A DAY AT SEA ON THE MARCO POLO

Deck. Ship. At sea.

Deck. Ship. At sea.

The first full day of our Norway adventure aboard the Marco Polo dawned sunny and calm, with a gently rolling gunmetal swell kissed by fitful whitecaps. The early morning sun sparkled on the royal blue hull plating and washed across the serried tiers of teak decks at the stern. The coffee was hot, and the whole day sparkled with benign possibilities.

With her deep draft and relatively broad hull, the Marco Polo rode out the often capricious North Sea swell with an almost effortless ease. From time to time, she rolled gently to port and starboard, as if attempting to shrug off some imaginary seabirds that tried to cling to the rails. On the lido deck at the stern of the ship, breakfast was being served. The tables around the aft pool were soon full.

If you’re looking for a day full of sensational, show stopping diversions and a whole conga line of time consuming, money eroding gimmicks, then the Marco Polo is not for you. Instead, you’ll find the library is open, arts and crafts classes are taking place in the various lounges, and the first lectures on the upcoming ports of call are taking place.

Too cerebral, or just plain boring?  Fine. Take a dip in the pool, work out in the upper deck gym, or just sag lethargically into one of the trio of upper deck hot tubs, with their matchless views out over the roiling, white wake of the ship as it carves a dreamy furrow all the way back to Tilbury. Or relive the classic days of the transatlantic liners, with a stroll around a real teak boat deck, with a canopy of protective lifeboats overhead. Lovely stuff.

A pool with a view. Or five.

A pool with a view. Or five.

A relatively small ship fosters an air of intimate affability as rare and rewarding as fine wine. Conversations with complete strangers strike up over shared breakfast tables, and on the tiers of stepped lido decks that tumble down towards the stern of the Marco Polo. And there is something about the calming, benign influence of the sea that seems to soothe people, making them drop their normal shore side guard. They open up- sometimes to the amazement of their lifelong partners- in a way that would never happen at some anonymous, anodyne resort. In this charmed universe, less is most definitely more.

The onset of lunch serves up a trio of options. Out in the sun, the lido buffet is hugely popular- nothing sharpens the appetite like a side order of sea air- and the tables are soon crowded. Best to wait for the inevitable lines to wind down (maybe grab a lunchtime beer or a Mojito at the pool bar in the meantime?) or, perhaps, head down to the cool, welcoming beauty of the Waldorf Restaurant for a full, waiter service lunch. It is a treat that so many people miss- perhaps that English, lemming like obsession with the sun is overpowering. I know, because the truth is that I’m as guilty as most.

The third option is to grab something from the port side deli, which also has free, all day tea and coffee on tap. Chef Alok will serve you up with a variety of tasty sandwiches and pizza on different days, complete with french fries, and all the garnishes. I went for the hot roast beef on rye bread. Frequently, as it turns out.

View over the rim

View over the rim

Lunch done, the ship takes on a kind of benign, snoozy character, as hundreds succumb to that age old, seductive special act of fine food, comfortable surroundings, and a gently rolling ship furrowing proudly over a sparkling briny. A warm wind ruffles the handful of sleeping blankets that cover a few. Up top, some furious table tennis tournaments assume the tension of the overture to Waterloo.

The sun shifts effortlessly across the afternoon sky, showering light and shade across different parts of the ship, throwing her beautiful lines and architecture into sharp, sometimes breathtaking relief. With her fifty year old hull looking like something from a Fellini movie, the Marco Polo has more than just a touch of the raffish, indolent feel of the Riviera afloat.

Afternoon tea, served down in the Waldorf Restaurant, arouses the passengers from their self induced, happy stupour. Tea, scones and cakes in air conditioned comfort. Elsewhere, bottles of wine and different, brightly coloured cocktails sprinkle the outdoor tables like beautiful, pungent blooms. Things become slightly more animated; up top, the hot tubs are now all full.

There is the tinkle of tea cups and the delightful, gentle shudder of the ship underfoot, as the Marco Polo stands out across the sparkling briny. Some just lose themselves for hours in the spectacle of watching the sharp, graceful prow as it chases a horizon it can never, ever reach. Others hope for the sight of dolphins, leaping in and out of the bow wave. And sometimes, their vigil is rewarded with a display that puts smiles on faces. Kids on Christmas Day syndrome all over again.

Some take delight in simply strolling, stopping to chat to strangers, and so laying the building blocks of friendships that will bloom over the course of the cruise. Others prefer some languid, platinum chip people watching from over the rim of a wine glass (I’m taking to you, Anthony Nicholas), or just a gentle game of cards indoors.

Curves to lurve

Curves to lurve

You’ll still hear the gentle clack of the shuffleboard sticks upstairs, a sound as time honoured on ocean liners as the chimes of Big Ben back ashore. Sudden bursts of laughter rise on the breeze and subside again just as quickly. The click and closing of doors and the subtle sizzling of another rye beef toastie. For eight days, these would become the subliminal background soundtrack to our fjord foray. After a while, they became so ingrained that we literally no longer noticed them. At least, not until they were gone.

The light hangs in the sky for a long time, even as first sitting passengers begin to discreetly leave their posts to get ready for that other ageless ritual; the pre dinner cocktail. The Marco Polo seems to give out a long, drawn out sigh, The first deck lights begin to glint gently on the overhead ceilings outside, and the first note of a lilting piano kisses the cool, evening air. It is as if the old girl is getting herself primped for the second act of this seagoing theatrical. And, though we all know the plot- and, of course- how the show always ends- still, the audience is rapt, and as far removed from every day reality as it is possible to be.

What have I done all day? Absolutely nothing, of course. But my word, it has taken me all day to do it. Damn it, I am exhausted.

No one said indolence and enjoyment would be easy, of course. Just imagine if I had to take in flow riders, crowds, constant loudspeaker announcements and on board hard sells as well. It is enough to make the head spin, really.

Too much, in fact. But there is healing balm in the utterly unique magic of the slowly sagging sun as it burnishes the ocean rollers an amazing shade of burnt orange. Sit down, young Jedi. Take comfort from a tall, cool, Tequila Sunrise. And- breathe……

That’s better. Now- what’s for dinner?

ATHENA PHOTO GALLERY

Since the news came that Cruise And Maritime Voyages is to charter the 1948 built Azores from Portsucale Cruises for a full season of ex-UK cruises in 2015, I thought I’d put together some photos, taken aboard her in September, 2010. At that time, she was sailing as the Athena for the now sadly defunct Classic International Cruises. I enjoyed a fabulous, early autumn swing aboard her, through the highlights of Croatia and Montenegro, on a week long round trip out of Venice. This really is one of the last, old school cruise ships still out there. I hope you enjoy these pictures of this charismatic, pretty little ship as much as I enjoyed sailing on her.

Captain's Lounge on board the Athena

Captain’s Lounge on board the Athena

Forward facing show lounge from the stage

Forward facing show lounge from the stage

Beautiful, Art Deco stern terraces

Beautiful, Art Deco stern terraces

Upper deck walkways

Upper deck walkways

Lido and stern walkway

Lido and stern walkway

Athena three quarter shot

Athena three quarter shot

Bow shot of Athena at anchor

Bow shot of Athena at anchor

Art Deco light fixture in the lobby

Art Deco light fixture in the lobby

Stern walkway at sunset

Stern walkway at sunset

The Athena on the Croatian Riviera

The Athena on the Croatian Riviera

The silhouette is still quite stunning

The silhouette is still quite stunning

Playing peek a boo between the palms

Playing peek a boo between the palms

Close up of the funnel with CIC logo

Close up of the funnel with CIC logo

Bow shot. Note the riveted hull

Bow shot. Note the riveted hull

Close up of the name and hull plating

Close up of the name and hull plating

Upper deck against a Croatia backdrop

Upper deck against a Croatia backdrop

Upper level main lounge of Athena

Upper level main lounge of Athena

Main staircase and light fixture

Main staircase and light fixture

PRINCESS DANAE PHOTO ESSAY

The photos you’re about to see capture scenes from on board what is, in effect, a floating time capsule. They were taken aboard the Princess Danae of Classic International Cruises on a cruise from Rhodes through to Piraeus in the early Autumn of 2009.

The sun at that time of year casts a wistful, almost melancholy light on the waters of the Aegean. And there, you’ll see it throw parts of this venerable, 1954 built ship, with her riveted hull, into amazing relief.

As of now, the ship, now owned by Portuscale Cruises and renamed Lisboa, is part way through an extensive, presently suspended refit in Lisbon. 

The Princess Danae at Kusadasi

The Princess Danae at Kusadasi

Broadside view, Rhodes harbour

Broadside view, Rhodes harbour

At sea, looking forward from the stern

At sea, looking forward from the stern

Long, narrow outdoor promenade

Long, narrow outdoor promenade

Looking aft at the pool deck

Looking aft at the pool deck

Shaded lido buffet area

Shaded lido buffet area

View from upper terrace out over stern

View from upper terrace out over stern

Port side boat deck, facing the stern

Port side boat deck, facing the stern

Looking forward, from fantail to funnel

Looking forward, from fantail to funnel

Aft deck, nice place for a glass of wine

Aft deck, nice place for a glass of wine

Wicker furniture is just right on a ship like this

Wicker furniture is just right on a ship like this

Pool and lido

Pool and lido

Twilight on the dreamlike Aegean....

Twilight on the dreamlike Aegean….

Lido lounge and funnel at night

Lido lounge and funnel at night

Inside the lido pool lounge

Inside the lido pool lounge

Main bar on board the Princess Danae

Main bar on board the Princess Danae

The show lounge, sited amidships

The show lounge, sited amidships

Side view of show lounge, looking forward

Side view of show lounge, looking forward

Lounge bat, Princess Danae

Lounge bar, Princess Danae

The beautiful, riveted bow

The beautiful, riveted bow

Princess Danae alongside at Kusadasi

Princess Danae alongside at Kusadasi

Princess Danae bow shot

Princess Danae bow shot

Starboard side shot of hull and superstructure

Starboard side shot of hull and superstructure

Funnel with the old CIC logo

Funnel with the old CIC logo

Interior of my suite- very fifties retro

Interior of my suite- very fifties retro

View aft from starboard side bridge wing

View aft from starboard side bridge wing

Bridge telegraph on the Princess Danae

Bridge telegraph on the Princess Danae

Same bridge shot, very different light

Same bridge shot, very different light

 

IS PORTUSCALE CRUISES IN TROUBLE? (UPDATED 13/3/2014)

Heading for a new life next year?

Heading for a new life next year?

Reports are currently rife at the influential Seatrade Miami conference that Portuscale Cruises is in trouble.

Stories are circulating that the Lisboa has been arrested at Lisbon, while the recently renovated Azores- due to leave over the next few days to start an almost year long charter for German cruise company, Ambiente- has been delayed from leaving the same port.

Renovation work on Lisboa was suspended a few weeks ago, when an official Portuscale announcement stated that structural problems with the ship were far more extensive than had been originally ascertained. A lucrative charter to a French cruise operator had to be cancelled at very short notice. Provisionally, Lisboa is intended to resume sailing in 2015.

Meanwhile, the veteran Funchal is due back at sea shortly, off to begin a season of cruises from the UK and Sweden through the spring, summer and autumn. There has as yet been no word about the future of these.

Fourth of the Portuscale trio, the smaller, also renovated Porto, was still in Lisbon at last report.

It is little more than two years since Rui Allegre first masterminded the astonishing resurgence of the veteran Portuscale quartet from the ashes of the imploded Classic International Cruises. The owner saw an obvious market for the elegant, traditionally styled quartet in an era largely dominated by amenity laden mega ships.

Funchal actually went back to sea for three months last year, beautifully restored and looking better than ever, Rave reviews came from on board, and guest satisfaction rates were high. The future did, indeed, seem bright.

However, the abrupt cancellation of work on Lisboa- which had been progressing nicely- rang alarm bells.  Portuscale had gone so far as to announce a programme of cruises for the renovated ship on her French charter, as well as going to the extent of making public some artist renderings of her restored interiors and outer decking.

The loss of revenue from the French charter must have been quite a hit. And the ships, with their vintage styling, are very labour intensive, and expensive to maintain.

At this time, no formal statement is forthcoming from Portuscale. It is to be hoped that the Azores can leave on schedule for her charter to Ambiente Cruises as planned.

I suspect that the potential loss of that German charter might well prove catastrophic to the nascent cruise line. And it would be a true tragedy if these four ships were to be lost after so much hard work has been done to bring them back up to speed.

As always, stay tuned.

UPDATE:

With regard to the Azores charter to Ambiente, German sources have reported that the ship has, indeed, left Lisbon, en route to begin her programme of cruises from Bremerhaven on March 16th.

She was apparently delayed by the non issuance of a necessary sailing certificate, which has now been supplied.

While this news is indeed a relief, there has been no official word from Portuscale Cruises over the alleged arrest in Lisbon of the partially refurbished Lisboa, as outlined below.

ADDENDUM:

Well worth checking out in the responses to this piece is a note from Luis Miguel Correia, one of the most renowned, knowledgeable and well informed writers and photographers in the entire maritime industry, and someone whom I have had the pleasure of sailing with in the past.

Luis is well connected to the current owners and operators of the Portuscale fleet and, as such, his response to my original blog post above, is definitely worthy of your consideration.

BLACK WATCH; BUCKING THE BIG SHIP TREND

Fred. Olsen's Black Watch in the Kiel Canal

Fred. Olsen’s Black Watch in the Kiel Canal

At 41 years of age, the Black Watch is one of the oldest and smallest cruise ships in the current UK cruise market. She has no rock climbing wall or ice rink. Dinner is still served in two fixed seatings. Entertainment is low key, end-of-the-pier stuff, and definitely best suited to an older passenger demographic.

In short, she is everything that the new, state of the art, amenity laden ships are not. And yet, despite sailing against a growing armada of these monolithic new floating resorts, the veteran Black Watch is more than holding her own. Since 1996, she has become a much loved, perennial favourite among generations of cruise passengers, many of whom would not even dream of sailing on any other ship.

How has this come to pass, when the ship seems to buck every contemporary trend in existence?

Firstly, there is the uniquely intimate atmosphere that Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines has created on board. What was already a classic design was skilfully upgraded to Olsen’s traditional, Scottish accented style and decor. Combined with a warmly welcoming, service oriented Filipino crew, it was a winning formula from the start.

And the intimate scale of the ship actually works for her largely older, less mobile clientele. Black Watch was built long and lean, with a beautiful clipper bow and excellent seakeeping qualities. And the fact that she looks like a throwback to the supposed ‘golden age’ of ocean liners does not hurt. In fact, with her funnel cowl and gracefully stepped aft decks, she resembles nothing so much as a pocket version of the much lamented Queen Elizabeth 2. 

Aft pool deck on the Black Watch

Aft pool deck on the Black Watch

Her open decks are solid teak, traditional, and expansive for her 28,000 tons, and they come with a nice smattering of swimming pools, hot tubs, sun loungers and casual, outdoor eateries. The fish and chips served at the upper deck Marquee Bar and Grill are legendary.

In fact, food, and the quality of it, is one of the great strengths of the Black Watch as a ship, as indeed it is right across the Fred. Olsen fleet. Menus are largely geared to British tastes, with some evocative Scandinavian and European twists.  It is hugely enjoyable, well served, and savoured in very pleasant surroundings that are designed to soothe, rather than stun.

Originally built as the Royal Viking Star in 1972, Black Watch was the start up ship for the legendary Royal Viking Line. A mid section was added in 1981 to bring her up to her present configuration. From her inception, she was built to be able to access the smaller, more intimate ports around the world that makes cruising such an appealing holiday choice.

This has enabled Fred. Olsen to compile some very appealing and innovative itineraries for this voluptuous, veteran lady of the seas. And, with itineraries ranging from a weekend Christmas shopping break, right through to complete, three month circumnavigations of the globe, the Black Watch offers a range of options to suit all tastes and styles.

Another factor that appeals to passengers is the fact that the prices- both for the cruise itself, and for services charged on board- are very realistic, and represent excellent value. Fred. Olsen was also very astute in putting a good number of affordable single cabins into both Black Watch, and the rest of her fleet mates. People understand and appreciate value when they see it.

Black Watch can take you just as easily to Antwerp, or across the Atlantic

Black Watch can take you just as easily to Antwerp, or across the Atlantic

Above all, people value what they see as the standards of continuity enshrined in the Fred. Olsen experience; it’s the equivalent of a comfort blanket for many. But the line has actually relaxed some of the old dress codes of late, in a small, but not insignificant nod towards a potentially younger clientele.

Moving both Black Watch and her equally doughty twin sister, Boudicca (the former Royal Viking Sky) around the UK to a number of seasonal home cruise ports, such as Liverpool, Newcastle, Belfast and Rosyth, has also helped in keeping them full. Taking the ships to what amounts to people’s home ports is a move that has been since emulated by others.

It is exactly the success of the Fred. Olsen formula that has led to the establishment of the similarly styled Cruise and Maritime Voyages, a gradually expanding operator that clearly has taken a bead on the Olsen operating model. This is a welcome addition, and also a testament to the continued success of ships like the Black Watch in bucking the trend toward ever larger, less personal ships.

It is to be fervently hoped that cruise passengers- and the travel community in particular- continue to cherish and support ships like the beautiful Black Watch, as well as her fleet mates and her potential rivals. There is room in the market for all of them.

PORTUSCALE’S AZORES 2014 GERMAN CHARTER CRUISES (UPDATED)

Beautiful terraced decks on the Azores

Beautiful terraced decks on the Azores

German tour operator, Ambiente, has just announced details of a charter programme of Portuscale Cruises’ 1948 built Azores.

The ship last sailed for the now defunct Classic International Cruises as the Athena,  and originally started life as the Stockholm. She is the oldest passenger ship still in continuous service.

At 16,000 tons, the ship boasts a single main restaurant, a buffet, several bars and lounges, a cinema, disco, and a small pool, together with some wonderful terrace decks at the stern. The cabins are unusually large for a ship of this size, and eight of the top range suites come with private balconies. Sited midships on the upper deck, these have separate bedrooms, and fabulous views out over the ocean.

Ambiente have chartered the Azores from March until November, 2014. The programme begins on March 10th, 2014 with a six night repositioning voyage from Lisbon to Bremerhaven, Germany. 

There will then be a special cruise leaving on March 16th in search of the legendary Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights. Ports visited en route will include Alta, Narvik, and Tromso.

The classically built liner- her hull is all riveted- will then spend the summer months cruising in the Baltic and Scandinavia, possibly including visits to her birthplace in Sweden. These cruises will showcase the smaller, less accessible ports of the region in a way that no large cruise ship ever can; it’s very much an ‘up close and personal’ kind of cruise experience.

September will see the Azores sailing south to the warmer, more welcoming waters of the Mediterranean, with an emphasis on late summer/early autumn cruises in and around the Aegean.

Highlights will include an inaugural call at Santorini on October 8th, and another at Corfu on October 17th. Another, seven day cruise will revisit Corfu on October 22nd.

A twelve day Aegean and Ionian cruise departs from Venice on October 26th, and includes calls at Corfu, Heraklion, Katakolon, Santorini, Argostoli and Rhodes, plus a transit of the Corinth Canal before the cruise terminates in Piraeus.

The Ambiente charter concludes in November, with a special, fifteen day Holy Land cruise.

I was lucky enough to sail on this lovely little ship a few years ago, on a week long cruise down to Croatia out of Venice. She retains some fascinating features from her old days, including genuine Swedish American Line ice buckets in the main dining room. This room also still has the original, double height rows of portholes down both sides of its length.

The stern walkway on the Azores

The stern walkway on the Azores

The stern also boasts an elevated, upper deck walkway that completely encircles it. This is the only one of its kind that I have ever seen on any ship.

Ambiente itself has a long association with these former CIC ships, having chartered many of them before the line’s unfortunate collapse. They seem keen to renew the arrangement with Portuscale. The Azores herself is now resplendent in the black, white and yellow colours of her new owners and, quite frankly, has never looked better.

I’ll update this piece as more details and itineraries become available. Stay tuned.

OK, for those interested- here are those Ambiente itineraries for Azores as they currently stand.

10-16th March: IMPRESSIONS OF EUROPE/WESTERN SUNSHINE COAST: Lisbon, Lexioes (For Porto), Villagarcia, St. Peter Port, Bremerhaven

16-29th March: UNIQUE POLAR LIGHT AND MAGIC April 3-EXPERIENCE: Bremerhaven, Bergen, Andalsnes, Narvik, Alta (overnight) Tromso, Alesund, Flam, Bremerhaven

29 March- 3rd  April: SPRING AND COASTAL METROPOLISES: Bremerhaven, Dover, Portsmouth, Ijmuiden, Ostend, Bremerhaven

April 3-12th: NORDLAND SYMPHONY: Bremerhaven, Ijmuiden, Harwich, Stavanger, Kristiansand, Oslo, Skagen, Esbjerg, Bremerhaven

April 12-19th: CITIES AND ROMANTIC PORTS ALONG THE ENGLISH CHANNEL: Bremerhaven, Portsmouth, St. Peter Port, Honfleur, Ostend, Ijmuiden, Bremerhaven

April 19-26th: EASTER CRUISE, MAGIC OF THE NORTH, FJORDS, TROLLS AND KING CITY, OSLO: Bremerhaven, Stavanger, Kristiansand, Oslo, Gothenburg, Esbjerg, Bremerhaven

April 26- May 4th: SOUTHERN ENGLAND, CHANNEL ISLANDS AND PICTURESQUE CORNWALL: Bremerhaven, Dover, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Isles of Scilly, St. Peter Port, Portland, Bremerhaven

May 4- 15: DIVERSITY OF THE NORTH; SCOTLAND AND THE NORWEGIAN FJORDS: Bremerhaven, Ijmuiden, Harwich, Rosyth, Invergordon, Lerwick, Geiranger, Hellesylt, Bergen, Kiel

May 15-25th: BALTIC TREASURES; DIVERSITY OF THE BALTIC; Kiel, Gdynia, Klaipeda, Riga, Tallinn, St. Petersburg (overnight), Helsinki, Stockholm, Kiel

May 25- June 1st: GRANDIOSE WORLD OF FJORDS: Kiel, Bergen, Hellesylt, Vik, Flam, Stavanger, Kiel

June 1-13th: NORTH CAPE AND FJORDS; TO THE MIDNIGHT SUN; Kiel, Vik, Flam, Alesund, Leknes, Honningsvag, Tromso, Geiranger, Bergen, Kiel

June 13- 27th: INTENSIVE NORTH CAPE AND FJORDS; MAGICAL LUSTRE OF THE MIDNIGHT SUN: Kiel, Bergen, Hellesylt, Geiranger, Leknes, Honningsvag, Kirkenes, Hammerfest, Tromso, Alesund, Stavanger, Kiel

June 27- July 10th: WHITE NIGHTS; HIGHLIGHTS OF THE BALTIC SEA, KALININGRAD: Kiel, Ronne, Gdynia, Konigsberg, Klaipeda, Riga, Tallinn, St. Petersburg (overnight), Helsinki, Mariehamn, Stockholm, Kiel

July 10-26th: ARCTIC POLAR SUMMER IN GREENLAND AND ICELAND: Kiel, Thorshaven, Seydisfjordur, Akureyri, Grundafjordur, Reykjavik, Paamuit, Nuuk, Sissimuit, Illulisat, Qeqertarsuaq, Kangerlussauq, fly to Germany

July 26- August 9th: ICELAND AND GREENLAND FASCINATION: Fly to Kangerlussuaq, Illulisat, Qeqertarsuaq, Sissimuit, Nuuk, Quaqortoq, Reykjavik, Akureyri, Seydisfjordur, Invergordon, Bremerhaven

August 9-17th: ENGLAND AND SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS WITH EDINBURGH MILITARY TATTOO: Bremerhaven, Invergordon, Rosyth, Newcastle Upon Tyne, Hull, Harwich, Ijmuiden, Bremerhaven

August 17- 29th: PURE EXPERIENCE. NORTH CAPE, LOFOTEN AND THE NORWEGIAN FJORDS: Bremerhaven, Vik, Flam, Alesund, Leknes, Honningsvag, Tromso, Geiranger, Hellesylt, Bergen Bremerhaven

August 29- September 5th: IN THE LAND OF FJORDS AND TROLLS: Bremerhaven, Bergen, Hellesylt, Geiranger, Vik, Flam, Stavanger, Kristiansand, Bremerhaven

September 5- 15th: ENGLAND, IRELAND AND SCOTLAND: Bremerhaven, Dover, Portsmouth, Falmouth, Dublin, Belfast, Stornoway, Rosyth, Bremerhaven

September 15- 25th: COURSE SOUTH- WESTERN EUROPE FOR ALL THE SENSES: Bremerhaven, St.Peter Port, Villagarcia, Lisbon, Portimao, Malaga, Barcelona, Nice

September 25-October 4th: MEDITERRANEAN PEARL: Nice, Ajaccio, Olbia, Trapani, Valletta, Catania. Lipari, Salerno, Porteferraio, Nice

October 4- 19th: BLACK SEA AND SUN ISLAND: Nice, Catania, Santorini, Canakkale, Sochi, Yalta, Odessa, Constanza, Istanbul, Corfu, Venice

October 19- 26th: MAGIC COAST OF THE ADRIATIC: Venice, Zadar, Dubrovnik, Corfu, Kotor, Korcula, Split, Venice

October 26- November 6th: GREEK MYTHS AND LIFESTYLE: Venice, Corfu, Katakolon, Heraklion, Santorini, Rhodes, Kusadasi, Piraeus, Argostoli, Venice

November 6- 20th: HOLY LAND AND MEDITERRANEAN SUNSHINE ISLANDS: Venice, Ancona, Bari, Heraklion, Ashdod (overnight), Haifa, Limassol, Rhodes, Messina, Genoa

The programme currently lists these twenty five cruises as active. Destinations correct at the time of writing.

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…