As part of this year’s plans to find cruises we could do with the small amount of remaining holiday time allocated to us we discovered there was an overnight cruise taking place between Poole and Portsmouth on a Saturday night in September. The cruise would be with a company we’d not been with before, Cruise and Maritime Voyages, and would not use up any holiday time at all. In addition, it would be the shortest cruise we’d have been on and the ship itself, MV Astoria, would also be the smallest ship for us (carrying just 556 passengers) and had the record of being the oldest cruise ship in the world (Sea Cloud is technically older and carries passengers on cruises but with its masts doesn’t seem to be in the same category). I’ve mentioned before that we like crossing off travel achievements like that. This was a no-brainer to book.
Our preference when cruising is to book a balcony but on the older, smaller cruise ships balconies are sometimes not there at all and when they are they’re a big premium. Astoria does actually have some balcony cabins and an owners suite that includes one too but the price for a single night was more than we wanted to spend, especially with such a short trip and extremely limited opportunity to make use of the outside space. Through the CMV website, therefore, we picked an Outside Guarantee (OG) so we’d have some natural light through either a small porthole or picture window. Astoria has seventeen grades of cabin with grades 1-5 being inside rooms, 6-15 being outside ones, 16 being the balconies, and 17 being the owners suite. Our OG meant we’d get a grade 6 at the very least. The way guarantees tend to work on cruises is that often some cabins are reserved for sales but then returned to the pool, people in grades lower than those still vacant are then offered upsells to see if they’ll move up for a small amount, and whatever’s left will then be allocated to the guaranteed people. It’s entirely possible that this just didn’t happen for a one-night cruise or that nobody took up the chance to have a Deluxe Junior Suite (grade 15) but whatever the reason, that’s what we ended up being allocated. A bit of a surprise and more details on that below.
Portsmouth port is a fabulous cruise destination as far as we’re concerned because we can walk to it in ten minutes from our house. It has fairly shallow water and doesn’t really have the facilities to handle the larger ships but smaller ones frequently stop there. This would be our first time arriving in our home city on a cruise ship but first we had to get to Poole. For that we booked the coach with CMV for £20 per person. We strolled up with our carry-on bag, had our names checked, got on, and were off on our way about five minutes later than scheduled. Our first impressions of our fellow cruise passengers was that although they were on average older than us it was more than offset by the young-at-heart mentality in effect; we remarked that the coach trip had more of a feel of a school outing than anything else. There were two coaches in total and on the other, before leaving, we saw one woman necking wine from a bottle which raised some laughter on our bus. Several people on our coach had seen fit to bring wine and disposable cups with them so they could start early too. We’ll have to remember to do something similar if we’re ever in the same situation again. The friendly atmosphere continued as light-hearted griping about how long it was taking to reach Poole grew with comments along the lines of we’d be arriving just as the ship was docking at Portsmouth at the rate we were going. All in good humour. The actual trip took about two hours overall, about half an hour longer than expected.
Embarkation on Astoria was quite different from anything we’ve experienced before on our cruises with Princess and P&O, involving separate steps for cruise cards and accounts arrangements as well as a more personal approach to getting to your room.
At Poole port we walked into the small terminal building to fill in the health form and pick up our boarding pass then hopped on a shuttle bus to the ship. A steep gangplank took us onto the Mediterranean Deck where we then walked up the curving staircase by reception onto Calypso Deck to head forward and queue at the Calypso Lounge where our credit cards could be scanned for onboard purchases. A member of staff then took each cabin’s worth of passengers to their rooms. The steward who showed us to our Deluxe Junior Suite on Navigators Deck had never seen our room before and made all the oohing and aahing noises for us as he showed us around.
Deluxe Junior Suite
The Deluxe Junior Suite (cabin 602) is a unique cabin on Astoria, comprising three decent-sized rooms, one of which backs onto the ship’s bridge. Upon entering the suite you come into a sitting room with a large sofa, a coffee table with a bowl of fruit, and a dressing table with TV on it set up with tea and coffee-making facilities, canapés, and complimentary bottles of wine and water. We knew that all the suites and balcony cabins had these benefits but weren’t expecting them since we’d have the upgrade from our cheap outside view so that was nice to see. There is a single window – a small, picture window – behind the sofa but the view is almost completely obstructed by a lifeboat outside. There wasn’t a great deal of light coming in as a result but it was probably enough for how much the room might realistically be used if you were cruising on the ship. Our steward had unlocked the door with his skeleton key but the room keys were on the table.
This is actually worth noting on its own, depending on what ships you might have cruised with before, as it was new for us. The traditional-looking cruise or boarding card was used for purchases onboard, as you’d expect. However, room keys are separate, fairly large, and mechanical in operation (like elongated punch cards) as opposed to the barcode-read electronic ones you might have experienced on other cruises. It should also be noted that at disembarkation you’re required to leave the room keys in your room, that this is checked by stewards before you leave the ship, any missing keys are called for over the ship’s tannoy by room number, and failure to hand them in costs £15 per key.
Adjacent to the sitting room is the bedroom which is just large enough for two beds in their double configuration with small tables either side. Opposite the bed is a decent-sized wardrobe and dressing table with another TV on it. TV reception on the cruise was generally poor when it was tried but it wasn’t tried very often due to the short duration. Another picture window in the room provides a substantially less obstructed view between two lifeboats.
Importantly, the only plug sockets available were European-style, two round prongs. We’d known this and brought along adapters but it’s interesting that only one of the adapters actually fit, that labelled the Southern European style which appears to be a little thinner than its northern counterpart. Just something to be aware of.
The last of the rooms is the bathroom and because the room is a Deluxe Junior Suite it is very large as these things go, including upgraded toiletries (I believe) and a jacuzzi bath. Being children we were keen to try out the jacuzzi bath so made sure we did before dinner on the cruise but we never could quite get it to work properly with probably the longest burst of bubbles lasting half a dozen seconds. Because of the jet nozzles we found the bath quite an odd shape too so as a luxury gimmick it was mildly fun to have but I wouldn’t let its presence dictate the booking of a room now that we’ve experienced it.
Our experience of musters on Princess and P&O have been largely the same with Princess differentiating themselves positively more recently by ditching the need to bring life jackets (insert regular pleading with other cruise lines to follow suit here). Astoria’s muster was very different for us although it might be fairly normal for other lines; because we’ve not cruised with a wide variety of lines we can’t say for certain. I can describe the muster we experienced, though. We congregated in the Calypso Lounge once more which had been roughly quartered based on your lifeboat assignment, in turn designated by your cabin location. A reasonably short announcement from the bridge was made and a simple demonstration was performed by the staff about how to wear the jackets. The first big difference was a roll call that then took place. As this was just a drill only a few cabins were chosen from each area but people were required to raise their hands and shout “Here!” Then the second difference was we were all led up the stairs and out onto the promenade deck to line up near our assigned lifeboats. We’ve always ignored the “Bring your life jackets and warm clothing and head coverings” instruction before and the weather was fine enough for us anyway but I would definitely reconsider this depending on how cold or rainy it is should we cruise on Astoria or any of CMV’s ships again.
Ship Exploration And Drinks
Muster out of the way we had time for a quick wander around before getting on with the important business of seeing what the drinks were like. We are creatures of habit.
Astoria has a slight banana-like bend to its shape with the prow and aft curving up slightly from the centre of the ship. This was very noticeable as we walked around the deck looking out at Poole harbour although no pictures show it. In fact, we’d also noticed it in our suite as there was a very definite slope down walking from the sitting room into the bedroom and with the bed facing forward we would end up sleeping with our feet slightly raised above our bodies. To the aft of the ship is a small but deep pool, emptied for this gala cruise but usually filled with unheated water. I imagine there are only select cruises aboard Astoria where that’s very pleasant.
Calypso Deck is where the lounges, games room, casino, shops, and main bar are located, a lot of which was understandably closed up or just unused for this short taster cruise.
At Sirenes Bar we settled down (after tripping up the step to the seat; something we saw repeated by at least a dozen other people on the cruise) to try some of the drinks and listen to some of the piano and violin accompaniment from a couple of the ship’s entertainment staff. We were fairly impressed with the drinks selection but even more so from the level of service. It’s been our assertion until now that service levels on Princess are mostly fabulous while P&O generally has some catching up to do, but CMV’s service was probably the best we’ve had. Stewards were constantly wandering around, looking for empty glasses, gauging how soon people would be finishing their drinks to offer something else, and very friendly indeed (a common trait amongst Astoria’s staff). We tried some weird and wonderful concoctions because that’s what we do when we’re on holiday.
This overnight cruise aboard Astoria was a Gala cruise, meaning formal wear, so after looking at a pleasing sunset from our cabin as we left Poole and our disappointing jacuzzi experience my wife and I got into our posh dress and tuxedo respectively and headed down to the bar for a pre-dinner drink, which for me is usually a Vodka Martini if I’m making the effort to look like James Bond but on this occasion was gin-based.
We got talking to a couple who were regular CMV cruisers and who remarked how friendly everyone was and how good the service was – which we agreed with based on our short experience – and who extolled the many virtues of the fleet’s size of vessels such as their recent cruise up the Amazon where their ship could stop at numerous points along the river while a larger ship could only stop at one.
Fixed dining is something we have never done but which we had no real choice about for this cruise. In our cabin there had been a card indicating we were the late seating for dinner and were on table number 6. At the appropriate time we and most of the rest of the bar filed down the stairs to Atlantic Deck and restaurant. We quickly found our table which was a table for four and by the window. As it turned out, the other two people assigned to our table didn’t initially turn up, then turned up late because they were special, then decided they were even more special than that and didn’t want to share so had a table for two set up for them near the middle of the room. We ended up with a table for ourselves and a pleasing view of the water flowing past so that worked out pretty well.
As I’ve said, this was our first experience of fixed dining and our expectation was simply that other than a set time and place to eat it would be identical to any other dining on any other cruise but that wasn’t quite true. When we’ve dined before on Princess and P&O we’ve had no problems with sharing a table with other people; we’re generally approachable even if we don’t go out of our way to instigate chat and we’re perfectly fine with engaging in small talk with strangers for the duration of a meal. If you’re sharing and some of you skip a course then you wait while the others have theirs before you all are served the next course at the same time; that’s pretty standard. What we saw on Astoria was that waiters seemed to have groups of tables to manage and the courses were being delivered not on a per-table basis, but on a per-group-of-tables basis. This may be just how it’s always done for fixed dining everywhere but the result was that we had quite a gap between two of the courses as neither my wife or I wanted salad but because some people on one of the other tables did we had to wait for them to finish first. It’s not a big deal by any means but it was a bit puzzling until we worked out what was happening. Our service, though, was exemplary with water topped up before it was empty (a marked contrast to our recent cruise on Arcadia there) and orders taken and food delivered with a smile. A free glass of champagne was handed out to everyone as it was a gala night and the traditional Baked Alaska Parade took place before dessert was served. Food quality was good but not outstanding but there were certainly no complaints with what we had.
Gala Cruise Evening Entertainment
There was a show on but we don’t really do shows so can’t comment on the quality of the entertainment there so headed instead to the Night Club at the aft of the Promenade Deck via the outside deck in order not to disturb people who were watching a movie in the auditorium.
The night club’s location and large glass windows affording views out to sea (admittedly not much in the way of views because of darkness outside and reflections inside) reminded us a lot of Skywalkers on Grand-class Princess ships so that was great. The club itself was small with an equally small bar but we got there while it was all still empty, grabbed seats by the dance floor, and were served swiftly with drinks. Even when the venue was rammed later in the night service was still impressively quick. We had some impromptu entertainment from one of our fellow passengers who decided that fancy clothes or not she was drunk enough to do forward rolls across the dance floor; that’s a first on any cruise ship for us.
As the place filled up following the end of the show that had been on it rapidly became standing room only and the DJ eventually gave way to one of the entertainment staff performing numerous karaoke hits, mostly aimed at the women present we imagine (think: Robbie Williams). We stayed a while longer then made our way back to our room via the auditorium that we’d bypassed when we approached the club earlier.
We were due in Portsmouth at 07:00 and that was also the time we had to be out of our cabins which seemed grossly unfairly early. That said, we didn’t really have any problems getting up early enough for that and while it had been our attention to wake at 06:30, grab some breakfast, then return to our room and grab our bag what we ended up doing instead once we saw the approaching dawn through our window as we made our way towards the harbour was grab cameras and head to the promenade deck to take some pictures and video. Most of that will appear in a follow-up post to this although you can catch some at the end of this highlights video of the gala cruise.
The breakfast buffet was absolutely fine with plates being handed to servers who would then plate up what you wanted from the typical offerings. There was a station where fried eggs and omelettes could be made to order too, so that was a nice touch. Following breakfast we then waited in the bar while the ship was cleared to disembark passengers. This took a surprisingly long amount of time especially when you consider this was a cruise that started in Britain, finished in Britain, and never left British waters. There couldn’t have been customs checks so I’m not sure why there was such a delay but disembarkation then took place in strict deck order. Our luck continued as our deck was called first and we were not then long getting off the ship, shuttling across to the terminal, then having an easy 10-minute walk home.
Astoria Cruise Summary
Overall, we liked Astoria a lot.
Obviously, no holiday is ever perfect so there were some things we didn’t like so much. Early disembarkation and wait wasn’t a great way to end the cruise (even if it had meant we got some spectacular views coming into port) and we’ve not become sudden fans of fixed dining either. Unnoticeable during the day but at night we became very aware of just how noisy our cabin was despite being up high and at the front of the ship; we think it was engine noise and vibration travelling through the ship’s hull and it led to a somewhat disturbed night’s sleep so we’re not sure what that would be like on a longer cruise. Astoria’s size was absolutely fine for an overnight cruise and I’m sure she’d be the same for a long weekend, perhaps. However, beyond that there was a feeling that she was just a little bit too small for us. We don’t like the newer, huge ships but we have got used to and like that 2600-3600 capacity size vessel with anything more feeling impersonal and anything markedly smaller feeling like it might start to trigger bouts of stir craziness. We know the size is ideal for other people, though; this is just a personal thing.
On the very positive side the bed was absolutely spot-on for us; exactly as firm as we like it, making it far superior to Princess and their much-vaunted luxury beds there. Also better than Princess was the service from the staff. Absolutely how it should be in every respect there. The general friendliness of everyone we ran into, whether staff or passenger, couldn’t be faulted anywhere and there was a feeling that just being on Astoria with Cruise and Maritime Voyages was what made that so.
CMV do some interesting itineraries and get to a lot of places that the larger, more modern fleets can’t get to making them very appealing indeed. I can easily recommend Astoria if only because she’s a bit of history but also CMV for some very fine, traditional service indeed and we’d have no hesitation cruising with them again with the right ship and cabin for the duration, itinerary, and price.