Friends alerted us to an attractive last minute offer for a cruise around Iceland on CMV's Marco Polo. None of us had ever cruised with Cruise & Maritime Voyages before, it's not a cruise line we ever seriously looked at, but with an interesting destination and a low price, we were interested. The date was perfect, and Iceland had been on my wish list of destinations for a long time. So my wife and I booked a Standard Plus outside cabin, and our friends a Superior.
Cardiff doesn't have a cruise terminal to speak of, the marquee didn't make a great first impression, but it was handy to have the car right out in front. Getting out of the port on the ship is an experience, there's a lock, and even with a ship of this modest size it's a tight fit.
The Marco Polo is over 50 years old, and we knew from the beginning that it can't be compared with modern ships. There is an upside to it, of course, because the design of the ship has a certain nostalgic charm. Add the fact that it only takes about 800 passengers, and you will understand that on this ship you won't get lost in the crowds. It's not massive, and there is no cold or minimalist modern design (except in some abstract art on walls here and there).
We were somewhat disconcerted to find that there were diesel fumes on our deck - even in the cabin. Although usually my sinuses are considered to be the most sensitive in our family, my wife had more serious trouble with the air quality in the cabin. Fortunately, the problem dissipated as soon as we were on our way - but kept coming back each time we were in port.
As for the ship, if you read reviews about the Marco Polo, you'll find that most people agree that a lot of the key areas on the ship look quite nice, but that Marco Polo 'looks tired' in places. I generally agree, although I would go a little further and say it looks shabby in some spots. I mean, I understand the part about it being an old ship and not being able to make it look like a new ship. Fair enough. But there is no excuse for shoddy maintenance - serious damage to carpets and wall panels, duct tape where a socket should be, etc. These are things that make a place look poor, and there is no need for it. Maintenance can and should be done properly, and with an eye for detail, whatever budget you cater for, whatever kind of cruise you're offering, however old the ship.
Speaking of maintenance, during the cruise we had to report four or five problems with our cabin: a dysfunctional bathroom light (never properly fixed, it did work, but not as it should), a safe we couldn't get into when it gave us an unjustifiable error (we had followed instructions in detail), a TV which seemed to have given up the ghost (fixed the same day), a safety rail connecting the bathroom door to the wall having been ripped out in rough weather (fixed the next day, leaving dozens of dangerous metal shavings on the floor, which our steward had to clean up when we discovered it after coming back to our cabin in the evening). I do have to mention that the people at reception are very understanding when you tell them about a complaint, and they immediately report it to the relevant department.
The ship has some nice lounges, a good nightclub, an atmospheric a la carte restaurant, a buffet bistro, a cosy library, a show lounge instead of a conventional theatre, and several other public spaces, all of which have been decorated quite homely but cheaply. But I wonder if the ship doesn't take too many passengers, because almost every single space feels like it has too much crammed in - with very little space between seats and tables. This is especially true for the buffet bistro, and I'll go so far as to say that it's too small to accommodate the many people who want to use it at peak times. Whether you're on outdoor person or not, often you have no choice and you just have to take your food outside. (Nice on a cruise to the Med, but not always so nice when you're circumnavigating Iceland in weather just above zero degrees Celsius.)
But all of this isn't what made me think of Fawlty Towers - it was what happened at mealtimes in the Waldorf restaurant, the a la carte restaurant, and the buffet bistro. On the face of it, the Waldorf operates much like similar restaurants on the ships of other cruise lines. Until you actually experience the meals. But let me tell you more about the place first. Decorated in pleasant colours, partially with a "stained glass ceiling" (it's plastic, CMV, don't call it what it isn't!), it looks and is quite cosy. Like elsewhere, each table has a permanent waiter assigned, and there are people milling about to offer drinking water, wines, etc.
We always dined with our friends, at a table for four. And after a few days, we got into the habit of having a bit of a laugh at the service we were getting. Don't get me wrong, it was usually friendly service with a smile, but it wasn't always very professional. Providing cutlery was hit and miss: sometimes we got it, sometimes we didn't, and had to ask. Sometimes we got the correct cutlery for a dish, but more often than not it was the wrong choice, or it was put in the wrong spot. Or it was taken away when we actually had to keep it (we were expected to use the same cutlery for several subsequent dishes). The waiter only remembered men's names and dietary requirements, the lady was forgotten, including the rather obvious fact that she was vegetarian (one day I had to swap soups with my wife, because even after checking with the waiter if a certain soup could be eaten by my wife, it turned out not to be vegetarian at all - fortunately mine was). Tables had two table cloths, and clearly the bottom ones didn't get washed during the cruise. Some problems I suspect weren't the waiter's fault, I had the impression that the kitchen wasn't very good in timing orders. Sometimes one person would be left out, even if everyone had ordered the same dish. And sometimes courses arrived too quickly, one day my wife had two plates waiting for her while she was finishing the food on the first. I do understand it can get a bit complicated when you offer people five (!) courses, and not everyone orders the same number of courses, but I have seen that handled a lot better elsewhere.
Breakfast and lunch can be interesting as well. They're not done in sittings, so you get shown to a table. One day there was no one to point me to a seat, so having reached the restaurant before the others, I sat down where we usually sit. I was immediately told off by an Eastern European unsmiling staff member who ordered me away from that seat, with the rather interesting reason "You can't sit there, because it's open seating!" Huh??? Doesn't open seating mean you can sit anywhere? Apparently not. I was assigned a different seat, and protesting that I was waiting for my wife and two friends didn't help, this rather curt lady wanted me at a table with five other guests. Only when I protested loudly that I was part of a party of four, did one of the waiters grasp what was going on, and explained it to the lady. By the time the others arrived I was quite upset. Not only had it been handled strangely, but I had been ordered about by a curt staff member, in a dictatorial tone, which isn't what I come on a cruise for, I expect to be treated nicely, friendly and smilingly. One of our friends had a similar experience at breakfast - returning to the table with a plate full of warm omelette (at least it was still warm at that point), a lady (same one?) wouldn't allow him to sit down! When he finally could, his omelette was no longer warm. Strange, and very unprofessional.
Most mistakes were just laughable, though. They were the source of lots of giggles at our table. So many reminded us of Manuel's mistakes in Fawlty Towers. It was good, though, that we didn't come across anyone who reminded us of Basil Fawlty!
I get the impression that not all the staff have been professionally trained - or maybe the ship didn't get the best ones, I don't know. I'll make an exception for our cabin steward, who was one of the best we've ever had. But some other crew members we had dealings with either weren't very good at what they did, or their English wasn't good enough to understand what we were saying to them. And some Eastern European staff clearly aren't used to smiling at people, or at treating passengers friendly.
Speaking of being friendly, we generally got on well with the passengers, although some weren't exactly the sort we were used to. I was shocked, for instance, when a man in front of us at a show turned around and threatened a man sitting next to us with physical violence if he didn't shut up. And he didn't sound like he was joking!
About the food - as far as I can tell, only the fruit was fresh, everything else seems to have come from the freezers or from tins. We had our suspicions that not everything was made from scratch either, with a lot having been bought in, like the cheap supermarket quality pizzas, to name an example. Kitchen staff also seem to have trouble understanding certain western dishes. For example, serving a Caesar salad with a lot of gravy is really weird! Having said that, we did enjoy most of the food. Yes, some was overcooked, some was too cold or too hard, but we enjoyed the majority of the dishes, and there was certainly enough to choose from. At some point during the cruise fish dishes started to taste a bit ' suspect' though, and we stopped ordering them. And then during the Q&A session with the captain and other leading crew members it became clear that they they prefer not to buy their fish fresh, so I suppose that explains it.
Upstairs, in the buffet cafetaria (Marco's Bistro), things can get worse. Overcooked duck, overcooked chips, cream chilled to such a low temperature that it's almost as if you're served frozen cream (in big lumps, with only more or less usable 'melted' bits in between), scones not defrosted in time because they're still ice cold and hard in the middle - my impression was that there's no quality control here. I suspect that once something reaches the buffet, staff are just happy that it's there, and they don't care if it's in an edible state or not. Add to that the situation with glasses, cups and plates, and milk, all of which the place tends ro run out quite quickly, and regularly, and I can only shake my head. Not very well organised. And you really do need to organise a buffet very well for it to function properly, and not to be a place where food comes to die a premature death.
Another thing I should mention about food, is the live cooking stations. In itself a good idea, I'm all for it. But as soon as you cook chips in advance, and then put them on a hot plate for a while, they're hard by the time people put them on their plate. The same goes for toast - providing toasting as a service for guests is great. Just don't pre-toast any bread, because I had hard to cut bread for days, until I had the idea to ask the man to give me freshly toasted bread. Just don't make toast in advance! But the chef at the egg cooking station in the Waldorf at breakfast is good at what he does. His overeasy eggs were much better than the overcooked poached egg I had in a dish at dinner.
One of our biggest problems on the ship, was noise in the night. I know that our friends and a lot of other passengers didn't have the problems we did, so it must have been the position of our cabin (the most forward outside cabin on deck 6), but when seas weren't very calm (and they weren't for most of the cruise), there was a lot of noise. There was a continual loud banging, some kind of electronic-sounding noise, and there were loud noises every time we docked. All of these noises robbed us of a lot of sleep. A great pity, because the beds were comfortable, and without those noises I would have slept like a baby.
Entertainment was in the show lounge, the Marco Polo lounge. Most nights the ship's singers and dancers performed shows, and occasionally there were guest performers. We weren't impressed with the guest performers. But the singers and dancers were quite good - certainly the dancers, and most of the singers. Considering the limited means at their disposal, without backgrounds, not a lot of space, and very few props, I think they did a really good job. Most of the shows were not only entertaining, but actually quite good. Something else we liked, was using the singers elsewhere on the ship. On the rear deck at sailaway, in the nightclub. Excellent idea.
One of my favourite facilities on the ship was the sauna. On cruises I like to do two things every day, several times a day: have a swim, and use the sauna. Since the pool was netted off for the whole cruise, that left the sauna. It had a good, high temperature, and was open for 12 hours a day. Perfect.
Ports and excursions were well chosen. We liked most of the ports - only Belfast will never be one of our favourites. The excursions were well organised, and stops well chosen. In fact, one of the excursions, Jewels of the North, was one of the best we've ever been on. It was great to see and experience some of Iceland's geological phenomena up close, and to get them explained so well.
I'm aware that most of the above may come across as quite critical. So does that mean we didn't enjoy the cruise? No, it doesn't, generally speaking we did enjoy the cruise, and in a lot of ways very much so, in fact. It's just that I think the company and the ship's crew are missing a few tricks here and there, and I think they could do better.
But if a chance comes up to go another CMV cruise, we would consider it - at the right price. We don't think their full prices offer value for money, but at the right price we could be interested. Read Less