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All at Sea – first time cruising

A week’s sea cruise from Malta in June is not a proposition to be immediately spurned. It certainly contains elements of attraction yet also offers reasons to demand caution. While it is getting cheaper, cruising has never exactly been the budget choice and being contained in the middle of the sea alongside hundreds of other people might give some pause for thought.

Including me. As a dog-owning walker, who gets cabin fever if I have not left the house by 9am, I was slightly worried and yet curious. A number of friends, admittedly older than me, swear by cruise holidays and my mum was desperate to give it a try. So I put my concerns to one side and agreed to accompany her on a week’s holiday.

Our vessel of choice, the Oceana, was picked from a very large variety of options, mainly for its itinerary, the dates of travel and its comparatively small size, accommodating just over 2,000 passengers. There was also some reassurance in the name of its operator, P&O Cruises, originally the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company (which really is a fine moniker!). A pioneering British company in its day, and the oldest cruise line in the world, it is now part of Carnival Corporation & PLC, a company listed in both the UK and America. P&O Cruises very much trades on its Britishness. All its ships fly the British Ensign and sport a Union Flag livery, and they are the largest operator catering for the British market.

The cruise we picked was in the middle of June and started and ended in Malta. It called in at Naples, Civitaveccia (for Rome), Ajaccio in Corsica and Olbia in Sardinia. There were a couple of sea days, one on the second day and the final day before we returned to Malta. This cruise was the middle section of a longer three week itinerary which took in Venice and Croatia the precious week and then Greece the following week. Some passengers, like us, opted for a week while quite a few were spending 14 days on board.

When travelling by air these days, unless one is a head of state or an oligarch, the process is often rather miserable. This time however was rather different. The flight was to be on a plane chartered by P&O Cruises, operated by Tui (which used to be Thompson in a previous life). At an empty check-in, we simply showed passports and deposited luggage, a process that took seconds. Rather enjoyably, we would only be reunited with our bags in our cabins aboard the ship. We enjoyed the same treatment on the return journey too, with our bags picked up overnight from the ship and collected when back at Gatwick.

With Gatwick finally getting its act together, security was speedy and relatively painless. We boarded the plane on time and while we left 30 minutes late, we were promised arrival earlier than planned, rather making a mockery of flight times which now seem longer than in Bleriot’s day to make sure any delays will not trigger insurance pay outs. Malta’s airport was efficient, so passport control took no time at all (take note Toulouse) and soon we were being directed by tens of P&O attired guides spread out every few feet towards a number of coaches which were to whisk us to our destination.

Twenty-five minutes later, we had our first glimpse of our home for the week. Embarkation was surprisingly efficient, given the number of people. We queued for only a few minutes before being issued with our photographic room key, linked to a credit card for all on-board purchase, and a small map of the ship. We then made our way towards Oceana, towering over the pretty 250-year-old warehouses of the Valetta Waterfront.

Once greeted, we climbed the gangplank, had our cards scanned and entered the central Atrium, which rises three decks on this 14-decked ship. These three decks (and half of the one above) house most of the inside communal areas, with three restaurants, six bars, the two entertainment venues, a library, card room, casino, shops and a gallery. The Promenade deck is in the middle, and offers shuffleboard, quoits and the chance to walk around the ship – 3.2 circuits equates to one mile! Central stairs and lifts service this area, with other stairs and lifts at both ends to take you to most of the cabins and the outdoor decks.

Our cabin was on the 9th deck and was towards the stern. We picked a balcony cabin, which made the inside space a little smaller, but it was perfectly adequate. A small shower room, three cupboards, two with hangers and one with shelves, a desk/vanity unit, bedside table, mini-fridge plus a double or twin beds. The balcony was also a decent size with two chairs and a table. Plus our own ‘valet’, Antonio, shared of course with a number of other rooms.

The top decks offer the rest of the communal spaces. Much is used for sunbathing, with a plentiful supply of loungers along the full length of the decks. The two main swimming pools with two bars and the outside entertainment area are all on the ‘Lido deck’, next to the self-service Plaza restaurant which is right at the front of the ship, alongside the small Beach House restaurant. Above that is a small plunge pool and more sunbathing areas. At the stern is the Terrace bar, which is for 18s only and has a small plunge pool, three whirlpools, sun loungers and other seating. There is also a small sports area right at the top of the ship, plus golf driving nets, a table tennis table and a kid’s club area plus a spa and fitness centre with bicycles and treadmills.

Life on board
With P&O Cruises, given the daily service charge was waived in April this year, pretty much everything is included in your price, with the exception of most drinks. These are included with breakfast and water is available in the restaurants and the bars, but otherwise you must pay on top. The prices however are pretty reasonable and equate to pub or restaurant prices in the UK, with decent wines costing between £15 and £20/bottle, and all bars had waiter service. Passengers are allowed to bring 1 litre of wine or spirits each for their cabins, and soft drinks bought ashore seemed to be accepted.

For dining, there are a few options. The self-service Plaza restaurant serves food pretty much all day. It offers the obvious breakfast choices and at lunchtime and in the evenings, they have a wide variety of hot and cold dishes available. They also offer afternoon and late-night snacks. I had breakfast and lunch there a couple of times and the food was fresh and of a very good quality, with a good choice to suit all palates.

The Adriatic and Ligurian restaurants are the main sit-down venues. The only difference between them is the Adriatic offers fixed dining where you eat at the same time every day with the same people on the same table.  The Ligurian has freedom dining where you can come anytime between 6pm and 9.30pm and eat at tables of 2-8 people, sharing with friends or with others who are also happy to share. The interesting menu changes daily (although a small number of dishes appear every day (prawn cocktail, salmon fillet and steak for instance), offering a selection from around five starters, three soups, 10 main courses and five desserts plus ice cream or sorbets and/or cheese. At lunchtime, it offers lighter bites, soup, sandwiches or small mains plus desserts.

We chose this option for some lunchtimes and every evening and was not disappointed. The service was excellent, and the food was of a very high standard. The choices were very good, the portions were (happily) quite reasonable and it was enjoyable to meet new people most evenings. These restaurants have a dress code – trousers and shirts in the evening and black tie for two of the nights, offering everyone the chance to dress up a couple of times. A good thing in these restaurants was that any unfinished bottles of wine could be kept for the following day.

There were two other restaurants, both costing a supplement in the evenings. One, the Cafe Jardin, was open for breakfast and lunch and was a pleasant spot to eat, being much smaller and quieter but with a more limited menu. There was also a pool side barbecue on one of the days, which was very good indeed with steak, chicken, burgers and some fabulous big prawns.

Entertainment
It is true that you would be hard-pushed to get bored on one of these ships, with plenty of things to do for pretty much all ages. On sea days, there is even more to occupy you. Evenings would see a couple of shows, which could be music, a talk or comedy etc. The same show would run twice the same evening at 8.30pm and 10.30pm and last around 45 minutes. During the day, they showed one or two films, although these were sometimes over lunchtime which was not very convenient. Other events included a ‘walk-in fluid retention clinic’ and ‘learn how to revitalise your legs’ which rather showed P&Os main demographic! That said, in the evenings, some of the bars would put on quiz nights, 80s music and ‘disco fever’ to appeal to younger passengers. There were also daily exercise classes, pilates, bridge, archery and much more.

The main outside entertainment space was around the swimming pools, where piped music would play most of the time unless there was a live band or another form of entertainment put on by the crew, such as a deck party or various games.

Excursions
At each of the four ports of call, there were a number of P&O arranged excursions, which varied from 3 to 8 hours in duration, but did cost extra. We opted for a trip by coach to Rome (which is 1½ hours away) which took us to three of the main sites (the Colisseum, Trevi Fountain, Vatican) and allowed free time at each stop. This worked well although Rome was very hot and very busy, so a return trip is in order. The second excursion was in Sardinia to the very beautiful Costa Smerelda (where along the very same road, we were told, The Spy Who Love Me was filmed) and a couple of achingly pretty villages. This was a brilliant trip, with a wonderful and informative guide. At the other destinations, the boat moored very close to the centre so we could easily and quickly leave the ship and walk into both cities, and indeed come and go as we pleased. The ship tended to arrive in port by 9am and would not leave earlier that around 5pm, giving you most of the day there.

And so…
I have to admit that I very much enjoyed my week at sea. My worries about feeling a little trapped did not really manifest themselves as we picked a cruise that stopped most days. I think I would personally struggle with too many sea days but the two we had were nicely relaxing and I managed to get a decent walk in on the promenade deck, although annoyingly parts were closed due to ‘routine maintenance’ on the mornings of both sea days, which rather defeated the object.

The ‘Cruise Log’ we received at the end of the trip indicated that 1612 passengers were on board and I have to say that the boat easily accommodated them and at no time did the boat feel crowded. The food was much better than I had expected, the drinks fairly priced and the service and staff were all excellent. Fellow passengers were mainly retired British as expected but there were a few young families and more 20-40 year olds than I expected. By sharing our table at dinner, we met some interesting people (some more than once, by chance) which was very enjoyable, most of them seasoned cruisers.

I found that the Lido area on the top deck was avoidable, as it did get a little busy with sardine-like rows of bronzing people on sun loungers and was always noisy (and like some of the other places, it was prone to the Teutonic tendency for people to bag their spot all day with towels!). There were however plenty of more peaceful spots, and the waiter service allowed you to keep yourself hydrated with minimum effort. There was also the bonus of a balcony in our cabin which I think is a must and did make for an even more peaceful place to read and relax.

The entertainment was plentiful, aimed at appealing to many different people, and most of the evening shows I saw were pretty good. I did not try out any of the daytime activities so I can’t report back on those or indeed the solution to fluid retention. Some cruises now offer specific themes, such as food, wine tasting or history, which some people might find more to their taste.

So, in a nutshell, cruising really does have a great deal to recommend. While it isn’t the cheapest option, growing demand and bigger ships is bringing prices down. You are well fed, entertained and looked after, which makes for a wonderfully relaxing holiday. What’s more, you are on the sea, which is quite magical, and get to wake up each day to a different view and often to a new destination. And yes, my mum loved it too!

Stefan booked his cruise through Not Just Travel. If you would like to know more about cruising or indeed any other holiday, give Travel Tony a call on 01428 748440, visit www.travel-tony.com or connect on www.Facebook.com/NotJustTravelTonyChant.

For more information on P&O Cruises, please visit www.pocruises.com.

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