Three days after my birthday last year I was reading my favourite local paper the Abergavenny Chronicle when I saw an advert from Newmarket Holidays that intrigued me.
A “buy one get one free” offer, which appealed to the Yorkshireman in me, for a cruise round the British Islands on the Astoria sailing from Bristol in April 2016. I quickly clicked on the website to explore more while hidden from Debbie in our upstairs home office.
Interestingly, the majority of the stops we’d not been to before, namely Tobermory in the Outer Hebrides, Kirkwall in the Orkneys, Honfleur in France, Guernsey in the Channel Islands and the Isles of Scilly. We’d not even been to Avonmouth, Bristol where the cruise started and finished, in fact the only place we would revisit was Stornaway in the Outer Hebrides, see passim.
I was keen to try out our first experience of a cruise and the price seemed reasonable for ten days including parking (£99!) at Avonmouth for £1,408. I of course neglected to budget for tips (£5 per person per day) and “incidentals” such as alcohol…
Silently but carefully I entered all our provisional booking details into the agent’s web site and left the mouse hovering over the “enter” button, while I went downstairs nonchalantly to the unsuspecting Debbie. After about 30 minutes of cajoling, tears, entreaties and bribery “she who must be obeyed” came back upstairs and clicked on enter to secure the order.
I immediately surpassed a huge grin that was in danger of spreading across my face as I realised that might tip the balance in favour of a change of mind. Apart from odd comments from Debbie subsequently like “I wonder what the weather will be like in Scotland in April?”, or “how much to upgrade to a double bed?” (we had booked twins) & “how much to get a porthole?” (we had booked an inner cabin), I thought she seemed pretty resigned & dare I say it excited to the fact we were going. I’d decided to keep quiet about the ship’s troubled history, after all the collision and subsequent sinking of the Andrea Doria was 60 years ago…
Time marched relentlessly on and finally on Tuesday the 12th April 2016 I pulled up to the dock security gates at Avonmouth, Bristol in the Galaxy, loaded with three huge suitcases & various hand luggage, convinced my sat-nav had gone crazy. In fact if we hadn’t got the written instructions posted to us previously I’m not sure we’d have found it.
We were surrounded by commercial cargo ships loading what looked like scrap metal and yet security beamed at me welcomely and asked “you here for the cruise ship?” With huge relief I answered in the positive and we followed a deserted road round to the Astoria at her berth in the Bristol Cruise Terminal.
First I dropped off our luggage with Debbie at the embarkation point and then drove back a short way to the long term car park we’d passed on the way in. To my surprise there seemed to be no problem that we’d arrived a couple of hours early in terms of check-in. Our cabin 310 on Atlantic deck had been assigned an orange luggage label colour & wasn’t due to board until 5pm so a relaxed approach to check-in (compared to airlines) made a great start to the holiday.
First we had to pick up our tickets for boarding and pass security – passports and a filling out a form about declaring infectious diseases – although strangely I wasn’t asked about being a second world war criminal like I used to do with U.S. Visa Waiver from a few years ago…
Feeling relaxed about how smooth the process was & before we knew what was happening Debbie and I had both signed up to the all inclusive drinks package for £17 a day each! As a result we got a red sticker on our plastic boarding cards and a promise which held true all voyage for no further bills.
As we left security we had our photo taken below.
Next we entered outside into the dock area next to the Astoria we boarded via a rather steep gangway onto the ship where our cards were scanned for the first time and we were shown to our cabin, down from the reception ares two flights of stairs and a quick turn right away from the Olissipo restaurant three quarters of the way down the corridor with our room 310 to the right.
We were pleasantly surprised on entry to see how spacious it was and with an attached bathroom & toilet that seemed very clean. We only had our hand luggage at that time so we went back out to explore the ship and the surroundings.
Although this was the cruise terminal, it was obviously a working part as the view from the deck made clear!
Our planned departure time for Scotland was 10pm but after the last passengers had boarded about 5.30-6pm we faced our first ever lifeboat drill. The ship’s Captain came on the tannoy explaining the procedure and we proceeded to don our lifebelts in our cabin and make our way to our muster station “B” in the upper deck.
With the emergency clacton sounding we were finally seated in front of our assigned crew in the Cyclops cinema auditorium and eventually led outside to lifeboat tender 7.
Once the drill had finished we took off our lifejackets and made our way back to the cabin where our luggage was waiting safely outside. Nothing more to do than to explore a bit more of the ship and have our first glass of wine onboard – £5 a glass – discounted to £0 with our package.
Suitably refreshed made our way back to the cinema to watch the end of the film of the day “Casablanca” – I’m not sure why it wasn’t very popular as Debbie and I found ourselves alone on the front row centre watching Humphrey Bogart save the day for Ingrid Bergman yet again against the Nazis!
We had our first dinner on board in the more formal restaurant on board on the second sitting at 8.30pm and we were joined on our table with a lovely Welsh couple called George & Thelma Hooper to whom we became very attached later in the cruise. Despite this we found the late sitting a bit of a pain (so did they) so we reverted to taking dinner instead in the Lotus Grill buffet except on formal occasions subsequently.
At around 10 pm we played our first general knowledge quiz in the Sirens bar with Maggie a recently retired teacher (and ex-policewoman) & Colin her already retired husband. They too were on the drinks package and a large glass of red wine for him and a double Drambuie with jug of water was her regular tipple.
The quiz master Simon who I thought looked a little like a younger John Torode was very humorous and patient with a rather raucous audience and to be honest became one of our favourites.
Eventually we headed back to the cabin for a well deserved rest and a good night’s sleep!