Arcadia just doesn't have the aura of Aurora!
(Sub-titled Has P & O lost the plot?)
We are both fairly new to cruising and Cruise J202 to The Atlantic Islands onboard Arcadia was our first time on this particular (adults-only) ship after having taken our three previous cruises on Aurora.
I celebrated my 73rd birthday while on board. My wife who had her 65th birthday just before we embarked, is mobility disabled and almost completely confined to a wheel-chair. We travelled to Southampton via the dedicated service of Eavesway Travel. [After loading our luggage on to the coach at Nottingham Trowell Services on the M1 .... we didn't see it again until it was delivered to our balcony cabin for the disabled - A31]. It was a splendid service.
The decor and presentation of this cabin was excellent and impressive although, as we slowly discovered, there was much less drawer storage than on Aurora but, surprisingly, there was no easy chair or sofa in the cabin - only 2 rather uncomfortable straight-backed chairs. We hadn't packed bath-robes as they had always been provided on the Aurora but William, our ever-resourceful cabin steward managed to provide 2 within a day of asking.
Arcadia is well-appointed .... quite posh even - as you'd expect from a ship that was originally built to be Cunard's Queen Victoria. All the public parts were very smart and clean although there were less-public parts of the ship that were a bit shabby with peeling varnish on the balcony hand-rails, corroded bottom rails under the glass panels of our balcony, peeling white paint on the balcony light-housing, paint and varnish splatters on (our) balcony deck. 'A little tired' is how we would describe it. (Photo's are available!)
We found the food to be excellent and had the edge on Aurora's offerings last Xmas & New Year with quite generous portions. The executive chef, Steve Butcher and his chefs did a splendid job.
(On our last cruise on Aurora we unfortunately contracted noro-virus during a rather serious out-break. First my wife was quarantined in our cabin for 2 full days. On the 3rd day - inevitably, I'd guess, I went down with it - losing us 5 days out of a 15-day cruise. (After our return I read somewhere that the virus was 'rife' on Aurora.) It's worthy of comment that P & O didn't provide as much as a free bottle of water which we were exhorted to drink lots of, despite not having to provide us with the richer ship-board fare for several days. How mean can P & O get?)
Unfortunately Arcadia had a minor outbreak of noro-virus on this cruise, too! It struck me that it broke out about the same number of days into the cruise as on Aurora! Maybe the virus is endemic on board (some) cruise-ships and the few days before the outbreak is the incubating period for the new passengers? (I have only just read that Arcadia already had the virus on board on the last leg of the world cruise immediately prior to this cruise).
We had the somewhat ludicrous situation of those little jars of marmalade and jams being served with tongs at breakfast! (I'd bet though they were put on the serving plate by human hand!). On the last night at dinner our waiter was personally sprinkling salt from a salt-cellar over each diner's food thus slowing down the service (I guess they'd run out of the individual paper-wrapped salt and pepper). On 1 occasion I was served my breakfast on a dirty plate (a small smear of food that had got baked onto the rim). Hardly conducive to hygiene in the prevailing circumstances. We nevertheless managed to avoid contracting the noro-virus again by taking extra precautions such as using my elbow to press lift buttons, using anti-viral Kleenex tissues we'd taken with us, as a barrier when touching toilet door-handles and scrupulously washing hands on returning to our cabin etc, etc. In a Gents toilet the hot-air hand-dryer carried a notice saying it had been deliberately switched off for hygiene reasons and to use the paper towels instead. The towel dispenser was empty! (You've got to laugh - haven't you?)
I do, however, wonder about the hygiene of the wine-stewards' ubiquitous pens for signing bar chits which are handled by all and sundry unless you go tee-total! (Fat chance of that!) And what about those now somewhat dog-eared breakfast menus handed out every morning and those wooden menu-holders at dinner at night?
The general demeanour and disappointingly poor attitude of some (few) crew-members was noticeable. For example, when pushing my wife in her wheel-chair the full length of the (rather long) corridor (we were forward and the dining room was well aft!) a crew member pushing a laden trolley coming in the opposite direction was quite determined not to give way to let us through and it was we who backed up! We'd never experienced that ever before - or since, as usually the crew have always given way with a pleasant smile and good grace. Nor did the waiters seem as cheerful as we have come to expect. Maybe it was the new tipping system they are unhappy about or was it just their morale that was low? (Some of our fellow cruisers had the gratuities taken off their on-board accounts at an early stage).
At one memorable breakfast, it took our table of 8 souls a whole hour and 10 minutes to finish - with appallingly slow service. We waited 20 minutes before we were served tepid weak tea. A fellow passenger ordered croissants at 8:45am but after reminding the waiter was told at 9:20 there were no more. (They did however manage to rustle up 2 cold croissants for the lady - eventually). On complaining to the head waiter the excuse given was that they were 'very busy' as too many passengers had turned up for breakfast at the same time. (How very inconsiderate of them!) This was simply not true and some passengers who arrived after us were served promptly and had left the dining room while we were still waiting to be served plus there were quite a few vacant places at some nearby tables. We were effectively the forgotten table. (It was an at-sea day anyway but it caused really serious disruption to our plans for doing absolutely nothing at all for the day!)
There were often quite long queues to enter the main dining room for meals.
I mentioned earlier about the shabbiness in a few places. Passengers pay quite a high premium for having a balcony so it is galling to be denied its use. For instance, when power-washing the balconies the cabin stewards would close off a run of 10 balconies for a whole hour while they started cleaning at one end and worked steadily down all 10. Why not do the balconies singly on a schedule?
Rather heavy cosmetic de-rusting and renovation of the ship's super-structure (noisy grinding and riveting activities) was performed on some days - just above the balconies on our side of the ship which made it impossible to use the balconies for quite long periods of time.
On one day the whole of the starboard side (the sunny side, as it happened!) of the promenade deck was barred to passengers while the ship's crew swung out the life-boats on their davits - for inspection and power-washing for most of the day-time hours. There were a couple of hours when there was noticeably very little crew activity. At the same time a large area of the Sun Deck 10 was also closed off for ship maintenance!
(I readily accept that certain tasks are vital for the safety of passengers and crew but could not P & O after, say, every 2 or 3 cruises, take a full 24-hour day to turn the ship around from one cruise to the next instead of the current 7 or 8 hours turn-around? That way they could blitz the ship and do the heavier maintenance work. But, I think I know the answer to that!)
On disembarkation day, 2 of the available 4 lifts were taken out of service so that the crew could expeditiously move a small mountain of cardboard boxes and cushions. This made the disembarkation process somewhat protracted and more difficult for passengers - a high proportion of whom were elderly and/or disabled and had long journeys in front of them!
I reached the conclusion that fare-paying passengers were just not conducive to the smooth and efficient running of this particular P & O cruise ship! Or, is P & O losing the plot?
Here's a tip. I took a chance and over the Internet booked a private taxi-tour for 3Â½ hours on Madeira. It worked perfectly. Carlos, our driver was so very helpful and even took over the wheel-chair pushing duties from me. And all for just 80 Euros for the pair of us and was much cheaper (and better!) compared to any similar tour booked through the ship's excursion desk. In Cadiz I took a 1-hour taxi-tour of the city costing 40 Euros with a non-English speaking driver who valiantly called out the name of the historical buildings to me just like an Englishman abroad - if you shout loud enough then Johnny Foreigner will always understand.
It was however, very pleasant to escape the wild northern European weather for several days. Plus I was excused duties of chief cook and bottle-washer, too!
Over-all and despite the fore-going we DID enjoy the cruise! Rather like the curate's egg .... It was good in parts!
(We have a previously booked 2012 Xmas and 2013 New Year cruise aboard Arcadia! The comparison will be revealing!)