It was a last minute booking with Cruise Maritime on the Marco Polo out of Tilbury, London ,UK. heading North looking for the Northern Lights above the arctic circle.
We had read lots of reviews about the Marco Polo, yet not until after we had booked. Realistically, if we had done our homework first we would have never booked. And to be totally honest we would have missed out, because the fourteen day cruise proved to be extremely enjoyable. Due in part to the quality of the other travelling guests, the raw wilderness of the Norwegian Coast and the friendliness of the service staff on board the ship.
The boarding process was fairly civilised, although the holding pens prior to registration were not that comfortable due to the number of passengers arriving and the speed of which the small amount of counter staff were able to process them. Seating was limited and the weather both outside and in was cool. To be fair to the organising staff, some of the problems could have been due to the guests arriving earlier than their strict boarding times. Unfortunately, Tilbury is not the best place to get to on a Sunday, so many people had no choice, they had to get there when the transport was available.
Once we eventually got through the check-in process we were greeted by a member of staff who showed us to our cabin. On the plus side, the cabin was ready and our luggage was already outside our room. A first on any cruise line we have previously used. Normally, you just go into a lounge, or sample the awaiting buffet until the guest service managers tells you that the cabins are now available. After which, there is a mass exodus from the lounges and restaurants.
First impressions were mixed. The cabin was clean, in fact spotless, although rather dated. Old fashioned boxy TV, small bathroom with one of those awful clingy plastic shower curtains. But then again it was adequate. Twin beds were again acceptable, and comfortable, although l soon found out that the quilts didn’t cover my 6ft 1 inch length. There was a choice, keep my feet covered and my chest out of wraps in the cold. Soon found a good store of blankets in the wardrobe, so all was well.
Then it was time for us to investigate the ship from bow to stern. Well it didn’t take long, it’s not a big ship. But it had a quaint old worldly charm that suited the customer profile on board.
It had a full service restaurant, a bistro/self-service restaurant, three bar/lounges, small library and card room, activity room, and a theatre with bar, along with a spar and exercise room.
The departure perhaps was the first hint that the communication skills between crew and officers could be a problem. The senior crewmember took control of slipping the ships moorings and passing a line out to the tug to pull us around to point to the open seas. The crew ran round like headless chickens producing a mishmash of spaghetti knots from the retrieved ropes until the senior master managed to get them fixed round the capstan’s. Thank goodness the lifeboat drill went off without a hitch.
Dinner in the serviced restaurant was surprisingly good. Plenty of choice, cooked well and served simply yet effectively in an attractive restaurant. A special mention to the superb skills of our sections wine waiter, who was quick and efficient. Considering he had a vast number of people to serve, he managed to swiftly take orders and deliver the appropriate drinks at double quick time, even when the boat was listing at 45 degrees and rocking under the effects of a gale force 9 storm. But that came later in the cruise.
After dinner we adjourned to the show lounge for the first musical production. The size of the theatre gave it a club atmosphere, with the audience being exceedingly close to the artists. You felt you were part of the performance. The band was highly skilled, very professional and backed virtually all the high line musical performances during the cruise. The ships own performers were exceedingly enthusiastic, with 90% of the singers being extremely competent. The dancers put everything into each routine, but lacked polish. Nevertheless, it was good honest entertainment.
Time for bed. As l mentioned previously, it was comfortable, Air con worked, although noisy, TV didn’t and it took four complaints and one and half days before it was simply fixed. Shower worked, but wasn’t controllable. One minute hot, next cold, then scolding hot. But it was OK! After all we hadn’t paid a fortune. Biggest complaint was the noise, from machinery, people in the corridor, mainly crew (tell by the guttural language) and guests in other cabins. In all my time cruising, l have never experienced anything like this. But l put it down to the age of the ship. It is nearly 50 years old after all. Earplugs managed to dull most of the sound.
Up early and into the self-serve bistro, but the offerings were not inspiring, so we opted for the main restaurant, which consisted of a hot and cold buffet. A selection of fruits, both fresh, tinned and dried, with cereals, muesli’s and yoghurts along with breads, cakes, muffins cheeses, fish and meats. All in all not bad. You could order kippers and poached eggs, plus each day there was a daily special. The majority of people opted for the cooked breakfast that was buffet style, being kept warm in chaffing dishes. Coffee, tea and fruit juice was all served at the table.
Loving kippers we both opted for them. They may have been herring, but l don’t think they were, they were definitely not smoked and they tasted like a damp warm tea towel. One very small mouthful was all it took to make the decision never to try again.
On a positive note, the hot buffet was quite good. Scrambled eggs were excellent, bacon was a changeable feast, sometimes good, others not so, sausages were poor and the others really depended on how long it had been standing over the jell heaters in the chaffing dishes. A single chef had a gas burner situated near the buffet and he was happy to make fried eggs to order as well as omelettes. Seemed fine, yet rather too much oil for me, plus the queues built up fairly fast.
You also had to like toast that was cold and soggy as the one small machine could not match demand. This was resolved by a young waitress who ensured she had at least forty slices precooked and ready!
We soon realised that if you arrived early, you had some opportunity of having a fairly relaxed breakfast. On the occasions when we arrived at a peak time, it was lines and queues everywhere, a real bun fight. Sorry, that is too strong. The majority of people were kind and courteous and not pushy at all. It was just the volume of people being serviced in the limitation of space available. Surprised that they were using a buffet system in the serviced restaurant when they had a dedicated self-service restaurant in the stern. Would imagine it had to do with labour costs.
Things changed within a day at sea. Some form of viral outbreak must have been found as we encountered some of the crew in Biohazard suits cleaning a room.
Into a breakfast room full of staff and hardly any customers. Everything had changed overnight. You were not allowed to touch anything near the buffet. Staff passed you everything with their callipers and blue plastic clad hands. This continued around the ship. It was nice to see that they take these things seriously to save an outbreak from spreading. And within a day it had been contained and the restrictions were removed. Whatever it was dealt with efficiently and effectively.
From our personal point of view, our problems arose once the seas became rough and they started taking precautions for the passenger’s safety, which then impeded on the enjoyment of the trip. I understand the necessity for safety, but other actions need to be implemented to ensure that the guest’s requirements are met. It was also very noticeable that the senior staff were perhaps being overcautious, keeping areas closed even though seas had subsided. Portholes and windows were sealed with metal covers. Outside areas became out of bounds. Self-service restaurant was closed, and lounges on the top deck were shut, reducing the operating area dramatically.
Consequentially everyone had to eat in the main restaurant. There wasn’t enough seating for all the guests with queues snaking along the corridors. It was also a struggle to feed and water family and friends who were suffering in the confines of their cabins.
When my wife was sick from an unbalance, she found that she was fine as long as she stayed prostate in bed. Initially l would nip up to the self-service with my insulated cup and get her water and coffee and the odd bread roll and take it down to her. For lunch l would take her soup and a little salad. But as soon as the self service restaurant and beverage stations closed there was nothing available.
Popped to reception to ask what could be done, and was told that if my wife wanted food, she should go to the restaurant in the evening. Her attitude was, if she wants food she cant be sick. Suggested that l order a salad when l went for dinner, and l would be happy to take it down. Informed quite strongly that this would not be allowed. Tried to explain that l would not have this problem if the self service restaurant was in operation. She reiterated the obvious “The Bistro is closed” Eventfully she agreed to sort something out. But by 8pm, three hours after my discussion, nothing had materialised.
Our waiter was kind enough to order a salad, and l took it down. It would have been so easy for the management to offer guests drinks and food during their incapacity. It would have also alleviated tension if they had set up a tea, water and coffee station in an area that was not closed down.
This situation continued, and the supervisors in the restaurant became even more vigilant in stopping people take food from the restaurant to their loved ones in the cabins. Two of them tried to stop me, but l managed to slip their grip and take the food down. The weather had become so bad, chairs were breaking, cutlery was slipping off tables and staff were dropping trays, yet still no one offered to provide a service. It would have made all the difference.
If l was a cynical person, l could believe that they didn’t provide this free service because they wanted us to pay for beverages and food served in the cabins.
So to conclude, the places visited were good. They would have been better if the weather had improved, but that’s down to the changing climate and pure luck. We didn’t get to see the Northern Lights although a few people said they saw a green blip for three seconds
The tours available were comprehensive, but the staff should have been more aware of what was available on the ground for those of us who like less structured events. We missed the annual husky race in the centre of Alto because no crew member was aware that it was taking place between 11.00am and 12.30. If passengers had left the boat earlier they could have experienced this spectacular event. Also no one advised us that another shuttle was available from the centre of town to take you to the next stage of the race. Its what’s called customer service?
The entertainment was varied and quite acceptable, with a good all round selection of artists. The cruise director led from the front and was a total asset. Activities were varied and rather low key. Felt that perhaps they could have put up a board for likeminded people to register their interest in joining up for bridge, canasta and marhjong. Along with the opportunity of meetings for AW , friends of Dorothy, Rotary and a weekly religious service.
Food service was acceptable, but it wouldn’t have taken a great deal of reorganisation to improve the service hundred fold. Senior staff need to evaluate best possible working practices and have procedures in place to deal with closedowns due to bad weather or any other calamities.
Drink service was comprehensive, fairly reasonably priced, although some of the staff did struggle with the English language.
The ship looks tired and you have to question if it is fit for purpose, especially if you need to isolate areas and fit metal shutters to side windows of the restaurant and cabins when they go through force 9 gales.
Would return to the same area, at the same time of year to give it another try, but not with Cruise Maritime on the Marco Polo. If they had a new ship and resolved their management and organisation problems l may give it another try. But why should l when more professional companies such as Celebrity, Royal Caribbean and Holland and America travel the same route.