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.