“Britannia”- a name to conjure with. Everything that is unashamedly British is summed up in the name. It’s regal, grand: Britannia rules the waves. P&O must have rubbed their hands in glee at the prospect of so naming their newest and largest ship. So here then is my personal assessment of P&O’s flagship.
The proof of the pudding is, as they say, in the eating. And the food was simply delicious – I’ll come to that. First, however, straight to the nub. How did the ship perform at sea?
We departed Southampton on our two week cruise of the Canaries, Spain and Morocco. And we ran slap bang into a Force 9 gale that assailed the ship for 48 hours, blocking off the outside areas and testing this state of the art ship in the stormy waters of the English Channel and through to the Bay of Biscay.
I have no idea at all about the latest nautical technology, gyros, stabilizers or the like. What I can affirm is that P&O’s new ship “Britannia” rode out the storm like the lady she is, all stately and elegant. Naturally some folk availed themselves of the convenient paper bags presented for our in-cruise entertainment on all the stairwells and corridors but the restaurants were well filled throughout the storm and the dance floor stable enough for me to emerge right side up as my dear wife and I charged the dance floor during our Quickstep.
So hats off to the design team and engineers. They may well take some stick elsewhere in this review though certainly not for that most essential ingredient – performance at sea.
Our cabin was slightly larger than the average on Britannia with a rather shallow balcony. The decoration was modern, light and airy. (Indeed, from what I could see when sneaking a peep at our neighbours’ quarters, the inside cabins would be perfectly light enough to withstand claustrophobic tendencies, though of course I am unable to make any genuine medical prognosis.) The shower room was as in all similar ships albeit the shower cubicle itself was large enough to swing a wet luffa. It also had a proper shower door and not just some soggy, bedraggled curtain. The interactive television and media provision were much superior to other ships in the P&O fleet. Oh, and let me say that the beds were comfortable, the air conditioning quietly efficient, and our cabin steward diligent in the extreme.
We chose Freedom Dining. Many passengers do these days and Britannia devoted most of its silver service dining to those requiring flexibility in their dining habits. I did read elsewhere on Silver Travel Advisor an article that proclaimed Silver Service was “plummeting” on P&O. I’m not one to disagree with fellow critics myself but let me say the comment is hogwash. Certainly on Britannia the food was so good that we did not need to sample the other premium dining options. (We did, by the way, hear fantastic comments from those who had dined elsewhere, the Sindhu coming in for particular praise.) My wife is a vegetarian and her menu options were exemplary. For my part, I’ll single out the Marco Pierre White inspired Beef Wellington as the meal of the cruise. My wife turned her nose at the rare beef. My nostrils also twitched, if for entirely different reasons.
We ate in the Meridian restaurant, a design success with its large expanse broken up into attractive “rooms”, lending a sense of intimacy to proceedings. New ship but experienced crew, the mainly Indian waiters provided their customary efficient and friendly service. They are a priceless asset of the cruise line.
I would be less than honest if I did not mention the problem with the lifts in the central area. Seven decks are devoted to cabins. In their wisdom the designers dispensed with a central staircase, providing six lifts, one of which was out of action for the entire cruise. At times of peak usage, such as first or second sitting for dinner, or when we arrived at port, the lift areas were awash with frustrated would-be lift travellers. Jan and I would normally have just used the stairs, which we did in the Forward and Aft areas, incurring a long walk along the corridors. Passengers with mobility issues, and there were many, would not have that luxury.
“Lift Rage” became commonplace. Normally quiet, retiring folk were transformed, beeping the lift buttons continually with absolutely no effect at all other than to break the blessed things. Beep… beep… beep to accompany the expletives. I am one to exaggerate but I’m not here.
That said, we quickly learned to use the outer staircases and lifts at busy times. However were I to have mobility issues I would consider a cabin away from the central area. Alternatively, I’d take the Michael Winner approach and not panic, dear. The lifts do eventually arrive and a cruise is not for rushing.
What other delights may I promise to counter the lift issue? Well let’s mention children. There were over six hundred on board and, truthfully, they were almost inconspicuous, not something one can normally say about kids today. Well marshalled by parents and dedicated staff, usually dressed impeccably for the formal evenings, utterly consumed by the sheer bliss of it all, the children disappeared as if by magic into the voluminous luxury of this huge ship. So impressed were we with this aspect of the ship that we booked the whole family (12 at the last count) to sail on Britannia a year later!.
Every outside cabin on Britannia has a balcony. Although a wondrous achievement, it does come at something of a cost. For starters there is no promenade deck in the sense that we know it. Travel upwards to the sixteenth deck however and there is a dedicated walking deck, embracing, say, a third of the length of the ship, seven circuits of which constitute a mile. During my exercise periods I found I lost count after, oh I don’t know, half a lap….
There is a large gym full of the latest equipment to whittle away at the stomach after all those Beef Wellingtons. No free sauna sadly, that privilege being reserved for those who paid for “The Retreat”. I telephoned for a quote and blanched at the cost of the package for the duration of the cruise. Only on the last day did I discover there is a free steam room by the gym.
With four swimming pools on board it is worth noting that the Serenity Pool is reserved for adults; indeed there is also an exclusively adult quiet area that, were one lucky enough to secure a sun lounger, would have been lovely. I never succumbed to lift rage myself. Mind you, I did have moments when I very nearly was swept along with “blue bathing towel rage” as I questioned the right of folk to secure a premium perch with a free towel and a well thumbed paperback. Grr.
Frankly, the various open decks more or less coped with the numbers. But for those who crave a sun bed, clamber up to deck 19 where an empty deck awaits. (It is not shown on the plan and therefore does not exist.)
Entertainment on board was pretty comprehensive in its range around the ship. It is even possible to pay a cover charge in the The Limelight Club for quality entertainment. In the Headliners Theatre I would have preferred a few more conventional shows from the on-board team. We were treated to three high tempo, magnificently staged shows from the ship’s company of singers and dancers, full of special effects and pyrotechnics. A personal view here but I didn’t particularly enjoy their choice of music despite the stunning standard of the musicians. In catering for the youngsters under fifty, please, P&O, don’t forget the traditional musicals. Youngsters like them too. The performers in the theatre were varied. Praise indeed for Jimmy James (not with his Vagabonds), a Four Seasons tribute act, a ventriloquist and a couple of French gymnasts who reached the heights. There were other more modest acts however and generally the feeling amongst the passengers was that they preferred the full shows. Usually one might expect six on a two week cruise; we had only the three.
Passengers choose their favourite venues on board Britannia. There are many options. Ours was the elegant Crystal Room where an absolutely first rate band played for the many dancers. Dance floors have steadily got smaller on modern cruise ships. On “Azura” the dancing area has been whittled away to a mere afterthought in the Atrium. In the Crystal Room it is a fair size but what drew people to it was the sheer quality of the eight piece band and singer. Passengers filled the room just to listen to the band and admire my footwork on the floor. Or one of the two.
The design of the entire ship is as one might expect, modern and contemporary, like some stylish coffee house, with mocha, cream and a dash of blue for a colour scheme. The atrium is rectangular and a meeting place for those who like their coffee Costa, and a cream bun to tide them over between meals. Arranged over three floors it comprises coffee counter and accoutrements on one floor, quite up-market shops on another and a bar on another. Very stylish, but my experience is limited. I did sample the “Tester” once or twice in the perfume and aftershave shop, never touched the coffee and used the bar as a corridor. We sat in the Atrium only once to listen to the captain’s rousing speech and drink a gin and tonic. Or two.
On a sea days we whiled away our time taking both dance and Spanish lessons. It was in the latter that I learnt to speak with a lisp, slur my words together, speak quickly, roll my tongue over the rrr’s and never say “Grassy Arse” to a waiter again. In the well attended dance class we were taught by two outstanding teachers, Paula and her new American husband, Bob. One highlight on the penultimate evening was Paula introducing us all to her old dance partner of nearly thirty years ago. It turned out to be the suave figure of the popular Cruise Director, Neil Oliver. A voyage highlight. They still had it big time.
We enjoyed the cruise on Britannia so much that we have already booked another. One or two passengers were surprised the ship was too big. It’s a bit like ordering the Game of Thrones box set and expecting The Darling Buds of May. The ship is large enough to lose yourself in, be that reading a paperback on deck or in one of the many public spaces. I found everything logically laid out. Once I worked out which way was forward and which aft I never got lost. Or rather I did but enjoyed the journey anyway.