The sun emerges on the horizon bringing the looming silhouettes of arctic mountains to life in the soft glow. Gliding through the isles Marco Polo's classic profile harks back to cruising's elegant past.
Marco Polo, originally christened S/S Aleksandr Pushkin, was built by VEB Mathias-Thesen Werft in East Germany and launched in 1965 to inaugurate a regular transatlantic service between Montreal and Leningrad (St Petersburg) for Baltic Shipping Company.
Many of the ship's unique features are reflective of her northern heritage. To navigate through broken ice she was equipped with a sturdy ice-strengthened hull and freeboard. And in case she might have been needed in a time of war she was outfitted with massive storage space, allowing her to support a cruise range of 10,000 nautical miles (twice that of most modern cruise ships) without stopping to reload supplies. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Aleksandr Pushkin - one of the USSR's largest cruise ships at the time - was acquired by Gerry Herrod, then owner of London-based company Shipping and General Ltd, and founder of Ocean Cruise Lines and the brand new Discovery World Cruises. Herrod wanted Pushkin as the flagship of his new project, Orient Lines.
After an extensive refit, which took two-and-half-years and reportedly cost US$60 million (about $86 million), the now 20,080-ton, 848-passenger Marco Polo was ready to assume her new role as a luxury cruise ship. Although she was gutted, lengthened and enlarged, concerted effort was taken under the supervision of renowned naval architects Knud Hansen and ship designer A & M Katzourakis to maintain Marco Polo's classic exterior lines and traditional beauty.
To aid in Antarctic voyages, a helipad was added to scout out ice conditions and marine life, and the cargo space that was once used for transporting automobiles became a loading area for 10 zodiacs. In July 1998, Orient Lines was attained by Norwegian Cruise Line Holding in a cash and stock transaction valued at approximately US$80 million ($115 million). Under Norwegian Cruise Line, Orient Lines was marketed as a specialist, premium brand and, in April 1999, Marco Polo was joined by Norwegian Crown, which was renamed Crown Odyssey under the Orient Lines flag.
However, the two-ship line was short lived and Crown Odyssey returned to the Norwegian Cruise Line Group in March 2003, leaving Marco Polo as the exclusive carrier of the Orient Lines' flag once again.
It is Marco Polo's heritage that makes her unique. As Orient Lines' UK Sales Director, Francis Riley, explains: "Marco Polo is special because she has the lines of a cruise ship. At the same time she offers adventure, exploration and discovery. Great destinations and adventure on a traditional ship - that's what people want."
A world traveller, as her namesake suggests, the three-and-a-half-star Marco Polo offers cruises in the Mediterranean, Norwegian fjords, the Baltic, Russia and Northern Europe from the beginning of April to November. She then crosses the Atlantic to South America and continues down the coast via the Amazon, Chilean fjords and Peru before transiting the Panama Canal and heading down to the Antarctic, where she operates cruises throughout the southern summer. Due to her build and ice-strengthened hull, Marco Polo is well suited for luxury cruising in Antarctica. Her 10 zodiacs allow for in-depth shore trips in eco-sensitive areas and all expeditions are accompanied by professional field guides who inform passengers about the local wildlife and environment they are witnessing. Efforts to further passengers' knowledge of their destinations have resulted in the Line's Discovery Lecture Series, which sees specialists from around the world lecturing on topics such as science, history, journalism and politics on almost every cruise.
Being a destination-focused cruise experience there is an absence of child-specific activities. Not surprisingly, the average age of Orient Lines' passengers is 45 and above; however, this doesn't equate to a lack of fun. Destinations combined with onboard activities, a nightclub, disco and intimate lounges make for an enjoyable cruise.
Today, with one decade and a total distance of 816,000 nautical miles to its name, Orient Lines continues to enhance itineraries to ensure the continued popularity of Marco Polo. At a recent brochure launch for April 2004-March 2005, the company revealed extended seasons in Antarctica and the Mediterranean as well as two new cruise destinations: Turkey and Croatia. And, according to Mr Riley, these aren't the only firsts. "The other exciting thing for 2005 is we have seven cities where we'll now be stopping overnight: Lisbon, Edinburgh, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Berlin, Le Havre (for Paris) and St Petersburg."
Peter Marshall, Managing Director of Orient Lines in Australia, says Marco Polo is attracting growing numbers of Australians, especially with her longer cruises of 30 days or more in Europe. "We have seen a three-fold increase in the Australian share of the market in the last year," he said.
"Australians make up 17 percent of Orient Lines' business and it's just going up and up and up."
Written by Keltie White - 16 Winter 2004