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Afjordable luxury: Why a cruise in spectacular Norwegian fjords will float your boat

Fred Olsen cruise ship Balmoral in the port at Eidfjord in Norway
Fred Olsen cruise ship Balmoral in the port at Eidfjord in Norway

By Martin Breen

I was wrong and I am happy to publicly admit it. For years I have always dismissed the idea of cruise holidays, even when groups of friends who are addicted to sailing the seas have been strong-arming me to join them.

A few weeks ago that all changed when I enjoyed (and I mean really enjoyed) my first ever cruise, travelling on a five-night trip to see the Norwegian fjords with Fred Olsen Cruises.

Last year I believed I had set eyes on some of the most stunning scenery in the world when I visited Halong Bay in Vietnam but the fjords in Norway are simply breathtaking.

Millions of years of glacial activity have created an astonishing crinkle-cut coastline of intricately-carved fjords and travelling by cruise ship alongside them has got to be the best way to experience this.

I flew from Belfast to Newcastle as Fred Olsen's Balmoral ship, with Captain Henrik Mattsson at the helm, set sail from the Port of Tyne.

With accommodation for around 1,300 passengers and 500 crew, Balmoral is the largest vessel in the Fred Olsen fleet. We were in a balcony junior suite which gave great views of the ocean as we made our way to Norway through the North Sea. To wake up each morning in that comfortable cabin with that view was an experience you will treasure for ever.

I found the ship to be the perfect size for a first time cruise. It was still huge with 11 decks but there was plenty to see and do and explore without being overwhelming.

Balmoral Deck Area
Balmoral Deck Area

There are plenty of activities including cards, dancing and bingo as well as nightly entertainment shows. You can also avail of the ship's glass-fronted gym, which is well kitted out and allows fantastic views of the port, fjords or sea depending when you use it during the cruise.

If you prefer you can chill by the pool or in the hot tubs on the top deck with a cocktail in hand. If the weather allows it make sure you do.

One afternoon we also opted for a treatment at the onboard spa. I chose an amazing Thai massage which quickly knocked my back into shape again.

And eating was also a favourite pastime of mine on board - breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and midnight buffet (well not every day but it is surprising how hungry you can get with all that food on board).

There are a choice of restaurants, including the Ballindalloch which offers both a buffet and a la carte selection. It had themed buffets including a delicious Indian one I enjoyed for lunch one day.

We dined most evenings in Avon which offered a fantastic selection of food and drinks (including an excellent wine list). It also has a neighbouring restaurant called Spey, which offers a similar menu of classic dishes. If you prefer a more relaxed buffet-style menu, you can choose from the Palms Café which also caters for those requiring a midnight snack.

Bergen
Bergen

One evening I had a perfectly cooked steak in The Grill restaurant, which specialises in seafood and steak. My steak was right up there with the best I have ever tasted.

You can enjoy a buffet afternoon tea in Palms as part of your cruise package or for £8.95 extra enjoy it served to you in the Observatory Lounge on Deck 11. It includes speciality loose teas, finger sandwiches, mini pastries and warm scones with cream and jam.

Everything I ate on board was delicious and you could not fault the food. If I had any complaint it was just that there was so much choice it made choosing even more difficult.

As all the restaurants are glass-fronted, you never miss any of the sights along the way.

Make sure to go all-inclusive on your drinks (you can pay this in advance) as the drinks menu includes a wide selections of beers, spirits, wines and cocktails of the day. There is a fantastic pub on board which has a live singer throughout the day.

With all that food and drink, we needed to get out and about to walk off some of those excess calories.

Food served on the Fred Olsen cruise ship Balmoral - Norway
Food served on the Fred Olsen cruise ship Balmoral - Norway

The first stop, two days after departing Newcastle, was the lovely little village of Eidfjord, located at the end of the Hardangerfjord.

Despite Eidfjord being a tiny port, it is the gateway to many highlights, including Voringsfossen, which is one of the most famous waterfalls in Norway, standing at a height of over 180 metres, with a free fall of 145 metres (475 feet).

While we were there, we also enjoyed a Fred Olsen-organised tour called a 'Taste of Hardangerfjord' - a trip to a local juice and cider farm in an area known as the 'Orchard of Norway' as the banks of the fjord are lined with fruit orchards.

We were shown the apple press, stainless steel fermenting tanks and the oak barrels, before being invited to sample some of the farm's cloudy apple juice, sparkling cider and apple brandy accompanied by a variety of local food specialities such as sweet lefse (Norwegian pancakes) and savoury lefse with Norwegian smoked salmon, sour cream and dill.

Admittedly, I have not let cider cross my lips since a rather unpleasant overindulging incident as a student many moons away, but there I rediscovered a love for it. The fresh cider I tasted on the farm was more like a sweet sparkling wine. It was superb.

We arrived in Bergen the following day and enjoyed a tour which did exactly as it said on the tin - Norway in a nutshell.

Balmoral Observatory
Balmoral Observatory

If you prefer more free time in Bergen this trip probably isn't the one for you as it's nine hours and half of that is travelling by train and bus, although you do get to see some beautiful scenery on the way. This trip also includes a ride on the Flåm Railway through the mountains, which Lonely Planet named as the world's most beautiful railway journey five years ago.

The world-famous railway is only nine miles long, but the track followed is an engineering wonder, ascending to 867 metres in just 50 minutes. Expect brilliant views of the fjords and waterfalls during your trip.

When we arrived back in Bergen that evening, we had around four hours' free time before the ship was to set sail back to the UK.

In the old part of town, a maze of narrow alleyways and cobbled streets bring you to the city's famous old wooden houses, which add to the uniqueness and charm of the city.

I ordered two beers while in the city centre and quickly understood why a lot of people prefer cruise holidays where the drink is all-inclusive. Expect to pay £9 per pint.

So, no surprise that when we arrived back on board most other passengers were in the bars and restaurants having their food and drink there.

Balmoral swimming pool
Balmoral swimming pool

A lot of people have asked me if the passengers on board were all retired, older people but that wasn't the case.

While the majority may have been over 50, there were quite a few families on board too. The type of cruise and ship you choose should give you a better idea of who else to expect on board.

It is said that there is a cruise for everyone and you have to try different ships and different itineraries to find the exact one for you.

Now I have found my sea legs I am looking forward to experiencing as many as possible in the years to come.

Travel factfile

Fred Olsen Cruise Lines' Balmoral will be setting sail on a Springtime Fjords in Five Nights cruise, L2006, departing from Newcastle on May 1, 2020.

Ports of call include: Newcastle, UK - cruising Lysefjord - Eidfjord, Hardangerfjord, Norway - cruising Ulvikafjord - cruising Hardangerfjord - Bergen, Norway - Newcastle, UK

Prices start from £749 per person, based on an interior twin-bedded room, subject to availability, and includes all food and entertainment on board, and port taxes.

For further details, please visit: https://www.fredolsencruises.com/cruise/springtime-fjords-in-five-nights-l2006

For further information on Fred Olsen Cruise Lines, visit the website at www.fredolsencruises.com, or call reservations on 0800 0355 242.

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