The Marco Polo at anchor off Lerwick

In an age of excess, there is a very obvious inclination to scoff at the idea that ‘less’ might just possibly equate to ‘more’ under certain circumstances.

Yet in the case of the floating, 1960’s built anachronism that is the Marco Polo, this simple phrase defines the ship, her ethos, and her sheer style to near perfection.

Here is a small, intimate ship, low slung and yet highly styled. No kids. No rock climbing walls or roller rinks. No ‘art auctions’ or extra tariff restaurants.

No casino, No balcony cabins. No huge, fur and feather boa style floor shows. No hassle. No hurry.

So, what is there, then?

Timeless view over a classic fantail

There are broad, expansive teak terraces that frame unforgettable views out over the ship’s wake. Comfortable, cosy, beautifully decorated lounges that are ideal for relaxing. Menus tailored to the tastes of British passengers.

Of course, all these are a given. That being so, here are some personal observations from being aboard the Marco Polo in mid June over the course of a six night cruise to the Scottish Isles and Faroes.

Port side corridor, with the Columbus Lounge off to the right

Some people seemed surprised that the aft outdoor pool was not filled throughout the voyage. Many of those actually seemed to forget that we were not on some voyage to benign summer climes, but actually heading north, out into the North Atlantic. Not exactly an ocean famed for either it’s warmth or friendly disposition to all things maritime.

In point of fact, we were half way to Iceland itself at the northern apex of our cruise, when we reached the Faroe Islands. Out in the big, open ocean, the Marco Polo rolled slowly and ponderously. Leaving the pool empty was a wise decision under the circumstances.

And it was often cold, too. Almost glacially so in the Faroes. But, in those climes, I don’t see how anybody could have expected otherwise. After all, this was not the Riviera.

But the play of light on water in these fast, far northern climes was utterly compelling. Even at 1.30 in the morning, the golden afterglow of the recently set sun cast an ethereal, blood red sheen across the rolling gunmetal expanse of the ocean. It was a sight so powerful and overwhelming that it made you forget the cold almost entirely.

Surreal beauty of the far northern twilight

As we rolled sedately in the Atlantic, the drawers in my cabin continually came open and shut for a couple of hours on end. But with her deep draft and long, classically styled hull shape, the Marco Polo shrugged off this assault with an easy grace that no other ship could muster. After a while, you simply learned to ‘move’ with the ship.

Overall, a sense of calm, easy contentment suffused the Marco Polo as she sailed these legendary waters. There was no hysterical over excitement or hyperbole; in the fevered, often frantic world of the modern, resort style cruise ships, the Marco Polo is nothing less than artfully applied balm.

So there was nothing to really jar the senses or chafe the soul. Relaxation was on the menu every day, pretty much.

Captain’s Club aboard the Marco Polo

So yes, ‘less’ truly was ‘more’in the case of the Marco Polo on this northbound foray with a Nordic accent. Calm elegance, wrapped in a cocoon of sixties style, met solid comfort in an intimate, inimitable classic of a ship, the likes of which we are extremely unlikely to ever see, or indeed, savour, again. She truly is a scintillating, singular ship; a quirky, slightly eccentric old gem that will captivate anyone with even an ounce of romance or appreciation of the classic, old style of ocean voyaging.

And- because she is, quite literally- in a class of her own, she becomes ever more compelling and addictive as the years go by. For anyone intrigued by the idea of such a ship, my advice would be to sail her while you still can.



Waterfront lodberries at Lerwick

The Shetland Islands today owe much of their historical lore and character to Viking occupation, Dutch herring fisheries and, most notoriously, as a centre for gin smuggling on an almost industrial scale from the 1740’s onward.

Remote and anything but readily accessible, only some twenty five of the two hundred islands that comprise the Shetlands are inhabited to this day. Standing hard and fast against the surrounding, storm tossed North Atlantic, their shores were littered with the smashed hulls and cargoes of wrecked trading ships over the course of many centuries.

Stone walls and sea cliffs

Today the taut, compact capital of Lerwick presents a proud, no nonsense stance to anyone arriving at the tender anchorage from offshore. Grey granite houses, known as ‘Lodberries’, sit right along the water’s edge, with slipways and waterfront garages standing right on the fringe of the sea itself.

The harbour itself is a beguiling brew of sturdy, brightly coloured trawlers, their masts and decks buzzed by squadrons of wheeling, screeching seabirds, and small, immaculate yachts that rise and fall with almost imperceptible grace on the Atlantic tidal swell. Ashore, row upon row of imposing, slate grey houses and shops loom above narrow, winding, flagstone paved lanes. Between these serried tiers of buildings, rows of brightly coloured pennants wave idly in the summertime breeze.

Cannon on the top of Fort Charlotte, looking out over Bressay Sound

Above the waterfront, the petrified stone carcass of Fort Charlotte glares balefully out across the harbour, just as it has since the seventeenth century. The upper level of the grey stone battlements is softened by a rolling green carpet, studded with a huddle of ancient cannon, their forever open mouths gaping across the still, silent waters of Bressay Sound.

Strolling along the rugged, jagged sweep of coast, dry stone walls flank a backdrop of gently rolling hills and surging, steel grey Atlantic rollers that flail the series of pebble stone beaches that crouch warily along the coastline. Here and there, the remnants of more recent conflicts rise up from the sea like so many jagged, gaping wounds. A long since abandoned concrete torpedo pillbox here, a windswept, open observation point there.

The whole twisting, tremendous hinterland is studded with idly grazing sheep and cattle that pay the tourists little, if any attention. Those same tourists struggle gamely along the series of footpaths and nature trails that feed through the whole landscape like so many veins through a supine body. The sense of silence and peace here is almost overwhelming.

Old Lerwick town centre

Back in Lerwick, houses and shops display the stepped roof faces so typical of medieval Denmark, in particular. In fact, the Danish royal yacht- Danneborg- was actually docked next to the fish quay; a trim, tidy white little Faberge egg of a ship, dressed in gold scrolling and with her gangway guarded by a sailor wielding a ceremonial drawn sword.

As a centre for fishing and seafood in general, it seems a bit obvious to say that the fish and chips in Lerwick were delicious, but they truly were. On an overcast but still warm day, Lerwick came across as a sturdy, intriguing little stalwart, suffused with the history of it’s Viking heritage, putting on something of a game face as it welcomed the modern day Vikings that surged ashore from the Marco Polo, these days armed with nothing mote lethal than shopping bags and credit cards.

Old concrete torpedo battery remains

Lerwick, and the Shetlands in general, has a kind of robust, no nonsense warmth and a palpable sense of pride; one that is well deserved. The islands, while proud of their past, are not backward looking. While conscious of their history and place in the world, they are not overwhelmed or solely defined by it.

Bumbling back out across the Atlantic on the tender, I watched with genuine sadness as the winding, grey tinted facade of Lerwick diminished to toy town size. Directly ahead, the lithe, graceful silhouette of the Marco Polo loomed large, as pristine as a perfectly primped swan.

All too soon, we found ourselves once more cocooned in the warmth and welcome of our rather splendid ship. Beneath our decks, the engines hummed a gentle reassurance. As I nursed a Cape Cod outside on the terrace behind Scott’s Bar, the sun peeped almost shyly out from behind a couple of airship coloured clouds. In our wake, Lerwick vanished from sight like a slowly falling souffle. Ahead, another adventure filled the belatedly brightening horizon with fresh new promise.


The Marco Polo at anchor off Lerwick

I’ve just returned from a short but intensive six day voyage aboard the stately old Marco Polo, one of my favourite ships still in service. Having sailed serenely through her landmark fiftieth anniversary last year, the ship is still going quietly about her business- charming and beguiling an entire new generation of fans, many of whom were not even born when she first cut salt water as the Alexander Pushkin.

Marco Polo under the cannon of Fort Charlotte

Our six day cruise began in Hull, and terminated at Port of Tyne. In between, the Marco Polo surged north and west into a surreal, half realised hinterland of small islands in the Shetlands, Faroes and Orkneys. Cast adrift in the North Atlantic, small groups of these windswept outposts huddle together like some kind of circled wagon train, seeking protection from the elements that can batter them with almost visceral ferocity in the long, dark winter months.

But they take on a very different character during the long days of mid summer, when the glow of the sun is still visible below the horizon at one thirty in the morning.

Sea walkway, Shetland Island style

A sea of brightly coloured gorse and heather breaks out like some incurable rash all along the low, rolling hills of the islands. Fields full of buttercups appear overnight. The sky- a vast turquoise canvas unhindered by large buildings or forests of skyscrapers- takes on an almost overpowering aspect.

It’s a region where the influence of long gone Celtic and Viking communities still hangs in the air. Huddled, recently uncovered settlements and Bronze Age artifacts sit in a kind of uneasy silence amid the modern vices of 21st century technology. The past hangs over these ancient waters like some kind of ceremonial shroud.

Lodberries, Lerwick

In towns like Lerwick and Kirkwall, ancient, narrow, flagstone lined streets are filled with coloured bunting that dances above sightseers and shop owners alike, plying their trade in converted houses where smugglers once piled their plunder. The local inter island ferries flit in and out of harbours filled with small yachts and fishing craft. Old stone fortresses crowned by serried ranks of silent cannon stand guard over headlands where the Scottish and Danish flags still whip snappily in the breeze. And the cry of the whooping, screeching seabirds is the constant soundtrack to everything, playing in the background as if on a loop.

Lobster pots stand in serried, haphazard piles atop gnarled stone quaysides along the jagged green slash of the coastline. Long, sun kissed, white capped Atlantic rollers surge and flail against rugged pebble beaches draped with bits of flotsam, washed up from who knows where. Small houses, sometimes made from clapboard, others from no nonsense red sandstone, dot the rolling hills where sheep and cattle enjoy the long, lazy days of summer.

Kollafjord, Faroe Islands

And all of this surreal, show stopping finery was savoured from a ship that, in herself, is an epic work of art. Tiny by modern standards, and yet as ornate and exquisite as a Faberge egg, the Marco Polo rode the wild, sometime stormy Atlantic waters with the ease and poise of a lady who has seen and done it all, many times before. Eyes popped and jaws dropped as this sublime floating anachronism dropped anchor off the small yacht harbours of the islands, swinging languidly at anchor like something out of a sixties Bond movie. Improbable, elegant and unforgettable, the Marco Polo left nothing but a sense of wonder in her wake.

1.30 in the morning. Under northern skies….

Back on board, all was instantly, reassuringly familiar. There was the welcome chance to renew former acquaintances among the officers and crew. Time between shore visits to slouch gratefully back into a favourite seat and enjoy a fondly remembered view with a book, a drink, or even both. Time to succumb with almost pathetic gratitude to the age old rhythm and lifestyle aboard a well run ship. No water slides. No aqua parks or rock climbing walls. No children and- most blissful of all- no pressure to do absolutely anything.

Over the next few blogs, I’ll recount some of the highlights of this voyage to the far isles. Here’s hoping that you can stick around for the adventure.



If there is one thing that almost everybody treasures from a cruise at some stage, it is one or more of the professional souvenir photos taken at events such as embarkation, or the formal night meet and greet with the captain. And, as such a cruise might be a once in a lifetime experience for some people, these can be great memories; milestones that chart the story of their lives. So far, so good.

But I fear it has now gone way beyond that. Way, way, beyond that.

At lifeboat drill on a recent cruise- an event that should be carried through with at least a certain amount of attentive sobriety- I was gobsmacked to find a squad of on board photographers, taking people’s pictures as they stood at their boats stations, clad in their orange life jackets.

This, after loudspeaker instructions from the bridge had specifically asked passengers not to take food or drink to their lifeboats stations. This, after the same message had been repeated three times….

If lifeboat drill-the most serious and important exercise conducted on board any ship- is to become yet another excuse for photographers to ply their trade yet again, then what else on board is actually sacrosanct these days? If this can be dumbed down to just yet another glorified photo opportunity, then whatever next?

And-I have to emphasize- this is far from the only time that I have seen this ghastly, banal business in operation.

I mean, can you imagine the passengers of the Titanic being refused passage to the boats until they had posed for a ‘celebratory’ picture portrait? Maybe with a canvas backdrop featuring a large iceberg, perhaps.

Over the top? Maybe. But, for sure, it’s a pointed nod to the direction in which we are heading.

It isn’t simply boat drill. Throughout any large ship- on almost any night- large, CGI backdrops will be erected in the public areas to allow for passenger portraits. A steady procession of them will line most of the public walkways, and often on more than one deck.

Prime locations, such as processional stairways, will be roped off to ‘non participants’ in this neon pageant. Not only is this this mildly inconvenient- it’s downright rude. What is the priority here; passenger comfort or photographer’s prerequisites?  And I also have concerns that there might be the makings of a safety risk here in the unlikely event of an accident.

Then, of course, there are the photographers who swoop down like dive bombers at dinner tables. Annoying barely begins to cover it.

Don’t mistake this as a rant against the people actually taking these pictures; they work their socks off, and do a job prized by a great many. But the fact remains that shipboard photography these days has become all intrusive, all pervasive, and totally out of control.

More proof?

Look at the size of the average photo gallery on any mega ship today. It is usually the size of a Zeppelin hangar. Vast acreage is given over to displaying a tsunami of petrified rictus grins, staring down at us from wall to wall, end to end.

Surely, in the digital age, there is a better way of doing this? Couldn’t on board photography be arranged as a required service, rather than allowing it to become something that pokes it’s intrusive tendrils into every aspect of shipboard life?

From embarkation to getting off at every port. From cocktail parties to formal portraits, restaurant pictures and fancy dress costumes, it often now feels as if the entire ship is now seen as nothing more than a backdrop for the benefit of the photographers. And it is high time to draw a line.

For sure, I’m aware of the revenue incentives that cruise lines see in on board photography, and the sums realised are a big part of on board passenger spend.

I’m not arguing for an end to shipboard photography services. Not by any means. I’m appealing for a bit less of the in your face, over the top, all pervasive pressure that we are being brow beaten into accepting as the norm. It isn’t normal. And it isn’t nice.

Enough is enough.

Smile! You’re on constant camera!


Norwegian Jewel is bound for Australia in October, 2017

Continuing to fine tune it’s operations in Asia-Pacific in Australia, Norwegian Cruise Line has announced plans to deploy the Norwegian Jewel out of Australia over the winter of 2017-18.

The 93,502 ton, 2,376 passenger ship, built in 2005 and recently extensively refurbished, will leave Vancouver for Sydney via a forty day redeployment voyage, beginning on October 3rd, 2017. En route, the ship will offer a string of Hawaiian and Polynesia itineraries.

Beginning on November 12th with a five day sailing to Tasmania, the Norwegian Jewel will offer seven round trip cruise itineraries from Sydney, including one nine day voyage, and a series of ten to sixteen day sailings between Australia and New Zealand.

This first season will end on February 20th 2018, when the ship will leave Sydney on an eighteen day itinerary to Singapore. Following this, Norwegian Jewel will sail on an as yet unspecified series of cruises to Vietnam, Korea, Hong Kong, Japan and China.

The lack of a specific return date to America for the Norwegian Jewel is being interpreted in some quarters as evidence that the ship will then switch to the Chinese market, but I personally think that such a move seems unlikely without a substantial- and as yet unconfirmed- refit to equip her for the Chinese cruise trade.

As ever, stay tuned for updates.


Propeller from the Italian battleship Vittorio Veneto, on display in the garden of the Italian Naval Museum at La Spezia

While on my recent cruise aboard the MSC Fantasia, the ship stopped into the port of La Spezia on our last day.

Las Spezia is- and always was- the main base for the Italian battle fleet. And, to my great surprise, I stumbled on a large, extensive naval museum on the outskirts of the harbour itself. Relics of the turbulent past littered the outdoor gardens like so many silent screams. But one in particular caught my eye.

Sat on a plinth was a giant propeller, salvaged from the battleship Vittorio Veneto. For much of Italy’s involvement in World War Two, this vast, sleek giant was the flagship of the fleet. She saw more action than any other Italian capital ship.

The Vittorio Veneto nearly came to grief at the battle of Cape Matapan, fought in the eastern Mediterranean in late March of 1941. She was the linchpin of a fleet that had sortied out to attack a British convoy, only to find it covered by a larger Royal Navy force. As she retired from the scene, the giant battleship was attacked by a swarm of Swordfish torpedo bombers from the aircraft carrier, HMS Formidable.

Towards the end of the battle, a single torpedo slammed into the port side of the Vittorio Veneto right aft, wrecking one of her port side propeller shafts, and damaging her port side rudder. Four thousand tons of flood water surged into the hull, and the huge battleship slewed to a halt. From far astern, three British battleships strained at the leash to overhaul the crippled flagship.

The situation on board was desperate, but frantic damage control measures by the Italian battleship’s crew gradually began to stop her list at about 4.5 degrees. Considering that they only had emergency hand pumps to work with, this ranks as a quite incredible achievement by itself. Counter flooding helped as well, going quite a way to offsetting the worrying list.

Eventually, the ship’s engineers were able to restart the starboard propellers. They also managed to line up and connect the hand steering gear and, gradually, the battleship was able to work her speed back up to something like twenty knots.

A last, desperate aerial attack crippled an escorting cruiser, but failed to further hinder the battleship herself. By the skin of her teeth, the Vittorio Veneto escaped the doom looming up on her from astern.

All the same, it had been an incredibly close escape. Full repairs to the Vittorio Veneto were not completed until that same August, some five months later.

Other battleships would not be so lucky.

Just two months later, the Bismarck would be crippled beyond repair off the west coast of France by a similar hit. And, in December 1941, an aerial torpedo hit on her propellers and rudder would doom the British battleship HMS Prince Of Wales. The era of the battleship was truly over.

That simple, slightly rusty propeller sits as a memorial to all of those lost men in its own way. As such, it is a stark, simple link to a time and place in history that most of us, thankfully, did not have to fight our way through.


Plaza Roma aboard the MSC Fantasia

Having just returned from a week on the MSC Fantasia, I have no hesitation in saying that this is quite simply one of the most stunningly appointed vessels that I have ever sailed on in three and a half decades of cruise and ocean liner travel.

She’s a big girl- 133,000 tons, and capable of carrying more than 4300 passengers. But the interior design and lofty ceilings combine to create a sense of casual, spectacular luxury and space that makes such numbers seem impossible.

Part of the magnificent staircase

Fixtures, fitting and furnishings are of a quality and scale that would enhance any old style, luxury ‘grand hotel’ from history. It would be so easy to imagine Audrey Hepburn strolling down the magnificent, Swarovski crystal studded staircases that link the various levels of the stunning atrium. And it would not be overly fanciful to imagine the dapper little Hercule Poirot hunched delicately over an early morning espresso in Il Cappucino, the bar overlooking the lobby.

Of course, MSC is a very European product, and this is reflected in the scale, style and entertainment on the ship everywhere. But the real entertainment is actually the ship itself- from any angle, she is a true superstar.

Il Transatlantico, the piano bar

Whether you’re enjoying piano music in a lounge themed after the classic Atlantic liners of the thirties, or partying in a sixteen story high glass disco that looks as if lifted intact from the Death Star, the whole vibe of the ship is very multi national. The currency on board is the euro; the ice cream truly, magnificent Italian, and impossible to resist.

Lido deck on the Fantasia. The large complex to left and right centre is actually the ship’s disco

MSC Fantasia is as much multi generational as multi national. Large, extended families come on board and party until the small hours. On deck dancing and participation games are the norm. Some find it cheesy, but many more love it. And the participation was enthusiastic and, ultimately, contagious.

Food is geared across this base range of clientele, from English to Italian, to German and French. Mexican and oriental offerings proved a welcome surprise to even this crowd, but the room service menu- like continental breakfast- incurs a small service charge, just as in any European main land hotel.

Similarly, the extra tariff restaurants are priced per menu item, a la carte, rather than on the one blanket price so typical of other mainstream lines. Never for one moment can you forget the essential, pan European nature of the MSC product.

At times, the noise seems inescapable. It’s an exuberant, bubbling torrent of excitement, enjoyment and indulgence that can be just as marvellous as it can sometimes be maddening, depending upon your mood. And yet…..

Med sunset from the MSC Fantasia

Sitting on the breeze kissed terrace of the Lido di Catalano at sunset. listening to a solitary, live sax player as the flaring red ball of the sun falls into what resembles a sea of blazing straw, you just know that there is absolutely nowhere else you would rather be right at that moment. My week aboard this extraordinary floating resort- where the indolence of the Riviera meets the elegance of the Ritz- was full of just such stunning little vignettes.

The soul and spirit of la dolce vita is very much alive and well. It’s all at sea.

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