Intrepid explorer Paul Joyce braves the high-seas on Cruise & Maritime’s ageing ex-Russian navy charter, the MS Marco Polo, for an uncertain voyage of danger, discovery, death and dancing. From Tilbury through the Bay of Biscay and into Vigo, Lisbon and Cadiz, onwards to Gibraltar, Tangiers, Portimao and Gijon, he discovers that being part of a captive audience makes for an eventful journey…
My parents never flew in a commercial aircraft on a scheduled flight. Their sole experience of taking to the skies was a twenty-minute spin around Worthing Pier (in a biplane) sometime after World War II. I myself have never witnessed a premier division football match, and only within the last year or two have I dipped my toe into cruising. Leaving things late seems to be a family trait. A first for me in 2008 was the Queen Mary II, transatlantic and with all the frills.
Enter at a sedate pace from harbour left MS Marco Polo, late of the Soviet Navy. Some cruise companies own their vessels, train their own crews and are only beholden, when publicly owned at least, to their shareholders. Others such as Cruise & Maritime claim very few assets and simply lease a ship, lock stock and smoking funnel – captain, crew, the whole shebang. As with many other shipping operators, responsibility for vessels such as the Marco Polo involves complex and sometimes rapidly-changing ownership, and when Trans-Oceanic went “belly up” late last year, Cruise & Maritime stepped into the breach and guaranteed a certain number of sailings to provide continuity for Tilbury-based voyages.
So our vessel of choice started life as one of five built in Germany for the Russian navy, all named after famous soviet poets. The MS Marco Polo first saw the light of day as the Alexander Pushkin and after twenty-five years of heavy Baltic duty was just about ready for the knacker’s yard. Rescued in 1990 by an enterprising English entrepreneur, one Gerry Herrod (founder of Ocean Cruise Lines), she was divested of all her aging Russian garments and reduced to her steel underpants, a bare skeleton of raw metal. Painstakingly, a Dutch engineer and a Japanese interior designer reconstructed her. From Ocean Cruise via Trans-Oceanic and now Cruise & Maritime, the MS Marco Polo has gathered a loyal following of travel agents, journalists and passengers alike. Still with her magnificent hull, ideal for an ice-battering Baltic patrol, her aesthetically satisfying and technically-expert superstructure allows her to ride through comparatively narrow gaps, but as it is over forty years from this original refit, she is showing signs of rust and age.
Now as MS Marco Polo she plies the Northern climes, the Amazon basin, and presently she is heading for North Africa, Spain, Portugal and France. With her loyal following ageing alongside this elegant vessel, my only hope is that the whole lot of us don’t disappear in a final last gasp bathed in a golden sunset somewhere off the Bay of Biscay. Carrying a compliment of 800 passengers and 330 crew, by modern standards she might be deemed “small”, “intimate” and “traditional” and she, and those who sale with and in her, are the subject of this report on C & M’s “Iberian Highlights”.
Day 1: My arrival at Victoria Coach Station for the journey to Tilbury (£20 return) was marked by a growing unease as I saw what I assumed to be fellow passengers assembling at exit 1 and 2. At this point I gazed at the retreating back of my youngest son, who had helped me with cases to the station, and was tempted to scream “Come back!” and do a runner (a reaction later supported by two other passengers who, like me, were by now hiding behind pillars). But then the party was called and the geriatric queue wound its way slowly towards the waiting coach. Still time to cut and run, or to join it? “Better join” said a voice in my head, “the money’s already spent!” So join I did.
At Tilbury we were shunted on board in double-quick time and immediately left to our own devices. Deprived by the coach journey of lunch, I wandered through the “buffet” facility with heavy heart having briefly tasted luke-warm, gelatinous and severely overcooked pasta. A foretaste of what is to come? Surely not.
Day 2: Cherbourg, from whence The Titanic set out on her epic 1912 voyage. A hint of things to come, maybe? Here I realised, on waking to various announcements about coach party 720B and so on, that on a cruise such as this, one quickly becomes a second class citizen if you opt out of the guided tours organised by the company. Doing a quick calculation I reckon that every coach that leaves the ship for a 3-4 hour local excursion earns the company about £1,000 profit, thus five coaches, seven ports of call etc. So after coaches have struggled away in a wreath of diesel fumes, we lonely pariahs make our way onto the deserted quay to stand beneath a sign reading “Shuttle Bus”. Glancing down the pole I see resting at its foot a pile of steaming horse dung. Shuttle bus? Twenty minutes later we hear “clip clop, clip clop” noises in the distance followed by the sight of an ancient horse and carriage. Forty minutes beyond this we are proceeding at barely walking pace through an industrial estate and Carrefore carparks on a circuitous route into town (the main bridge being closed for repairs). Time just for a brief coffee followed by a geriatric jog back to the boat, narrowly avoiding second day abandonment on the dock.
Day 3: At sea through the Bay of Biscay. Those of us unfortunates travelling alone are invited to a “singles meeting experience” at the upper deck bar. A desultory group of a baker’s dozen or so, mainly women of an uncertain age, all congregate and proceed to eye each other up with varying degrees of embarrassment and / or disdain. Our cruise representative, Leah, who previously worked for The Disney Corporation, now clearly prefers brigades of the elderly rather than screaming children to deal with. Leah’s “shadow” and future replacement, Lauren (28ish), enlivened matters just by being there and before long the group divided, amoeba-like and gratefully dispersed to continue with reading their Joanna Trollopes and John Grishams.