First Impressions of Iona
First impressions of Iona on the quayside were WOW! She was huge and gleaming in front of the dark stormy clouds of Southampton, which fortunately gave way to some British summer sunshine later in the day. We couldn’t wait to embark and were greeted with bagpipes at the cruise terminal.
Check-in was simple; we were asked to head towards the Mayflower terminal to take a Covid test and for our details, documents and vaccine status to be checked, which was all done in a drive through centre. It isn’t actually situated at Mayflower but close to it, however there are stewards in yellow jackets directing you and looking out for people to direct them in the vicinity. After taking the test, which took around half an hour, they tell you to head to the cruise terminal where your ship is situated, in our case the Ocean terminal, and wait in your car until you receive your test results, which will take between 10 and 40 minutes depending on how busy they are. Once a negative result is confirmed you are to head to the terminal, where they ask to see the text message before allowing you into the building. We then had to answer a health questionnaire verbally, which is the same as what we completed online, as P&O are making doubly sure that there is as little risk as possible once onboard. We were then directed to the usual check-in, where our passports and boarding passes were checked and photos taken, then we headed through security and up the gangway to board the ship.
Once onboard we were given a lovely warm welcome and told to head directly to our muster station, which in our case was the Keel and Cow, where our boarding passes were scanned. We then headed to our cabins, where our cruise cards for entry into the cabin and for all onboard purchases and to scan on and off the ship were waiting in a pocket outside the door. Our cabin steward greeted us and talked us through anything we needed to know and was happy to answer any questions we had.
Our cabin (9310), a balcony situated on deck 9, overlooked the Conservatory Mini-Suites and the infinity pools on deck 8. It was perfect for watching the world go by and was more spacious than expected. Plus, not too far away to grab one of the infinity whirlpools when we spotted one had become available. The White Company bath and shower gel and hand soap were included for our use and there was plenty of wardrobe space for clothes, as well as under-bed storage for luggage to be hidden away and out from under your feet during the stay. We also had a sofa bed in our cabin and flatscreen TV on which we could view our onboard account details and which featured films and TV programmes. The bathroom was really spacious compared with other cabins I have stayed in before and the shower cubicle door opened both ways which I think really helps with the limited space. The bedside lamps were really good, had low lighting option plus a mini torch which could be directed in many angles and was perfect for popping on without waking your travelling companion if you wake in the night. They also had USB charging ports underneath for easy device charging in the evening while you slept.
We decided we wanted to make the most of our stay and explore every part of the ship from top to bottom and get the most out of what she had to offer.
The forward of the ship towards the top deck seemed to be the quieter side of the ship but it still had gems of places to be discovered. The Crow’s Nest bar and lounge has beautiful sweeping views to behold and is the epitome of elegance and comfort with its dark wood and deep blue and gold Art Deco style interiors and plush seating. Cocktails are a certainty, including the Rhubarbellini a refreshing zesty drink to enjoy as the sun sets over the sea to the sound of a pianist.
The Epicurean restaurant and Crow’s Nest bar and lounge
The Epicurean is an intimate and sophisticated space hidden away from prying eyes but surprisingly bright and airy with sea views aplenty. It’s the perfect setting for the fine dining experience it offers, with expert chefs giving classic British ingredients a modern twist combined with fine wines and flawless service. We heard lots of fantastic reports praising Eric Lanlard’s afternoon tea which is hosted here, so I would say this is a must-try for that extra special experience. It’s situated next to The Crow’s Nest so you can finish off the evening with a nightcap to follow the same luxurious theme.
With the weather being glorious over our time on Iona (other than when we first embarked) the plentiful outdoor spaces were being used to the full and The Retreat is the perfect way to find your calm on the deck areas. It’s exclusively for adults, with sun loungers and airy cabanas for spa treatments, plus light bites with waiter service and not forgetting those gorgeous panoramic views with its location at the forefront of the ship.
The Retreat backs onto the Beachcomber Bar and Pool, with plentiful comfortable seating, booths close to the pool area and loungers both in the shade and in the sun, so areas for everyone and despite offering all of this it didn’t feel at all crowded.
Headliners theatre and Iona ‘Festival’ show
Moving further down the decks but still the forward was the impressive Headliners theatre located across both deck 6 and 7, with its regal red interior and comfortable seating, plus screens both at the back of the stage and surrounding it with effects that enhanced the performance we saw. They offered matinee films and on the evening we visited showcased ‘Festival’, a musical delight created and produced by Jonathan Wilkes. It’s a story of two groups of girls and boys who visit a festival and how their paths cross. Performances varied greatly from the hilarious wellie tap dance along to ‘We Love to Boogie’ to the guitar ballad cover of Ed Sheeran’s ‘Thinking Out Loud’, a DJ set complete with funky house classics, and even a tribute to the iconic David Bowie plus features from Oasis, Kaiser Chiefs and The White Stripes hits. The cast is made up of 13, seven girls and six boys, with four of each partaking in solos and harmonies and the rest supporting with dance routines. Their enthusiasm and stage presence I would score 10 out of 10 and you could really tell they were so pleased to be back to doing what they love to do best.
As the current Covid restrictions onboard stand, you must keep your masks on throughout the performance in the theatre, which means beverages cannot be consumed during the show so either save your drinks order until afterwards or hang onto it until the end of the performance and enjoy once you have exited the theatre.
Oasis Spa and Whitewall Art Gallery
The Oasis Spa was impressive, one of the biggest I’ve seen. Spanning over two floors with pristine beauty areas, this wellness hub will make you feel gorgeous from head to toe.
The Whitewall Art Gallery also acted as one of the main routes through the ship and to be honest was our preferred choice of route. We didn’t rush through but more leisurely admired each piece as we made our way to whatever the day had in store for us next.
Situated near the art gallery is the Limelight Club, which we didn’t get chance to visit but is famed for its celebrity glamour complete with dining (at a nominal fee). During our time onboard La Voix performed.
The Casino and Brodie’s, the sociable pub with British and global beers, ciders, real ale plus wine spirits and classic bar snacks, were close to the upper deck of the theatre and so perfect to take in and chat about the dazzling performance you have just enjoyed with a post-show drink. They also had the classic British pub quiz where you could win tickets to the Ocean Studios cinema, Our evening there also saw the pub play host to Ed Sheeran-style busker, Craig Stuart, who performed a variety of covers from all eras throughout his set and also took requests. It has a lovely atmosphere and also plenty of seating still taking in this but a little further back to allow for the more sociable side of things.
The Atrium was THE hub of the ship with its glittering glass and chrome show-stopping staircase – if you wanted a prime spot to people watch then this is the place to be. Whether you wanted drinks or a dining experience, lots of choices are available. The space spans three decks with The Keel and Cow gastropub proving very popular at the top with their signature burger ‘The Prime Minister’ and classics like fish and chips, pie and mash or prime steak from the dry ageing cabinet on the menu.
The Glasshouse, Vistas Café bar and The Emerald Bar
The Glasshouse came next on deck 7, again with its centre being the Atrium. Headed up by award-winning wine expert Olly Smith, we can’t think of a more fitting location for a light bite or lunchtime tipple and aperitifs, with a suggestion of which wine will complement each dish. The restaurant had a more sociable feel due to its location, which I think is something different when comparing other ships, although there are still quiet corners around if you want to shy away from the hustle and bustle a little. The lower floor of the atrium was made up of Vistas Café bar, the place to enjoy Eric Lanlard’s exquisite patisserie along with a Costa coffee or Teapigs tea and epic ocean views. The glamourous Emerald Bar is close by with glorious cocktails and a hotspot with a buzz to match the atrium where it sits. We enjoyed a performance here by cocktail Pianist Julia Bihari as we sipped our pre-dinner drinks and also, I’m pretty sure the sea-shanty-singing fishermen Sea Hear dressed in their sailor finery performed for us here too although it wasn’t displayed in the daily program Horizon so must have been an impromptu performance to ready them for the Iona maiden voyage I’m guessing.
The 710 Club
Towards the edge of the atrium hidden in a discreet corner was the entrance to The 710 Club, curated and crafted by Music Director Gary Barlow. The venue is low lit, with red Chesterfield style sofas, serving up live music with a vintage vibe. The evenings’ themes on our cruise were ‘American Vinyl’ with jazz sounds and ‘On The Rocks’, rock favourites recreated with an intimate edgy spin.
Ocean Studios is situated towards the aft of the ship, complete with four stylish small screens which could hold around 45 people. Masks are to be worn for the duration of the film with the exception of when eating and drinking which is allowed throughout the film. They were showing Godzilla vs Kong, Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, A Quiet Place: Part II and Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard.
After a film in Ocean Studios, Anderson’s Bar and Library is the perfect place to readjust your eyes and order a drink of Iona’s unique Marabelle Gin created in their first on-board distillery, which was lovely and refreshing and even better with the accompanying sea views on offer.
Main dining room experience on Celebration night
The main dining room restaurants where breakfast lunch and dinner are served a la carte are called Coral, Pearl, Opal and Aqua. Coral and Pearl had panoramic sea views and were larger and had a lovely ambience about them. We dined in Coral restaurant on the celebration night on the second evening and sampled Marco Pierre White’s menu complete with Amuse-Bouche Dressed Devonshire Crab and Scallop Ceviche, New England half split lobster and mornay sauce and Beef Tenderloin, which was as fabulous as it sounds, and it was very popular. The waiters were very attentive without being intrusive and there was never the feeling of being rushed. Our meals were served quickly with the appropriate amount of time between courses.
The Clubhouse was one of my favourite areas as it had a very glamorous feel and was the only place that we experienced that played background music of different varieties whilst you chatted amongst yourselves between acts and shows. It also had a dance floor however due to Covid restrictions onboard only chair dancing was allowed in this venue for the time being, but we made the most of it still and boogied on down in our seats as we listened to Pulse, a male and female duo belt out hits from all the decades. It’s also the venue for guest speakers and comedy acts too. The cocktails are to die for and for me, in the evening, it was the place to be.
Olive Grove, The Quays and Sindhu
Across the way is Olive Grove, a more private dining experience with a Mediterranean feel and highly rated by customers onboard. This led into The Quays which I would describe as a buffet restaurant with three very different feels: seaside British favourites at Hook Line and Vinegar, sizzling Asian flavours at Fusion, and American classics at the Boardwalk Diner. Very much a sociable venue but not as expansive as what the Horizon buffet restaurant is. An old favourite, Sindhu, is also close by on the same strip highlighting the best fusion of contemporary and classic Indian cuisine.
Ripples is a short distance away serving luxury Snowflake gelato and what can only be described as an epic ice-cream afternoon tea, another must-try recommended by other guests for something special to do onboard.
Situated on the outer deck at the aft of the ship, the Sunset Pool and Bar features a few of the ship’s 18 whirlpools and spacious sunbathing areas, but I did note that the top suites were situated above these and perhaps it wouldn’t be the quietest area during sunny days, so something to bear in mind for those that usually aim to travel in a suite. Then again, perfect to people watch.
If whirlpools and hot tubs are your thing then this ship is the one for you, with 18 of them dotted around most areas on the outer decks.
Infinity pool area and silent disco
Infinity Bar and Pool is a beautiful area and the outside deck area played host to the silent disco which was hilarious and something I haven’t experienced before! Having now tried it out it’s a fantastic idea and worked so well, even for those spectating it was entertaining as they could join in without joining in while others could let loose and sing their hearts out as they danced in a world of their own. The Grab and Go for a quick bite was also situated close by. On this deck the jogging track encircled it and was plenty spacious enough to allow for this even near to the bar area when it was busy. Above here were the golf nets and sports area where you could practice your swing whilst onboard.
The SkyDome area spanning over two decks was an expansive area and although we had fantastic weather would be ideal for those rainy or cooler days, it seemed like a mini hub in itself with three bars – Sky, Crystal and Laguna – plus Sundaes serving snowflake and standard ice-creams and not forgetting Taste 360, which we were very impressed with serving hot dogs, burgers and pizza, perfect for those daytime snacks or a quick lunch.
At night, the SkyDome turned into a more informal entertainment venue for DJ’s and not forgetting the aerial Creativiva performances.
The children’s and teen’s clubs and areas were focused around deck 17, plus the splash zone on deck 18, however these were shut for the duration of the cruise with no children onboard our taster cruise. There did seem plenty to do, we even spotted table tennis and shuffleboard which would be great for the family too.
Horizon restaurant was the main buffet restaurant onboard and we gravitated towards here for a more informal breakfast which was organised with precision and extremely impressive, more so than normal with new procedures in place which I was interested to see as Covid has changed the whole concept of buffet dining really and what people are comfortable with. I think passengers were reassured even more as at the entrance as well as hand sanitizer you were escorted to wash your hands on entry and before being taken to a free table. They also served midnight snacks here for if you were feeling peckish after an evening of entertainment and exploring the decks.
Covid onboard procedures
Covid procedures onboard were that you had to keep your mask on whilst walking throughout the ship indoor spaces and also whilst seated in the theatre and cinema. You could only be seated on the same table as those who were in your travel bubble or who you were linked up to so it’s important to make sure the TWID (Travelling with ID) has been applied to you and your friends/families’ bookings in advance of travel. Whirlpools had a maximum capacity of either two or up to six if you were considered in the same household or bubble and to give everyone a fair chance of experiencing this there were also 15-minute time limits for busy periods. Pools also had a capacity limit; in the Panorama pool it was five but again a time limit applied to make it fair. These directives were clearly marked on the outer edge of each pool and whirlpool to make it easier to remember and follow.
Certain seats in the cinema, bars, and theatre had signs on them to avoid people sitting there, so as to comply with onboard social distancing rules. Hand sanitiser stations were frequently dotted around the ship and in bar, restaurant, and entertainment venues. In the Horizon restaurant, as well as this you were required to wash and dry your hands thoroughly after sanitising in the sinks at the entrance to the restaurant and then a steward escorted you to a table, after which we found really reassuring as they were making sure everybody adhered to this who entered. The food in the buffet was also mainly served to you rather than everyone touching the utensils to serve yourself.
For disembarkation we were given an A4 sheet of paper with instructions the afternoon before, directing us to leave any luggage we wanted to be taken to the luggage hall outside of the cabin after 6pm and to have our cruise cards handy on the day. It also said we were to meet at the Headliner’s theatre in time for a 10-minute slot and from there on we would be asked to disembark. Our time was 08:50 to 09:00 but as we approached the entrance to the theatre we were told that as there was no queue, we could head straight down to deck 6 to disembark straight away. Just before the exit, our cruise cards were scanned and we were on our way – it took less than 10 minutes!
Impressive touches onboard
I think some of the touches that impressed me most were the bottle refill areas dotted around the ship; they were thoughtful and saved queues at the bar for bottled water, plus are a more sustainable option. There were also lots of recycling bins around the ship so no litter was left about. Also, the large and numerous amounts of seating areas both indoors and outdoors throughout the ship meant there was a chance to relax and take in every part of the ship and there was plenty of room for everyone too. The space and design of ship areas also seem maximized to take full advantage of the panoramic views, truly bringing the outside in. Definitely a ship you need to experience if you love cruising and appreciate outside spaces.