While many cruise ships are floating hotels, massive monoliths carrying more than 6,000 people, smaller can be more beautiful – the Columbus, one of five classy cruisers in the British fleet, sticks to around 1,400 passengers across 775 cabins, three quarters with ocean views.
Our premium twin had it all – splendid beds, a smart bathroom, loads of storage and a great view. Several great views in fact, taking in the European cities of Amsterdam, Antwerp and Hamburg, or simply beautiful sea and sky.
After easy embarkation at the ship’s home base, Tilbury’s London Cruise Terminal – CMV ships also start from Dundee and Rosyth – we began getting to know the craft, and the best way to do that is to get lost. Wander the public decks and surprisingly soon you get to know where the bars and restaurants are, the shops, gym, spa, even a theatre.
Tagged a European City Break, our five-night cruise certainly delivered, with three days visiting those cities and a relaxing day at sea. Our first full day saw us dock at Amsterdam – the Columbus’s smart size means there’s no faffing about with tender boats.
The Dutch capital is charming and quirky, its cityscape not so different from its 17th-century Golden Age. Trees line the canals, watched over by elegant merchants’ houses and polite cyclists ring their bells as they approach. A river tour accompanied by apple pie and coffee was the perfect start to the day, which continued with a look around the De Pijp area of the city – having attracted all the tourists they want to the centre, marketing mavens want people to know what else Amsterdam has to offer.
With its Middle Eastern eateries, cute cafes and inviting pubs, De Pijp is certainly worth a look, but if you’ve not been to Amsterdam previously, your best bet is to stay central for the likes of the Anne Frank House, Rijksmuseum and enticing shops and markets.
Back on the Columbus, a chance to try one of the dining options, such as the Waterfront Restaurant, where smart staff serve beautifully cooked and presented dishes... if the Columbus’ version of Welsh Rarebit is on the menu, do not miss it. And if you’re very lucky, you may catch a Baked Alaska Parade... Speciality restaurants Fusion and The Grill require a supplement, though CMV prices are more competitive than those of other lines. Fancy something more casual? The Plantation Bistro is a large self-service buffet, with ever-changing dishes – think all-you-can-eat heaven.
Next day it was off to Hamburg, Germany’s largest port, on the banks of the Elbe, whose many waterways have seen it tagged ‘the Venice of the North’. It’s an interesting mix of the historic and new; the Speicherstadt district has the world’s largest warehouse complex, with units selling everything from coffee – Hamburg is Europe’s number one destination for bean shipments, there’s even a museum with characterful cafe – to carpets from the Orient. A must-see is the Elbphilharmonie in the HafenCity quarter, a magnificent new concert hall where beyond state-of-the-art acoustic equipment, plus brilliant design, makes for a unique sound experience.
And of course, Hamburg was home to the Beatles as they learned their trade in the city’s buzzing clubs. We were privileged to be shown around the Reeperbahn district by Stefanie Hempel, not only a Fab Four expert but a singer songwriter herself. Not only did she share little-known nuggets about John, Paul, George, Pete and eventually Ringo, Stefanie sang a few of their early numbers, while playing the ukulele, at such locations as the Indra and Kaiserkeller. A magical mystery tour indeed.
The Beatles liked a touch of the East and so do I, so where else but Fusion, the ship’s Indian restaurant? It’s a stunning combination of ambience and appetising fare, with waiters decked out like modern maharajahs.
Wednesday was Sea Day, a chance to enjoy the on-board activities and boy, are there a lot. Talks on being a real-life Basil Fawlty, German composers and more. Keep-fit sessions including ‘chairobics’. A Crafters’ Studio with classes on ‘tea bag folding’ – not actually involving Tetley’s, it’s a path to clever Christmas decorations.
A big bonus for sports fans on this sailing was a cricket theme, with talks by such luminaries as Devon Malcolm and Mike Gatting, and comic Nick Hancock doing the wrangling. Howzat!
And there was so much more, all of it gratis. Jade Spa treatments do come with charges, but appropriately, they’re not nearly as painful as on other lines.
One of our favourite spots was the Library on Deck 11, near our cabin. It’s fitted out like a gentleman’s club, and as well as checking out books, you can flop down in a comfy leather chair and enjoy the ship’s easy-access wifi.
If you’re feeling competitive, there’s the Trumps and Aces games room next door – this place, along with the library, Crafters’ Studio and Observation Lounge at the top of the Columbus replace former children’s facilities – apart from a few sailings per year, this is a kiddie-free cruise.
Looking after the entertainment is Iain Bagshaw, whose background as a comedy musician makes him the perfect MC for offerings in the Palladium Show Lounge, which included everything from a stand-up comic to a full-blown Broadway extravaganza.
Wednesday also happened to be Halloween, and the chefs pulled out all the stops to provide a spooky buffet in the Atrium – monsters made out of veggies, chilling ice sculptures, nibbles fit for a vampire... and all complimentary. A few passengers even dressed up as ghouls for the occasion.
If vampire or werewolf attire isn’t your thing, there’s something to suit courtesy of the ship’s dress code – some evenings and eateries required formalwear – smart suits, cocktail dresses and the like. Otherwise, it’s casual or informal... the Plantation is always a dressed-down affair. Something the Columbus has which I’ve not come across on other ships is a coin laundry with free ironing facilities, just the ticket if something has been crushed en route.
To paraphrase the old film, if it’s Thursday it must be Belgium – Antwerp, in fact, a city where you’ll always get a big hand. Massive palms are everywhere, recalling a giant with a habit of chopping limbs off of anyone reluctant to pay taxes. The country’s second-largest city is gorgeous, with its medieval streets and renaissance buildings. It’s also the world centre of the diamond trade, though our budget had us heading not for the jewellers but the famed chocolate shops near the Cathedral of Our Lady, whose stunning art collection includes works by Rubens.
Antwerp is also home to the De Koninck brewery, a modern affair which now offers a mouth-watering tour worth hopping in for.
Next day it was back to Blighty. Leaving the Columbus, it didn’t feel like we were coming home, but leaving it. I can’t wait to try another CMV cruise.
Summertime Fjordland Cruise departs Edinburgh Rosyth on Sunday 23 August for seven nights on board the Columbus’ sister ship, the Marco Polo, visiting Flåm, Geiranger, Olden and Bergen. Premium Twin Ocean View from £1,189pp. To book or for more information: 0844 998 3877, www.cruiseandmaritime.com