Cruise - Ocean Cruise
The changing face of cruising
118 people found this review helpful
My friend Alan from cruisingmates.co.uk invited me to copy my review here on your lovely site & I'm delighted so to do.
We've just returned from a fantastic 2 week cruise around the Western Med on Ventura, and what follows is our take on it. It is a lengthy review, for which I apologise in advance, but I wanted to cover all the things we found important or interesting. We travelled as a party of ten this time, with a spread of ages from 12 to 70.
We always aim to arrive in Southampton around noon. This is not simply to take best personal advantage, but with a 3-hour drive for three vehicles, we have to factor in the possibility of delays or problems, and aiming for the beginning of the afternoon gives us the room to improvise if we had to. Interestingly (and to the alarm of other passengers who saw us arrive looking like the ‘Clampetts’) we took a van as one of the vehicles, which took all the luggage (and there was lots) leaving the other cars clutter-free.
C&PS were, as always, super efficient taking the cars away, and within minutes we were sitting in the new(ish) Ocean Terminal, clutching our letter ‘H’ cards. There were already around 200-300 people present but we were soon called to board. What a contrast exists between boarding a ship and boarding a plane. Presumably broadly similar rules are in place, but P&O manage to make this experience actually a pleasure, something which has long disappeared from the experience of getting on a plane. We were soon on board enjoying a light lunch whilst we waited for the cabins to be readied.
We took two inside cabins, one for us, one for our girls. They were small but well designed. The walk-in wardrobe is a clever space saver, and whilst the bathrooms are not designed for someone of my height or build, they do ‘function’. Others of the party chose a balcony cabin, and the overall experience has enabled me to reach a conclusion about which sort of cabin to take in future. Previously, we loved having a balcony, but unless the incentive is huge we will in future stick with insides. We really spent so little time there. I think that is doubly the case on Ventura, with its atmosphere of constant activity, but it is the simple economic case that we could cruise more often inside than with a balcony (an outside seems neither one thing nor the other) and in the end that’s what counts.
We chose freedom dining. For the last 3 cruises on P&O we’ve done the same and never had cause to regret it. Even with such large party we were never once not seated immediately, despite arriving many nights at peak times. The waiters were first class, though my sister-in-law/BiL did have the experience, dining alone one night, of a miserable waiter who was so obviously misplaced as to be entertaining.
Food was, as usual, very good, though we were agreed that there has been a subtle decline in the last 3 or 4 years. I don’t think this is just Ventura, as we first noticed the trend on Azura a year ago. The daytime cakes and sweets are more blancmange-type creations, and much less the cheesecakes and other expensive items which used to be commonplace. The evening main courses have largely been maintained, but gone is the Steak/Chicken option every night, and there are a few too many dishes not dependent on prime cuts of meat. The sweets and cakes at dinner are definitely of a lesser quality than they once were. That said, the food overall was enjoyable. We ate breakfast alternate days in the waiter-served restaurant or the Beach House buffet, thereby accommodating the different preferences of the group. For lunch it was either the buffet or, for the girls, a pizza or burger or many days nothing at all (if you exclude ice-cream, cakes etc) Many early afternoons we would enjoy a fantastic Frappe in the Costa Coffee concession on deck 5, which was accompanied by a fantastic ‘old-style’ P&O cake.
Before we leave the subject of food, we must mention the option of the Beach House restaurant in the evening. The buffet area on one side of the beach house is transformed each night into an American style diner. There is no automatic surcharge though one or two dishes do attract a small supplement. We ate here 2 or 3 times when the MDR menu didn’t appeal, and each time it was a hit. They have incorporated some of the popular dishes from Azura’s Trattoria, including the fillet of beef on Lava rock. This was a hit and well worth the small (I think £5 or £6) supplement.
Amazingly, we managed to get seated as a group every time we tried whereas previously (On Ventura and Azura) if you weren’t there at opening time then you would be disappointed. One of the officers told me this was because on our cruise the majority of passengers were first-timers (65%). The more usual ratio is apparently 75% returning customers; whatever the reason, we were pleased, as this really is a treat which can be had at no extra cost.
Entertainment was very good, particularly the Headliner’s Theatre Company. 3 times a night really is some effort, and they do it well. My sense was that whilst many if not most of the shows are newly titled with new sets, lots of the components of the shows, either individual songs or groups of songs, are identical to previous shows. Maybe after a few years they blend into one anyway, but whatever the make-up of the shows they are very well staged. One surprising thing we noticed this year was that even the narration is a recording to which the cast mime. It’s long been obvious that many of the songs are recordings, but this is the first year we’ve noticed that the ‘narrator’ is miming (for instance introducing the next portion of the show, or attributing various songs to some musical show or other). In one of the shows the narrator clearly had a blank moment – mouth slightly ajar and a look of horror in the eyes – but the story carried on in the background as if straight from his lips for maybe 5 or 6 seconds. Certainly long enough to be certain.
The various hop-on/hop-off acts were OK. The comedians were generally good, though one was dire. I won’t mention his name as it may just have been a bad day, but of the others, Martin Gold was the best. He really does have that exceptional timing that distinguishes the best comedians. There was a lady singer, whose name I have shamefully lost, who was very good. I will post her name separately as a recommendation.
The general atmosphere around the ship is, I have no doubt, not to everyone’s taste and certainly not along the lines of traditional P&O ships. It is often quite loud and at times almost hectic, but it is no less of an enjoyable experience for all that, just a different one. I think people who board looking for the same experience they had on Artemis or Aurora or whatever are bound to be disappointed, but the fault really is their own. I think by now it’s clear that Ventura is pioneering a different type of cruising, which is not simply a copy of what other less structured lines already offer.
What Ventura offers is the vibrancy and party mood of the less traditional lines allied to the best of the formality which has long been P&O’s hallmark. It achieves this delicate balance well; for example formal night dress codes are very well respected – at least as well as I recall on Azura. I think if people wanted just casual, then they would find a way to opt out of the formal nights, which on P&O are really formal. They don’t do this, suggesting the blend of casual day and elegant night is something people want. The best of both worlds, perhaps.
As long as both types of experience are available, the traditional and the ‘new’ people really have no need to disrespect the choices of others.
The on-board lectures/guest appearance were less enjoyable than I had hoped. There was a lecture about the Rugby World Cup which I anticipated with relish, but it was ultimately disappointing (attributing a quote to Zinedine Zedane [a footballer], when you mean Zinzan Brooke, is an example, but by no means a lone one). The man’s other lectures – all on a sporting theme – may well have been better, but this one should have been more interesting.
I’ve no real interest in the B-list ‘slebs’ appearances, but I do wonder how much of an attraction is a deputy football commentator anyway? Matt Lorenzo was billed as a ‘sky sports presenter’, and was meant thereby to be a draw all of his own, but I don’t see it.
Excursions were, as is usually expressed here, expensive, but it’s clear the people who populate cruise forums are atypical of the people who go on cruises. Every port the coaches carrying the formal excursions were lined up alongside and even on less well known ports, there were many. On popular ports, like Civitavvechia, the coaches were lined up as far as you could see. This must be a real earner for P&O, and adopting an entirely selfish attitude I should say long may it continue as it subsides me to cruise more cheaply, but other than the guarantee of not missing your own sailaway party, is it value for money?
For Rome, we took the train from Civitavvechia station and 45 minutes later, and €9 lighter, we were at San-Pietro station. From there it’s 15 minute walk to the Vatican museum. If I pass only one tip worth having it’s this: buy your tickets on-line beforehand. We visited on a Saturday, and by buying tickets online avoided between 90 minutes and 2 hours queuing. Maybe more. The queue went on for ever, whilst we walked straight in even though we were an hour earlier than the time I had pre-booked.
The Vatican museum provokes strange emotions. On the one hand it is the repository for some of the finest pieces of art ever produced, and it does an excellent job of sharing it, but on the other you have to face the uncomfortable truth that the church’s vast wealth (and it is vast) could be put to more Christian uses. That quibble apart, the visit was exceptional. We spent the whole day in the Vatican, and still really rushed things.
Monaco was very nice. My daughters enjoyed posing for photos in front of some of the most expensive shops in the world, and it was worth the visit just to see the cars.
I must just mention the Tender trip. We had a trainee driver, supervised by another young man alongside sharing the driver’s seat, both superintended by a third man, this time an officer standing in the well of the boat. The trainee was in charge of the steering wheel and the supervisor the throttle. What should have taken 5 or 6 minutes took 20, and never have I stepped off a craft with more conviction never to repeat the experience. We bumped the breakwater which was fully 100 metres out of our intended path, and the whole journey was only brought to an end when the officer clambered up the small ladder and joined in himself with controls. That made 3 of them grabbing for the wheel and pushing random buttons. Somehow we lurched the last 20-30 metres, whilst the trainee spun the wheel this way and that with a flourish, never giving the boat long enough to respond before applying some massive over-correction, as his supervisor applied either full power or reverse depending on the noise from the by-now nauseous passengers. This actually sounds more co-ordinated than it actually was. There were many green faces stepping off the boat, and I noticed that when it came time to return, our outward team had been benched, and were helping people on and off the boats, and a completely new driver had taken over the controls!
At Livorno we took a large taxi to Florence & Pisa which was cheaper and much more convenient than the ship’s coaches. The coaches cannot access the old town, meaning a 30-minute walk according to some passengers we recognised. We were dropped off actually in front of the Dome, and were free to wander as we chose until meeting up again with our driver 4 hours later. On the drive back we stopped at the ‘Piazzale Michaelangelo’ from which you get the fantastic views across the old city.
We returned to the ship via PISA, which has been spruced up and now looks the part. Some fantastic photo opportunities, and some fun watching the Italian police chasing some incomprehending Russians off the grass, only for them to return the second the policeman turned his back. This went on for 20 minutes.
For other ports, we did our own thing. Barcelona is trading a bit on its reputation, we think, and the walk up Las Ramblas is nothing like the experience it was just a few short years ago. There are very few of the street mimes and artists that used to be such a feature, and there is a real plague of beggars. I read whilst there of a stag night from Leicester Tigers Rugby team being mugged, so if the muggers will target them they’ll target anyone! There are lots of things to do from Barca, but I think the simple pleasure of a walk from the drop-off point through the main street is no longer what it was.
Palma was nice, but Alicante looks a bit ragged and Gibraltar is Gibraltar. One interesting point was that as the ship crabbed away from its berth in Gib, a taxi screeched to a halt on the quayside and out jumped a man who, by his gestures, managed to put across the impression that he’d much rather be aboard. I’m not sure if he was a passenger or crew, but he ran up and down the jetty making ever more desperate entreaties for the ship’s return. I don’t know if he was seen from the bridge, but if he was a calculation was made that it wasn’t worth the hassle of return, and the man was last seen climbing back in the taxi and driving back towards the Marina. We imagined a hasty charter being agreed with one of the many fast boats moored there, but no fast boat, or boat of any kind chased us, so we presume the man had to make his way home from there? I can’t begin to imagine the hassle of trying to travel without money/passport etc, but equally he can’t have been the first, and at least he was in a British territory, which presumably will make it a little bit easier.
Overall, we had a very enjoyable time and for us Ventura ticks all the boxes. I must stress that my points about the atmosphere not suiting everyone has nothing to do with age. Our group was quite a spread of ages, and we all found things to enjoy. It’s much more to do with attitude. I can well understand why some people don’t like Ventura, and I don’t think it unreasonable to expect that same courtesy in return without people making lazy comparisons with holiday camps etc.
It is different, there is no doubt, and as well as catching all the new cruisers who perhaps had not previously considered cruise holidays, there is also a constituency of cruisers like us who have longed for some of the traditional experience, but want to see it allied with a bit more of a contemporary atmosphere. On Ventura we get that. It will be interesting to see which model of cruising P&O impose on it’s big new ship in 2015. Times are changing.
118 people found this review helpful
This review is solely based on the opinion of a Silver Travel Advisor member and not of Silver Travel Advisor Ltd.