REVIEW: MS Marco Polo – Quaint, Quirky, Confused.

CMV Ms Marco Polo
CMV MS Marco Polo

MS Marco Polo is a truly unique boat amongst the modern mega-ships that cruise the oceans today, but can she keep up with what guests expect in 2019? I stepped onboard in June 2019 to find out.


The cruise

Myself, my partner Jimmy, and my friend Tobi booked onto MS Marco Polo for a one-night ‘Sample Cruise’.

The cruise departed Portsmouth at 4pm on Saturday 29th June 2019, and arrived in Tilbury Essex at 8am the next morning.


Getting to the port of Portsmouth

Portsmouth is located centrally on the South Coast of England and is connected via rail to London Waterloo.

The train journey from London Waterloo to Portsmouth & Southsea takes between 1hr 30m and 2hrs. If you book in advance you can get a single ticket for £15, and purchasing on the day costs £39.

Be sure to alight at Portsmouth & Southsea, the station Portsmouth Harbour is actually further away from the cruise terminal.

The distance between Portsmouth & Southsea station and the Portsmouth Cruise Terminal is 2 miles. We grabbed an Uber which took approximately 10 minutes in moderate traffic.


Embarking at Portsmouth Cruise Terminal

Portsmouth Port Cruise Terminal

Embarkation at Portsmouth was a dream. Due to the small size of the ship, and the fact there weren’t any other ships docked at the terminal, it meant we breezed through.

On arrival we were greeted, filled in a health form, had our ID checked and cards issued, went through security and were onboard within 10 minutes of getting out of the Uber.

Now that’s how it should be done.


First impressions of MS Marco Polo

The MS Marco Polo was built in 1965 as the Aleksandr Pushkin as a Soviet passenger and cargo ship.

In the early nineties she was purchased by Orient Lines, completely refurbished and then re-launched as the MS Marco Polo in 1993. She’s changed operator a few times, but has been sailing with Cruise & Maritime Voyages (CMV) since 2010.

Weighing in at a diminutive 19,860 gross tonnes and 176 metres long she is by far the smallest cruise ship I’ve sailed on – in fact she’s about a tenth of the size of the Meraviglia which I sailed on in April.

She can accommodate 820 passengers conveying them between destinations at 19 knots.

MS Marco Polo – click to enlarge

When walking onto most modern cruise ships you end up thinking “Wow, this is insane”, with the Marco Polo we ended up thinking “Wow, this is what a working boat feels like”.

She’s not a luxury, glamorous, cruise ship but a comfortable passenger liner designed to get you into smaller ports where larger ships can’t. She might not have a crystal staircase, but she has an old world charm – and a faint smell of diesel.

One thing I’ll say early in this review is that I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this ship for disabled folks, or folks with mobility issues. There are lots of water tight seals to step over in corridors and very few elevators.


Our stateroom

Deck 4, Carbic Deck, MS Marco Polo
Deck 4, Carbic Deck, MS Marco Polo

At the time of booking we secured a three person outside view cabin for £59 per person, for the one night. A very reasonable rate.

The stateroom we were allocated was 122 on Deck 4 ‘Caribic Deck’.

Given the age and size of the ship we were pretty pleased with the size of the cabin – especially given that it was intended for three people.

The cabin was set up with two single beds with a chest of draws in between. The beds are not reconfigurable to a double bed setup. The third bed was a wall mounted pullman bed on the righthand side of the cabin.

Cabin 122 on MS Marco Polo

As with most of the ship the decor is stuck firmly in the 1990s but it has all been well maintained with few obvious signs of wear.

Our cabin had its own bathroom, not a certainty for ships of this size and age, which had a serviceable flush (not vacuum system) toilet, sink, and shower – with the dreaded shower curtain which led to our bathroom flooding each time we used the shower.

I’ve never shared a cabin with more than one other person before, but due to the generous size of the cabin and plenty of storage space it was far more enjoyable than I had anticipated. The beds were also incredibly comfortable and suitable for my ~6ft height.

In bed after night caps (Jimmy top bunk, our friend Tobi on the lower bunk)

Muster Drill Madness

Let me prefix this by saying that I’ve sailed on nearly twenty different cruise ships over half a dozen cruise lines and I’ve never experienced a muster drill quite like this one before.

We were asked over the PA system to go back to our cabins and collect our lifejackets and report to our muster stations, ours was Marco’s Bistro – the buffet restaurant.

Waiting for muster drill in the buffet restaurant

Once we got there we were asked to put on our lifejackets so the crew could check them, and we all had to shout “PRESENT” to our names being ticked off a list.

Next came the longest muster drill announcement I’ve ever heard in my life. Seriously, this announcement took nearly 30 minutes and included how to safely jump off the ship into the water should there not be any available life boats. That’s a new one on me.

Then came the hilarious spectacle of having to form single-file conga lines, hand on shoulder of the person in front, and slowly walk “through the smoke” to our respective life boats where we’d be given another lengthy PA announcement.

Waiting to perform the spectacle that is the muster conga – click to enlarge

Now, I’m all for safety and am a huge proponent of the SOLAS (Safety Of Life At Sea) convention – but only the Brits could take something so far. The whole thing took well over an hour.


Drinking onboard MS Marco Polo

For a ship of her size we were pleasantly surprised how many bars and lounges the MS Marco Polo had to offer.

The Pool Bar overlooks the main pool/lido deck and offers full bar service as you watch the wake of the ship.

The Pool/Lido deck aboard MS Marco Polo – Bar to the right.

Going up one level and heading inside takes you to Scott’s Bar. This large, lounge style, bar has comfortable seating surrounding a wooden dance-floor. You can walk up to the bar, or simply take a seat and wait for a server.

Scotts Bar on MS Marco Polo – click to enlarge

As you walk through the ship you’ll hit The Columbus Lounge. This small space feels more like a foyer, or waiting room, than a bar but due to the small size service from its dedicated bar was fairly swift.

The Columbus Lounge on MS Marco Polo – click to enlarge

Carrying on forward you finally hit The Captain’s Club. This bright and airy bar, decorated in light colours with large windows, was our favourite bar on the ship. There was plenty of seating, and usually someone playing piano whilst you relaxed and watched the ocean go by.

The Captain’s Club on MS Marco Polo – click to enlarge

Whilst we enjoyed our drinks we found that many were made quite differently than we would expect. For example many drinks, like my Pina Colada, which you’d expect blended came served over ice cubes – and other classic cocktails like Cosmopolitans came served in tumblers rather than martini glasses.

Drinks Menu & Prices aboard MS Marco Polo – correct as of June 2019
Click to enlarge

Whilst we’re on the topic of drinks we found them to be reasonably priced (see menu above), but there was some confusion by passengers and crew over VAT on beverages…

Where’s the VAT?

The dedicated bars onboard stated on the menu that VAT (the British sales tax charged at 20%) was included in the price of drinks on the menus. That’s fine, thanks for letting us know.

However things took an unsavoury turn in the main dining room. Our table ordered a very nice bottle of champagne and an equally pricy bottle of wine, taking the drinks menu at face value as per the other bars. So you can imagine our irritation when at the end of the meal we were presented with the drinks bill PLUS 20% VAT (around £25) added on top.

We queried this with the head waiter who basically said “that’s the way it is done”, we reviewed the wine menu throughly and there was no mention of VAT – either inclusion or exclusion. We paid the bill and made it clear we’d be following up the next morning.

The next morning we went to see guest services and pointed out the inconsistency between the dining room bar and all the other bars. We also pointed out even though we’d been paying VAT that the VAT line on each receipt showed £0.00. We were far from the only passengers who’d noticed this and we all got canned responses to “complain to head office if you’re not happy”.

We asked for a VAT receipt to go with out final bill – as you are legally entitled to (Value Added Tax Regulations 1995 requires a VAT registered person that makes a taxable supply to a taxable person to provide a VAT invoice).

The guest services manager was “unable to provide” the VAT receipt for our final bill, or any of our drinks orders. Something not quite right is going on aboard CMV’s Marco Polo – and it left an unpleasant taste in our mouths.


Dining onboard

With just one night aboard we headed to the Marco Polo’s main dining room the ‘Waldorf Restaurant’.

The space is a very traditional cruise line main dining room, but on a smaller scale. Booths line the windows of the room, with circular tables for groups filling the centre.

Due to the number of passengers and the small space the tables were both a little smaller and a bit closer together than was entirely comfortable, but once you got squeezed in you quickly forgot.

Waldorf Restaurant aboard MS Marco Polo – click to enlarge

Dinner

I started dinner with a Seafood Gratin – served in a scallop shell which was a nice small portion but perfectly cooked. My partner Jimmy had a heritage tomato and mozzarella salad – he said it was delicious but wished there’d been more mozzarella.

Starters – click to enlarge

Then for mains I had the Prime Rib of Beef, served with Yorkshire puddings and vegetables and Jimmy had Duck a l’orange served with sugar-snap peas and croquettes.

Both were well cooked and served piping hot.

Main Courses – click to enlarge

Breakfast

As a general rule of thumb when choosing your breakfast aboard a cruise ship you either head to the main dining room for a la carte table service, or you head to the buffet for self service breakfast.

So you can imagine the surprise when we got to the Waldorf Restaurant, waited for a table, and then were told it was buffet self service. We were a little disappointed. The food was OK, if not terribly hot.


Pools & Hot Tubs

The MS Marco Polo has one swimming pool and three hot tubs.

The swimming pool is located on the main lido deck outside the buffet. Unfortunately the pool was closed for our sailing, I asked several staff members why but no-one was able to say.

Empty pool shown here during muster drill madness

The three hot tubs were a welcome addition, they’re two decks up from the main lido deck. These were very crowded during our sailing, I imagine partly because the main pool was closed. We managed to sneak in during the early evening and enjoy a drink whilst overlooking the wake of the ship.

Hot tubs aboard MS Marco Polo – click to enlarge


Disembarkation

We were due into the London Tilbury cruise terminal by 08:30 and we’d been told to disembark by 08:30, so you can imagine our surprise to still be onboard at nearly 10:00. I’m unsure what had happened, but it seemed like something to do with the tug boats having trouble manoeuvring us into the right spot.

Luckily none of us had places to urgently be, or flights to catch, so we sat and enjoyed the sunshine. Once we were docked it was just a case of strolling off the ship.

From there we walked to Tilbury Town railway station which takes you directly into London Fenchurch Street. The walk took us around 15 minutes, but I wouldn’t recommend it if you had heavy luggage or mobility issues.

Disembarking at Tilbury Cruise Terminal – click to enlarge


Final thoughts

The ship

The MS Marco Polo is a very special ship. One of the oldest sailing ocean liners today, it’s wonderful to see this piece of heritage still serving paying passengers.

Although obviously dated she is being well maintained by the crew and at no point did we see anything that was obviously worn out, dirty or dangerous.

There are also a surprisingly large number of bars for a ship of this size and we always found somewhere to sit – something that can’t be said about many larger ships.

Service & Management

The crew and staff aboard MS Marco Polo were, for the most part, excellent. We had some wonderful waiters who quickly remembered our names even though we were only onboard one night / two days.

Unfortunately communication seems to be where they fall down…

  • Not knowing what was going on with VAT – and every bar, and every guest services person saying something different until the oddly robotic stock reply started.
  • We were told via email and social media that our one night would be ‘informal / casual’ dress code. So you can imagine our surprise to find out it was formal night when we boarded. We had to show our emails and tweets from CMV to the guest services staff and waiters to be allowed access to the dining room in our non-formal attire.
  • We were told the hot tubs would be open until 8pm, but we were kicked out at 6pm after waiting all day to get in them – and no-one was able to tell us why the main pool was closed.
  • Speaking to other guests who were finishing a three-week sailing they had no idea 300 extra guests would join them for the final night – and they weren’t all too happy.

All in all…

We had a fun couple of days aboard CMV’s MS Marco Polo. It was an enjoyable 24 hours aboard a vintage ocean liner, a truly unique experience that we’re all glad we had.

Due to the smaller size and lack of variety of restaurants and leisure facilities I don’t think I could see myself choosing MS Marco Polo for a full week long cruise, but I’d happily spend another weekend aboard.

If you’re thinking about sailing on this unique ocean liner I’d think about doing it soon, because I don’t know how long she’ll be around.


If this was helpful to you consider sharing it using the buttons below. Have you sailed on Marco Polo before? What’re your thoughts on CMV? Do you prefer smaller vintage ships or the newer larger liners? Got a question I haven’t answered here? Feel free to leave a comment, or contact me on twitter at @CruisingWithTom or Instagram at @TomLovesCruising

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