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|Marco Polo 2013-14
A Christmas Cruise from Tilbury to the Canary Islands & Madeira - part 1
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Brochure route is in red, actual outward journey in green and return in blue
The classic liner Alexandr Pushkin was built in East Germany in 1965. It was the second of five Ivan Franco ('Poet') class ships, the best liners (fast, large and prestigious) in the Soviet passenger fleet, which was at the time the largest fleet in the world. She was the flagship of the Baltic Shipping Company, based in Leningrad, and her hull was specially strengthened for broken icy in Baltic conditions and transatlantics. From 1965 she operated a regular service in the summer between Leningrad, Bremerhaven, London, Le Havre and Montreal. In common with the QE2, she could carry motor vehicles and also had kennels. Likewise she could be converted to military use as a troopship giving large storage areas, exceptional range and powerful lifting gear for armoured vehicles. Subsequently the ship interior was updated, with re-fits in 1975 and 1991 and her new owner, Orient Lines, renamed her Marco Polo. The Dining Room, galley, engine room and the swimming pool are the only original areas. The original ship's bell is now displayed in the Card Room. She now has a displacement of 19,860 tons, length of 578 ft, beam of 77.26 ft and draught of 26.9 ft. In 1998 she was purchased by Norwegian Cruise Line, then in 2008 by her present owners, Global Cruise Line. When Cruise and Maritime Voyages started in 2009 she was chartered as part of their new fleet, together with the Ocean Countess, formerly the Cunard Countess, sadly lost by fire on 30 November 2013 while laid up in Greece.
The Marco Polo has two 7 cylinder Sulzer-Cegielski (now Wärtsilä) 7RD76 low speed (~120 rpm) engines providing 15,447 kw and driving twin shafts each with fixed pitch propellers providing a speed of 19.5 knots. She was provided with stabilisers shortly after entering service and these were latter replaced with Denny Brown Stabilizers in the 1991 refit. In addition to the propusion engines she has 4 additional diesels providing auxilary services. She was brought up to the latest IMO and SOLAS standards in the 1991. The MS Marco Polo Wikipedia article provides many useful references to technical details as well as a good overview of a confusing history. In summary, she is a very strong ship with good engines and twin shafts and propellors so she has plenty of redundancy and capable of handling almost any weather including arctic conditions with light ice. She currently comes as close as any ship other than the Queen Mary 2 to being a true liner rather than a cruise ship. If we had known the full specifications we would not have been at all worried about her integrity in the atrocious weather we met on this cruise.
Marco Polo is registered in the Bahamas at 22,080 grt, and is much smaller than our favourite Cunard ships. She has 425 cabins with a capacity of 800 passengers. There are 2 special De Luxe Suites, 4 Junior Suites and 8 De Luxe cabins. Brochure prices were £5149, £4579 and £3889 for these for our cruise, although there are saver offers and sometimes "Buy 1 get one free". Each has a sitting area, bath and fridge; the remaining cabins do not. While a bath is not essential, we did miss the fridge and the sofa. Except for the basic inside cabins, all the cabins on the Cunard ships have a sofa, and every cabin has a fridge. Our Marco Polo grade 6 ocean view twin cabin was priced at £2289, but this was a free upgrade from a guarantee grade 2 inside cabin priced at £1829. The prices are much more than the comparative brochure price for an ocean view (cabin 4131) Christmas/New Year cruise on the Queen Victoria, comparing with the Marco Polo Grade 12 Premium Twin Ocean View with its double bed, but still no sofa or fridge, at £3209. We booked one of these Grade 12 cabins for the overnight dinner cruise on 21 December, so appreciate the differences.
Meals and entertainment are exactly the same for everyone, so the only advantage of a more expensive cabin is the cabin. We presume the six tables for two in the restaurant are for those in the best cabins. One consequence of the cabin layout is that no-one seems to sit in their cabins, and all the public rooms are full all day. Sometimes it has been impossible to find anywhere to sit, and this includes lunchtime in the self-service Marco's Bistro. Fortunately we do not mind eating lunch late because our dinner sitting is not until 20.00. Prices are all in sterling, and drinks are priced at £15 for a bottle of house wine and £3.50 for a pint of draught german lager. Passengers seemed to be all British and everyone was very sociable and determined to enjoy their holiday and meet new friends. The ship was never quiet and deserted and whenever people sat together they chatted spontaneously. Conversely the only peaceful place to sit was in the library (with just 5 seats) or in the cabin. We met lots of people but no-one else who had cruised with Cunard although there were lots from P&O and Fred Olsen.
Staff were busy throughout the cruise working on the ship, whether it was touching up the paintwork or maintenance on the teak decks. The bad weather in the Bay of Biscay, the worst for 16 years there and matching weather in Stornaway which was the worst for 127 years, resulted in damage to the front rails on the starboard side and new pieces of teak had to be made to replace those lost overboard. Her image matches the publicity and she is one of the last remaining classic ocean liners. Special celebrations for her 50th anniversary in 2015 are already being advertised and it is remarkable that such a vintage ship is still cruising when she is older than the QE2. We presume the refit in 1991-93 was to the new maritime standards although we do not believe she visits American territory.
There were two formal nights, the first on Christmas Day when we were berthed in La Coruna, and the second on New Years Eve at anchor in Madeira. Being British everyone dressed formally, and on New Years Eve there were a few men in kilts. The dress code for all the other nights was Casual. This contrasted with the published suggestions whereby 8 nights would be Informal and 4 nights Casual but probably reflected the bad weather at sea during the cruise.
We have to admit that we are biased in any assessment as we have spent a lot of time on Cunard ships and find it difficult not to compare the Marco Polo to the three 'Queens' especially as like for like in cabins the Marco Polo are similar or more expensive. So we will start with the good! The standard coffee is better than on the Cunard ships although there is no decaffeinated other than powdered Café Hag so our ground coffee remained unopened and the cafetiere mugs were virtually unused. The Marco Polo still has teak decks and a hull that looks like a proper ship. The air conditioning seemed to work well and the air was clean in the cabin but we had to hold our breath to get through an area of diesel fumes on the way in bad weather - just like staircase C on the QE2! The cabin was also quiet as far as engine noise and other vibration but the walls allowed one to hear every word on the next cabins TV. Most people would also say that being a smaller ship is an advantage but after the weather we suffered that was no quite so clear cut in our minds. One advantage of being a small low profile ship however was that getting off and onboard was very fast with no delays due to scanning hand luggage on the ship - some ports checked people but it was still all very quick.
The Marco Polo also keeps to a number of traditions which have been eroded on the Cunard ships. The serviettes are almost always folded into a different pattern every evening and on formal nights a sorbet is on offer. There are free birthday cakes and the crew sing happy birthday and the Baked Alaska ceremony is honoured on the last night including the parade with fireworks. These may seem small things but traditions need to be maintained, once they go they tend to be lost for ever.
On the downside were a lot of things we were used to were missing. No fridge (unless several grades higher) and not even an ice bucket. No free room service, only an old fashioned 15 inch TV with no computer VGA or HDMI input and a picture which suffered the wiggles and the sound was distorted. Although not a problem on a short journey one should also note there are no passenger laundries unlike the Queens where there is one per deck each with several washing machines and driers. The ship was also full of trip or impact hazards which to be fair were clearly marked but could cause grief to the less agile or in bad weather. We had to approach our cabin through a watertight door frame with a 6 inch step and low ceiling to catch the unwary. The ship does not allow wheel chairs to be used unless you have one of the special disabled cabins and we can now see why, likewise children are not allowed.
We think the brochure statement of a "wonderful entertainments programme" is questionable and some of the facilities were not what we would have expected, for example most of the books in the library were out of order and more reminiscent of an average charity shop, in fact many were 'ex libris'.
The biggest shortfall in our expectations was in the food. Some was very good such as the Oxtail and on formal nights there were sorbets, but most was basic pub standard and lacking in presentation. In contrast the scones at tea were very good. Some things were difficult to excuse such as stale rolls and what seemed to be baked beans with a lamb shank. It was very much a production run and we were astonished to be told there was no choice in how steaks were cooked and after the chef was contacted by our waiter we had a choice of medium or well done! Our waiter was extremely good and tried hard but our expectations seemed to be very different to normal. We are also used to waiters learning ones name by the second day (and remembering from cruise to cruise!) . There were no petit fours or ginger with normal meals and no bedtime chocolates (other than present on Christmas day). We have already noted the lack of proper decafinated coffee.
The biggest disappointment was the celebration of Christmas. The ship hardly had any decorations, although there was an effort to make a gingerbread village which was quickly demolished in the bad weather. It was a huge difference to the Queen Victoria we had just left and there was no Christmas church service - Cunard usually provide Jewish, Catholic and Anglican celebrants and we expected at least a vicar on board. The only carols were played by a passenger on the piano and few found them as they were not announced. The Christmas dinner was very disappointing and the most common description we heard was a disgrace - far more emphasis was given to an Italian Dinner a couple of days later. It was not the weather because both Christmas Day and New Years Eve we were safely in port. We heard the excuse that Christmas was given a low key for fear of upsetting non-Christian races - political correctness gone mad with almost every passenger British. The New Year was however better celebrated with some bunting and a glass of sparkling wine see the main text below for more details of Christmas and the New year including pictures of the food. Other small points include: No Menu pack at the end of the cruise and no ice cream machine
Most of these were taken when we came for the 'Welcome Aboard Dinner with Overnight Accommodation' and the morning after before any of the passengers arrived and the ship was nice and empty. Note - not all have hover-over annotation added.