Sharp as a butter knife, the slender, raked prow of the Marco Polo cut an elegant swathe through the grey, rolling swells of the summertime Baltic. To port, the last, lingering remnants of the setting sun cast a surreal, golden slant across the top of the thin membrane that separated sky and sea. Inside, soft light glowed on beautiful marble and etched glass, bathing the entire ship in a warm, cosy glow. From somewhere up forward, the sound of a moody, throaty saxophone caught my ears for a moment.
We were less than two hundred miles from Saint Petersburg, and a million more from reality.
Celebrating her incredible, fiftieth anniversary in 2015, the Marco Polo- a ship that first set sail in the same year as the first keel plates of the QE2 were laid on Clydebank- was returning to the waters that had actually given birth to her. With a sell out capacity of just under eight hundred passengers, the adults only, awesomely anachronistic ship provided the perfect platform for the adventure of a lifetime.
And what an adventure it proved to be. A string of stunning sea cities throng the edges of this ancient, alluring sea like so many gems, danging from an ornate necklace. Taut, compelling Tallinn, that amazing medieval theme park; cool, classy Stockholm and bustling, beautiful Helsinki. Warnemunde, the gorgeous, stunningly vibrant German beach resort used as a jumping off point for Berlin….
As for Copenhagen, even Danny Kaye underestimated how ‘wonderful’ Copenhagen truly is. Day or night, this rollicking, largely pedestrian city is the fun capital of Scandinavia; a compact city of green copper spires, long, winding streets and vast, open squares. Canals full of fishing boats and one of the world’s most amazing theme parks are suffused by the warmest and most welcoming vibe anywhere in the region in this shimmering, ethereal summertime playground.
Saint Petersburg is, of course, different. More remote, a city with so many different facets. One part Faberge egg, one part Russian matroshka doll, this fabulous, turbulent city merited the two days we spent there, and would have merited many more as well.
Grand, imposing and full of almost relentlessly European architecture, the great city wears the scars of it’s turbulent, three hundred year plus past like a series of battle honors. Revolution and suppression; war and famine. siege and a seat of government; Saint Petersburg has seen it all. A city where Tsars, assassins and men like Rasuptin, Trotsky and Lenin once strolled, plotted, and set into motion the events that defined an entire new world order. As destinations go, it has compulsion and attraction on a scale perhaps unmatched anywhere else in the world.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll visit all of these amazing places in more depth. And, even more importantly, we’ll get under the skin of the relatively small, massively alluring ship that carried us to and from this amazing series of fairground rides.
Make no mistake; the Marco Polo is truly unique. And she gets more so as the years pass, because nothing like her will ever be built again. Part time capsule, part antidote to the fleets of mega ships breaking out across the world’s oceans like some vast, incurable rash, the Marco Polo is a voyage of discovery all by herself.
So, I’d like to cordially invite you on board. May I recommend that you check out the expansive, aft facing outdoor terrace of Scott’s Bar, and perhaps treat yourself to a cold Vodka and Cranberry? Grab a seat, kick off your shoes, and just breathe.
We have three thousand or so miles to go. The ropes are off, and a slowly widening gap is opening between the quayside and that gorgeous, flaring blue flank.
Let’s see what’s out there, eh?