FIVE DAYS ON THE MARCO POLO PART TWO- THE CONTINENTAL STYLE…

Dinner on the Marco Polo was a pleasant experience that same evening. We had a good table and, it has to be said, were well looked after in the busy, beautiful Waldorf restaurant. Good company and good food- created and plated for the British palate- combined to create a wonderful atmosphere.

I was still basking in that warm glow of contentment when I wandered back into Honfleur about nine o’clock that evening. By now the Marco Polo was ablaze with light from stem to stern; deck after deck of her lights shimmered bewitchingly on the silent, ink black Seine. It was hard to take my eyes off her as I wandered back into town, but the volume of traffic on the roads made it infinitely wise to do so!

I sauntered slowly back to that gorgeous marina. There was no rush- we would be here till one in the morning, before heading fifty more  miles upstream for our truncated visit to Rouen.

The town was a lot less busy than on the afternoon. The crowds of shoppers and tourists had vanished like Channel mist, and only a few groups of mainly locals thronged the bars and cafes that surrounded the still waters of the marina. The only sound was from a few televisions, screening football games. Every now and again, a burst of ragged cheers was testament to a goal. Personally. I couldn’t care less. For tonight, I was a man on a mission.

That mission involved finding a suitable quayside venue and a decent bottle of wine. Intrepid detective work gave up both. For a couple of blissful hours I sat enjoying some delicious Muscadet on an unfeasible warm, October evening.

The wine was effortlessly chilled, and so was yours truly by the time I wandered back to the warmth and light of the Marco Polo. Ah well, when in France…

Back on board, the night was in full swing. There were still several hundred people up on the outer decks when the Marco Polo swung loose soon after one in the morning and stood out into the darkness, destination Rouen.

The rain came back with a vengeance in the morning. It thumped unerringly on the streets of the old town of Rouen as we took off on a quick, guided walking tour. Rain or no, I saw enough to make me want to come back for longer.

In the first grey light of that Monday, pools of light from shops and houses glimmered weakly on the sodden, winding cobble stones of the old part of town. Row upon row of vaulting, half timbered houses loomed above the almost deserted streets. Many of these dated back literally many centuries.

Gothic spires and ancient, turreted ramparts scowled their contempt at the early morning gloom, just as they have done for centuries. In the city centre, the famous Gros Horlorge clock was a sudden, unexpected burst of blue and gold bravado, as welcome as it was isolated in its quirky splendour. Cafe chairs were stacked up against walls, as if seeking refuge from the rain. Lines of plane trees stood shivering like Napoleon’s grenadiers in the bone chilling cold.

The spot where Joan of Arc was martyred in May, 1431 is marked by a stark, single cross. The simplicity and pathos of the place combined with the driving rain, and struck home like a guided missile. I found myself far, far more moved than I would ever have guessed possible.

How can anyone actually burn an eighteen year old girl alive? And how can that same lonely, no doubt terrified girl show such amazing courage and strength? During her sham trial- the verdict was already determined- this illiterate peasant girl calmly and completely destroyed every charge and argument brought against her by her supposedly well educated, soon-to-be murderers. All, of course, to no avail.

These thoughts flitted through my mind as the Marco Polo turned to head back upstream soon after noon. A magnificent visual smorgasbord was about to unfold on both sides and so, braving the still unrelenting rain, I resumed station in the hot tub at the top of the ship.

And what a vantage spot! I forgot the rain as a fabulous vista of lush, sodden fields and valleys unfolded on both sides of us. Chateaux and ancient monasteries peeped out from among the foliage for seconds before disappearing again. Behind me, the wake of the Marco Polo cut a swathe along the steel grey Seine, sending the propeller wash surging back along both banks.

Flocks of water borne ducks surfed those impromptu rollers. On the banks, herds of lethargic cattle flopped down as if on strike. Coasters and small container ships fussed past the Marco Polo in both directions as we nudged under random, vaulting bridges.

It went on and on. Cars and buses beetled alongside the ship with what seemed like indecent haste. Villages- some of them almost unchanged in five centuries- tumbled down to the river banks on both sides, with Gothic church spires sharp against the gloom. Tidal waves of gossamer spun mist surged down through valleys to the water, before fading in the gloom astern of us. It was a fantastic spectacle that felt like some amazing, slowly playing movie footage from another time and place. Rain or no, I was utterly spellbound.

Next day brought a miraculous transformation. The sun came out once again as the Marco Polo picked her way nimbly up the sixty mile long estuary of the Scheldt, destination Antwerp.

This gorgeous city has got to be one of the most under rated experiences in Europe, if not the world. The Grand Place is a glut of honey coloured, gingerbread Gothic magnificence, with a staggering town hall and stunning cathedral. Cafes and bars hug the edges of this fabulous formal square, while horse drawn tourist buses clop casually along the winding streets that fan out from this central spot.

The Belgians are as devoted to their local beer as the French are to their wine, and it shows. In fact, drinking and eating well is central to their whole philosophy. Because as much as you might marvel at the famous Rubens House (and you will), real Belgian art these days is in the shape of the world’s best chocolate, and the mouth watering, diet defying waffles that cry out to be smothered in strawberry jam, chocolate sauce, or even both.Once sampled, never forgotten.

Oh yes, the Rubens house. It is actually more like an Italian renaissance palazzo than anything else, with a fabulous, balconied courtyard. Inside, centuries old, cake rich masterpieces frown down on you like some many scowling medieval merchants. It’s breathtaking, and we had way too short a time to get more than a snapshot of the place.

Back in the city, trams snaked along the main arteries as we headed back to the ship. A quayside band serenaded the Marco Polo out into the night as we slipped our ropes for the last time. The next morning would find us safely tied up alongside the landing stage, back in Tilbury.

Impressions: this is a great way to see a few cities in a short amount of time, and the voyage down the Seine was a scenic spectacular that no land based tour could replicate. Pack and unpack once, and the floating hotel moves with you. Marvellous stuff.

Minuses? The ship is pretty busy, so expect lines for getting on and off, and at buffets, etc. A little patience goes a long way. If you want non stop casino action, loads of bars and shows and balcony cabins, then you might want to consider alternatives.

But… this is a ship that oozes sheer class and style. Marco Polo is warm, welcoming and marvellous value. Give her a go. You won’t be disappointed….

Advertisements

FIVE DAYS ON THE MARCO POLO PART ONE- HOG ROAST TO HONFLEUR…

It was not the most auspicious of starts. Rain drummed in vengeful torrents on the boat deck of the Marco Polo as she swung clear of the historic landing stage at Tilbury. From somewhere through the murk there came the mournful bellow of a container ship’s foghorn. People everywhere sought shelter under the terraces overhanging the aft decks. But the hot coffee warmed me, and nothing could dampen my enthusiasm at being back on this peachy little ship after a fourteen year absence.

Just the sight of her warmed the heart, The main deck curves perkily upwards at the bow and stern, looking like a wistful smile. From the edge of the river, the hull opens out into a pair of beautifully soaring flanks. The bow- sharp and purposeful- really is like something from another age. A neat coat of royal blue paint is ringed by a pair of light blue bands. This wonderful hull is crowned by a snow white superstructure and a single staunch, gracefully proud funnel.

The cumulative effect is quite bewitching, and perfectly in proportion to her size. At just over 22,000 tons, the Marco Polo is a baby in the cruising stakes. Yet in terms of sheer charm and charisma, she towers over many of her contemporaries.

I was on board for a five day city break to some of the more accessible coastal ports on the continent. In this case, we were bound firstly for Amsterdam. From there, an overnight call in Rouen beckoned before our final arrival in Antwerp. All told, a pleasant, well thought out little jaunt.

Cruise and Maritime Voyages own and operate what is a veritable time capsule of a ship; one I had sailed on twice in the nineties in her previous Orient Lines incarnation. And, once settled in, so much was instantly familiar. It was like slipping back into a pair of half forgotten slippers; surprisingly warm and comfortable, even after fourteen years.

The bulk of the public rooms are on one deck. Right forward is a show lounge that opens onto a main bar. You then pass through the main lobby, and walk past another lounge with a neat little side bar (pic below) before ending at the indoor/outdoor main buffet area on board. Beyond that is the outdoor pool deck, dominated by a statue of Rudolf Nureyev.

The internal theme is late Art Deco. Beautiful, stained glass Tiffany ceilings hold sway above open communal spaces. There is much use of cool cream shades in the furnishings. Random bits of eastern oriental statuary stand in coves, like so many random exclamation marks. A midships lobby bar is heavy on nautical regalia, with a wooden steering wheel and big world globe.

Most of these public spaces are lined by floor to ceiling windows that admit a welcome wash of light on sunny days. Three Art Deco style staircases punctuate most of the accommodation decks, together with a trio of lifts.

The main dining room, the two sittings at dinner Waldorf, is one level down, and echoes the rest of the decor. Up top, Scott’s bar is a show lounge cum disco overlooking the pool, with curved outdoor terraces that tumble gracefully to the fantail.

Cabins are a decent size for a short cruise. Mine was an upper deck one, with twin windows and two single beds. There was a good shower, ample storage space, and a flat screen TV that never got turned on at all. The really attractive stuff was all outside, as it happened.

Our first night on board was pleasantly low key. Marco Polo does not pretend to be a glitzy, Vegas style show boat. Instead, there is a nightly show in the main lounge, live music in the bars, a late night cabaret up at Scott’s, and then a later still disco. It would prove to be more than enough, especially on such a busy run as ours.

The thumping rain that greeted our arrival in Amsterdam lifted almost as if by magic, to reveal a city wrapped in gorgeous, early autumn foliage. I took a canal boat tour, sampling fresh herring and fine Dutch beer as we beetled between banks lined with brownstone houses. Arrow straight lines of plane trees were still swathed in a riot of lush green and rust coloured leaves. Bicycles tried to keep pace with us as we nudged under a string of quirky little bridges.

Later, we took in a stunning view of the city from the terrace of the Amsterdam Hilton. A forest of spires, church towers and green, copper plated cupolas loomed against a duck egg blue sky. From here, it was easy to see how the city centre developed in a series of concentric circles, linked by roads and canals like the strands of a spider’s web. Trains rolling in and out of Dam station looked like so many brightly coloured toys.

Our departure was held up by an overly lethargic container ship that hogged the North Sea canal like an idly wallowing pig. So much so, in fact, that our overnight in Rouen was cancelled in favour of a late evening in Honfleur. We would head upstream to Rouen for a few hours the morning after.

This gave me ample time next morning to renew my acquaintance with the on board hot tubs. Thee of them are on the highest aft deck, and they offer fabulous views out over both sides. I was soon par boiled nicely, and would have lingered even longer, but for the irresistible smell of freshly cooked suckling pig.

This being a Sunday, the chefs organised an on deck hog roast. And oh, was it good. Three times, to be precise. Little piggy did not die in vain; I was quietly blessing his late mother even as the mouth of the River Seine yawned open in front of us. An hour later, and the Marco Polo was safely alongside in mild autumn sunshine.

Oh lord, Honfleur is chocolate box pretty. The inner harbour is surrounded on three sides by vaulting, multi storied bars,shops and restaurants in shades of blue, white and gray. Cafes full of tourists spill across the crowded cobbles towards a marina studded with yachts, small motor boats and bluff, brightly coloured fishing boats. They chug fussily out to sea, past the carousel at the water’s edge, and out into the famous oyster beds of the River Seine.

It is a pretty compelling place. Umbrella shaded tables stand next to yachts that unfurl their sails with the languid grace of preening ducks. From somewhere, the moody voice of a violin floods the afternoon air with a thin, pleading pout. There are young families with babies in strollers, and old men playing cards at a cafe. Add in some eight hundred modern day pirates pouring ashore from the Marco Polo, and you’ve got quite a mix.

Further afield, the Monet Gardens are a lush, tranquil expanse that eventually open onto a broad, dusky sand beach. Monet painted many Honfleur scenes; he was obsessed with the play of light on the water. Watching an almost ethereally tender sunset from the beach, I could understand why.

 

PART TWO TO FOLLOW…

WHITHER, BERMUDA? CRUISING TO PARADISE IN THE ATLANTIC

Of all the destinations available on a week long summer cruise, few are more easily accessible or as compelling as Bermuda. Small, beautifully formed and awash with fabulous hospitality, it is often casually lumped in with the islands of the Caribbean cruise circuit.

This is a million miles from true. Bermuda is a full thousand miles north of the Caribbean. And where many of those rum-and-reggae idylls are almost within shouting distance of each other, Bermuda sits alone. Some six hundred-odd miles off the coast of the Carolinas, Bermuda is a surreal, emerald and blush pink fish hook, twenty one miles long and two wide, somehow implausibly adrift in the Atlantic.

The changes go much deeper than geography. Bermuda is so different from the Caribbean that it might appear to be on another planet. There are no private hire cars; no neon, and no franchise fast food chains. The speed limit is a sedate twenty miles an hour. Crime is incredibly rare. After all, where could a criminal go?

The result is a calmer, more mellow place- and, indeed, pace- than the islands to the south. Nightlife is nothing like as ‘full on’ as down in the Caribbean, but the main towns- especially Hamilton and, to a lesser extent, St. Georges’- have enough bar hopping and nightlife to keep you going through into the wee hours.

And, God knows, it is drop-dead gorgeous. The island is fringed by blush pink beaches kissed by warm, gently rolling surf. Rock formations shroud pools of water so clear that you can see the bottom, over a hundred feet down. Walk in the water- it’s warm enough to- and parrot fish will swim calmly in front of you. Broad, swaggering palms dot the sands, while lush, immaculately manicured golf courses tumble almost right down to the edge of the Atlantic itself.

A decade or so ago, a typical Bermuda traffic jam consisted of two mopeds and a golf cart. It’s busier than that now, and yet it is still remarkably easy to get away from it all. Just beware of the scooters for hire; they seem to emerge from all sorts of places like small swarms of maddened wasps. If you’re a scuba diver, you’ll find some of the clearest snorkelling anywhere in the world. The underwater world is so colourful, diverse and expansive that it could be a natural museum in its own right.

It goes on and on. There are eerily magnificent subterranean grottoes, and lush, rich expanses of gently rolling greenery. Houses in a riot of pastel shades peep out from among the stuff everywhere like fabulous exclamation marks. Ancient forts stand like craggy sentinels against the sunset Atlantic rollers. Fleets of yachts bob at anchor like idle, contented swans in secluded anchorages as the setting sun flits across the water, and locals and tourists alike congregate over drinks at a waterfront bar. The scent of oleander and hibiscus hangs in the air like fine perfume.

It is, of course, famously expensive, and Bermuda values its exclusivity. Hotel prices can potentially induce a coronary. And that, my friends, is where a cruise ship can come in as such a good deal.

Most Bermuda cruises sail from April through October, mainly from New York and Boston. The ships typically leave on a Sunday afternoon, and arrive at King’s Wharf around noon on Wednesday. The return trip leaves around lunchtime on Friday.

This gives you an unusual amount of time to see what this fabled island has to offer. But, truth be told, the cruises of a decade ago stayed for even longer. They would arrive on a Tuesday morning, allowing for a full three nights in either Hamilton and/or the original, chocolate box pretty capital of St. Georges’.

So what changed? In a nutshell, ships got bigger. Much bigger. In the old days, a quintet of summer  ‘Bermuda boats’ used to arrive in the two ports, week in and out, for six months each year. And, while it gave you a lot of time ashore, it also cost the cruise lines a huge wedge in terms of revenue.

Firstly, they had to pay three nights’ docking fees. Secondly, the on board shops and casinos were not allowed to open in port-another obvious revenue drain. Plus, getting even ships of this size- around 50,000 tons-into St. Georges’ could be tricky. That magnificent approach through a bottleneck of a channel left only around nine feet of clearance room on either side for any ship. The potential for damage, both to the ships and the delicate coral that throngs the area, was always all too real.

The response was to develop the old Naval Dockyard site at KIng’s Wharf into a new cruise ship complex. Now, four huge resort style ships at a time can be accommodated here. More people means more traffic. For this up and coming area, the arrival of the mega ships has been a real money spinner.

Make no mistake; the cruise lines are quids in, too. Now the ships spend one night less in port, they can sail at a slower pace to get there. Fuel bills and docking fees drop, while on board spend goes up.

Are there losers? For sure. Since the smaller ships were pensioned off, both Hamilton and St. Georges have seen their cruise trade implode. Either is lucky to get a handful of even one off visitors now. They are simply too small to take the new breed of maritime theme parks sailing the sea these days.

Yes, the entrance to St. Georges’ could be enlarged, but the inevitable destruction of local coral could be on a disastrous scale indeed. But that is the stark choice. Cut, or be cut out of the loop.

Ships could tender, but here Bermuda does not help itself. The law mandates that only large, local tenders- some of them holding upwards of 500- can be used for this role. The faster, far more nimble on board launches stay shackled to the mother ship. Again, this is down to understandable local concern for the coral. Unfortunately, the ‘big tender’ solution is not time effective, and works in no-one’s interest.

And, while the current breed of ships are unquestionably bigger, more commodious, and much more awash with things to do than their forebears, I can’t help but feel that something warm, precious and special has been lost. Those smaller ships were more intimate; friendships formed quicker, and more spontaneous stuff just happened, like something conjured out of a magician’s hat. Mind you, I’m also well aware that things often look better in hindsight. But those smaller ships truly were special little gems; magical little palazzi on the briny that still make me smile even now.

None of this should deter you from going to Bermuda. King’s Wharf has been beautifully developed-tastefully, even. A two day, $28 dollar pass gets you free bus and ferry access anywhere- take the ferry round to wherever you want to go. And there are now enough shore side restaurants, bars and clubs in the King’s Wharf area for a really special evening ashore.

Who goes? Both Celebrity and sister company, Royal Caribbean, sail from New Jersey to Bermuda. But for the best views of what is still the world’s most spellbinding skyline, take the Norwegian Gem and sail down past Manhattan in real style. Next year sees the addition of the brand new Norwegian Breakaway- the biggest ship ever to sail year round from New York- to the Bermuda run.

But however and whenever you go, just kick back and savour it. Don’t knock yourself out trying to see everything at once. Let the island come to you and, make no bones, you will want to return.

You’ll love Bermuda and, as you’ll find, this shimmering, sun splashed little island of dreams and legends will love you right back. Enjoy!