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Marco Polo to the Fjords

marco-polo-001Exceptionally good weather for April, melting snow in warm sun, adult only ship, wine and cocktails at very sensible prices, these are the good points.

Some cruise staff who behave like children, average food, a cabin next to the engine room with the constant smell of diesel, a ludicrous safety drill, these are the bad points.

Agreeable fellow passengers, lots of bars with entertainment, a 50 year old cruise ship with character, these are the average points.

We drove to Tilbury from the south coast, dropped cases off at port entrance, then drove our car to the parking lot. We had to take a shuttle bus back to the terminal, and embarkation was hassle free, efficient, and reasonably marco-polo-002quick. We were very disappointed with our cabin’s location, and a tip for future travellers – specify that you do not want either deck five (ours) or four, which was even worse. A lot of engine noise, vibration, and smell. The Marco Polo is fifty years old in 2014, ex-Russian, and now a mainly comfortable ship that can go to destinations denied to larger vessels.

Day one involved the daft safety drill. It is mandatory, no problems with this, but why do they have the drill indoors spoken by non-English incomprehensibly mumbling unable to project their voice, followed by standing around outside then dismissed without explanation. Illogical.

Then it was exploring the Marco Polo, having a drink in a bar with panoramic views, waiting with tummy rumbling for second sitting at 8.15pm. No nibbles with drinks, not that surprising with cocktail of the day at £3.10p. All prices in sterling, virtually all marco-polo-003passengers British and of mature age. The majority of cabin, bar, and restaurant staff are Eastern European, hence about a third really pleasant, the rest indifferent. They seem to know that the majority of the passengers will have had the gratuity added to their onboard account, so don’t have to do anything exceptional to gain further emoluments, which are unlikely to be forthcoming.

Day two was at sea, steaming through the North Sea to Norway, with formal evening meal. Fine dining it wasn’t. Not much choice, plenty of courses (six if you wanted), and for those who didn’t dress up there was the self service canteen style. Some didn’t bother with dress code and still came to formal dinner. No senior staff seemed to be concerned at this lack of etiquette.

We had two portholes in our low cabin just above the sealine, and woke early day three to see fjord panorama close by. We journeyed right to the end, couldn’t go any further, to a hamlet called Ulvik, where some passengers disembarked via tender to waiting sightseeing coaches waiting on shore. We stayed on the ship, sailing round the coast to Eidfjord, we went in the coach up marco-polo-004the mountain to a spectacular waterfall (we saw many of these), then refreshments at the Fossli Hotel, back to the ship after a three hour trip.

We didn’t look at our daily ship’s programme, assumed that dinner was still at 8.30pm so rolled up at this time. Bad move. Everyone else had been there for fifteen minutes, our waiter had a real hissy fit, throwing our menus at us, no greeting, each plate begrudgingly placed so the food didn’t quite spill over.

Day four was the best, up another fjord, this time arriving at the small village of Flam. Spectacular mountain views, lots of attractive tourist shops, even a dotto train. But the real reason for the visit is the railway. Three carriages were reserved for Marco Polo passengers, and we had our own local tour guide for commentary. The uphill journey into the mountain journey lasted for forty minutes, with a five minute photo stop at an even more magnificent waterfall (not our last). We alighted at Vatnahalsen. The station platform was clear of snow, but the further uphill path to the hotel for coffee and waffles with local jam marco-polo-005and cream was not. This was hazardous, with my wife clinging to me, somehow managing to cleverly place her foot and majority of left leg into a snow hole, extricating with difficulty and exhortations rising in volume. No camera recorded her ignominy.

Hotel staff were at hand for the downward slip and slide, my arm recovering and not needed so I could concentrate on my own equilibrium. The return train was fifteen minutes late, no Norwegian efficiency. At the bottom of the railway we sat on a bench, soaking in the sun, enjoying a pint of local beer. At £10 per glass.

We were first in the restaurant that night, dinner was not memorable, but the scenery was, darkness arriving about 10pm and the shore lights coming on as we cruised past.

Day five was in Bergen, Norway’s second largest city. We went up to an observation point in a cable car, and then had an enjoyable city tour in the coach. Evening meal was the second formal night, dress code as before.

Day six was steaming back to Tilbury. We wanted to be off the ship early the next day for personal reasons, this was arranmarco-polo-006ged without complication with reception. The onboard account was presented professionally, the activities, lectures and entertainment were really very good, and a day at sea was spent in the usual relaxing way.

So, what did we think of the Marco Polo. Overall, a good impression, we would certainly sail on her again if the price was right and we had more input as to cabin location. We booked the tickets six months before, and felt miffed that those who were a long way behind had superior facilities. In every closed situation there will be good and points. More positives for us than negatives.

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