The first full day of our Norway adventure aboard the Marco Polo dawned sunny and calm, with a gently rolling gunmetal swell kissed by fitful whitecaps. The early morning sun sparkled on the royal blue hull plating and washed across the serried tiers of teak decks at the stern. The coffee was hot, and the whole day sparkled with benign possibilities.
With her deep draft and relatively broad hull, the Marco Polo rode out the often capricious North Sea swell with an almost effortless ease. From time to time, she rolled gently to port and starboard, as if attempting to shrug off some imaginary seabirds that tried to cling to the rails. On the lido deck at the stern of the ship, breakfast was being served. The tables around the aft pool were soon full.
If you’re looking for a day full of sensational, show stopping diversions and a whole conga line of time consuming, money eroding gimmicks, then the Marco Polo is not for you. Instead, you’ll find the library is open, arts and crafts classes are taking place in the various lounges, and the first lectures on the upcoming ports of call are taking place.
Too cerebral, or just plain boring? Fine. Take a dip in the pool, work out in the upper deck gym, or just sag lethargically into one of the trio of upper deck hot tubs, with their matchless views out over the roiling, white wake of the ship as it carves a dreamy furrow all the way back to Tilbury. Or relive the classic days of the transatlantic liners, with a stroll around a real teak boat deck, with a canopy of protective lifeboats overhead. Lovely stuff.
A relatively small ship fosters an air of intimate affability as rare and rewarding as fine wine. Conversations with complete strangers strike up over shared breakfast tables, and on the tiers of stepped lido decks that tumble down towards the stern of the Marco Polo. And there is something about the calming, benign influence of the sea that seems to soothe people, making them drop their normal shore side guard. They open up- sometimes to the amazement of their lifelong partners- in a way that would never happen at some anonymous, anodyne resort. In this charmed universe, less is most definitely more.
The onset of lunch serves up a trio of options. Out in the sun, the lido buffet is hugely popular- nothing sharpens the appetite like a side order of sea air- and the tables are soon crowded. Best to wait for the inevitable lines to wind down (maybe grab a lunchtime beer or a Mojito at the pool bar in the meantime?) or, perhaps, head down to the cool, welcoming beauty of the Waldorf Restaurant for a full, waiter service lunch. It is a treat that so many people miss- perhaps that English, lemming like obsession with the sun is overpowering. I know, because the truth is that I’m as guilty as most.
The third option is to grab something from the port side deli, which also has free, all day tea and coffee on tap. Chef Alok will serve you up with a variety of tasty sandwiches and pizza on different days, complete with french fries, and all the garnishes. I went for the hot roast beef on rye bread. Frequently, as it turns out.
Lunch done, the ship takes on a kind of benign, snoozy character, as hundreds succumb to that age old, seductive special act of fine food, comfortable surroundings, and a gently rolling ship furrowing proudly over a sparkling briny. A warm wind ruffles the handful of sleeping blankets that cover a few. Up top, some furious table tennis tournaments assume the tension of the overture to Waterloo.
The sun shifts effortlessly across the afternoon sky, showering light and shade across different parts of the ship, throwing her beautiful lines and architecture into sharp, sometimes breathtaking relief. With her fifty year old hull looking like something from a Fellini movie, the Marco Polo has more than just a touch of the raffish, indolent feel of the Riviera afloat.
Afternoon tea, served down in the Waldorf Restaurant, arouses the passengers from their self induced, happy stupour. Tea, scones and cakes in air conditioned comfort. Elsewhere, bottles of wine and different, brightly coloured cocktails sprinkle the outdoor tables like beautiful, pungent blooms. Things become slightly more animated; up top, the hot tubs are now all full.
There is the tinkle of tea cups and the delightful, gentle shudder of the ship underfoot, as the Marco Polo stands out across the sparkling briny. Some just lose themselves for hours in the spectacle of watching the sharp, graceful prow as it chases a horizon it can never, ever reach. Others hope for the sight of dolphins, leaping in and out of the bow wave. And sometimes, their vigil is rewarded with a display that puts smiles on faces. Kids on Christmas Day syndrome all over again.
Some take delight in simply strolling, stopping to chat to strangers, and so laying the building blocks of friendships that will bloom over the course of the cruise. Others prefer some languid, platinum chip people watching from over the rim of a wine glass (I’m taking to you, Anthony Nicholas), or just a gentle game of cards indoors.
You’ll still hear the gentle clack of the shuffleboard sticks upstairs, a sound as time honoured on ocean liners as the chimes of Big Ben back ashore. Sudden bursts of laughter rise on the breeze and subside again just as quickly. The click and closing of doors and the subtle sizzling of another rye beef toastie. For eight days, these would become the subliminal background soundtrack to our fjord foray. After a while, they became so ingrained that we literally no longer noticed them. At least, not until they were gone.
The light hangs in the sky for a long time, even as first sitting passengers begin to discreetly leave their posts to get ready for that other ageless ritual; the pre dinner cocktail. The Marco Polo seems to give out a long, drawn out sigh, The first deck lights begin to glint gently on the overhead ceilings outside, and the first note of a lilting piano kisses the cool, evening air. It is as if the old girl is getting herself primped for the second act of this seagoing theatrical. And, though we all know the plot- and, of course- how the show always ends- still, the audience is rapt, and as far removed from every day reality as it is possible to be.
What have I done all day? Absolutely nothing, of course. But my word, it has taken me all day to do it. Damn it, I am exhausted.
No one said indolence and enjoyment would be easy, of course. Just imagine if I had to take in flow riders, crowds, constant loudspeaker announcements and on board hard sells as well. It is enough to make the head spin, really.
Too much, in fact. But there is healing balm in the utterly unique magic of the slowly sagging sun as it burnishes the ocean rollers an amazing shade of burnt orange. Sit down, young Jedi. Take comfort from a tall, cool, Tequila Sunrise. And- breathe……
That’s better. Now- what’s for dinner?