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On the first evening we met our two friends,Eileen and Terry, from the Highlands and Islands cruise which we took in July. We also met our new dining companions. Through the night we sailed along the South coast and turned into the North Sea. As usual I slept like a top, (I really should spend more time on the sea!)
We were very fortunate as the sea was calm, just enough movement to let us know that we were not on dry land.
I enjoy these days spent at sea. Even though Balmoral is one of the smaller cruise ships and does not boast an ice rink, climbing wall or shopping mall etc. everyone is catered for on the entertainment side.
There are talks about the ports we will visit, specialist talks (this cruise we had a gemmologist and a lady with humorous snippets about Norway. You could learn pyrography, learn to dance, improve your bridge, play deck games, be pampered in the Spa, or just relax and listen to music. I like to talk to the other passengers. They are an eclectic mix from all walks of life. Most are just ordinary folk like us, nurses, teachers, hairdressers, policemen, postmen etc. One of the common themes of these conversations was the differences in training and working conditions when we trained and now. In all the different jobs we had strong discipline and low wages, but we had job satisfaction and most said that they would not want to enter those jobs in today’s conditions. We had far less interference from government agencies.
Another common theme was the fact that, for a generation who were brought up with an abhorrance of debt and a tradition of saving, they had seen their savings and pensions eroded by minimal interest rates and government measures such as QE, and had decided that they might as well enjoy their savings before they disappear altogether!
That evening was the Captain’s welcome cocktail party where we met the Captain and senior staff. This was one of the formal evenings where we all doffed our evening suits or smart dresses. I think most of the women enjoy this chance to “dress up” and the menfolk put up with it!
In the evening there is a choice of entertainments in each of the bars or theatre, from a string quartet to a revue by the entertainment staff.
For anyone who can manage more food there is a supper club at 11.30pm.

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June 10th 2011

We embarked about 2.30pm and were shown to our cabin where we were met by our stewardess who showed us where to find everything and how things worked. About an hour later we had the mandatory boat drill where we found our assembly stations and practised putting on our lifejackets. We left Southampton at 4.30pm and wondered whether we would ever find our way round the ship!

We had opted for first dinner and, as is usual on the first night, dress code was casual. We were delighted to meet Pat and Tony who shared a table with us. We got along well together from that first meeting, which was a great relief.

After dinner there was agood choice of venues for entertainment, the pub with a pianist, string trio in the Atrium, piano entertainer in the Observatory, dancing to the resident band or a show put on by the Balmoral company ( which reminded me of the end of the pier shows we used to go to when I was younger.)

Saturday 11th June

Once again we were offered a full programme of events to choose from which covered most interests. Various exercise groups for the energetic, dance classes,art classes, bridge tournaments, deck games and various talks.

JW chose the art course and I went to a very entertaining talk by Captain David Bray about his time on a research vessel in Antarctica.

After lunch we wandered around exploring the ship and meeting some of our fellow travellers.

JW had been surprised to find that the Art group instructor, Paul, lives just 10 minutes walk away from us in Cardiff!

Saturday evening was a formal evening and an invitation to the Captain’s cocktail party. Captain Olav Sovdsnses was a very pleasant man and interacted well with both crew and passengers.

After dinner there was once again a choice of venues but I am quite happy watching the sea go by!

Sunday 12th June

Another day at sea. JW went painting again and I investigated the library. I found a book about WW2 written by Germans and strangely found more about HMS Biter (my father’s ship) than I have found in the English books.

There was plenty of opportunity to get to know some of the passengers. They were the usual mixture, mostly pleasant folk, a few oddballs, a few very dedicated health fanatics striding round the promenade decks. Some we hardly saw as they were bridge addicts and seemed to spend much of their days playing endless tournaments. I was even told that some had come on this cruise specifically for the bridge tournaments.

We had set tables only for dinner, so met some interesting people at mealtimes. You could either sit and have waiter service from the menu or serve yourself from a wonderful cold table. One old gentleman amused us by collecting a plateful of healthy salad  and fresh fruit, sending a photograph of the food to his daughter, then returning to the servery for chips and hot pudding!

The crossing of the North Sea was very smooth, (much smoother than some of the crossings I remember from my visits to Norway in the past.)

Day 13 dawned bright and sunny again. We had been so lucky with the weather since Bergen. The Icelandic guides all told us that we had “brought the Summer”!

It was like the last day of term, returning library books, collecting photos and DVD from the photographers and packing.

I met an interesting couple at coffee. He is of Icelandic ancestry and when they started researching his genealogy they discovered he had relatives in Reykyavik. His grandfather had left Iceland in the 1890s, along with many other young men, to seek his fortune abroad. He had never returned, but he had a brother who did and they were able to make contact with these hitherto unknown relatives. It must have been very emotional as they were shown the boyhood haunts of his grandfather and other places connected to him.

JW  and I showed what old crocks we have become as he was developing a cold and I developed toothache! At first the toothache wasn’t too bad, but as the day wore on it got worse and even aspirin wouldn’t dull it. JW passed on the most unlikely sounding tip, which had been passed on to him by a dentist friend, to sip cold water and rinse it round the tooth! With some  trepidation I tried it and it worked :). You have to keep doing it but at least it gave the aspirin chance to work.

I reflected on this cruise and inevitably compared it to the Baltic cruise we did last year on Ocean Majesty.

This was completely different, earlier in the season, larger ocean. Last year we concentrated more on manmade buildings and artifacts. This year was the magnificence of Nature.

Athena is larger than Ocean Majesty and has more public places and more deck space, but I did like the cosiness of Ocean Majesty and our cabin, at least, was more comfortable on Ocean Majesty. The other thing we missed this year was the lovely family feeling on Ocean Majesty. Many of the crew had been on her for many seasons and were comfortable with each other and the crew on Athena, though they were unfailingly polite and friendly to us, were mostly new to each other and hadn’t relaxed into that easy comradeship yet.

We probably have too rosy a picture of the first cruise because,

 a) For many years we had not had a holiday.

 b)We found an immediate affinity with six people at our table in the dining room. Our companions this time were a very amiable couple, but there wasn’t the same “kinship”.

c) It was all a novelty. JW had never been on a cruise and I had never been on a cruise as a passenger.

I concluded that you couldn’t really compare the two, each had its own special magic. None of the manmade buildings could surpass the beauty of the fjords and the gilding of St Petersburg was no more beautiful than the sunset over the snowcapped mountains, and nothing (short of being closer) would give me more of a thrill than seeing those whales!.

Coast of Norway

During the night we had travelled up the East Coast of England and were now heading towards Norway. The crossing from Newcastle to Bergen was one I had made many times before, but it had only rarely been as calm as it was this time. As I stood on deck, at one of my favourite occupations, watching the sea go by, I reflected on how different the North Sea was from the Baltic. On the cruise last year we were hardly ever completely alone. Nearly always there were other ships or shorelines in view, but here it was just us and the sea.

When I first persuaded JW to go on a cruise his main argument had been that he would be bored between ports, but it would have been difficult to join in with everything on offer, especially as so much of the day was occupied with meals. 🙂

The day started with Earlybird tea and coffee, then breakfast, morning coffee, lunch, tea, dinner,and finally for the hardiest, late night snacks!

Breakfast and lunch could be taken either in the dining room (with service) or at the self service cold table. Dinner was served in the dining room in two sittings.

We usually opted for the cold table which was quite magnificent. At breakfast there was a variety of cereals, fresh fruit, yoghurts, cold meats, cheeses, breads, pastries as well as all the ingredients for a full English.

At lunch it was like free run at the deli counter, salads, meats, cheeses, soup, and four hot dishes and vegetables, usually two meat, one fish and one vegetarian and another table with desserts, fruit and cakes.

Afternoon tea was a variety of open sandwiches, rolls and cakes.

Dinner presented a menu of around seven courses of which you could have as many or as few as you liked!

I was quite amazed at how much some people could pack away!

In between meal times there was a variety of ways to occupy us from sports and keep fit to Arts and Crafts sessions. There were also illustrated talks, films, variety shows, cinema and a piano player.

On that first day I went to a talk on the three ports we would be visiting in Norway and the excursions available.

After lunch we had a boat drill then I went to a very interesting talk about “The Shetland Bus” which ferried Allied Servicemen and Norwegian Resistance workers between Norway and Scotland.

Before dinner we were invited to the Captain’s Cocktail party. This was a formal evening and everyone was in evening dress. I must say that I like to see men in formal evening wear, JW in particular scrubs up well and looks very elegant!

At dinner we had set tables. We were on a table for four and we were fortunate to have as our tablemates a very pleasant couple of our own age who came from Weymouth, Colin and Sylvia.

After dinner we didn’t go to any of the shows, just wandered on deck and watched the sea and hugged the knowledge that tomorrow we would be in Norway!