Thomson Holidays will always have a special place in my heart. Back in the 1990s, I worked for them as a holiday rep on the Costa del Sol, and they were always a cut above the other tour operators with whom we vied, clipboards at the ready, in the arrivals lounge at Malaga Airport.
As keen cruisers will know, Thomson is now Marella – and I’m happy to say that the old company’s tradition of fun, good-value holidays for the British market continues at sea. I was even happier to try the experience for myself, with a week in the Med aboard the cruise line’s new adults-only ship, Marella Explorer 2.
My Grand Suite was every bit as impressive as it sounds: plush and spacious, with dark wood panelling, a generously proportioned lounge area, a walk-in wardrobe that would make Sex And The City’s Carrie seethe with envy and – my favourite feature – a bath as well as a separate shower cubicle.
A plate of fruit awaited me on arrival (the kind I love – ripe, juicy strawberries, naughtily covered in two kinds of chocolate) and this proved just a foretaste of the excellent service to come. No fewer than 45 different nationalities are represented among Marella Explorer 2’s crew, but they all work to the same high standard and they’re all incredibly friendly.
I got chatting to Aleksandra, from the Ukraine, who presides over the drinks station on the pool deck. Like all the other staff I met, she was unfailingly polite. Despite the fact that some guests clearly wanted to get value for money out of their all-inclusive packages, the atmosphere was never rowdy, and good-natured banter filled the air.
Another lady I met on my tour of the ship was Renata, from Macedonia, who works as a hairdresser at the Champneys salon on deck 11. She told me that some passengers are put off from visiting this shimmering oasis of tranquillity because they fear that such a well-known name means sky-high prices. In fact, rates are very reasonable compared to similar on-land facilities, making this a great way to experience an iconic brand without leaving too big a dent in your wallet.
And speaking of value, Marella’s new all-inclusive policy means free access throughout the day to all the regular dining rooms, together with all gratuities and a wide range of complimentary wines, beers, spirits and cocktails (there’s an option to upgrade to a premium drinks package if you have expensive tastes).
Also available at extra cost are the speciality restaurants – and let me tell you, they’re worth every penny. I especially liked Asian fusion restaurant Kora La, the brainchild of star chef Ian Pengelley. This takes its name from a mountain pass in the Himalayas, and that seems highly appropriate for a place where various Asian influences – including Indian, Thai and Vietnamese – are blended so deliciously together.
As you’d expect on a Brit-focused ship, there are plenty of curries on the menu, each served as spicy – or as mild – as you like. And the charge is just £25 per person – again, much less than you’d pay on land.
Among the eight eateries on board Marella Explorer 2, there’s also The Dining Club, a tastefully appointed foodie haven where a seven-course food-and-wine pairing menu is offered for £45 per person, and the standard menu (which changes every week) costs just £35.
This is seriously good food served with panache: I opted for rosewood-smoked king prawn cocktail and a main course of tournedos Rossini, that steakhouse classic, which came with an exquisite piece of foie gras (apologies to our vegan readers)
I was feeling distinctly full by the time it came to dessert, but I decided that in the interests of research I simply had to try the Madagascan vanilla soufflé – and boy, am I glad I did – it was deliciously creamy but as light as air.
Next, with the ship entering Italian waters, it was time to try out Explorer 2’s Italian dining experience, Vista. This is the first-floor section of the main waiter-service restaurant, Latitude 53, and it offers a choice of regional dishes, including a divine spaghetti carbonara from Lazio that is freshly mixed in an enormous hollowed-out Parmesan cheese and served table-side.
After such a feast I promised myself to give the dessert trolley a miss, but when I saw they were offering two of my favourites – tiramisu and key lime pie – as part of a tempting trio, I must confess that my resolve gave way.
Fortunately, not all the food aboard Marella Explorer 2 is so rich. There are plenty of healthy choices on offer, including nutritious boxed salads at the Snack Shack, so there’s no need to walk on as a passenger and roll off as cargo, as an old cruise buddy of mine used to joke.
Between all those delicious meals there are plenty of onboard activities to ensure that guests are never bored on sea days, including poker, comedy gigs, music quizzes, bingo and crafts. Sports fans, meanwhile, can play a round of golf at some of the world’s most famous courses, via the simulator at the 19th Hole bar.
Evening shows are all part of the traditional cruising experience, and theatre fans won’t be disappointed by Revive – a steampunk-style extravaganza that blends the tale of a lost theatrical troupe with modern-day music from a variety of artists, including Queen and the Beach Boys. The effect is mesmerising, accompanied by some well-executed choreography and truly dazzling aerial displays.
This being a Mediterranean itinerary, trips ashore are pretty sensational, too, and guests can enjoy superb excursions to Rome, Florence, Pisa and the Emerald Coast of Sardinia.
I’ve been lucky enough to travel on a fair few cruise lines, but in my cabin – amid all the regular marketing material for excursions and room service – I noticed something new: a ‘smiletinerary’.
This light-hearted pamphlet offers a range of happiness-related suggestions, from the beverage-based (grab a ‘Grin & Tonic’ at the bar) and the health-conscious (enjoy a ‘smiletox’ from roaming massage therapists) to the endearingly silly (‘random acts of smileness’, whereby if one of the crew spots a guest with a grin, that person may be in line to receive a present).
I hope Marella has plenty of gifts handy because on a fun-packed floating holiday resort like this, everyone has plenty to smile about.
Get on board
7-night ‘Mediterranean Gems’ cruise aboard Marella Discovery 2, round trip from Naples via Palamos (Spain), Cote d’Azur, Livorno, Civitavecchia and Sardinia, departing 8 July 2020, from £1,083 including flights, tui.co.uk/cruise