Back in the days prior to the pandemic my wife and I saw some amazing footage of a new cruise ship about to be launched, you guessed it, it was the Iona.
We booked for the fjords however Covid scuppered that plan.
Fast forward to half term in October 2022 and we eventually set sail from Southampton for the half term Western European cruise G235 which called at Zeebrugge, Rotterdam and Hamburg taking our youngest with us who is 14.
Living in the north we opted for the coach transfer, the pickup was easy and the 4 1/2 hour trip to Southampton was quite pleasant and stress free.
As we approached Southampton docks we could see this leviathan moored alongside and excitement levels slowly rose.
Embarkation was quick and easy and so we breezed onboard, unfortunately at this point those levels of excitement started to fall quite quickly.
We were greeted with a hello, keep moving please and told to make our way to one of the buffets using the signs.
On arrival the Quays buffet was extremely busy and after a while trying to secure a seat we eventually had some rather dry fish and chips, supposedly these were amazing according to reviews.
After eating we then went down to our stateroom and sorted out the baggage, the state room itself was one of the larger inside cabins, it was well appointed however quite compact at 18 sqm. Tea, coffee, tinned water x3 and biscuits were provided along with shower gel (no conditioner), there was a large screen TV, hairdryer and safe available too.
Another couple we travelled with were in a standard inside cabin and that was tiny.
After unpacking we attempted to get on P&O’s intranet to access their My holiday site, this is an absolute must on board, you cannot book anything without it. Unfortunately the website isn’t the best and is quite glitchy and stressful to set up and use, it did crash several times.
We then went to sort out drinks packages and spa membership for the week.
There are several levels of drinks packages, alcoholic which costs £39.95 per person per day( max 15 drinks valued up to £6.95 per day), non alcoholic at £19.95 and childrens drinks at £7.99 per day, the childrens package is free if you get the adult packages. The thing you need to bear in mind with these packages is that every one in you room needs to buy one, so if there are 2 adults and one wants the alcoholic package, you both buy it or you do not have it, we could not buy just a childs package, you are forced to buy 2 x non alcoholic packages if you go down this route at around £40 per day, needless to say I don’t like fizzy drinks and my wife and I don’t drink much so we did without, it did work out far cheaper even with buying bottles of wine at meal times.
Moving onto the spa, we purchased a 2 adult weeks access for £258, this allows you access for 1 x2 hr slots when available so if you pay for it ensure you prebook at the same time so you get the slots you want. If you pay for the week you can then also use up any spare slots.
The spa was OK, it has a quiet room and the main spa has a salt sauna, dry sauna and steam room, in the middle is a large whirlpool and there are several heated beds available as well as lounges.
We did notice the spa was looking a bit shabby despite the ship being new, peeling paintwork in the whirlpool and one of the roofs in the saunas was cracked and there were no changing rooms as such, just a locker space.
The scrubs etc that other cruise ships usually provide free were £5 each.
Our biggest bugbear however was the spa staff continually showing people around during the week, people in outside shoes taking photographs when others were trying to use the facilities, complaining did nothing to change this, I suspect they were on some form of commission so wanted it full.
That first night we dined in the Horizon buffet deck 16 because all the slots for the restaurants had been taken, it was absolute chaos, not enough seating, children running in between people with loaded trays, people picking food up with their hands, it was like a zoo. The food was average and the buffets are also walkways so people are constantly walking through them to get elsewhere.
During the rest of the trip we first joined the virtual queues for the free restaurants, that was very hit and miss, you end up sitting around waiting yet P&O call this “Freedom dining” we eventually got in only to find the restaurants half empty, it transpired they didnt have the staff to use all the tables.
The food was of a good quality and the experience was far better than the buffets.
What we did after this was go to the dining room reception and block booked the restaurants for the rest of the week to avoid queues, you could only book 5.30 or 6pm doing this however it was far less stressful, just say you have a medical need, one person we were with was diabetic which enabled us to do this.
The choice was what was on the menu, you could order 2 starters etc however they would not allow any deviation from that menu.
We attended several shows, the best were the ones done by their own staff, the acrobatic shows in the dome were fine however the dome is acoustically dead, singing and music in there is awful, it looks better than it actually is.
There are a number of bars spread across the ship, most of these had children in them, as did the casino and we found there were few places you could sit inside to just relax and read with out it being in a bar.
Deck 8 is the promenade deck, there are Jacuzzis dotted around this, we didnt use them as we noticed few people bothered to shower first and small children were often in them.
Deck 18 has the running track, 10 laps (not 7 as stated) is 1 mile, there is also a netted court on deck 19.
There is an adults only sunbed spot called “The retreat” if you want to use this it is an additional £40 per day, everywhere else is open to children, unfortunately the fact you book into the spa all week doesn’t give you access to this area, it would’ve set us back an eye watering £818 for the week had we also opted for this.
Embarkation and disembarking was relatively easy, we went to Blankenburg on the free coach from Zeebrugge and in Rotterdam we stayed local, that was a surprisingly nice city, with some canal side cafes etc The transfer into Hamburg was also free but there were long queues for the coaches off the ship.
We had a gala night on Wednesday, most people in the restaurants made an effort and were in black tie etc, the food was better on this occasion, I had 1/2 Lobster mornay which was quite good, just bear in mind however the earlier comment about block booking the restaurants to ensure you get in them, other people we spoke to had to use the packed horizon buffet (see photo), one lady was upset she was in her finery on gala night sat in the buffet eating next to a family in swimming costumes because she couldn’t get in anywhere.
Customer service was poor.
The restaurants whereby you pay a little extra were all booked out before we boarded so they were not an option, as was the 710 club.
All in all it was a little disappointing having travelled with other cruise lines, we travelled at half term, the weather was fine but not hot, had it been so perhaps it would not have been so busy everywhere.
There seemed to be little in the way of dress code and children were left to run around the ship, there were instances of them banging on cabin doors late at night and groups sat on the main staircases.
The ship was full, so that is over 5000 guests yet the staffing was short to the point restaurants couldn’t/ wouldn’t use all of their table and cope.
Personally I feel there was not enough to keep them entertained, or us for that matter, the cinema screens were tiny, seating around 40 persons each and the main problem was dining, unless you are booked in straight away, you will struggle, also bear in mind that even if booked, P&Os my holiday booking system will wipe your booking if you are 15 minutes late, so, if you are in a queue to enter a dining room and someone is asking lots of questions and your 15 minutes is approaching, you must barge in to the front or else lose the booking.
All in all it was an experience, it wasn’t all bad, the headline price was half the price of our usual cruise line however when you add up the extras you get free elsewhere and the poor service it wasn’t actually that much cheaper, the experience was inferior and you queued for everything.