Belinda Gannon has already booked her second cruise after falling in love with life on board the Marco Polo during a short break to Rouen and Bruges

Rozenhoedkaai-Canal-in-Bruges
All photos: Martin Gannon

Having always felt drawn to the sea, fascinated by its vast, unpredictable and ever-changing mood, the prospect of a cruise has been an exotic dream for me. Visions of cocktails on deck with a gentle breeze rustling the pages of a good book were enticing but always out of reach because of time, family and cash constraints.

But as ‘cruise virgins’, we embarked on a fournight taster voyage to Rouen and Bruges to test if the dream could become a reality.

The 800-passenger, adult only Marco Polo – one of two ships owned by Britain’s newest cruise line, Cruise & Maritime Voyages (CMV) – departed from the London Cruise Terminal at Tilbury, 22 miles down the River Thames from Tower Bridge.
Marco-polo cruise ship

Checking in was redolent of a different age when travelling by ocean-going liner was a social statement. Numerous staff were ready and eager to help so each passenger felt important and valued.

The sense of history was all around – Tilbury was where the SS Empire Windrush docked in 1948 with around 500 migrants ready to fill postwar job vacancies. It was also the port where more than a million Britons became ‘Ten Pound Poms’ as they took the £10 assisted passage to a new life in Australia between 1945 and 1972.

The Marco Polo itself really was a pleasant surprise. No brutal cuboid construction, as I had imagined a cruise ship would be, she has an almost art-deco appearance with a distinctive blue hull. The teak pool deck, sheltered from the wind by the embracing arms of the upper decks and promenades was our first port of call for some welcome refreshment. The sun came out as we set sail and cruising seemed the only way to travel.

We woke refreshed after an extremely comfortable night in our premium twin bedroom (lovely turn-down service with very funny towel animal) and sampled some on-board activities listed in a daily programme delivered the night before. I opted for a legs, bums and tums class in the small but adequate gym on the Columbus deck where you can also find table tennis, a spa, sauna and massage rooms. The activities ranged from a lecture on US espionage to a hilarious Victoria Wood cabaret performed by the wonderful cruise director, Richard, in the Captain’s club.

Having never set foot on a liner before, we were amazed by the amount of outside space with hot tubs on the Navigator deck, one deck allocated for walkers and joggers, and numerous little havens of shelter. With plenty of chairs, including lovely teak steamers to lie back on, an abundance of cushions (there are blankets in your room, which you can take on deck) you can find a place to relax, read or even have a sneaky 40-winks aided by the gentle hum of the ship’s engines.

Late morning and the Marco Polo cruised smoothly down the Seine Valley into Normandy, passing hamlets dotted along the beautiful river bank. We caused great excitement on the shore as people stopped in their cars and lorries to watch us go past, beeping their horns. Children and adults jumped up and down and waved as we gently glided by – we felt like VIPs and were, of course, compelled to wave back!

At 4pm we docked for the evening at Rouen, a gourmet and cultural treasure sparkling around its landmark cathedral. We dined at France’s oldest inn, the magnificent La Couronne (c1345), which has higgledy piggledy floors and walls covered with photographs of the famous, including legendary racing drivers such as Juan Manuel Fangio who thrilled spectators on the public road circuit of Rouen-Les-Essarts in the 1950s. A wonderful taster menu featured foie gras, oysters and sensational desserts finished off with a generous glass of the local Calvados brandy.
Jan-Van-Eyckplein-the-old-town of Bruges
Friday was time for a leisurely stroll around the city taking in the Musée de Beaux Arts with the second largest collection of impressionist paintings in France. Its relaxed atmosphere gave us all the time in the world to study the paintings at close quarters. Rouen is full of history, churches aplenty, architectural delights, the legacy of Monet and the timeless pleasure of cafés where you can watch life go by. We vowed to return.

As Saturday’s journey north and onto Zeebrugge unfurled, I fully relaxed into life on board and watched the sea, positively hypnotised by all the patterns created by the ship’s wake. Standing on the bow under the bridge, I breathe in the freshest air Marco Polo cruised smoothly down the Seine Valley, passing hamlets dotted along the river bank I have inhaled for a long, long time and realise: I like this boat. She feels like a free spirit.

The inner calm was slightly jolted at Zeebrugge by the dash of 700 passengers eager to make the best of our four hours either in the Belgian port or Bruges, which is just eight miles away. Chocolates were on most people’s shopping lists along with a stop for a refreshing Belgian beer in the square to break up the shopping run before heading back.

We could not fault the staff on board who provided a warm, efficient service and the ship appeared clean at all times. Yes, the bedspreads are a little dated, the temperature of the shower somewhat erratic, and the grouting less than perfect. But our cabin was kept beautifully by our lovely steward Leonid and the beds were snoringly comfortable. There was plenty of storage space with an abundance of hangers, a personal safe and our room was very quiet.

Timbered-buildings-in-Rouen
Timbered buildings-in Rouen

We saw plenty of younger people on board and discovered some families of up to three generations using the cruise as a way of celebrating a special event.

The Marco Polo Lounge featured classic cabaret and ballroom dancing every night and Scott’s Bar, which had live music from 7pm till late, was always popular. You had to arrive early to get a seat in the main bar but on the last night we relaxed on a large balcony listening to the music with the lights of Brussels fading in the distance.

The main Waldorf restaurant operated one formal dining night and the food in all restaurants was of a three-star quality with five-star service.

I felt a pang of sadness at leaving the Marco Polo. She has a special character and this is underpinned by her family of staff on board who have a great work ethic and friendly attitude.

Returning to the bustle of work and traffic jams, I realised just how relaxing the cruise had been and how these holidays need not stay simply anchored in my dreams from now on.

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