Traditional British cruise line Cruise & Maritime Voyages took delivery of its new flagship, Columbus, in June 2017.
The ship should be familiar to many British cruise fans; built in 1987, it's had various incarnations, not least Star Princess, the old Arcadia for P&O Cruises, then Ocean Village, then most recently, Pacific Pearl, sailing for P&O Australia.
CMV carried out an extensive refit, changed much of the decor and carpets and adapted a lot of the venues for the mature British market, turning the former kids' clubs into lounges and function rooms and reducing the size of the casino.
At 63,768-gross tonnes, with a capacity of 1,400 passengers, Columbus is significantly bigger and newer (everything being relative) than any of CMV's five existing ships.
The new flagship has the attributes of the early generation of modern cruise ships: An atrium lobby, cabins with balconies (admittedly, only 64) and multiple dining venues. The outside space includes some lovely tiered decks on 8, 9 and 10 with smart new sun loungers that wouldn't look out of place on a luxury vessel. But there are no gimmicks, as such; the boldest statement is the three-deck atrium with its striking purple carpet and grand piano.
Parts of the ship haven't quite settled in yet, in our opinion, following a four-day mini-cruise, but there are some real standout features that surprised us.
If you're happy to sail on an older ship that puts friendly service before glitz and reasonable prices above nickel-and-diming, Columbus represents excellent value for money and overall, a very pleasant experience.
Here are some hits and misses from our recent voyage.
The Speciality Restaurants
Columbus has two speciality restaurants, Fusion, where dinner costs £14.99, and The Grill, £24.99. There's also a wine-paired Chef's Table experience in the main dining room, for £49.99. We ate in both The Grill and Fusion and were, quite frankly, amazed by the quality.
The Grill is tucked away in a corner of the pool deck, intimate and romantic. Because I don't eat red meat, I was slightly dubious at the very meaty menu (no surprise, given the restaurant's name) but the chef came out and asked if I would like some swordfish, which was absolutely delicious. My partner pronounced his rack of lamb "better than Silversea" and we both wolfed down the creme brulee, tiramisu and fruit custard trio that came for pudding.
We loved Fusion, the Indian restaurant, even more. It's in a section of the Plantation Bistro, the main buffet, roped off at night with soft lighting and waiters in full Indian silks and turbans. Another spectacular treat; proper Indian food, beautifully spiced, overseen by Keralan chef Michael Shaji, who's a real credit to CMV. We commented on the delicious naan bread and tender chicken and the waiter proudly showed us the genuine tandoor oven outside on the deck, the chicken on giant skewers baking over glowing embers. On a longer cruise, I would work my way through the menu in here.
The independently-run Jade Spa is tucked away down on Deck 2. It's what I think a spa should be -- pressure-free, soothing and reasonably priced. I had a 45-minute massage, which cost £57 and used lovely, natural Phytomer and Ahava products, with none of the dreaded heavy sell or silly, time-wasting 'rituals' you get in flashier cruise ship spas. The East European staff were all friendly smiles and the massage itself was excellent -- I was wandering around for hours in a blissed-out daze afterwards. There's an impressive range of treatments, too, from Ayurveda to Thai massage, which is done on the floor, as it should be. Use of the small thermal suite is free; there's a sauna, a steam room, a snow-making device for hot-and-cold treatments and a couple of heated, tiled loungers.
OK, you have to pay for this (£1.50 a scoop, £2.50 for two scoops) but it's really good, in partnership with a family-run company called Gelato Gold, sold from a booth on the pool deck. With flavours like Salted Caramel Ripple, Clotted Cream and Toffee Apple Crumble served in crunchy waffle cones, it's justifiably popular and worth the outlay.
The crew were without exception friendly and helpful -- and far more attentive than crew on some luxury ships we've sailed on. We never had to wait long for someone to take our drinks order and the waiters in the main Waterfront restaurant were jolly and efficient without rushing mealtimes. Just goes to show that you can get decent service, regardless of the luxuriousness of the surroundings, if good management comes from the top.
We went to three shows and they really were pretty basic: Men in sequinned waistcoats and girls in giant feathered skirts gamely belting out songs you’d normally associate with bad karaoke, like "It's Raining Men" and "YMCA". I really think cruise ship entertainment has moved on from this. One redeeming point was a very good classical crossover violinist who played with the band and sometimes appeared on stage and performed a solo. And although the shows were pretty cliched, hats off to CMV for having a live band when so many cruise lines nowadays are content with recorded music.
I got the feeling that CMV hasn't quite grown into its flagship yet. There are quite a few spaces that are underused, mainly areas that were previously kids' clubs. They'd probably do better on a longer voyage when passengers tire of sitting by the pool but, overall, I felt these spaces lacked atmosphere. The cavernous library was empty (and a bit odd, with oversized leather sofas and a fake fire but very limited opening times), while the craft room saw no crafting on my cruise, although the crew told me it's busy with needlepoint and watercolour painters on longer voyages. There's a stylish observation lounge on Deck 14, newly done out in blue and white, with a coffee machine, but nobody seems to know what to do with it and you can only get there via the outside decks. There are two speciality coffee bars, too, which seems odd on a ship where the passengers seem reluctant to part with money for such fripperies as cappuccino and cake. One, Hemmingway's (sic) overlooks the lobby while another, the pretty Cappuccino's (sic), sits in a corner by the pool, sadly empty. Shame, as it would make a great pizzeria or maybe a more permanent home for the gelato stall.
CMV is the only cruise line to homeport at Tilbury, an industrial port on the River Thames, some 40 minutes from Fenchurch Street station in central London, followed by a short bus or taxi ride. While the London Cruise Terminal itself is packed with historical interest (it's where many of the original migrants from the Caribbean landed in Britain, and where the 'Ten Pound Poms' embarked ships to Australia for a new life, post-war) I shudder to think what visitors from outside London will make of this grotty town as the beginning of their hard-earned cruise. Off the train, you're faced with a tattoo parlour, a boarded-up Chinese restaurant and a grim-looking shop called News, Food and Booze. There's nowhere for taxis to wait; luckily, the sole station attendant directed us to the fish and chip shop down the road, next to which there's a taxi office. The sail-out along the Thames Estuary was interesting, particularly to me, as a Londoner, but I'm sorry, Tilbury could provide a much better welcome.
--By Sue Bryant, Cruise Critic contributor