We did not know what to expect on our first taste of cruising but a 10-night British Isles Discovery voyage proved diverse, fascinating and stunning in equal measure.
This was no ordinary cruise, though – this was a C&M cruise and provided an ideal snapshot of places one may want to return to for a longer break.
This brilliant get up and go expedition took in Amsterdam, three Scottish islands, Dublin, the Scilly Isles, Guernsey and Honfleur in France before heading back to the London Cruise Terminal.
They may be far from the biggest of the lines afloat, but Cruise & Maritime Voyages are certainly punching above their weight as Britain’s biggest independent cruise company.
Though Brexit brings uncertainty for many tour operators it only means business for this six-fleet operation, which sails from 15 British ports.
We boarded their biggest vessel, Columbus – former P&O ship Ocean Village 1 renamed in homage to Christopher Columbus, the Italian explorer who famously set sail in 1492 across the Atlantic – at Tilbury and were surprised to discover it was only classed as a mid-size liner.
With 14 decks, 775 cabins and room for 1,400 passengers, this was quite big enough for us – we were still losing our bearings right until we disembarked!
The friendly intimacy between passengers and staff which such a size of ship allows is, though, something which CMV clearly capitalise on as they attract the ‘grey pound.’
It is also unashamedly British, in spite of employing staff from all over the world – the captain is Greek Nektarios Regas – and those Europeans who board at the first port of call, Amsterdam, are under no illusion of it being anything else.
Mike Hall, one of the first professional dancers employed on Strictly Come Dancing, is now the company’s head of marketing and he enthusiastically salsa-ed us through just why uncertainty over Europe has been good for bookings.
“Currently in 2019 we have sold approximately 90 per cent of our cruises and summer is pretty much sold out,” he said.
“We are in quite a good position given the fact that quite a lot of travel companies have faced a lot of challenges particularly around Brexit and a disinclination of people to commit to travelling not knowing what might happen as a result of that.
“The audience that we are aiming at is mainly the retired or semi-retired and the fact that we sail from the UK and that it is sterling on board are things that mean to them that it doesn’t matter what the result of Brexit is or what happens.
“This is a safe environment rather than getting on a plane and being hit by possible currency fluctuations and other matters.”
There is good reason, too, why the company aims most of its packages at a specific sector – the average age of passengers being 67.
Hall continued: “Our audience is pretty much a more mature audience. In fact, 85 per cent of our customers are 55 or over and 90 per cent of them tell us they prefer not to fly. Over 50 per cent of our customers have been on six or more cruises, not necessarily with us, but we do have an appeal to seasoned cruisers. Around 23 per cent are new to cruises so we are attracting newcomers but we have a very healthy number who have been on many, many cruises.
“The over-50s market is the growing sector demographically. By next year, there will be more people in the UK over 50 than under 50 – and they hold 80 per cent of the nation’s wealth.
“What we refer to as the ‘grey pound’ accounts for the majority of the UK’s travel spending. So you can see why we are very focused on that audience and delivering what that audience wants. People who are coming into retirement now are the post-war babies and most of them have retired with final salary pensions and have no mortgages. They have travelled quite extensively but the joys of flying have long since gone and so the convenience factor of turning up at a port, parking your car and getting on a cruise ship is attractive.
“We are unashamedly in this ‘grey market’ arena although it does not mean that we do not attract a younger demographic. It varies from cruise to cruise – younger people tending to go more for the two to three-night two-city cruises.”
Columbus’s size also means it is able to gain access to more ports than the giant liners of today can visit so here is a precis of how our voyage went:
First port of call Amsterdam – time for a day exploring the city or a trip to Keukenhof? As the song goes ‘when it’s Spring again I’ll bring again tulips from Amsterdam,’ so we chose the latter as the largest flower garden in the world, which has seven million tulips blooming, is only open for two months out of 12.
Full day at sea before landing at Orkney. It may be bleak in comparison to some neighbouring isles but is packed full of history, from the Skara Brae Stone Age village, the 4,500-year-old Ring of Brodegar stone circle and the equally ancient Stennes Standing Stones to Scapa Flow and its links to both world wars. The Italian POWs who built the Churchill Barriers to block German U-boats also left a lasting peace legacy, the poignant Italian Chapel built from two Nissen huts.
Next it was over the sea to Skye, to where Bonnie Prince Charlie escaped after defeat at the battle of Culloden in 1746 and whose Dunvegan Castle, with its delightful mixture of gardens, is home for the chiefs of Clan MacLeod.
After that, well, what’s the story? It had to be Tobermory, of course, on the Isle of Mull and a trip down to the imposing Duart Castle, the ancestral seat of the Maclean clan.
Next to Dublin and the Guinness Storehouse – telling the tale of the famous beer, with not only tastings and a rooftop bar but the opportunity to have a ‘stoutie’ – a sepia headshot picture of yourself imposed on the head of a pint through clever laser printing of malt extract.
Onwards to Tresco in the Scilly Isles and the world-famous Abbey Gardens – no wonder that a large party of Gardener’s World patrons were on our ship - before heading to Guernsey to learn of the deprivations in World War II.
Finally to Honfleur in Normandy and little wonder that this picturesque and bustling yacht-filled harbour was such a favourite with painters such as Monet, Courbet, Cals, Dubourg and Bodin.
Too soon we were back in Tilbury, leaving us with the vexed question of which of these destinations we should book for a longer stay.
On second thoughts, we could jump back on board and do it all again!
Robert Gledhill travelled with Cruise & Maritime Voyages (CMV) www.cruiseandmaritime.com 0844 998 387. A similar cruise is planned for May 8 2020 from London-Tilbury for 11 nights and visits Kirkwall, Orkney, Tobermory, Dublin, Isles of Scilly, Guernsey and Honfleur. Although this departure calls into Rotterdam and not Amsterdam, an optional visit to Keukenhof is possible. Current fare from £1049 per person based on sharing a twin inner cabin.