My wife and I chose this cruise for our Honeymoon. We're 30 and 28 respectively, and had never cruised before. Alongside excitement we were filled with apprehension at what to expect. In particular we had been unsure about dress codes and general comfort on board. I'll attempt to give a full, honest account of our experience which will probably be most useful to those who haven't cruised before and perhaps those who haven't cruised aboard the Marco Polo. I shall start with the positives, move onto negatives/criticisms and then finish with some tips and advice for those considering this trip. The time ashore, in my opinion, is not relevant to the cruise itself (other than cruise-organised-excursions) so I'll focus primarily on the ship itself.
I'll start by saying that we had a wonderful time all-in-all. The trip met my expectations (but not quite my wife's) and the important things we set out to do were seen and achieved. As with most, out main ambition was to witness the Northern Lights, which we did -- both partially from the ship and in their full glory on the dedicated excursion (which I highly recommend). There is of course no guarantee of seeing them so be prepared for that.
I have both positive and negative things to say about the food. Overall it was high quality, tasty, varied and fresh. The soup in particular was always good. Dinner in the Waldorf restaurant consisted of 4 course meals, served quickly and courteously; We always took breakfast and lunch in Marco's Bistro (the buffet), finding the Waldorf far too formal and not enjoying being made to socialize with a new group of people every time (evening meals were always the same group and table). Waiting staff were always efficient, accurate and friendly. With regards to alcoholic drinks -- there is a wide range of choice across all ship bars and the prices were generally very reasonable.
Entertainment was clearly geared towards the older generations, but my wife and I found a couple of shows enjoyable. The show-team worked hard and were impressive. However, we entertained ourselves mostly in our cabin, watching films and reading. Our cabin was fitted with a decent TV with 2 film channels showing relatively recent releases on repeat -- a new film each day. Another channel aired classic British comedy. Perfect after a day's walking on-shore. Another welcome feature of the ship was the gym -- much better than expected or described in the brochure (though don't try it on rough seas).
The layout of the ship is sensible, with nothing important being too far away from anything else. General decor was simple, tasteful, tidy and in working order. All staff were polite, helpful and seemed to be working hard. An information sheet was delivered to the cabin each day with everything we needed to know about events on and off the ship. In addition, loudspeaker announcements across the ship were clear and informative. No stone was left unturned. As for the excursions, like the food we have good and bad things to say about them. We feel we chose well and those we did were worth doing.
Myself being vegetarian and my wife vegetarian and lactose intolerant is where our criticism of the catering comes in. When I phoned to book the cruise I made this clear to the operator and was assured this would be fine. I then emailed nearer the time to acquire written confirmation, which I received. Yet on the ship food options were initially so scarce it was as if our requirements had not been considered. Both restaurants picked up on this after a couple of days and provided options but they were the classic case of fobbing us off with vegetable-based dishes -- nothing substantial like bean, nut or soy products (apart from one tiny portion of tofu one evening). We vegetarians require protein and substance like everyone else, not just the meat-eaters' meal minus the meat. And though tasty we were disappointed that we'd been misled.
The buffet restaurant was overwhelmed at breakfast and lunch and we were surprised to find a severe lack of manners in some of the older folks. Queues were guaranteed and some paid them no respect (despite being a boat full of Brits). Furthermore, most would finish their meal and then sit at their table enjoying a hot drink with no thought given to the couples wandering around with plates of food desperately trying to find a table. This is of course no criticism of the cruise operator itself -- though staff could perhaps politely ask people to take their tea and coffee elsewhere during meal times. No sign of the packed-lunches mentioned in the documentation.
Other than that, the decision to put the restaurants at the ends of the ship so that they could feel the full effect of rough seas seems a strange one. I personally couldn't stomach eating anywhere but my centrally-positioned cabin during such times. We'd heard people mention that the Marco Polo has good stabilization and we'd have to disagree. Sure, we suffered monstrous waves but the ship did little to hide their effect. Furthermore, the severe seas which we encountered twice caused us to miss our stops at Molde and Alesund. We found this disappointing and although it couldn't be helped, the management did absolutely nothing to try and compensate us. They weren't obliged to but some kind of gesture would have been nice -- an attempt to reach the next port earlier perhaps.
Cruise excursions were good and well-organised, but not good value. Often times we would arrive on shore to find we could have done trips independently for a fraction of the cost (even in expensive Norway). In fact, every cable car and museum visit we paid for independently and walked there ourselves for a total cost of perhaps Â£10 per person. The organized excursion which provided coach there probably totaled Â£60+ per person.
Warmth -- Norway in winter, and the Arctic, were far warmer than we expected and had prepared for. Don't pack for Siberian weather -- it was barely colder than the coldest British winter. I didn't use any of the thermals or half the jumpers I took.
Missing ports -- The brochure doesn't mention this but we got the distinct impression that it's not at all uncommon to miss ports due to rough seas. The ship was quite casual about it and clearly doesn't allow enough time to account for difficult journeys.
Rough seas -- Try to book a cabin in the middle of the boat. This was the best thing we could have done as we suffered far less from sea-sickness than those who were at the ends. Also watch out when navigating the boat during such times. I didn't suffer badly but felt more secure in the comfort of our cabin. Watch out for wardrobe doors and drawers flying around.
Easy-going dress code -- We needn't have been worried. There was a dress-code but no-one was scrutinized. I brought far too much; a single pair of trousers, 2 shirts (1 dress, 1 casual), 1 jacket and a bow-tie would easily have sufficed). Few ladies wore anything approaching cocktail dresses, opting for smart but non-dazzling ensembles.
Expensive internet -- Don't use the internet unless you absolutely need to. 10 minutes cost me almost Â£15 and was so slow I hardly got anything done during that time.
Bad tea and coffee -- Coffee was unpredictable, sometimes okay, sometimes horrible. Tea bags were continental 'Lipton' ones and no good for those with taste. Bring your own. Also, a good idea to bring your own mugs when ones provided are unavailable.
Hot water delivered to room -- This isn't advertised but if you phone reception they'll happily bring you a jug of hot water to make your own tea/coffee. Another good reason to have your own mugs to hand.
Breakfast in bed -- We took full advantage of this on the choppier days as I personally couldn't face eating in the restaurants which were (surprisingly) busy and up-and-down. Forms are provided to fill in and hang outside your door before you go to bed. There is no extra cost for this.
Carry-on supplies -- Moments before leaving home I noticed the small print forbidding taking your own alcohol aboard and had to unpack it and leave it behind. However, we did bring a bag full of water, soya milk and snacks which we got onboard with no problem. This was essential for us, my wife being dairy-intolerant and the ship not providing soya milk. Also, bottled water is provided in cabins but is expensive. Tap water is chlorinated.
We wouldn't cruise again. Nothing fundamentally bad about the Marco Polo, just the whole cruising style doesn't suit us. But then again, we knew that was probably the case before going. Cruising was simply the best way to see lots of Norway and the Northern Lights in one trip without lots of cost, organization and hassle. We made the right choice and had the trip of a lifetime -- though this was reliant on Norway itself not so much the ship. We would recommend the cruise to others -- just be prepared for certain eventualities as mentioned above.