CruiseMates' Readers Cruise Reviews

Orient Lines Marco Polo by Peter Stocker Grand Antarctic 1999


We are both retired, myself for 9 years now, and this was our 38th. cruise. 20 different ships of 10 companies so we have a little experience. This was a cruise which had been in the planning stage for several years, originally it was to go on the 'Ocean Princess' but she had that unfortunate accident in Belem, and then later we left it too late for the 'Marco Polo'. This time we made sure and had our Travel Agent keeping track with Orient and booked the first day it was open. Having sailed on the MP before we knew where we wanted the cabin to be, especially with the probability of having some rough weather.


Called the 'Grand Antarctic' this is 23 days from Ushuaia, Argentina to Christchurch, New Zealand, a total of 6879 miles. The number of stops is dependent entirely on the weather, which down there can change completely in 20 minutes with no warnings. They are all beach landings from 'Zodiacs' i.e. inflatable rubber boats driven by outboard motors, which carry a maximum of 12 passengers. With a maximum of 100 allowed ashore at any one time, and at some places no more than 40, there is a very strict counting system to keep track of everyone. The 400 odd passengers were divided into 4 groups identified by large coloured disks worn at all times when going ashore. Each group then took it in turn to be the first ashore, and was sub-divided into boat loads by ticket numbers. Groups were given plenty of warning on the PA as it takes about 15 minutes to get all dressed up ready to go. An inflatable lifejacket was put on top of everything before getting in the boat. If the beach was mucky from penguins there were crew on shore who cleaned your boots before getting into the boat, and then on entering the ship one sat down and your boots were pulled off and put into a big plastic bag to take back to your cabin. A very efficient operation that worked well. A note here.........about gear. The red Parkas provided are excellent - they are light and wind and waterproof, and as everyone wears them, a good control feature when ashore. The Staff wear yellow ones to distinguish them. As one layers underneath the parka the other important gear is a pair of waterproof pants and the boots. We took an old pair of rubber boots and a new el cheapo pair, both of which we left behind. We put them in a separate nylon bag to go, and the parkas went in to it to bring home.


There are some quite lengthly descriptions of the Marco Polo available so I'll try to keep this short. She was built for the Russians in East Germany in 1967, one of a class of five ice strengthened passenger ships which could easily be converted to troopships. As the Alexandr Pushkin she ran across the North Atlantic for several years to Montreal. One of her sisterships, the Mikhail Lermentov, was put on a rock by pilot error on a cruise in New Zealand and sank. The others were the Ivan Franko, Shota Rustaveli, & Taras Shevchenko. It would be interesting to know what happened to them. by 1991 she was being run by the Far East Steamship Co. of Vladivostok, and was laid up in Singapore for lack of funds. Gerry Herrod, having sold Ocean Cruise to Paquet was looking for another ship and bought her. He took her to Greece, where he spent some $60 million having her gutted out and completely rebuilt., including the environmental equipment necessary to operate in the Antarctic. An excellent job was done , and she is now a real ship (in comparison to the floating Hyatts) with no huge vertical/horizontal atriums etc but a camber on the deck and a nice sheer line. With a deep draft for her size and a heavy hull, and without one of the fancy bows to get damaged easily, she is a very good "sea-boat" which is nice to be when down in the Southern Ocean. i.e. the 'Roaring Forties', 'Screaming Fifties' & 'Shrieking Sixties' - all aptly named. With her extra large provision spaces she is probably the only optimum size ship which has the endurance to be able to do the extended Antarctic voyages with comfort and safety. She was boarded and inspected for compliance by the British Antarctic Ship 'Branscombe' earlier this season, and passed easily.

There have been some rather disparaging remarks about the 'luxury' MP from the eco-types who go on the so-called 'expedition' type ships, mostly Russian. That's great, if you like being stuffed three to a cabin with a washroom down the alleyway. Wear the same gear for a week, and how long do you really want to stay ashore anyway?. I can assure you, eye-balling one penguin from 15ft away is no different from the others - not even the experts can tell one gender from the other. They usually have a couple of Lecturers -we had 10 who gave over 70 talks and 6 expert zodiac drivers for additional safety. If you compare costs, then the MP is top value.


The Officers are mostly European and the rest of the crew from the Philippines. Some of them had been on the Pearl & Princess and the standard of service they had, has fortunately carried over to the MP. A happy crew, which this is, reflects in the pride they have in their ship, right from the Captain on down. The service they give would be hard to match anywhere.


Going..........Having read some of the horror stories about Terror (sorry Tower) Air which Orient had used in previous years, we were glad to find they had changed to American Trans Air this year for the charter flight to Ushuaia.They gave us a form asking for our seating preferences which we faxed back. We had an 0800 flight from YVR to HOU on Continental and another from there to MIA, where we were met and transferred to the Airport Wyndham. A noisy hotel with a lot of flights taking off right in front of it late into the night. Next evening the transfer back to the airport for the 2000 departure went smoothly, and we were only an hour late leaving due to cargo for the ship being loaded. It was a 1011 Tristar in good shape but typical charter there was 10 across seating. 3-4-3 which made for narrow seats. The meals were fine and the service good - no complaints. 8 1/2 hours to Buenos Aires, where we went through immigration and the plane refueled and then another 3 hours to Ushuaia. We stopped outside the new terminal and the buses were right alongside, just a few paces and we were on the way to the ship. A very good operation.

Coming..........Unfortunately not as well run as the above, but then we were in New Zealand. We left the ship at 0930 for our group and the bus driver told us his orders were to have us at the airport for 1200 for the 1330 flight on Air New Zealand to Aukland. He took us the long way round over the top into Christchurch where we had a short stop and then to the airport. A lot of people wanted to go to the International Antarctic Centre but it hadn't been scheduled, although fortunately it does have a store in the terminal which we all found, to at last get a few souvenirs. Once in the terminal, we picked up our bags and ran into complete chaos. Air New Zealand had only 2 counters open and they were totally unable to handle this bunch of passengers all wanting multiple boarding passes and baggage forwarded. Time was passing ,and the first in our line took 20 minutes so eventually they opened a couple more but these people were not regulars and they took a long time too (ours could 'not find us on the computer till someone showed him) Then the supervisor came along and said just give everyone a boarding pass to Aukland and they can sort it out there. Several couples ended up sitting apart and our seats were but we managed a swop. This was the only problem we had the whole trip. In Aukland we stood in another line-up for an hour and a half at United whilst all the boarding passes, seating arrangements, FF points and baggage were eventually sorted out.

A pretty good 12 hour flight into LAX, although it was a bit lumpy up to the Equator, which it usually seems to be. We usually don't like going through LAX as it means going through Customs & Immigration and doing baggage etc., whereas they have 'in-transit' at Honolulu. But, pleasant surprise, United now has an 'in-transit' lounge there. MUCH better arrangement. Just another 3 hours to YVR and home.

I guess because of the charter and block bookings Orient was not allowing any deviations this trip.


Jan.27th.......Arrived on board at 1230, checked in, along to cabin which is the same as last trip but on port side, quick look around and confirmed table with Dining Room Manager - for 2 in the centre of the room, also with a waiter we knew. Quick buffet lunch, and a short walk into town. They are extending the wharf to accommodate more traffic and it was full this afternoon.. It leads right into the centre of the town and is very convenient. Bought some postcards and stamps from the post office which accepts US$s at par. by the time we returned the bags were at the cabin so unpacked. Sailed at 2000 for Half Moon Bay, out through Beagle Channel, and dropped the pilot at 2400. Set course almost due south for the South Shetland Island across the notorious Drake's Passage. ( after nearly 400 years it has only recently been conceded that in fact Sir Francis Drake did indeed discover and land on Cape Horn instead of the Dutchman some 50 years later who named it after his home town of Hoorn. Queen Elizabeth declared it a State secret so he did'nt get the public credit he deserved.)

Jan.28th........Cloudy & clear with a NW'ly wind and rough sea which put it on the stbd quarter helping us along.

Jan.30th.........Arrived Half Moon Island. Wind 35/40Kts Easterly with a surf running on the beach, and snowing heavily. Turned around and headed for Deception Island, stop no.2. This is a very interesting place as it is the drowned top of a volcano or caldera, similar to Santorini for those who have been there. This one however has a very narrow entrance called Neptune's Bellows with a rock (called Ravn Rock) with only 10 ft. of water over it right in the middle. The Captain says that to make it even better there is a strong current running right across the entrance that actually lifts the ship a couple of feet as you cross it. On the port side going in there is a large Gentoo penguin colony and the rocks are stained red from a dye in the krill they eat. Inside the crater is about 7 mls across and surrounded by steep snow covered walls up to 2000ft high. Very spectacular. The ship goes to a place called Pendulum Cove which is where there are thermal pools in the seawater. It's possible to strip off and bathe in the warm water right at the beach. NOT today tho', the wind is 40/50 and the anchors won't hold in the sandy bottom and it's another no go after the beachmaster had had a look in a zodiac. So off again to the South towards Lemaire Channel.

Jan.30th..........Stopped at 0000 and drifted until 0530. Steamed down to Lemaire Channel but it was ice choked and snowing heavily so turned back to Port Lockroy. Temp. -3C. There is a British station here that is being restored and the 2 fellows came out to the ship with their stamp for the passport and some stamps for postcards, which they take with them at the end of the season and mail from Port Stanley in the Falklands. Our first landing was here at the Gentoo penguin rookery and everything went like clockwork. A large Leopard seal - females can be 12 feet long - played around and under our zodiac which is evidently unusual. After everyone was back off again to Lemaire channel which the chopper had reported was clear. This channel, some 7 miles long, is undoubtedly one of the great sights of Antarctica. It had turned into a beautiful day with blue skies and the ice had cleared away. We were really lucky as it lived up to it's nickname of "Kodak Gap" and twice before this year the MP had been unable to go through. At the south end is Hovgaard Island with a penguin colony and elephant seals can be seen. But, the ice was in on the beach so no landing. However, the scenery with the ice in the bay is spectacular so zodiac tours were laid on which were enjoyed in the sun, with seals, penguins and whales around.

Everyone back, it was North again through Lemaire Channel and Neumeyer Channel.

Jan.31st..............Paradise Harbour. At Waterboat Point there is a Chilian Station where they are most hospitable, and another penguin colony. Sailed for the Ross Sea after lunch.

Feb.1st.................1030. Crossed the Antarctic Circle for the first time Noon.Px. 66.40S 77.00W 2844 mls to go. Av.spd. 18.8Kts

Feb.2nd.................Passed Peter 1 Oy's about 5 mls off. One of the most isolated places on earth. Snowing heavily so couldn't see it. Noon.Px 68.08S 96.35W 2390 mls to go. Av.spd. 18.1Kts

Feb.3rd...................Noon.Px 67.28S 106.08W 2170 mls to go. Av.spd. 8.8Kts We had to go north again because of the pack ice in the Amundsen Sea being further North than usual. Wind a Westerly Gale with 25/30 ft. seas slowing us down to about 8kts.

Feb.4th....................Noon.Px. 66.36S 123.33W 2046 mls to go. Av.spd. 16.4Kts

Feb.5th....................Noon.Px. 56.32S 142.57W 1568 mls to go. Av.spd. 19.1Kts

Feb.6th.....................Noon.Px 65.50S 161.47W 1068 mls to go. Av.spd 18.8Kts

Feb.7th......................1100. Passed Scott Island which is on 180 E & W. Noon.Px 67.31S 179.41E 617 mls to go. Av.spd 18.1Kts Altered course to the south. Usually there is a gap in the belt of pack ice, which lies across the mouth of the Ross sea in the summer, around the 180 meridian. Not this year, so we are going to have to work our way through it. Entered the Pack at 1930, snowing.

Feb.8th.......................It wasn't. It did'nt exist. Disappeared for ever!!! We crossed the dateline.

Feb.9th........................It took about 8 hours to get through the pack which was about 40 mls wide. Noon.Px 70.14S 173.44E 533mls to go. Av.spd 8.8Kts

Feb.10th...................Noon.Px 77.33S 166.06E Av.spd. 18.96Kts. 1.0mls off Cape Royds. Arrived Cape Evans...ashore to see Scotts Hut from the 1911 Terra Nova Expedition. Lots of remains which are being preserved by the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage. This is what we came to the Ross Sea for.

Feb.11th....................Shifted up from Cape Evans to Cape Royds to see Shackletons Hut from the 1908 Nimrod Expedition. Also another penguin rookery. Similar preservation being done. 1300. The McMurdo resupply ship Green Wave passed outward bound. The American base had been using her presence there to say we couldn't come in. 1530 Departed Cape Royds to go north around Cape Bird and then East to have a look at the Ross Ice Shelf. It's 400 miles long and where we were about 100 ft. high. Remember there's about 7 times as much under the water as there is on top so here the actual thickness was about 800 feet. It was a beautiful evening but a strong wind coming right off the ice. Everyone was doing the usual, all bundled up in parkas and hiding around corners, then nipping out quickly to take pictures. There were lots of those as the Captain cruised along close to the ice face for a couple of hours. After 3 days of being close to Mt. Erebus and not seeing the famous plume, this evening it cleared and we could see it, and Mt. Terror as well.

Feb.12th...................At 0645 the Captain announced that we would not be making a landing at the US base at McMurdo. They said the basin was freezing over and the 5 mile channel through the fast ice was clogging. The US Coast Guard Icebreaker Polar Sea which was in McMurdo doing nothing advised it would not assist in any way. In other words we do NOT want you here so go away. In fact the Polar Sea came out to more or less make sure we did'nt even try - as soon as we turned away she went back in. The USCG was not very popular with the Americans on board that day.

77.47.7S OUR FURTHEST SOUTH............732.3 Miles from the SOUTH POLE

We steamed slowly along the edge of the fast ice where there were penguins, lots of birds, and orcas or killer whales. Then about 1100 we left for Terra Nova Bay. The ship had been in contact with the Italian Base there and even though they were packing up to leave in a couple of days they were very pleased to have us come. Noon.Px. 71.08S 170.20E McMurdo Sound

Feb.13th...................0630 Arrived at the Italian base and started the shore trips. Each group was escorted by one of the station staff who explained about everything they were doing there. The whole station was immaculate and it was obvious that they were proud to show it off to visitors. Cappuccino was available and everyone was given postcards, stickers and a very good booklet in English. Everyone enjoyed the visit and it was a beautiful sunny day. In the background was Mt. Melbourne the only active Volcano on the Continent (the others are on islands) 1230 Sailed for Cape Hallett and Cape Adare. East for a while then North again past Cape Washington. ( an Englishman who was secretary on the Royal Geographic Society in 1840 when it was one of the many places named by James Clark Ross

As someone said " on a scale of 10....United States A big fat 0 Italy 10 " Feb.14th...................Passed Cape Hallett in the morning and then Possession Is. and Cape Adare, the last point of land in Antarctica. Departure to Christchurch , New Zealand Noon.Px. 71.08S 170.20E 1664 mls to go. Av.spd 14k Large flocks of birds were picked up on the radar going North probably Antarctic petrels. Lots of large bergs off Cape Adare which we went through, and then we reached the pack ice again about 1800. More of it here than southbound, with some penguins to be seen. It gradually got thicker and actually took three hours to go the last couple of miles in 10/10ths ice. It was snowing heavily at the time and dark too. A fantastic sight. We cleared the last about 0400.

Feb.15th. 1100 Crossed the Antarctic Circle for the 4th. time. Noon.Px. 66.15S 172.39E 1369mls to go. Av.spd 12.4Kts Tonight was the Annual Scott Dinner with a fixed menu based on the dinner that Scott's Party were given in Cardiff on June 0th. 1910, before their last departure. Very good. 2300 Passed the last iceberg.

Feb.16th.....................0800 crossed the 60th. parallel - goodbye Antarctica. Noon.Px. 58.39S 172.38E 914mls to go. Av.spd 19.0Kts

Feb.17th......................Noon.Px 50.53S 173.03E 448mls to go ETA 1400/18th. Av.spd 19.5Kts. Went to the Captain's Fairwell Party. Captain Erik gave a great talk and sum-up of the cruise. He is talking of retiring next year and will be sorely missed by all when he does.

Feb.18th......................Noon.Px. 43.43S 173.20E 19mls to go. Av.spd 17.8Kts AIR TEMP 70F

1345 Picked up Pilot at entrance to Lyttleton Harbour. Berthed at Container Dock. A few people left but most will be away in the morning except those staying on to Aukland and Australia.

Feb.19th.......................Depart to airport.


This really was 'a trip of a lifetime' and one we will always remember even when the others fade. Marco Polo is certainly now at the top of our list of favorite ships, and we are keeping our fingers crossed that the rumours are correct that she is going to Northern Europe in the summers, instead of the Med. The overall service and food is hard to beat anywhere. Would we do this trip again?........probably not, but only because there are so many other places to go that we have'nt been to yet. Just a reminder.....if you are interested in going - book EARLY -or you won't get on.

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