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Cruise Ship Review
Orient Lines

Marco Polo

by John Blinn & Therese Ruffing

Marco Polo 1999 Antarctic Peninsula Cruise

Marco Polo


There are already several excellent reviews and articles in The SeaLetter on the Orient Lines' Marco Polo including Robert Waring's 1996 review of a seven day cruise from Istanbul to Athens, Jay Carson's 1997 history of the Marco Polo, detailing its 2 1/2 year conversion from the S/S Alexandr Pushkin (built in 1965 for a Russian shipping company and used in regular Trans-Atlantic service between Montreal and Leningrad until its sale to Orient Lines in 1991), and Susan Mellott's 1998 review of the "Passage to India" cruise. So why one more?

Lars-Eric Linblad, who first brought tourists to Antarctica some thirty years ago, predicted a dramatic rise in interest in Antarctica in a not-too-distant future when tens of thousands of tourists would descend on the continent. That day has never arrived and although approximately ten thousand tourists do visit Antarctica every year through a variety of more luxurious "cruise" and other ships, in fact the number has not risen but has slightly declined since Linblad made his original projection.

Yet interest in things Antarctic has begun to rise over the past year, as demonstrated in part by the publication and republication of a number of books on the Scott and Shackleton expeditions to Antarctica, television specials and magazine articles. Moreover, in the coming year at least two world cruises (the Rotterdam VI and the Ocean Explorer I) are adding Antarctica (albeit in slightly different flavors) to their itinerary. So it's time to spell out exactly what such a trip aboard the Marco Polo entails and how to get prepared if one decides to try it.

To Begin

We are back from our Christmas present trip to Antarctica and South America, safe, sound, and having had a whale of a good time. If you want the penguin-size version of our last two weeks, just read this paragraph and skip to the end. Antarctica: penguins, icebergs, whales, no towns. Argentina: Buenos Aires (big nifty city; tango) and Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego (southernmost tip of South America; dramatic scenery; outpost). If you'd like more detail, read on.

PenguinsPenguins. Yes, we saw thousands of them, braying and cooing, waddling, feeding their chicks, and "flipper-bashing" and pecking at would-be predators. And as the ship sailed through the Antarctic channels, penguins would "porpoise" -- swimming alongside the ship and leaping out of the water like porpoises. When it was clear, we saw white and blue icebergs that you'd swear were sculpted by an artist.

We were fortunate to have calm seas, for the most part. When we didn't, we learned which pieces of apparel were truly waterproof! Since there are no towns in Antarctica (only scientific bases), the ship never docked. Instead, six to twelve passengers at a time would go ashore in an inflatable rubber Zodiac, catching the full force of the waves, sleet, and wind if the weather was nasty.

The weather really does change almost every 20 minutes -- snow, or fog, or sun, or sleet -- like a kaleidoscope using mostly white, black, grey and blue. The ship had a helicopter that scouted for weather conditions and wildlife and a Scandinavian "Ice Master " who had extensive experience navigating in ice-clogged water. So we felt very safe. By the way, we saw seals only from afar, lounging on icebergs, but saw whales as close as about 35 feet from the ship. Plus, 24 hours of daylight allowed iceberg and whale watching entirely at one's leisure.

The ship's Antarctic team included an expedition leader, seven lecturers, and six experienced Zodiac drivers. The lecturers included Geoff Somers, a British explorer who was among the first to traverse Antarctica (4,000 miles in 220 days) on skis and using dogs to tow sleds; Gerald Webers, a geologist after whom were named "Webers Peaks" in the Antarctic Ellsworth Mountains; and Allan Morgan, a freelance photographer and naturalist whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Audubon, Smithsonian, and Newsweek. The Zodiac operation was directed by the drivers who ferried passengers in sometimes stressful sea conditions from the ship to the beach. There, a shore team in chest-high waders held the Zodiac and helped people to swing their legs over the bulbous side of the Zodiac, to step into the (hopefully!) shallow water. The lecturers stayed on shore during the expeditions to point out highlights and answer passengers' questions.

In Tierra del Fuego, Argentina we spent two days in the southernmost town in the world, Ushuaia. Ushuaians call it the "end" of the world, which fits with the harsh, cold climate experienced there ten months of the year. Craggy mountains, often backed or covered by clouds, tower behind the town. The tree line on the mountains averages only about 1,500 feet, in contrast with the 10,500 foot or so tree line in the US Rockies. Ushuaia is the most colorful town we've ever seen -- the corrugated metal roofs and siding used on many of the old and new buildings are painted in every shade of the rainbow.

John visited and loved Buenos Aires, Argentina last year, so Therese had an enthusiastic event planner for touring this dynamic city of 11 million people. Although we saw the dance clubs closing around 7 am, we never experienced them getting started at the fashionable hour of 2 am. Instead, we saw the horse-riding skills of Argentine cowboys or gauchos, dashing tango dancers, and many, many blocks of classic and ornate European architecture, including the building and plaza where Evita gave her last speech. Doing most of this on foot justified eating at the "Palace of Fried Potatoes," which served great Argentine beef and local wine as well as scrumptious soufflé potatoes.

The Landings

The entire point of an Antarctic cruise is getting ashore, but two other aspects worthy of repeat mention are the helicopter that scouts for weather and the Ice Master who navigates in ice-clogged water. Even in the more temperate Antarctic Peninsula waters we saw thousands of icebergs, some of which were as large as or larger than the ship. Although these perhaps present less of a danger because they are easier to spot, with the rapidly changing conditions from clear to fog to snow and sleet, preparation is key.

ZodiacPreparation was also key to successful landings. Landings are accomplished through inflatable Zodiacs which hold six to twelve people and once loaded are quite stable. But weather and sea conditions are anything but stable during the course of what may be a series of fifty to one hundred separate trips from ship to shore and back. The number of trips is determined by how many passengers are aboard and seeking to make a landing and the ,"safe load," given the existing conditions and the Antarctic Treaty rule that no more than one hundred passengers are permitted ashore at any one time.

The Zodiacs are driven by a team of experienced boat handlers from around the world and shore operations are controlled by a "Beachmaster," a retired career ice-breaker commander. The Beachmaster is assisted by members of the ship's crew who may in some instances have to brave chest-high Antarctic water to help land or launch the Zodiacs and their passengers. Most of our landings were "wet," meaning one is stepping into water from six to twelve inches in depth. Some landings were also "wet" because of wave action and/or sleet and snow.

What to Wear and Where to Get It

There are several excellent Websites, including:

Our own suggestions follow.

Feet: This is probably the most important part of one's Antarctic gear. Although there are many high-quality and high-priced boots available from a variety of sources, we found our LaCrosse 16-inch "Monarch" rubber boots purchased at the local surplus/sporting goods store for $11.99 were perfect.("100% waterproof, high molecular weight PVC compound with bar cleat outsoles, net-lined for easy on and off, molded insole, excellent in wet, muddy conditions, high abrasive wear, steel shank for arch support, available down to size 3 to fit women and boys and 'made in the USA'") Incidentally, we opted for the non-steel toe model (the steel toe model is $3/pair more) to avoid setting off airport security alarms.

We did buy 3/8 inch-thick (also available in a 1/4 inch version) "Insolators" (inner soles guaranteed down to minus 50 degrees), and fleece-lined neoprene socks (same temperature range) which we wore with wicking polypropylene liner socks. Incidentally, Therese noted as we were writing this that even though she finds her feet getting cold during the winter just sitting at her desk, she never had that problem in Antarctica with her LaCrosse boots, Insolators, neoprene socks and liner socks.

Hands: We bought "Windbloc" convertible mitt/gloves (you can flip the mitt back to expose your fingers to operate a camera or binoculars) which we wore with silk glove liners. (These "Windbloc" mitt/gloves are water resistant but on really wet days, waterproof might be preferable.)

Outerwear: We bought waterproof outer pants which we wore with long underwear and khaki or Polartec pants. As to long underwear, Therese had both silk and synthetic, but wore the latter after a suggestion that the silk was not warm enough. John had only synthetic. We also wore long sleeve shirts or pullovers, wool or Polartec sweaters, earbands and a hat or balaclava. The cruise provides a red "Marco Polo Antarctic Expedition 1998-1999" parka that is yours to take home after the cruise. The parkas are available in Small, Medium, Large and Extra-Large (John needed Extra-Large over all his layers of clothes and Therese used a Large) and although not of the finest quality, it is quite adequate plus it has a hood (VERY important in sleet and wind). Also it will probably get either damp or soaked with salt water and that may not be something to which you want to expose your more expensive "from home" outerwear.

Where to buy what you need? The Insolators, socks, mitt/gloves, glove liners, waterproof pants plus more were purchased at Barb's recommendation from Campmor at 800-226-7667 or on the Web at http://www.campmor.com for just over $225. As for the boots, we would not recommend purchasing them by mail as rubber boot size and shoe size seem to have little in common PLUS the socks, Insolators, etc. you choose may change the size you need. (In our case, John wears a size 8 shoe but found he needed a size 9 boot.) And boots are really awfully heavy to send back and forth through the mail. So we'd suggest buying locally and trying on a variety of sizes AFTER getting your socks, Insolators, etc.

Other Thoughts and Tips

How much film to take? We took 22 rolls/24 exposure (largely 100ASA) and used 16 rolls of 100ASA in Antarctica. Sorry, but we can't make camcorder suggestons, but we did use one one-hour audio tape (invaluable to bring back those penguin warbles and squeaks).

How long will you be ashore? On larger vessels like the Marco Polo, generally only an hour in order to allow all passengers to make the landing. However the Zodiac ride may last 5-15 minutes so total time exposed to the elements (if it's cold, windy, snowing, etc.) may be 70 to 90 minutes. On smaller vessels, and especially those carrying less than the Antarctic Treaty limit of 100 passengers ashore at one time, landings may last longer.

Antarctic IcebergsShould you take binoculars? Absolutely, as these are invaluable for observing from the deck of the ship. Ashore they may be less useful depending on your interests and the specific site. Also, as footing may sometimes be tricky (penguin guano, deep snow, ice, slippery rocks), if you plan to take binoculars ashore, a bird-watcher binocular harness may be worthwhile. One example of such a harness is the ,"Slide and Flex Bino-Sytem," sold by Crooked Horn Outfitters at 805-822-3635.

How easy is it to photograph penguins? Very easy. They're quite curious and if you stay still, aren't aggressive, and crouch down so you're more their size, chances are good they'll walk right up to you.

Should you hand-carry your Antarctic gear? Maybe this is paranoia, but we've never been on a cruise where someone's luggage didn't fail to arrive before sailing. On most cruises this would be an inconvenience as the luggage would be forwarded to the next port but on an Antarctic cruise with no other ports than Ushuaia, it could be a disaster. So we hand-carried all our gear (boots, socks, gloves, etc.) and our medicine. Not too large a carry-on but reassuring.

A note on keeping cameras and other things waterproof: returning from our first landing, a series of waves drenched everything in the Zodiac. Although we had a new Outdoor Products Convertible Fanny Pack for our camera, film and tape recorder ("1000 denier Waterproof Cordura Plus nylon with a Caprolan nylon lining"), on opening it in the cabin we found salt water INSIDE the tightly closed shoulder bag! Fortunately we had enclosed the camera, exposed and unexposed film and tape recorder in Hefty "One Zip Slider Bags" inside the supposed waterproof shoulder bag and all were just fine. So just taking a few additional seconds to get our camera, film and recorder into and out of the zip bags had saved the day. Further to this point, many fellow Zodiac riders just couldn't wait to get ashore to start snapping pictures and we saw at least one Nikon that someone had looped around their neck take a direct wave hit so ... you decide what to do.

What You'll See Ashore

No doubt we're not alone in viewing cruise line brochures as little more than vague promises but this time folks, we have to tell you, it's all true! You'll see numerous penguin rookeries, where they raise their chicks, ranging in size from a single nest to literally thousands. And you'll see lots of chicks in various stages of maturity.

You'll see albatrosses, petrels of all kinds, skuas, sheathbills and a variety of other seabirds. You'll see whales of all types. You'll even see seals, although possibly only from a distance. And you'll see miles and miles of mountains and ice and glaciers and icebergs of every shape and size imaginable.

We also visited one of the Chilean Antarctic stations and saw several other British and Argentine stations. No scientific research was being undertaken at the Chilean station but it was interesting to see the physical layout.

Is It All Worth It?

In our opinion, YES! Not only are the shore visits wonderful, but the Marco Polo preparation through a team of Antarctic experts brings everyone to a fairly sophisticated level of understanding (and comfort!) about things Antarctic. And on the way back you cruise past Cape Horn, that symbol of so many mariners' despair, and a nice reward to see if the trip back across the Drake Passage is rough as ours was. But there are two very important caveats:

Caveat One: The air trip to and from the ship is for most travelers simply exhausting. Our trip down (Austin=>DFW=>Miami=>Buenos Aires) plus Buenos Aires=>Ushuaia three days later was twenty hours. The return was even longer. It's not a reason not to do the trip, but it should be fully considered. (For sake of completeness, we elected to spend three days in Buenos Aires before the cruise--one of several possible extensions to the basic cruise offered by Orient Lines--rather than proceeding immediately to Ushuaia, from whence the Marco Polo sails. However, all flights apparently stop in Buenos Aires en route to Ushuaia, so the Home=>Ushuaia flight is still twenty hours long.)

Caveat two: ALL landings are subject to weather conditions. We were lucky and made all four landings in as many days, but we thought we would be forced to miss the first with the rapidly changing weather, and we can readily understand how easily landings would be denied. And the trip without the landings would be a real disappointment (to say nothing of the time and expense involved).

But caveats disclosed, let us share what became our "mantra." We constantly reminded ourselves before the trip that this was in all likelihood our once-in-a-lifetime visit to Antarctica, so we read everything we could lay our hands on for months before the trip, watched the few videos that are available and planned and planned to make the trip all it could be. And, with the help of the Marco Polo, its lecturers, Zodiac drivers and shore staff, it was!

And, In Closing ...

We consider ourselves somewhat experienced cruisers having been on Holland America, Princess, Royal Caribbean, Sun Line, Carnival and even the Norwegian Hurtigruten, and our cruises have ranged from two days to over four months in length. Based on that experience, we consider the Marco Polo overall one of our best cruising experiences.

Dining RoomThe food in the Seven Seas Dining Room was virtually without exception innovative, well-conceived, masterfully presented and (best of all) very tasty. In addition to the regular menu there are "Healthy" (attention paid to fat and sodium content) and vegetarian menus. Quality ingredients such as a variety of fresh mushrooms were a frequent treat.

We are not "show goers," but an informal poll of other experienced cruisers rated the Marco Polo shows as good as most other ships' and superior to many.

The staff and crew were uniformly professional, courteous and pleasant.

The cabins, although not spacious, are comfortable for a cruise of this length and probably for one significantly longer. The only related deficiency was the lack of a self-service washer/dryer which was felt by us, as we had already been travelling five days before boarding the ship and thus started the cruise with some accumulated dirty laundry.

Our only criticism would be the disembarkation process, which was poorly organized.

But we would not want this review to end on a negative note. The trip was all we hoped it would be and more. We enthusiastically recommend it to vacationers who desire something out of the ordinary.


John Blinn is a musician and lives in Austin, Texas. John and his partner, Therese Ruffing, are regular cruisers and love talking about cruising. In February 1998, SeaLetter published their Rotterdam V World Cruise review and it has been one of our most popular reviews to date. John & Therese can be reached for questions or comment at: 74357.1053@compuserve.com.

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