"You get what you pay for, don't you?"
My parents never flew in a commercial aircraft on a scheduled flight. Their sole experience of taking to the skies was a twenty- minute spin around Worthing Pier (in a biplane) sometime after World War 2. I myself have never witnessed a premier division football match, and only within the last year or two have I dipped my toe into cruising. Leaving things late seems to be a family trait. First for me in 2008 was the Queen Mary 2, transatlantic and with all the frills. Magic. Enter at a sedate pace from harbour left MS Marco Polo, late of the Soviet Navy. Now some cruise companies own their own vessels, train their own crews and are only beholden, when publicly owned at least, to their shareholders. Others such as Cruise and Maritime claim very few assets and simply lease a ship, lock stock and smoking funnel- captain, crew, the whole shebang.
As with many other shipping operators, responsibility for vessels such as the Marco Polo involves complex and sometimes rapidly-changing ownership, and when Transoceanic went "belly up" late last year, Cruise and Maritime stepped into the breach and guaranteed a certain number of sailings to provide a continuity for Tilbury-based voyages.
So our vessel of choice started life as one of five built in Germany for the Russian navy, all named after famous soviet poets. The Ms Marco Polo saw the light of day first as the Alexander Pushkin and after twenty- five years of heavy Baltic duty was just about ready for the knackers yard. Rescued in 1990 by an enterprising English entrepreneur, one Gerry Herrod (founder of Ocean Cruise Lines), she was divested of all her aging Russian garments and reduced to her steel underpants, a bare skeleton of raw metal. Painstakingly a Dutch engineer and a Japanese interior designer reconstructed her. From Ocean Cruise via Trans-Ocean and now Cruise and Maritime, the Ms Marco Polo has gathered a loyal following of travel agents, journalists and passengers alike. Still with her magnificent hull, ideal for an ice-battering Baltic patrol, her aesthetically satisfying and technically expert superstructure allows her to ride through comparatively narrow gaps, but as it is over forty years from this original refit, she is showing signs of rust and age. Now as MS Marco Polo she plies the Northern climes, the Amazon basin, and presently she is heading for North Africa, Spain, Portugal and France. With her loyal following aging alongside this elegant vessel, my only hope is that the whole lot of us don't disappear in a final last gasp bathed in a golden sunset somewhere off the Bay of Biscay. Carrying a compliment of about 800 passengers and 330 crew, by modern standards she might be deemed "small", "intimate" and "traditional" and she, and those who sale with an in her, are the subject of this report on C and M's "Iberian Highlights".
Day 1. My arrival at Victoria Coach Station for the journey to Tilbury (£20 return) was marked by a growing unease as I saw what I assumed to be fellow passengers assembling at exit 1 and 2. At this point I gazed at the retreating back of my youngest son, who had helped me with cases to the station, and was tempted to scream "come back!" and do a runner ( a reaction later supported by two other passengers who like me were by now hiding behind pillars.) But then the party was called and the geriatric queue wound its way slowly towards the waiting coach. Still time to cut and run, or to join it? "Better join" said a voice in my head, "the money's already spent!." So join I did.
At Tilbury we were shunted on board in double-quick time and immediately left to our own devices. Deprived by the coach journey of lunch, I wandered through the "buffet" facility with heavy heart having briefly tasted luke-warm, gelatinous and severely overcooked pasta. A foretaste of what is to come? Surely not.
Day 2. Cherbourg, from whence The Titanic set out on her epic 1912 voyage. A hint of things to come, maybe? Here I realised, on waking to various announcements about coach party 720B and so on, that on a cruise such as this, one quickly becomes a second class citizen if you opt out of the guided tours organised by the company. Doing a quick calculation I reckon that every coach that leaves the ship for a 3-4 hour local excursion earns the company about £1000 profit, thus five coaches, seven ports of call etc., etc. So after coaches have struggled away in a wreath of diesel fumes, we lonely pariahs make our way onto the deserted quay to stand beneath a sign reading, "shuttle bus". Glancing down the pole I see resting at its foot a pile of steaming horse dung. Shuttle bus? Twenty minutes later we hear "clip clop, clip clop" noises in the distance followed by the sight of an ancient horse and carriage. Forty minutes beyond this we are proceeding at barely walking pace though an industrial estate and Carrefore carparks on a circuitous route into town (the main bridge being closed for repairs). Time just for a brief coffee followed by a geriatric jog back to the boat, narrowly avoiding second day abandonment on the dock.
Day 3. At sea through the Bay of Biscay. Those of us unfortunates travelling alone are invited to a "singles meeting experience" at the upper deck bar. A desultory group of a baker's dozen or so, mainly women of an uncertain age, all congregate and proceed to eye each other up with varying degrees of embarrassment and/or distain. Our cruise representative, Leah who previously worked for The Disney Corporation, now clearly prefers brigades of the elderly rather than screaming children to deal with. Leah's "shadow" and future replacement, Lauren (28ish), enlivened matters just by being there and before long the group divided, amoeba-like and gratefully dispersed to continue with reading their Joanna Trollopes and John Grishams.
Day three marked my decision to observe the behaviour of the (mainly eastern European) crew in their attitude towards the passengers. On the whole this seemed to comprise an awkward mixture of patronising condescension liberally laced with maternal/paternal concern. For example, on arrival at the Waldorf (!) dining area for lunch, where one was placed with others at random, unlike the designated and rigid sitting for evening dinner, I was seated at an empty table for ten and I was quickly followed into their seats by six or so others. As they were settling themselves around me the waiter handed me the menu, so saying, "and where is your other half?" This was probably the first time, on this voyage as a single traveller, that I was rendered literally speechless. As I gazed at him in incredulity he continued, upping the volume somewhat in the belief, I presumed, that I was hard of hearing. "You know, your better half, your WIFE!" By now we had the full attention of not just our table but adjoining ones as well. So raising my voice appropriately I replied, "she ran off with a lounge lizard from Dublin six years ago." Gasps and nervous laughter insured the lunch, for me at least, was short and sour. On reflection I can only think that the waiter thought my dinner neighbour of the previous night was actually my wife. But this was an outrageous assumption- I may have been gay, or recently widowed, and this incident reflected extremely badly on the training of at least one particular crewmember. On the evening of the third day came the formal "welcome" by the Captain and his Heads of Department in the Marco Polo lounge reserved mainly for live evening entertainment. A promised glass of champagne with the Captain turned out to be a forty-five minute wait clutching a cheap glass of sweet sparkly. Meanwhile our Captain/host dutifully shook hands- for the benefit of the ever-present photographer- with each and every member of the passenger list (singles excluded) at £4.99 a shot. After introducing his colleagues, all standing to attention and very deferential and most seeming to come from the same part of the former Soviet Union as himself (Croatia), he soon absented himself with the parting shot "if you have complaints make sure you contact one of them, not me!" Basil Fawlty in seaman's uniform sprung to mind at about this point in our high-seas adventure. My first taste of the live entertainment, "Venetian Nights" had all the appeal of an immediate elimination from the first round of 'X' Factor, enlivened by the sight of an elderly passenger projectile vomiting into the curtains bounding the stage arena. Was this a comment on the performances, I wondered? So it is about this time that the effects of seasick passengers seem to segue into he unmentionable norovisus. The virus is the bane of cruise operators as this highly contagious and violent combination of sickness and diarrhoea can sweep through the enclosed environment of a ship at sea like a forest fire. It must have been a nightmare in the below-decks hospital area to separate Bay of Biscay refugees from the genuinely ill. Soon the rumours were circulating, someone had died, three ambulances had arrived to meet the ship at Vigo, members of the crew were abandoning ship we are all doomed! What was certainly true, as the company issued no information to us about any of these rumours be they founded or unfounded, was that certain cabin windows were marked with a large taped white cross and their doors were sealed with substantial bands of sticky tape. And we are barely a third of the way through the cruise!
Day 4: Vigo. Tanoy calls for all the moneyed passengers who had coaches booked for Saniago de Compostela leave us plebs facing a faulty gangplank and subsequent tardy arrival on the quay to see the two-hourly local shuttle bus disappearing in a cloud of diesel fumes. It is clearly the policy of cruise operators to keep passengers in the dark about available local bus services as an alternative to the scheduled coaches. Reason? They want you to book their expensive tours instead of helping you into town, even if all you want to do is just to potter around it. On this cruise there were tours ranging for £26-£70. A tidy source of additional income requiring merely the hiring of a local coach for half a day. Easy money, but as far as I'm concerned, a black mark to C and M. So for the rest of us a lengthy trek over concrete and macadam and then a vertiginous climb up and through a (literally) collapsing town. In Vigo many buildings seemed simply to have been abandoned and left, inwardly disintegrating and broken-toothed, to the elements. Occasionally a modern, and surely temporary rescue is attempted when the building is "faced" in cheap steel and glass. A practical expedient to keep things in place for perhaps another decade, but after that, what then? On return and at a basically inedible lunch of luke-warm plaice covered in brown sauce(?), one fellow passenger tells me why glasses and cutlery are snatched from us almost before they are finished with. Not it appears from pure zeal on behalf of the waiters, rather a severe lack of stock, hence the need to keep all utensils on a circuitous move- from table to mouth, mouth to dishwasher, dishwasher to table, etc., etc. After lunch, through a combination of exhaustion, hunger and boredom I find myself at reception making a late coach booking for the morrow: "Lisbon's Famous Sights".
Day 5 Lisbon. A storm seemed to be following our progress down the Spanish coast and our arrival in Lisbon was marked by strong winds and horizontal rain. I raced to the comparative safety of the quayside coach, ready for almost any off-ship experiences. Our coach stopped for the obligatory twenty minutes at each spot designated to be of potential interest to the visitor with two hours to spend in town. In many cases our departure was entirely dependent on the gradual forward progression of the twenty or so charabancs ahead of us in the designated parking places. "Now we shall be stopping for ten minutes, enough for you to take a photograph" seemed to be the mantra of the morning. In the end you simply find yourself behaving like Japanese tourists in London, in, out, 'snap', on. Ah well, when in Lisbon....
Day 6: Cadiz. A night of furious rocking as if attempting to sleep on a motorised waterbed saw us, come the dawn, sailing majestically up to the magnificent city of Cadiz. Its proximity to the ocean meant that it was subject to frequent raids and sackings, mostly by us British. To realise that the total population numbers not much more than 100,000 souls, and that the prevailing feeling of friendliness, cleanliness and wonderful Mediterranean ambience of al fresco living adds immeasurably to the charm of its already exquisite architecture. Like Lisbon there is evidence of neglect of some great buildings, but the new lady mayor has apparently galvanised the local populace into action on many new renovation projects. Of all the many cities in Spain (specifically Andalucia) and Portugal , this is by far the one I would chose to live in, or return to soon.
Earlier that day, over a perfectly ordinary dining-room breakfast, I counselled opinion from the sundry guests seated at my table. Without prejudice, two out of three would not choose to travel by C and M, and Marco Polo, again. Of the remaining third, ones who in my observation would not initiate let alone join in a table conversation, but when pressed for an answer would say, abruptly and hurriedly "It's alright, you get what you pay for, don't you?"
I buttonholed, on the way back from the Cadiz city tour, one of the young English crewmembers, one Matthew Agg, to ask how he was enjoying his time with C and M. He told me he had worked previously for P and O who own their own ships. C and M basically charter the vessel along with 95% of the crew, without having any direct investment in Ms Marco Polo itself. This, according to Matt, means that there are some fundamental differences in the chain of command between people like him and Heads of Department up to, and including, the Captain himself. In fact he gave me the distinct impression that the Captain in our case was much more difficult to approach than would be the case the case with P and O and Cunard. However Matt was happy with the working conditions and very much liked the smaller ship, which gave him the chance of really getting to know both crew and passengers. He was full of praise for his employees and although I was tempted to feel that he was being naturally guarded in his remarks, his natural enthusiasm was infectious and from this point on I too started to see the positives as well as the negatives of the voyage.
Day 7: Gibraltar and Tangier. Oh dear, Gib. next! In the quayside terminal building it announces its presence in sculptural form as a large, mud-coloured, bare and inhospitable rock. Which, I thought, it pretty much what it is. With rain teeming down four unfortunate tours headed for the sights (rock, monkeys) all hidden in masses of low cloud. Time to wander around this time capsule of old Britain unhassled and unaided. I was expecting to hate everything, but once one leaves the central drag of fish and chip shops and discount stores, there were indeed some pleasant sights to be seen. A Catholic Church opposite an Anglican Chapel, each doing good Sunday business along with the odd police car looking for all the world as if it had just completed its morning M25 duties. All this together with spacious squares, decent sized trees and lush vegetation, alongside red pillar-boxes and helmeted bobbies- plus the cheapest Camel Lights in Europe!
Still locked into day eight, we set sail at lunchtime amid squalls, scudding clouds and rain-lashed decks towards the topknot of north Africa- exotic Tangiers. With barely four hours to "do" the whole place it smacks rather of "if it's Thursday it must be Belgium". As we pull into dock I see a series of hastily erected stalls all lined up on the quayside flogging the usual dodgy mixture of handbags, cheap leather belts, kaftans and assorted colourful riff-raff. Astonishingly many passengers choose to make do with this as their only taste of Tangiers, but I decided, thank God, to invest this time in a coach tour of the city and environs, with a highlight walking through the medina and Kasbah. Here are some of this extraordinary city's oldest parts, a rabbit warren of narrow passageways, some a mere eighteen inches wide. No wonder Paul Bowles, William Burroughs and Betty Hutton all chose Tangiers as a welcoming haven in their stormy lives. Now this mantle has passed to Marrakech, home to Hollywood stars and starlets, nestling conveniently at the foot of the Atlas Mountains. However to my mind Tangiers is by for the more attractive place, resting on cool hills and surrounded by lush green forests. A magnetic, magic place indeed, and all packed into four hurried hours, before it is back to the boat.
Day 8: Portimao, Portugal. Now we come, so to speak, to the fag end of the cruise. Having "done" Gib and Tangiers in barely a day, we turn tail and race up the coast to Portimao where we have a so-called "anchorage point" waiting for us where tender craft will ferry us to the shore. In fact our designated mooring point seems to be marked by a single buoy bobbing some mile or so offshore and with a swell rapidly rising from four to eight feet within minutes of our arrival. A creaking of pulleys announces that one of our emergency lifeboats is being awkwardly cranked into the sea and with heavy hearts we, hanging over the ship's rails, realise that it is to be in our own escape craft that any expedition to the distance shore will be achieved. After about an hour of shouting, pulling on ropes and general water-based cabaret antics, it is perfectly clear to all that our elderly and infirm passengers would tumble one after the other into the ocean if they were to attempt any manoeuvre from gangplank to lifeboat. Then comes the inevitable announcement that we are to amuse ourselves for the rest of the day and that all excursions are hereby cancelled. A general scrum age for the sun-lounges soon ended in a patchwork quilt of broiling British flesh necessitating a retreat to the inner lounge and the comfort of a draft Becks (£2.80).
Day 9: At Sea. The nine remaining singles assembled, courtesy of Passenger Liaison Services, for an early lunch together and presumably "catch up". Wine was there waiting on the table, which was generally and tacitly acknowledged to be a nice gesture from the management until it became clear that it had to be paid for (£20 per bottle for the red, £25 for the white). So we retreated to our heavily chlorinated water and I suggested that we took the round table "temperature" of our feelings about the voyage thus far. On a scale of 1-10 the votes ranged from 1 to 7 with a mean average of exactly 4.1. Specific complaints roughly in order of length and strength of comments were as follows:
1. Poor food, frequently served luke-warm or even cold. 2. Hurried and overpriced on-shore tours. 3. Drastically bad inter-cabin sound insulation. 4. Overcrowding of on-board facilities, especially during days at sea. 5. Cessation of free hot drinks by 8.30pm. 6. Surly and unhelpful staff attitudes. 7. Overpriced bar items. 8. Constant circulation of photographers leading to overselling of prints being the subject of a revolving display in public areas. 9. No attempt to relay via the ships GPS systems world news on any kind of regular basis. 10. Age and condition of vessel.
One of our group said that the previous evening he had been obliged to lock his cabin door as a result of a violent altercation in the corridor concerning TV noise levels, not in adjacent but in opposing cabins. This escalated to a physical confrontation, which had to be broken up by crewmembers. Only by asking these kinds of questions of fellow travellers did I mange to piece together a proper picture of the voyage as a whole, which apparently included the decamping of some of the crew at Cadiz as a result of poor working conditions, along with some unhappy passengers too. It appears there was an unexpected death on board as well, and three ambulances were seen to be waiting for us at one of our ports of call. And were we briefly stuck on the mud in Gibralter? There was certainly a great deal of muddy water-churning and unexpected delay in leaving.
Day 10. Gijon, Spain. Just time to stretch ones legs before another 48-hour rush for home. I sensed a general feeling of deflation and dissatisfaction amongst many of the passengers alongside a strong desire for a speedy return to home and beauty. Apart from providing a brief unrocking base for a short walk, Gjon seems to have nothing whatsoever to recommend it at all.
Day 11: Last Day. I spoke this morning with a lady who had paid (for herself and her husband) a total of £3000 for the voyage, who was understandably furious to find late bookers has expended merely a third of this at the last minute for similar cabins and facilities. When asked how she rated the whole experience she replied, 2/10. She also mentioned that the questionnaire issued to all passengers for comments carried the chance of a "free cruise" draw if posted into the reception box by 8.0pm. She was making sure she popped hers into the box well after 8.00 so saying, "I wouldn't go again with C and M even if it was free!"
Facilities on Board
A small and inadequately stocked library comprising four arms-chairs (constantly filled) and a single desk, with books locked up at most times. Some recent-ish "House and Garden" type magazines, which appeared to "walk" swiftly from the shelves. Nearby a card room of similar size used occasionally for craft-type activities, which again stretched the available space beyond sensible limits. On the upper deck tucked somewhere under the eaves a stuffy and hot Internet Room. My one attempt to log-on involved a complicated and completely impossible to initiate password system. Get a Blackberry! Spa/Hairdressing/Massage. All untested by yours truly, but one middle-aged guest very pleased with her on-board hairdo.
Quite a number of passengers have returned to the Marco Polo for this cruise as a result of previous experiences when the ship was under different managements, and almost without exception the consensus was that C a M fell far short by comparison. It seems that cost cutting by a very cost-conscious regime is contributing in large measure to customer dissatisfaction. However, for the first time cruisers I spoke to, with no points of comparison, such issues wee not raised.
C and M prides itself on a nightly range of live entertainment in two venues, and certainly some passengers were favourably impressed by this fact alone. Others complained that a recent change of management had left the entertainment basically the same, with the exception of a new Cruise Director. In this respect the present incumbent faired badly by comparison with his predecessor, and was generally considered to be both cocky and aloof, an awkward combination for someone of (at best) modest abilities. The nightly performances of popular middle-of-the-road music (Andrew Lloyd Webber et al) ranged from round one losers from X Factor, to really quite accomplished. Voices were above mere competent, and 4-6 lithe and possibly classically trained dancers in a range of skimpy costumes kept the front row (wheelchair accessible) seats well filled. An orchestra of 6-7 accomplished musicians helped the atmosphere no end, and their native eastern European repertoire was supplement by quite a few American standards, which they clearly liked playing a lot. So an overall seven out of ten on this score.
The Marco Polo in its current guise is basically a ship appealing to a solid working-class passenger compliment. And before readers throw up their hands in horror at the word "class" I should point out that it is precisely this which forms a very strong element in most kinds of cruise, be it in the observation or in the breach. As passengers we are housed and often fed in a tier system based on an ability to pay (or not) and even the uniforms of crew and the hierarchy of command supports the idea that we slot into a class appropriate to our wealth and station in life. If you want to be treated like a Hollywood star of the 30s, take a Princess Grill cruise on the Queen Mary 2, transatlantic. If you want to swig lager with beer-bellies from up North, Marco Polo is your ship. So this is assuredly a "value for money" cruise with the emphasis firmly on the budget-conscious. One of the problems facing C and M is that they attempt to present a Cunard or P and O type front, whilst behind the scenes cut-price catering in conjunction with staff clearly unused to British social mores mean they are failing to actually satisfy either end of the spectrum. This together with a compliment of passengers, who looked like the walking wounded from the Napoleonic Wars, means that you have to be on guard to prevent yourself simply falling in and becoming one of them and ending up being carted off in a wheelchair. One passenger who has already told me that the toast at breakfast had been a severe test of his remaining molars put it like this. "Look straight ahead, slightly above the heads of all the others, avoid eye contact, eat sparingly and carefully, bring plenty of booze on board and enjoy the ports of call". I say amen to that and if you can, leave the Zimmer frame at Tilbury. Ah well, with erupting volcanoes, I guess it wasn't so bad after all.
Small and fortunately next to the broom cupboard so did not suffer from the extreme thin-ness of partition walls which led to violent confrontations between passengers!