave us the perfect opportunity to explore and meet new people. I always meet people when I travel, I’m quite the social butterfly and this cruise brought along new friends instantly, every single day was a laugh a minute. There are many things that make a good cruise and the people I meet are a big part of that for me – passengers and crew.
Just as we were getting into a sea day rhythm, our port days arrived and it was time to start exploring. Our first call was to Cadiz, a place I have visited many times, and we enjoyed a simple stroll through the city and a walk through the fish market. I always enjoy Cadiz and it’s narrow streets, it’s got so much character and charm, and some nice shopping! If you are feeling adventurous, you can always do a tour to Seville from Cadiz, which I would certainly recommend if you have never been before as Seville is a beautiful place. As we sailed from the port, we had a little water show from a local tug boat, which was quite nice! I’d also like to point out that we had the best berth that day, too.
Next, we arrived in Malaga and to say the weather was miserable is an understatement, it rained virtually all day – but we were blessed with a gorgeous sunrise. We left Balmoral for our tour to Marbella and Puerto Banus, but it wasn’t the most enjoyable day. Most places were closed because it was a holiday, which wouldn’t have been a problem had the weather been better, but it meant that we could find very few places to take shelter – even many bars and restaurants were closed. We were very lucky, however, and did manage to find a bar in both places (one which was tiny) where we could shield ourselves from the downpour and enjoy a San Miguel beer. I’d like to go back to Marbella as I was looking forward to that half-day tour, but I don’t feel like I got to see much because of the poor weather.
Melilla was the one port that I had never visited before and I was excited to get ashore. The weather wasn’t great to begin with, but the sun soon broke through the clouds, chased away the rain and it became the perfect day for sightseeing. We strolled through the main city centre and done some shopping before walking through Parque Hernandez, which is right in the middle of the city. A walk through the park is an absolute must, it’s a wonderful slice of tranquil paradise in the middle of a very grey city. Before heading back to the ship, we also explored the Historic Centre which was very impressive and again, something you must experience. The views across the rocky bay below from the top of the 14th century fort were like something you would see in a holiday brochure. I expect that in the summer months it is a wonderful place to take a dip in the water. I really did enjoy Melilla and although small, it offered a little bit of everything, I especially liked how the Spanish and Arabic influences blended together so well – you felt like you got a glimpse into two lands and not just one.
As we sailed from Melilla, we enjoyed dinner in The Grill, Fred. Olsen’s specialty steak and seafood restaurant. TravelShopGirl is vegetarian, so she ordered her starter and main course from the Ballindalloch Restaurant menu and, except for my starter, I ordered just about everything on The Grill menu. I had an 8oz fillet steak with a small lobster tail, chunky chips and asparagus, and it was to die for. The meat was perfectly cooked and the presentation of the dish was superb. This was my second time in The Grill and the only thing that made it better than my first visit was the incredible sunset that we were treated to while we ate. The cost for The Grill is £25 per person and if you enjoy your steak and seafood then it really is a no-brainer – book yourself a table!
Cartagena would be an easy day of people watching from one of the bars at the beautiful marina. Sometimes you just need a day that doesn’t require too much effort or thought, and as the sun was surrounding us, it was the perfect place to enjoy the warmth and atmosphere before we sailed for Gibraltar. Cartagena does have a lot to offer, including the Roman Theatre Museum, so if you want to combine some history and shopping then you can easily do so, but it’s also a nice place to simply sit and watch the world go by.
I do love Gibraltar, even though I do the same thing virtually every time I go: SHOP! TravelShopGirl had never visited before, so she went on a Rock tour and I met her at the entrance to Main Street once the tour had ended. I can’t tell you what I bought as they are Christmas gifts for my family, but if you like jewellery, watches and alcohol, then Gibraltar is a great place to buy all three. We returned to the ship mid-afternoon and enjoyed the sail-away on deck with our new friends, it was the ideal way to wind down as we had a busy day ahead of us both in Morocco.
TravelShopGirl had booked the tour to Marrakech, which was an all-day adventure, but I had opted for a Casablanca city tour and a visit to the Hassan II Mosque. This was my second time in Casablanca, but I didn’t feel like I got to see a great deal of the place the first time I was there, hence I opted for a city tour. The Hassan II Mosque was incredible, I’d only seen the exterior on my previous visit, but this time I went inside and I was literally speechless. I don’t think I’ve ever seen something so beautiful. It cost $3 billion to build, was completed in 1993 and offers space for up to 105,000 people to pray at any one time: 25,000 inside the Mosque and 80,000 in the Mosque’s outside grounds. It also has the tallest minaret in the world and is the 13th largest Mosque in the world. The Mosque was the highlight of the entire tour for me, but I did also enjoy our very brief walk through the Habous quarter. At the end of the tour, we were taken to a store in the United Nations Square where we could do some shopping, and in hindsight, this probably was the best option as Casablanca is a very, very busy place, but I had expected free time for us to do as we pleased. As that didn’t happen, I changed my clothes once back to the ship, grabbed a shuttle bus ticket from reception and made my way back into the city to explore the Old Medina. I do like Casablanca, but if you are going to explore on your own then please be very careful, especially in the Medina as it can become quite overwhelming and it is incredibly busy.
A much-needed sea day followed our time in Casablanca, but it was also a reminder that the end of the cruise was near, as we only had one port left: Lisbon. I’m not a huge fan of Lisbon, so I booked a tour to Sintra and Cascais. The tour was very pleasant indeed, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Sintra is a very small mountain-side village and although our stop there was only brief, it was long enough to snap some pictures, venture up some narrow streets and enjoy an obligatory Pastel De Nata. Cascais is a charming seaside town and I enjoyed our stop here, too. I would have appreciated a little longer here if I’m honest as there were so many lovely restaurants and hidden view points across the ocean, I could have lapped it up for at least another hour.
We sailed from Lisbon beneath a sweltering sun, we had been incredibly lucky that day, and our sail away party went on for well over an hour. Everyone was out on deck dancing, singing and having a good time. It was virtually perfect!
The last 2 sea days allowed for packing and one final evening of drinks and laughs with our new-found friends at the Lido Bar. We had taken the all-inclusive package on this cruise – something I always purchase before my Fred. Olsen voyages if it is offered – so we saved a small fortune on drinks. There is a specific all-inclusive menu, but those who purchase the package can also take advantage of half price cocktails (excluding champagne cocktails) and premium spirits. It really is a great package and as I tend to drink pineapple juice by the pint, I was happy that was also included!
On our final day, we enjoyed a traditional Afternoon Tea in the Observatory Lounge. I do like afternoon tea on Fred. Olsen! The cost is £7.95 per person and it offers a little extra special touch to the voyage. Who doesn’t like a warm scone with fresh cream and jam? Oh, and cakes and sandwiches! If you have any specific dietary requirements, just let Guest Services know when you make your reservation. TravelShopGirl is vegetarian, so we made the ship aware and she was served a small plate of sandwiches that contained nothing but veggie goodness.
Balmoral is a wonderful ship. She offers a wide variety of accommodation options, the food onboard was superb, as it always is with Fred. Olsen, and the crew were brilliant. I must say that I do believe Fred. Olsen has some of the best crew members at sea and I want to give a BIG shout out to the crew at the Lido Bar on Deck 8 – we miss you all and your smiles!!
I was asked several times while onboard which of the Fred. Olsen fleet was my favourite and I said Braemar, but I think I’d like to change my answer. Balmoral is the one for me. I can’t wait for my next Fred. adventure!
A similar cruise with Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines will be a 14-night ‘Mysterious Morocco & Seductive Spain’ departure on board Balmoral (L1704), sailing from Southampton on 22nd March 2017. Ports of call include: Lisbon, Agadir, Casablanca, Gibraltar, Almeria, Malaga, Cadiz and La Coruna, returning to Southampton on 5th April 2017.
I’ll leave you with what was my final sunset onboard…