Ocean liner and cruise ship fans are a notoriously sentimental lot. They can- and often do- become extraordinarily attached to all manner of different ships, from the palatial to the downright pokey. And yet, right across the board, few ships evoke such a tidal wave of awe, sentiment, and even reverence quite like the Marco Polo.
This might seem strange to some. At 22,000 tons, the Marco Polo is only a tenth of the gross tonnage of the Oasis Of The Seas, There is not a single cabin balcony to be found on board her anywhere. And she has lines that clearly identify her as the product of another age, time and mindset.
And, of course, therein lies her charm.
The old girl was originally built in 1965 as the Alexsandr Pushkin, one of a quintet of sisters built for the then Soviet merchant marine. Staunch and graceful but internally austere, she was a steady, workmanlike ship with a specially ice strengthened hull. And it was this fact that led directly to her second, amazing life as the Marco Polo.
When he decided to form the legendary Orient Lines in 1991, founder Gerry Herrod wanted a ship that could operate anywhere with equal ease, comfort and impunity, from the waters off Amalfi to the ice strewn wastes of Antarctica. For him, the moribund Pushkin was the ideal ship.
Over the next two years, the brusque, outmoded Russian matriach would be gradually transformed into the gorgeous, Art Deco suffused Marco Polo. Except for the engines, the entire interior was, in Herrod’s own, succint phrase, ‘scooped out like an avocado’. From truck to keel and stem to stern, an entire new ship took shape, carefully crafted within the confines of the original graceful, still eminently seaworthy hull.
The reborn Marco Polo came back into service in October 1993 and, after a few initial hiccups, quickly settled into a popular, profitable cruise service. With a trio of aft facing, upper deck Jacuzzis and a set of elegant, cascading tiered decks at the stern, the Marco Polo became a byword for style, glamour and elegant adventure cruising. With superb food and flawless service, she set the benchmark for luxury exploration. That proud silhouette, with its gorgeous sheer, gracefully raked prow and jaunty single funnel, would become just as familiar a sight at the top of the North Cape, or lying at anchor off pristine Portofino.
When Orient Lines was bought by Norwegian Cruise Line in 1999, the company became part of a much larger operation. A period of retrenchment at Norwegian resulted in the winding down of Orient Lines, and a period of Marco Polo sailing on charter for the German tour operator, Transocean Cruises. The venerable ship seemed lost to the British market forever.
Happily, the establishment of the British owned and run Cruise And Maritime Voyages (CMV) resulted in the return of the Marco Polo to the UK cruise market. Now based mainly in Tilbury (but also offering seasonal sailings from Newcastle and sometimes Rosyth, Scotland), the still elegant ship is today a warm, welcoming cocoon of intimate, expansive civility.
I sailed on her a year or so ago, after an absence of fourteen years, and it was like falling in love all over again. Those still sinuous, gracefully curved aft terraces, and the trio of bubbling, upper deck hot tubs, were as welcoming as ever. Inside, the Art Deco interiors and opulent, Balinese accented art work assembled with such care and effort by Gerry Herrod, remain gloriously intact. There was definitely a very welcome feeling of ‘falling through the looking glass’ here.
With a passenger capacity of 800, the Marco Polo is an adults only ship these days. The cabins have real keys and, while they lack balconies, they are cosy little retreats, handy for almost everything. The casino of the Orient Lines era has been replaced by the centrally located Columbus Club but, other than that, the Marco Polo was almost exactly as I remember her.
Today, the still majestic vessel makes voyages ranging from long weekend cruises to Amsterdam and Antwerp, to epic, forty two day grand sweeps out to the highlights of the Caribbean and Amazon. Sleek, diminutive in size but vast in terms of welcome, the Marco Polo turns heads wherever she goes; a floating time capsule that sails on in the here and now.
There are no rock climbing walls, flow riders, Vegas-style floor shows; no glut of speciality restaurants aboard the Marco Polo. This is a ship that has a raison d’etre rather than a theme.
Here you have a gracious, beautifully appointed, slightly quirky grand dame that has a heart, a soul, and a charisma all of her own. A subtle, seductive vibe exists aboard the Marco Polo that simply cannot be replicated, cloned, or enhanced in any maritime architect’s renderings, however talented.
I hope she sails forever, personally. But my advice is, if this style of ship does make your adrenaline flow that bit quicker, then get out there. Enjoy!