So, to summarise our feelings about CMV Columbus…
No, no and no again. On a short cruise it was almost amusing in a sort of Fawlty Towers way, anything more than two nights would be utterly intolerable.
There is simply no escaping economics - you get what you pay for and when you’re not paying much, once the cost of fueling and maintaining a ship is accounted for, there’s precious little left for food and creature comforts. If you have a a small sum of money to spend on a short break, do not spend it on a budget cruise - you will eat and sleep better in a reasonable hotel.
CMV think that sailing from Tilbury is a great attraction - I would argue that unless you live in East London or East Anglia, Southampton isn’t that much more of a hassle. Certainly, heading East, towards London, from Tilbury following the, typical, early morning disembarkation is a study in traffic misery.
Even if we assume that, by now, the refurbishment of Columbus has been completed and all the various restaurants and public spaces are open, I can’t see the food or the drinks improving significantly and you are still going to be stuck on an old ship, with few balcony cabins and a clientele which features more than its fair share of loudly rude octogenarians.
Fearing that such regular interaction with cruise ships would see us either going native or become inured to the peculiarities of cruising, we decided to take along an extra set of eyes - somebody both new to cruises and not too eager to become familiar with them...
'I’m sorry but your room doesn’t have a balcony,’ I was informed in the e-mail with our trip details.
Me: I am ABSOLUTELY FINE with not having a great big hole in the side of the boat, thanks.
As a cruise novice, Cruise Sceptic kindly invited me to join them on this, the maiden voyage of the CMV Columbus. Or, if you prefer, Carry On Up The Container Port: an epic tale of heavy industry, carved vegetables and frozen cocktails.
For our Cruise Epic Part the First, we roared into the CEMEX yard car park at Tilbury Docks in a tiny red Polo and stepped out blinking onto a small gray transfer bus. It’s how Joan Collins does it, no question. Tilbury Docks is not natively glamorous, but as a self-proclaimed container port aficionado I don’t dislike a bit of industrial zoned landscape (‘check out those TEUs!’).
The ship décor was an odd mixture of brand new and ‘we haven’t bothered about this bit much’. And when I say not bothered, I mean ‘we’ve literally just put black and yellow Do Not Cross tape across this gaping door into the room with the broken Formula One simulator inside.’ None of the pools or hot tubs were filled. The much-advertised steak restaurant didn’t open once during the entire four days. The Crafting Lounge had been taken over by staff as some sort of control HQ. It was mystifying. The solution to these conundra, as so often, was drink, and we found an inoffensive table beside some terrifying jungle themed wallpaper and had some surprisingly delicious rosé watched by one-dimensional monkeys.
We were parted for the lifeboat drill, held in the onboard theatre, which seemed… under rehearsed. Stand up. Sit down. Then stand up again. 400 people doing the hokey cokey in orange foam lifevests. At no point were we shown where our actual lifeboat was to be found. Helpful, if there had actually been a panic. Though as the voyage went on I realised I’d literally rather drown than get in a raft with some of these people.
We had opted for the formal dining room. Wisely, as it turned out, since when we went for a little pre-dinner espionage (snacking) the highlight of the buffet was a raft of slightly withering carved fennel gurnards with radishes for eyes, and a carved watermelon saying ‘Welcome On Board’ in bas-relief. Probably the most edible things on the buffet, too.
Because the buffet’s full horror was revealed the following morning at breakfast. A giant semicircle of steel cafeteria trays layered with sliced meats simultaneously wobbly and stiff, extruded yellow cheese and prunes (who REALLY eats prunes at breakfast? Oh yes – elderly people, of which this ship was plenty full) glistening limply in the overhead lighting. Condensation from the steam tables rose to bathe flabby bacon and sausages in sinister coils of porky vapour. The bread and baked goods were much better, but our stomachs had turned slightly, so we tried for a cup of coffee. Except, no cups. How can you have a breakfast service on a fully stocked ship and run out of coffee cups during breakfast? Things became shrill; the poor staff were mobbed every time they came through the swing doors bearing another tray of freshly washed mugs. Pensioners denied of tea first thing can get vicious, it turns out.
There was also great pressure on the inside tables, so we opted for the rear deck, where we ate our underwhelming breakfast in a lightly dieselled hurricane, admiring Amsterdam’s wharves in a balmy 11C June gale, watching burly Dutch stevedores undo the little snafu with the gangplank that eventually delayed our disembarkation by an hour.
A quick swing round the Rijksmuseum,fruits de mer for lunch, a stroll past the traditional Dutch brass lizards to a stationery shop and we managed to miss the red light district entirely, despite intentionally looking for it. Columbus? Nope, not us.
A brief overnight jaunt down the Noordzeecanal (verdict: North Sea: choppy) and we were in Antwerp. Pretty town, amusing bread shops, less of a hangover today, mercifully. Got a text from traveling companions onboard begging me to bring back a bottle of water. Any water. We arranged to meet at the spa; it was slightly unnerving to have a massage effectively 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea but the reflexologist was very good, and remained mercifully silent on the subject of my throbbing liver, though the squeals as he pressed the corresponding foot-spot could have been heard on the upper decks.
Speaking of upper decks. We decided a spot of sunbathing and cocktail sampling would be an elegant and refined way to pass the afternoon, since the weather had cheered up. We snagged two sunbeds tucked in a corner near the trampoline (yes) and ultrafog release vent (no idea), flagged down a passing waiter and settled in with a couple of frozen piña coladas (premixed frozen cocktails? no good on land, entirely perfect on ships). And were immediately hissed at by a vituperative pensioner telling us to make less noise. In a public space, surrounded by 499 other laughing, happy people (and our very own leathery-bosomed gorgon). We dubbed her The Essex Serpent and laughed at our own wit whilst plotting her unhappy death.
Underway again down the Scheldt, passing flour mills, fuel storage vats and the Doel nuclear power plant (so scenic! such lovely warm water and three-eyed fishes!) and at sunset we found ourselves in the Dome Observatory, well-positioned for the excitement of the entire ship passing through a lock. The perfect time for a dry martini, we thought.
Well. What arrived was warm vermouth with a lump of ice, a breath of gin and an entire quarter of a lemon. I am a notoriously tolerant and easygoing person, but I have made gin my life’s work, and it’s fair to say I know my way around a dry martini. I took this dilute misery back to the bar and remonstrated politely with the barman. Who said, worriedly, ‘but I have made it to the cocktail book specification, madam?’ At this point I became a little definite in my insistence that there need be less vermouth than the full pint in a dry martini, and made him show me this fell recipe. And there it was, in print indeed. It should have been consumed by tongues of flame.
I felt desperately sorry for this poor gentleman, who had clearly never served behind a bar before and was now caught in the headlights between the twin pincers of the mutinous, martini-denied customer and the recipe specified by his employer. And there were some splendid (terrifying) cocktails on that list indeed, one involving Advocaat, grenadine and Champagne. Valuing our stomach linings, we did not try it.
Safely through the lock, and dinner with the embarrassing staff parade over, we nosed out into The Channel and headed for home. We woke in the morning to the shores of Beloved Blighty, and another view of the sewage treatment works: Tilbury, mon amour.
To sum up, then. Bits of this were wonderful: excellent spa treatments, charming cabin stewards, going through a lock in a 250m-long ship, my genuine thrill at container ports. But I was unconvinced by the lacklustre food and the unfinishedness of décor. Though if I ever need a four foot Vishnu carved out of butter, I know where to find one.
Disembarkation and immigration at Tilbury was swift - there’s not a great deal more to say about it. However, the number of people pushing, sneaking behind trucks and being generally unpleasant in an attempt to skip the, relatively short, line for the bus back to the car park/cement factory was astonishing.
Best of all was the "gentleman" who as good as crawled under a parked HGV to skip the line then refused to move down in the bus, preventing more people from boarding, because he was also determined to be first off.
I can seldom recall seeing so many ill-mannered people in one place.
As usual, there’s the caveat that, this being a shorter cruise, the mix of people on board may not reflect the norm.
Also, as seems to be usual, we were sat with a completely charming couple for dinner.
However, while there was quite a mix of people on the ship, including a fair few hen parties, the largest group seemed to be rude old people with very sharp elbows and an aversion to waiting in an orderly line.
“Shall we head to the Lido Deck and judge the people sunbathing?”
That, I’m afraid, was about the sum of our activities on Columbus. Fearing that I was being harsh, I’ve just looked through my collected daily newsletters, and there really wasn’t much happening. The odd singles gathering, but not much more.
I was one of the first warm days of the year, so the sunbeds were busy - even on a day in port. I can’t imagine there is enough space for a sea day in a genuinely hot climate.
Well this was a pleasant surprise.
Columbus is never going to be a ship you choose if a high-end spa is a priority - it's a small space in the bowels of the ship, nothing like the massive themed areas with views of the bows that we find on more modern vessels.
However, I had an excellent and inexpensive massage, with no hard-sell on products afterwards.
I believe my therapist was actually a senior manager from the spa provider who was on board to train new staff, but our special correspondent reported similarly high levels of skill from a different therapist.
A big thumbs-up for CMV on this one.
We have issues with the drinks service on Columbus and they can largely be split into two categories - lack of training and lack of variety.
It was clear that many of the bar staff were new to the business and had been given only the most rudimentary of introductions to the basics. We had instances of waiters being unsure if they could make a martini with a gin other than the one listed on a cocktail menu, to say nothing of the moment when, after serving two dreadful drinks, a barman risked life and limb by questioning our special correspondent (and noted gin-fiend) on her knowledge of martini making - his “manual” specified 1 part vermouth to 2 parts gin and, by golly, that’s what he was going to serve.
Finally, why, oh why, are some of the best bars only open at odd hours? The bar in the panoramic dome, with its wonderful views, was not open for pre-dinner drinks. It’s a shame because there are some attractive spaces on this ship, as shown below.
I’m sure, by now, it will come as no shock to learn that eating aboard Columbus was not one of life’s finer experiences.
To be completely fair, dinner in the main dining room was passable. It wasn’t the tastiest food, but it was reasonably well presented and not actively nauseating, even if the portions were on the small side. Starters, in particular were mean, marvel (above) at the cocktail of two prawns and a single, party-sized, spring roll. A separate salad course was offered each evening, although the staff seemed shocked that we ordered it and unsure of when to serve it.
Some of the mains were a bit better (above), but desserts were of the “artfully arranged gelatinous goop” variety (below).
Breakfast and lunch were less successful. And by “less successful”, we mean “an utter disaster”. Initially, we thought of taking breakfast in the dining room, but we balked at the insistence we share a table, despite the room being deserted. Heading to the buffet, we found utter chaos. The food looked utterly unappetising - imagine fatty bacon oozing white pus in a pool of excreted water. Resorting to a plate of (unripe) fruit and a cup of coffee, we discovered that there were no coffee cups and the cutlery was filthy.
Mercifully, both ports of call offered a wide choice of dining options, so we just ate ashore.
Being slightly older, this ship doesn’t offer many balcony cabins, so we selected standard outside cabins.
The rooms are spacious, with oversized wardrobe space and a decent bathroom space. The bed is also reasonably comfortable.
The rooms are tired though. The curtains are clearly in the colours of Ocean Village, a previous operator of the ship, as well as being sun-bleached and a bit stained. The furniture is also old and features throwbacks, like built-in radios, which don’t seem to work any more.
Once again, we will note that this was a “maiden voyage”, so, we assume, many of the inoperable facilities will, surely, be up and running by now. We’d hope.
As what was, for it’s time, a fairly large ship designed for sailing in the Caribbean and Mediterranean, Columbus does come with a large central lido area, featuring two pools; one of which was filled but closed, and the other of which was empty. Neither looked particularly clean. Note, there is no retractable pool or indoor pool, so think about how important swimming is to you if you’re booking a sailing in Northern Europe.
However, in parts of the ship, CMV has gone all-in on some weird faux-Victoriana approach. In some places, notably the pub, this almost works, in others, such as the library, the combination of pleather chesterfields and “flame effect” electric fires, which I thought ceased production around 1979, is simply awful. I should also note that, while there were books in the library, they were locked away - can’t have passengers reading them and wearing them out!
Then, we have areas like the new, expanded, card room, that look slightly less inviting than the staff canteen at a poultry processing facility, littered with industrial hand-sanitzers.
Finally, there were facilities, like the new Observation Lounge, were locked shut, presumably to be finished.