The opportunity to get on board Cruise & Maritime’s largest vessel to date and current flag ship, ‘MV Columbus’, as well as experiencing the journey to Tilbury from north of Watford Gap was too good to miss, so I left for London the day before the ship visit and stayed with my daughter in East London.
On the morning of my ship visit, I travelled on the C2C Fenchurch Street to Shoeburyness line where trains via Tilbury Town are half hourly and a 40 minute journey from Fenchurch Street. There is a small taxi rank opposite the station in Tilbury, but no taxis when I arrived, so a very short walk to the well signed Tilbury Taxis office (01375 855555) to book a £6 taxi to The London International Cruise Terminal (you may want to book a pick up for your return as well). From the station, the road doubles back on itself, crossing the railway line, going back past the back side of the station and then a straight run to the port. I walked back to the station in 15 minutes, albeit without any luggage!
The Cruise Terminal is situated on the River Thames on the A13, approximately 25 miles from London (one hour from London City Airport and up to two hours from Heathrow). Parking is not ship side (although you can drop off passengers and their luggage at the Terminal in special circumstances), but approximately 5 minutes away by shuttle bus. It must be pre booked and costs £11/night, but £7/night on cruises of 26 nights duration, or longer.
Cruise & Maritime Voyages (CMV) also offer an exclusive coach service between London Victoria Coach Station and the London Cruise Terminal. This again, must be pre booked and currently costs £15 pp one way and £25 pp return.
Embarkation is by coloured tag and is basically from the top of the ship downwards (so typically suites and balcony cabins first and inside cabins on the lowest decks, last). CMV are quite strict about this, so although the whole of the boarding process may have started early, you will not be able to access the ship before your ‘colour’ time is called. If you don’t want to travel down to Tilbury on the morning your cruise departs, I have lots of clients who prefer a leisurely drive down south the day before, choosing an overnight stop at the Ibis, Thurrock, just off the M25 and less than 10 miles from the port. It seems to work well and provides a relaxing start to the cruise.
The London International Cruise Terminal was a revelation!!
It is currently London’s only deep water cruise facility and is a large historic art deco Grade II listed building with two elevated gangways. It was opened in 1930 by Ramsay MacDonald and operated until the 1960s. For many, Tilbury was their point of emigration to Australia, as ‘Ten Pound Poms’ under the assisted passage scheme and also the point of entry for 492 Jamaicans on SS Empire Windrush on 22nd June 1948. The landing stages for passengers were reopened in 1995, but are no longer served by a direct rail link. The hanging baskets on the railings outside, whilst a little past their best, in October, were a colourful and welcoming touch. There are two large halls inside with plenty of seating whilst waiting for embarkation, a small café and lots of port memorabilia, including a temporary Windrush exhibition celebrating its 70th anniversary.
‘Columbus’ was built in 1988 and has sailed as ‘Star Princess’ (Princess Cruises until 1997), ‘Arcadia’ (P&O, 1997 – 2003), ‘Ocean Village 1’ (Ocean Village, 2003 -2010), ‘Pacific Pearl’ (P&O Australia, 2010 – 2017) and finally ‘Columbus’. She weighs 63,500 tonnes, is 247 metres long, has 11 passenger decks and carries 1400 passengers. She has 775 cabins over 20 different grades with 77% of them having an ocean view.
There are 4 categories of inside cabins, 9 categories of ocean view cabins (including those with obstructed views (primarily on decks 8 & 9), portholes (20 cabins on Pacific deck) and picture windows), 28 deluxe balcony cabins (253 sq ft), 36 junior balcony suites (372 sq ft) and 150 cabins (one inside category and 4 ocean view categories, (similar to the above) which were all originally small twin cabins) for solo cruisers. The age of the ship is a bit of a giveaway (in a good way in this instance), as refits only occasionally alter the size of the cabins and cabin sizes on new ships seem to be getting smaller!! On ‘Columbus’, both inside and ocean view cabins are a similar good size (188 sq ft apart from the leading single ocean view cabins at 146 sq ft), with different price points being mainly due to position on the ship and deck number. Many cabins can be configured with a double bed, if required. CMV also offer Voyager (guarantee) inside and ocean view cabins.
We embarked ‘Columbus’ on deck 5 – into the 3 deck high Atrium. The layout here is attractive and welcoming, although pinning the ship to a particular and slightly dated era (1980’s) of ship design, reminiscent of older Princess ships. However, the purple patterned carpet does give it a bit of a contemporary feel. There is a grand piano here, as well as Reception, Shore Excursion and Future Cruise desks and Hemingway’s café bar, with shops and bars on the upper levels. Leaving the Atrium it was easy to spread out and get to any other part of the ship: like a lot of older ships, there is good passenger flow and well sized public spaces. In total there are 3 stairwells and 3 sets of lifts (a good ratio for a ship of its size).
The colour scheme on the ship is muted and again perhaps a little old fashioned, but in an understated and calming way. ‘Connexions’, a spacious bar and lounge, mid ships on deck 7, with a small stage (typically occupied by a duo or trio of performers), has a horticulturally green theme, like sitting in airy conservatory or orangery, with wicker and grey trendy rattan furniture, moss green cushions, fernlike ceiling fans and a wall full of lepidoptera prints. Similarly, the main and buffet restaurants, carried flashes of green herbs and plants.
Another plus point due to ‘Columbus’s’ age, is the large amount of open teak deck space, albeit interspersed with astro turf and wide promenade areas, particularly on deck 12 (alas, however it is not a wrap round promenade). There are two swimming pools mid ships on deck 12, one of which has an attractive swim up oval pool bar, along with a large outdoor screen showing movies and other events. There are probably sufficient sun loungers available for warm weather cruising (although they undoubtedly weren’t all in evidence whilst the ship was berthed in Tilbury). Aft of the Oasis Bar on deck 8 are 2 hot tubs/Jacuzzis, which are on the lower of the 3 tiered decks overlooking the back of the ship. When the ship sails multigenerational cruises (as it does on a few itineraries, each year), this area becomes ‘Adults Only’.
After embarking we went up to The Dome Observatory and Nightclub on deck 14– a large airy room looking out onto a wrap round walk way as well as some of the commercial shipping in other parts of the port. There is a large dance floor and bar here. Although this style of observation lounge features greatly on more modern cruise ships, The Dome is a good size for its passenger capacity. Conversely, aft on deck 14 is The Columbus Observation Lounge – a very small area with a mix of seating, a small coffee station and views over the back of the ship. It looks and feels as if it was part of a Kid’s Clubs from one if its previous lives and hasn’t quite decided on its new role on ‘Columbus’.
Most of the public rooms are on deck 7 (Promenade deck): starting at the front of the ship is the lower deck of the 2 deck high Palladium Show Lounge. It is a bit of a hybrid area, being neither a show lounge in the true sense of the word, like those found on other older, small ships, nor a proper tiered theatre as on more contemporary ships. It has a large retractable stage which allows use as a multifunctional area, including for ballroom dancing. A live band (as on ‘Magellan’) accompanies most shows and is set to the left hand side on deck 8. Seating consists of chairs, fixed together to produce a bench effect, with tables for drinks. Moving aft, out of the Show Lounge are the shops which make up the upper level of the Shopping Galleria, which then leads into the Connexions Bar and through to The Taverners Pub, which in contrast to Connexions is decked out in dark wood and with old gilt pub mirrors. There is a range of seating: stools at the bar, leather armchairs and cushioned corner banquette seats, as well as a small stage and wall mounted TV. Aft is the Waterfront Restaurant.
There is a surprisingly large number of lounges and bars on ‘Columbus’. In addition to the above there is also ’Hampton’s’ next to the internet café and the Palladium Show Lounge on deck 8, ‘Raffles’ on deck 6, looking onto the Atrium and the Captain’s Club and Casino on deck 5, aft of the Atrium.
The Waterfront Restaurant (main restaurant) operates two fixed time sittings for dinner (6.30pm and 8.30pm). It is situated at the rear of deck 7 and as such can be subject to vibration (so too probably could the cabins on the decks below). It has seating for 812 guests on tables for 2-10 people, but is sensitively divided into sections by medium height partitions, topped with fake grass, making things more intimate and reducing noise levels. We enjoyed a very pleasant lunch there, interrupted only marginally by new guests coming to see where there dinner table was situated. Dining arrangements can be found in your cabin upon embarkation and any time prior to the first evening meal is the best time to try to make any changes you would like, with the Maitre ‘D. There are 4 other dining options on ‘Columbus’ as well as two speciality coffee shops (Hemingways, as already mentioned on deck 5 and Capuccino’s on deck 12, opposite The Grill) and Gelato’s – a branded ice cream cart (a throwback to one of ‘Columbus’s’ previous lives, that remains in situ up on deck 12).
The ‘Plantation Bistro’ is also located on deck 12, serving buffet style meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner. There is also an outdoor eating area at the back, for dining outside in warmer climes and the Alfresco Grill itself set forward, between the Bistro and the actual lido deck area. Part of the buffet area is laid out as ‘Fusion’, an Asian restaurant with 88 covers, decked out in Oriental reds and Asian themes. There is a small charge to eat here. Diagonally opposite ‘Fusion’ – on the port side and forward on deck 12 is ‘The Grill’, a steak house with seating for 63 people and windows looking out onto the Lido deck, chargeable at £14.90 pp. Sometimes it will also feature Indian menus. The 4th alternate dining option on ‘Columbus’ is ‘The Chefs Table’ – an exclusive dining option for 14 people, in a curtained off section of the main restaurant. It includes a 9 course degustation menu with paired wines, a pre dinner cocktail party and galley tour from £49 pp.
Like many mainstream cruise lines currently, it is possible to buy drinks packages for the duration of the cruise. CMV offer a range of ‘Additions Packages’ (discounted rates bookable up to 7 days prior to cruising with additional discounts available for Columbus Club members), including:
Columbus does not profess to be a luxury ship and as with most CMV ships knows its own limitations – the ship is old and will never be a glitzy modern vessel, but it makes up for that with friendly and helpful staff (noticeably the waiting staff in the restaurants were Filipino or from the Indian sub continent, whilst during visits on other CMV ships they were Eastern European). Bar and spa prices (if you have not bought an Additions Package) are reasonable, with cocktails starting at £4.75, wine from £15/bottle and a 45 minute cleansing facial costing £41. Watch out for ‘Buy One Get One Free’ or ‘Buy One Get One Half Off’ offers (or even 65% off last minute deals) as these offer good value for money.
‘Columbus’ is a ship with 5 dining venues, 2 coffee shops, a gelateria, 8 lounge bars, 2 deck bars and 6 entertainment venues. There is a library, card rooms, an arts and crafts studio and 2 of the largest self service launderettes and ironing rooms afloat. The gym and spa facilities are tucked away, down on deck 2, but again are surprisingly spacious for the size of ship. Yet there are still lots of quiet places to sit both inside and up on deck. It appeals to a quintessentially British clientele who enjoy a traditional cruising experience.