ANTWERP PANORAMA- A COLLECTION OF PHOTOS

The old harbour of Antwerp

The old harbour of Antwerp

Yachts in the inner harbour

Yachts in the inner harbour

Belgian wall art on the streets, Antwerp

Belgian wall art on the streets, Antwerp

Tables from an outdoor cafe

Tables from an outdoor cafe

Typical cobbled streets of the old town

Typical cobbled streets of the old town

Ornate facades abound in Antwerp

Ornate facades abound in Antwerp

Old stucco architecture abounds here

Old stucco architecture abounds here

The town square, called the Grote Markt

The town square, called the Grote Markt

Corner styling on Antwerp's town hall

Corner styling on Antwerp’s town hall

Steen Castle, the guardian of Antwerp

Steen Castle, the guardian of Antwerp

The main entrance to the Steen

The main entrance to the Steen

Close up aspect of the Steen

Close up aspect of the Steen

Part of the old courtyard of the castle

Part of the old courtyard of the castle

Another shot down into fairy tale Antwerp

Another shot down into fairy tale Antwerp

Inside the courtyard of the Steen

Inside the courtyard of the Steen

Another view of the castle complex

Another view of the castle complex

Back in the centre of the old town

Back in the centre of the old town

Close up of the old town facades

Close up of the old town facades

Refuelling stop outside, Antwerp style

Refuelling stop outside, Antwerp style

Horse and cart bus in the city centre

Horse and cart bus in the city centre

More zany Belgian street art in Antwerp

More zany Belgian street art in Antwerp

Courtyard cafe in the old town of Antwerp

Courtyard cafe in the old town of Antwerp

A-ROSA FLORA; THE RHINE GODDESS

Dreaming wide awake; sailing the Rhine in spring

Dreaming wide awake; sailing the Rhine in spring

The surface of the springtime Rhine was like a mirror, still and silent as a string of cotton candy clouds flitted across it like so many ghostly galleons. From the balcony of the the A-Rosa Flora, I watched entranced as as succession of stunning vistas unfolded around me like a series of staggering drum rolls, one after another.

One minute we motored effortlessly past giant, hulking industrial plants, the new cathedrals of the 21st century. Another minute, and we ghosted past small villages clustered round the spire of some ancient church. A bend in the river would offer up broad, sandy beaches dotted with improbable gangs of roaming horses, enjoying the returning springtime sun.

Passing under vaulting, arched bridges and through long, deep canal locks, we nudged effortlessly into ancient, fabled Dutch and Belgian cities and some lesser known gems along the way. There was sturdy, Gothic accented Ghent, with its cobbled streets and looming spires, and poignant, pretty Arnhem, with its flower strewn waterfront promenade and the famous ‘bridge too far’ that still straddles the Rhine at this juncture.

Vibrant, swaggering Amsterdam and cutting edge architecture in the vast harbour of Rotterdam formed a fabulous contrast to the breezy, yacht studded harbour at Hoorn. Antwerp was all clattering horses’ hooves on cobbled streets and impossibly gorgeous waffles, lashed in hot chocolate sauce, savoured against a soundtrack of ringing church bells in one of the most magnificent grand squares anywhere in Europe.

Pool deck on the A-Rosa Flora

Pool deck on the A-Rosa Flora

We moved deftly through an endless hinterland of street cafes and flower strewn streets and squares, sailing past flotillas of sturdy Rhine coasters, each one with a car or two strapped to it’s stern and, often as not, a furiously barking dog standing guard on deck. Lines of plane trees stood like sentries as the setting sun flitted skittishly between the foliage, warming the ancient river with an amazing, translucent wash.

Our passage was almost dreamlike; our transport a paragon of modern luxury. The A-Rosa Flora was making only her third voyage, yet already she has become an amazing cocoon of style, warmth and excellence. With open seating dining in a window walled restaurant that regularly offered up the most amazing food I have eaten on any river boat, it was a feast for both the palate and the senses.

Smart, crisp and modern, the A-Rosa Flora boasts a vibrant, modish palette that allows for the bright, linear decor to complement the wash of floor to ceiling natural light that suffuses the boat. An elegant observation lounge right forward leads to the dining room via a starboard side inner promenade. One deck down a small, beautiful jewel of a spa offered an almost water level perspective of the outdoor pageant as it slowly unfurled.

On deck, canvas chairs and wooden tables dotted the forward and slightly raised aft deck. In between was a pool, a small golf putting green, and even a sit up, outdoor bar. Like everything else on board, the quality of fixtures and fittings was superlative. Clean, crisp and incredibly comfortable, the A-Rosa Flora is a modern, modular marriage of intelligent design and subtle, finely styled flair. If the opposition isn’t worried, it should be.

The elegant dining room

The elegant dining room

It is no exaggeration to say that dining was a feast; from the freshly baked breakfast breads and strong, piping hot coffee to the gorgeous, unmissable soups, right down to the delicately prepared fish and such evening dishes as reindeer, it was simply fabulous. The desserts were creamy, custard and chocolate confections that dared you to try and ignore them. I failed. Repeatedly.

The cabins? Four suites had proper private balconies, but most- such as mine- had a French balcony. Twin beds that convert to a very comfy double,  a couple of comfy chairs, and a flat screen TV. Three wardrobes and ample drawers provide more than enough storage space; the dress code is smart casual right throughout the trip.

The bathroom is shower only, though it is an excellent shower. Best of all was the floor to ceiling sliding door that opened up onto that balcony rail; a beautiful place for enjoying a glass of chilled sekt as the A-Rosa Flora ghosted silently along the implacable, moonlit Rhine.

All things considered, those rooms are more than simply comfortable; each one is a little haven. And, this being a river boat, everything else is just a simple step away.

With an all inclusive drinks policy on board and a staff that absolutely work their socks off from top to bottom, dawn till dusk, the A-Rosa Flora serves up the storied, ancient Grand Dames that line the banks of the Rhine with singular aplomb and panache. It’s an elegant, indolent and all inclusive way to see these fantastic places, many of them looking like something straight out of the pages of a Brothers Grimm fable.

Exquisite panoramas from the forward Observation Lounge

Exquisite panoramas from the forward Observation Lounge

And, with all your shore excursions and transfers included for the duration, there is no more convenient or inclusive way to see the magnificent, medieval magic of old Europe. Just lovely.

CRUISE AND MARITIME- SMALL BUT SWEET

Cruise and Maritime can show you the beauty of Ibiza

Cruise and Maritime can show you the beauty of Ibiza

Cruise and Maritime is a relative newcomer to the UK cruising scene, but in a few short years it has managed to acquire a trio of smaller, extremely comfortable ‘ladies of the sea’ of a certain vintage, Marketed successfully to a clientele that is naturally averse to the current generation of glittering, Vegas- style mega ships, it also offers a summertime series of sailing from different home ports around the country. As with their rival, Fred. Olsen, this has proved to be a winning formula.

There is a lot of flexibility in the company schedules, from overnight repositioning cruises to gargantuan, thirty two night round trip cruises to the Caribbean and back. And, with this winter season’s charter of the small, beautifully styled Astor, Cruise and Maritime now offers the welcome option to sail to and from Australia and South Africa over the winter months; a real boon for those averse to airports and flying in general.

The company’s trio of swells consists of the aforementioned Astor, a stylish lady of 21,000 tons with a graceful, swept back funnel and some gorgeous tiered decks at the stern. Discovery is the former Island Princess, also around 20,000 tons. With light, airy interiors and a sliding glass roof over her central lido pool, she is ideal for cruises in northern waters in the long summer nights.

Perhaps best known is the Marco Polo, a wonderful, typically styled liner, suffused in bow to stern art deco, and blessed with a wonderful series of cascading, upper deck terraces at the stern. A similar size to her fleetmates, her capacity of around 800 passengers is also on a par with the other two ships. And, like them, she offers a uniformity of product across the board.

Visit Honfleur on a Cruise and Maritime city break

Visit Honfleur on a Cruise and Maritime city break

Common to all three of the Cruise and Maritime ships is a warm, intimate atmosphere, and food, service and entertainment geared towards a predominantly older, UK market. There are very few balcony cabins on any of the ships, and extra tariff restaurants are a complete no-no here.

What you do get is a good value, solid product that will take you to some fascinating places, at a genuinely good price point. The exception is the single cabins, which are typically twice the rate of a double, and something the company needs to address in light of aggressive discounting by rivals.

Both Discovery and Marco Polo shift bases around the country during the summer, sailing from ports such as Bristol, Edinburgh, Harwich and Newcastle, as well as the main, year round base of Tilbury. The Essex port has a dedicated coach connection from London Victoria for all sailings, and is also easily reached  by rail from anywhere in the UK via London’s Fenchurch Street station.

Cruise and Maritime is a real alternative to the mega ships of Cunard and P&O. The ships are charming and evocative, well run, and offer a whole raft of optional itineraries. You can even spend the evening on board Marco Polo pierside in Tilbury, and enjoy drinks, dinner and a floorshow on board. This is a great way to get the ‘feel’ of the ship without going overboard on the finances.

Shell Beach, Saint Barts. Go there with Cruise and Maritime's winter escape

Shell Beach, Saint Barts. Go there with Cruise and Maritime’s winter escape

I particularly recommend some of the short, two to five day short cruises offered by Marco Polo, many of which are ideal for visiting some of Northern Europe’s more appealing Christmas markets, such as Antwerp and Ghent. These are also ideal pick me ups, and they also offer the opportunity to see and discover some new and very attractive cities at a good price point. Add in the attractions of a secure, largely all inclusive environment, and the value becomes obvious.

Best of all, there’s also no worries on the amount of personal luggage you can bring back with you, so you can shop to your heart’s- and your wallet’s- content. Enjoy.

CITY BREAKS CRUISES- LOTS TO LOVE

ImageOne massive area of growth in the last few years has been in the number of short city break cruises that operate primarily from south coast ports such as Southampton and Dover. Hardly surprising, given the huge benefits than can accrue to both company and passenger. Here’s the lowdown on why.

Cruise lines like operating these schedules because they are low on fuel costs, and high on potential shore excursions sales. This is especially so when a ship might dock in, say, Zeebrugge; most people will buy a shore excursion to Bruges, rather than simply doing the short train ride on their own. Many people prefer the convenience of having everything pre packaged, and the cruise lines are quite happy to comply.

ImageItineraries can range from between two and five days, and include everything from the smaller, more homely styled ships of Fred. Olsen and Cruise and Maritime, to the gargantuan Cunard Flagship, Queen Mary 2. Once solely the preserve of summer holiday weekends, the odds are now that you can find just such a festive jaunt at any time of the year.

The big ships of P&O and Cunard are ideal if you consider the ship to be the destination, and all you really need is some shopping time ashore, while enjoying some serious spa pampering time for the rest of the voyage. This alone is enough for many people, and it is also an ideal way to get the feel of a ship if you’re considering a longer break. Plus, you can do it without breaking the bank.

The downside of these big ships is, as always, the places where they cannot go. Their size usually limits them to big industrial ports, such as Le Havre, Zeebrugge and the likes. Cunard, for instance, use Rotterdam as an entry port for visitors to Amsterdam. And while the two cities are, admittedly, only an hour apart, that’s two hours of your time gone on what  is obviously a trip short on time.

The smaller ships can slip neatly into the real gems such as Honfleur, a pastel pretty fishing port that is worth a day of anybody’s life. So, too, Is Antwerp, a glorious Gothic theme park devoted solely to Belgium’s ‘Holy Trinity’ of waffles, chocolate and beer. Some of the smaller ships stay overnight in one of these ports, giving you the opportunity to dine and drink ashore for the evening.

Regardless of its size, your ship offers you the safety, security and comfort of a very good hotel, with an inclusivity and at a price point that no land based hotel could possibly even begin to approach. Whoever you choose to sail with, the value is obvious.

There is one port of call that I would caution you about: Guernsey. And that is not because there is anything wrong with the place- it’s chocolate box pretty. It’s all about access. Or rather, lack of it.

Guernsey sits off the coast of France, and has no docking facilities for even the smallest ships. All landings are by tender boat from your ship.

ImageThe problem is that if the English Channel is in the least bit stroppy, then no sensible captain is going to put tenders in the water. Yes, the means you’re not going ashore, owing to adverse weather. And in the English Channel, ‘adverse’ is usually the rule rather than the exception. On my six cruises thus far slated to call at Guernsey, I have managed to get ashore twice. And all of these were in mid summer.

Should this be a deal breaker? That’s down to you, and how much you really wanted to see what is truthfully a very pretty little island.

That said, these great little escapes are mushrooming in popularity, and I expect the trend to continue. Fred. Olsen in particular now run some nice December ‘Christmas Market’ mini cruises that include an overnight stay in fabled, medieval Rouen. There can be few more enchanting locations to spend a few hours wandering the cobbled streets as you watch the snow fall.

Especially so when you remember that your floating hotel is not far away, it will be warm and welcoming and- best of all- someone will always have the kettle on. Happy wanderings!

ANTWERP; BELGIUM’S TRUE GEM

ImageAntwerp lies some sixty miles inland, along the broad sweep of the River Scheldt as it leaves the North Sea. Capital of the Flanders region of Belgium, the population of around half a million makes it the most densely populated city in the country, though the actual capital- Brussels- is physically larger. The seaport is still one of the largest on the shores of mainland Europe even now.

ImageYou need to know how good the waffles are here. Belgians elevate eating and drinking to the level of an art form, one well on a par with any of the cake rich creations by Rubens that still adorn the walls of his amazing, Italian themed palazzo. And you do need to go and see that, right after you’ve finished your waffles. To take in both the Rubens House and it’s magnificent collection of classical milestones, you should allow at least a good couple of hours.

ImageTake your waffles and coffee in one of the many cafes that line the edges of the stupendous Grote Markt, or Main Square. It’s a vast, gilt and gingerbread kind of Gothic homage; all the vast, glided confections here date from the medieval age, when Antwerp was one of the principal trading cities of Europe. There are also huge ornamental fountains here, awash with ornate, sodden statuary. They dominate the middle of the Grote Markt, a space that has quite as magnificent a scale and stance as St. Mark’s square in Venice. The attention to detail here is every bit as full blown, the opulence as rich and decadent as the local chocolate. Of which, more later.

ImageThe beauty of Belgian waffles is that they go with just about anything; strawberries, honey, whipped cream, or- my personal favourite- warm, melted chocolate. Many rate Belgian chocolate as the best in the world, and not without damned good reason. Try them with a wickedly rich cappuccino, and you truly are sampling the breakfast of champions. Or brunch…

ImageMeanwhile, the square itself is alive with a veritable sea of humanity. Horse drawn, double decked coaches clop lethargically across the cobbled streets. Trams in shades of bubonic yellow slither like warp driven snails, packed to bursting with shoppers, schoolkids and office workers, starting their daily routine. If time allows while you’re here, try one of the delicious, locally made dark beers. Anything with even a hint of strawberry is usually unbeatable.

ImageThe Flanders region especially prides itself on it’s gourmet heritage. Some of the coffee houses are incredible feasts for the eye; huge, vaulting, belle epoque hangovers with stupendous chandeliers, and an attention to detail in the fittings and fixtures that would not disgrace the Sistine Chapel.

In Belgium, even the beers have their own sommeliers; true aficionados who can tell you exactly which of their incredible cheeses match their most esoteric micro brews of beer to gastronomic perfection. This is a heritage that is passed down through generations, and one that the locals take great pride in.

Belgium gave the world such great fictional heroes as Herge’s Tin Tin, whose fabled exploits are commemorated on some pretty nifty wall murals in the city centre, as well as Agatha Christie’s dapper detective, Hercule Poirot. Much of the street architecture here is early art nouveau, with orderly rows of houses flanked by avenues of stately plane trees. A lot of commuters here use pedal bikes; you’ll see them almost everywhere in the centre of the city.

Antwerp was the sugar capital of Europe in the Middle Ages, importing vast mountains of the stuff from Portugal, among others. Perhaps that goes a long way towards explaining the residual sweet tooth so common to all the locals here. The amount of chocolate shops in Antwerp is truly ostentatious, and obviously designed to ensnare the weak willed. How many can you actually walk past without succumbing to your inner Willy Wonka? OK… my record is two…..

ImageAll things considered, Antwerp is a beautiful, overblown temple to indulgence; a perfect setting for the temptations that roll out here day in and out. Even a few hours here will lighten your mood, if not your waistline. And, whoever said that you can’t have your cake and eat it had obviously never visited Antwerp. 

I promise you; you can in Belgium’s good natured capital of gluttony and gratification.

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….

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…