We are a couple in our late forties, and this May we abandoned our children for the first time (they *are* old enough before you worry) to take a somewhat belated 20th Anniversary break on a cruise liner. A four day break to Zeebrugge in Belgium and Guernsey.
We've actually been considering this for years, it was seriously mooted for our honeymoon, but we've never really got round to it before. We chose P&O based on a mixture of recommendations, reading, and where we (or to be more precise, the missus) fancied going.
We arrived early at Southampton, despite it being a bank holiday. We arranged to book with CPS who handle the parking for that port. Sadly, this was a complete shambles on both entry and exit (see later for exit)
On entry, we were fed into a "loop" near the checkin area where they pick up your bags and drive your car off. There were many cars waiting to be checked in, we waited about an hour and a quarter. I spoke to one of the security men who was getting worried because they simply didn't have enough space to put any further cars if any more turned up. In his view (and he was right as far as I could see) the delay was due to undermanning by CPS - there were several 'check in' lanes but only one was in operation and could handle about a dozen cars at once, each taking maybe five minutes. This was hugely unimpressive but we didn't mind too much because it was a nice day.
When we actually got to offload this was done very well. We progressed to the terminal building to a far more efficient system run by P+O where they checked tickets, took photographs and credit cards and so on. This took no time at all, but we then went to another long queue caused, I think, by the Port Authorities not employing enough staff where they checked the baggage. Then, finally, we got on the boat and headed for our cabin.
We had booked an outside cabin with a balcony on Deck A. It was spacious (more than expected) and clean - there was a large double bed, a TV showing assorted cable-type shows and an information channel, a seperate bathroom and the balcony. We also had a fridge which was filled with the drinks we had brought on board (including a bottle of Champagne the missus had sneaked on)
One of the cases was not ours - it belonged to the deck below. We brought this to the attention of the steward (ess ? she was female) and it was taken away. Ten minutes later it was back :) despite being clearly labelled.
Staff overall were excellent though throughout, nothing was too much trouble. Most of the staff were Indian, from the Goa area I understand. Our fellow Passengers were also very pleasant. Whether we were lucky, or this is a function of the holiday I do not know, but we spoke with a cross section of ages and social classes over the break (if you know what I mean !) and everyone was very friendly. Didn't see any 'hen party' behaviour at all.
The first thing we went to was the raffle for free treatments at the Spa, obviously a loss leader to get people in. Whilst the girls doing the work were excellent, I didn't like its hard sell mentality at all. I was able to hear the manager tell the girls to stand near the exits to give passengers a tour as they exited (most people left after the raffle) and we were asked to stand, for a contrived reason, in cabin floor groups. The cynic in me says this is a handy way of grouping people by finances. The missus did have a massage and said it was very good, but it was expensive, probably a 30% markup unlike the rest of the ship where prices for drinks etc. were about par.
We had all our dinners in the Bay View restaurant, club dining, just a table for two though we did chat with the couple on the table next to us. Service was generally excellent, and there was no push towards expensive wines - I don't drink much wine and the missus just drinks a glass or two a night, so we only used two bottles in four days, which was reasonably priced. The food was well presented. Portions were on the small side but there were several courses and we always felt full when we left.
We went to the first two of the four main performances in the Arena theatre. The first night the show was a performance of 70s classics (the missus is slighly younger than me, mistaking Suzi Quatro for Blondie - possible grounds for divorce) and was done by the resident song and dance group. It was great fun, lasting about 45 minutes or so with no interval. The second show was a Take That tribute band who were pretty good. I enjoyed it even though I only recognised about half the songs. The third night was the resident theatre group again doing songs from the musicals, and the last night was a comic. There were usually a couple of other performances going on elsewhere, we saw an Annie Lennox tribute, there was a Johnny Cash tribute, an impressionist and two chaps who sang with a piano, and a couple of house singers who appeared at odd times.
We slept well. One thing that we didn't suffer from was noisy announcements, these only came though if you had the information channel on.
In the morning, just, we went to the Breakfast buffet which was pretty good, a mixture of continental, fruit and English fry up. This was the source of one of the very few complaints I had - the orange juice was frequently watery. It's a sign of how much we enjoyed the cruise that the 'complaints' are pretty trivial.
We went to Bruges on Day 2, taking a half day trip. We took the official excursion even though there were options such as the train or taxis, simply because we were cruise rookies. We disembarked (no passports were checked in Zeebrugge or Guernsey) onto a coach. We had a rather eccentric guide who didn't like the Germans very much telling a story of a hotel the Belgians built, then the Germans came in and destroyed it in 1914-18, the Belgians then restored it only for the Germans to destroy it again in 1939-45. Fortunately we didn't have any German passengers :) Bruges we enjoyed, especially the ride round in the horse drawn cab which isn't cheap (and apparently the boat trip is well worth it). Coming back, it chucked it down and we got soaked. There was confusion about a potential missing passenger. Why they didn't keep a list of who was on what coach I do not know. But the organised excursion was pretty well organised.
Wednesday was a sea day. This is my other P&O complaint, which might be a function of the trip type. There was plenty going on in the evening, in fact if we did it again we would change to an early dining shift so we could experience more.
In the day time there was less going on. Wednesday I thought would be more representative. Discounting childrens activities there were a couple of quizzes, one dance activity (line dancing, the only dancing lesson of any sort all trip), a film (not brand new but recent - Skyfall was on for example). There was one 'lecture' which was about a fellow's time in school (I think, we missed it)
Many of the activities documented in Horizon appeared to be the Spa running sales spiels "come and learn all about Acupuncture (and we can flog you a session)" during the day. I was rather disappointed to be honest, but having said that we didn't get bored. I went to a cricket session - got picked last in teams (I am podgy and nearly 50) but I can still bowl fairly sharpish, though my back and shoulders regretted it the next day :)
The missus had a massage in the morning and a yoga session in the evening at the Spa and said it was very well done. Good thing considering the price and by this time I just didn't like the people who ran it (not the actual staff themselves)
We tried the in cabin service on Wednesday - you can order food through the TV, and this came pretty rapidly - you could order sandwiches and so on for free, drinks (paid, obviously) plus some food was charged (Burger + Chips was Â(EURO)3.50)
Wednesday night was also the formal night. We got dressed up in our finery (less so in my case) and there were several people taking photographs in various settings throughout the ship. There was one photographer (David I think) who is quite a diminutive fellow but managed to take a decent set of photos of me, which means the man is a genius. Photos retailed throughout at 10 or formal night photos were 16 (to be fair they were slightly larger). There were regular photo sessions - you had the opportunity at meal time etc., but the photographers were not pushy. We didn't go to the Wednesday show partly because we were slightly late for dinner but mainly because we were slightly smashed.
Thursday was Guernsey day. You have to go to Guernsey on the lifeboats/shuttles so there was a ticket system and a long queue. Not ideal but well enough done given the limitations, especially as the weather was borderline. We got plenty of time in St Peters Port. We had planned to visit the Underground Hospital but looking at the bus timetables we decided not to. In retrospect, we would book the trip for Guernsey (which helped with the disembarking) and planned ourselves for the far more ad hoc trip to Bruges. But you live and learn.
Thursday we also sampled afternoon tea, and lunch for the only time. Lunch was an alternative of a cut down meal or an assortment of fillers, Afternoon tea was sandwiches and cakes, crumpets and teacakes.
As time progressed the prices in the shops dropped, though they never were ridiculous. Apart from the Spa prices were pretty close to normal, no great deals though as promised, tax free cancelling out the mark up. The missus did buy a handbag and checked prices afterwards, it was slightly less than the RRP.
On our last day we had a formal breakfast which was very similar to the buffet (slightly extended) but with waiter service. We had sent our cases ahead and got up early for breakfast (most days we weren't early enough for the formal breakfast !). Disembarkation started with those who had kept their cases, then everyone else, we decided to sit and have a drink and wait for the queue to die down, we don't live that far away from the port.
In retrospect we would probably keep our cases and get off as early as possible.
So, having waited to disembark though our own choice, we went to collect the keys, which was done rather efficiently, and then we found our car easily enough. Then it ground to a complete halt. The reason for this was all the cars went out through the same one track road past two people in Hi-Viz jackets on different junctions who didn't seem aware that there was half a dozen cars in one direction, and hundreds in the other. We were stuck in the queue, frequently not moving for ten minutes at a time for about 90 minutes. Amazingly there were no fights and no shunts.
It is rather disappointing. The cruise itself was great but it was spoiled by the parking at the beginning and end - not P&O's fault at all. If (as is likely) we go again I will try the offsite parking with minibus transfer or possibly parking elsewhere in Southampton, because however bad they are they couldn't be worse.
Overall though we really enjoyed it. The negatives are almost exclusively about the car parking at either end. We will do it again, I'm sure, and would certainly consider P&O again. The weather was erratic which meant the balcony wasn't used much, and I had concerns about the standards of the daytime entertainment which might be problematical on a cruise with more sea days.