Classic and Cozy

Orient’s Marco Polo explores the world in its own way

By: Ana Figueroa

Orient Lines’ Marco Polo may not be the sleekest, most modern or elegant cruise ship on the high seas these days.

But for those who can do without the bells and whistles of modern-day megaships, the cozy Marco Polo can be a perfect fit.

Who needs a glitzy ship when your itinerary includes the Monte Carlo Casino and the famed La Croisette walkway in Cannes, where international stars were gathering for the renowned film festival?

The 822-passenger Marco Polo is comfortable, well run and manageable in size. And, as I found out on a cruise this summer, her Mediterranean itineraries make an excellent choice for clients who want to experience some of the world’s most famous places and scenes.

In fact, few places on any ship provide as pleasant a sail-away as the teak pool deck outside the ship’s Raffles restaurant, aft on Belvedere Deck. A jazz band serenades passengers while they enjoy a panoramic view of seaside villas clinging to the cliffs of Portofino, or the sparkling lights along the Cote D’Azur.

The ship recently celebrated its 10th year of sailing as the Marco Polo; it was built in Russia in the early 1960s and originally sailed as the Alexander Pushkin.

To celebrate its latest milestone, Orient Lines has revamped the ship’s Mediterranean and Europe schedule for spring and fall 2005.

Itineraries will include overnight stays in Venice, Barcelona, Paris, Rome, Athens, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Berlin and Stockholm.

“Our guests have a tremendous desire for destination enrichment and these overnight port calls are a highlight of their vacation experience,” said Susan Robison, Orient Lines’ director of public relations.

Another aspect of Orient’s “destination enrichment” is its outstanding onboard lecture series. Past passengers have heard from the likes of astronaut Buzz Aldrin, naturalist Jack Hanna and famed explorer Sir Edmund Hillary, to name a few.

The Marco Polo itself has a few tales to tell. The ship is noteworthy for its reinforced hull, which makes it especially maneuverable in the Antarctic. Orient Lines purchased the ship in the early 1990s, gutted it and renamed it Marco Polo. The sturdy vessel went into operation for Orient Lines in 1993. Norwegian Cruise Line purchased Orient in the late 1990s.

Orient then added a second ship, the Crown Odyssey, but that vessel was transferred back to NCL in 2003, leaving the Marco Polo as the only Orient Lines ship.

NCL is perfectly content with that, however. “Marco Polo has a very loyal following and it’s almost a stronger brand than Orient Lines,” Robison said.

Robison attributes the ship’s popularity to its “one-way itineraries that feature more ports per itinerary; more time in each port and cruise-tours featuring pre- and post-hotel stays with virtually every itinerary.”

Another advantage is that the ship can “reach smaller ports, do more unusual things and have in-depth experiences,” Robison added.

The fact that the Marco Polo isn’t as daunting as a new megaship makes it a pleasantly stress-free experience. There’s no waiting in line to board the tenders or to fill your tray at the lunch buffet. Passengers can actually get to know each other, and enjoy some Old World-type cruise standards, such as afternoon tea time, complete with tea dancing in the ship’s Ambassador Lounge.

Though the Marco Polo’s decor is a tad dated in places (bright purple, red and green hallway accents have a disco look), the ship does provide the must-haves of modern cruising. There’s a health club and beauty center, three outdoor hot tubs, a small casino, an Internet center, a library and several comfy lounges.

The ship has 425 cabins 131 inside and 288 outside along with six suites. Inside cabins, called Superior Staterooms, can be a tight squeeze. The Standard Oceanview cabins are roomier, but still smallish by today’s standards, at 130-150 square feet.

Deluxe Oceanview and Superior Deluxe Oceanview cabins are the best option, especially for longer itineraries. The latter category features a sitting area with a coffee table and a large picture window, a refrigerator, an extra-large closet, a writing table and bathrooms elegantly appointed in gray marble with full-size tubs. All cabins still utilize good, old-fashioned keys, instead of key cards. There are no balconies.

The ship’s main dining room, the Seven Seas, is decorated in mauves and grays, with frosted glass sconces, and mirrored accents. It offers open seating breakfast and lunch, and two assigned dinner seatings.

The ship’s other dining venue, Raffles, serves an extensive breakfast and lunch buffet, and is open a few nights during each cruise as an alternative restaurant. A lunchtime grill outside by the pool offers barbecue fare and, as previously mentioned, a great view.

The Marco Polo attracts an international crowd, which is something you should make your clients aware of. The person sitting next to them at dinner might be from Great Britain, Australia or Germany. My Mediterranean sailing in May, for example, was 50 percent American and 50 percent from British Commonwealth countries.

While this is a great way to meet interesting people from around the world, there is one drawback for North Americans: the outside decks are usually filled with smokers. (The ship’s interiors are non-smoking.)

Passengers on the Marco Polo tend to be slightly older (average age of 57-65) than on other ships, because the Marco Polo’s itineraries are longer than most.

Selling The Marco Polo

1. The ship is designed for itinerary-driven cruisers, rather than those who want the bells and whistles of a modern ship. Clients who want to dine in a different restaurant each night are not good candidates for the Marco Polo.

2. Ideal passengers are retirees with at least 15 days to spend on a vacation, who want good value for their money, and couldn’t care less about an eight-story atrium or a rock-climbing wall.

3. The Marco Polo is not recommended for children, as there are no special facilities or programs for them. Most kids will be bored, unless they happen to be precocious history buffs.

Just the Facts

Ship: Marco Polo

Size: 22,080 tons

Year Built: 1965

Passenger Capacity: 822

Plugging In: 220-volt European-style outlets in cabins, so adapters are needed. There’s also a 110/220-volt outlet in the bathroom for electric shavers.

Hits: Service by the Filipino staff is excellent. Many of the crew members have been onboard for years, and pride themselves on giving passengers a home away from home.

Misses: Disabled passengers may have trouble maneuvering the high thresholds throughout the ship. But the upper decks and public spaces have adequate wheelchair access, and there is one handicapped-equipped cabin available.

Hits: There’s an advantage in being a one-ship fleet. The Marco Polo’s menus aren’t determined ahead of time by a corporate office stateside. Instead, the staff meets daily to plan the menu, and it will vary, depending on what local produce items are available in port. The ship has also been known to take menu suggestions from passengers.

Misses: Since this is an older ship, the floors actually slope toward the outside. If the ship lists at all, you may find yourself climbing uphill to reach your bathroom at night.

Itineraries: In addition to Mediterranean and Greek Isle sailings, the Marco Polo will sail to Scandinavia, the British Isles, the Baltic, Russia, South America and Antarctica during the 2004-05 season. Itineraries vary in length from 10 to 36 days.

Cost: From $1,495 to $6,045, for inside accommodations.