The gorgeous Art Deco terraces of the elegant Marco Polo

The gorgeous Art Deco terraces of the elegant Marco Polo

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.

Cocktail Bar, Marco Polo

Cocktail Bar, Marco Polo

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.

Marco Polo entrance lobby

Marco Polo entrance lobby

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.

Those gorgeous aft terraces.....

Those gorgeous aft terraces…..

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!


The Southern Cross

The Southern Cross

For many years from the 60’s onwards, CTC was a regular player in the UK cruise market. Operating mainly with a constantly changing roster of the ‘white sisters’ that were built to operate as partial car ferries in the Baltic, and such stalwarts as the Mikhail Lermontov (which sank off New Zealand in 1986) and the Alexsandr Pushkin, still going strong as the Marco Polo, it introduced generations of British passengers to budget cruising.

It was, in fact, the Airtours of it’s day; more downmarket and, for many, more homely than the likes of P&O and Cunard. CTC was a valuable source of foreign currency revenue for the Soviet Union and, for a few decades, it did good enough business.

The CTC ships used to sail predominantly from Tilbury, and sometimes from Liverpool in season. But when the line acquired the Southern Cross in 1994, it introduced what amounted to the first real programme of regional sailings ever seen in the UK.

Built in 1971 as the original Sun Princess, the Southern Cross was sold to CTC by Premier Cruises, for whom she had been operating in the Bahamas as the Starship Majestic. CTC was intending to follow it’s traditional programme; sailing the ship to Scandinavia, the Mediterranean and the Canaries during summer, and sending her on a line voyage to and from Australia each autumn and spring respectively.

The company did very little to her by way of change; even her deep red, ‘coke tin’ Premier paint scheme was left intact. At 17,000 tons, the Southern Cross was a good fit size wise for the average CTC passenger. She had small cabins, and a centrally located pool that was not much bigger than a postage stamp.  Still, she was to prove initially popular.

What was different was that you could board her in several UK ports; Liverpool, Greenock, Tilbury, and even Bristol were all on the menu, In effect, she introduced what the Americans would subsequently call ‘homeland cruising’ many years before 9/11. Both Fred. Olsen and Cruise And Maritime now follow a programme that was actually initiated by this ex- Russian import.

Artwork for the Southern Cross. CTC seemed to have everything invested in this ship.

Artwork for the Southern Cross. CTC seemed to have everything invested in this ship.

Often as not, the Southern Cross would reposition between two ports, such as Liverpool and Greenock. These trips would be offered as two night party cruises, and they were very popular. It was in this guise that I first sailed on her in August of 1995.

She was a trim, tidy little ship, with passable food and entertainment and, like her predecessors, she offered outstanding value for money. Then, after a couple of seasons, she- and CTC- were suddenly gone. The line quite simply sank without trace.

I caught up with her again a few years later, when she was sailing for Festival Cruises as the Flamenco. By then, her hull had been painted white, with a blue and yellow stripe at the top. Internally, she was almost exactly as I remembered her from the CTC era. However, they had kicked the food service up by quite a notch. I spent a very enjoyable week sailing the Baltic on her. She remained a very pleasant and appealing little ship even then.

Incredibly, she is still going strong, now apparently working as a cruise ship for the Chinese market, but she must surely be on borrowed time now. Like her contemporaries such as the Cunard Adventurer, Song Of Norway and, of course, the Pacific Princess, a sad end is probably not too far away for her.

Still, this diminutive little lady was the ship that premiered regional sailings from UK ports. Small and largely unsung, she left behind a legacy that continues on to this day. She should be remembered for that alone.