“This isn’t our usual crowd”, a steward says to me with a grin on her face, as we pile into the Port of Tilbury’s customs hall.
The room is filled with babbling groups of girlfriends, mum-and-daughter duos, friends from the pub and multi-generational families – altogether a most unlikely gathering for a Cruise & Maritime Voyages sailing. But there’s one good reason for this – we’re on a mini-cruise, taking in vibrant Amsterdam and Antwerp in just three days.
Known for its fuss-free, purse-friendly cruises, CMV sails from a range of UK ports including Tilbury, Newcastle and Belfast, offering two and three-night trips to the great cities of northern Europe. For a mother-and-daughter cruise, let’s just say that’s probably the perfect length. My mum and I are travelling on the line’s flagship, the 1,400-guest Columbus.
Starting life in 1989 as Star Princess (christened by none other than Audrey Hepburn), the ship then sailed as P&O’s Arcadia and Ocean Village, before moving to the P&O Australia fleet as Pacific Pearl. Then, in 2017, she joined CMV and became Columbus, complete with a shiny makeover. So there’s a bit of history here, and in the best possible way you can sense it. With more than a touch of the ocean liner about her, Columbus is a proper ship.
She’s also my mum’s first experience of cruising, so the moment we’re aboard we set out to explore her from stem to stern. We soon see the results of that recent refit, from the towering atrium, lined with boutiques, to countless watering holes including cocktail bar Raffles and the cosy Taverners Pub.
Much to our delight, we find an empty thermal suite below decks, complete with a sauna and steam room. Naturally, there’s also a swimming pool on deck, and two hot tubs at the stern – in which passengers are already enjoying a dip. With onboard facilities like this, you could easily turn your mini-cruise into a seagoing staycation.
Cabins echo the ship’s traditional theme, and we love our spacious twin with a great ocean view. Inside there is everything we need for the weekend – an ensuite shower, plenty of storage space and tea and coffee-making facilities (non-British cruise lines please note). Only a select few cabins come with balconies on Columbus, but sailing through the gusty North Sea and English Channel, we doubt we’re missing out…
Holland’s greatest metropolis is built for cruising, and even an ocean ship as big as Columbus can sail right into the centre. That gives Mum and me the whole day to take in the city’s stunning gabled buildings, its jumble of bridges and quirky cafes.
Of course, there’s also the Anne Frank House, the Van Gogh Museum and the curiosities of the Red Light District to see – but for travellers already familiar with Amsterdam, as many of our group seem to be, something a little more eft-field is required. Luckily, a short (free) ferry ride from the centre brings us to the emerging cultural hotspot of NDSM Wharf. A former shipyard, this is now a maze of art galleries, pop-up bars and boutique shops, with Banksy-style artworks splashed across the brickwork. After lunch in a trendy cafe – once the works canteen – we’re keen to stock up on Dutch souvenirs.
Call to mind an idyllic picture of the Dutch countryside, and you’ll probably come up with something like the village of Zaanse Schans. Windmills, handicraft shops, museums, emerald fields and cottages with clogs in their doorways line the river Zaan in this open-air living museum, which also incorporates the famous Catharina Hoeve cheese shop and a historic chocolate factory (the delicious smell of warm cocoa perfumes the air).
Weighed down by cheeses and impulse-buy clogs (what on earth was I thinking?), we head back to the ship. But there’s no need to rush. With NDSM and Zaanse Schans both within easy reach of the city centre, there is comfortably enough time to explore and make it back for sailaway.
Surprises on the menu
Priding itself on being a traditional cruise line, CMV ensures that even its mini-cruises include one black-tie evening, in our case on the second night.
Back on board, backpacks and walking shoes give way to slinky black dresses and smart tuxedos as guests make their way to an early-evening show or meet for cocktails at Dome, the Deck 14 lounge bar with all-round views of the sea.
Dinner aboard Columbus is served in two sittings, at half-past six and half-past eight. We opt for the latter, giving us plenty of time to soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the excellent ABBA tribute act.
Before our cruise, I had worried that my mum – a vegan, as she’ll happily tell you – might be short of menu options. But not a bit of it. For such a traditional cruise line, CMV plays an absolute blinder when it comes to dietary requirements, and our waiter at the elegant Waterfront restaurant brings out a dedicated vegan menu. So while I tuck into Dover sole and a beautifully presented cheese board, Mum is treated to butternut squash risotto and tangy lemon mousse.
Alongside Waterfront, other options include the impressive Plantation Bistro (open for breakfast, lunch and dinner), plus The Grill, Indian-influenced Fusion, and The Chef’s Table speciality dining experience (bookable with a small surcharge). But with just three nights of dining, we decide to stick to the Waterfront, persuaded by its daily changing menu.
After dinner, guests head to the Dome for late-night dancing, which we’re joyfully reminded is another rarity with CMV’s ‘usual crowd’. I guess there will be a few sore heads for our early start in Antwerp next morning – and judging by some of the pained faces at breakfast, I’m not wrong.
Just as in Amsterdam, the cruise terminal at Antwerp is right in the heart of the city, next-door to Het Steen, its restored medieval castle. While some cruisers head to Brussels, just a short drive away, we make our way into the quirky metropolis. On the agenda? Chocolate, frites, beer and a snap of the famous fairytale square known as the Grote Markt.
A mini-cruise is the perfect opportunity to sample destinations you might not normally visit, and I’m so glad we’re stopping in Antwerp. Surely one of the most underrated destinations in Europe, it’s a maze of cobbled streets, gabled buildings and gothic cathedrals. The feel is somewhere between Parisian chic and Scandi cool – quite a seductive combination.
For the ‘best chips in Antwerp’, according to our local guide, we head to Frites Atelier, where toppings include mayonnaise laced with truffle and – for vegans – rich satay sauce.
Beer lovers can get their fix at the De Koninck brewery, a short tram ride away and open for tasting and tours (its star tipple, the famous Bolleke, is pronounced exactly how you think).
Locals love their bicycles but if you’re visiting it’s worth investing in a city pass, which gives you 24-hour access to all trams, trains and a host of top tourist attractions (we take advantage of this to visit the home and studio of the great painter Peter Paul Rubens, now a museum of his work).
After a day of chocolate, mayonnaise, moules and frites, it’s hard to muster an appetite, but back on board, there’s a barbecue in full swing, offering guests an early evening snack of juicy burgers – all included in the cruise fare.
Just in case we’d forgotten this is CMV, our last night features one of the best-loved cruise traditions of all – the Baked Alaska Parade. Few lines keep up this time-honoured ritual, so it’s not only the new-to-cruisers who stand mesmerised as chefs, waiters and crew dance around the room, waving sparklers and bearing trays loaded with baked meringue and ice cream. The room is a sea of camera flashes as diners dance on chairs and the whole place cheers to celebrate the great time we’ve all had.
It’s hard to believe that for just a few hundred pounds you can enjoy three nights away, some of the most exciting cities in Europe, delicious silver-service meals and top-notch spa facilities. But my mum and I experienced all of the above, and we loved it. Thanks, Columbus – and long live the mini-cruise.
Get on Board
3-night Spring Break to Rotterdam & Antwerp cruise aboard Columbus, round trip from Tilbury, departing 6 May 2021, from £319pp, cruiseandmaritime.com
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