This 15-day cruise (commencing March 16th 2014) was made with the hope of seeing the Northern Lights, and was most enjoyable due to the fact that there were plenty of sightings of the Aurora Borealis and, particularly for the latter part of the trip, we had excellent weather.
The itinerary was well devised to provide opportunities to see the Northern Lights and to view the amazing scenery of the Norwegian fjords. There was a good selection of excursions available at the ports of call, although it was also possible to explore independently due to the Marco Polo being berthed close to town centres, or a free shuttle bus being provided. Adverse weather prevented us calling at Tromso as originally scheduled on the way north, but an imaginative amendment to the original schedule enabled a call to be made at Tromso on the return south, at the expense of the less attractive port of Sortland.
Cabin 549 was comfortable and spacious, having three windows that overlooked a small deck at the starboard aft of the Marco Polo. These windows provided excellent early-morning views of the magnificent scenery as we approached the ports of call. This appeared to be one of the few cabins that had a double bed, and in fact, had a Queen-sized bed. There was no chair in the cabin, but one was provided on request. Despite the efforts of the ship's heating engineer, it was only just possible to maintain a satisfactory temperature in the cabin, but the provision of a second duvet ensured we had comfortable nights.
The cabin's bathroom was also of a good size, with a splendid shower that produced plenty of very hot water. The cabin stewardess was courteous and extremely efficient, maintaining the cabin with minimal inconvenience to ourselves.
Dress code for dining was Formal (2 nights); Informal (8 nights) and Casual (4 nights); although there was an extremely relaxed attitude to the standards of dress actually worn. Waiter-served lunches and dinners were provided in the formal Waldorf Restaurant. This venue also provided a buffet-style breakfast in a civilised manner. The informal Marco's Bistro was designated to provide buffet-style dining for all three types of meal. Afternoon tea was also served, but this was of poor quality with scones and jam often running out quickly. Self-service tea and coffee were freely available at two stations, but this tended to be a messy process (particularly with the use of tea bags in the mugs) - mugs were often in short supply, and many had cracks and chips.
The quality of food in the Waldorf Restaurant was very good with ample courses and ample choice. The level of service at dinner was generally efficient but lacked the personal touch that often makes cruise dining an exceptional experience. We dined each evening on the first sitting at 6pm, and were initially allocated to Table 33. On finding this table occupied, we were informed by these usurping passengers that "you have been moved". We then had to join a queue of other disgruntled people in order to find which table (it was 37) we should be sitting at. This was a most unsatisfactory manner of allocating tables, and a most disappointing start to the cruise. The incident proved to be an early example of the ship's poor management skills and a general lack of imagination in dealing with unusual situations.
Wine by the glass was not available in the Waldorf Restaurant, although it was listed in the Bar Menu. At no time throughout the voyage did the Maitre d'hotel enquire at our table whether the food or service was satisfactory. We ate breakfast and lunch on only a few occasions in Marco's Bistro, finding it to be not a pleasant experience.
Table 37 was on the starboard side of the potentially elegant Waldorf Restaurant. The windows next to the table were covered by steel plates, thus obscuring any view of the sea or coast. We assumed that these were the windows involved in a fatal accident in adverse weather on a previous cruise that had received much publicity recently. No formal announcement was made, but we later learnt that many of the Marco Polo's windows had been declared unsafe to deal with high seas and were being replaced. The replacement programme continued throughout the voyage and had two implications:  Marco's Bistro was unavailable for evening meals on several nights; and  the windows next to our table were often hidden behind curtains. The 'new' windows in the Waldorf Restaurant were revealed on the final evening's meal - the windows did nothing to add to the restaurant's decor and had all the hallmarks of a poor DIY job.
The Marco Polo's fatal accident referred to above was the second incident that made us wonder if the ship was accident prone. We had originally been booked on exactly the same cruise in 2013, only for it to be cancelled at short notice when the ship hit an uncharted object. Surprisingly, considering a large number of passengers had rebooked for 2014, no reference was made to the cancellation by the Captain at his reception party.
Major inconvenience was caused to passengers by the 2013 cancellation; by the prolonged unavailability of Marco's Bistro; and by the shambolic allocation of dining positions. Each of these deserved a public apology, and the provision of some minor token (eg a bottle of wine) would have been an imaginative way of providing some compensation - neither of these courses of action was followed.
Other aspects of the cruise were:
- the onboard entertainment was excellent with the group of young dancers and singers performing with great enthusiasm and obvious enjoyment;
- staff at the Reception desk were generally unhelpful;
- the sole ladies' hairdresser provided a good service;
- the Library had a very limited selection of books;
- the degree of friendliness amongst the ship's crew was extremely variable, ranging from very friendly to almost surly. A poor grasp of English amongst the staff was probably a factor.
- excursions were generally well organised, and disembarkation and embarkation at the ports of call was handled efficiently.