MS Astor Review

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Background

Cruise and Maritime Voyages will be operating a fleet of five smaller ocean ships by June 2017. They generally offer cruises from Tilbury, Bristol and some other UK ports. They are a ‘budget’ brand.

In 2014 CMV took over the German ‘Transocean’ cruise brand.

One ship in particular, ‘MS Astor’, spends most of her year cruising around Australian and the Indian Ocean. In March, each year, she offers a 38 night southbound voyage from Australia to Tilbury, via South Africa. Each October she offers a northbound voyage back to Australia. Between these two long voyages she offers cruises for the German market from Bremerhaven, to Europe, under the ‘Transocean’ brand.

In April 2016 Astoria offered just one nine day cruises for the British cruise market, it was a nine day around-Britain itinerary from Tilbury, return, before her German season.  This was my opportunity to experience her.

Itinerary (Courtesy CMV)

Itinerary (Courtesy CMV)

The Ship

Astor was built in 1987, in Kiel, West Germany, as a combined ocean liner/cruise ship for the Southampton-Cape Town route. Surprisingly her original name was Astor.  She is almost identical to the 1981 built Astor, now ‘Saga Pearl II’.

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At just 20,606 gross tonnes, Astor offers an intimate experience, compared to today’s mega-ships. She can easily dock in relatively small ports.

Astor is a little bigger than the Astoria, very slightly smaller than the Marco Polo, but not a big as Magellan.  Columbus is the biggest in the CMV fleet, being 3.5 times bigger than Astor.

Astor’s passenger capacity is only around 600. Given the fact that she is only around 1,000 gross tons smaller than the Marco Polo, which carries over 800 passengers, she is the more spacious of the three smallest CMV vessels.

The ship has quite a utilitarian profile with a rather bland white superstructure and hull and touch of anchor rust. Her only prominent feature is her oversized three-pipe funne, however this design should ensure that soot is kept of the sun deck.

Astor’s external appearance is a little uninspiring and it does not prepare you for just how stylish and immaculate her interiors are. The 2010, 14 million pound refit clearly removed just about everything that looked 30 years old. She is a notch above the rest of the CMV fleet in terms of décor. Internally she looks five star!

Astor is an adults only vessel and does not have facilities for the disabled. The average age on my cruise must have been around 65.  The on-board currency is Euros.

Embarkation at Tilbury only took about an hour to get everyone aboard. The first thing that I was greeted with when I entered the ship was a stone ball which was in fact a water-feature. There were two more in the buffet.  I have seen many sculptures and atrium centrepieces on other ships, but these balls were unique.

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Balls!

A German Affair

The Astor experience is a little different to that on-board other CMV ships.

Astor was built in Germany. Some of the interior signage and public room names are still in German. Some of the crew were German. The majority of the crew were not German, but probably had German as a second language, with English being their third. This made communication with some crew a little difficult on occasions.

The Maître D’ and Executive Chef were in fact German, although the chef’s menus were pretty European. Bratwurst was not served, for example

The Review: The Decks

Astor has seven passenger decks: Caribic (lowest), Baltic, Atlantic, Promenade, Boat, Bridge and Sun (uppermost).

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Astor has two stair-towers. Being a small ship two stair towers was perfectly sufficient. The lifts were small and rather slow as you might expect onboard an older ship.

The ship had some interesting 3D (as in raised) painting on the stair-landings. However I did not find out who created them

The Caribic Deck: features the Medical Centre and the Wellness Centre, comprising of  a sauna, massage, hairdressers, beauty salon, and indoor heated pool. There is no passenger accommodation on this deck.

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Indoor Pool (Wellness Centre)

The Baltic and Atlantic Decks contain most of the passenger accommodation. The Baltic deck mainly houses standard Superior Twin ocean view cabins (with rectangular windows, not port holes) and Standard Twin inside cabins. The latter are identical in size to the ocean view grade. There are 4x four-berth cabins with portholes, at the bow. The only pubic room on this deck is a small ironing room.

The Atlantic Deck has a range of cabin grades including twenty superior suites with floor to ceiling windows and eight superior suites, which are inside suites (yes inside). This is the only ship than I know that has this unique grade of cabin: but would you pay a large premium for a suite without a view? The only public space on this deck is the reception desk and shore-tours desk. There is no atrium on this little ship.

Strangely the Promenade Deck is NOT the deck with the external promenade. That’s on the deck above, the Boat deck. However it is the deck which houses most of the public rooms.  The Astor show lounge is at the bow, the main dining room, the Waldorf, is toward the stern. It also has two small alternative dining rooms adjoining. Amidships is the nautical themed Captains Club which is the main bar/lounge, complete with a ships wheel, sails and rope. There is also a small library, photo shop, card room and the shops are on this deck.

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Bar – The Captains Club

The shops mainly sold high-end clothing, jewellery and perfume – there was little low-end goods and even the toothpaste had run out.

The Boat Deck has the Uebersee club (the buffet) located at the stern. There are some premier twin cabins located centrally and bigger suites towards the bow. The biggest is the Astor Suite (59 square metres) facing forward, with the slightly smaller Senator and the De Lux suite (39 square metres) to its left and right. These three cabins share a balcony, the only ones on the ship.  There are also three more premium suites which are ‘inside’.

The Bridge Deck has no cabins and just two public rooms, a small fitness Centre (Gym) is at the stern, as it the Hanse bar (more about that later).

The Sun Deck features a jogging track and walking track, which loops the deck (not teak). It had painted graphics to show you which lane was which.  There is also a basketball court and table-tennis area.

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Unusually the ship does not have a Casino. There is no self-service laundry room (always popular with Brits) but there is a self-service ironing room as already mentioned. There is a cabin laundry service, for a fee.

My cabin

Astor’s cabins have all been nicely upgraded with new carpets, soft furnishings and furniture.  Little looks thirty years old including the bathrooms.

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I picked a ‘Standard Plus Twin’ (Ocean View) cabin, number 460, in an amidships location on the lowest passenger deck, the Baltic. I choose this grade for value and stability.

The cabin was very ‘compact’ at just 14 square metres, but nicely laid out to make the best use of the limited space. It had two windows right next to each other, effective forming one rectangular window. There was two single beds with a chest of draws in between.  The space between the beds was just about enough to avoid too much human gridlock.

One bed could be converted into a sofa, but the cabin stewards never did. I noted that the width of the sofa-bed was a little less than the fixed bed which itself was narrow. The mattresses were quite poor.  The mattress on the fixed-bed was sprung far too ‘bouncy’ for my liking and you could feel the slats below it. The other mattress was ‘foam’ and over-firm. CMV need to upgrade these ASAP. I’d suggest completely new beds.

The pillows were not of particularly good quality either. I cannot image sleeping on either of my cabin beds for 40 nights. Hopefully the suites have bigger and better beds/mattresses?

There were two wardrobes so the hanging space was not bad, although one had the safe in it, reducing the ability to hang some long dresses in it.  When I say the wardrobe space was ‘not bad’ I mean for a two passengers for a week. If you travelled a little lighter than my wife and I do, you would fit 14 nights worth of clothes in, but I’ve no idea where you would put clothes for a 40 day cruise.

Unusually the safe required a key which you had to collect from reception and sign for.

The cabin suffered from a little vibration form the engines, but nothing too extreme. The cabins at the aft probably suffer worse, although I suspect that many cabins on the lowest two decks (Baltic and Atlantic) suffered from at least some vibration – this is the norm on most old ships.  The sound insulation between cabins was quite good.

A desk, fridge/mini-bar and small wall mounted TV were provided.  The TV was a small LCD type, had a limited amount of channels, but two movies (free) were shown each day.  Bottled water was provided in the cabin, for sale.

There was also a nice brass nautical clock mounted on the wall.

The hairdryer was a normal plug-in type and was quite effective. The cabins power sockets were the European type. There was a shaving socket in the bathroom.

Two coats hooks located by the door were very useful (not all ships provide these). Two thick toweling dressing gowns were also provided, which some ships only provide for suites.

The cabins air-con thermostat was reasonably responsive (i.e. you could heat and cool the room) which can be an issue on many older ships.

The cabins structure creaked in a storm, but so do those new ships.

The shower was of a reasonable size.  It had a curtain, but German ingenuity ensured that it did not stick to your back like Bat Man’s cape. It also did not flood the bathroom floor. The shower head was on a hose so you could get water to all of your ‘bits’.  The water pressure was very good and the thermostatic knob was responsive and actually allowed you to make the water hotter or colder. It did not fluctuate between hot and cold all by itself like some shower do.

The shower cubicle had a dispenser in it of brown liquid which was shampoo/bodywash. It no fragrance, but did the job. Something a little more upmarket would have been nice. I have bought better for 60p a bottle in the past.

The barking-dog (vacuum) toilet was particularly loud if you left the toilet lid up.  I’m pleased to say that it did not have any bad odour (a common problem on older ships).  It only stopped flushing once for about five minutes (another common issue, even on new ships).

The cabin also required a key for the door. It had to be locked when you exited – it did not slam-lock. The plastic pass-card was only used for on-board purchases (cashless account) and getting on and off the ship.  It was not a door key.

Outer Decks

Astor has a traditional fantail design at the stern, with a teak deck and an aft swimming pool. Although small in length and width, it was surprisingly deep, although it would only accommodate a couple of passengers.  She also has two whirlpools.

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Unfortunately Astor does not have a full wrap-around promenade deck. This is one of her major failings.

On the boat deck, she has a starboard and port teak promenade deck running along about one third of the ships length. The location of forward suites stop you walking to the bow and the buffet location stops you walking aft. If you want to walk aft to the fantail and loop around to the other side, you need to climb a set of stairs passing above the buffet.

You can do a full loop on the Bridge Deck on a narrow path of plastic matting (not teak) with the life boats partially shieling your sea views. However you can stand on top of the bridge to get a forward view and continue aft to overlook the fantail.

I was not on a sunshine cruise but the deck space did not look over-generous for sunbathing, mind you there are only 600 passengers.

There is an area on the sun deck, in front of the funnel which is an open air ‘sports court ‘with a basketball court and table tennis area. In addition there is a giant chess set on the deck.

Some areas inside the ship smelt of smoke even though it is all non-smoking internally. The smoke was clearly coming from the crew areas below the passenger decks. CMV need to address this.

Hanse Bar

This was a very intimate bar on very aft of the bridge deck. It had door with led to a teak sun terrace.

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Many older ships have an aft bar, but few have one as small as this. It looked very Bavarian in style, with lots of brown wood and was very atmospheric. I guess it could only accommodate about 30 people at a maximum.  There was not room for entertainers to perform in there.

The ships draft beer was ‘Becks’ and not ‘Bitburger’ like the rest of the CMV fleet.

Dining

Food is a vital part of any cruise experience. Even those on a ‘budget’ cruise do not expect low quality food.

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Duck a l’orange

The Waldorf restaurant is the formal restaurant and is of single height, quite attractive with the port and starboard sides being lined by windows.

Astor has the traditional two sittings for evening meal (6.00 and 8.00pm ish) in the Waldorf Restaurant. The dress code is casual, Informal (jacket for men with or without tie) and formal (Tux or suit). There is 2-3 formal nights per 14 night cruise.

One might expect that the evening meals would be plain cooking in style and of mediocre quality, given the often low fares. However the quality and diversity of food always exceeded my expectation.

The meals comprised of five courses, with the Gala (formal) meal being six courses, one being a sorbet.  I had very good beef, pork, lamb, chicken, fish and duck main courses.  Starters, salads, soup and sweets were equally pleasing.  A champagne and lime sorbet was excellent. However delicacies like steak and lobster were not on the general menu.

A special ‘surf and turf’ (steak and lobster) carried a 19.95 Euro surcharge. The specialty restaurant attached to the Waldorf had an Asian menu and also carried a 19.95 Euro surcharge.  I’m told that it was excellent.

My waiter ‘Navvo Suleyman’ (SP?) was excellent.  He also operated the largest pepper-mill that I have ever seen.  It was also nice to see dedicated wine waiters working in the Waldorf.

Lunch and evening meal are ‘served’ but breakfast is in both the Waldorf and the Ueberseee Club are buffet style, with selected items like porridge from the menu. The Uebersee club has two omelet stations at breakfast with staff preparing fresh omelettes or eggs to your requirements.

The Buffet

The Uebersee Club (Oversees Club) is the buffet and is of a reasonable size given the low passenger capacity and has been attractively modernized.  It did get a little crowded at peak times, times however I’ve never been on a ship where the buffet does not. When all of the tables are occupied, you could walk through a doors to the outdoor lido-area at the stern of the ship and dine on the open deck. However generally a free table was not too elusive.

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The buffet food choices were of reasonable quality, but did not offer a very wide selection. They were generally simple in style, such as salad, Chicken, Beef, Fish and Pasta, Curry, etc. The presentation of the buffet food was quite nice.

At 3.30 each afternoon, ‘Afternoon Tea’ was served in the Uebersee Club with scones, jam, cream (substitute), cakes and sandwiches.

The buffet has a complimentary self-service tea/coffee station, but it closed each night at 11.00pm. This was RIDICULOUS given the cabaret often finished at 11.30pm so you could not have a cup of tea before bed. Premium coffee was available form the bar assuming they were still open.

Nautical traditions like the ‘Captain’s Cocktail Party’ (with a  photo and hand shake) and the Baked Alaska Parade’ are observed.  There was even an evening Chocolate Gala buffet, although very modest in size compared to the ones of yesteryear.

I am very pleased to say that the milk on-board ship all tasted real, although I believe it was the long life variety. Making tea, coffee and cappuccino with conventional long life milk just does not taste right.

Room Service

A light breakfast in your cabin (cornflakes, toast, pastries etc.) is delivered for free. Other in-room dining choices carry a fees.  The service was always on time but often inaccurate. They always seemed to miss of something, even from a small order.

The Astor Show Lounge

Unfortunately this was one of the poorest show lounges that I have ever experienced.

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Show Lounge (more than twice as long as image shows)

Although not an unattractive room, it was not raked, which is typical for this age of ship. However it was a very long room and had many pillars disrupting the sight-lines. The room did not have many fixed bench seats like many show lounges, it mostly had large mobile tables, seating four.  Unless you rearranged the furniture, many seats would be facing away from the stage.

The final nail in the coffin was the fact that that there was no stage for the singers and dances, there was just a non-raised dance floor.  However the band were raised on a small stage by just a foot. Only the front row of tables/chairs could see the performers below the waist. Most of the audience would only see their head and shoulders.

Essentially you needed to arrive up to half hour early (so shorten your dinner) and sit at the front, to get a decent view.

Being at the bow of the ship, the room was very susceptible to the movement of the ship, but so are most ships show lounges and theatres. The show lounge was also kept too hot for my liking as was the rest of the ship sometimes. However the many Australian’s on-board did not mind and were still able to wear their jumpers.

The Entertainment

CMV relies highly on their on-board entertainment troupe to provide most of the main evening shows. This is supplemented with a few guest acts per cruise.

The production shows performed on-board Astor and all CMV ships have been around for at least five years, so are well tried and tested. I’ve have seen the same shows onboard Marco Polo, Magellan and Astoria.  There is only slight variations between each ship in term of content and of course a different cast and musicians.

They were: Abba – Dancing Queen, We will Rock You (Queen), Rock & Roll Dreams, Around The world, from Russia With love and The Hits of Vegas.

The shows are all very good and are delivered with much enthusiasm to a live band. However the key to their success is certainly not their originality, it is the intimacy of the small show-lounges which they are performed in.

I’m in fear of repeating myself from previous reviews, but the musicians were excellent, the dancers were very good, but as always the quality of singers varied.  However I do appreciate that the singers do not always get to choose the songs best for their voices. I guess if they were brilliant singers, they would probably not be working onboard a cruise ship or not for long, anyway (with a few notable exceptions).

Toby Jack, the cruise director and singer ‘Margaret’ had very nice voices.

Marian (male) was a real ‘fun’ character, with an unusual, but very good voice.  His Stevie Wonder impression was particularly good, however bizarrely it was performed with him driving a cardboard cut-out of a car.  Marian acquired quite a fan club by the end of the cruise.

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Singer, Marian

I would imagine that most guests really enjoyed the production shows.  However I think it is about time that they created some new ones and dropped the old ones, to re-inspire CMV’s  regular passengers.

After the late sitting of the production show, a ‘cabaret’ slot is performed each evening in the show lounge. This involved selected singers form the troupe performing songs to a recorded backing tracks. I’d prefer live musicians, but never the less, this was always enjoyable, but only about thirty passengers per night stayed up to see it.

There was allegedly a late night ‘Disco’ each evening in the Captains Club, but the music was played rather quietly and the handful of passengers still up certainly did not want to dance.

Members of the troupe also performed vintage game shows like ‘Blankly Blank’ and ‘Call My Bluff’ during the cruise.

A piano violin duo preformed in the Captain’s Club lounge each evening performing classical music and popular standards form yesteryear.  The violist was competent but the piano player “Roman” was brilliant. His jazz style improvisations were excellent.

There was also a singing duo (vocalist and keyboard player) which also featured ‘Roman’. A grand piano and electronic keyboard was used. The latter provided pre-programmed backing for every song, that sounded more like the nasty jingles that business sometimes play on the phone when you are waiting to speak to somebody. However Roman’s live piano accompaniment was yet again very impressive.

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Seakeeping Abilities

Astor being a small ship is never going to be as stable in a storm as a mega-ship.  She did seem a little susceptible to pitching and rolling, even in moderate seas, possibly due to high winds.

However we did experience some pretty ‘rough’ seas (a shipping categorization, not mine) in the notorious ‘Minches’, at the very top of Britain. Astor seriously pitched and rolled in the middle of the night, enough to make things uncomfortable and scare some of the passengers.  However I doubt is too many ships could make light work of such sea conditions, whatever their size. An amidships cabin on the Baltic deck, as I had chosen, would assist those prone to Mal De Mare.

Photographic Service

I was not impressed with the quality of the on-board photography. In fact the end results were some of the worst that I have seen afloat and not on a par with other CMV vessels.

Pictures were often taken as passengers left the gangway at the various ports of call. The images mainly depicted windswept and surprised passengers. Photos were also taken at the lifeboat drill which I do not think is appropriate.

The images were often printed quite small with large amounts of graphics (such as map) dominating the print. I was not impressed with the images from the captain’s cocktail party or those at the formal gala dinner either. However the posed formal portraits were better.

I rarely saw staff at the photographic desk – I assume it did open daily, but I must have been eating or seeing the show.

Few photos were put on display.

There were some machines that allowed you to select images and order prints. However even after day 7 seven (of 9) only day one and two were available to view.

The one saving grace is that the photos were good value when compared to the big cruise lines.  I would have purchased more if I could have seen all that were taken of me and found a member of the photographic staff to assist me.

Friendliness

Many cruise lines claim that there ships are the friendliest at sea, but then they would, wouldn’t they!  Astor genuinely has the friendliest crew that I have ever experienced. For example, at the end of the cruise singers from the on-board troupe shook my hand and thanked me for attending the shows.  The intimacy of the ship of course helps achieves this.

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In conclusion

Astor has all the advantages and disadvantages of a small ship and the former easily outweigh the latter.

The main disadvantages are: her standard cabins are small and their beds poor, the show lounge sight lines are poor, her seakeeping abilities are questionable and there is no full wrap-around promenade deck.

However, she is a charming ship which offers a degree of intimacy that megaships can never match.  She is easy for the less-mobile to navigate around and she can berth in small port.

She is genuinely a very friendly ship.  She is all about the sea and the people, not gimmicks or scale.  She’s not a giant impersonal shopping mall, she’s a small friendly corner shop.

Her immaculate-modern interiors are a notch above the rest of the CMV fleet. The food, entertainment and service are typical CMV and all surpassed the fare paid.

The tragedy is that she rarely offers shorter cruises to British passengers form UK ports, so many Brits will never get to try her.

She does offer longer cruises abroad for Brits and Australians, including 38-40 night voyage to Australia and back. She also offer some European itineraries each summer for the German market.

However is Astor too small for a 40 night voyage?  Some say ‘yes’, others say ‘no’, she’s the perfect size. It’s your call!

Malcolm