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   Cruise Travel - Cruise Ships


Orient Lines

MV Marco Polo

Rating:Four Stars
Submit your review hereSubmit your review
Operator: Orient Lines
Year Built / Last Refurbished: 1965/1993
Length / Tonnage: 578 / 22,080
Number of Cabins / Passengers: 425 / 800
Officers / Crew: Scandinavian / International
Operating Area: South America, the Antarctic, the South Pacific, India, South Africa and the Mediterranean
Telephone / Fax: Tel 630 869310 / Fax 130 6216

Review by Mark Goldberg and Christopher Smith,TravelPage.com, Cruise Editor and Associate Cruise Editor

Norwegian Cruise Line now owns Orient Line and its sole ship, the Marco Polo. Well, you might ask, who or what is Orient Lines? Founded by a one time British owner of Ocean Cruise Lines, Jerry Herrod, he chose the name Orient Lines both to honor a great old British steamship company and to signal to passengers, crew and travel agents alike that this new cruise line was not going to be just another Caribbean cruise outfit. The name might also remind you of the OCEAN PEARL....and well it should, because this company hoped to fill the void left by the demise of Pearl Cruises, in particular. Now that you know who it was and what is was, you may want to know what they did about a ship. Scouring the second hand tonnage market, Orient Line founders found a willing seller in the Soviet Merchant Marine Ministry, owners of the 19,000 ton ALEXANDR PUSHKIN.

With the advent of the revolutionary communist government and the conversion of the Russian Empire into the USSR by 1924 (it only took the name USSR in that year), private companies were of course abolished and became the property of the people....though ownership was vested in that government so soon to dwindle away, if Karl Marx' assessment of how communism would pan out were correct. It wasn't, and the Soviet government existed until the whole system crashed down in 1991. As for maritime industries over there, they were set up much as they had been in czarist times with the exception of the ultimate owner, the Merchant Marine Ministry.

For maritime links with most of the rest of the world, the ministry maintained three principal companies....a troika, if you will....and each concentrated on primary services to different regions...from Vladivostok, ships sailed under the red star to all sorts of Pacific and Indian Ocean destinations; from Odessa, ships sailed under the red flag to Mediterranean, Asian, African and Latin American destinations; and from Leningrad, ships sailed under the hammer and sickle to the Baltic, northwest Europe, North American and Latin American destinations, occasionally crossing over with services run by their comrades in Odessa. Though not fooling anyone that this was a government operation, each company had a name...the Far East Shipping Company, which eventually painted the name "Fessco Lines" on the hulls of many of its U.S. and Canada bound freighters, the Black Sea Steamship Company....which ran the bulk of Soviet passenger and cruise ships, and finally, the Baltic State Steamship Company....which grew its primary passenger line between Leningrad and London into a small array of passenger services....it's the line to Montreal that concerns us here.

Since the end of the Second World War, the most prestigious Soviet passenger ships were the dozen ex-German vessels seized or awarded by other allies...vessels in varying states of disrepair...some of these ships lay on their sides when the Soviets got them...and one or two needed years of work before they went back into passenger service. Flagship of the lot was the former HAPAG liner PATRIA, the last deep sea passenger ship built during the years of the Third Reich. That beautiful 18,000 tonner turned up as the ROSSIA...and for a while, was the flagship of the line between Odessa and New York. But growing American anti communist paranoia in the late 1940s brought the end of direct ocean services between the two former wartime allies, and the lovely ROSSIA was confined to working in the Black Sea, offering workers cruises for the next thirty five years. By the mid fifties, the Merchant Marine Ministry was in a position to invest the money necessary to build up a fleet of new passenger ships, vessels able both to transport people and goods to fulfill the aims of the Soviet state, and to earn hard currency. The class of vessel of interest here are the ships of the "writers" series, ordered as a class of three, then four, then five from the Mathias Thesen Werft in Wismar, German Democratic Republic, the yard also entrusted with the construction of the KALLININ class of smaller passenger ships. In 1964 the shipyard delivered the first of the "writers"....the IVAN FRANKO. The largest passenger ship built for the Soviets thus far, she was followed in 1965 by the ALEXANDR PUSHKIN, which in turn was followed in 1967 by the TARAS SHEVCHENKO. The last two units of this class were the SHOTA RUSTAVELI and the MIKHAIL LERMONTOV, which entered service in 1972.

Now that you've met the family, it serves to know a little bit more about them. Adapted from the first to earn hard currency, the ALEXANDR PUSHKIN was employed in the service of the Baltic State Steamship Company to run between Leningrad and Montreal via ports in Western Europe and Britain. Amazingly, for a Soviet ship, she was a two class liner, carrying 116 in first and about 650 in tourist....so much so for the egalitarian spirit of communism at work! Of course, none of these sisters was really organized for two classes....there was only one dining room, and one glass enclosed swimming pool, whose design imitated a similar space on the FRANCE. But there was tremendous cleavage between the Boat Deck cabins, big and small, and those below....where on Second Deck, for instance, bunks were arranged nearly barracks style and a cabin might be as wide as five feet and long enough for those bunks to be arranged head to foot along the wall. I needn't tell you that those cabins were not equipped with private bathrooms.

The PUSHKIN, as she was usually known, had to spend much of her working year on other services, because with ice freezing up the St. Lawrence, you simply cannot steam to Montreal during the winter. So she was occasionally farmed out for winter voyages to Havana, or cruises organized by travel companies in Western countries. She was quite popular on the Leningrad/Montreal line. Passage tickets were inexpensive, the mood on board anywhere from friendly to rollicking.....at a dime a glass, that good Soviet vodka oiled a lot of new friendships....and offering a glimpse into the life of those stuck behind the Iron Curtain, many western passengers enjoyed budding friendships with the young comrades crewing the vessel. Almost everyone I know who sailed in her or any other Soviet passenger or cruise liner, for that matter, commented if not marveled on the extent of fraternization between passengers and crew, because all off duty crew members were welcome in all ship's spaces....of course, some passengers resented what they considered the intrusion of the help. On another topic all agreed....the food was simply vile....but nobody ever bought a ticket in this ship because they expected the food to be good. For the record, the MIKHAIL LERMONTOV aped her sister's dollar winning ways....by the time she came into service, America's President Nixon had forged a policy of detente, and taking advantage of the new winds of cooperation, the Soviets assigned the new LERMONTOV to a Leningrad/New York line. The other three "writers" belonged to the Black Sea Shipping Company, and cruised for Western companies... she occasionally made voyages between Europe and Australia under the aegis of something called CTC Lines, a British outfit apparently owned by the Soviets. In 1988, Mr. Herrod convinced the Soviets to sell him the ALEXANDR PUSHKIN. It wasn't a tough sell....the Soviets had no more need for her on Western oceans and had already transferred her to the ownership of the Far East Steamship Company, and that firm didn't need her at all.

Industry pundits thought Herrod was out of his mind. The ship was already twenty two years old, and was in no way suitable for a high class clientele....at least not without a major refit....something akin to a near total internal rebuilding.....and that's almost what she got. For about twenty million dollars, Orient Lines put right what the Soviets got wrong, and to ensure a pleasant decor, Orient put the husband and wife team of Michael and Agni Katzourakis to work to design and decorate passenger and crew spaces. Responsible for the interiors of ships like Royal Cruise Line's "ODYSSEYS", as well as Ocean Cruise Lines OCEAN PRINCESS and OCEAN ISLANDER, the Katzourakis team can always be relied on to provide pleasing interior spaces. And so it was with this ship.

A final note about the Marco Polo.....I don't care that Orient Lines wants you to think this East German built beauty was built for the Soviets to serve as a spy ship. SHE WASN'T. While she may have carried a spy or two on her transatlantic voyages as the ALEXANDR PUSHKIN between Leningrad and Montreal and even on her cruises, she was built with four sisters to do something more important....to earn hard currency. Those days are long behind her, and a multi million dollar refit a few years ago rocketed her to the forefront of first class cruise vessels.

Twenty years ago, the hull that is now the Marco Polo was not considered a real beauty.... nowadays, comparing her with most of what's out there, she's a visual blast from the past....without quirky observation lounges in smokestacks, balcony after balcony, and stunted foredeck. She's the kind of ship you're happy to come back to after a long, dusty day touring some of the world's most off beat places. She's not stuffy, and her down to earth Philippine crew keep her from putting on airs. She also deserves an accolade, for as the only ship in the Orient Lines fleet, she's made a good name for herself in the cruise world.....and for some itineraries, she's the only game in town.

Public Areas
There are more than enough places to plant 800 or so customers....no rooms exude gaping vastness....and there's a room on board to please most anyone. The decorators kept a tight rein.... they didn't go overboard, no pun intended....so they made comfort the key, and kept the decorative treatment soothing and understated. Most of the lounges are conveniently arranged on Belvedere Deck. The Ambassador Lounge, a nondescript old style (no soaring balconies, no multi million dollar stage) is the main gathering hall for Las Vegas style shows.....anyone entering for a show might feel a little trapped.....they have to pass the stage to get in or get out. With fixed banquettes arranged in rows, the room is reminiscent of a plush theater....but it's not the kind of space anyone would choose to use unless they were in there to see entertainment. The nearby Polo Lounge, on the other hand, is a delightful room, with a small dance floor, piano bar and regular sit down bar. It's also a good place to watch fellow passengers moving to and fro. The requisite shops, casino, card room and library are all bunched together......and are delightfully innocuous to anyone who's put off by the modern cruise lines' new tradition of hounding their guests for extra money....vis a vis souvenirs, drinks, and so on. Marco Polo's boite nuit, the Charleston Club, is up on Promenade Deck....it's a convenient getaway for passengers living on the higher decks. A complete health club and beauty spa, and jacuzzis are on Upper and Sky Decks.

The two sittings Seven Seas restaurant will be your primary address during your cruise...it's a light comfortable room designed to enhance the presentation of Marco Polo's pseudo nouvelle cuisine.....though the tables are set mostly for parties of four or six, if the ship is not full, or if you are booked in a suite, you probably can arrange a table for two. Passengers in deluxe cabins will receive priority in their restaurant seating requests. The restaurant is located dead midships on a lower deck......the best possible location during rough Antarctic sailings. To appease those who simply cannot eat without a view.....there are large windows. A typical Marco Polo dinner menu, compared with many ships, is abbreviated.....only three choices of entree, one salad, and three desserts (not including ice creams).....fortunately, there has been a great deal of thought that has gone into menu planning, so there are no jarring segues from appetizer to soup to main course. Too many companies these days are trying hard to appeal to everyone's taste....making their menus look like a Greek diner....but on Marco Polo, understatement is the key to success. To be sure, some selections are better than others....if you are on a long haul, exotic itinerary, you must remember that there's no super market ashore where the chefs can stock up.....so, after a few days, don't expect your filet of sole to be fresh.....and after the ship has spent the last two weeks visiting penguin colonies, your lettuce may be showing signs of wear and tear. If, however, you've opted for a Greek Isles cruise on Marco Polo, you can expect to dine very well.

Raffles is the choice for most breakfast and lunch devotees....located next to the outdoor pool, Raffles by day is your buffet place....and by night on selected evenings, for a small cover charge you can fill up on Oriental cuisine....served course by course, of course.

The topic of cabins is the Marco Polo's only major flaw.....because your cabin will be either wonderful or a shoe box....which isn't necessarily an issue if you're aboard for less than a week...but for some of her month long trips.....it's another story. All cabins have private bathroom with shower, TV, safe, and hairdryer....but... within any given category, there are wild variations as to storage space....and, it's impossible to tell which cabins have more space than others. Comparing cabins on the Marco Polo with today's newest ships, all of POLO's cabins except the suites are on the smallish side.....fortunately, they aren't overdecorated....and the decorators have compensated for the lack of room by installing lots of mirrors. All regular cabins, inside, and outside, have two lower beds. Deluxe outside cabins have either a queen sized bed or two lowers....the category A grade cabins have a sitting area, and tub, and excepting cabins 434 and 435, a refrigerator. Junior suites have two lower beds, sitting area, tub and refrigerator. Anybody booked into a category "C" or higher will be accommodated in more deluxe hotels during the land portion of their Orient cruise package. A word of warning to you if you are planning to travel in a cabin grade labeled "standard" in the brochure.....the cabins located midships on Bali and Pacific Decks are fine....small, but fine. But within category "D", for example, you will find those types on Bali, Pacific or down on Safari Deck....and Safari Deck cabins are truly "propellor suites"....so make sure both you and your travel agent have a deck plan in hand when you're ready to book....otherwise, you might never want to read "Turn of the Screw".

Who Goes
Before the Marco Polo made her first voyage, passengers who were devoted to the defunct Ocean Cruise Lines were salivating at the notion that their beloved line would be resurrected, albeit under the name Orient Lines....so first to fill this ship were the multi repeaters....those who remembered how wonderful the itineraries had been. Marco Polo, for people who cannot or do not wish to "suffer" the rigors of an exploration type ship, realize that if they want to see Antarctica, she's the best choice. Attractive air/land/cruise package prices to the Aegean will attract all manner of passenger. The ship is popular with both the British and North Americans.....you'll find few first timers here, and only the occasional family.

A pleasant feature of almost all Marco Polo cruise packages is the inclusion of a hotel stay either before or after the cruise.....it's a great way to have a squint at the embarkation city, and it helps to cure any jet lag.....so remember....when you see the number of days of any Orient Line program, the total days include both hotel stays and the cruise. Rounding out the summer of 1998, Marco Polo will remain in the Aegean and Mediterranean.....offering varying lengths of packaged air/land/cruise vacations....with itineraries stopping at every imagineable major port between Istanbul and Spain. As the colder weather approaches, Marco Polo will head south from Athens at the end of October....destination Mombasa. She'll then continue to South Africa, offering wonderful safari cruise tours during November. In December, lovers of lots of sea days will be pleased to be on Marco Polo with her eight consecutive days on the South Atlantic....as she heads from the Cape to Buenos Aires.

Setting up shop in South America during December and January, she'll provide an eleven day, fifteen day and 26 day journey, each highlighting Antarctica. The fifteen day trip throws in the Falkland Islands, while the 26 day voyage....wildy popular and requiring very, very early booking to get a cabin.....leaves Ushuaia in late January and ends in New Zealand. In February, 1999, while the summer sun warms things up in the summer hemisphere, the Marco Polo will make voyages from fourteen to twenty one days in length....one doing New Zealand in depth, one including a stay in Sydney, Australia, and another highlighting New Zealand, Tasmania and Melbourne. In March, she leaves for Singapore, via the Great Barrier Reef and Bali. Then it's back to Istanbul, on a thirty three day trip calling at ports in Thailand, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, India, Djibouti, Jordan, Egypt, and Greece.

Let's say that you're ready to make your reservation.....and I think you've made a wise decision....IF you get the right cabin. Orient Lines has done their best to grade their accommodations fairly....but what you cannot see on the deck plan, nor can most people recommend, is which cabins have better storage space or more square feet. The brochure's deck plan is tricky....what looks to be larger isn't always so....and it's almost impossible to find these things out. This is an issue only if you are considering a cabin grade "D" or below....and only if you care to have more drawers or closets than your neighbors. Her itineraries are great.....her food is just fine.....her service, while not always polished, is oh, so friendly. She's big enough to keep you amused for the long haul, but small enough to keep you from getting lost in the shuffle. Goldilocks might say the Marco Polo is "just right". Though I usually sympathize with the beleagured Three Bears family, in this case I'll have to put my money with the blonde.

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