What better name could there be to conjure up exploration and adventure.
This was my first cruise. I had never really been attracted to the cruising lifestyle. A solo sailor from the west coast of Canada, the idea of thousands of people on a sealed tin box somehow didn’t fit with my views of travel and the oceans. However in the spring of 2016 I had just turned 70 when my wife’s mother offered us a cruise on the Marco Polo as a birthday gift. Well I had’t been attracted to cruising but this was a gift that was so exciting on so many levels that of course we could not refuse. However! The next morning we awoke to the reality that we had just accepted a cruise for 54 days. 54 days. What had we done? Gift or no gift this was a major piece of time especially to be stuck on one of those tin boxes.
We started the research and the logistics. We had seen no brochures. We accepted the cruise on the recommendation of Lilian, my mother in law, an inveterate cruiser. We knew vaguely that the cruise traversed 100° of Latitude. That it went from Bristol to Bristol via Tierra del Fuego. We had 17 ports of call including Rio, Buenos Aires, The Falkland Islands (Las Malvinas; more on this later) and Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. All in all an interesting itinerary. Tick one for the pro column. Next the boat. The Marco Polo. It sounds like I must have heard of it and I believed I had in reference to a more adventurous cruising style. I Google it. I learn from our modern oracle that she was originally one of the Russian poets, a group of 5 sister ships built in East Germany and named after poets. The Marco Polo was originally the Aleksandr Pushkin built in 1965 and used on the Leningrad to Montreal run in the summers and cruising in the winters. Built to be converted into a troop carrier at a moment’s notice (probably released defence dollars or rubles for construction); she was also ice hardened which has a nice ring to it what with Titanic mythology etc. She was completely rebuilt in the late ‘90s to an elegant understated traditional Deco decor with all mod-cons. I liked the sound of the ship as I had crossed the Atlantic twice on similar boats before the jet age. Once on the Empress of Britain and once on the Statendam. Score two on the pro side.
Next was the cultural experience. We were going to be on The Marco Polo for 54 days with the same people. A village of 960 (This must be the max as there are only life boats for this number as I later counted). A petrie dish of people my science mind shouted. What experiments can we do? How can all that experience and talent be mobilized? On the other hand 54 days is also long enough for social niceties to fall away. People are real and will reveal themselves. When I find a bit later that we will have the same supper companions for the full run I am a bit worried but that turned out to be before I had met them (George,Pam,Ray,Maggie,Peter and Linda). The table beside us was not so lucky and wild discussions led to table breakup! 54 for days is long enough for for friendships to be forged. 54 days is long enough to make friends and loose them as well. The prospective clientel are retired and everyone has a good story to tell if you ask. So I am beginning to feel some positive indicators stacking up for the whole experience. I still have worries but we are committed so worries are useless.
The cruise is in four weeks, Christmas is in two. We live in Victoria, British Columbia, we have a house and a dog. Flights to be bought, rental cars to be arranged, house and dog sitter to find. Oh yeah and Christmas is here.
We made it. Christmas with family, Tim, Michael and Christine and Oliver and Charlotte, Tim, Melanie and Mike and Ayja and David and oh yeah my ex wife Alex and Tony. And did I mention Barbara, my most amazing of all women wife. She is masterminding this whole operation not to mention Christmas.
We do the New Year with my aforementioned mother in law, Lilian in Wisbech and her and my wife’s rellies, Valerie,Veronica,Gary,.... plus the ‘young’ Joan (84), Lilian’s lifelong friend from her working days. And off to Bristol to join the Marco Polo. Oops, last minute email, the ship couldn’t make the tides into Bristol because of bad weather in the Bay of Biscay (premonition) and so is in Southampton. Fortunately we had not booked a train but had elected for about the same price to rent a car with a one way drop off to Bristol. Quick call to Europcar and the drop off is now Southampton right next to the ship.
I was inexplicably looking forward to my first sight of the Marco Polo but only glimpses were to be had as we boarded. It looks like a ship not an apartment block (a block of flats). Score another point for The Marco Polo. We were a bit worried about our last minute purchase cabin in the bilges somewhere near a huge noisy engine. We had decided that if the cabin was awful that would be a good thing as it would push us out except for sleeping. A window is a wonderful thing. Even a porthole in some way gives you that link to the outside world. We didn’t have one. We knew this. There were no upgrades available even if we paid. We actually didn’t want to pay. It is quite a jump. I would prefer to spend the money on wine and beer which were not exactly cheap (we live in France in the summers, this being a reflection of the price of wine). And then there was the gratuity which in 54 days adds up to quite a bit. As we got to know crew members along the way and experienced how hard they worked and what personal commitment they made to be there we begrudged this less and less. In fact our only begrudging came from a suspicion that perhaps gratuities were being used to supplement meagre pay. I have really no way to judge this one way or the other. Certainly it may be like the workers in the vineyard parable. Each makes a deal which works for them. There were Romanians, Ukrainians, Brits, Greeks, Portuguese, Indian and Burmese. Captain Morais was from Mozambique. It was a happy crew.
The cabin was OK; Clean, smart, touch of Deco; it was internal and very central. No window but everything else was the same as a smaller outside cabin. The central location served us well through the Bay of Biscay where the forward cabins had a tendency to levitate you from your bunk. We would have liked a double bed but for the very few rough nights bunks were perhaps best.
Meals are a large part of not just cruises but life. Cultures are built around food, wine, music and tea. There is a bit of an expectation on cruises of good food. Some lines are renowned for their food. I can’t say that Marco Polo culture is built around food. It is much more built around a cohesive experience that has adventure and experience and indeed learning as central themes. However the food is adequate always, exceptional occasionally and always served with great alacrity and humour by staff who go the extra mile and engage as true participants in your cruise experience. There are various restaurants and bars scattered around the boat but in general there was a formal dinning room with super efficient table service and a bistro with canteen type service but immediate back deck access. The back deck was where the heart of the boat resided in the warmer climes. We typically took our breakfasts in the bistro and on the back deck. Lunches we went to the dinning room where seating was as arrival and so a new table of people was an every day event until the very end of the cruise; at 54 days there were still many people that we never recalled ever seeing before. Suppers we took at Table 5 with our waiters Heine and Aung from Burma and our wine waiter Olga from Romania. At first I thought that a more diverse table group could not be found and then I realized that we are all retired Anglos and so the diversity was just within that culture.
As a Canadian I notice things about Brit culture that are not the same as in other cultures. I knew a German who had hitchhiked with a Brit for a while and confessed to being very confused at first. As Germans get to know you they become more polite whereas with Brits the opposite is true. It seems that nobody could resist the opportunity to wind someone up. Occasionally it backfired as in our neighbouring table but although much winding up was done at our table we all were committed to having a good time and it was all taken in stride. Our table mates: Peter knows absolutely everything about any rail line in the world. Linda his charming chattery wife was delightful in her projected naiviety. Ray, the retired police firearms and diving expert, great Somerset accent and his dynamic wife Maggie were from of all places Midsummer Norton. And George and Pam from a neighbouring table joined us when their table mates never showed and two of ours likewise. Often well primed by supper time they were totally committed to enjoying every moment of their lives. These our tablemates (spell check just corrected this to ‘stablemates’. Who knows which is closer to the truth) provided lots of entertainment and I hope we returned the favour.
The voyage had 17 stops, crossed the Equator twice and crossed more than 100 degrees of Latitude. From Rio to the Falklands the stops were what most people had come for. Several people were making what amounted to pilgrimages. To the Falklands or to the Welsh communities of Argentina. One poor chap was going to the Falklands but died in Rio before getting there. The stops were great. To suddenly be in Rio or Monte Video was definitely magical but of course way too brief. Ushuaia the most southern town in the world, jump off for Antarctica. Natal, Brazil a holiday town of sand dunes and beaches. Madeira where Brits holidayed from Victorian times was absolutely delightful. We rode the wicker toboggans down from Monte. A ride not to be missed.
All in all the voyage had so much going for it you would have to be near death not to appreciate it. But then again I did joke to my daughter that at each stop we brought on fresh vegetables and dropped off the dead. I think the 54 days led to the interesting dynamic that evolved and changed as time went by. There was definitely a period when everyone seemed to be wingeing about something. It could be the iceberg lettuce, the pasta or the books in the library. But it passed.
There were lectures and shows and dancing and crafts and bridge etc. The lectures were about the countries we visited and the wildlife to be encountered. Clive Leatherdalde a Phd in Saudi history and politics prepared great talks on the politics and history of each country. His history of the Falklands was especially interesting as so many of the Brits had some connection or opinion about the conflict with Argentina. In fact several people were outraged by his use of the Argentinian name Las Malvinas alongside the British name. The history has no clear claim to ownership and in fact the UK would really like to give it to Argentina and was on its way to doing that when the Generals invaded to score some political points. Maggie Thatcher needed some points too and we know how that worked out. So now the Brits have to keep them.
One day I was looking down on the back deck with many tables of people, chatting, drinking, reading, knitting, etc. A thought suddenly jumped into my head ‘What a waste. All that experience, knowledge and talent not being used’. The World is going through a huge shift in climate and economics and needs all the help it can get. Then I thought that old white guys are often blamed for the problem, (perhaps correctly) so who wants our opinion anyway. Then I thought of the Elders project of Richard Branson and Peter Gabriel and Madela et al. Perhaps a social network, a think tank open to Marco Polo voyageurs dedicated to moving global ideas forward. My favourite thing to do was to sit down with someone and ask them “What’s your best story?” As you can imagine there were many great tales.
At times a 54 day voyage seems like this is it forever. But for us it eventually ended and we are back in Canada for a few months. Quite a few people stayed on board for the Caribbean cruise which says a lot for the culture of the company and the ship. So fare you well Marco Polo. A classic ship with an engaging ambiance.
Basic but sufficient. super clean.