B A C K G R O U N D
I began searching for a Summer 2012 cruise back in October 2011. I was due to travel with my best friend- we are both 18 years of age and have known each other for more than 15 years, and now, as senior school came to a close, we were both set to live in opposite parts of the world. As such, we decided to celebrate by booking a cruise- originally, I had planned a transatlantic crossing aboard Cunard Line's Queen Mary 2, but upon calling their London office they informed me that they had very recently changed their minimum age policies to align it with US cruise lines, and as such one passenger had to be aged 21 or above... ultimately, I settled on P&O Cruises. Not only due to the fact that my friend and I would be allowed onboard, but also for the itinerary, price, and date- everything just came together. I booked the 9 night 'Atlantic Coast' voyage aboard the MV Oceana, the former MV Ocean Princess of P&O's sister line, Princess Cruises. I then settled back in fine anticipation. One note I must address, however, is how my reviews tend to work- I think one of the most important things in travel is value for money. The Oceana will not be compared to the Crystal Serenity or Seabourn Odyssey because these vessels tend to charge considerably more, the fact is in my humble opinion, I believe if one feels that they have received a wonderful holiday for the money paid, people tend to be back, but if short-changed, the feeling would be otherwise. I booked an 'OG' inside cabin, which put me on Deck 11 forward, cabin number A331. The voyage cost Â£1,030 per passenger.
P R E- C R U I S E
As we both live on a tiny island in the Persian Gulf known as the Kingdom of Bahrain, we flew into London Gatwick two nights prior to the start of the cruise. After having spent over 2 hours in an immigration queue at Heathrow Airport in April, 2012, I had gone well out of my way to arrive into Gatwick, and was not disappointed- I was through immigration in under 5 minutes. We stayed in my favorite London hotel, '41', by Red Carnation. Rated as number 1 hotel in London by Trip Advisor, this was my second time staying there in as many months, and as always, the property did not disappoint. I truly, truly recommend staying there if you are looking for a five star property in London- there is no point looking anywhere else, for the hotel not only provides the sheer luxury that one would expect of a hotel of this stature, but more importantly, world-beating personalized service that is truly exceptional in everyway. On the 24th of June, the day of the cruise, we boarded a train at London Waterloo, bound for Southampton Central. An hour and a half later, we were strewn on a platform in Southampton, bursting in excitement at the fine prospect of joining a luxurious passenger ship, as so many had done before. In less than 15 minutes, we arrived at the Mayflower Cruise Terminal.
E M B A R K A T I O N
The Mayflower Cruise Terminal is one of the oldest dedicated cruise terminals in the world, built in 1968- from the interior, you'd never had guessed it. The terminal looks exceedingly modern, and for a vessel carrying 2,100 passengers, the check in operation was relatively painless. We arrived for check in by the pre-stated 1:00pm time, and while a relatively long queue did exist, it moved quickly... we were at the check in desk a mere 20 minutes later, and by 1:30pm, aboard the Oceana, heading to the crowded lido deck for lunch. Overall, yet another smooth embarkation (I have been very lucky with those), that was handled very well by P&O Cruises and the Port of Southampton.
T H E S H I P
I was very excited to try the Oceana. She is the last of Princess Cruises' Sun Class cruise ships, built in 2000 by Fincantieri. The Oceana is a ship of mid 1990s design, a sister to the 1996 built Dawn Princess. One of the finest attributes (at least I find) about cruise vessels built in the mid 1990s is the fact that they were created at a time when the great cruise boom had just begun. They took the best attributes of previous cruise ships, such as the Song of America, and evolved that design. They were arguably the first cruise ships to feel like cruise ships- decidedly different from ocean liners, yet nonetheless not theme parks at sea. Vessels of this vintage also seemed to use a lot of dark wood and marble in their designs, creating a relatively cozy, even somewhat intimate atmosphere, something that the newer, larger ships seem to lack. More so than that however, I love their size- not too large, and not too small.
Unfortunately however, the biggest let down on this cruise was the centerfold- the Oceana herself. There is no way to put this lightly- I found the ship's design/layout to have been nothing short of terrible. Not only is pretty much everything centered around Deck 7, but other than the forward lido buffet, which the designers sought to create into a multi use area (i.e. a dance floor/observation lounge/lido- and was used for nothing more than trivia the whole cruise long), there were no public areas above Deck 8 (unless you count the spa/gym). The Oceana is a ship with generous space- and yet, with everything being placed on only two decks, passengers don't, so to speak, 'travel' around the ship- personally speaking, I find the placement of lounges around the vessel to really create a feeling of space. Aboard the Oceana, one could not go up to Deck 12 to have afternoon tea in an observation lounge or a quick drink in the Crow's Nest. One couldn't move around, indeed everything was found on one deck, and when we had extended time at sea this did, to a degree, feel constricting. Even the pool deck is designed in a way that it has no dance floor, which disables the entertainment team to really get people up and dancing during sail-aways or tropical parties. Just one very obvious example of the Oceana's bad design is the placement of the library opposite the nightclub. The ship's crew had to close a firedoor from one of the nightclub's entrances in order to stop sound 'bleeding' into the library, yet it was certainly still noticeable. It would have done Princess and Fincantieri no harm to place the vessel's nightclub Deck 12 aft, for example.
Other than the bad layout, the Oceana was nicely decorated/furnished. Plenty of marble and wood, a stunning atrium and overall cozy feel to the ship. She is, however, as many have previously said, tired and in desperate need for her November2012 refurbishment. Passengers who had balcony cabins complained of rust and the public areas were somewhat tired. After her refurbishment, she should look very nice from the interior- the Yacht & Compass proved to be my favorite place aboard the ship, for I loved the warmness of the bar. Nonetheless, as I have said, other than her layout (which I feel detracts a lot from the ship), the Oceana is not a bad vessel to sail on, but to me, her layout was a deal breaker. The Oceana is also an unstable vessel. We did not sail in seas that could be considered rough, but she always gently rocked- I personally do not mind this at all but am certain some passengers will. Having sailed a number of vessels of all sizes, there are some more stable than others- the Oceana is on the lower end of that scale, with some movement even in calm seas. If you are prone to sea sickness I would keep that in mind.
One thing I did love about P&O Cruises however was there use of terms such as 'Executive Purser' instead of Hotel Director, passengers instead of guests and ship's company instead of staff. P&O Cruises are proud to be a cruise line, rather than a floating resort service, and they do not try to hide the fact that we are on a cruise, but rather, cherish that fact.
C A B I N
Surprisingly spacious would be the best words to use in this regard. Cabin A331 was a standard inside cabin, and was much wider than I had anticipated. Although the cabin was compact, it was functional, with a little bit of space left over. The toilet was too much larger than I had expected, and this all created a very pleasant cabin experience. Nonetheless, the cabin, was the case of most of the ship, desperately needed a refurbishment. The cabinet had a tremendous amount of chips in the wood, the some drawers would get stuck even when empty, the carpet while clean looked tired- in other words, the whole place needed a freshening up. After the upcoming refurbishment in November, 2012, this should be addressed.
S E R V I C E
Generally, service aboard Oceana ranged from good to very good. The crew did their job and did it well. Our cabin stewardess was patient with my mess, cleaned the cabin well twice a day, our waiters, while they could have been better, were nonetheless very willing and pleasant. Bar staff, as well as the entertainment staff were too very approachable and friendly, doing their job well. I did find, however, that Filipino service staff tend to be more bubbly, always smiling and possessing that extra sparkle that is so important in the service industry. Their international counterparts did their job (nothing wrong with that), but I did find the three Filipinos I dealt with to go above and beyond nearly always. Overall five out of five in the service department, as for a large ship carrying 2,000 passengers, the service fully met my expectations.
E N T E R T A I N T M E N T
The entertainment on the Oceana was varied, but I have a hunch that P&O Cruises have cut down greatly in this department. This is mainly because on some nights the ship's main theatre, Footlights, would be showing tennis or football, rather than full-fledged shows. Nonetheless, every night there would either be a cabaret act or a production show. The cabaret acts consisted mainly unknown performers doing the cruise ship circuit, and the vast majority of them tended to be very entertaining. The production shows on the other hand, need a tad of work. While the singers can sing, and the dancers could dance, for one reason or an other I felt like it didn't come together very well, and the shows were, on average, quite poor. This is perhaps due to the fact that the 'Headliners Company' on our ship had only boarded a few months prior, and many of them were 18-20, doing their first job. Perhaps after some experience things would improve. Nonetheless, although these shows did tend to be slightly poor they did what they sought out to do- entertain the audience.
The singing around the ship consisted of bands and piano players, and they were all fine. They did add a lot of atmosphere to the vessel as she sailed into the early hours of the morning.
However, one must say that there was not much of a lecture/enrichment program onboard, so do keep that in mind if that is something important to you. Marco Pierre White was aboard our sailing, and he did do a Q&A question with Nigel, the cruise director, before taking questions from the floor. He then did a book signing session, and took as long as 5 minutes with each individual passenger. He was pleasant and polite in the extreme, we briefly spoke about cruise ships prior to him signing my travel journal.
F O O D
I found the food on the Oceana to be of a very good quality. Meals were cooked well, and the vast majority satisfied both the taste buds and the stomach. I did have a few meals that could have easily been better, yet these things happen on the vast majority of ships. Our table mates did complain in regards to the food, but I felt that most of the food presented was satisfactory, some dishes above even that. Food at the lido buffet was alright, there was indeed a good variety. The Horizon Grill was fabulous- the burgers served there were even better, dare I say it, than the ones I enjoyed aboard the Crystal Serenity- a six star ship that charges well above the price one would pay to sail on the Oceana. Indeed, the burgers served there were sublime (Oceana). Overall, I think passengers should have little problem in the food department.
P O R T S O F C A L L
Vigo, Spain- A nice enough city in the north of Spain, this was my second time in Vigo, the first being on my first cruise in July, 2005, and goodness me have things changed. There is an entire new waterfront development; the city was very different from what I remembered. We did a ship-sponsored excursion to a nearby natural park, accessible by 20 minutes aboard a fast ferry, and were not disappointed. There was a lovely albeit slightly cold beach, a forest and a mountain that the guide let us climb. From up top the views were nothing short of fabulous. After our return by 2pm we walked around the city but it was during their daily lunch hour and as such everything was closed. Overall, I felt that it was a day well spent.
Lisbon, Portugal- In my opinion, one of the nicest, most charming capital cities in Europe. We did another ship's tour, this time heading out through the city and then on to Cascias and Estoril. Both these resort towns too displayed plenty of charm, and Estoril felt like a 'cheaper' Monte Carlo- cheaper not in the sense of tacky, but just more inexpensive. I did love Portugal and so, another day well spent.
Cadiz, Spain- Cadiz has that real 'Spanish' feel to it, and although most cruise ships tend to use it as a gateway to Seville, Cadiz in itself has plenty to offer. Right outside the cruise terminal lays the station for the hop on hope off bus, and a ticket costs only 15 euros. I would recommend anyone planning a stay in Cadiz to use this instead of the ship's tours, for in an hour it takes you (along with commentary) to all the important places within this island city. You can then chose to visit once again the important landmarks. The main tower of Cadiz's cathedral proved to be a lovely place to climb up. Following that, we walked around, lunched on paella in one of the city's squares, and spent the rest of the day walking on smaller inner roads. I have been to Seville previous, and it is a beautiful city all in itself. Nonetheless, if you would rather not embark on a 9 to 10 hour excursion, Cadiz does indeed have plenty to offer.
Casablanca, Morocco- Many aboard the ship complained about why the Oceana stopped in Casablanca, for the city is hardly wealthy, and indeed plenty of poverty is on display from the minute the ship docks, for it can be seen from the port itself. On the other hand, Casablanca was one of the reasons why I booked this trip in the first place- it is one of those cities that I had always wanted to see and experience. Being an Arab myself also meant that I could understand some of what the people there were saying (although the Moroccan dialect is very different from the Arabic spoken in other parts of the Arab world). I did the Imperial Rabat tour, and for only Â£37, I found it to be an extraordinarily tremendous value. The tour took us out of Casablance for the 2 hour drive to the kingdom's capital, Rabat. There we visited the royal palace, a mausoleum, an old Moorish fortress and a little bit of the cornice. All in all it was truly worthwhile. Upon our return to Casablanca 9 hours later we still had a little bit of time on our hands and such I ventured out into Casablanca. I walked through some of the roughest parts of town (I did speak their language), and went to also see the King Hassan II mosque, which was quite impressive. Other than that, there is very little to do or see in Casablanca. Rabat displays some of that more traditional Arab culture, and is far, far more impressive or beautiful than Casablaca.
Gibraltar, UK Territory- The ship only stayed in Gibraltar until 1:00pm and as such I took it as a sea day- I had been there two times previous and once one climbs the rock and walks around the town there is little else to do. As such, I simply stayed aboard the Oceana and relaxed on the ship. I heard one of the reasons why the Oceana stayed so little is due to Gibraltar charging a hefty Â£8,000 an hour for a vessel to dock there. They also forced P&O Cruises to forego the complimentary shuttle service as the territory itself provided it, for a fee of course. All in all, I felt they were abusing the fact that cruise passengers have some money to spend to a degree that I am no longer interested in visiting the territory. Their new, aggressive policy may see them loose more than they gain in the long run, as ships begin spending less and less time there- in P&O's brochure I noticed more and more vessels were spending less time in Gibraltar.
D I S E M B A R K A T I O N
Disembarkation was efficient, but far more crowded, as we sailed into Southampton on the 3rd of July, 2012, the date of their 'Grand Event', celebrating 175 years since the foundation of P&O Cruises. All seven ships were in Southampton, and it was a sight to savor. The MV Adonia was sharing the Queen Elizabeth II Passenger Terminal with us, and so, as one can imagine, it got a little bit crowded, and there was a general taxi shortage. It was about a 45 minute wait to get a taxi, and once we were onboard, Southampton was somewhat grid locked. Ultimately, we managed to get to the train station and off the ship. When one keeps in mind that 15,000 passengers had just disembarked and 15,000 more were arriving to board the vessels, P&O Cruises did a remarkable job.
C O N C L U S I O N
The Atlantic Coast was a very enjoyable cruise. I would certainly sail with P&O Cruises again, although I would avoid the Oceana for aforementioned reasons. I would think a cruise on the Aurora, Oriana or even the Adonia would suit me quite well. On the whole, P&O Cruises provided a very enjoyable, even solid experience for the price paid. While the ship herself could have been far better, the voyage was nonetheless an enjoyable experience.