On board the cruise ship: Marco Polo
The Marco Polo is robust enough to sail the seven seas and small enough to float along rivers and dock at the smaller ports.
If anything sends me hurtling back to childhood it is travelling with my mother. But she needed a rest and this five-night ex UK European cruise from Tilbury (as we are London-based, we thankfully avoided stressful airports) seemed perfect.
Embarkation was surprisingly simple and it wasn't long before lunch was being served and we quickly got onto the cruising wavelength.
I must admit it did feel a bit of naughty treat to be sitting in an outdoor hot tub sipping a cocktail while we sailed along the Seine river admiring the verdant landscape that inspired Monet.
My mother didn't join me as the hot tub wasn't to her taste but we did enjoy a cream tea together earlier that afternoon where the buffet style Marco Bistro spills out onto the deck below.
MS Marco Polo is not a big ship – just 22,000 tons (a midget compared to some liners). Yet it packs in two restaurants, five lounges, a library and card room, an outdoor pool, three hot tubs and the wellness spa and beauty centre.
Unlike the larger, plusher and newer liners, the ship has had an intriguing past. She started life in 1965 as a Russian ship called Alexander Pushkin and though quaintly named after a writer, it was decked out in a grim Soviet style. By the 70s it was being used in the Western market as a budget-priced cruise ship. All of that austerity disappeared when she defected to a British company in 1991 when Gerry Herrod, who had founded Ocean Cruise Lines, bought her.
Two years and millions of dollars later the ship emerged as Marco Polo sailing for Orient Lines. In 2010, Cruise and Maritime took her over offering a variety of sailings, from the UK including Norwegian Fjords and even a 42-night Amazon Cruise. And of course this short break France, Belgium and Holland Cruise to Amsterdam, Rouen and Antwerp from Tilbury.
As a small ship, Marco Polo is able to moor in small harbours. At Antwerp we were able to disembark in the heart of the city and so could easily get to the main sights. An organised tour took us to a cheese and beer tasting, Rubens' gallery, shopping at the best chocolate shops and ending the afternoon with a waffle and coffee.
In Amsterdam we had lunch on a canal boat, visited the newly built film museum housed in a bizarre building that looks like a ski slope and got a lift back to the ship by tuc tuc. It was great fun for both of us.
The on-board experience was both homely and unpretentious. There is no casino, no pressure to buy anything on board and as an adult-only ship, there are no kids. Though it is billed as three-star, it delivers far more than expected.
At our first dinner at the formal dining Waldorf restaurant, my mother had asked for her favourite gastronomic tipple which didn't appear on the main or vegetarian menu: avocado. A look of disappointment when told there was none to be had prompted Liza our steward to offer to nip into town when we arrived the next day in Amsterdam. Sure enough next night at dinner, there was avocado.
There is evening entertainment a mix of cabaret, music, comedy, magic and a versatile cruise director who can direct, tell jokes over the tannoy (this announcement is for the guy who lost the Rolex watch: the time now is 2.30pm) and sing. But my mother missed all of that late night shenanigans preferring to repair to the bedroom to read and to enjoy some quiet after a busy day touring, playing and eating fine foods.
The accommodation is more than adequate. We shared a twin-bed room with a small shower-room and satisfactory amount of cupboard space to cater for the ample contents of the luggage belonging to two women who carry too much for fear of have nothing to wear – especially on formal night. You can imagine scene of the question "how do I look in this outfit?" that ping-ponged between us as we tried on several outfits.
Incidentally, as was the norm when it was built, none of the rooms have a balcony, but what this ship does have is a wrap-around deck that harks back to bygone days.
I, on the other hand, not only enjoyed the shows but then went to the disco in the Marco Polo lounge for a tipple and a wiggle on the dance floor.
I admit I got back to the room in the wee hours, but was shocked to see my mother waiting up for me. "I just called you" she said "You were out so late, I was worried". Where did she think I would get to?
Incredulous as it was, me, a mother of a 27-year old lawyer, I found myself feeling like a wanton teenager, but boy it was worth it.
The Marco Polo is run by Cruise and Maritime. This trip cost £399 per person including all food.
Their next cruise is on 27 October 2012 for a weekend in Amsterdam, sailing from London, Tilbury. Prices start from £99.
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