Marco Polo Ship Review
The Marco Polo regularly offers cruises from UK ports and is operated by UK-based Cruise & Maritime Voyages. She is a smaller ‘Ocean Liner’ from a bygone era.
Marco Polo entered service in 1965 as one of five almost identical sister ships for the Russian/Ukrainian fleet. She was named after the Russian poet Alexandr Pushki. She was originally operated by the Russian ‘Baltic Shipping Company’ on the regular trans-Atlantic service between Montreal, Canada and Leningrad. To enable the ships to navigate through broken ice, they were constructed with greater hull strength and stability than usual in passenger ships of her size. These ships were also built troop-ship usage in mind. Therefore they had an unusually large provision storage areas, enabling a cruising range of over 10,000 nautical miles. As built, the ship carried around 700 passengers in two classes, Additionally there were provisions for 500 cabin-less passengers.
The ship underwent many internal changes to her accommodation, public rooms and to her mechanical aspects. In 1991 she was purchased by the Orient lines and re-named ‘Marco Polo’. The ship had several more owners, including NCL and is now under charter to UK-based ‘Cruise & Maritime Voyages’.
In fear of stating the obvious: cruise products vary vastly in cost, quality and their target clientèle. The Marco Polo offers cruises from a UK port, often at budget fares. The Marco Polo is not priced or sold as a five-star product. Older ships generally appeal to older passengers and Marco Polo is no exception. The ship is also adults only.
This review is base on three cruises that I have taken, spread over four years. The fares paid were some the cheapest that I been offered.
The Tilbury cruise terminal is a relatively small ‘sleepy’ establishment, but it is steeped in history. Only 60 years ago, it was the nautical ‘Heathrow Airport’ of London. You could board a ship to America, Australia or the Far East from there. It was also used post-war, to bring the first immigrant labour, West –Indians, to our shore.
The terminal is now modest in size compared to those of Southampton, but is adequate for smaller ships such as the 22,000 gross tonnes, 826 passengers Marco Polo. There is a car park is conveniently situated right next to the terminal building, although there is an overflow car-park a mile a way in the docks which is sometimes used (shuttle buses with luggage trolleys are provide, in this case). There is a railway station about a Mile away (Tilbury Town, C2C line) although it its heyday the terminal had its own railway platforms. Due to the ships modest capacity, embarkation can be quite quick, if passengers respect their allocated boarding times.
Boarding at Tilbury is normally via the ship’s reception area. This is a modest public area with a reception, shore excursion and future cruise desks; there are no twelve story, waste-of-space atriums here. The crew were on hand to personally direct passengers to their cabins, a nice touch which most big lines no longer even attempt to do.
Marco Polo is one of the smaller ships regularly offering cruises from UK ports. She has just 8 decks (numbered 4-11) which also have names.
Deck 4, Caribic: has 34 cabins (inside and out) located at the very bow. These are not ideal for those susceptible to sea-sickness.
Deck 5, Baltic, has amidships and aft cabins, but no cabins at the bow. The Medical Centre is located on this deck. (I would expect aft cabins to experience at least some engine noise/vibration).
Deck 6, Atlantic deck, has the Waldorf Restaurant (main dining room) amidships and various cabin grades aft.
Deck 7, Pacific, has a variety of cabin grades spanning the entire deck.
Deck 8, Magellan, features most of the public rooms: forward is the Marco Polo show lounge, towards amidships Captains club (bar), main lobby (amidships), moving aft: Palm Garden, shops, Columbus Lounge (bar), Library and card room. Aft Marco’s restaurant (buffet) lido deck area, outdoor swimming pool.
Deck 9, Amundsen, 6 forward facing cabins, many amidships cabins overlooking the prom deck, 8 inside cabins, aft Scott’s Bar with lido deck area.
Deck 10, Columbus, has 5 large forward facing cabins, 14 superior twins (10 with lifeboat obstructed views) and 4 inside cabins. Aft is the beauty salon, internet café, ‘Jade Wellness Centre’.
Deck 11, Navigator, this deck features the highest grade of cabins: 6 deluxe suites forward, 18 premium twins, 2 junior suites (all cabins with obstructed views). Aft deck with whirlpools.
Marco Polo has 15 different grades of cabin. Being a ‘real’ ship, the cabins are not modular (were not built off-site and installed into the hull). Therefore they come in many different sizes, shapes and configurations, even within the same grade. Some cabins have one porthole, some two, likewise with windows.
Comparative cabin size cannot be determined from the deck plan. You will not find any very opulent suites on this ship, compared to those on-board new ships. There are no balcony cabins on this ship.
The largest accommodation is found on deck 11, with six De Luxe Suites: these have a separate living room, and marble bathroom with bath/shower, walk-in wardrobe, refrigerator, and a TV set/DVD unit. There are two slightly smaller Junior Suites.
I have stayed in cabins 476 (inside, Pacific deck 7 ), 217 and 219 (twin porthole, Caribic deck 5). All cabins are a little dated in appearance, mainly due to the furniture, but are very clean and perfectly functional. Many are compact, with limited floor space (particularly 217/9), but storage space/wardrobes are adequate for two weeks. Many have two small single beds, but the memory foam mattresses make them very comfortable. In some cabins, the two beds can be pushed together to form a double.
Cabin 476 had more generous floor space, but no natural light.
The bathroom modules in all cabins are relatively modern and very clean. The standard showers are a little bigger than many, with hoses and curtains. Unfortunately the shower pressure is often low and some cabins suffer form fluctuating water temperature. There is a hair-dryer on the bathroom wall, but for safety reasons it is the hot-air pipe sort. Never the less it worked quite well. The toilet was a proper ‘water flush’ one and not the ear-popping ‘vacuum’ type.
Small bottle of shampoo, body-wash and conditioner are provides as well as wall mounted dispensers for shampoos and hand-wash (why offer both)?
Many of the cabin TV’s were old bulky 14 inch CRT type (at the time of writing) and picture quality was not that great, but they worked in a fashion. A small selection of movies rotate daily. The cabins have modern safes, although some were quite small – you might not fit an SLR camera in, or I-Pad, for example.
All cabins have Air-Con, but in some cabins it is impossible to achieve a truly ‘cool’ cabin. Some passenger decks are clearly hotter than others too. In fact the temperature in public rooms varies considerably with the show lounge and main restaurant sometime being too warm and the Columbus bar often being too cool. (A common problem with older ships).
On one occasion, while in port the ship was ‘bunkering’ and the smell of fuel permeated the entire ship, via the air-con, including some of the cabins.
The cabins have both a European power socket and a US one. The bathroom has a shaving socket. There are NO UK style sockets.
I must just mention the ‘sheer’ which is a thing which excites Ocean Liner fans. Proper Ocean Liners were built so that the decks curve slightly upwards towards the bow and stern to give the ship an attractive line (known as sheer). Marco Polo is no exception. When you look down the lower passenger corridors you can see the curve. If you have a cabin at the very stern or bow, you may find that your cabin floor slopes slightly. I particularly noticed this with cabins 405 and 409, Pacific deck, however it probably applies to some others. It’s not a major problem, but it could be a little disconcerting.
On all older ships, cabins on the lowest 2-3 decks, at the stern, are likely to suffer from engine/generator noise and vibration. Occasionally there may be strange knocking sounds from the hull. This can be prevalent in roughs seas, which is particularly audible at night.
Passengers are issued with a ‘sea-pass’ card in the normal, way linked to you ‘cashless’ account for buying stuff on-board. However the ‘pass-card’ is NOT your cabin key. You are issued with a tradition key on a key-ring. The cabin doors do not self-lock so you need to remember lock them each time that you leave.
The main dining room, the Waldorf Restaurant, is nicely decorated in soft pastel colours. It has single-height ceiling and is unimpressive in dimensions, compared to those on mega-ships, but is intimate and attractive. Windows line the port and starboard sides so you are never far away from a sea view. The centre of the restaurant has a very attractive circular backlit glass centre piece.
The Marco Polo has the traditional two sittings for evening meal (6.00 and 8.00pm ish)in the Waldorf Restaurant. The dress code is casual, Informal (jacket for men with or without tie) and formal (Tux or suit). Marco’s Bistro is the informal buffet. (There may 2-3 formal nights per 14 night cruise).
At breakfast, Lunch and afternoon tea passengers are required to share large tables, with no choice of location or size.
Unusually, in the restaurant foyer , samples of the evening food were displayed each evening, pre-meal. I’ve never seen this done on a ship before and have generally only seen it done in communist countries or Chinese restaurants. I enjoyed seeing exactly what I would be getting. On the other hand some may feel that this can spoil the surprise.
Lunch and evening meal are ‘served’ but breakfast in both the Waldorf and Marco’s Bistro are buffet style.
One might expect that the evening meals would be plain cooking in style and of mediocre quality, given the often low fares. However the excellent quality and diversity of food always exceeds my expectation. I had very good beef, pork, chicken, fish and duck main courses. Starters, salads, soup and sweets were equally pleasing.
Many of the waiters on this ship are Russian or Eastern European, along with other nationalities Some staff look quite serious and are not always very vocal. However they are NOT unfriendly as such and were generally very efficient. Personally I like my waiters to generally be “seen and not heard” especially when serving the evening meal. They are there to do a job. I do not require them to befriend me. However I do appreciate that some passengers prefer more smiles and more banter.
Nautical traditions like the ‘Baked Alaska Parade’ and ‘Captain’s Cocktail Party ‘ (with a photo and hand shake) are observed. However chocolate on your pillow each evening is not.
Marco’s Bistro (the buffet) is a little small, a little dated in terms of décor and gets a little crowded at times. However I cannot think of any ship where the buffet does not get crowded at peak times. When all of the tables were taken, you could walk through a door to the outdoor lido-area at the stern and dine on the open deck. The only issue was that there are designated smoking areas on deck (port), but of course smoke can drifts. (Unfortunately, a few passengers always failed to respect the designated smoking areas of the deck)
The buffet food choices were not very wide and were generally simple in style, such as Chicken, Beef, Fish and Pasta, Curry, etc. The presentation of the buffet food was not always great either, but fortunately most of the dishes tasted much better than they looked. Hot dogs, burgers, pizza and Panini’s were served outside on the lido deck, from a small kitchen, when the weather permitted.
Breakfast was served in Marco’s and the Waldorf, both buffet style. It generally simple in style, such as bacon and eggs etc. The Waldorf had a chef cooking fresh eggs and omelettes, who would often exclaim: “lovverly Jubberly”, Del Boy style.
A light breakfast in your room (cornflakes etc.) is delivered for free. Other in-room dining choices carry a fees.
The Marco Polo show lounge is typical design for a ship of this age. Like most show-lounges (and Theatres) it is at the very bow of the ship and is particularly susceptible to the pitch and roll of the ship. Unusually the stage and seating faces back towards the aft of the ship. Most passengers will not even notice (the windows have blinds to create black-out) however this layout could prove disturbing for those subject to sea-sickness.
The show-lounge looks a little more dated than many other public spaces on board the ship. It is relatively low-tech. compared to modern ships and has a low stage and non-tiered seating. There are curved rows of fixed seating with small tables for drinks. However some mobile seating has been added in front of these rows to accommodate more passengers, which can affect sight lines. There are also some annoying pillars which can also obscure sight lines, but I suppose they do hold the ceiling up. If you want a good view of the show, it is imperative get to the show maybe 15 minutes early, leaving the evening meal very promptly.
The majority of the entertainment is provided by the on-board entertainment team comprising of young singers and dancers. There is always a very talented live band supporting the shows, which is always so much better than recorded music (Thomson and NCL please take note). Backing vocals are also sung live often from behind the scenes. Personally I usually find some excellent musicians and dancers on-board most ships, but the quality of the vocalists is always somewhat variable*. Marco polo is no exception. (*However I do appreciate that ship-board singers are often required to sing a vast range of material some of which will not be suited to their voices).
The shows were often the traditional ‘Flesh & feathers’ type, but they were high-energy and colourful: Broadway Songs, Abba, Queen, Rock & Roll, Joseph and Technicolor Dream Coat etc. featured. One young couple that I met on-board enjoyed the shows, but described them as being a bit ‘Cheesy’ which is a pretty fair description.
There were several more ambitions shows: the band perform a Jazz set, their was a Russian Folk show (mainly sung in Russian) and an African show. The majority of passengers really enjoy them, including myself.
After the main show each evening there is a half hour cabaret at around 11.00pm in the more intimate ‘Scott’s Bar’. Up to three of the ships singers would sing to backing tapes. Due to the small size of the venue this was often very atmospheric. At time there could be standing room only.
Personally I feel that this type of entertainment (which is not unlike Thomson’s) works very well in an intimate show lounge but would probably fail in a 1,000 seat theatre.
The cabaret was followed by disco music into the early hours which was always surprisingly well attended. (Unfortunately the DJ only seem to have a limited collection of songs which he repeated every night).
I was lucky enough to be entertained by the multi-talented cruise director Richard Sykes for one of my MP cruises. He has a great voice and also plays the piano. In fact he is the most talented cruise director that I have ever had the pleasure of sailing with.
Four enrichment lecturers were on-board my 12 night Baltic cruise which was a very generous allocation and greatly appreciated by many. A craft workshop was also offered. A violin/piano duo and a singer/piano duo played in various locations around the ship. There was no live music on deck which may have been due to space restrictions, inclement weather or the desire to make sunbathing a peaceful experience.
Excluding the show-lounge, the Marco Polo has three main bar/lounges.
Unfortunately there is no forward observation lounge on-board the Marco Polo. However, Scott’s bar (deck 9, aft) with a rear view, was my favourite lounge. It is particularly attractive, atmospheric and has a small stage for low-key entertainment. The Columbus Lounge (deck 7 ) is very intimate and has a nautical theme, complete with a ship’s wheel and globe. The Captain’s Club (also deck 7) is the largest bar/lounge on-board and has contemporary décor, a piano/bar and a small dance floor.
The Palm Court (below) is an area with wicker furniture, palms and windows offering sea views along one side. Meals can be carried from the nearby buffet to there, if seating is in short supply.
The Outer Decks
The Marco Polo has the classic ‘fantail’ stern, with a teak wrap-around promenade deck, open-air swimming pool (aft) and lido deck area for the buffet.
Joggers and walkers can partially circumnavigate the ship one deck above, on a narrow path, although this route is past various noisy air-intakes. Not having been on a proper sunshine cruise on the MP, I cannot comment on the amount of sunbathing space, although it looked to be reasonable. However few ships ever seem to have quite enough.
A Health Spa was added to Marco Polo in a later refit. It contains a small beauty salon, a sauna and treatment rooms for messages, facials, and other pampering. The spa treatments have a Far Eastern flavour. None of the facilities are particularly extensive as you would expect on this older/smaller ship.
The ship has a reasonably priced laundry service (one day or overnight) but there are no self-service laundry rooms.
I enjoy big new state-of-the-art ships and their amazing range of facilities, but the older/smaller ships have a friendliness and intimacy that mega-ship can never hope to emulate. Smaller ships always have many idiosyncrasies, but are easier to navigate for those passengers with mobility problems. Personally I find it so much easier to fall in love with a small ships.
The success of any cruise can come down to ones expectations. The Marco Polo does not claim to offer a five-star experience and is often priced accordingly. However, I did not feel that I was simply getting a second-rate product. Nearly every aspect of Marco Polo’s operation exceeded my expectations, given the size of the ship, its age and the low fare that I paid. The internal décor was generally modern and clean, (although not immaculate like Astor) the cabins were at least adequate, if not better. The food often exceeded my expectations and the entertainment was very good in a non-ambitious way. However all older ships seem to have plumbing, air-conditioning and noise/vibration issues. You will need to overlook these.
I think the Marco Polo will appeal to those who enjoy a friendly British style product, with evening formality, at a reasonable price. Fred Olsen regulars, P&O veterans of their smaller ships and Thomson fans should seriously consider this ship. Likewise, those passengers who have only ever experienced mega-ships should try out the MP to see what ‘real’ cruising is all about: no rock walls, no water slides or ice rinks, just sea views, good company and some surprisingly good food.
(All above Photos by Me!)
Slide Show Tour: