A cruise can be as relaxing or exhilarating as you choose
In the early 19th century the wealthy residents of Madeira’s hilltop town of Monte used wicker toboggans as a speedy way to reach Funchal on the coast. Today the sledges resembling giant laundry baskets and steered by ‘carreiros’ wearing jaunty hats and reassuringly thick tyre-soled shoes that act as brakes, remain a top tourist attraction.
However, having enjoyed the fun descent on a previous visit I discovered a couple of very different ways to enjoy the feeling of the warm wind in my face on return to the sunny island that’s an offshoot of Portugal. And both of them put paid to the common misconception that cruises tend to be somewhat stately affairs.
With a small group of fellow adventurers, I walked down Balmoral’s gangplank towards a line-up of four gleaming motorcycles and sidecars, our transport for the evening. After fitting our helmets and deciding who was going to ride pillion or sit in the sidecar (having never been on a motorbike before, I opted for the latter), our guide throttled the engine and we were off along the waterfront for our nocturnal tour.
With a large grab handle fitted behind the driver’s seat, it quickly became clear that you don’t need to have any previous experience of motorbikes to enjoy the ride. Our guide started pointing out places of interest through the wireless device inside the helmets and people sitting outside the al fresco cafés and bars in the old town smiled and waved at us as we gently weaved through the narrow streets.
We soon had broad beams across our faces as we hit the open road and the driver opened the engine. The convoy of bikes negotiated the hair-pin bends into the hills above the island’s capital before we stopped at a panoramic viewpoint overlooking the red tiled roofs of Funchal and sweep of the Atlantic where Balmoral resembling a toy in the harbour twinkling with lights.
We had joined Fred. Olsen’s 1,325-passenger flagship Balmoral in Southampton on an itinerary visiting La Coruna, Porto, Madeira and Lisbon. And with an overnight stay in Madeira there was plenty of time to check out some of the more unusual shore excursions on offer.
Fred. Olsen has teamed up with Madeira Sidecar Tours to offer passengers an exciting way to view the island from a different perspective. Thrill-seekers can also embark on a self-drive trip following a guide in electrically powered bubble cars. As we’d been on the motorbikes – which other passengers wished they’d signed up for after hearing us talk about it incessantly on return – we opted to head back out to sea on a dolphin and whale watching excursion.
It wasn’t long before an eagle-eyed crew member on the small boat saw a steely ripple on the water. Seconds later we gasped collectively as two dolphins cut a perfect arc through the air. Before long there were several more, including a mother and baby, and they began swimming and diving playfully alongside the boat. Later we had an awe-inspiring close-up view of pilot whales.
Of course, some passengers went off in search of more leisurely pastimes and took tea at the ‘grand dame’ Belmond Reid’s Palace hotel or visited one of Madeira wineries for a taste of the island’s famous fortified tipple. Incidentally, the Madeira cake sold in the UK is known as English cake in Madeira and the real Madeira cake made with molasses fruit and nuts.
We saved out appetite for tea back on board the Balmoral. A couple of afternoons per cruise a traditional tea is served by white-gloved waiters in the ship’s panoramic Observatory Lounge and it’s well worth paying £8.95 for the treat. Tea is also served daily for free in the Palms Café.
Elsewhere, there are plenty of other places to eat and drink on Fred. Olsen’s flagship. Although Balmoral is the largest ship in the four-strong fleet it’s still a small and intimate vessel by modern cruise ship standards and not too overwhelming.
There are three main dining rooms; the larger Ballindalloch and smaller Avon and Spey sister restaurants. We were allocated a lovely dinner table overlooking the sea in the Spey and could choose where we wanted to have breakfast and lunch. Options included any of the dining rooms plus the casual Palm Café buffet with al fresco seating. On two nights we ate at the ship’s speciality restaurants; the sophisticated Grill serving beautifully presented dishes and the Poolside which took freshly cooked barbecue food to a whole new level. Again, both were well worth the small additional cover charge.
When we weren’t out on shore excursions the packed programme of daily on board events kept us occupied. There were fitness classes, deck games and great entertainment, including jazz club-style acts in the intimate Lido Lounge and full-on theatre in the Neptune Lounge – headline acts on our cruise were West End singer Shimi Goodman and cool rock violinist Analiza Chung who wowed the judges on Britain’s Got Talent.
Balmoral has plenty of watering holes too, including a pub. Our favourite haunt was the Observatory, one of the many areas that recently underwent an extensive refurbishment when the ship was in dry dock. At night, with a ceiling lit by a kaleidoscope of changing lights, it was a magical spot to sip a cocktail or two.
Cabins were also upgraded during the refit, and with a higher-than-average number of single cabins Fred. Olsen is an attractive option for single travellers, who quickly find like-minded shipmates on this friendly vessel. If you really want to sail in style, then book one of the 14 fabulous Premier Suites located on Deck 10. They have oversized balconies, walk-in wardrobes, a huge lounge area with a dining table and plenty of perks, such as daily canapés.
I never thought I’d be on a cruise when I had my first ride on a motorbike, which just goes to show that cruising is not what some people think. You can relax and live life in the slightly faster lane.
Fred. Olsen Cruises
Tel: 0800 0355 052
On Board Facilities: Six restaurants, six bars and lounges, theatre, spa, gym, two pools with hot tubs, library, casino and Wi-Fi (additional fee).
Number of cabins: 710
Price Band: Medium
Insider Tip: Save time by booking extras including spa treatments, premium traditional afternoon tea and speciality evenings such as the martini night at the reservations desk in the departure lounge while waiting to board. This also ensures you get the time slot you want as the spa gets busy on sea days.
Reviewer’s Rating: 9/10
Factfile: Fred. Olsen Cruises offers the 11-night Spain, Portugal and Madeira round-trip Southampton cruise from £1,099, based on a January 6, 2020, departure. Fares include all meals, daily afternoon tea, room service, captain’s drinks party and gala dinner, on board activities and entertainment.
Known as the ‘River Cruise Queen’, Jeannine Williamson is an award-winning travel writer, cruise expert and our cruise correspondent, who has clocked up thousands of nautical miles.
Photographs courtesy of Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines and Madeira Sidecar Tours