Iona Maiden Staycation
Mike Matthews | September 15, 2021 | P&O Cruises | Iona
We booked parking with CPS who gave different gate numbers / location versus P&O instructions. P&O are not answering calls so here’s the low down – you should aim to arrive at the Covid drive through test at your embarkation time, which is well signed in Southampton, as being via Gate 10 and not where the ship is (Gate 4 is the new big Oceana terminal). If there are several ships leaving that day, it is worth you having the large font ‘IONA’ paper copy in your windscreen/dashboard so they can direct you easier to your queue. We had to wait in a holding car park for over an hour before being called forward to join the drive through queue (no facilities available during this time). Note the Covid testing is shared by all cruise lines so that makes the queuing times harder to predict.
The drive through is well manned and easy to go through and the Lateral Flow Test is non-intrusive with a swab from just inside the nose. You must have a mobile phone to allow them to send the results on to.
From there you drive to the ship / CPS drop off point where you hand over keys and take your luggage a short distance to the ‘pod’ for your deck number. Next to the check in area where you answer all the same questions you have already done online (very frustrating for me – why they can’t just ask if anything has changed!). That is the point where you could get turned away if you’ve answered anything that shows you’ve been in contact with Covid.
Then you get to a waiting area labelled as tested but results not back yet. Plenty of seats and staff around here. The test results come back in a text message in about 30 mins and if negative, you show this to staff and progress to the actual check in desk. The main thing done is to get a credit card on your account and passport checked for ID purposes. Room key cards are on board with your cabin steward.
When you get to your cabin the stewards are loitering to greet you and do a briefing at the end of which you get your cards. Main point is that they are now only working 8am to noon (unless you are using the 3rd/4th berths, which they come in the evening to make up – no turndown service). So outside of this either ring reception or leave a ‘love note’ for when they’re next in your cabin.
Standard balcony cabin
While the square footage indicated online is a wide range from 190 square feet, we reckon they’re nearly all this size with the few Accessible rooms being the larger ones. The cabin was very ‘slim’ in width, just wider than the 6’ bed plus 1’. There are 2 room layouts depending on whether it can be a 4 berth or 2. We had a 4 berth so the double bed was straight inside the room, whereas the 2 berth have their bed nearer the balcony, so these feel more spacious. The designers have made a few improvements close to newer top hotels with better storage in the bathroom and illuminated heated mirror, better walk in shower etc. The only thing to watch is that they’ve removed the 2 pin shaver points, so you’ll need an adapter. Lighting is worth a mention and one of the bathroom lights stays on at low level when the light is turned off for night-time visits. If you hate this, then you can pull out tour key card and the power to the room drops out. Also worth saying the bedside power points have USB connectors to charge mobile devices easier. No drawers at all – just a stack of shelves in one of the wardrobes. A subtle improvement in room design is the door is recessed so anyone walking past won’t accidentally knock/brush against plus any conversations / noise doesn’t come in – we were close to the lift stairwell and were a bit concerned but had no issues and we do notice noise!
We were on deck 11, which I would recommend as high enough to get improved views but not directly above / below any of the public areas. Lifts were mostly working well, just the phantom one that worked but displayed all the wrong information and occasionally went completely dark as lights went out – spooky.
Restaurants and food
There were 4 main dining rooms (MDRs) and difficult to spot what was different other than capacity. Freedom dining was the only option, which has suited us on other cruises. You are supposed to either make a reservation for 5.30 or 6pm using the ‘My Holiday’ portal from a smart phone device. Note this is not an App as there’s nothing to download, just a web address / page to go to and once you’re logged in you can see your bookings and what’s available, including booking the entertainment. It uses the ship’s WiFi and you do not need to buy the WiFi package to use it – you set your phone to Airplane mode and it picks it up. The logic of this web portal arrangement makes sense in that if you have a Suite or mini suite (or top tier Peninsular club) you get access ahead of boarding so can grab the eating / entertainment slots you want. We did hear some complaints this wasn’t fair, but frankly there needs to be a few benefits for paying a lot more money. Our experience was that the service levels improved as the week progressed – we had a painfully slow MDR experience (over 2 Hrs 45 mins for 3 courses) early on and overheard that the WiFi had failed, and ordering was done on tablet devices, so the galley hadn’t received orders. Kudos to the experienced waiter who went to the shop and got a spiral bound notepad and pen! There were lots of new crew who were clearly shy but gained confidence as time went on. Fewer from the Philippines and more from India on this trip. Our last meal was just as expected in good time and quality. We were mostly seated as a 2 on a larger table but limited sharing was offered to keep spacing.
Food quality in MDRs and Horizon was good. Note no self-service – you pointed to what you wanted, and they passed a loaded plate to you.
Speciality dining at some extra charges was even better than we expected – the Glass House with smaller but better / interesting dishes was our equal favourite with Olive Grove. Note we had both Olly Smith and Marco Pierre White on board so these really should have been on top form. Note that as you don’t get an allocated table – or even restaurant – there is no longer an option to buy a bottle of wine to be stored if not finished during your meal. We saw a few folks finding they needed to carry a part finished bottle out with them or lose it.
If you didn’t manage (or didn’t want) to book an early dining slot, you could join a ‘virtual queue’ from after 6.45pm and you’d get a queue position that you could see going down as it neared your turn. We tried this and as the queue opened up we got 30th position in the queue and waited 45 mins to be called. They asked you to wait in your room rather than in a bar, which was weird. Then we had a 15-minute scramble to descend through the decks to the opposite end of the ship or else you lost your slot. There were some folks we met in their late 70s / early 80s who simply said they don’t do smart phones and turned up when they wanted to eat and asked for a pager device – the staff didn’t want to advertise this was available as they had to sanitise the devices afterwards so gave them more work, plus wanted to push people to the new technology.
The issue P&O don’t seem to have thought through is when you want to see a particular act (Tony Hadley was great BTW) then you needed to book your meal to ensure you’d finished in time. So best advice is to make bookings of entertainment and meals on same night as soon as you get access to the booking portal.
The theatre is very good both for seating and acoustics – seating is comfortable and social spacing is done with stickers on seats that were used by staff to reserve disabled areas near the front. Sky dome is pretty good but there are relatively few seating areas to see the pop-up stage, so it works best for the aerial performances. They will have to work out what to do with the 710 club as it has very small capacity (44 with current rules) and no booking possible. 3 performances per evening don’t give many of the 2,335 / 5,200 people a chance and to make it worse you don’t get kicked out between performances, so some people stayed for a couple, thus even fewer people got a chance to go there.
We opted to self-service so could get away ahead of the traffic and although we had a time slot, we realised they didn’t care – just happy to get the ship back to start cleaning down the cabin. Final bill under the door was correct and charged to our card so all smooth.
A quick mention of the new conservatory cabins; these were not sold out and many had free upgrades with mixed reactions. The extra balcony area is separated from the promenade deck by a screen (with chairs right up to the screen) and as it sticks out, you are overlooked from above and from the deck itself. So some more private people didn’t like this, while more extraverts were mostly ok.
We’re both 62 years old and have retired from hi-tech jobs so can see what P&O are trying to do – we noted there were lots of IT technicians on board trying to fix things as we went along. I mention this as we spoke to a few older couples who were asking if P&O no longer wanted their custom as there was more geared to the next generation. Much more 70s and 80s piped music for example. Little ballroom dancing options. We felt that P&O have realised they have a problem: retired people have the time to cruise and many the money too, yet they want to appeal to more younger people (who will likely spend more on drinks) plus mostly want a more relaxed dress code. And of course, the much bigger ship needs to be filled to make their money back. We were happy to take this cruise with reduced numbers (2,335 guests out of 3,000 booked on made it with covid test fails plus some pushed back to a later cruise) but would not go on this large (and beautifully appointed smooth and quiet) ship when back to full numbers
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