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Archive for May, 2012

We had to be up early this morning to disembark the Marco Polo.  When we looked out of our window, we could see the ship making her way slowly into Leith, the cruise terminal which acts as the gateway to Edinburgh, capital of Scotland.  We could see the Royal Yacht Britannia at her permanent mooring nearby.

We had to vacate our cabin by 7.30am and then wait around the ship to be called to disembark.  Therefore it was not surprising that the self-service buffet on Deck 7 aft was absolutely crowded.  There were no seats inside and very few outside.  We got our breakfast and sat at a table which had a couple of empty seats, but we soon found out why – it was the smokers’ area.  So we had to put up with inconsiderate people lighting up their fags and breathing their noxious fumes over us as we were trying to eat.

Once we’d had our breakfast we went up to the very top deck where they had put out some sun loungers, so we decided to make the most of our last couple of hours on board and enjoy the sunshine.  I am currently reading The Girl Who Played with Fire by Steig Larsson, the second volume in the “Millennium” trilogy.  I read a couple of chapters before we decided to go back inside, as the sun was quite hot and we didn’t have any suntan lotion.

At around 9.45am we were called to disembark.  We walked down the gang-plank for the final time and boarded the bus for the short journey into Edinburgh city centre.  We were due to spend the day here before the bus would leave, at 4.00pm, to take us back to Newcastle and our waiting car.

The bus slowly made its way through the busy streets of the Scottish capital before dropping us off in Waterloo Square, just off Princes Street.  We had a look around, went into the shops and basically just spent the day at leisure.  We could see Edinburgh Castle perched high up on its hill, along with the seating and scaffolding which was already being erected ready for the Edinburgh Military Tattoo in August.

We walked along and sat on a bench in the park, watching the world go by.  Due to the unseasonably warm weather, many  people were dressed in summer clothes and the ice cream kiosks were doing a roaring trade.

Last time we’d been here in Edinburgh (last August, for the Tattoo), we’d had lunch at a really nice Italian restaurant on Dublin Street, so we decided we’d go there.  We looked all over for the restaurant and eventually found it, but it was under new management and was now a Scottish-themed restaurant rather than Italian.  We decided, instead, to go to the “Conan Doyle” pub, where we’ve been once before, for some haggis, tatties and neeps.  🙂

We passed a pleasant hour in the pub then wandered around some more, just killing time until we could get the bus back home.  Whilst it was nice to be in Edinburgh on such a fine day, part of us just wished we could have gone straight home, and got ourselves sorted out ready for work in the morning.  🙂

The bus arrived on time, then off we went back to Newcastle.  We collected the car and were back in the house in time to watch Coronation Street at 7.30pm.

So ended a really unexpectedly-good mini cruise round the Highlands and Islands on a little old ship with a charm all of its own, with the weather having been incredibly kind to us.   🙂

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We should have spent today at sea, but because of the change in itinerary we awoke to find ourselves docked in Invergordon, on the Cromarty Firth.  Once again the day was bright and sunny – we really have been very lucky, considering how fickle the weather is in Britain.

Our excursion today would take us along the coastline to Loch Ness, famous world-wide as the alleged home of “Nessie”, the Loch Ness Monster.

The tide was low and the Marco Polo  had placed the gang-plank at Deck 6 instead of the usual Deck 5, as we were so low in the dock.  We set off on the bus alongside the Cromarty Firth, where one other small cruise ship was docked.  Our first stop was at the Drumnadrochit Hotel and visitor centre, where we would learn all about the phenomenon that is the Loch Ness Monster.

Loch Ness is 0ver 755 feet deep and contains more fresh water than all the lakes in England and Wales combined, and is the largest body of water on the Great Glen Fault, which runs from Inverness in the north to Fort William in the south.  In 1933 it was alleged that an eye witness had seen a large, dark serpent-like shape in the water.

The term “monster” was reportedly applied for the first time to the creature on 2 May 1933 by Alex Campbell, the water bailiff for Loch Ness and a part-time journalist, in a report in the Inverness Courier.  On 4 August 1933, the Courier published as a full news item the assertion of a London man, George Spicer, that a few weeks earlier while motoring around the Loch, he and his wife had seen “the nearest approach to a dragon or pre-historic animal that I have ever seen in my life”, trundling across the road toward the Loch carrying “an animal” in its mouth.  Other letters began appearing in the Courier, often anonymously, with claims of land or water sightings, either on the writer’s part or on the parts of family, acquaintances or stories they remembered being told.  These stories soon reached the national (and later the international) press, which described a “monster fish”, “sea serpent”, or “dragon”,eventually settling on “Loch Ness Monster”.

The people who had allegedly seen the monster were of sound mind, quite rational and adamant about what they had seen, and there seemed no reason to doubt them.  They were not lying, but detailed scientific studies show that there’s a good chance they were mistaken about what they’d actually seen.

Of course, there are also the many hoaxes that have occurred, by pranksters making the most of the legend.  Nevertheless, it has proved to be great for the tourism industry at Loch Ness, and the Exhibition Centre we were visiting gets many visitors every day.

When we came out of the visitors’ centre we had a look round the nearby souvenir shops and sat out in the sun with a refreshing cold drink.  Then we boarded the bus for the return journey to the ship, via Inverness.

When we arrived back at Invergordon, the tide had come in and the Marco Polo had risen in the water.  They were therefore in the process of replacing the gang-plank with a longer one, so we had to wait a short while before we could board.  Then we went back to cabin 602 to dump our bags before making our way to the buffet for a light lunch.

Tonight’s dress code was formal attire, so at 4.30pm I went to have my hair put up before getting dressed in a black and red velvet Goth dress, lace necklace and black wrap.  Unusually, there was no Captain’s cocktail party, so we wouldn’t have the chance to be photographed with Captain Antonellos as we were 24 years ago.  We later found out that Cruise & Maritime Voyages only have Captain’s Cocktail Parties for cruises over five nights’ duration which is a bit mean really; after all, we’ve been on three-day cruises and had them; a little bit of glamour really adds to the experience.

After dinner, however, the waitresses did come round with trays of sparkling wine, which was nothing to write home about, being a cheap demi-sec brand rather than the proper Brut méthode traditionnelle  which is true of Spanish cava and Italian prosecco as well as champagne.  This stuff tasted more like Lambrini (and probably was).  Never mind, it was free.  🙂

In the Marco Polo Lounge the show tonight was called “Go, Go, Go Joseph” and was the showteam’s version of the West End hit Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.   It was very well done as usual; the music, acting and costumes were great.  Then it was along to Scott’s Bar for our last night on board Marco Polo.  😦

The game show tonight was “Mr & Mrs” (or the Marriage Game as it’s known in the USA) so Trevor and I volunteered to take part.  There were two other couples participating, and each person was asked four questions.  The ladies answered first, then the gents.  After the first round, in which Trevor correctly gave the same answers as me, we were in the lead with maximum points, 40 out of 40.  🙂

Then the gentlemen had their questions.  I correctly answered three of Trevor’s, so we ended up with 70/80, by far and away the top score.  We had won again!  🙂

So it was another free cocktail of the day each and when the guy gave us our CMV medallions, he said to Trevor, “That’s the fourth one of those I’ve had to give you”.  Actually, no – it was the fifth, ha ha.  🙂  I’m sure everyone in Scott’s Bar knew us by now; the entertainment team certainly knew our names!  🙂

The evening finished with some songs from the 60’s and we went to bed late again, despite still having our case to pack and the fact that we had to be up and out of our cabin by 7.30 in the morning.

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The Marco Polo dropped anchor this morning in Loch Broom, upon the shores of which is located the picturesque little village of Ullapool.  We had not booked any excursions today, deciding instead to explore the village ourselves at leisure.

When we went down to breakfast the day already showed signs of being another scorcher without a cloud in the sky, so we went on deck for a wander around.  We could see the ship’s tenders ferrying the first of the Marco Polo’s passengers across to Ullapool for their excursions.

As we were walking about the decks we looked up and saw Captain Antonellos out on the bridge wing.  Trevor went over and called up to him “My wife thinks she knows you from a previous cruise – 24 years ago on the StarShip Royale”.  The Captain called us up to join him and we was absolutely delighted that we’d remembered him!  We chatted for a while and he then invited us onto the bridge and gave us a guided tour.  During our tour he asked us what cabin we were in and we said “602”; just below the bridge in fact.  Captain Antonellos said it had been a real pleasure meeting us and we shook hands and went on our way.

We decided to get a ticket for the liberty boat and await our turn.  When we went to reception, we were just in time to get the last couple of tickets so we were able to board the boat immediately for the short ride across.  There was a welcome breeze and the loch water was like a millpond.

We disembarked the tender and walked along the sea front.  The sun was already very hot.  Ullapool is a pretty little village with a few shops and cafés, a former church that is now a museum, a couple of pubs and a few houses.  We decided to visit the museum, which promised a fascinating look into Ullapool’s past.

Ullapool Museum is only small and houses lots of files and archives; perfect for anyone wanting to trace their family tree or carry out some research.  There was also an upstairs gallery which contained the original pews and showed a short video of life in Ullapool, past and present.  In the small garden adjacent to the museum were a few trees, and one of them contained a bird box which we could see being frequented by a blue tit.

The bird box contained a nest with five newly-hatched chicks in it, and we could see this clearly because the box was fitted with a hidden camera, and so allowed a close up view of the nest to be displayed on a CCTV screen inside the museum.  We could see the mother blue tit bringing food for her young, their little upturned faces with their beaks open wide to receive the titbits (no pun intended) that she provided.  Then she would fly off again and be back minutes later.  It brought a smile to our faces to see the nest up close like that – the wonders of modern technology.  🙂

After about an hour in the museum we went back out into the sunshine and decided to find a pub and have a welcome pint.  There was a bar and restaurant nearby that had tables and chairs outside so we got a drink and sat out.  They were doing a lively trade.  It was very hot as we were out of the breeze so, once we’d finished our drinks, we decided to find another pub on the sea front.

There was a pub called “The Arch” because you had to go through an archway to get inside; the pub had wooden tables and chairs across the road right on the sea wall.  We got a pint each and sat down, facing outwards towards the loch, where we could see the Marco Polo at anchor, along with many other small boats and a couple of guys water ski-ing.

Once again I went down to the water’s edge for a plodge and the cold, clear water cooled me down.  It was so pleasant just sitting out in the sun, enjoying our drinks and taking in the stunning scenery.  We had another pint each before deciding to get the liberty boat back to the Marco Polo and having a light lunch.

Back in our cabin I put on my swimsuit and grabbed a towel to go back up on deck.  The pool looked inviting and I wondered why no-one was in it on such a hot day.  I found out the hard way though – it was freezing!  They empty the pool each evening and refill it the following day, which means the water doesn’t have time to warm up.  So I stayed in the water for about 10 seconds flat!

After going back to cabin 602 and drying off, we had an afternoon nap and then got ourselves ready for dinner.  An announcement came over the tannoy to say that, because it was such a fine evening, the entertainment programme for tonight had changed and they were having a quiz, cabaret and deck party out on the pool deck instead of in Scott’s Bar.

We enjoyed another delicious dinner and listened to Moaning Minnie on our table complaining yet again.  This time it was the weather she didn’t like – it was too hot.  After a while we just tuned out and let her get on with it.  🙂

The cabaret in the Marco Polo lounge was called “Magic of the Musicals” and featured a selection of songs and musicals from the West End and Broadway.  As ever, it was very good.  After the show we needed to go back to the cabin so I could get my jacket and/or a wrap if we were going out on deck, and when we got back we had a very pleasant surprise.

There, on our chest of drawers, was a bowl of fresh fruit, some smoked salmon canapés, a bottle of wine and a couple of glasses.  A card peeped out from the fruit bowl and when we read it it said “With Compliments” and was signed “Captain G. Antonellos”.   🙂  Wow.  What a lovely, lovely gesture.  It was so kind of him and totally unexpected.  It really was the icing on the cake of what had been an excellent day.

We made our way to the pool deck aft, where a lot of people had already gathered for the evening’s entertainment.  The pool is overlooked by a statue of the late ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, reminding us that the Marco Polo used to be a Russian ship (she was originally named the Alexander Pushkin).  We started off with a quiz and watched the sun go down at 10.20pm in these northerly latitudes.  With the twilight it started to get a bit chilly, particularly since the ship was going along; there was a brisk breeze.  So another announcement was made to say that, due to popular request, the entertainment was being moved back into Scott’s Bar.  It was a bit ambitious planning a deck party in northern Britain when it is still only May, but at least they tried.  🙂

The evening finished off with some lively songs from the talented entertainment team, then back we went to our cabin where we enjoyed some of our smoked salmon canapés before turning in.  🙂

 

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When the alarm went off at 7.45 this morning the first thing we did was look out of our window to see what the new day was like.  There was not a cloud in the sky or a ripple on the sea.  We were already at anchor in Stornoway, capital of the Isle of Lewis and indeed the Outer Hebrides, or the Western Isles as they are more commonly known these days.

After breakfast we collected a ticket for the liberty boat across to the island, before we boarded the bus for our trip around the isles of Lewis and Harris.  The sun shone from a steel blue sky as we left civilisation behind and travelled along through hills and dales, fields of sheep and isolated crofters farms.  There was a lot of moorland, heather, peat bogs and sphagnum mosses.  The landscape was rugged, wild and stark and beautifully undeveloped and unexploited by human hand.

The sun reflecting off the many small freshwater lochs gave the impression of sequins glinting here and there, and the brooding mountains made us feel small and insignificant.  I cannot believe that, for all the miles I’ve travelled and the faraway places that I’ve seen, this was the first holiday I’d had in Scotland, and the first chance I’d had to appreciate the magnificent landscape we have here in good old Britain.  🙂

Throughout our tour you could hear our fellow passengers marvelling at the weather; most of May has been terrible – cold, wet and windy, and yet so far on our trip the weather has been flawless and the sea like a mill pond.  With the vagaries of the British weather we were totally prepared for rain, grey skies and fog, and now I was starting to feel that the clothing I’d brought was slightly inappropriate.

Our bus wended its way through the mountainous roads which often afforded breathtaking views of the landscape.  Our guide pointed out the peak of Clisham, which at 800 metres is the highest mountain in the Outer Isles.  Sheep were sure-footedly picking their way along the hillsides, and it always reminds of the oft-repeated Scottish legend that the Haggis is a small hill-dwelling furry animal with two legs shorter on one side than the other side, to allow it to walk upright when going around a mountain.  🙂

Our journey took us through Lewis and into the neighbouring island of Harris, famous world-wide for its woollen herringbone tweed.  Lewis and Harris are not true islands in that they are joined by a narrow strip of land.  Their landscapes, however, are so different that you’d think they were two completely separate places.

In Harris the bus stopped for an hour in the village of Tarbert (Harris’s largest village of 400 occupants) so it allowed us some free time to look around.  We went to the local village stores and bought an ice lolly each, as well as a bottle of rosé wine to consume in our cabin.  😉  We also bought some postcards and stamps to write out later on.

As we were walking along the road we heard a rhythmic clanking noise, and looked through an open door into a sort of workshop where there was a large, antique loom on which some Harris Tweed was being woven.  The weaver operated the loom by sitting on a bike and pedalling away!  It would certainly keep him fit.  There were many spools of woollen yarn and punched cards which fit onto the loom; the yarn is fed through the holes in the card and determines the final pattern on the tweed, the most famous of which is the herringbone.  The tweed that was being woven here in this little workshop would be sent to the mills to be made into garments (most notably jackets) which would then be sold all over the world.

Once it was time to go back on the bus we rode along the coastal route until we came to a remote little place called Horgabost Beach where a few campers were making the most of the weather by pitching small tents and sitting out on the dunes.  We had to rub our eyes and look again – was this Scotland or was it the Caribbean?  There was a gorgeous white sandy beach and turquoise, beautifully clear water; and of course the cloudless blue sky.  Add to this the backdrop of mountains to the north and you could quite easily think you’d died and gone to heaven.  🙂

Well I just couldn’t resist this – rolling up my trouser legs and kicking off my flip-flops I ran down the dunes and enjoyed the feel of the powder soft sand in among my toes before going knee-deep into the water for a “plodge” as we say here in the North.  It was at this point that we realised it was Scotland and not the Caribbean as the water temperature reminded us that we were at 58° north.  Nevertheless, it was absolutely idyllic and it was with reluctance that we boarded the coach for the return journey into Stornoway.

Back in Stornoway we decided we wouldn’t go straight back to the Marco Polo but would see if we could find a pub, have a cold beer and write out our postcards.  We looked all over a for a pub with a beer garden, or with tables and chairs outside, but although there were quite a few pubs, none of them satisfied this criteria.  It was only then that we realised they’d have no need of a beer garden apart from about three days a year!  So we went into the nearest pub, had a pint each and wrote out our cards, before finding a post box.

We then went back to the port where we were just in time to get the liberty boat back to the ship – great timing.  Then we went up to the aft deck and enjoyed some afternoon snacks and a couple more drinks.  They make a mean caipirinha on the Marco Polo and it wasn’t too badly priced at £3.80.

While we were enjoying our drinks an announcement came over the PA system to say that we would not be visiting Fort William tomorrow after all, as they had been unable to find a qualified pilot available to guide the Marco Polo into the narrow inlet that would take us into port.  In place of Fort William then, we would visit Ullapool tomorrow and have an extra port of call on Sunday in the shape of Invergordon.  It didn’t bother us unduly, these things sometimes happen on cruises and can’t be helped.

After another tasty dinner we went along to the show lounge where tonight’s cabaret was UK Guest Act Brenda Collins, a comedienne.  I thought her name sounded vaguely familiar and, sure enough, we realised we had seen her before at the Red Lion in Chester-le-Street, when she performed at Trevor’s works Annual Dinner Dance.  She is one of these acts that wears daft masks, wigs and other props and does comedy impressions to a fast medley of background music.  She was quite funny but a lot of her act hadn’t changed in the 10 years or so since we’d seen her last.

The game show in Scott’s Bar tonight was “The Weakest Link” where the contestants have to answer general knowledge questions against the clock and then have to vote for who they think is the “weakest link” in the chain of correct answers.  It used to come on BBC 1 and was hosted by Anne Robinson and Trevor used to watch it avidly.  When we went into the bar Andy, one of the entertainment team, said to Trevor “you are playing tonight”.  Trevor asked “who nominated me for that?” and Andy replied “I did!”.  So it looked as if Trevor was playing, whether he wanted to or not.  🙂

After the first round Trevor was the strongest link and in the second round he was not the weakest link, but his fellow contestants voted him out.  So he had to take the “walk of shame” but at least he wasn’t the first off.  So no free cocktails for us tonight then!

I was quite tired afterwards after the long day, soporific sunshine, big dinner and caipirinhas, so I decided to go straight to bed ,but Trevor remained in Scott’s Bar to watch the late-night cabaret and returned to cabin 602 around midnight.

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We awoke this morning to a bright day with a little fog on the horizon and a flat calm North Sea.  It looked as though it was going to be another fine day today.  We were due to arrive in Kirkwall, Orkney at around mid-day.

We went along to the buffet restaurant for our breakfast, and took it out to the deck at the stern to eat outside.  There were quite a lot of people out there already, no doubt to make the most of the sunshine. We took a walk around the decks; although the weather was bright there was still a brisk sea breeze with enough of a nip to remind us that summer was still not yet here.

At around 10.00am there was a demonstration from the beauty salon, where a volunteer was given a 15 minute hot stone massage, no doubt to try to sell the spa treatments.  I have had one of these massages in the past and it is a lovely relaxing experience.

Afterwards there was some fun on the aft decks where some members of the entertainments team took part in a game called “I’m An Entertainer… Get Me Out Of Here”, based on the I’m A Celebrity… television show.  Members of the team had to carry out various tasks and then the passengers had to vote for which one was eliminated in each round; the loser then got a soaking by having a bucket of cold water tipped over them.  It really was quite funny and just a bit of a light-hearted way of passing the time.  Nearby bar staff set up a table with a special promotion of mojitos for only £2.95, so we each indulged in one, which was nice and cold and refreshing.  🙂

As it is so pleasant on the aft decks, we sat outside a little longer before making our way to the Marco Polo lounge where David Shute, a former reporter with the BBC, was doing a talk. I’ve never actually heard of him so it must have been a long time ago that he worked for the BBC.

When we came out of the lounge the Marco Polo had just docked in Kirkwall, capital of the Orkney islands.  There are about 70 islands that make up the Orkneys, but only 16 of them are inhabited.

After a quick lunch we disembarked the Marco Polo and boarded the coach for our excursion, which would take us all around the island.  The first thing we noticed was that, once we left the main town of Kirkwall, civilisation became very remote and most of the land was given over to fields of sheep, cattle and arable land, with only the odd farmhouse dotted here and there. It wasn’t really mountainous, but rather gentle hills rolled into the misty-blue distance.

The coach took us along the scenic, winding route, stopping every now and again to allow us to take photographs.  There were lots of Aberdeen Angus cows in the fields; in fact we saw more cows than people.  We arrived at a spectacular viewing point at Marwick Head, which was set on steep cliffs and rocks with a sheer drop into the sea 300 feet below.  Away to our left we could just see the famous Old Man of Hoy, a steep column of rock 449 feet tall and so beloved of climbers, including the mountaineer Chris Bonington.

Marwick Head is a protected reserve of the RSPB and we could see a lot of sea birds, including oyster catchers and skuas.

We then boarded the coach again for a short ride to a local hotel for a cup of tea and some delicious home-baked shortbread and cakes.

Back on the coach we drove along the road adjacent to Scapa Flow, which served as the location of a well-known Naval Base during both world wars.  The base finally closed in 1957.  A lot of German ships were sunk in Scapa Flow and while most of them were salvaged, there are about seven which still remain and which are popular with divers.

On our way back we had another stop; this time at the Standing Stones of Stenness, one of the earliest known stone circles, dating from the Neolithic age.

Back on the Marco Polo time was getting on after a very interesting, very full day.  We barely had 20 minutes to get washed and changed for dinner and we were late getting to the Waldorf Restaurant.  But no matter – we were still the first ones to arrive on our table.  Eventually the other three couples turned up.  Although the dress code this evening was “informal” it still stipulated in the daily programme that jackets and shirts were to be worn (for the men).  However, Trevor was the only one on our table dressed correctly in a jacket, shirt and tie; two of the other guys had jackets on (but no ties) and one bloke was just in his shirt sleeves with no tie, more like the smart-casual evening.  They are from Newton Aycliffe and it is their first cruise.  So far the woman had complained about everything; she’s what you’d call a professional moaner.  Only two days into the cruise and she’d decided that she was never going to go on another ship.  She complained about the cabin being noisy (it usually is, if you’re low down in the ship towards the stern, i.e. over the engine room), she complained that she couldn’t find her way around (heaven’s sake, the ship is only a pup at 22,080 tons!), she complained about the food and she complained about the fact that you have to pay your bill at the end, instead of as you go.  She’s one of those types who is never happy unless she’s miserable.  🙂

After our dinner (the service is very quick on the Marco Polo so we were out of the dining room in good time), we went along to the Marco Polo lounge for the evening’s cabaret, which was a tribute to Queen, a scaled down version of We Will Rock You, which we actually saw in the West End in February 2008.  It was excellent; in fact the show company is very good indeed.  They did Bohemian Rhapsody for their encore, then off we went to Scott’s Bar to finish the evening off.

In Scott’s Bar the game show tonight was Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, based on the popular ITV game, and they needed three couples, so Trevor and I volunteered!  Each couple would take the famous chair to pit their wits and answer 15 questions to try to win “one million pounds”.  Obviously it was only pretend, but the winner would get bragging rights.  🙂

The first couple up got as far as £64,000 but then decided to stick.  At this point it was time for Trevor and me to get up.  We worked our way through the questions, using the lifelines as appropriate, until we got to the £125,000 question which we answered successfully, thereby eliminating the first couple from the contest.  However, we didn’t know the answer to the £250,000 question and we didn’t want to risk it, so we opted to walk away.

That meant the final couple had to win £250,000 or above to beat us.  They got as far as the £250,000 question and decided to gamble, but they got the answer wrong and dropped back to 32K.  That meant that Trevor and I won!  🙂

So once again we received a Cruise & Maritime Voyages medallion (a.k.a. trolley token) and a free cocktail of the day.  The cocktail was called Banana Mama and consisted of white rum, banana liqueur and pineapple juice and was very nice – I enjoyed it better than yesterday’s cocktail.  The fact that it was free made it even nicer!

We finished the evening in Scott’s Bar, where there was a quiz consisting of 20 questions where you had to listen to, and identify, TV themes.  We got 16 out of 20 but the winners scored 19.

When the quiz had finished I noticed it was still quite light outside, even though it was about 10.30pm, but we are so much further north so I suppose that’s to be expected.  When I went outside on deck I was surprised at how mild it was; a beautiful calm night with hardly a ripple on the sea.

Then members of the show company came back on stage and sang some famous duets before we went off to bed, once again well after midnight.

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Well here we are again folks, on yet another cruise – our 30th to be precise.  🙂

This time it’s a mini 5-day voyage on board the M/V Marco Polo, a delightful old ship (built 1965) on which we have cruised twice before; in the Mediterranean in 2001 and all the way down to Antarctica in 2006.  Marco Polo is a proper classic ship of 22,080 tons which holds 800 passengers, a bit different from the behemoths of today that carry thousands of voyagers.

There was no long journey down to Southampton or tiring flight to foreign shores involved this time – in fact the Marco Polo departed from the Tyne for a cruise around the Orkneys, Hebrides and Fort William, finishing at Leith.

So, despite our cases being packed and leaving for a mini-vacation today, this morning we got up and went to work as usual, putting in a half-day before finishing at 11.30am and then leaving the house once again at 12.20pm for the drive to the Port of Tyne, Newcastle.  Within an hour we were on the ship.  🙂

We had booked an ordinary outside cabin, but we were pleased to note that we have been upgraded.  Our cabin is on deck 9 (Amundsen Deck) right at the very bow of the ship, just below the bridge.  We can see the bow when looking out of the window, and it will be strange to be facing in the direction of travel instead of watching the sea pass by sideways as we usually do from our port or starboard cabin.

The weather was bright and warm and sunny, a complete contrast to the atrocious weather we’ve had so far for May which has thus far been more like February.  After dumping our bags in Cabin 602 we went in search of some lunch and, more importantly (!), a cold beer.  🙂

Trevor got a pizza while I enjoyed some cold meats and salad from the buffet and we took our food out to eat on the deck, in the sunshine.  We enjoyed some cold drinks and the unaccustomed feel of the hot sun on our backs.

When we looked at the events programme for the day I was amazed to see the Captain’s name:  Georgios Antonellos from Greece.  He was the captain when we did our very first cruise on the StarShip Royale, nearly 24 years ago.  We came across him in the restaurant and indeed it is the same one.  Wow.  The StarShip Royale cruise was part of our honeymoon in October 1988.  Fancy the same captain being on the Marco Polo, our 30th cruise.  🙂

After our leisurely lunch we decided to go back to the cabin for a quick nap before life-boat drill at 4.30pm.  Lifeboat drill is always a bit of a chore, but a necessary one.  It’s ironic that lifeboat drill was omitted on both the Titanic and (more recently) the Costa Concordia, but half an hour of our time now could save our lives later on.  It was quite a thorough drill as well; it wasn’t enough just to go to our muster stations and don our life jackets; we actually had to form a human chain and make our way to our lifeboats out on deck.  Once the drill was over, the time was ours.

We have been allocated table 67 in the Waldorf Restaurant, a table for eight.  We always dine fairly early, to give our meal time to go down, but early sitting on the Marco Polo is even earlier than usual; 5.45pm.

Our table companions for this cruise are three other British couples, all older than us.  They all seemed very pleasant.  Service was very quick and the meal was excellent; I enjoyed Thai seafood salad to start, then garden salad, boeuf bourgignon and finally the cheese board, washed down with rosé wine and finished off with coffee and amaretto.

After dinner we went along to the Marco Polo lounge for the evening’s entertainment, which was called “Dancing Queen” and was the show company’s tribute to Abba.  It was very good; the singing and dancing was excellent, the music was catchy and I was sorry when it was over, as I love Abba’s music.

We then made our way to Scott’s Bar, at the stern of the ship, for tonight’s game show which was Catchphrase, based on the popular television programme which used to be hosted by Roy “Say What You See” Walker.  “It’s good, but it isn’t right.”

They wanted a couple of volunteers so I put my hand up and went down to the front, where my opponent, Isobel, turned out to be one of the people on our table, from Consett, Co Durham.  We were each given a buzzer and told the rules of the game, and play began.  At first it looked as if I was going to be trounced because, even when I knew the answer, Isobel was very fast on the buzzer.  However, the game depended on guessing the main catch phrase, and this was where I excelled, winning the contest three games to one.  🙂

My prize was a Cruise & Maritime Voyages medallion, which is actually a trolley token of the type you’ll get in the Co-op and Morrison’s, to ensure you bring the trolley back and don’t just dump it in the car park.  There was also a free Cocktail of the Day for me and Trevor.  🙂  The cocktail was called “Bon Voyage” and was made up of Kahlua, Bailey’s Irish Cream and Amaretto.  It was very rich and got a bit sickly after a while; I think I’d only manage one at the most.  However, the Marco Polo includes Caipirinha, my favourite cocktail, on its list so I was happy to indulge in them.  🙂

We stayed in Scott’s Bar for the next game show which was called Total Recall.  In any case it was really pleasant in the bar, and the resident musical duo, a guy on the piano and a female singer called the Excelsior Duo, were very good.  The evening ended with some of the singers from the show company singing musical numbers from the 50’s and 60’s.

Then it was back to cabin 602, well after midnight, for our first night on board the Marco Polo.

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Having taken our first cruise almost 24 years ago when there were relatively few good cruise ships about, we have noticed many changes, and not all of them are for the best.

For a start, ships actually used to look like ships.  That is, their outlines were long, sleek and streamlined and (when viewed from the front) they were wider than they were tall (not including the funnel).

When on board, you were met with wooden decking and lots of teak and brass fittings.  An inside cabin was the norm and, if you wanted to upgrade, you could book a stateroom with one or two portholes, affording you the luxury of daylight in your room.  Doorways meant having to lift your feet over the threshold and you often slept in a bunk rather than a bed.

When you awoke in the morning you saw the light streaming in your round, brass-bound window and felt the excitement of being at sea.

Evenings meant putting on your best bib and tucker before enjoying an aperitif and a sumptuous dinner.  This was usually followed by post-prandial liqueurs before finally taking in the evening’s entertainment, whether it be cabaret, singer, musician or comedian or dance troupe.

If you were fortunate, your table-mates in the restaurant became your friends for the duration of the voyage and you spent many a happy hour in their company chatting over drinks, watching the show or forming a quiz team. Other fellow passengers became on nodding terms or greeted you in recognition.

Cruising was always seen as a “luxury” holiday, something that little bit special, something with a bit of glitz and glamour. Sometimes you’d even meet celebrities and feel, even if for a fleeting while, that you were one of them.

Alas, how times have changed.  😦

From the original five best-known cruise lines (Cunard, P & O, Fred Olsen, Holland America and Swan Hellenic) who specialise in ocean voyages and holidays at sea, there are now no less than 37 (so-called) cruise lines, all competing fiercely for our custom.  As a result of this, the cost of a cruise has come right down in recent years, meaning that taking a cruise is now an affordable option for the average salary earner, rather than just being the reserve of the famous or better-off as it used to be.  Which is, on the whole, not a bad thing.

However, there is a trade-off.  Ship builders such as Fincantieri yard in Italy seem to be churning out at least one new ship a year and they all have something in common: they are HUGE.  Ships are getting bigger and bigger until they no longer look like sea-going vessels but more like floating apartment blocks.  Never mind your outside cabins with portholes; everyone wants their own private balcony.  Ships carrying 5,000+ passengers are not unknown these days, then there is the crew on top of that.

Gone is the beautiful carpentry and workmanship, the wooden decks and the brass fittings. In their place is plastic decking (basically floor-covering with lines drawn on to look like planks…ugh!), pre-fabricated cabins with paper-thin walls, wood veneer and perspex and replica art adorning the walls.  Plenty of space is given for shopping arcades, photo gallery, spa and hair salon and ‘specialist’ fee-attracting eateries – basically any way they can get even more money from the passengers.

Oh, but we’re not called “passengers” any more, either.  We’re now known as “guests”, a horrible Americanism that has crept into cruising vocabulary; no doubt as ships try to imitate floating hotels, so their patrons should be referred to as “guests”. As far as I am concerned, I am taking a PASSAGE on a ship, so I will remain a PASSENGER, thank-you-very-much.

Gone too is the peace and quiet you would once enjoy whilst up on deck taking in the fresh sea air.  Instead, it is a daily scramble for the sunbeds and for a place in the jacuzzi, and the smell of the sea is slightly tainted with the smell of the burgers and chips usually on offer around the pool.  Add to that the fact that the entertainment staff are constantly trying to get you to join in with something or are playing LOUD music or the photographers are trying to get you to pose yet again and you may find that a cruising holiday is anything but relaxing.

As for that very pleasant couple you chatted with at lunchtime… chances are you won’t clap eyes on them again for the rest of the cruise as they disappear into the thousands of others on board.

And dressing up in your DJ on formal nights?  Forget it; these days it’s all about “freestyle” cruising: wear what you want, eat where you want, when you want.

So far you may have guessed that I am not a fan of large, modern cruise ships, and you’d be quite right.

Another major disadvantage is that so many of the modern ships are too large to fit into a conventional cruise terminal so they have to dock at container ports instead.  Usually these are miles from any of the local attractions and there is nothing to see but… containers.   Containers and large groups of taxi and shuttle bus drivers, all vying for your custom as they offer to take you on an “island tour” or into the main town.

If you arrive at a port of call where the water is too shallow and the ship has to drop anchor, then another problem arises… getting 3000+ passengers (sorry… guests) ashore in the tender boats.  Then getting them all back on board again.

If you’ve read my account of our Caribbean cruise on the Ventura over New Year, you would glean that, although we enjoyed our holiday, it wasn’t exactly my favourite ship and I’d probably not cruise on it again, not unless the itinerary was exceptional.

I make one exception in my critique of larger vessels, and that is the Queen Mary 2.  That is because she is not a cruise ship, she is an ocean liner and, at 151,000 tons, carries 2,400 passengers, allowing a greater ratio of personal space per person than the 115,000 ton Ventura and her 3,600 passenger capacity. The day all cruise ships carry more than 2,500 passengers is the day I’ll stop cruising and spend my holidays away from the rat race on a desert island instead.

In the meantime, I’ll stick with my little old ships like the Marco Polo and the Braemar with their wooden decks and their portholes.  I’ll spend ages in the hair salon having a glamorous up-do and I’ll wear my long dresses and silken wraps.  I’ll sit on the decks enjoying my personal space and listening to the sound of the sea and sipping cocktails. And I’ll have a whale of a time doing cruising the way it was meant to be done.  🙂

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