This was our first cruise with P&O although we have previously cruised with Princess, Royal Caribbean and Costa so we were keen to find out why so many British people stay loyal to P&O rather than trying other cruise lines.
TRAVEL TO THE PORT OF EMBARKATION
The journey to Southampton was hassle free with motorways all the way from the M25 and the docks were clearly signposted. We used the recommended P&O parking company and the leaflet they provided was invaluable as it showed the dock numbers for the port names which was vital to follow the signage.
The parking company met us at the embarkation port, took photographs of our car, then exchanged a receipt for our key before driving our car away. For the first time our embarkation and disembarkation ports were different, but as we used the valet parking this was not a problem.
We arrived at the port at 11.30am and were able to check-in straight away and collect our cruise cards. Our travel summary stated that our check-in time was 3.00pm but I phoned and they said we could check-in from midday. There were lots of empty check-in desks which were all manned. P&O provided us with two cards in a little wallet, the first was for all transactions and getting on and off the ship, the second was a cabin key card. We went through security and once in the lounge only had to wait 15 minutes before we were on board and eating lunch in the Plaza buffet.
Our outside cabin was F305 which was at the front of the ship, starboard side, on the same deck as the reception and the ground floor of the Atrium. We loved this location of the ship as we didn't have to worry about catching lifts at the ports. We were always on the same deck as the gangway apart from Le Havre where the gangway was on deck 7 due to low tide. Our stateroom was virtually opposite the laundrette but we could not hear any noise from the launderette at all in our cabin so I was astonished when I walked in to find both machines and dryers going.
It was the smallest cabin we have ever stayed in (159 sq ft) with two bunks for the children for the first time rather than a sofa bed, but it had a lovely big window. I ordered the safety barriers for the bunks on the internet as they are not installed automatically. We put both the ladders at the bottom of the bunks to ensure a clear walkway and view of the window, rather than having one between the twin beds which was the layout when we arrived. Despite the size of the cabin, there was a remarkable amount of storage space which was much greater than what we have had in a balcony cabin on other cruise lines both for both hanging and drawer space, and the cabin seemed surprisingly spacious. The bathroom had a good sized shower and sufficient shelf space. Shower gel/shampoo was provided as well as a welcome pack of conditioner and moisturising lotion. Towels for the pool were located below the sink. He also turned our beds down at night and laid chocolates on the pillows.
There is only one UK plug in the cabin, so I advise bringing a four bar extension in order to recharge cameras and phones. In the cabin there is a hairdryer which is very powerful and has two settings, a fridge which is empty apart from an ice bucket and a complementary bottle of water per passenger and a kettle. The kettle runs on a US socket next to the only UK socket which is something to bear in mind as this means water may be near electrical appliances. Tea, coffee and biscuits (which are delicious) are provided in your cabin and replenished daily by the steward. We brought some soft drinks and a bottle of wine onboard and it was nice not to have to get the steward to empty our fridge first before we could use it. A drinks list was provided in the cabin and a bottle of spirit was the same price that you would find in a supermarket, although the mixers were more expensive.
The safe which was located on a shelf in the wardrobe, was standard size and operated with any code of your choice. Unlike some modern cabins and hotel rooms there was no automatic shut down of electricity as you left the cabin as you did not need your cabin key to operate the lights and air conditioning. Although the air conditioning only went down to 18 degrees rather than 16 degrees (too cold anyway in my opinion) it was very efficient and extremely quiet which made a pleasant change. One big negative and a first for us was that the cabins did not have Wi-Fi capabilities. We had hoped that we might be able to get Wi-Fi as we were close to the Atrium but the signal was too weak to work. However the fact we were so close to the Explorers internet cafe in the Atrium was a real bonus as we were posting a LIVE FROM thread on cruise critic with photographs and video.
Oceana is a mid-sized family ship and before boarding we were concerned it might feel too small for us as our previous experiences were all on 940ft plus ships. We didn't need to worry at all. Oceana is a well designed and comfortable ship which would make an ideal ship for a first cruise as it is not too big and not too small. The heart of the ship is the Atrium which is open plan from decks 5 to 8 with sweeping staircases and glass lifts. This is the first part of ship you see as you embark which is very impressive. Here you will find many bars including Explorers with Wi-Fi, restaurants, reception, shops and the photographers on formal nights.
The Lido deck (deck 12) was a main deck for daytime fun. It has two pools and two Jacuzzis mid-ship. The Riviera pool is 7ft deep and the Crystal pool is about 4ft deep and where you will find P&O staff organising pool games for children who are not signed into kids' club. You can buy ice-creams and lollies at Sundaes. The 99 ice-cream seemed the most popular option on our cruise. I was impressed with the number of tables and chairs available in this area in addition to the loungers which were plentiful and available both in the sun and the shade. At the aft of the Lido deck was a free 16+ area with a pool and two more Jacuzzis between the gym and the aerobics room. Deck 12 was also the location for the kids' clubs (starboard side) and the Oasis Spa and Salon (port side). There was also a splash pool on the Sky deck (deck 15).
Deck 7 was a hive of activity on Oceana and the location of both theatres. Starlights theatre is aft of the ship and where the dance shows were held in the evening and dance classes (both line dancing and ballroom) were held during the day, as well as bingo and other activities. Footlights theatre, forward of the ship, was where the comedians and singers performed, and also where films were shown. Yacht and Compass near Footlights was a popular bar and a venue for quizzes. This is also the deck where the photographs are displayed in the Photo Gallery and where the art gallery was located by the Magnums champagne bar. It is also the location of the Cyb@study for internet access and the library where you can borrow books and games.
Deck 7 is the Promenade deck which was very popular with walkers and joggers as you can walk right around the outside of the ship. Port side there are games of shuffle board and quoits, with the equipment always available so you could just go and help yourself. It is also the side of the ship designated as a smoking area which was unfortunate for us as non-smokers. I don't know why they don't have shuffle board on the starboard side of the Promenade deck away from the smokers? We enjoyed several games of shuffle board and counted the laps as the joggers ran past!
There are three sets of lifts onboard, forward (from decks 5 to 14), mid-ship in the Atrium (from decks 5 to 8) and aft (from decks 7 to 14). Consequently, the public area decks 7 and 12 (outside) were used as a walkway to get from one end of the ship to the other if you didn't want to walk past cabins. There was also a casino on board called Monte Carlo on deck 8. On Oceana, the ladies toilets were always located on the starboard side of the ship and the gents were always on the port side. Both had disabled access.
Main Dining Rooms
At breakfast we normally ate at the Adriatic Restaurant (the fixed dining restaurant for dinner) which had a daily special but this was not available on disembarkation day. Daily specials included smoked salmon and scrambled egg on toast, Egg Benedict (with ham), corned beef hash, devilled kidneys and traditional kedgeree. One highlight for us was the quality of the sausages and back bacon for the traditional English breakfast and the fact that you could get real baked beans. No other cruise line has come close to this and P&O certainly served the best breakfasts. The strawberry, raspberry and blackcurrant jams, marmalade and honey were all in miniature Tiptree jars on a little silver platter on the table which again was a big improvement on little plastic tubs with peel off lids! One disappointment however was that the milk in the dining room was UHT and not fresh which we did find in the buffet. On disembarkation day the restaurant operated two sittings at 6.45am and 7.45am with the doors only being open for 15 minutes. We went at 6.50am and there was no queue. As we left, the queue for the restaurant was huge so my advice would be to go to the earlier sitting to avoid the queues.
Dining on Oceana was a delight. As we were Freedom Dining, we ate our evening meals in the Ligurian Restaurant on deck 5. After our first night, which involved an hour's delay, we were able to get a table immediately if we were happy to share and only had to wait half an hour if we wanted a table for two. If a table is not ready, you are issued with a pager which flashes and vibrates when your table is ready. The pager does not work in the cabins or outside on the decks. One problem on the first night was that some diners had not collected their Freedom Dining cards from their cabins which slowed the whole process down.
The quality of the food in the Main Dining Room was always excellent. We took full advantage of the 5 course meals in the evening which always offered excellent variety. There was a choice of 3 starters, 2 soups, 6 main courses plus at least two other "also available", four desserts in addition to the ice-creams and sorbets, and a cheeseboard brought to the table. I particularly enjoyed my sirloin steak which was cooked to perfection, the Beef Wellington and the lobster. The terrines which changed every day were always the best patEs we have ever tasted. Sirloin steak featured regularly at the beginning of our cruise but was then replaced with other beef dishes and is not always available unlike other cruise lines. So if you fancy a steak without paying the Horizon Grill cover charge take advantage early on and don't assume it will always appear on the menu. Drinks were not over-priced and half a litre of house wine was just £7.80 ($12.88). There is no additional service charge on drinks either unlike the American ships. There is a children's menu available in the Main Dining Room and the children are free to order from either menu. The children's menu was quite extensive and included minute steak, fish fingers and pasta dishes.
The dress code on formal night is strictly followed. The gentleman in front of us in the queue was turned away as he did not have a jacket and asked to go back to his cabin to collect one. His wife was seated so she could wait for him in the restaurant. As a result everyone onboard looked lovely both formal nights and it gave the evenings a real sense of occasion. The second formal night was a Black and White night.
Afternoon tea is an event on Oceana that should not be missed. The smell of toasted tea cakes is very inviting as you enter the Adriatic Restaurant and it is the best cup of tea of the day with alternative teas such as Earl Grey also available. Waiters come round with plates of fruit scones, plain scones and toasted teacakes. In addition, each table has a tiered cake stand with finger sandwiches at the top and a selection of little cakes below including choux buns, chocolate Eclairs, cream meringues and fruit cake.
"Chocoholics" was a chocolate extravaganza held on one sea day instead of the afternoon tea. I have never seen so many different types of chocolate cakes in my life. Everyone was given a huge dinner plate and then we waited in line as the waiters served us with a variety of chocolate delights from the table displays. There was also a chocolate fondue with fruit and fudge. It was all a bit too sickly for my taste and looked much better than it tasted but I still appreciated the cups of tea. I recommend a slice of the gateau rather than the individual cakes which seemed quite dense, and I didn't see anyone manage to eat the chocolate doughnuts which I do not recommend. There was a huge queue for chocoholics which started forming 30 minutes before the event!
We tried breakfast at Cafe Jardin (Marco Pierre White's restaurant) which did a superb Egg Benedict (with smoked salmon and lots of hollandaise sauce). The menu in Cafe Jardin changes about every three days, so if you see something you fancy on the menu don't leave it too late or the menu may change. Cafe Jardin is the 24 hour dining restaurant located on deck 8 in the Atrium. This is an ideal venue for a light breakfast as there are only two cooked dishes available (the other was a links sausage baguette). It is in a quiet location away from the busy restaurant and buffet. At lunch, Cafe Jardin offers a limited menu. We both ordered the Coq au Vin and there was a salad bar which made a nice starter. Cafe Jardin and the Horizon Grill are speciality restaurants with a cover charge in the evening, but are both complementary for during the day. The burgers at the Horizon Grill at lunchtime were delicious, and you could also have hotdogs, baked potatoes, chicken goujons and fish and chips. There was sometimes quite a delay to take the orders in the queue at the Horizon Grill, and some people were phoning through their orders and then collecting them, but we didn't discover this trick until the last day. The Grill is open plan so you can watch the chefs cooking which we did on our last night as we took a stroll before dinner and the steaks being cooked for the cover charge dining looked superb.
The Plaza Buffet restaurant is open for the majority of the day with a changing menu. Self serve tea, coffee and water are available throughout the day. The buffet is on the port and starboard side and if one side is closed the other side will probably be open. At 6.30am continental breakfast was available, from 7.00am full breakfast was served, and then at 10.30am it became brunch. After closing for just 15 minutes, at midday the lunch service began, and then at 2.30pm afternoon snacks were available.
At 5.15pm, the Plaza served the Children's Tea, which was an opportunity for children to eat early and then enjoy the evening activities at Kids' club. A least one parent needs to remember to accompany their child to the children's buffet as the club does not close for meals. Kids club staff also ate at the Children's Tea if they were between shifts and always wore their full uniform. They enjoyed the fact they were able to eat there and sat with the children. There was a good variety of choice at the children's buffet with hot and cold options which included salad and sandwiches. The food was traditional British, with lots of meat and simple vegetables so our daughter (who has an egg allergy) could eat the mashed potato at the Children's Tea as it contained no egg unlike the main buffet where the mashed potato did contain egg. There were always plenty of desserts which often included ice-cream. Orange, pineapple and apple juice were available during the Children's Tea as well as water and chilled blackcurrant squash. The Children's Tea often seemed quite a hit with some adult cruisers! Our children opted to do the children's buffet every night apart from the two formal nights when they ate with us in the Main Dining Room. At 6.00pm-9.30pm the Plaza serves a themed buffet. I had a little taster of the Thai buffet and it was absolutely delicious I was really impressed.
As with any cruise line you can be as active or inactive as you choose on Oceana. On sea days the only problem we had was trying to choose which activity to do as there were several on at the same time. I went to the port talk on Bilbao at Footlights and was disappointed to find that no one was presenting the talk and it was either a recording or someone reading a script backstage! I decided that my time was too precious to waste and immediately found a game of Scattergories in the Yacht and Compass which was great fun. Quizzes were a regular feature in the programme of events which are outlined in Horizon, the information paper delivered to your cabin each evening. We really enjoyed the complementary waltz and quick step lessons having never danced ballroom before and I also had fun at the line dancing class. I was impressed with the multiple opportunities for taster massages (which I made the most of!) both at the spa and in the Atrium. Sports activities included fitness classes, adult social tennis, adult and family football, and a variety of competitions at the golf simulator. There were three table tennis tables on deck 12 for free play table tennis and organised activities.
For enrichment opportunities, there were talks by guest speakers, art talks, and health seminars. There were also organised card games, musical entertainment and a huge selection of films to see during the cruise at the Footlights theatre including the King's Speech, the Black Swan and Yogi Bear.
The entertainment team worked hard onboard and the Oceana sailaways were always very good. From Southampton, there was a band playing on the dockside and champagne was available for the bargain price of just £3. Every port had a singing and dancing sail away and at our last port we had "The Great British Sailaway", with deck 12 being decorated in Union Jacks, everyone getting a flags to wave and patriotic singing from Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England including Land of Hope and Glory and Rule Britannia.
There was a welcome talk on embarkation day in the Starlights theatre which was a good opportunity to meet all the staff involved. Our children went to the Kids Club and were both "Surfers" (aged 5-8). The club opened at 9.00am and was non-stop until midnight with slumber time as another sign in session at 10.00pm. You can have up to four signatures for signing in and out so if you are on holiday with extended family or friends this could be quite useful. There was no need for cruise cards when signing in and out and I found P&O extremely laid back compared to other cruise lines, not even checking our signatures as they recognised our faces. Our children loved the club and complained when we picked them up! You can sign them in and out at any time during the day but must remain on the ship if they are in club. Activities were not restricted to the club rooms as they went to the sports nets in the funnel for football, Starlights Theatre for magic shows, Footlights Theatre for films and Le Club for discos and Karaoke. Each day had a separate theme and on our 7 night cruise we had: around the world day, chocolate day, wild west day, space day and pirate day. The children earned surfer dollars at club for participation and doing well in competitions and on the last day everyone was able to choose between either a lanyard or chew. The child with the most dollars got both. The fact that the club was so good meant that everyone benefitted. We were able to have to some quality time to ourselves and enjoyed the occasional dinner for two.
I would rate customer service extremely high onboard. Our cabin steward was very efficient and always greeted us with a smile in the corridor. He replenished the towels for the cabin and pool throughout the day so it always felt like we had just arrived. The staff on reception (of which there were always plenty) were always helpful and efficient and there was never a queue unlike with other cruise lines. The future cruise sales staff were equally helpful and not at all pushy. The bar staff on the Lido deck and in the bar areas were very professional, in that they were always available but not constantly bothering you if you didn't want a drink. If you did, they were with you in a second as they were very observant so you could easily catch their eye. Service on board in the restaurants was also of a high standard. On our first night we had a long wait for a table and were concerned that we would be tight on time for picking up the children from kids club. I mentioned my concerns to our waiter and he did a superb job, taking our order before other people arrived at the table and serving us quickly without ever making us feel rushed. The waiters were efficient and always remembered who had ordered which dish and remembered our children's names even though we were freedom dining. On our last night I had trouble deciding which dessert to have and our waiter brought me both with a smile! Some commented that service at afternoon tea was a little swift at times but the quality of the afternoon tea more than made up for this.
Shows on board are repeated so if you miss them the first time you have another opportunity to see the act who, if it is a comedian or singer, will change each performance so you can go more than once and still be entertained. During our cruise we went to see Rebecca Roberts a female vocalist who was good. We heard mixed reviews about the comedian but everyone we spoke to raved about dance shows. Entertainment is one area I would not rate P&O as highly as other cruise lines and there was nothing on that I felt was a must see show. Having said that with Freedom dining we were often eating at the time of the first shows and the later shows were just too late for us.
PORTS OF CALL
Ports of call were Le Havre in France, La Rochelle in France, Bilbao in Spain and La Coruna in Spain. P&O provided us with a guide to each port with a map on the back, although they didn't always include the key to explain what the numbers on the map actually meant. The first three ports we visited had free shuttle services provided into town.
Le Havre (Honfleur)
In Le Havre our shuttle bus driver had no knowledge of the town at all and got completely lost. The transfer should have taken 10 minutes but an hour later we were still on the bus! Many passengers gave up and went back to the ship. The staff at reception onboard apologised for the shuttle fiasco and gave us a complementary bottle of wine with our dinner. You can't argue with that when the service was free in the first place. We knew that much of Le Havre was closed on a Sunday so we went to the bus station and caught a bus to Honfleur and had an excellent day. (There were two P&O trips to Honfleur available but they were really expensive compared with catching the bus independently.) I would thoroughly recommend visiting Honfleur from Le Havre as is it a really picturesque little fishing town.
La Rochelle is a medieval city with a superb indoor market and was a great port of call. The free shuttle transfer took 20 minutes and the pick-up was from the tourist office. Prices were extremely high in most of the cafes but we had a lovely lunch in a little brasserie with great views of the 14th century twin towers.
We did not purchase any P&O excursions but were very particularly grateful for the free shuttle bus in Bilbao where the transfer was 30 minutes long which would have been a very expensive taxi ride. The drop off /pick up point was easy to find and only a 5 minute walk to the Fine Art Museum and the Guggenheim museum. The buses were not only free but very frequent, and despite joining a queue of about 150 passengers in Bilbao the buses arrived one after the other and we waited no more than 10 minutes to board a bus back to the ship.
Ironically at La Coruna the town is at the heart of the port, and you should be able to just walk out, but the closest berth was taken by Independence of the Seas so we docked further away from the new terminal building. The port authority insisted that we could not walk out independently but had to wait for their bus. We arrived late to the port following engine problems so everyone wanted to get off at the same time resulting in lengthy delays. The boarding time was put back so we still had enough time in port and all but one of the P&O excursions still ran. La Coruna is an excellent port stop with a quaint little tram and the oldest working lighthouse in the world (which we climbed to the top!). There were also Sedgeways for hire at the bottom of the lighthouse hill for only 10 euros for 20 minutes.
We thoroughly enjoyed our first P&O cruise, so much so that we booked another cruise whilst on board. Prior to sailing we had read reports criticising the Oceana's general wear and tear. I am happy to report that what we experienced was a beautiful ship without any sticky carpets. In fact large areas of carpet where being replaced on a daily basis and the carpet to our cabin had so much spring to it we felt like we were bouncing down the corridor. Hand rails on deck were constantly being sanded and varnished, wet paint signs went up whilst in port and the crew seemed to take a real pride in their ship. We were surprised how laid back P&O were at muster as no passenger log was taken but there was a general sense of calm throughout the ship. We really appreciated the free shuttle buses, fair prices at the bar, low recommended tips and lack of service charge on drinks which all helped us decide to rebook with P&O for next Summer and put a deposit down on an additional cruise to be booked within a year to get the extra onboard credit.
We were issued with coloured labels for disembarkation which ran like clockwork. Despite a slight delay docking due to night fog we disembarked on time at 9.10am and were back in our car by 9.30 having collected our key from the booth in the adjacent car park. Normally on the last day the ship seems crowded as passengers wait to disembark but this was not the case on Oceana and I would go so far as say that it was the most hassle free disembarkation we have ever had.