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.