This 2 night "taster" cruise from Southampton serves as an introduction for people new to cruising but is also called a "booze cruise" by groups of party lovers seeking a weekend's entertainment. The September2011 trip catered for all ages and seemed very popular with "hen party" groups. The food and service were, frankly, mediocre and possibly even worse than our previous P&O experience through the Panama Canal several years ago.
Accordingly, I wrote to Ms Carol Marlow (MD of P&O) listing the specific problems we encountered but the response received indicates that they believe they are doing a good job, in spite of our observations.
Oceana is rather dated (launched in 2000) and, by modern standards, the cabins are small but adequate. That said, it is a comfortable size and has a good layout providing good choice of dining options, several bars and entertainment in two theatres. With capacity for about 2,000 passengers we feel that it is an ideal size, having cruised on sister ships like Dawn Princess and Sea Princess several times.
P&O Hospitality and Service
Cruising should be a treat and customers like to be made to feel welcome and looked after. Unfortunately, P&O have overdone their cost cutting and you are left feeling that they have skimped on everything, particularly food and drink. Their Champagne Sail Away was a pretty dull experience, as they provided no drinks and passengers were reluctant to buy flat bubbly at nearly £4 per glass.
The staff, who are mostly from India, are hard working but seemed miserable and lacked motivation. They are no doubt poorly paid and rely on tips to supplement their income, only to find that P&O cannot get this right either.
Food and Drink
All cruise ships have a massive catering task and other cruise lines consistently demonstrate that high quality, well presented dishes can be served very efficiently. P&O seem so far behind competitors using exactly the same facilities, with menus that are not tempting, poor presentation and food often served cold. Even on the formal Gala Night the meal was nothing special.
Whilst we prefer fixed dining with a table of 4 or 6 fellow travellers, others like the flexibility of "anytime" dining and can select from the same menu. A "self service" buffet is also available on the upper deck but P&O don't bother to lay the tables and even paper serviettes are hard to find. We tried it on arrival and once later because P&O did not serve afternoon tea but it was very poor.
Getting pre- dinner drinks or wine with a meal can take ages. Orders are taken reasonably quickly but the waiters have no incentive to hurry back with anything. Don't expect and nuts or nibbles either, as P&O even charge for these. Wine and drinks were reasonably priced but there was no happy hour.
The resident song and dance group on Oceana had immense energy and put on a couple of good shows. The main theatre seats around 500 people, so can be a busy place. Gareth Gates gave three performances to capacity audiences on the last night and was well received, in spite of appearing very nervous.
There were several music quizzes (but none of the ever popular trivia quizzes) in the bar but participants were expected to compete individually rather than in groups. This destroyed the social nature of such gatherings but, nevertheless, many were keen to compete for one miserable prize of key ring.
P&O offered various excursions ranging from transport to Bruges (£28), Brussels (£35), Ypres and Ghent. Bruges in a Day included a guided walk and canal boat ride (£45).
With a free shuttle to Blankenberge station every 10 minutes, many passengers, ourselves included, simply took the short train ride to Bruges (costing 3.60 euros return at weekends).
1. Embarkation took 55 minutes, as passengers were queuing around the terminal at 2 pm. We observed the quoted check in time only to find that passengers boarded as early as 11:00. Hence we missed lunch and endured avoidable delays.
2. Our tiny cabin was really cold because the air conditioning control was faulty. We had to report this twice before it was partly fixed the following day. Reception offered my wife a blanket as a solution when the engineer failed to materialise.
3. We dined at the 8:45 sitting but were well into our second course before the wine we ordered arrived. Maybe table waiters should take orders for drinks as with other cruise lines.
4. It took 20 minutes to get a pre-dinner drink each night. Orders were taken fairly quickly but the waiters then disappear with cruise cards for ages. They didn't bother with coasters, so icy drinks tended to drip on evening clothing. Being charged for any nibbles is so petty.
5. We have seen the kitchens in full action (with the Head Chef on the equivalent Sea Princess), so understand the challenge. If Princess can serve hot, well presented quality food, why is P&O unable to do so?
6. It proved impossible to deviate from the printed menu to suit dietary needs or preferences. There was no chance of starting breakfast with mixed berries and yogurt (as on Princess) and even getting some bacon with an omelette proved difficult.
7. When passengers dress for a Gala dinner they expect the menu to be a bit special. Ours was little better than the evening before.
8. Most Brits enjoy formal afternoon tea, which P&O failed to offer on this cruise. Surely even the tabloid reading passengers that they appear to attract would expect this.
9. Breakfast on the last day was served in two sittings (at 6:45 and 7:45), forcing passengers to queue all around the atrium. When the floods of people were seated, the waiters could simply not cope, orders were misplaced and most of the food arrived cold. The orange juice had been watered down and even toast failed to arrive. It was
10. Passengers were left in doubt as to whether tips would be added to their bill, like most other cruise lines, or should be given directly to deserving members. Our attentive cabin attendant had the foresight to leave an envelope in each cabin as a gentle reminder. Nothing was added to our bills and P&O provided no envelopes for gratuities.
P&O doubtless has many loyal British clients but we cannot understand why. We can only assume that they have never experienced Princess or Celebrity cruises or that they like to travel from Southampton. These alternative cruise lines are part of the same parent group but do the job so much better at a very similar price. We gave P&O a second try but found it to be even worse than NCL.