Every year, as December approaches, I expect my usual festive glee to be more subdued, signalling that I have finally become a “proper” adult. But as my departure date with Cruise & Maritime Voyages (CMV) rolls around at the end of 2017, the all-too-familiar excitement has set in. Not only is this my first ocean cruise holiday – it is a Christmas market cruise.
I don’t know what to expect as my fiance Jamie and I walk up to the London Cruise Terminal for the long-weekend voyage to Amsterdam and Hamburg. The terminal is situated 25 miles east of the capital, and we reach it via a 39-minute train ride to Tilbury Town, followed by a short bus ride. The building – opened in 1930 – is quite charming, all decked out for Christmas, and makes a welcome change from a frenetic airport.
After a swift embarkation process with a man sporting a glittery blazer announcing when it is our time to line up, we are onboard Columbus. After a quick look at the huge tree in the atrium, we are up in the buffet restaurant, The Plantation Bistro, clinking chilled glasses of wine and overlooking the port as the ship sets sail. The food in this restaurant is as expected: comfort food, which is welcome, especially given the season. As I head back to the cabin to read before dinner, Jamie goes in search of Murphy’s stout, settling in the Taverner’s pub – one of eight bars and four restaurants onboard the newly refurbished ship. There is also an ice cream bar and a coffee shop onboard to satisfy any cravings between mealtimes.
After cocktails in the Dome Observatory and dinner at the Waterfront restaurant – which is a rather grand affair – we get an early(ish) night in preparation for visiting Amsterdam on the Friday morning. This is where the spirit of Christmas really kicks in for me as we pick up a canal boat right by the cruise terminal. As we sit sipping coffee inside the warm little boat edged with multicoloured fairy lights while it makes its way around the city’s famous waterways, the captain tells us amusing tales about the city while we look out at houseboats, gabled houses, merchants’ mansions and hotels bearing impressive festive displays. The city’s Canal Cruise Ticket can be purchased online for €17 and grants instant access to a one-hour canal boat tour.
We are dropped off at the Hermitage museum, which we explore before heading out for free time in the city. Having never been to Amsterdam, Jamie is keen to visit Anne Frank House, so I arrange to meet him at a pub nearer the port a little while later. While there is no Christmas market in Amsterdam, it is hard not to feel festive as I wander along the canals – little has changed aesthetically about the city since the 17th century, after all. Laden with traditional baubles and Christmas cards from a pop-up shop, I join Jamie in the cosy Il Panorama bar, where we share half a toasted sandwich and drink a pint of Heineken before making tracks back to the ship.
With our cheeks rosy red from the cold, we find a quiet corner in a lounge onboard and chat away as we head for Hamburg – home to one of the most popular Christmas markets. For clients wishing to continue the festivities onboard, CMV offers arts and crafts activities such as Christmas card making (dependent on the cruise), as well as decking its ships out with festive trimmings.
That night, we experience our first “formal night” onboard a ship. We head down to dinner at the Waterfront, pleased with the sense of occasion and an excuse to get suited and booted. Despite the dress code and ever-attentive service, the meal is a relatively relaxed affair, as well as a delicious one. Justifying myself with “it’s Christmas”, I polish off a six-course meal, including grilled vegetables with goat’s cheese, balsamic reduction and tomato compote; beef Wellington with Madeira wine glaze; and a warm Belgian chocolate dessert with vanilla ice cream – plus a cheese course.
Arriving in Hamburg we take a guided coach tour, visiting the old and the new – including the warehouse district and new concert hall and cultural landmark Elbphilharmonie Hamburg. Then it is time for the trip’s climax: Hamburg’s main Christmas market, or Weihnachtsmarkt. Set against the backdrop of the historic Town Hall, the market is filled with hand-crafted Christmas decorations, baked goods, pottery and other giftworthy items. But the most exciting part for me is when Santa Claus takes a sleigh ride above the top of the market’s cottages, accompanied by a booming rendition of the story of Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer in German.
After a browse in the market and some bratwurst to keep us going, we board an Alster lake steamship for a one-hour tour of the waterways (from €15 and bookable online in advance via the Hamburg Tourismus website). As we settle down, with the smell of mulled wine filling our nostrils and two Santas rowing along nearby, I feel well and truly in the festive mood.
Others in our group heads to Beatles Platz, where they join guide and musician Stephanie Hempel for her Beatles tour featuring a ukulele. Clients can follow in the footsteps of the band, across the famous red light district of St Pauli, for €28. Exclusive tours can also be arranged.
While all too soon it is time for us to head home, the rest of Columbus’s passengers would embark again that evening before an overnight sailing followed by a sea day and one more overnight, arriving back at Tilbury at around 8am on the Monday morning.
As Jamie and I head to the airport my festive feeling is heightened still when we catch some of the colourful Christmas parade, which happens every Saturday of Advent.
Mike Hall, head of marketing at CMV, says the line’s Christmas markets cruises are already very well sold, in particular those that include the German markets, which are up to 60% full.
“Usually these cruises don’t fill up until closer to departure, so we advise agents to promote these now,” he says. “Increased restrictions on air travel baggage and longer airline check-in times together with delays in and out of airports are encouraging more people to switch to a short cruise and save on lost travel time,” he adds.
Santa might even consider the experience for himself. From my perspective, while it may not be as swift as a sleigh, it certainly delivers when it comes to eating, drinking and being merry.
Book it: CMV has a five-night Amsterdam, Hamburg & Antwerp itinerary onboard Columbus, departing Tilbury on December 6, from £424pp.