Have just returned from Barbados by aircraft, leaving the cruise-ship Arcadia to travel onwards to Alaska, before its return journey to Southampton sometime in June.
All staff aboard the vessel were generally hard-working and polite, although in the Belvedere self-service restaurant the staff clearing or replenishing various items on trolleys, for some reason expected you to give way as you meandered through the facility. On other ships such staff usually give way and are therefore not really noticeable, but on the Arcadia they are part of the traffic problem, making the staff on other cruise operations somehow even more appreciated.
The majority of senior staff - the one's wearing "whites" - were predominantly western European.
Not wishing to cast any aspersions on recruitment policy or ladders of opportunity in the P&O operation, to me it just seemed slightly bizarre and rather out of kilter with modern ideology with just a few token non-Caucasian post-holders of junior rank.
I became aware of what is seemingly important to the P&O operation and their regulars, by the daily activities on offer which we were alerted to in the very informative daily Horizons newsletter. I must emphasise that before making my booking I didn't complete a pre-cruise questionnaire as to my personal tastes, club or society membership, religious persuasion or general pastimes.
So imagine my concern when we were alerted to a Masonic Lodge meeting in the Viceroy Room. I thought this little gathering was meant to be secret?
There were other targeted sessions arranged for specific groups including a Rotary Club meeting, a Catholic Mass on the Sunday, various Bridge tournaments, whist-drives, a jigsaw group, and numerous other activities that are usually the preserve of the Women's Institute.
In that respect, perhaps these bastions of UK society are where P&O advertise their adventures to this target group who seemingly appear to think that they are a cut above the rest of us.
I myself like a little bit of Google-ing in my spare time - but P&O charge for this. I also like gardening, swimming and a bit of car maintenance. None of which were offered as on-board activities. They may argue that swimming was available, but their two dip-pools hardly catered for the monotony of doing lengths at your local pool.
I can't really comment on many of the other activities such as the shows and lectures available throughout the day, as I didn't do any. All entertainment is optional, unless it's not entertaining and you wish it to be so. I have witnessed a few shows at sea and always come to the same conclusion that the shows could be dropped and thereby allow free internet access to the customers, and do away with the show-girls and resident bands and dubious guests and one-hit-wonders.
I could go on about the P&O operation and no doubt will. However, the following little episode regarding the evening's dining arrangements just about sums it up, speaking volumes as to what this company is seemingly all about.
During the booking process we had requested to be sat at a table for six on the second sitting, and the second sitting we got, although we were sat at a table for just 4. However, we were sat at least sat at Table Number 6. So perhaps it was a reasonable attempt on their part.
Anyway, no confusion and no questions. Hand in card, sit were shown, and eat meal. Splendid.
Unfortunately if you are sat at table number six with six as your preferred party size, then it is understandable to the mere mortals that conduct the restaurant operation that confusion can set in.
And it set in the following evening when we were joined by a different couple. They explained that on the first night they had not shown up to dinner, as by 8.00pm neither had their luggage.
We were then joined by couple number one from the previous evening although they seemed confused as the table now had all seats taken. Despite the confusion, we merely requested that we be reallocated to a table that would at least sit us all, only to be met with shockwaves from distraught restaurant staff. The unfolding incident quickly attracted the attention of the Restaurant Manager himself. His manner and overall demeanour may be engaging to some; brown-nosing the elite diners with his well-honed patter, but to deal with any issues that are somewhat beneath his station obviously caused him some distress.
His general manner to the restaurant staff appeared to be a knock-back to the days of the Raj. I digress slightly, so please allow me to recount his opening line when he got wind of our table/party size issue.
"Did you book in 2009?"
'Did I what?' sprang immediately to mind, but really his line of enquiry speaks volumes if not screams them, and as I let the enormity of his statement sink in. Just imagine for a minute, Gordon Ramsey being asked the same question as he sat in preparation for some culinary delights.
I wish I could have responded in true-Ramseyesque fashion because boy did this grotty man deserve it.
"Did you book in 2009?"
"I'm sorry, what do you just say?"
As if it matters when you book. Does it suggest a sliding scale of quality?
Nobody at the table responded as they all appeared to be stunned by his line of enquiry.
I suggested that a discussion wasn't really necessary and all they had to do was deal with the issue. And to be fair, they did just that and we were relocated to a different table and were even joined with a further two diners on the subsequent night. Perhaps this table may have been designated for troublemakers, riff-raff or general ne'erdowells. Who knows?
Nevertheless, our dining experience appeared to be similar to that of other diners in the vicinity of our new location, although it was apparent that we weren't exactly fawned over like some of those earmarked as elite, with attentive waiters pouring more wine at every opportunity, removing crumbs and creases from the tablecloths or replenishing the ice-bucket.
We had attentive staff who delivered what we asked for and were on hand to deal with any dining issues. To me this is more preferable than having a squad of waist-coated waiters terrorising me with requests as to whether I was enjoying my meal, or re-iron my serviette, or ask if I needed my bread roll smeared with more butter, or even have my steak cut in to delicate morsels so as to avoid me being hospitalised with repetitive strain injury.
"Did you book in 2009?"
God, it plagued my mind for days afterwards, and still does for that matter. What on earth was he expecting as a response? What action would he take on this apparent sliding scale of service?
If I had let slip that I only booked the day before setting sail, perhaps he would have had me keel-hauled, or thrown overboard. To be honest we actually booked about six weeks before sailing, but not being a member of any particular lodge or golf club, I still expected equal treatment to the other guests on board.
"Did you book in 2009?"
What the hell do you mean by that? Does it form part of a Restaurant Manager training seminar back at P&O Headquarters?
I would complain to them directly, but having previously tried complaining on other cruise lines, my experience suggests the procedure is like "peeing into the wind".
While we are on with the dining experience, P&O celebrate your adventure with what they consider to be a gesture of goodwill and fond memories. On the last evening meal of your cruise you are issued with copies of all the evening menus to which we had been subjected, all in a nice little glossy wallet-file entitled, 'Something to remember' or 'Your unforgettable dining experience'. Unfortunately I can't actually remember the name of the brochure as I didn't bring it home as a keepsake. Deliberately so.
I do though remember that most diners were unhappy with the lobster on one particular evening, which was actually filled with prawns and not lobster. Where do you buy just lobster shells so that you can fill them with some cheaper fishy offering? Or more importantly, Why? Seems rather fishy to me.
On the whole, the evening meals were indifferent, occasionally very good, but overall nothing more than okay and more often than not, disappointing. There were a few additional regular options at the bottom of the menu if the delights of the main menu weren't that appealing, with grilled chicken, sirloin or salmon available.
Nobody tried the chicken at our table, but I had the salmon one evening and it was rather good. This was during the lobster sketch, so I may have just been thankful for not having been won over by the mouth-watering description of Maine lobster.
Others who chose the steak option were less impressed. I presume it is quite difficult to prepare a medium or medium-rare sirloin steak with all the flavour removed, although this was alarmingly consistent from the kitchen, where they appear to have mastered flavour removal from what is a good looking platter of food. I would therefore recommend a mustard or pepper sauce accompaniment, so at least you get to taste something.
On a positive note, I particularly liked the Baramundi dish that was served up one evening, but overall I wasn't blown-away by any of the main meals.
I'm not a big sweet eater, but did occasionally sample some of the desserts. The New York cheesecake was rather good, and by all accounts the liquorice ice-cream was a true delight. However, I didn't realise that Tiramisu was now actually available in Angel-Delight packets, because that's what I appeared to get. Or then again it could have been Instant-Whip...
Asda here I come - a fine flavour but not particularly fine-dining. Semi-skilled milk, Angel-delight tiramisu mix, whisk to a thick-ish consistency and add a bit of chopped flake - marvellous.
I must point out that the cheeseboard was fairly good and reasonably consistent, so I usually stuck to that.
Oops, I've missed the starters, which to be fair were generally okay except for one particular platter. The shellfish and crab pate served on delicate melba toast sounded rather tempting.
Unfortunately the subsequent Kit-e-Kat on Rivita was not what I had in mind as an opener to that night's dining experience. My wife ordered Whitebait as a starter one evening and ate only one delicate morsel before tucking into her bread roll. Not being a huge fan of this particular offering I can only convey that whitebait to her is usually crispy and covered in a light batter coating, and not gooey and smothered in oil; be it extra-virgin, vegetable, or sun-tan, although the oil wasn't really the issue. It would be like grilling custard or roasting some salad, if that God forbid isn't presenting the chef with some future ideas for his menu. Anyway I hope you get my point.
We did venture into the Gary Rhodes inspired Arcadian Rhodes restaurant, although this was only for the lifeboat drill. I had no desire to return to eat in this establishment, although if necessary there were one or two handsome bottles of red that might require saving during an actual lifeboat alert. The glass doors to this venue were dirty, and not what one would expect. If you can't clean a glass panel - would you really want to eat in there?
I mentioned briefly about the clientele aboard and the bawdy golf-club types and even those that move in the circles of the rather secretive Masonic Lodge. These people supposedly keep secrets going back way back when, with some illustrious former members such as Isaac Newton and George Washington to name but two. I have no doubt that these notable historical figures may possibly have had information which may have been truly revealing or even startling. However, putting yourself in their eminent shoes just for a moment, who would you really trust with imparting such knowledge to?
There surely would be no other alternative than to create some secret group or society whose members rise up through various degrees and demonstrate via various acts that they have become truly worthy of harbouring such information. That being said, it would sadly appear to be the case that some senior Masons may have possibly met their sad demise before passing on their invaluable information to entrusted members rising through the ranks. That being the case, then you're essentially left with a gentleman's club that has a secret that none of its members no longer know, but they have a jolly time dressing up and pretending that they know something, but that's the biggest secret of all. They don't know it anymore, and the secret is now pretending that they do.
They have no current knowledge of the knowledge that they were once supposedly entrusted with. But shh... don't tell anyone I told you. It'll be our secret.
One lunchtime I actually overhead some diners mentioning something about unit-cost, which actually made me grateful for not having booked in 2009. If you're not responsible for on-shore purchases for the P&O operation, then why on earth would unit-cost be a topic of conversation for anyone on board?
I even overheard some "I'm an important person" type passenger questioning the special guest concert pianist as to his arrangement of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. The musician seemed somewhat dumb-struck as to his cross examination whilst he partook in a light lunch.
To me his examiner seemed just plain dumb.
The cruise on the Arcadia was offered as an adults-only holiday. The problem of booking an adult only cruise is that no-one really qualifies what is meant by the word adult.
Over 18? Over 21? Having a job? Being married? Being a Mason? Essential Golf Club membership? Understanding the rudimentaries of bridge? Who knows?
I have at least five of my own little tykes plus a granddaughter, so adult-only adventure was an appealing angle on a holiday. You were therefore not plagued with little miscreants pestering you to get them some lager, pressing all the buttons in the lifts, or screaming and bawling at not been allowed yet another ice-cream. Aah Bliss.
Instead of all these delights, you become aware of some other menace that can be equally annoying to any brat causing havoc in the lifts. The regular lift menace on this cruise was caused not by youngsters but obviously adults in this case. There were rather disturbing aromas in and around the lifts, as someone quite possibly mistook them for a lavatory or just couldn't help themselves passing wind between floors. This proved quite popular with some guests and as we were on the second sitting for dinner, you could get a clear indication of what was on that night's menu long before you even arrived at the restaurant.
Some of the more portly guests seemed to enjoy the Jacuzzis out on the sun deck. However, when they had finished immersing themselves for their therapeutic session, the amount of water left in the receptacle was less than half; such was their experimentation in displacing a volume of water. Eureka indeed...
I must point out that on other occasions some of our lift-friends didn't even need to switch the Jacuzzi on.
The Arcadia itself is a slightly tired vessel, and on two different occasions it moored alongside a gleaming Royal Caribbean ship, and it was evident that P&O don't overdo the painting side of things.
There were other areas on board which could only be described as adequate, although the Palladium Theatre is better than average. The Library is a tad disappointing and barely adequate, but did house the Jigsaw Society. These were a rather disturbing group whom I alerted our dining colleagues to. One of them proposed a black-ops mission in order to remove a few pieces, or even swap lids on the boxes or exchange a handful of pieces amongst the various unopened puzzles...
There was an abundance of walking aids on board, ranging from traditional walking sticks to motorised scooters, and a seemingly endless supply of cotton socks to match that day's tailored shorts along with traditional open-toed sandals.
There were limited shaded areas on the open decks and the promenade deck was usually oversubscribed by individuals dribbling their breakfast as they took a well-earned nap in the morning sunshine. Perhaps though, they'd been there all night. I wonder if anyone checks before nightfall?
The bar prices and venues are fairly typical of what you find at sea. However, there is one redeeming feature that other cruise lines need to take heed of. You can take your own booze on board - even at the destination ports. On most cruises this is not the case.
You can book into the best hotels in the world and nip down to the corner shop and get yourself some goodies to enjoy in the comfort of your hotel room. No search squads, teams of security, nor does it apparently contravene any hotelier protocols. But you can't do this at sea, and any alcohol is usually removed and returned to your stateroom on the last night of your cruise.
Not anymore though. P&O allow reasonable allowances, and they will even deliver a litre of branded spirits to your room for under £12. Well done P&O, very well done.
As for being done, well they provide you with comprehensive information on tipping and even provide you with envelopes and how much you should tip. They seemingly pride their operation on not applying gratuities up front, but then have the cheek to request that you reward high standards by telling you who and what to tip. If they don't pay their staff appropriate wages, why should we subsidise it by stumping up a bit more for a service that we've already essentially paid for, just so that P&O shareholders can maximise their dividends.
Pay the staff appropriate salaries and put the cost up - you never know people may still leave tips.
For some bizarre reason we pay the cost of new clothing by paying the price on the tag, but for some reason the price on a menu isn't ever quite right, or the drinks for that matter. Why is this?
In a shop: Greet, provide information, fold garment, complete transaction. No tip.
In a restaurant: Greet, take order, bring drinks and meal, remove empties, bring bill, complete transaction. Wait for tip.
Why have we allowed this financial intimidation to evolve?
Nevertheless, I left a fiver in an envelope marked "Captain" - Well steered mate, excellent job.
So where did we go on our adventure?
Madeira was quite charming - if you call a walk along the front at Funchal a full and proper exploration of this historic volcanic island. We decided against the suggested toboggan rides and cable cars, having had no real desire to partake in such activity. So a stroll it was- and as I said it was pleasantly surprising and quite charming. It is unfortunate that the resort still bears the scars of last year's inclement weather with numerous damaged bridges, and the depositing of all the debris caused by the storm in one area along the seafront. Apparently there is no more money left in Portugal, so there is no possible solution on the horizon. Unless of course they get bailed out by the EU.
However, you never know they may add this eyesore as a shore excursion as the famous storm debris plateau where guests could collect some samples...
They could even erect a hut in traditional Madeirian style in order to house local craftsmen who could fashion intricate jewellery from the spoil.
After six days at sea crossing the Atlantic, you finally spot land. It is a seemingly endless journey, but your admiration goes out to those who have made the crossing in vessels lacking GPS systems, or engines for that matter.
A few days of 'Yeahhh Maan' were on offer at Antigua, St Maarten, St Lucia and Barbados.
For me Barbados is rather forgetful and a tad disappointing, as to is Antigua. The other two islands on this cruise made you want to go back, which shouldn't really be that hard in the Caribbean. They both had charm, warm people and wonderful scenery.
The humpback whales off Antigua were a surprise and a delight to behold. There are plenty of other wildlife to see during a cruise, although patience is required as the oceans are rather vast, and the critters doesn't just leap out of the pond at the sound of a whistle for a dangled dead herring, before returning to the ocean depths with a double-piked re-entry.
The temperature goes up significantly on this adventure, and you find that the heat begins to erode your general response time, and you find yourself in need of a nap in the afternoon and one-or-two too many beers. In that sense you get an indication of the lifestyle that the locals lead on these islands, as you too begin to behave in a similar manner...
Time is altered in these parts. Perhaps the earth turns slower, or the magnetic lines interfere with chronometers, but in general, five minutes equates to about half-an-hour on a normal clock, but nevertheless you eventually get used to it, even if you have to wait five minutes or so.
It's difficult to rate this adventure as we only did part of it. But the dining experience was poor in comparison to other cruise operations - but being fair we weren't hospitalised or plagued with dysentery. It was just as I said, disappointing.
The ship is probably in need of a make-over, although this opinion is probably skewed slightly by my previous experiences at sea which were undoubtedly better.
It's a difficult thing to categorise, but essentially I can only measure the experience by asking if I would I do the cruise again.
No, not really. Not even if I had booked in 2009.
Would I use P&O again?
Well yes, possibly, but it wouldn't be my first choice, no matter how appealing it is taking your own booze on board. But be aware, it is now very difficult to book anything in 2009 if not impossible - so be prepared, as you might get asked, "Did you book in 2011?"
Enjoy - whenever you book...