It was with no little trepidation we walked up the gangway to join the Marco Polo in Leith for our five-night cruise to the Faroe Islands and the isles of Lewis and Orkney. It had been almost 18 years since Hazel and I last sailed the high seas (I don’t suppose taking the Waverley to Tarbert counts), and so we wondered what lay in store for a couple – one mid-fifties and one slightly less – more used to boarding a plane in Glasgow with one piece of hand luggage each and landing in the Costa del Sol three hours later.
We need not have worried. First impressions last, they say, and that is how we found the 800-passenger Marco Polo, which operates as a “child-free” ship – and that is obviously why this liner holds such appeal for its clientele, the majority of whom were 55-plus. Its operator, Cruise & Maritime Voyages, describes the vessel as “a smaller, more intimate classic ship, offering a more leisurely and home-from-home countryhouse style of cruising, with the emphasis on personal service and going that extra mile” – and we would agree with those words.
Marco Polo became part of the fleet of Cruise & Maritime in 2010, and her cruises from the UK feature a variety of itineraries, from the Norwegian fjords to the Amazon, the Canaries to Baltic cities and Russia. Scots will be pleased to know that this year Cruise & Maritime Voyages will be operating five cruises from Rosyth, four from Leith and three from Greenock, plus a mini-cruise from Greenock to Liverpool. From the moment we arrived at Leith and dropped off our two large cases just before 6.30pm, parked the car a minute’s walk from the ship before boarding case-free, we felt comfortable in our new, if somewhat unfamiliar, surroundings.
We were shown to our cabin on the Navigator Deck by a kind young crew member where we were reunited with our luggage – all so simple and stress-free.
My family are convinced that I have obsessive compulsive disorder, and I was not to disappoint as I began a thorough inspection of our cabin.
It was bright and spacious, with two comfortable single beds (yes, five nights without being kicked), two large windows, plenty of wardrobe and drawer space, a flat screen TV, two power sockets and a safe. Most importantly, no fault could be found with the cleanliness of the living space and bathroom, which was well stocked with soap, shower gel and shampoo.
After unpacking and taking a quick look through the excellent daily four-page news sheet which listed all of the activities, we took a stroll round the deck and went to the bright and comfortable Scott’s Bar where we met up with the rest of our group and enjoyed an al fresco drink before making our way to the Waldorf Restaurant for dinner.
We were greeted by our waiter and wine waiter for the evening, and they deserve praise for their professionalism and the manner in which they carried out their duties during the entirety of our stay. The food? With five courses on the a la carte menu followed by tea or coffee, you would imagine that somewhere along the way the kitchen would get it wrong. Not so. The standard of food was excellent and also beautifully presented; the cold foods were cold and the hot foods were hot, and congratulations to the head chef and his team for getting it so right when cooking for 350-400 passengers at each of the two sittings.
I can also recommend that those who prefer going smart but casual will equally enjoy the food in Marco’s Bistro where the food which is on the a la carte menu is also available and of the same high standard.
And it wasn’t just dinner which impressed; the selection and quality of food, including fresh fruit and pastries on offer at breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea were outstanding. Tea and coffee is free in Marco’s Bistro, or on the deck, from 6.30am until 10.30pm.
We were pleasantly surprised by the bar prices, with a small beer £2.50 and cocktails from £2.50 to £4. House wine cost £14.50 per bottle, while you could splash out £150 fora bottle of champagne.
Yes, there is so much food on offer that it is easy – even on a short cruise – to pile on the weight. However, we ventured off the ship at our three ports of call to walk off some of the excesses. Of course, there is a gymnasium on board, but I didn’t find the time to try it out.
Those going ashore on an organised excursion or exploring by themselves will find Cruise & Maritime’s Port Guides extremely helpful. These four-page A4 leaflets tell you everything you need to know about that day’s destination – its history, where to explore and what to eat and drink.
We used our first full day on board to acquaint ourselves with the ship – the Jade Wellness Centre, the shops, the bars and restaurants, and we enjoyed a leisurely troll around the decks.
Well settled into our surroundings, we arrived at our first port of call, Torshavn, the capital ofthe Faroe Islands. The name Faroes means Sheep Islands which is apt as there are almost twice as many sheep – 90,000 – as there are people.
On a day when the sun broke through the clouds mid-morning to reveal breathtaking scenery, which reminded us of Scotland, we visited a small Lutheran church – religion plays an important part in Faroese culture – and we were amazed by the black houses with their green grass roofs and the large number of waterfalls.
We then headed to the village of Gjogv, where we had a beautiful lunch at the Gjaargardur Hotel (www.gjaargardur.fo). Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis was our second stop, and again we were greeted by blazing sunshine. With the ship unable to dock in the port, we went ashore by tender, a pleasant experience. We were impressed by the crew’s attention to the few people who required assistance to embark and disembark.
We visited the Harris Tweed Hebrides shop in the town centre and, when you feel the quality of the clothing it is no surprise to learn that 30% of the company’s market is now in Japan.
Our next stop was the Gearrannan Blackhouse Village in Carloway, a group of restored thatched cottages where we saw what life was like in a typical crofting township of the last century – well worth a visit. There are also self-catering cottages in a place of outstanding natural beauty.
The Standing Stones of Callanish – one of the oldest and most remote ancient monuments in Europe – attract more than 40,000 visitors every year, and the number of American and Canadian accents was noticeable as we enjoyed lunch at the visitor centre’s excellent coffee shop.
Unfortunately, our schedule did not allow a visit to the only distillery on Lewis, Abhainn Dearg – the first legal distillery in Lewis for 150 years – but we did manage to taste their three-year-old single malt which earned 89 out of 100 in the Whisky Bible.
Finally, we docked at Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney. Our early rise was well worth it as, firstly, we took in the beautiful Italian Chapel built by Italian prisoners of war during the Second World War. They constructed the Churchill Barriers to protect the anchorage at Scapa Flow following the sinking of HMS Royal Oak on October 13, 1939, with the loss of 833 men.
We managed to squeeze in a visit to St Magnus Cathedral before heading to Skara Brae, a Stone Age village dating from around 3000BC and inhabited for roughly 500 years. Time did not allow us to nip over to the Highland Park Distillery… another good reason to return to Orkney.
We enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere on Marco Polo, particularly when it came to dress code because there were those who were comfortable wearing casual clothes on a formal evening and vice-versa; the quality and choice of food was first-class; staff were extremely attentive; we did not see one person who had over-indulged on alcohol.
Finally, we were amazed with peace and calm on board, which is almost certainly down to the child-free policy and the age-profile of the passengers.
Reproduced courtesy of The Herald Magazine