I’ve never really thought that I was a ‘cruise person’. I’m a fairly independent traveller, and the thought of being held captive with several hundred people for a week or more didn’t really appeal to me. But friends and family have also told me that once you try a cruise you’ll never look back. So when a friend asked me earlier this year if I’d like to try my first cruise, of course I said yes. Don’t knock it until you try it I say! It helped that we had agreed to go to the Norwegian fjords (somewhere I’d always wanted to visit) and that it was only for six nights (even if I hated it, I could cope with 6 nights).
Before going any further I’d like to stress that this post is not sponsored in any way. We sailed out of Tilbury with Cruise and Maritime on board the Columbus and all of the following details and comments, are for that trip only. The Columbus is a relatively small ship and as such it may differ from other cruise liners.
Before You Book
One look at any brochure or website will reveal that there is a huge difference in price for the same trips. Your choice of cabin will determine the biggest difference and if you are willing to forgo a balcony or even a window you will be able to travel very reasonably. When you book will also make a difference. If you are willing to book eighteen months to two years in advance you can usually get two for the price of one and even discounts on top of that. We didn’t want to wait two years and we wanted a balcony, so I’m not even going to tell you how much it cost. Except to say, that balcony was worth every penny. And I’ve since been told that you can specify ‘balcony room guaranteed’ at the time of booking for a lot less. I wish I’d known that.
The Columbus has variety of dining options, as I’m sure most ships do. There is the self-service buffet restaurant on the pool deck that is often the preferred choice for families with small children (not all cruises allow children but ours did). It’s also good for breakfast and a casual lunch. And there is the main dining room that is waiter service. The main restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, although it will slow down your dining time. There was also a Grill but we didn’t use that at all, so I cannot comment.
The Buffet Restaurant
I wasn’t a huge fan of the buffet restaurant even though it was our preferred option for a quick lunch. It was often crowded, with too few tables, and quite frenetic. It did have an outside dining space that was good if you could find a table, and it was also where afternoon tea was served. The food was typical buffet style. Nothing much to write home about. This was also the place where hot drinks were available 24 hours a day.
The Flam Railway and Kjosfossen Waterfall
The Main Restaurant
The main dining room was where we ate breakfast most mornings and dinner every evening. When you book your cruise you will be asked which sitting you would prefer for dinner. The options were 6.30pm or 8.15pm. We opted for the latter which has the advantage that you aren’t rushed out at all. The only downside is that by the time you have finished dinner you will find it hard to bag a seat in any of the bars. You will also be asked what table size you would like and I seem to remember it was 4, 6 or 8. You have a reserved spot every evening for dinner which means you will sit with the same people for the entire cruise (this isn’t the case for breakfast and lunch where you are just shown to the next available chairs). Now, I’m sure this could make or break a holiday! We opted for a table of six and luckily we had four of the nicest, funniest people to share our evening meals with – and then many drinks in the bar too.
A word too about the menu in the main dining room. It was very varied and changed every day. The portions are not huge but the food was of reasonable quality. There’s also no need to think you are missing out on the eat-all-you-can buffet. There were six courses on the evening menu and you could have one of each if you so wished.
Drinks Packages and Gratuities
The cost of the cruise included all food but not drinks (except tea and coffee). You can however prepay for a drinks package (at the time of booking or on board) and this will depend on what and how much you usually consume whether it is worth it for you. There is dizzying selection of choices from ‘all inclusive’ to wine only, to beer only, to cocktails to soft drinks. I’d say the ‘all inclusive’ is the least confusing and probably the most cost effective. And if does include your daily gratuities which are suggested at £7 per day. If you don’t opt for a drinks package you can charge drinks to your cabin as you go, but be aware that even bottles of water come at a cost.
I have to admit, this is one of the things that worried me the most about cruising, but rules are very relaxed nowadays. There are ‘formal nights’ on most cruises, which usually are the same nights as the Captain’s cocktail parties. You are encouraged to dress up, but it really is a matter of choice. We did see some couples in black tie and evening gowns but mostly women wore a nice dress and the men donned a jacket and a tie. As you would in a nice restaurant anyway. We didn’t go to any of the cocktail parties (they started early – at about 4.30pm) so may have seen more dressing up had we accepted those invitations. And if you choose to eat in the Buffet Restaurant it’s even more casual. My advice – just wear what you would normally wear on an evening out.
At the top of the steepest road in Norway
I have to say I was impressed with the amount of activities available day and night. Every evening a schedule is left in your cabin with a list of activities for the next day. Along with a lot of other useful information about excursions and the anticipated weather forecast. There were lectures, games, craft workshops, sports, and children’s activities at every hour of the day. The ship also had a library and a games room where you could entertain yourself. And a spa and gym. All of which would be very welcome if you were at sea with bad weather. Fortunately we had glorious weather for the full six days so spent a lot of time on deck (or on our balcony!) or onshore.
The main show every evening happened twice. At 6.30pm for the late diners to enjoy before dinner, and another show later on for the early diners to enjoy after their evening meal. We weren’t expecting West End quality entertainment so we weren’t disappointed. There were also several bars – one main bar, a pub, a cocktail bar and a nightclub that was open until late. All of them provided entertainment too, apart from the cocktail bar that was ‘adults only’.
We did book shore excursions for the three days we were actually in Norway and this is the one thing I’d do differently if I cruise again. Norway is expensive so not surprisingly the excursions were too, but I’m not sure they were value for money even so. At each port we were literally in the middle of everything and could just walk off the ship and entertain ourselves. It might be different at other ports, so my advice is to do your homework first and work out if you can logistically go it alone. The only exception is if you are doing some sort of activity. At our first port we did a water safari and others were kayaking, which may not have been possible to book independently. I did overhear an organiser explaining to some tourists that they had no availability that day as they were only doing excursions for the ship.
- Book well in advance and hunt down the best deal.
- If you want a balcony, book a ‘balcony guaranteed’ deal rather than choose your cabin in advance.
- Choose the second sitting for dinner unless you like dining at 6.30pm.
- Choose a six-seater dining table for dinner. It’s the perfect number to be able to talk to everyone at the table. And if you don’t get on with one couple, you have another couple to talk to.
- Negotiate your ‘drinks package’ at the time of booking. You may get a deal, and then you don’t have to worry about a worryingly large bill at the end of the holiday.
- Take a wide selection of clothes for all eventualities. We were visiting Norway which is often wet, but we had a mini heatwave. You’ll also need lots of smart clothes for the evenings. After all, you don’t have weight allowances to worry about anyway.
- Don’t book expensive shore excursions before you have done your homework – you may be able to do it cheaper yourself.
- Don’t shop in the on-board shops unless you have money to burn.
- Take some travel sickness remedies with you. You probably won’t need them but you’ll be happy you have them if you do.
- Be aware that once you do a cruise, you’ll want to book another one.
All images: © Dear Designer’s Blog