Astoria Cruise Review by Ctraveller1
- Sail Date: April 2016
- Destination: British Isles & Western Europe
A 10 day voyage to the Scottish Isles, including the Hebrides, Shetlands, Orkneys and Danish Faroe Islands on board the mv Astoria, nee Stockholm, christened in 1948; round trip from Bristol England.
The city of Bristol, our home port for this cruise, is a lively city pop ca. 400,000 about 120 miles West of London undergoing a renaissance. The local airport is compact, well connected to European cities and only a 20 minute £7 approx. $10.00 at writing bus ride to town center. The old port area has been converted to shops, restaurants and a spacious cultural area with a tourist information center. Along with many cafes, farm to table restaurants and vibrant street food stands one can have any appetite sated in Bristol. Two tourist highlights are the harbor cruise and a visit to the historic museum ship HMS Great Britain.
In order to get to the ship we took the local commuter train from Bristol main station, Temple Meads to Bristol Avonmouth station, a 30 minute ride. Once at the train station we called a cab which came in a few minutes and drove us through the industrial port area to our boarding point. We were warmly greeted and quickly made to feel at home by a CMV agent who explained the boarding procedure and showed us into the passenger reception area. CMV uses the fruit and produce dockside warehouse, nonetheless it is set up just as well and just as functionally as any purpose built passenger ship terminal area. The whole boarding process took no more than 20 minutes and then it was a direct open air 15 meter walk to the gangplank. After clamoring up a steep 30 step, not handicapped friendly gangplank precariously suspended at a sharp angle on the ship’s side we entered the reception foyer.
Your first impression is the warm, personal and sincere greeting you receive by a reception officer who directs a staff member to show you to your cabin. As you glide over the thick carpet, passing the wood and brass, that is real wood and solid brass furniture and trim you realize that this is a different ship. The feeling is enhanced as we continued to follow our guide and felt the deck rising to meet us, as one travels forward or aft, the decks do indeed slope upwards at a perceptible angle. No modern hotel ship this.
Our cabin #485 deck 4 aft, a superior twin outside with two rectangular windows and two lower beds and two upper bunks. There is a small flat screen TV an un-stocked mini bar and enough closet space for two people and CMV’s policy is double occupancy so we were fine. The great surprise was the bathroom. There was a full size, fully functioning bathtub with a shower head, if you only cared to shower. In addition to the bathtub there was also a bidet, which gave you a complete European grand hotel bathroom experience all on a smaller, older cruise ship. The Astoria is the only cruise ship to offer a bathtub in all cabins.
It became imperative to investigate the rest of the ship, what fantasy was this, sloping decks, wood, brass, bathtubs; was this the newest Disney ship? Quickly to the upper deck which was only two decks above ours and we were outside and stepped onto an aft teak deck surrounding the only pool on board (unused this cruise, too cold). From there we climbed the steep steps one deck to get to the complete walk around deck and walk around we did. Six times around equals one mile. Then we climbed two more decks to the top observation deck. In total seven decks.
The next fantasy came as we prepared to leave quayside. Two tug boats made their appearance. MV Astoria has a bow thruster, but she still needs the assistance of tugs to push and pull her into exact position. In order to negotiate the narrow lock to exit the port the tugs were necessary. Once clear of the lock and under her own power one could hear and feel the engine, hear the creaking of the ship as she gently rolled even in calm seas. This was truly a non-pasteurized sailing experience un-matched by any flat bottomed, azipod equipped, modern mega ship. It was the good old days.
Dinner the first night kept the traditional ideas in place. It was strictly a two sitting affair and you were assigned to a table in the one dining room. We had table 25, a table for four with a bench seat under the port holes on the dining room perimeter. How magical to gaze out through those brass eyepieces to the seas beyond as you ate dinner and conversed with your new shipboard friends.
The retro experience continued after dinner with the first show in the show lounge. Yes, it is one level, with four posts and the front row seats are only inches from the entertainers. However, despite the lack of a multi-level sound stage theatre the entertainment was first rate. A five piece orchestra and four dancers and two singers with the cruise director adding another voice. Polished, professional and pleasing it was nice to be there rather than just watching it as if it were a video.
Our first cruise day was a day at sea as we headed north towards our first destination. We had the opportunity to explore the ship and feel the quaint nature of an old style cruise ship. The game of rope quoits was played in the hallway in front of the shop, not high tech but good fun. The photo shop has a digital display, absolutely cutting edge technology and also environmentally friendly. Our sail away photo was only £ 5.00, a bargain. The majority of the passengers are retired and British so reading, relaxing and having a pint were fine afternoon pastimes. Nonetheless, the cinema had a different film every day and the violin and piano duo played cocktail melodies every evening. If that were not enough one could always visit the sauna, fitness room, beauty salon, our dinner table companion was very pleased with her coiffeur, library, casino or watch one of eight British television stations or two continuously running films on your flat screen TV.
The evening’s highlight was a traditional captain’s dinner. We dutifully dressed in tuxedo and long gown and were presented to the captain in person. Later the captain introduced the senior officers including the Chef de Cuisine from India. It was correct that he received the greatest applause. There are four selections for appetizer, main course and dessert along with two soup and two salad selections every evening and they are all different every day. A formidable culinary achievement carried off with good to excellent results.
The Isle of Skye was our first destination and we arrived on time, but to an anchorage, which meant to go ashore involved a tender trip. The instructions were clear about how to get your tickets and where to assemble prior to disembarking. The crew was very helpful in helping us aboard the tenders in bubbly seas. We had booked the excursion to the Taliskers Distillery. This tour like all the others was handled professionally. The local guide was fluent, knowledgeable and very approachable for any questions. The shore excursion manager had organized special lectures to explain the ports and excursions offered. Every detail was accurate. CMV offers a comprehensive selection of shore excursions catering to a variety of tastes from relaxed bus trips to lengthy walks for natural or cultural purposes. There was something for everyone and if not there was always the option to go ashore on your own.
We were already looking forward to our next destination Lerwick in the Shetland Islands, where we arrived on time the next morning. The highlights of the tour included crossing the 60° north latitude marker on the road passing through sheep grazing in the fields and partially harvested peat fields. Further on we crossed the runway of the main island airport which is right next to the well-known ruins of Jarlshof. The history of this spot is traced back to approximately 2500 BCE and was in continuous use until the 17th century. The Neolithic ruins only came to light after a massive storm in 1890 uncovered the older settlement. On and off from 1897 to 1952 archaeological work took place, clearly showing the significance of this spot over the millennia. It is amazing to think of these isolated, inhospitable spots inhabited by humans for almost five thousand years. Precisely on schedule our tour concluded and we tendered back to Astoria looking forward to dinner.
So far for us the weather had been good albeit a bit cold, 7°c average with a stiff breeze, but this is normal for this region, for this time of year and was not a surprise as we had done our homework. However, unknown to us was the coming weather. The ship’s passenger manager announced that there would be heavy seas and that all caution should be exercised by passengers. On that note we retired to bed.
The next morning dawned with bright blue skies and force 8 gale winds and 6 meter waves! Plates were literally flying off tables unless held with a hand or serviette. Our destination was Torshavn in the Faroe Islands, where we arrived two hours late. The captain spoke to the passengers and explained that due to the extreme weather conditions we would have to cancel our next port of call, Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, but he expected that the extra overnight in Torshavn would allow us to have better weather to our next port of call Stornoway. Again all was handled professionally. Shortly after the captain spoke notices appeared under our door outlining the new shore excursion times. We had our planned excursion in and around Torshavn and in the middle of it all there was a massive snow event. Everything went white in just a few minutes. By the time we returned to port for the walking part of the tour though old Torshavn the sun was shining brightly again and the tour guide explained that this was not unusual for Faroe weather, four seasons in one day. I must admit it was good to be tied up in a safe port and the old adage of ‘any port in a storm’ could never be truer. One benefit of the bad weather was a good opportunity for us to have an extra half day to explore Torshavn, which we did the next morning.
Torshavn is small, 20,000 population capital city of a semi-autonomous country The Faroe Islands, with very strong ties to Denmark, including the Danish Kroner for currency, but the Euro is often accepted and we found a delightful café with good free Wi-Fi for a wonderful waffle and coffee. After our coffee and a brief walk about town, it was time to board and set sail for our next port Stornoway, on the Island of Lewis in the Hebrides. We would be heading south. The seas were much calmer but the winds were still quite stiff, but after 6 meter waves 2 meter waves seemed almost calm and by dinner’s end the seas were really calm.
The next destination was Stornoway and we arrived on time to our anchorage and the tenders took us ashore for an excellent tour titled Hebridean Highlights, and it was. We visited three places including Calanais, the standing stones. These stones are very striking ranking right behind Stonehenge in significance and we could walk freely in and around them. It was pure Druidic magic. After the tour we stayed on in town and walked a bit getting a good view of the renowned Lewis Castle. One of the shopping highlights is Harris Tweed woven here on the island. We had a short tender ride back to the ship and sailed off into the early evening blue skies right on time at 7.00pm.
The port of Tobermory on the Isle of Mull was our last port of call and Duart Castle an hour’s bus ride down the west coast of Mull on the Mull sound was our destination. Again a short tender ride delivered us to the pier where it was a short walk to the waiting coach. The weather again was to be our nemesis. The innocent grey clouds suddenly began to drop significant quantities of wet, sticky snow that covered everything and lowered visibility to a few meters. Our guide, a local resident said he had never seen so much snow on the island and never so late in the year, 28 April, but it did not stop our driver and we arrived at a Christmas scene Duart Castle. The tour began with the local hostess explaining the history of the castle and the Clan Maclean. We were then free to roam the public parts of the castle and digest the well documented displays of artifacts from the 12th century to present times. The castle is still lived in by the family, who maintain a private residential section of the castle. As we were gazing out the battlement windows to the snow shrouded landscape below imagining the wilder times of days gone by the local hostess dashed into the room and announced that we were to immediately board the coach and return to the ship.
It had been decided on board that our safety was at risk and we best be onboard. Our coach set off on its return and halfway back to port we were informed that the only road back to port was blocked by a three vehicle accident and we could not proceed. Luckily for us we were just at the Salen Hotel so for the next four hours we indulged in the old Scottish pastime of putting down a pint. The guide and the ship were in constant communication and there was never a worry. Finally the road was cleared and we returned to port and to our waiting tenders. As before, in unusual circumstances, on this cruise, passenger safety came first and all measures to insure it were expertly carried out.
This evening was the last of the formal dinners, so with tuxedo and gown we enjoyed a wonderful dinner and exceptional show. Another highlight of this traditional cruise experience is the captain’s table. At least once every cruise the captain hosts eight lucky guests to his table in the dining room. The invitees are treated to memorable anecdotes and a special atmosphere sitting at the head table in the dining room with the captain presiding. This is yet another example of the traditional cruise experience that no longer exists on the new mega ships.
Well, sadly our last full day on board was upon us as the morning dawned bright, sunny and calm we had the a full list of activities to choose from so the day passed quickly. We did manage to pack and re-read the disembarkation instructions which were clear and simple.
While we were sleeping MS Astoria glided back to her berth in Avonmouth and our disembarkation day began with a 6.30 am breakfast in the buffet restaurant and by 7.45 we were waiting for a cab back to Bristol having walked off the ship, gotten our luggage and passed customs. This was one of the most efficient disembarkations I have ever seen.
On balance CMV and the Astoria provided a positive memorable experience so much so that we are looking into another cruise next April.
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