It is a sunny September morning as I leave my home for the airport, heading for Bremen. I have just returned from a rotation to Los Angeles the day before, and while the vibrant images of my excursion into Joshua Tree National Park are still buzzing inside my head, my body and mind are both quite excited (while at the same time being pretty exhausted) to what lies ahead of me: An invitation by German cruise operator and subsidiary of CMV Cruise & Maritime Voyages, TransOcean Kreuzfahrten, to spend three nights aboard the classic cruise liner MS Astor.
As mentioned before in my previous blog post, MS Astor was for many years a German-speaking cruise vessel only and appealed therefor to a very classic, traditional and mature, maybe even a little stuffily German audience.
Cruise traditions like the famous Captain´s Welcome reception or the glamorous Black-Tie Captain´s dinner came as natural as the afternoon boullion on the aftdeck, playing shuffleboard on the promenade or competing in a deck of cards in one of the ship´s lounges. Dresscodes were stricter, eating times fixed and binding and the highlight of day would be the dancing performance of the show ensemble in front of the well-fed, sophisticated crowd in the evening hours. In other words, exactly the opposite of what the next generation of cruise vacationers might be looking for when considering to spend a holiday at sea these days.
But while the general traditions of cruising and some of those rituals remain alive until today even on the newest ships, it is good to know that the wind of change has also brought a more flexible and progressive touch to the smaller and more classic ships around. Including MS Astor.
That, amongst over things, rises the question: What shall you (males) pack for a cruise on MS Astor?
Even without the change in marketing and ownership, the atmosphere onboard MS Astor could be best described as casual elegant. The ships interiors reflect very well the cozy, homely and familiar style that MS Astor is popular for among her frequenters. That means, that clothing attire during the day and in the evening is rather informal. T-Shirts, pullovers and/or a polo shirt along with well-kept and untorn shorts or pants are a good choice for the day, while evenings demand for long trousers. Dinner jackets and ties are not necessary in general, should be on your packing list though if you are planning on attending the formal events during your cruise (standard two gala nights per cruise). I always have a good selection of high quality t-shirts with me (mainly without prints) in black, blue, white and grey. They can be easily worn together with a light-weight pullover/cardigan or serve as a basic with an eye-catching accessory like an elegant scarf, etc. For more information, visit the FAQ section of CMV here.
How to get from Bremen Airport to Bremerhaven and the Cruise Terminal?
The port of Bremerhaven lies approximately 40 minutes by train from Bremen´s main train station. From Bremen Airport, Tram line 6 (direction University/Central Station/City) operates every 10 minutes to the downtown train station.
Travel time from Bremen main station to Bremerhaven is around 45 minutes and tickets can be obtained online or at one of the ticket machines inside the building.
At Bremerhaven train station, there is actually only two considerable ways to get to Columbus Cruise Center, the cruise ship terminal.
- A taxi
- The dedicated shuttle bus
Walking is NO option! I made this mistake once when going on a ship visit a few years ago (and I only had my camera and a backpack with me). It was a long and strenous path, let me tell you. The shuttle bus represents a comfortable connection at a price of 5 Euros per person (as of September 2015) including automatic delivery of your luggage to the stateroom on board.
Check-in went by swiftly. No long lines. No overcrowded terminal. Instead you are still provided with “real” travel documents and a warm, individual welcome. It´s the personal atmosphere that makes you feel at home right from the beginning. Staff adresses you with name, the cruise director welcomes every guest with a powerful handshake and recognizes many of the passengers from previous sailings. This is a familiar feeling that you hardly get on any of the large resort ships, particularly when you sail on different cruise lines.
My cabin is located on Baltic Deck, an outside cabin with large panorama window, No 402. Different than on modern ships, cabin numbers beginning with 1 or 2 are located on the higher decks.
The interior (click here for a detailed photo gallery) is light and friendly, the maritime style a little old-fashioned yet cozy. But like everything onboard MS Astor this is part of the concept: Contemporary cruising in a classic ambience.
You will not have to do without a spa, without massages and a beauty parlor. There is a gym, WIFI (while only available in the public spaces above Promenade Deck as of September 2015 – but there are plans to equip the entire ship in the near future), a jogging track and a basketball court. The ship has actually everything that the modern cruiser is in need of. You can even rent bicycles if you want to. Everything is just a little bit smaller than you might be used to.
After a short familiarization with the ship, it is already time for the Muster Drill which is conducted in the ship´s show lounge “Astor Lounge”. I am seated with a young gay couple from Austria. I learn that they sail on MS Astor everytime they get fed up from the impersonal atmosphere aboard the larger vessels or whenever they seek an itinerary with smaller ports or highlight routes to Norway, Iceland or Spitsbergen. And they like the crowd.
And this is something I am going to hear many more times during this short stay onboard the old “Traumschiff“.
And by far, it seems to be true. The moment that Astor leaves port, strangers cheer to one another with a glass of sparkling wine in their hands, chatting and laughing and breaking the borders of anonymity. It does not seem to matter what age you are of or where you are from, suddenly everyone becomes the same: A traveler with the desire to explore.
The first night onboard passes swiftly. Even though MS Astor´s size makes her a little predisposed for ship movement when seas are a little rougher, I slept like a baby in my bed. The sky is filled with bright orange as I hold my hot cup of coffee in my hands while watching the sun slowly rising over the North Sea. There is only a few people already up with me. An elderly lady makes her rounds in the small outdoor pool and a couple tries to outdo one another power-walking up on the Sun Deck. Perfect for me to take the first round of photos.
Our first stop later this afternoon is Tilbury near London, where the ship will be docked overnight. While Tilbury itself is not the most exciting place on earth, it is a great location to actually enjoy the British metropolis during a nightly visit. How do theatre, clubbing or London by night sound to you? Pretty cool, I would say! And have you ever cruised on a ship before that is capable to sail up the River Thames? Well, I have not. And I found this to be pretty cool, too!
As I am still jet laged from L.A., I decide to only do a little stroll outside for some pictures of the area and the ship in the light of the setting sun. A great chance to also enjoy a beautiful Pale Ale at the Worlds End pub right around the corner from the cruise terminal, just before Tilbury Fort. Afterwards, I grab myself some dinner at the buffet restaurant “Übersee Club” and join a few fellow travelers in the “Hanse Bar” for my night cap, a Pepper Vodka.
The next morning calls for something special. Not only that this promises to be a most wonderful day with blue skies and lots of sunlight, we are also invited to be part of a highspeed catamaran excursion on the River Thames into downtown London (click for more images here). How awesome! Boarding the catamaran right from your cruise ship was something I had not experienced before either. What a difference to big ship-cruising where you are sometimes herded like cattle into small buses and where you always have to compromise on what is important to the group and what is important to yourself.
Looking back, this was probably one of my most impressive cruise ship excursions so far (apart from the rain forest bike tour on Saint Lucia a few years ago). Passing all these famous monuments and seeing them from the water along with the fine weather took London sightseeing onto a complete new level for me. Fantastic!
After our return in the early afternoon, it was time to cast off again though. So while MS Astor slowly made her way down the River Thames, I thought it was the right time to pamper myself with a visit the the ship´s onboard spa area.
The usage is free of charge and includes a heated indoor pool, heated loungers, a Turkish bath and a Finnish sauna.
Warmed up and feeling refreshed I was just in the perfect mood to grab myself one of the sun loungers on the afterdeck and cuddle myself into the woolen blanket. And so the hours passed and the sun began to set. And what a spectacle! While still seeing the White Cliffs of Dover passing on the horizon, the sky bursts with colours and the sun slowly disappears as an enormous fireball into the sea.
THIS is cruising, I say to myself. It´s not the bionic bartender that serves you a lousy mixed Gin Tonic nor that supersonic free-fall waterslide. It´s not the Broadway show in the five story theatre or the pool parade with belly flop contest afterwards.
Cruising is so much more than technical gadgetry. Cruising is not only a form of vacation or a way to get from A to B in comfort. Cruising is a lifestyle. It is a way to get in touch with the ocean. With life. With yourself. It can be a way to re-activate your five senses and to help you find your way back to yourself, in case you got lost at some point.
And this is what you will exactly get onboard MS Astor. Pure and without any redundant embellishment. Why watching a movie when you can read a book? Why concentrating on Candy Crush Saga when you can enjoy a deck of cards in good company?
“Time passed way too quickly“, I thought while MS Astor slowly cruises up the River Seine the morning of disembarkation. I would definitely come back, if only for a few days. She might not be the right choice for every modern cruiser these days. And she should not!
MS Astor is an intimate hideaway, a refuge for old-fashioned world explorers of all ages, for travelers still believing in the romance of travel and for thoughtful people like me. Who sometimes feel the urge to escape our modern networked society and find some peace and quiet.
Now some of you might think when reading this, that my thoughts on MS Astor might be biased or partial due to the fact that I was invited on this mini cruise by the cruise operator. But I can truly assure you, that every single word written here does only reflect my true emotions and thoughts that aroused while being onboard.
Happy sailings, folks! Don´t stop exploring…