Travel

Marella Discovery returns to international cruises: All you need to know about the ship

Marella Cruises was the first British cruise line to restart fly-cruises after last year’s Covid closedown and I was lucky enough to join the ship on one of its last sailings before it heads west to the Caribbean. Despite news that the UK’s strict travel protocols were to be eased some time in October they were still in place when I flew to Corfu and – just as crucially – so were equally rigid EU rules.

What’s it like onboard?

It’s wonderful onboard. Marella Discovery is a very happy ship, from the good-humoured captain Chris Dodds down to the exuberant staff constantly cleaning the ship – in particular my cabin steward May – or serving in the bars and restaurants.

At full capacity Discovery can take 1,830 passengers but when I was onboard it was only half full – up from 40 per cent full at the beginning of September. Numbers will be increased gradually with up to 85 per cent of passengers expected by December, if all continues to go well.

The success of Discovery’s Covid protocols has been helped by the willingness of passengers to follow the rules, wearing masks at all times except in their own cabins, on the pool deck or when sitting down to eat or drink. I didn’t see anybody deliberately flaunt this, even though most of us hate wearing masks, and recording daily temperature at thermal screening stations was extraordinarily easy – you just scan your cabin card and stand close enough for the screen to take your temperature. Anybody over 38C has to return to their cabin and medical staff are automatically alerted to visit you, take your temperature again and if it’s still high give you another PCR test.

The only pressure is that you have to remember to get scanned every day before 4pm or your cabin card is suspended, which would mean no free drinks in the bar. Top tip to avoid a medical alert is to make sure you’re not carrying a hot drink when you stand in front of the screen.

The constant test-taking is as much a challenge for the crew as it is for passengers but they do their best to help those who are struggling with the paperwork. Crew members volunteered to help us register the antigen test we needed to do the day before leaving the ship, so that check-in at Corfu airport would go as smoothly as possible. There was also an instruction video on the TV in your cabin.

Those who forgot to bring the test could pay £15 for a ship’s test and certificate, and this was also available for people without smart phones who couldn’t download the negative test certificates sent to them by whichever company they were signed up with. I opted for this myself, even with a smart phone, because I wanted to make sure I had a certificate. The pre-departure certificate didn’t reach me before flying from Gatwick and I was only allowed to check in after taking an NHS test that I’d taken with me in case of problems.

The other stressful paperwork was filling in a UK Government Passenger Locator Form, which was slightly more complicated than the Greek one. Again, Marella crew helped those who needed it and advised taking screenshots of these to avoid getting in a flap at the airport.

The WOW factor

It has to be the price. For less than £800 per person on Discovery’s Greek island itineraries, Marella Cruises has been offering return flights, standard cabins, all meals except in speciality restaurants and a selection of free wines and spirits in restaurants and bars. Also, there are no gratuities and you can upgrade to a premium all-inclusive deal to get a better choice of wines and spirits plus free barista-made coffee.

Prices for Discovery’s all-inclusive 7-night Caribbean cruises, round-trips from Barbados, start at just over £1,000 per person including flights.

Staterooms

Marella Discovery joined Marella Cruises’ fleet in 2016 from Royal Caribbean, so cabin interiors were updated only five years ago and have a palette of light blues, greys and greyish-browns.

There are 357 balcony cabins of various sizes, from standard to suites, plus 230 outside cabins with picture windows or portholes and 328 inside cabins of different sizes. Single cabins and family cabins or suites are also available and 12 cabins are wheelchair accessible. All have tea and coffee-making facilities, TVs, hairdryers and safes but you need an adaptor for plugs.

I was lucky enough to have a Junior Suite with a king-size bed and sofa that could be turned into a double bed if necessary. The floor-to-ceiling glass doors to the balcony flooded the cabin with light and the bathroom had a bath with overhead shower, although most cabins only have a shower of varying sizes.

There was more than enough storage room for two people and suites come with other benefits such as one complimentary cabin breakfast a week, a coffee machine, Clarins toiletries and two loungers on the balcony as well as two chairs.

The only effect of Covid protocols was that crew members couldn’t come into the cabin while we were in there and if you asked for anything to be brought to your room it would have to be left outside.

Dining

All the restaurants were operating with Covid protocols such as wearing masks until seated, being directed to the hand spray machine, leaving some tables out of use to maintain social distancing and restricting passengers to eating only with their travel group.

Islands, the pool-deck buffet restaurant, had a one-way system with a member of staff standing by the hand spray machine to make sure everybody used it – and everybody did. Food was served by staff, which is standard practice on all cruise ships now, and hopefully it’s helping to reduce food waste as well as keeping bugs at bay.

The main dining room, 47, also maintained social distancing and followed “the rule of six”, so if your travel group was bigger than this you were split up. Most people were in couples, so it wasn’t a problem, but it was a shame for people who enjoy getting to know others during lively meals and worst of all for solo passengers, who had to eat alone.

Gallery 47, the top layer of the main dining room, is an Italian restaurant and The Glass House has tables and chairs two sides of the glass-roofed indoor pool for lunch and dinner, although numbers were very limited. Lunch at The Glass House included freshly made salads that were available with chicken and chips, pizza or pasta daily, with an equally simple tapas choice in the evening – although you could also pay for skewers of meat or fish.

The Snack Shack served probably the best fish and chips I’ve tasted at sea (small portions but you could go back for more) as well as chicken and chips, salads and sandwiches.

Then there were the speciality restaurants with cover charges of just under £30 per person all on deck 11 around the intimate Bar Eleven lounge. I liked the Pan Asian restaurant Kora La best, in particular the scallop and crab Shui Mai dumpling and chicken bhuna gosht curry from a menu designed by British chef Ian Pengelley.

Tucked into a corner of Kora La is a sushi bar and on the other side of the lounge is Surf & Turf Steakhouse, where the menu runs through several types of steak, chicken and lamb to lobster tail, salmon and tuna.

You can also pay for cookies and cakes at the Coffee Port café, where you can buy some of the best barista coffee I’ve tasted at sea and borrow a book from the small library.

Lifestyle

Discovery is not a party ship but it’s good fun, thanks partly to the free drinks, but also to the traditional British cruise offerings of quizzes and competitions round the pool by day and more quizzes and competitions in the bars at night.

If organised fun is not your thing, though, you can escape to the Glass House pool, which is under glass and was refurbished in March 2021 with new curtained cabanas, sun loungers and sofas to create a sophisticated beach club vibe.

The Veranda, at the back of deck 9, is adults-only and next to the tranquil Oceans Spa and Oceans Gym, which are near the Glass House. There’s no charge to use the Veranda or the well-equipped gym, although the gym was limited to 18 users during one-hour slots that you had to book to use. Normally there are no restrictions.

Similarly, the deck pool was limited to 24 users and the Glass House pool to 20, with only two people allowed in the hot tubs at one time unless they were in the same travel group – then it was four.

Oceans Spa offered a range of facials and massages that are quite reasonably priced for a cruise ship as well as very professionally delivered. For the brave there were dermal filler treatments to roll back the years, acupuncture to treat aches and pains and teeth whitening to bring a smile to your face.

Ship’s excursions were available in every port and most also had a shuttle service by local buses for a few euros each way.

Entertainment

Because of Covid protocols as much as possible was taking place on the pool deck, and cruise director Matthew Shaw was a star performer – particularly in the first night’s Sail & Shine Party on the pool deck when he led the singing and dancing. Filipino band The 4 Tunes were superb, popping up twice a night at the Squid & Anchor pub, with more music at the Live Room where there’s a grand piano near the bar and a small stage. And the Broadway Show Lounge had lavish performances almost every night, with an excellent cast of singers and dancers. Because of Covid protocols, though, you had to be seated by staff at the start of the show and late arrivals were discouraged.

There was also a bit of dancing in the stylish Atrium, where the bar is a good pre-dinner drinks spot, but I really liked the old-fashioned game shows in the Squid & Anchor. Love & Marriage is a Marella take on Mr & Mrs, while Liars Club is similar to Call My Bluff.

In the wrong hands they could have been a yawn-fest but this talented entertainment team got laughs from those of us old enough to remember the TV shows (and the Thomson Cruises versions) as well as the younger crowd, some of whom were new-to-cruise thanks to Covid closures that were still keeping them out of other holiday destinations.

Fact box

Marella Discovery has been homeporting in Corfu since September but is off to the Caribbean in November offering 7-night round-trip cruises from Barbados. Itineraries vary but its all-inclusive Tropical Delights cruise, departing November 14, 2021, calls at St Lucia, Grenada, Bonaire, Aruba and Curacao. Prices start from £1,070 including return flights with cruise and stay options available.


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