MARCO POLO Cruises In The Wake Of Triumph and Tragedy, Part One

With the 100th Anniversary of the TITANIC’s ill-fated maiden voyage, this has been the month for tribute and memorial cruises. First, Fred. Olsen’s flagship BALMORAL departed Southampton in the wake of TITANIC, tracing her 1912 itinerary to linger over the wreck site before finishing what the White Star liner could not:  a successful crossing to New York. Meanwhile, departing New York just in time to rendezvous with BALMORAL at the TITANIC site, Azamara Club Cruises’ AZAMARA JOURNEY ventured up to Halifax, where many of the TITANIC’s victims were buried before returning to New York.

MARCO POLO's Britain's Maritime Heritage Cruise from Tilbury to Cherbourg, Cobh, Belfast, Liverpool and back.

But it was a bona-fide former Atlantic liner with a rich, long history that undertook what promised to be the most ambitious and satisfying of all the memorial journeys.

MARCO POLO at Tilbury terminal.

That ship, Cruise and Maritime Voyages’ 1965-built MARCO POLO, would not only visit the first two stops on TITANIC’s voyage, she would pay tribute to LUSITANIA with a wreath-laying ceremony and then continue onwards to two of Britain’s most important maritime centers. In addition, there would be a series of maritime lectures and exhibits, quizzes, auctions, and specially-themed dinners in honor of many other ships that did not meet with tragedy.

So, off we headed, to rendezvous with MARCO POLO on a seven night cruise from Tilbury to Cherbourg, Cobh, Belfast and Liverpool…

Cruise and Maritime Voyages

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All photos by and copyright Peter Knego 2012 unless otherwise noted.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Tilbury Tuesday.

Tilbury.  A place only a weary ship lover might appreciate with its forlorn industrial landscape, coal-stained brick buildings and muddy estuary waters. At least the weather was somewhat cooperative with intermittent clouds, the occasional burst of rain and patches of piercingly blue sky. Behind the facade of the London International Cruise Terminal, although we could not yet see her, our handsome ship awaited.

Positive sign.

We would have all morning to fully document the 22,080 gross ton MARCO POLO”s passenger spaces, decks and a wide range of her accommodation prior to the ship embarking almost 800 guests for her Maritime Heritage Cruise.

An ALEXANDR PUSHKIN postcard image. Peter Knego collection.

MARCO POLO will be detailed in a forthcoming Decked! feature but, in a nutshell, she is the last surviving member of a quintet of sleek East German built liners commissioned by the Soviet Union. Originally Baltic Shipping Company’s ALEXANDR PUSHKIN, she was built to cross from Leningrad via Bremerhaven and London (Tilbury) to Montreal. By the early 1980s, she was diverted mostly to cruising and in 1990, she was laid up and then purchased by Gerry Herrod and vastly rebuilt for his newly-formed, expedition-oriented Orient Lines.

MARCO POLO Card Room, facing forward.

The ship has eight passenger decks with a wide range of facilities and public spaces, including a pool, three Jaccuzzis, a spa, a well-equipped gym, numerous lounges and bars, a library, show room, casual buffet restaurant and traditional dining room. Almost everything inside the ship dates from her 1991 rebuilding but in the card room, her original brass bell with its Cyrilic imprint provides a tangible link to her former life.

Promenade, facing aft.

Externally, despite having been expanded both fore and aft, the MARCO POLO still has many of her ocean liner characteristics. Lovely, rounded curves in her superstructure, dramatic sheer and camber and areas of well-scrubbed teak decking set her apart from today’s fleet of boxy monoliths.

QUEEN MARY at Tilbury.

One nice surprise was spotting the 1933-built steamer QUEEN MARY — which faces an uncertain future — at a nearby quay. Other tonnage at Tilbury included the since-departed 1970-built OCEAN PEARL (the former SONG OF NORWAY, Royal Caribbean’s first ship) and the 1992-built GEMINI (the former CROWN JEWEL).

Tilbury Landing Stage from MV MARCO POLO.

By mid afternoon, the light had shifted to the port side of the ship and the tide had receded from the landing stage.

MARCO POLO Cabin 817, facing aft.

With most of the ship documented, we settled into Category 12 Premium Twin cabin 817 on starboard Navigator Deck (11). The comfortable space had twin beds, a dresser and three tall closets, two partially-obstructed picture windows, a small flat screen television, phone and individually-controlled air conditioning. There are fifteen cabin categories on the MARCO POLO of all shapes and size but the decor by Athens-based AMK (Katzourakis) is pretty consistent with warm wood tones, metallic ceilings and brightly-colored soft fittings.

CMV en suite tolietries.

Our modular bathroom had a shower, toilet and shelves with CVC-provided toiletries that included shampoo, conditioner, soap and moisturizer.

MARCO POLO boat drill muster, part one.

With everyone now on board, an incredibly comprehensive muster was called at 3:15, just as the ship prepared to depart. In the wake of COSTA CONCORDIA, boat drills have become almost solemn occasions and on this particular cruise commemorating at least two historic and devastating passenger ship disasters, the thoroughness of the drill gave a bit of ironic reassurance.

MARCO POLO boat drill muster, part two.

Cruise and Maritime Voyages don’t just call guests to their muster stations — they also lead them to their actual lifeboat, where a thorough roll call is taken.

MARCO POLO, facing aft from starboard wing.

The safety business now behind us, we could feel the gentle hum of the ship’s Sulzer diesels as the lines were gradually cast and MARCO POLO pivoted in an easterly direction.

Rainbow straight ahead!
RoRo rainbow.

When a sudden drenching of rain appears while the sun is still quite brilliantly shining, it always pays to look for a rainbow. And this one, although caught at its tail end in photographs, was magnificent, extending in a full arch across the estuary as MARCO POLO made her way eastward. At one point, it was accompanied with a double crescent. Surely a good omen.

Back inside, we had time to enjoy the special exhibits erected in the Columbus Lounge and neighboring meeting room. With his Pursers Locker website, our special guest lecturer Jonathan Quayle is a very well-known entity in the world of ship ephemera collectors and he brought along a number of interesting items that were put on display for all to ogle.

Pursers Locker display case.
Columbus Lounge with White Star Memories' displays.
White Star Memories display case.

David Lawrence and David Scott Beddard from White Star Memories, a company dealing exclusively in White Star Line memorabilia, were on hand to host a large array of important artifacts, including some priceless bits from the TITANIC.

MARCO POLO Gymnasium, facing port.

For a ship of her size and vintage, MARCO POLO has a very good gym. An early evening run on the elliptical with a nice view over the ship’s stern and wake helped ward off the perpetual jet lag.

From the fantail...

And even though the conditions were a bit bone-chilling, I could not resist a quick dash to the fantail for a shot of MARCO POLO’s tiered afterdecks in the rainy twilight.

Waldorf Restaurant, facing forward from port.

The Waldorf Restaurant occupies the same space as ALEXANDR PUSHKIN’s once austere dining room, although the decor dates from the MARCO POLO rebuilding and refit. The now elegant space has a raised central section and picture windows with a view of the sea.

Poached Salmon appetizer a l'ORCADES.

The first night’s dinner menu featured several items served on board the “Ship of the Day”, Orient Line’s beautiful SS ORCADES of 1948, which was based at Tilbury for many years. Selections from a menu dated 17 January 1970 (during the ship’s latter P&O years) included a Poached Salmon appetizer, Soup a la Castelaine, a Garden Green Salad with Tomato and Beetroot, Grilled Sirloin Steak and Pears Belle Helene.

With the usual lag and the loss of an hour as MARCO POLO motored her way to the Continent, we made an early night of it.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Cherbourg quayside.

TITANIC stopped in Cherbourg on April 10, 1912 at 6:35 PM, boarding 281 passengers via the dashing, recently rescued-for-preservation tender, NOMADIC. In 1933, the Transatlantic Terminal or Gare Maritime was built to accommodate the great liners that called at the Normandy region’s strategically-located port.

Gare Maritime's Baggage Hall.

We had a few minutes to wander the Gare and take a few photos. Directly inside the observation terrace, there is a wonderful baggage hall where over 50 million emigrants were processed.

Men and Machines exhibit at the Gare Maritime.

Next door, in a large glass-ceilinged warehouse, the Men and Machines exhibit features a number of preserved submersibles with interactive displays.

Umbrella weather at the Gare Maritime.

We joined friends for an outing in Cherbourg with French ship historian and author Philippe Conquer, who met us outside the terminal.  With a population of only 29,000 residents, Cherbourg is a relatively small coastal town but its harbor is one of the largest in France and was heavily damaged in 1944 when liberated by the Allies.

MARCO POLO at Cherbourg: Acces interdit.

On the other side of the quay, despite our best efforts, there was no access to photograph a beautifully lit MARCO POLO.

Cherbourg centre.
Cherbourg coquilles and more...

Philippe drove us back into town where we walked the stone streets and alleyways in search of a cafe. Cherbourg is well-known for coquilles (scallops) and other seafood as well as its umbrella factory.

Marina and clouds.

Near the marina on the edge of town, there was an outdoor festival where an extremely long and particularly distressing version of Kim Zolziac’s (The Real Housewives Of Atlanta) “Don’t Be Tardy for the Party” blared into the sky.

Cowl above the Gare.

At the end of the marina we took in a view of the MARCO POLO’s cowl-topped funnel between the twin keeps of the Gare.

MARCO POLO versus TITANIC at Cherbourg.
Model of TITANIC at Cherbourg.

A nice walk along the inner waterfront of Cherbourg brought us back to the Gare, where we pondered a visit to the new permanent “TITANIC Retour A Cherbourg” exhibit. When advised we needed a minimum of four hours to cover everything, which includes visits to an aquarium and the world’s largest publicly-accessible submarine, the REDOUBTABLE, we deferred.

Cherbourg's outter breakwater.

At 6:00 PM, MARCO POLO sailed off in a photogenic flurry, passing through the fortifications of Cherbourg’s myriad breakwaters and into the English Channel.

Port Amundsen Deck promenade.

It was so lovely but ever-so-chilly on deck.  Moderate seas had our handsome ship pitching and occasionally rolling into the night.

Tandoori chicken entrée.

The second “Ship of the Day” on this Maritime Heritage Cruise was Royal Mail Lines magical ANDES of 1939 and her menu selections, taken from a February 6, 1958 dinner, included a Truite Grenobloise (fillet of trout with lemon, caper and brown sauce) appetizer, Creme Solferino soup, D’Agneau Roti, Sauce a la Menthe (roast lamb with fresh mint) entrée, and Sundae au Framboises (raspberry sundae) dessert.  For my main course, I would go with a succulent Tandoori Chicken with rice, raita and a miniature nan.

Since we would gain back our lost hour and did not have an early morning, dinner was accompanied with a well-savored California Cabernet.

End of First Post.  Much More to Come….

Very Special Thanks:  Richard Bastow, Martin Cox, Michael J. Masino


Peter Knego

Peter Knego

Having documented over 400 passenger ships and taken more than 200 cruises, MaritimeMatters’ co-editor Peter Knego is a leading freelance cruise writer, a respected ocean liner historian and frequent maritime lecturer both on land and at sea.  With his work regularly featured in cruise industry trades and consumer publications.  Knego also runs the website which offers MidCentury cruise ship furniture, artwork and fittings rescued from the shipbreaking yards of Alang, India.  He has produced several videos on the subject, including his latest, The Sands Of Alang and the best-selling On The Road To Alang."
Peter Knego

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