Often the dreaded downside of connecting with an overseas cruise is lugging around baggage and the transfer arrangements. Expecting a fair degree of hassle before boarding the ship we decided to treat ourselves with valet parking at Gatwick so simply drove up to the departure terminal and left the car with a man from I Love Meet & Greet. It was only a bit extra over standard parking but no standing in the gloom, struggling on and off buses – a real sense of luxury.
Entering the packed departure hall what a surprise to find a dedicated P&O Cruises check-in desk and no queue. Bags were tagged and we didn’t see them again until we entered our cabin onboard ship.
As usual I expected the long haul flight to be something endured rather than enjoyed but our Thomson charter was a Dreamliner. This was my first trip on a Dreamliner and my first experience of a genuine improvement in long haul economy flying – I could stretch my legs out fully, it was quieter, faster, the entertainment system WAS entertaining and even the food was decent for an airline.
Landing in Bridgetown, Barbados we bypassed immigration, customs and baggage collection because we were meet by buses on the tarmac that whisked us directly to the ship where security and boarding was swiftly and efficiently handled. With several trips around the world under my belt I’ve never experienced such a fabulously hassle-free long haul journey.
The Caribbean’s best (high) season is from December – April when it’s hot and dry; from May – November it can be very hot, muggy and wet, with the risk of hurricanes from July-November. We arrived in December and only got caught out in one tropical downpour, the rest of the time it was a perfect 80 degrees.
The Ventura is a vast ship of up to 3,200 mostly British passengers arriving on flights from Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow. It’s a family oriented ship, classy but not in the least snobby. Our fellow passengers were as an eclectic a group as imaginable – mostly couples in the older age group but also young families, middle aged and young couples and singles. There were people who preferred the buffet and fast food outlets to the elegant dining rooms and the Wetherspoons style pub to the sophisticated cocktail lounge – something to suit everyone.
The six silver service dining restaurants are complemented by three buffet restaurants plus a pizzeria and fast food outlets – if you can find it in a city you can find it onboard Ventura. There are almost as many bars as restaurants from elegant cocktail lounges to a classic British pub called the Exchange and what a pleasure to see no overpricing of drinks, which were priced the same as home.
As well as a large theatre, cinema, nightclub, casino and plenty of shops there are four swimming pools (two are adults only) and for night owls one of the buffet restaurants is open throughout the night. For some passengers life onboard seemed so good that some never left the ship.
It took quite a few days before we stopped getting lost in what amounted to a small town, with miles of corridors, but staff were everywhere so there was always someone to point us in the right direction. Catering on such a large scale is no easy task to do well but the quality and presentation of food was amazing. The main dining rooms had the option of sitting at the same table and eating at the same time or being totally flexible. They also managed to create an intimate atmosphere on sociable 4 or 6 seater tables or private tables for two.
Its impossible to be unaware of the Norovirus risks on cruise ships but P&O Cruises enforced hand sanitation when passengers returned to the ship and before entry to restaurants so it was more hygienic than most restaurants at home.
Our route started with a couple of days in Barbados and called at St Vincent, Dominica, St Lucia, Antigua, St Kitts, Grand Turk, Tortola (BVI) and St Maarten and returned to Barbados. There were four ‘at sea’ days when the benefit of a balcony was really appreciated, as sunbathing around the pools got fairly crowded. Except for the pools the ship never seemed crowded which often made me wonder if I was missing out on some fascinating activity somewhere else.
A daily newsletter provided hour by hour details of events and activities going on around the ship as well as the range of excursions available at the next port. The cabin TV also ran a video loop of what to expect on shore excursions as well as a webcam of where the ship was going and a route map of where we were.
Being independent spirits we didn’t book any of the organised shore excursions but simply took a taxi around the island or more often headed for a selected beach. I’m glad I did plenty of research beforehand, as there was little practical island information beyond the organised tours.
Bridgetown aside none of the island capitals had much to offer and Dominica’s capital Roseau was pretty grim, more like an overgrown Creole village than a capital.
But it’s the sun, sea and sand that are the Caribbean’s great appeal and they don’t let down on them. St Lucia, Antigua, St Kitts, Gran Turk and Tortola (BVI) were our favourite islands for beaches and beautiful warm turquoise waters and all have been listed as well worth a return visit.
The biggest disappointment was St Martin/St Maarten, the dual French and Dutch island that was tackily overdeveloped around Philipsburg and choked with traffic that could barely crawl around at 5 mph. We spend the same amount of time sitting in traffic as we did sitting on the beach.
The Ventura was our first ever cruise on the high seas and we enjoyed the experience far more than expected. The food and service exceeded our expectations, there wasn’t a hint of seasickness and it was the perfect way to explore a host of iconic islands that it would have taken years, and a lot more cash, to explore in normal holiday mode.
To see an updated list of all the Caribbean cruises in the upcoming months, go to their website for a range of cruises including Transatlantic voyages!
Ventura’s facilities include four pools, an Oasis Spa with thermal suite, gym, theatre, age-specific children’s clubs and a variety of restaurants and bars including East fine dining restaurant by Michelin starred chef Atul Kochhar, The White Room by celebrity chef Marco Pierre White and The Glass House grill and bar with wines selected by TV expert Olly Smith.