Anthony Nicholas recently enjoyed a cruise of Northern Europe’s aboard one of the world’s most illustrious ships. Read his Marco Polo cruise review and find out why he believes this distinctive vessel still has a lot to offer.
Day One - Friday
Arrive at Tilbury to a drumbeat of falling rain. None of which dampens my enthusiasm for being back on Marco Polo. Even through the drizzle, the ship looks great after all these years.
The hull is a sixties throwback. Curves gracefully upwards at both bow and stern like a slow, languid smile. Looks beautiful in royal blue, with two blue bands running around it. The bow is sharp, raked and wonderful to behold. From the rain speckled Thames, the hull rises upwards into a pair of soaring flanks.
On board, and the curved outdoor terraces are sodden through. Hot coffee is a godsend. Indoors, most of the public rooms range the length of one deck.
Much remains familiar. Art Deco predominates, lightened and pointed up with Oriental statuary in nooks and crannies. A lot of colourful, stained glass ceilings in lobbies and the main dining room. Pastel shades predominate, mainly cool creams.
Upper deck cabin has two picture windows, two single beds, and plenty of storage space. Excellent shower. Flat screen TV never got used- too much going on elsewhere. Boat drill over, and we’re swinging out into the Thames. Ship is almost full with around eight hundred passengers on board.
Day Two - Amsterdam
Arrive in driving rain that miraculously lifts to gift us a warm, sunny day. Around seven hours free and we’re docked right in the middle of town.
First order of business is a canal cruise. We beetle quietly between avenues of brownstone houses flanked by improbably green trees. Bikes try to keep pace with us on both banks. I’m savouring fabulous pickled herring with fine Dutch beer as we sweep under a string of quirky bridges. Ducks on the water everywhere.
Warm enough to take the jacket off. Fabulous view out over the city spires from the terrace of the Amsterdam Hilton. Easy to see how the city was built in a series of concentric rings. Trains running into Dam station look like toys at this height. Excellent coffee and cookies. Would come back to this spot any time.
Back on board, a delay as we enjoy dinner in the Waldorf restaurant. Container ship ahead slows our voyage down the North Sea canal by several hours. Changes afoot as a result.
Evening passes in pleasant whirl as the lights of oil rigs wink at us. Still unfeasibly warm. Passengers enjoy the open air terraces until the wee small hours.
Day Three - Honfleur
Instead of staying overnight in Rouen, our delay gives us the added blessing of a call in Honfleur, around twenty five miles upstream.
The morning is idyllic. Love watching the undulating French coast from a gently bubbling hot tub. Outdoor carvery has spectacularly succulent roast hog. I sneak back for seconds. Hope nobody notices. It’s that good.
Honfleur is pretty, petite and walkable. Few ships nifty enough to get in here. The yacht harbour is rectangular, with houses looming up in shades of red, green and slate gray. Cafes and strollers flood the cobbled streets. Fishing boats fussing in and out, past the carousel on the quayside.
The Monet gardens are lush, tranquil and expansive. They open onto a broad, dusky beach. Quality of the light in the sky quite haunting in its beauty. And it is still blissfully mild.
After a fine dinner on board, I wander back into town. Quieter now, with pools of light dancing on the water. A few glasses of fabulous Muscadet, and all is well with the world. Think I was made for this.
Out on deck, with a final nightcap as we head upriver for a truncated call in Rouen, another fifty miles upstream.
Day Four - Rouen
The rain returns. And how. Early morning street lights reflect on sodden cobblestones as we make a lightning tour.
Houses are amazing, half timbered confections that flank cobbled squares almost empty of people. The Gros Horlorge is a staggering burst of blue and gold bravado, looming against a lead tinted sky.
A cross marks the site of Joan of Arc’s 1431 martyrdom. Stark and simple. How can anyone burn an eighteen year old girl alive? How can one girl exhibit such courage and tenacity? Far more moving than expected.
By noon we’re sailing back upstream. Fabulous views from the upper deck hot tubs. Chateaux and ancient abbeys peep out from among the rolling greenery on both flanks. Marco Polo churns up the steel grey Seine behind us. Barges and container ships steal past us in the opposite direction.
Scenery is amazing. Villages unchanged for centuries tumble down to the river’s edge. Cows grazing quietly. Still raining a little, but not enough to interrupt this magical panorama.
Pre dinner drinks in Scott’s Bar. Cool and civilised. Warm light glowing on soft colours. Dreamy mood music. Great company. The martinis are zesty, and served with a smile.
Day Five - Antwerp
Mother nature back in synch today. Mellow sunshine as we negotiate the sixty mile passage of the Scheldt, bound upstream for Antwerp.
Walk from the dock to city is literally five minutes. Grand Place is a glut of gothic architecture on a formal square. Looming gingerbread spires, fountains and lethargic horse drawn cabs. Fine Belgian beer and the world’s best chocolate.
We take waffles and coffee in a fabulous, hugely over the top, century old restaurant. Short visit to the Rubens house proves it to be more of a palazzo than anything else. As much a work of art as the cake rich, mid blowing masterpieces that peer down from the walls at us.
Time for beer and cheese tasting, as symmetrically perfect as Rodgers and Astaire. Local beer sommeliers have a dedication to their craft as fierce and finely honed as any wine professional.
Back in the square, afternoon sun tints those vaulting gothic buildings a shade of gentle rust. Streets teeming as the rush hour approaches. Uptown trams slither down streets like giant mechanical snails, each one packed to the gills.
A band on shore serenades us as Marco Polo nudges into the stream. People on deck applaud. I’m applauding the whole Antwerp experience. Truly sweet.
Saw an incredible amount in five days. No worries about transfers or carrying luggage. The hotel travelled with us. Quite literally.
Size of the ship made it easier to get into the smart places like Honfleur. Also created a warmer, hospitable atmosphere on board. Unpretentious, yet full of charm.
Marco Polo is a child free, high density ship. She can feel crowded at debarkation and buffet meals. A beautiful old lady, with some corridors that seem to end suddenly. Bit like a beloved, sometimes slightly maddening old aunt that still manages to make you smile.
All in, a thrilling and rewarding few days. Kudos for the care and comfort on board. Marco Polo has style in spades.
Consider that you get snapshots of three countries in five days, plus precious ‘me’ time, and fold in the comfort and security of a safe environment. Inclusivity is key, with all main meals included. Drinks prices reasonable in the extreme.
This kind of city cruise is a no-brainer. Marco Polo can beat any four star hotel for price, variety and style. Loved every moment of this.