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Article from TNU DECEMBER 2023


Carnival Corporation with P&O & Carnival, Malcolm Ginsberg on Iona and Chris Tarry with Queen Mary 2 and the Literature Festival at Sea.  

But we start with the suggestion that if your cruise takes in Bordeaux, either by river cruise or deep sea, take a look at Jeff Mill's visit to the wine capital of the world.  Chris Tarry reports on his QM2 crossing of the Atlantic, a stormy November trip.

Readers may recall that the November issue for Travel News Update was supposed to review P&O’s Arvia, in fact celebrating one year in service.  All booked and confirmed.

The Editor-in-Chief and wife were due off Saturday 14 October, but as a precaution a Covid test was taken before leaving London for Southampton.  It proved positive.  The cruise was cancelled, claiming on insurance.  This is his tale.

By Friday 20 October all was OK and we secured the last available booking on sister ship Iona, this time seven days to Hamburg visiting Rotterdam for an overnight and Zeebrugge, rather than 12 nights across the Bay of Biscay as far as Lisbon.

P&O Iona can be best described as efficient and well run, without heart, but lively!  We never saw a member of the ship’s senior executive team during the whole trip.  Compare that to NCL and Royal Caribbean.  With those lines the hotel team are always around, watching and communicating with guests.

We had extra excitement on our trip, at Southampton a lithium battery exploding in a wheelchair, with no injury to the occupant and very quicky dealt with by the well-trained emergency team.  

At 05:00 cruising south from Hamburg the Captain woke us all up with the announcement that the ship had stopped due to a third-party incident nearby in fog.  Soon on the news channels, but nothing from the bridge until about 11:00.  

Both cargo ships, the Bahamas-registered Polesie and the British-flagged Verity, had collided resulting in the Verity sinking with one dead and four missing.  Iona stood close by to offer medical and hospital facilities and a landing pad for the helicopters quickly on the scene.  At last an announcement came from the Bridge around 16:00 that we were continuing on our way.  At 20 knots Rotterdam was reached on time the next morning.

Now for the trip.

Unless you have a luxury cabin or are disabled (and looked after very well), even with 5,200 passers, including 1,000 (mainly well-behaved) children, boarding at the Ocean Terminal was very smooth.  Just a little patience is required.

The secret to being on board is the My Holiday app, tuned in on your iPhone, in airplane mode.  It tells you most things you need to know.

The late booking proved a godsend, our outside standard cabin, without a balcony, on deck five, but by the lifts, spa and one deck up to the Headliners Theatre.  The small balcony space was given over to a large window and couch.  For a winter trip in northern Europe open air access was not missed.  

What was omitted, presumably as a cost cutting exercise, was a shaver plug in the bathroom.  No soft close toilet seats either, nor anywhere else on the ship.  Wardrobe space was adequate for a short trip but there was no drawer under the dressing table, always very useful.  

A room service cold breakfast is provided if required, and the cabin menu showed plenty of reasonably priced bites, and what was called ‘nighttime nibbles’.  We did not try the much-heralded Starlink wi-fi, priced £18 per day.  There is a ship’s phone in the cabin, but no instructions on how to use or emergency numbers.  These can be found in Horizon, the ship’s daily programme and on the television.

For the hordes of children on board the Reef and Scene provides well organised relief for parents, except eating times, a night nursery up to midnight and activities until 13:00 for teenagers.  Sadly, no chance to interview staff!

Iona is Green and powered by liquid gas.  On board were a couple of P&O technical experts dealing with environmental matters.  A talk on the way the design of the ship deals with matters such as pollution at sea and dealing with waste might have been well supported.  MSC do. No port talks either but the ship’s programme is designed to keep all passengers very busy from dawn to late at night.  Many of course were connected commercially to selling a product or service. “The Hair Show” typifies.

A highlight of any cruise is the Captain’s reception on the first sea night, black tie and the senior staff lined up to meet the guests.  With a 4-star ship (according to Douglas Ward) Prosecco and some form of canapés would be available.  Not so with this American-owned cruise line, part of the Carnival Corporation.  The smart evening was the second and final sea day, and a single drink voucher given.  Nothing more. No behind the scene tours either, even to pay for.  

The cabin service was limited to either a morning or evening visit, and whilst the staff were very helpful (a broken shower hose replaced in next to no time), not a single member of the executive crew was spotted during the whole week. Captain Andrew Wolverson usually did the loudspeaker noon roundup.

Centre piece of the whole ship is the lively Sky Dome, spread over two decks, with a small swimming pool in the centre which closes late afternoon to become a stage for live performances and DJ parties under the stars.  It was also the venue for an impressive ariel show.

One of many entertainment spots on the ship the 900-seat Headliners Theatre offers three shows every evening which you are supposed to book for via the App.  Enter via Deck 6 where there is no entry check!  The shows themselves are described as contemporary, the opening evening called ‘Digital’, all AI and virtual reality.  Plenty   dancing and singing but no band with very simple sets.

When it comes to dining P&O claim to have 30 eating and drinking places on board.  

You will not go hungry, and the quality is quite good.  

No free ice-creams unlike some of its competitors and no queuing once you have worked out the system.  For the four main restaurants, all serving the same menu, just book your dining time on the App, you will be warned that the table is ready 15 minutes out, and amble down to the entry desk.  We never waited.  

For more casual eating the Horizon Restaurant on deck 16 provides self-service and plenty of table space.  On deck 8 at “The Quays” you have a choice of fast-food serveries with fish and chips, Asian or American, again with plenty of space to sit down.  

The Olive Club is Mediterranean style and included, whilst Sindu is described as Indian contemporary for which there is an extra charge.  This is also the same with The Limelight Club with a limited three-course meal (a bread roll could not be provided) and a singer/comedian.  Late in the evening it becomes a proper nightclub, with band.

The Epicurean provides fine dining (at a price) dishes inspired by British and Norwegian ingredients to reflect many of Iona’s itineraries.  

Iona’s multi-million pound art collection was curated by art expert Tom Tempest-Radford to complement and enhance the ship’s interior design. It continues the long-held P&O tradition of supporting British artists.  The art reflects key elements and characteristics behind Iona’s design. The collection, comprising of more than 4,600 pieces of artwork by 61 artists.  And if you are really into art, or not, an interesting talk by the art sales team on LS Lowry was well supported by guests, likewise Banksy. Clarendon Fine Art have a gallery on board.

Very novel were four 40-seat high quality preview cinemas called Ocean Studios which throughout the day showed a mixture of classics and recent blockbusters, and in my case Crystal Palace v Tottenham Hotspur (2-1 Spurs).  Seat availability is shown on a display outside the entrance, actually sitting on a seat activating the display to indicate it is occupied. Brilliant.

The first gin distillery at sea can be found within Anderson’s Bar and Library. The gin is produced in Iona’s gin still ‘Columba’ named after the sixth century founder of the abbey on the island of Iona. You can of course buy.

Lt Colonel Graham Jones gave a couple of fine talks on the way the army treats music with much emphasis on the Cenotaph Remembrance Day service, and a reminder that the late Queen made the suggestion to play the Star Spangled Banner outside Buckingham Place on 9/11.

Our port calls included Hamburg, a rebuilt lovely water surrounded city, best seen in the short time available on an open top bus, with blue skies for our visiting day.

At Rotterdam the cruise terminal is in the city close by public transport. We took the bus up to the Maritime Museum which was really all about offshore exploration and very well done. 

Moored nearby as a hotel, conference centre and museum ship, is the SS Rotterdam, a real ocean liner and splendidly preserved.  Built in 1956 it is a contemporary of the long-scrapped Canberra.  

Zeebrugge is fine for a day at Bruges.  Having been several times, and grey skies, we gave it a miss. (see BTN

How do you sum up one of P&O’s largest ships?

Pricing is reasonable and new cruisers are likely to be well satisfied.  P&O regulars will groan at the cost-cutting and menu choice reduction.  But order as many courses as you like.  The standard sirloin steak is but 5oz.  Ask for two.  The waiters will not blink an eyelid.  No chocolates on your pillow at night.  It was not missed.

P&O’s now elderly Aurora and Arcadia offer ‘no children cruises’ and have been thoroughly modernised.  Maybe another time?  And with wi-fi.  And I can order kosher food too!”

A record two million UK passengers will take a cruise this year.  P&O epitomises what’s on offer and gives fine value for money.  Don’t be put off by size of Iona (and Arvia), but they are not for everyone!

More Carnival

As a postscript to this piece, and for the record, the Editor-in-Chief took his family on Carnival Pride in July for a trip that included Edinburgh and Belfast. Sadly the cruise was initially cancelled due to technical problems and then resurrected offering six nights rather than nine.  Agent Cruise Nation proved reluctant in initially reimbursing for the three days lost, whilst Carnival, having paid accommodation for transit passengers stuck in London, have been less than generous with UK residents, also with lodgings and facilities problems.  Negotiations are still going on after four months. Perhaps the fear of class actions has prompted settlement for US residents.  Not so it seems the British.

Images courtesy Carnival Group and Chris Tarry.



Chris Tarry was on  board towards the end of November and had a simply wonderful time.

Would the Tarry’s do it again?

• Travel with Cunard?

• Book for the crossing that is the Literature Festival at Sea?

The answer is yes to both, and they have.

A full report follows in the January Travel News Update

And book quicky if you fancy the experience. It was a full ship.

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