My previous cruise was a transatlantic crossing on Queen Mary 2. Friends warned me that a P&O cruise would be different and so I booked and embarked on the cruise with that in mind. This was a last minute booking about 10 days prior to embarkation. There were great deals going that I couldn't pass up and I ended up getting a 14 day cruise to New Zealand for an excellent price (solo passenger). Pleasingly I was upgraded prior to embarkation day from category G to F (still a porthole cabin).
The embarkation process at the Brisbane passenger terminal was relaxed and stress free; I didn't have to wait that long before I boarded the ship. My initial opinion was a positive one and I particularly like the three story atrium with 'grand' staircase. I found my cabin with ease and was quite pleased with the size of the room. It was clean with plenty of cupboard space (but strangely nowhere to put the suitcase - which I ended up keeping by the bed) and a relatively spacious bathroom and shower. Bear in mind that I formed this opinion as a solo traveller - I suspect that four people in the same room may not think it so roomy.
The steward's name was Stackla and he did a good job throughout the cruise of keeping my room clean. A couple of days I didn't get towels for some strange reason, but overall I thought he did a good job. Stackla was friendly and polite and always made an effort to smile and say hello.
I went up on deck for the sail-a-way party and was impressed with the fun atmosphere and the show that the entertainment staff were putting on; it was a fun and pleasant way to start the cruise.
I went down to the 'Essentials' shop and purchased a lanyard on which to attach the P&0 swipe card that you use to get into your cabin and pay for things. For some reason P&O passengers wear their swipe cards on these lanyards - practically everyone wears them, even on formal nights. After purchasing my lanyard I went to the Palm Court dining room to book my table for the evening meal. P&O have 'anytime dining' but you must book a table for dinner as they will not guarantee a space unless you do. Breakfast and lunch is open seating and you turn up when you want.
I'll now summarize my thoughts on various aspects of the cruise.
Dining: The main dining room is called the Palm Court; it has open seating for breakfast and lunch and 'anytime dining' for dinner. You need to make a booking for dinner. The food in the Palm Court is not going to get any 'foodies' excited. It's very basic banquet food with an emphasis on very basic. Think RSL, and then take it down a notch or five. The buffet is called 'Cafe del Sol' and it's located up on deck 12. The food there is perfectly acceptable for a buffet and I had every breakfast and a couple of lunches here. There is outdoor seating on deck 12 looking over the stern and it's quite enjoyable having breakfast out there. For an excellent dining experience go to 'Salt Grill' which is located forward on deck 12. The food here is excellent and I ate all my evening meals here with the exception of the first night and about 3 nights in the middle of the cruise. The menu is extensive and everything I tried was cooked perfectly and was delicious.
Service: The first thing I noticed about P&O was the difference between their staff and Cunard's staff when it came to customer service. On Queen Mary 2 every single staff member I passed would politely and professionally acknowledge me. On Pacific Dawn the staff would frequently walk past me without acknowledging me or I would get an unsmiling "hello". The staff in the shops were uniformly uninterested and their attitude didn't enhance the shopping experience. They gave off the impression that they didn't care whether you bought anything or not; perhaps I was inconveniencing them by being there - I don't know.
Sadly the poor customer service extended into the Palm Court dining room. This isn't a happy restaurant and I found it unpleasant to eat there. On more than one occasion the waiter/waitress would have the mains sitting on the waiter's station ready to go whilst myself and the other diners at the table were still eating our starters. As soon as you finished your starter they would quickly remove it and place your main course down straightaway. I am not exaggerating about the timeframe. I really do mean STRAIGHT AWAY. There were a number of instances of poor customer service, including one where a waitress yelled at me because I continued to look for my missing sunglasses (I had left them at the lunch table) after she told me that they had not been found at the table. Other passengers I spoke with agreed that the service in the Palm Court was hit-and-miss.
Now for the good experiences. The staff in the Salt Grill were exceptional; they made every meal an enjoyable experience. Amey (one of the waiters there) would have to be one of the most friendly and professional waiters I have ever come across. The difference between the Palm Court and the Salt Grill, in terms of the overall dining experience, is like night and day. Other places where the staff managed to crack a smile and exhibit the desire to help you include the Reception desk (thank you Sid for quickly, and with no fuss, fixing a mistake with my account). The lady who manned the Shore Tours desk was also friendly and professional. If you're taking a cruise in the near future then you will be fortunate to experience Rudi (Lady GaGa) and Agnes (Sexy) in the Promenade Bar. These two make the Promenade Bar (or Mix Bar as it's also known) one of the most enjoyable places to be onboard. They were amongst the friendliest and nicest staff onboard. The nicknames are ones they gave themselves and every night they went out of their way to make sure everyone in the Promenade Bar was looked after and was having a great time.
Entertainment: The Promenade Bar is also home to Brian Blatz who sings and plays the piano at regular intervals in the evening. He's very friendly, open to requests and is very accomplished at what he does. Trivia is also held in the Promenade Bar and you can have a most enjoyable evening playing trivia, having a few drinks and listening to Brian. The Entertainment staff are very good and I enjoyed all activities I did which they hosted. The Pacific Dancers have regular shows in the International Show Lounge and they are a young, enthusiastic and energetic troupe. Whilst not as polished as the Cunard singers and dancers, they still put on a good show and I enjoyed all the ones I saw.
For lectures, the only ones I went to were the Astrological workshops held by guest lecturer Odyle Knight. These were extremely popular, and considering they were held at the same time as Bingo, it was incredible that Odyle still managed to pack out the Promenade Bar. Odyle's lectures were informative, funny and interactive. During one lecture Odyle divided the attendees into their respective star signs and we work-shopped finding our soul-mates, amongst the other attendees; that lecture was hilarious and everyone had a great time.
Fitness: The gym is located on deck 2, and although not a huge space, it has all the equipment you'd expect. It can get busy down here so try and avoid peak times or will probably not get a treadmill (only 4). I signed up for Boot Camp (every sea day at 9am) and was really impressed with Hannah the personal trainer who took most of the classes; she was motivating and had a great personality. Additionally, the exercise programs she came up with were diverse and covered both cardiovascular and strength training.
Shore Tours: All the P&O shore tours were well organised and worth the money spent. Cruise Critic doesn't list the ports of Napier or Tauranga. At Napier I did the 'Hawkes Bay Wines and Cheeses' tour. This included three wineries and was an enjoyable tour; made more so by the lady bus driver from Napier who was very informative and had a great sense of humour. At Tauranga I did the 'Kiwifruit & Kaituna Jet Boat' tour. The Jet Boat ride is hugely exhilarating and everyone had a fantastic ride; happily it's quite a long jet-boat ride so you don't feel as though it's over before it's begun. The tour of the Kiwifruit farm is interesting, however the afternoon tea was pretty lame( a muffin and tea/coffee).
Overall, I enjoyed this cruise and would travel on P&O again. I would, however, do as I did this time and book very late and take advantage of last minute deals. Using the money I saved I would then eat in the Salt Grill every night so as to avoid the Palm Court dining room. P&O isn't as good as Cunard, but that's to be expected as Cunard costs a lot more than P&O. Having said that, P&O staff could, in general, look and act a little more enthused.
Regarding the ratings I allocated for service & dining; I have scored P&O low on these two categories as, despite the excellent food & service in the Salt Grill and the excellent service provided by various staff members I've mentioned, the disappointing and unnecessarily low standards in the Palm Court dining room really drag the whole experience down. The Palm Court doesn't need to be as bad as it is and P&O really should do something about it.