Early January was miserable and cold. A Caribbean cruise sounded 'just the ticket'; and I booked on CMV's debut voyage for their recently acquired and renamed ship - Azores. It was formerly the Athena but has had many names since being launched as the Stockholm in 1948. Packing for a month away; setting up the house; and informing neighbours were the next tasks – the usual routine. Checklists help!
The smaller ships appeal to me as a solo traveller. 450 passengers were aboard Azores. By the end of the cruise I would get to know at least twenty on Christian-name terms. The marvellous CMV staff introduce solo travellers to each other at informal get-togethers. Cards, chess and Scrabble players arrange informal meetings too. There are also craft sessions for interested passengers.
For logistical and operational reasons the cruise embarked from Plymouth rather than Avonmouth. 'Time and tide wait for no man'. I had arranged to park my car at Avonmouth Docks and cruise guests travelled in comfort from there to Plymouth by coach. Checking-in was swift, easy and well-organised. Time to explore the ship. A pink 'mackerel' dusk sky heralded the start of our grand voyage. After the safety drill – and dinner with wine – we left the Devon coast about 10.15 pm. Tug boats assisted our departure while the harbour pilot kept a close eye on things from his boat.
The following two days were sea days. The port excursions talks were excellent. Time to sign up for a few, The 'ABBA' tribute show was very good as was the 'Rat Pack' tribute show the following evening. The highly talented Richard Sykes was our Cruise Director on this trip. I enjoy playing Scrabble and enjoyed at least 30 very enjoyable games over the course of the holiday. On the evening of the second sea day', we enjoyed our first formal night. Dinner Jackets or lounge suits for the men; glittering couture for the ladies. Introduction to our congenial Portuguese Captain at the pre-dinner cocktail party, where champagne and canapés were served. All the senior officers were introduced on stage in the Calypso Lounge. The Captain told us there were 220 crew/staff of 21 nationalities.
Next day, the 29th January, we were in Lisbon all day. I walked three miles through the city in the morning then joined an organised coach tour in the afternoon visiting Sintra, the Guincho coast and the resort of Cascais. The weather was misty up at Sintra. We passed through Estoril on our way back to the ship. Richard Sykes performed a 'Neil Sedaka' tribute show in the evening. I later watched the James Bond film 'Skyfall' in the on-board cinema.
A full sea day lay between us and our next port of call, Funchal on the island of Madeira. During the sea day – artist and guest lecturer Alan O'Cain gave his talk on Portraiture. It was fascinating. That night the guest comedian performed his first one-man comedian show which entertained us all.
So to Madeira. The organised tour – 'A Touch of Madeira' was great. Several photo-stops at high view points then some free time at the town of Ribeira Brava. Funchal itself was clean and bustling. We began our six day crossing of the Atlantic after lunch. More Scrabble; the usual tasty dinner; then a show entitled 'A Night at the Opera'. The lady singer was Polish; the lady violinist was Ukrainian. Puccini music was played. Also popular contemporary numbers such as 'A Stranger in Paradise'.
So what's it like to be at sea for six full days? Well there is always plenty to do on a CMV cruise. Quizzes, games, craft, travel, art and 'creative writing' lectures. And meals every few hours! Time for more port excursions talks. Great shows like 'From Russia With Love'; a 'Shirley Valentine' monologue by actress Pauline Daniels; an 'Elton John' tribute show by the indefatigable Richard Sykes; another comic show by Gerry Graham. I participated in the game-show 'Just a Minute' and found out just how difficult it can be to avoid repetition, deviation or hesitation when talking on a given subject. I also enjoyed regular games of Scrabble now played outside as the weather was warming up. Clocks were moved back one hour four times during our westward voyage. A swim in the ship's pool was enjoyable. A crew member demonstrated fruit carving; another - cocktail making. Much juggling of bottles. None was dropped. Approaching the Caribbean we had our first deck parties – enjoying great dancing and live music from the band. Reggae music was played. 'Kingston Town' was well received as was 'Walking on Sunshine'. My groovy moves even made it on to the cruise DVD !
On Saturday, 7th February, we finally arrived in St. John's, Antigua. I walked round the market for a while then joined fellow guests in hiring a taxi to take us out to the exquisite Jolly Beach – and then come back and collect us three hours later. The swimming there was heavenly and in the grounds of the Jolly Beach Hotel I saw a hummingbird taking nectar from a hibiscus flower. The sight of its iridescent plumage, high-tempo wing-flapping and long curved beak will stay with me forever. There was a 'Fifties' themed deck party on board that evening. Sailaway was at midnight.
Next day St. Barts and St Maarten. Tendered into Gustavia, walked over to St Jean's Bay past the air-strip. Enjoyed a swim there near the Eden Rock Hotel before walking back to Gustavia to meet friends on Shell Beach. A tender back to our ship. Lunch on board while we moved over to St Maarten. There I took an organised coach tour of the French side of the island stopping at Marigot for a while. That night we enjoyed a 'Sixties' music deck party. We left Philipsburg shortly before midnight. Then to St Kitts where I took an open-sided taxi/charabanc up to the beautiful Romney Manor gardens then back to the Nevis viewpoint on Timothy Hill. The show onboard ship that night was 'Scenes from the Cutting Room Floor'. The following day we were in St. Lucia and friends and I hired a taxi to take us to Choc Bay for a day of swimming and sunbathing. The Celebrity Summit and P&O Azura were in port in Castries, The 'Seventies' deck party completed a very happy day.
Onward to St. Vincent where I was booked on an all-day trip to visit the coast of that island and then transit the 15 km channel to the neighbouring island of Bequia in the Grenadines. The weather again was hot and sunny. We were aboard a twin-hulled pleasure boat that could power along at 18 knots. We stopped at idyllic beaches. I viewed the underwater angel fish, pipe coral and waving frond coral using the provided viewing masks/goggles. Many people availed themselves of the provided snorkels and fins – or flippers as we used to call them. We enjoyed a grand hot chicken lunch with rum punch near Port Elizabeth, Bequia before swimming later off the exquisite Princess Margaret Beach. Royal Clipper was in Admiralty Bay and made a grand sight. We tendered back to the ship in the evening.
Thursday, February 12th, we arrived in Scarborough, Tobago. Friends and I hired a taxi to take us out to the Pigeon Point beaches and nature reserve, It was 35 degrees C in the shade that day. We swam and then relaxed beneath the palm trees. Richard Sykes performed his 'Elvis Night' show that night. The talent of the man knows no bounds!
St. George's on the beautiful island of Grenada was our next port of call. The organised coach tour in the morning was entitled 'Discover Grenada' and we visited a cocoa processing station; the Grand Etang Rainforest Reserve; Annandale Falls; and Fort Frederick - as well as seeing the diverse range of spices and fruits growing everywhere on the island. After lunch on the ship I walked the four miles to Grand Anse, had a swim and took the water taxi back to St Georges. On the beach, I chatted to Canadian holidaymakers as well as Azores crew members who were enjoying some well-deserved time off. A 'Totally Tropical Deck Party' back on board ended an energetic day.
Then to sunny Barbados. With eight other passengers I orchestrated a taxi tour which took in the Highland viewpoint and the dramatic Atlantic coast at Bathsheba before delivering us back to Carlisle Bay near Bridgetown for a very welcome swim. From there, it was a two mile walk back to the ship. Some took a taxi. It was Valentine’s Day and that night the show team put on a show built round popular love songs and melodies.
Farewell to the Caribbean and another six days at sea before we reached the Azores…aboard the good ship MV Azores.
Clocks were put forward one hour every other day. The Art lectures by Alan O'Cain were great – we even had a poetry session. My contribution included the words 'Gigantic Atlantic' which seemed appropriate. By now, many friendships had been made aboard. And there were so many on-board activities that there was no time to get bored. I participated in the 'What’s My Line?' panel show but my mime for 'Architect' was easily guessed. We enjoyed a Columbus Club cocktail party and I was also invited to the Staff Captain's table at dinner. Very exclusive! A lamb shank main course with red wine was really delicious. There was also another organised get-together for the solos group where more complimentary beer and wine was served. 'The Magic of the Musicals' show was great one night in the Calypso Show Lounge. We eventually reached Ponta Delgada in the Azores on February 21st. I walked round town in the morning and joined an organised excursion to Ribeira Grande after lunch. Unfortunately, there was no view of Fire Lake up in the highlands as the cloud cover was low. The visit to the pineapple plantation, which I have done before, was good. The complimentary pineapple liqueur and pineapple chutney samplings were very welcome.
The following day we were at sea. A severe storm was forecast for the Western Approaches so we diverted to Lisbon to let it blow over. This meant we had another great day in that beautiful city. Explorations on foot with fellow passengers included visits to the Flea Market, the National Pantheon and then, after much walking through the narrow streets and alleyways, a visit to the Santa Justa Elevator, the top viewing platform of which, commands fine views over the city centre. The day after Lisbon the sea swell up past Portugal was not too pleasant for a while. CMV passengers on the follow-up cruise to Norway were being delayed by a day so a decision was made to go into Portland Docks near Weymouth where we could disembark and where they, the group for Norway, could get on board. All worked out well and comfortable coaches drove us back up the M5 to Avonmouth Docks near Bristol, where many of us had parked our cars. We had enjoyed beautiful bright, clear, sunny weather for our return back to dry land in Dorset. I was back home in Gloucestershire by 8 pm.
So, another marvellous cruise. Lots of scope for exploring all the islands and cities visited. New friends to make on board. Familiar faces from previous cruises – appearing as staff or crew members or lecturers or tour guides. Everybody fortified by excellent food provided with style and panache by the maitre d' and his very able staff.
If you don't want to travel on one of those impersonal-looking 'mega-ships', try the friendly, intimate environment of a CMV cruise.