My mother-in-law is a keen cruiser and decided to introduce her grand-children to cruise-culture by booking a 16 night Eastern Med cruise for three generations of her family. As any sort of 'package' holiday or Center-Parcs-style experience is anathema to me, I really did not expect to enjoy it. This was reinforced by many of the reviews of the 'Butlin's-at-sea' type on this and other sites. I am pleased to say that my prejudices were largely unfounded and I find myself back on dry-land, sadly missing the whole experience!
Embarkation was very easy, although it should be noted that suits in bags are must be taken on board yourself, as they are not taken by the porters. We turned up a little early and were on the boat within an hour or our arrival by car at the docks. The kids immediately dug into the buffet although I was, for the only time on the cruise, not feeling hungry due to slight sea-sickness (while still in port - oh dear!). Cabins were available after a further hour and luggage turned up well before we left the dock. As soon as the ship started to move, all untoward motion seemed to stop and I was completely unaffected after that.
The cabin (deck 12, outside) was fine, with a dinky shower/toilet room and twin beds which we had pushed together to form a double that evening. There had been slight confusion over the booking but this was easily smoothed over. The balcony was just big enough for two to stretch out but we managed to fit in 5 for late-night drinks. The carpets are probably ripe for replacement (some stains visible) but had obviously been cleaned as well as possible and the decor was in reasonable order. I understand the ship is being re-fitted in March 2013 so this will probably be sorted out then.
We fell into a routine of pre-dinner drinks, usually in Metropolis, Deck 18, at the rear, where views over the ocean (with occasional whales) were lovely. The Atrium and Red Bar were also used but were smaller and sometimes too full for our party. Cocktails seemed to be of a slightly higher standard in Metropolis and came a little more quickly here too, although staff were efficient in all bars. The duo that played most nights, Into the Drift, were a friendly pair of accomplished musicians who knew their audiences well and were happy to play arrangements of modern stuff for the kids. I saw little of the rest of the entertainers but my mother-in-law lapped it all up!
Food was the main pleasure on the boat. I expected to have to eat in White's to get decent quality (paying extra for the privilege) but in the end did not bother. In the evening, freedom dining in Cinnamon was of a very good hotel standard, with many more 'hits' than 'misses'. Poached eggs always had runny yolks; steaks were always cooked as requested (even blue) and squid was lovely and soft. After one try in the buffets, I avoided them, as being too crowded and noisy, with distinctly worse food. The wine-service was a little erratic, with orders being taken before choosing food and then not arriving until after the starters. However, the choice, quality and pricing was pretty good, especially with the packages on offer. Make sure you ask for the Stilton after the meal, as this was not always advertised although many of the other British cheeses were very good and nearly always served warm.
For mornings, I nearly always went to Saffron, where cooked breakfasts were excellent. The choice of fruit and pastries was, however, better, in the buffets. Chefs specials were nice but could range in size from tiny (corn beef hash) to huge (kedgeree). Lunch was also nice in this restaurant, with a curry of the day option popular with the kids. I was disappointed to find that, with so many Indian staff on board, curries were under-spiced and unadventurous, with few chutneys, no raita etc. Afternoon tea was the universal favourite meal, taken at 4pm with a choice of teas, scones with clotted cream, crumpets, teacakes and several delicious freshly baked varieties of freshly-baked cakes. This was always good-humoured, with tables of older children coming to enjoy the ceremony, as well many of the more elderly passengers and families. We did try Ramblas Tapas one lunchtime and it was excellent, for a few pounds more.
I did not try any of the organised activities, mainly because I needed to visit the gym everyday to lose weight! This facility was heavily used for the first two days of the voyage and then nearly empty after that and it had everything I needed. TV coverage of the Olympics was sporadic and usually focused on obscure events with no GB interest.
The 'Butlin's' style elements of the cruise intruded from time-to-time (discos until 12 on the upper decks, crowds of kids in the pools, vastly obese people cramming food in the buffets, teen-scene at night) but it was entirely possible to get away from this in the restaurants, internal bars and other quiet public spaces. It really felt like two cultures being entertained separately with little friction; our teenage children probably enjoyed the livelier side of things while the adults relaxed, ate and chatted in peace. The 'British' atmosphere on the boat was actually pleasant, and contrasted nicely with the ports we visited. The staff were always efficient and polite and sometimes genuinely friendly, despite long hours and low pay. We were happy to pay the automatic tips and a little extra for especially good service.
So, overall, an unexpectedly good experience, which I might repeat in a few years. If doing it again, I would avoid July/August if possible, mainly because of the heat whilst onland but would be happy to cruise P&O and Ventura again.