During the cold days of winter there is no better place to recharge your batteries than the Caribbean. Over the past few years my wife and I have cruised in the Caribbean at this time of the year eight times so we are fairly familiar with the islands most ships visit. Also one of the easiest and economical ways to visit the area is to use P&O' s cruises from Barbados. Other cruises entail going through a USA gateway which are generally more expensive, and involve the dreaded passport control/immigration . You also have the need to have a hotel stay with the hassle of transfers etc. Much better to fly from a local airport direct to Barbados, miss going through passport control on arrival and with no need to touch your luggage until it arrives in your cabin some 4/5 hours after you land. Step off the charter plane [from Manchester this was an Airbus 330 -- very comfortable with plenty of leg room in the standard seats -- no need to lash out on Premium seating as you don't get much extra for your money]. Step off the plane at Barbados, walk 20 paces and board an air conditioned bus for the 45min drive to the ship. Depending on other planes arriving the task of getting on board ship can be somewhat time consuming as the arrivals area is a converted shed with only two luggage scanners. Once aboard you are directed to your cabin, glass of bubbly in hand. Time then to have some food either on deck with a barbeque or in the Venezia cafeteria.
The Ship's design.
We find that in general terms the design of the ship is very good. Obviously other people will place a greater or lesser view on the following comments. The location of the various rooms/areas on-board the ship is very good. One area flows seamlessly into the next without the horrible bottlenecks one can experience on other ships. However there are two or three areas that do not work so well. Deck space is a problem in that sunbeds are not only packed tight in together, but on the Lido Deck 16 three lines of beds leave only room for one person to use the walkway -- there is no such thing as a running track! Also the food servery area in the cafeteria is lacking in circulation space. This would not suit anybody who has claustrophobia. On a more positive note other areas of the ship work well including the aft deck where we had breakfast every morning, the Planet Bar on Deck 18 where you could view some terrific video scenes from around the world on linked screens whilst having a pre-dinner drink, the central three story atrium where bands played and people could either dance or just people watch, the Playhouse theatre giving virtually everyone a decent view of the stage. The other two main entertainment lounges were in the main OK but were always compromised between daytime seating requirements and evening stage type activities.
We had a balcony cabin on Australia [Deck 12]. Experience has taught us to be careful when accepting a cabin on Deck 14 which is just below the Lido deck for a number of reasons. If you are located at the aft end of the ship directly under the Venizia cafeteria you can be woken up in the early morning with noise from the kitchens. If you are located below the central pool area you have the problem that the Lido deck cantilevers over your balcony thereby shading you from the sun. Also you may be disturbed in the early morning or night with the crew washing down the deck or laying out the sunbeds. One tip is to select a cabin close to any of the lifts. You will not experience any lift noise and overcome that often tiresome walk along busy corridors often stacked with cleaning trollies. The cabin layout is OK but could just do with more drawer space. The best thing about the design is the open wardrobe hanging space -- much better access than on other ships which have opening or sliding wardrobe doors. We were fortunate in that our adjacent fellow cruisers were non-smoking so did not have the problem of smoke entering our cabin. If the sun is on your side there is no better place to get away from the crowds than on your balcony. One further tip is when cruising from Barbados try to get a cabin on the starboard side as we find that they give the best views when in most ports. We did not use room service but were appreciative of the in cabin tea making facilities. Our cabin steward was very efficient if a little on the dour side!
An important element of any cruise is the food. We were fortunate in getting Freedom Dining. We had heard that other passengers who had booked late were on a waiting list of 200. We would have been very disappointed if we had been allocated early Club Dining -- 6.30pm is much too early and you would miss the sail-a-ways. We do like meeting new people and Freedom Dining [if you opt to share a table] does give you the opportunity to meet more new people in 2 weeks than you would in a whole year at home! Food quality wherever you dined was of a high standard -- indeed we thought that it had improved slightly since our last cruise on Azura. We dined in the Glass House which was OK for lunch, Venezia self-service for breakfast, Sindhu --the Indian for a treat, and the Verona Trattoria which is well worth a visit if only for the fillet steak which you cut up and cook to your liking on a hot stone -- great! We decided not to visit 17 which at a cost of Â£28/ head was too expensive given the high quality of the food in the Meridian Freedom Dining Room. We thought that the Freedom Dining option was very well organised by the restaurant staff in that even at the busiest times [just after the early show had finished for example] we were only offered a bleeper twice and that was both for a wait of only 10 minutes or so. A previous cruise on Celebrity Silhouette had been a disaster regarding Freedom Dining in that they appeared to allow more passengers Freedom Dining than the restaurant was capable of handling, especially at the peak time of 8.00 -- 8.30pm. This was made worse by the fact that they did not have a bleeper system.
Most staff were courteous which was OK but we felt that some of the bar staff were 'just doing the job' and did not 'engage' with us as for example on Celebrity. The exception was the Meridian dining staff who did work extremely hard -- never forgetting who had ordered which dish. Guest Relations were always helpful and the Entertainment staff were always cheerful.
An important element of the cruise for myself and my wife is the entertainment side of the cruise. Overall the guest entertainers were varied and the resident bands and singers very good. We had seen a number of the shows before but still enjoyed them. My wife went to Line Dancing held on sea days which was always well attended. We twice went to the cinema -- once in the excellent theatre and once outside -- under the stars. As the passengers were almost 100% Brits the entertainment was aimed squarely at us. As usual the sail-a-ways were well attended -- which are a feature of P&O ships -- especially if you have another cruise ship docked next to you. For some reason there did seem to be a lack of cruise ships in our part of the sea which was a good thing when visiting ports where popular beaches etc. can be very crowded.
Ports and Tours
The ports visited varied from islands that were relatively flat and uninteresting to lush and mountainous. The ships tours were as usual rather on the expensive side and for those cruisers wanting a scenic tour you are better off organising your own on the dockside. There are usually plenty of taxi drivers offering their services and you can make it cheaper it you team up with others in a car or mini bus. If you want to try some of the more adventurous tours such as snorkelling you are better off signing up for a ships tour as all transfers [if needed] are arranged and you are always assured that the ship will not go without you if there is a hold up.
As with anything you only get what you pay for and whilst certain elements on a cruise are better on other cruise lines you need to decide whether the package offered by P&O is for you and does it offer value for money. Our conclusion is that this type of cruise ticks many boxes and does satisfy the criteria of good value.