If there is one thing that sends me hurtling back to childhood it is travelling with my mother. But she needed a break, and a five-night cruise sailing from Tilbury (no stressful airports) to Amsterdam, Rouen and Antwerp, seemed to fit the bill. And I thought I would take the risk and tag along.
So it was that I found myself sipping an afternoon cocktail in a hot tub on the top deck of the Marco Polo all by myself. The ship was sailing on the river Seine towards Rouen, and from my vantage point I could see pretty towns, a chateau or two, and the sheep looking non-plussed as they grazed on the landscape that inspired Monet. It felt indulgent.
The thing is, this was October and yes, it was a bit nippy, and that’s why my mother didn’t join me. Neither did she see the romance of sea air wafting through her hair while taking a cream tea on deck. She preferred the bingo.
In any case, I wasn’t worried. After all, the Marco Polo is not a big ship — just 22,000 tons (a midget compared to some liners). Yet it packs in two restaurants, five lounges, a library, card room, outdoor pool, three hot tubs and a spa.
This was our second day and by now many of the stewards, not to mention many of the other guests, were pretty well-acquainted with my mother. At our first dinner at the formal dining Waldorf restaurant, she had asked for an avocado. A look of disappointment when told there was none to be had prompted Liza, our steward, to offer to nip into town when we arrived in Amsterdam. Sure enough the next night at dinner, there was the avocado. Only for a mother does this sort of thing happen.
Oh, and did I mention mothers are always right? Like when we took boat trip along an Amsterdam canal. The lunch was as lavish as any they serve up on these trips, but none of it was quite good enough for her to actually eat.
And then there was the time we decided to tour Rouen on foot. They forecast rain. She wore sandals claiming comfort over dryness.
And at the cheese and beer tasting (yes, you heard) in Antwerp, she decided she really did want to join in and taste what was on offer. A ride home in a tuc-tuc with your elderly mum giggling away like one of the girls? OK, but what the hell — I loved to see her happy.
The fact that the ship is such a home-from-home also helped. Most of the time I spend with my mother is in her front room — eating her cakes and drinking her tea. No change there then, though someone else baked and brewed — and there were more than a few “front rooms” to try on board.
Marco Polo, unlike the larger, plusher, newer liners, has had an intriguing past. It started life in 1965 as a Russian ship called Alexander Pushkin and, though quaintly named after a writer, it was decked out in a grim Soviet style.
By the ’70s it was being used as a budget-priced cruise ship. All that austerity disappeared when she defected to a British company in 1991, when Gerry Herrod, founder of Ocean Cruise Lines, bought her. Two years and millions of dollars later, the ship emerged as the Marco Polo, sailing for Orient Lines. In 2010 Cruise and Maritime took her over, offering a variety of sailings from the UK, including around the Norwegian fjords and a 42-night cruise to the Amazon — and, of course, this short break cruise. The ship’s size means it can sail along rivers and dock in small harbours, such as at Antwerp, where we were able to disembark directly into the town.
The on-board experience was homely and unpretentious and though billed as three-star, it delivered far more than expected. There was no casino, no pressure to buy anything on board and it was adults only. There is evening entertainment a mix of cabaret, music and comedy and a versatile cruise director who can present, tell jokes (“this announcement is for the guy who lost his Rolex watch — the time now is 2.30pm”) and sing. There’s also an extremely funny magician.
But my mother missed all that, preferring to repair to the bedroom to enjoy quiet time after busy day trips, playing games, eating fine foods, and I might add, drinking the odd pina colada.
We shared a twin-bed cabin with a small shower-room and a satisfactory amount of cupboard space to cater for the ample contents of the luggage belonging to two Jewish women who carry too much for fear of have nothing to wear — especially on formal night.
You can imagine the scene — the question “how do I look in this?” ping-ponged between us as we tried on several outfits. Incidentally, as was the norm when the ship was built, none of the rooms have a balcony, but what this ship does have is a lovely wrap-around deck that harks back to bygone days.
Unlike mum, I not only enjoyed the shows but then went to the disco in the Marco Polo lounge for a tipple and a wiggle on the dance floor.
I admit I got back to the room way past midnight one night, but was shocked to see my mother waiting up for me. “I just called you,” she said. “I was worried that you were out so late.” As incredulous as it sounds I found myself apologising (I am, after all, a mother myself). But boy, was it worth it.