"Marco Polo" may be just the ship for you

The Mediterranean, a Great Cruise

by Mary Hartman

If you like to cruise but want some adventure along the way, the Orient Lines "Marco Polo" may be just the ship for you.

My husband and I cruised from Istanbul to Barcelona between June 2 and June 15. With only one day "At Sea," Marco Polo guests were treated to an almost non-stop itinerary of historical and cultural sights ranging from the awe of ancient Ephesus to the allure of modern Mallorca. Greek Islands, Sicily, four Italian ports and the French Riviera also were part of the mix, as was a one-night Istanbul stay at the beginning of the cruise and a one-night Barcelona stop at the end.

Clearly, this cruise is not for the faint-of-heart. The couch potato cruiser, the guy (or gal) who lives for a deck chair and a mai tai, should plan either to stay on board. . .or to stay at home.

The cruiser who loves an adventure, however, should sign on and enjoy the ride.

The cruise began with a flight from Denver to JFK on May 29. There we boarded a Lufthansa flight for Frankfurt and on to Istanbul, arriving about noon the following day. Wanting to see as much of Istanbul as possible, we flew in two days early. A week early would have been a better idea. Istanbul, with its myriad of sights, sounds, smells and tastes, cannot be done in two or three days time.

But, we did our best. Surviving the taxi ride from Ataturk Airport through Istanbul traffic, we registered at the Conrad, a Hilton hotel that towers above the Bosphorus and that can be seen for miles around. This lovely hotel actually is "second-class" in Orient nomenclature and is offered to cruisers who choose the less expensive cabin categories. By most reasonable standards, however, it was plush, offering, among other amenities, one of the nicest health clubs we've ever used -- in or outside of the United States.

Along with the usual Istanbul experiences -- visits to the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Egyptian Spice Market, Grand Bazaar and a cruise along the Bosphorus -- we also set off to see the Whirling Dervishes, an Islamic sect that views whirling as a means of communing with God. Though dubbed "booooring," by one visitor, the Dervishes -- in their white flowing capes and cone-shaped hats -- provided a fascinating view into mystical Turkey, a surreal world that many know exists but that few can experience. For an hour or so, we were invited into that world.

The Marco Polo set sail at 5 p.m., June 2 and within a day, we realized that we could set our watches by Captain Roland Andersen's ship. It arrived on time and it departed on time and woe to the cruiser who missed the boat, as a couple did 10 days later when the ship was anchored a mile or so off shore from Cannes, France. (The two, who had had a series of mishaps on land, reached the dockside police station after the last tender had departed but in time for authorities to call the ship and ask for special assistance in getting them back to the Marco Polo. A motorized rubber raft ferried them from the Cannes dock to the ship, but the gangway had been pulled in and the couple had to be hoisted from the raft up, up to an opening in the ship's side -- in full view of several hundred passengers who, having been notified over the public address system of the impending drama, were bent double over the ship's side to witness the event.) Though, Captain Anderson ran a tight ship, he also accommodated misadventures -- to a point.

With so many exciting stops -- 13 counting Istanbul and Barcelona -- it's hard to pick a favorite and everyone would have his or her own. For us, however, the list would include:

* Ephesus for its sheer magnificence and historical importance.

* Santorini for the wonder of its volcanic origins, the shops and restaurants clinging precariously to the walls of its crater, and the ambience of its present-day Greek lifestyle.

* Delos, a one-square mile Greek Island revered as the birthplace of Apollo, for its natural surroundings, Greek ruins and complete absence of commercial activity.

* Taormina, Sicily, for its Greek-Roman theatre overlooking the sea, with Mt Etna venting steam in the foreground -- and for the best cup of coffee served anywhere on earth!

* Portofino for its tiny harbor filled with huge yachts, a charming flower-bedecked castle and a stone walkway leading to a modest little lighthouse nearby.

Others aboard the Marco Polo could come up with their own list -- the memory of sailing out of Istanbul Harbor as the sun began to set behind the Topkapi Palace; the explosion of colors on Mykonos -- whitewashed houses trimmed in bright blue, red, green, even yellow, accented further with brilliant bougainvillea flowers and tree-sized geraniums; the beauty of the Blue Grotto on the island of Capri or the ambience of Amalfi -- the list goes on and on.

Beautiful Mallorca, which we had vastly underestimated, furnished another high point as we departed there on the last night of the trip. With hundreds of ship masts jutting like toothpicks into the sky and an ancient castle hovering over the harbor, the ship's jazz band struck up "Anchors Aweigh," and in the light of a near-full moon, the Marco Polo slipped away and out to sea.

The next morning, after Spanish authorities cleared the ship -- an unduly laborious process -- Marco Polo guests were ushered onto buses for a "free" city tour of Barcelona, this to accommodate an early-afternoon check-in at the Hilton Hotel. The tour, compressed though it was, provided a drive-by of La Rambla, the mile-long promenade which is one of Barcelona's signature attractions (the other being the Church of Sagrada Familia -- Holy Family -- of Gaudi fame). My husband and I had just enough of a glimpse to know we needed more. Thus, after we'd settled in to our hotel room, we used our limited knowledge of Spanish ("Si'" and "Gracias") to buy tickets on the subway for the trip downtown. What a treat! Flower stands, bird markets, jugglers, Spider Man himself, human statues and an almost inhuman dancer who, bent at the waist and wearing a pair of women's dancing boots on his hands, carried two life-sized "dancing" mannequins on his back. As the music cranked up, the mannequins appeared to hop, skip and even jump in a huge circle on the Barcelona Mall. Then, the music stopped and the gathering crowd gasped as the real dancer -- the man bent beneath the skirts of the female mannequin, straightened up, took the boots from his hands and bowed to the cheers of an incredulous audience.

So much for the sights -- the Marco Polo is known as a cruise ship that emphasizes sights -- high quality shore excursions. But, the ship offered more -- a wonderfully congenial Filipino staff that provided gracious service from the moment we stepped aboard in Istanbul until we stepped off the ship in Barcelona; great entertainment (including comedian Ben Sanders, who has worked the cruise ship circuit for years and who cracked up the audience with his dead-pan jokes and understated humor); and spacious, attractive interior and deck spaces, especially noteworthy considering that the Marco Polo was once a Russian icebreaker now completely, and handsomely, refurbished for worldwide cruising. The ship boasted a good library, a small casino, an even smaller (but cozy) card room, an intimate piano bar plus two additional lounges, two restaurants and on-deck buffets for breakfast and lunch.

In our judgement, the Marco Polo fell short in only two areas: food quality was sometimes "average" rather than excellent and the cabins were very poorly insulated, allowing noise, even the slightest cough or sometimes a deep sigh to carry from one room to the next. Those who value privacy should be aware that too little sound-proofing may be a deterrent to an otherwise splendid vacation.

The food certainly was not a disaster -- anything but. My husband and I, however, sometimes came away from snacks and meals with the feeling that either the chef had tried too hard, or, at times, had not tried hard enough. Late afternoons, for example, the crew served hot hors d'oeuvres on deck. But, they were always the same, a deep-fried egg-roll concoction low on nutrition and high on calories and fat. How nice it would have been to have ushered in the evening with vegetable sticks, a dollop of dip and some cheese and crackers.

The chef often used a bean garnish, sometimes as a "bed" for meats and other main dishes served at dinner. Serving sizes were considerable, but the seasonings were not -- the bean garnish usually was as tasteless as wallpaper paste when one might be expecting Haagen-Dazs ice cream.

And, the coffee! Thick and muddy it was in a part of the world where good, fresh coffee is as much a certainty as the noon day sun! Perhaps Marco Polo's beverage manager should go ashore in Taormina for a primer in the art of brewing a really good cup of caffe!.

Menu choices certainly were ample, but the selections sometimes read like the clues to a New York Times crossword puzzle, requiring a leap of faith for the meat-and-potato connoisseurs among us who, much of the time, knew little of what we'd be eating. In all honesty, however, once we made the leap, more often than not, we came away satisfied. And, everyone we talked to raved about one meal item -- the ice cream. Wherever the Marco Polo buys ice cream on its Mediterranean route, it should keep its vendor . More than the cheese cakes and the chocolate cakes, the ice cream was a favorite among passengers. In fact, we could hardly get enough of it, and, if we could, we'd vote to install an ice cream bar on the ship's deck for regular dishing up at lunch and snack time.

So much for negativity. Thin walls between rooms and menu selections from cookbooks we have yet to read, did not put the damper a great trip. Marco Polo's Eastern Mediterranean cruise was the adventure of a lifetime. We'd recommend it to anyone who wants to see this part of the world and take their hotel room along with them. Kudos to a great cruise ship staff and thanks for memories that will last as long as we live!

Mary Hartman

About the Author

Mary Hartman
Mary Hartman is a veteran sea-goer and globe-trotter. Her resume reads a media relations specialist with Colorado State University and a free-lance writer who lives in Louisville, Colorado, USA.