Disovering that 'Marco Polo' was still operating as a cruise ship, having last seen her as 'Alexander Pushkin',under the Soviet flag, in Gran Canaria in the late 60's, I was not expecting anything great when my wife booked us onto the Easter cruise from which we have just returned. Travelling without expectation often brings nice surprises however and this cruise was no exception to that curious rule. A spacious, tidy and spotless cabin, two large windows, compact but very serviceable shower room, loads of storage space and a delightful Cabin Steward, Yuiry (his spelling)greeted our arrival on board. Departing from Tilbury made for a convenient drive for us and the secure parking is indoors so, apart from the usual queue to get aboard, the whole transfer was easy and unstressful. Free magazines whilst waiting were a welcome extra. Good start.
In 'Marco Polo's extensive public spaces there is no apparent hangover from the Soviet years except for the fact that she feels well found and seaworthy - a real, traditional ship with a proper funnel, a secure draft and an amazing sea range due to her outsized fuel tanks - the latter not an issue on an eight night trip! Knowing that she was built well and has a great pedigree (check the Wikipedia entry)all adds to a real sense of safe, steady voyaging in a near historic vessel. April and the Bay of Biscay invite lively weather as a near certainty and we rode out some rough stuff without discomfort on our way South and homeward bound. She has effective stabilisers and rides a swell easily.
The decor throughout is comfortable, light and modern. Public spaces are smart, well organised and in good condition. With the possible exception of Marco's Bistro (sometimes chaotic - heavily used at lunch and teatimes, long queues for tea and coffee, some unsuitable behaviour by fellow cruisers) she feels quite classy throughout in an understated way. Most of the furnishings around the ship are crisp and feel new. There is plenty of seating - a bit of a squash when it's raining and everyone's inside - but given a touch of sunshine people spread out and you can then find a quiet corner. Her beautiful exterior teak decks are spacious and there is room to sit outside or promenade and some excellent vantage points eg below the bridge looking for'ard and from the upper deck at the aft end where you look down on the small swimming pool and the sun decks. (Smokers congregate here too!) The small Games Room is rightly popular, the Library seems well stocked.
Each day's Itinerary offers a broad range of activities - Fruit and Vegetable carving, Line dancing, Crazy Golf competitions, a lecture from a Guest Speaker. The Radio Theatre plays excellent sound archive programmes such as episodes of 'Round the Horne' and 'Just a Minute'- a great idea and very popular. Film shows in the Marco Polo Lounge, the ship's theatre, offer a mix of modern and classic; eg'Contagion' or you can watch 'Casablanca' in your cabin.
If you have cruised before you may find the food on 'Marco Polo' a little quirky. There was nothing to complain about but I had a sense that the chef was on a tight budget. A fish Terrine had no taste at all. The bread rolls were sometimes 'resistant'.One evening's dinner choices were heavily dependent on veal. Soups are excellent. Salads a little less than imaginative - there is a box of coleslaw in that kitchen somewhere and it appears under different titles depending on its plate companion of the day! Breakfast offers a satisfying range well suited to English tastes - although the sausages could have more dash. The Egg Chef ('Call me Lubbly Jubbly!') provides excellent omelets or fried eggs with good humour. Orange juice became steadily more watery as the cruise progressed. This was much commented upon! Lunches offer a good choice - pasta and sauces, chicken, veal again. The Dinners in the well- appointed restaurant are very well presented by expert staff. Here expect a number of courses: cold and hot appetisers (sauteed seafood, Carpaccio con Scaglie), choice of soups, a salad, a usually tasty Main Course eg Grilled Pork Tenderloin or Chicken baked with Aubergines. Puddings include Tiramisu, Ice Cream of the Day. Cheese Platter is included. Coffee and Tea to follow.You can tuck in to it all! There is a good range of quite affordable wines at Â£20 upwards. These can be drunk over several evenings if one prefers.
The service on this ship is amongst the best we have experienced, including on our favourite Cunard. Staff are polite, competent and usually speedy. The behaviour of one's fellow passengers often leaves the cruiser aghast and we saw some of the worst of Brits afloat on this trip. On 'Marco Polo' the staff appear admirably able to handle it! The Cruise Director rightly enjoys an excellent reputation. The Entertainment team outshines Fred. Olsen by several stars - the dancers are particularly good. Classical, jazz and popular music abound all over the ship and the formal 'Showtime' every night is worth attending in the Marco Polo Lounge. This 'theatre space' has an annoying row of raised extra single chairs in front of each seating tier which means that latecomers to the show dump themselves in front of you and block your view. There are also some pillars that obscure lines of sight and various seats are very brightly lit for H+S reasons. Recce the MP Lounge in advance, choose your favoured seats and get there early would be useful advice!
Avoid the cocktails if you like to taste your choice of liquor - or have them mixed with a double shot. All spirits on board MP tasted curiously understrength to me - although my wife says that's because I have too much acquaintance with gin and whisky to be satisfied with a normal measure!
Our furthest destination port was St Jean de Luz but the tenders couldn't handle the disembarkation in a heavy swell so we stayed at anchor and were unable to go ashore. I note that others have commented on missing ports in this way with Cruise and Maritime. Of course it costs cruise companies a good deal to go alongside in any ports - if being cynical I would suggest the choice of 'tender' ports is likely to reduce passengers' chances to get ashore at this time of year. Other ports on this trip eg Brest had little to offer. Soulac-sur-Mer was wet, blustery and largely shut. We should have been prepared for the fact that France is largely closed over Easter but hadn't given it a thought! If you're keen to join the organised tours you do pay for it - Â£30 to Â£80 pp per trip on this cruise but the experience is at least purposeful and managed.
Our final day at sea was spent ambling around in a blustery and wet English Channel. I checked our position and course several times. At one stage we were steering 180 deg - that's due South on anyone's chart and not the way to Tilbury. Average speed on day eight was about 9 knots! Again I guess it's commercially advantageous to keep a ship full of spenders at sea even if you have to make a 'sea day' out of going round in circles! Slow progress uses less fuel too!
Overall we enjoyed this cruise more than the sum total of the parts I list above. 'Marco polo' is a bit of a treasure and has something very special about her. I'm certain we'll be back before long. Oh, and the value is second to none - even at today's reducing cruise fares!
Go enjoy - whilst she's still available!