Ventura Cruise Review by Paul&Kathy
- Sail Date: April 2008
- Destination: Western Mediterranean
We are an English couple and began cruising about 10 years ago on Thomsons & Airtours but in recent years have tended towards the American lines. Celebrity, Princess & NCL are our favorites but we have also enjoyed Costa, QM2, RCCL & Star Cruises. We don't like to book too far in advance and typically look for offers on the internet 1-2 months before we want to sail, so we have been lucky enough to find some fantastic deals and arrange our own airfare and independent transfers when needed.
Looking for something special for Paul's 70th birthday on 17th April had become unusually challenging as many ships were transatlantic at the time and for medical reasons we can't get insurance for North America at the moment. When we found an offer for the Ventura's maiden voyage about 6 weeks before sailing it seemed to good opportunity to try P & O. Nearly everyone on board had booked up on the day bookings opened a year before, so it must have been a cancellation cabin.
Although we love to try different ships we had never sailed with P & O before, mainly because most of the itineraries sail from Southampton and as I am not a natural sailor the 2/3 days sailing each way to the Med does not particularly interest me. Also, their prices are typically around 50% dearer than comparable cruises with other companies.
At £1,119 each for an inside cabin this was the most expensive cruise-only fare we had paid in our 25 cruises, and as a maiden voyage on a much-hyped ship we had fairly high expectations.
Travel to Southampton & Embarkation
We drove ourselves to Southampton port - as we had a discounted cruise fare we were not entitled to the usual free parking offer and had pre-booked with CPS for £117. Unusually, there was a terrific traffic jam and it took us about an hour from our first sighting of Ventura to the car park drop-off point. There was no obvious reason for this and we had embarked equal -sized ships there before without any problem so it was probably just bad luck. But we had plenty of time, and once we had left our car the check-in procedure was quick and efficient and after a short wait for security checks we were on board about 2.30pm.
The Ship - First Impressions
Ventura is a lovely ship, almost identical in layout to the Golden & Grand Princess, that we know and love, so we had no trouble finding our way around. She was "specially designed for Britain" which primarily means that the dEcor is generally less flamboyant than on her American sisters.
We had booked an inside guarantee and after a daily website check had found our cabin allocation about 2 weeks before leaving - R248 is towards the front of deck 14 (Riviera deck) one deck below the lido deck. Our cabin was fine, brand new, spotlessly clean, exactly as we had expected and no different from any other modern cruise ship.
There are sparkling new tea and coffee facilities in the cabins along with a single rose bud and some boiled sweets in a matching steel vase and dish to welcome us aboard. 2 small complimentary bottle of water were provided which was nice. No mini-bar but drinks could be ordered from the room steward.
Richard, our steward, introduced himself and was extremely efficient and pleasant throughout the voyage. Our luggage arrived promptly (although there was an announcement later in the afternoon that there had been some technical problems and luggage delivery was delayed).
Room service was available but we did not use it. The menu was slightly strange - for example you could order a salmon meal for free but a chicken sandwich cost £1.50. Apple pie was free but chocolate tart £1.
Toiletries provided in the bathroom included some novel items such as eye cream, refreshing balm for aching feet (extremely useful !) and lip gel as well as the usual moisturizer, soap, sewing kit etc. There was a dispenser in the shower holding a combined hair & body shampoo but no conditioner.
All British, and apart from 2 couples on their first cruise almost exclusively P & O "regulars". There were a huge number of "Gold" members (150 days + on P & O, I understand) for whom a special event had been arranged with Michael Portillo as guest speaker. There were a few families but the majority of passengers were aged 60+. As cruses in general, we found everyone to be extremely pleasant and happy to share tables and to chat.
There were 4 formal nights and 4 semi-formal (jacket & tie expected for gentlemen) on our 14 day cruise and the dress code was honored by everyone and we really enjoyed dressing up for a change, as so many ships have let the dress code slip. Seeing 3,000 people dressed correctly for the "Black and White Ball" night was amazing. The other theme nights were "Latino","Pirate/Tropical", 60s/70s and 80s/90s.
Dining - Cinnamon Restaurant
I had been pleasantly surprised on booking to have been offered the option of "Freedom Dining". Unlike Princess only one restaurant is dedicated to Freedom and as a fairly new innovation for P & O it did not seem particularly popular. Some people who had requested a fixed table had been moved onto Freedom to make up the numbers, but for us this was good as we walked into the restaurant between 8-8.30pm and were seated immediately every night without having to wait or queue at all. The restaurant manager was nice and soon got to know that we liked to share a larger table. The service was always good and we were happy to have the £1.60 daily gratuity added to our account -some people did have this removed and there were tip boxes in the restaurant on the last day for those who preferred to tip in cash.
Food is very subjective, but in our opinion the menus were alright without being brilliant and the food fell broadly into the same category. We considered it overall far below the levels of quality we had experienced on most other ships.
Each evening there was a choice of 3 starters, 2 soups (but no salad option apart from an "always available" Caesar Salad), 5 main courses (generally 1 fish, 1 vegetarian and 3 meat) and "always available" salmon, chicken or sirloin steak, 3 desserts plus a choice of ice cream & sorbet. A cheeseboard, coffee/tea and different nice home-made after dinner sweets were offered in addition to a dessert.
The menu descriptions were not always terribly accurate but there were some interesting options such as some game dishes and an excellent lobster thermidor, but there was a distinct lack of steak, which is Paul's favorite on the American ships. In fact the only beef offerings during the 2 weeks were a couple of roast beef meals (one of which, it was universally agreed, was awful), one "pot roasted rump steak" (which also turned out to be slices of roast beef) and one braised steak. A good but small beef wellington on the last formal night was the only meal he considered to be a "proper" cruise ship steak dinner. Most nights there was at least one choice which I would have categorized as a cheap, everyday meal such as shepherds pie, toad in the hole, sausages & mash etc and not the sort of dish I would expect to find on a cruise menu. That said, these dishes did seem to be quite popular. There were bread choices listed on the menu but all that the waiters ever seemed to have when they served bread was the same old soft rolls every evening - brown or white was the only choice. Each meal came served with a garnish of potato and/or a vegetable and the waiters served another type of potato and a second veg at the table.
Dining - Other Venues
The Waterside is the main buffet restaurant. It has serveries on both sides of the ship identical to the Horizon Court on Princess, but on Ventura each servery is divided in half by a rope and the dishes are then repeated on the other side, so basically you get half the number of items. We found the selections adequate but limited and unexciting. There was nothing cooked to order - so eggs for breakfast came ready-fried in trays from the galley and I missed the pancakes and waffles so readily available on American ships. The lunch selection was a fairly basic, an unchanging salad bar with a daily selection of cooked meats, smoked fish etc and usually one curry (or similar), one English pie cooked in individual dishes and one or two other hot dishes. The exception was the cake / dessert section which was fantastic both at lunch and afternoon tea time every day - a large section brimming with a huge assortment of individual cakes, tarts, slices etc and warm scones at tea time.
The Beach Hut is the extension to the Waterside further to the aft. The food choices were the same but I preferred this area as it was brighter, lighter, generally less crowded and I thought the food from this servery tended to be hotter.
It seems a silly complaint, but the worst thing about the buffet areas on Ventura is the ridiculous trays they provide ! They are huge and heavy (even before being loaded with crockery and food) unlike the usual lightweight melamine sort, and make it almost impossible for 2 tray-carrying diners to pass in an already crowded environment. Once you do find a table there is nowhere to put the trays and the staff who are so keen to force them into your hand when you enter the buffet are less keen to collect them up - although by the end of the cruise a number of us had become "tray avoidance experts" !.
Frankie's Pizza bar is situated between the pools and the pizza were cooked to order in a few minutes and lovely. There is also a burger bar which we tried once and it seemed OK but we are not burger experts.
We did not try any of the other dining options. East had an interesting oriental menu with a £15 per person cover charge and seemed to be quite busy. The White Room seemed rather out of the way on a high deck at the back of the ship. We went to look on the first day but could not find a menu (they don't display menus outside the main restaurants either). I think the cover charge was £20 each and we might have been tempted if Marco Pierre White had been on board himself - many people like us were surprised he was not there for the maiden voyage. We spoke to 3 or 4 couples who had dined in his restaurant and liked it, apparently the service was exceptional. There is also a Spanish Tapas bar in the "Ramblas" Bar. This area did not seem to be well used at all which is a shame as I thought it was rather nice.
We found the evening entertainment to be very good. Shows were repeated 3 times, at 7.15pm, 8.45pm and 10.45pm which was wonderful as it gave the opportunity to see 2 shows. We tended to see our first choice of entertainment, usually the main theatre show, at 7.15 then eat and then see a show in one of the other venues at 10.45 if we were not too tired. It was interesting that many of the P & O regulars that we spoke to were disappointed by the entertainment. There were perhaps too many comedians, and some were better than others, but there was always another type of show instead and we found at least one every night that we thoroughly enjoyed, and as you only get one show on most ships the second one was a bonus anyway.
The Production shows were all excellent and original, especially "Chronicles" and "Plunder" - the latter takes place near the pool and I don't want to give too much away but it would be best seen from the deck above, we were near the pool bar and did not have a good view or sound quality but the show is fantastic.
In addition to the main show in the Arena Theatre there was generally a gameshow and/or comedy act in the midship Tamarind lounge and a music act in the Havana nightclub at the back of the ship. These were also repeated 3 times per evening. An excellent young classical pianist called Maria King was one of the most popular entertainers, performing several times with some varied programmes and not all classical, she had a lovely personality too - some people said she was funnier than the comedians !! The cruise director was very pleasant but his role seemed to be purely an introducer/announcer rather than an entertainer or personality in his own right.
Daytime entertainment we considered quite poor. There was an excellent history lecturer on board but apart from him there was little of general interest, the only regular quiz was at 11pm each evening, although in the last couple of days they did add in a couple of afternoon events. There were the standard spa-sales-based talks and some computer and camera courses (which I think were chargeable) but nothing that particularly appealed to us. The "Horizon" daily newspaper looked full of events but many were multiple-listings, eg the Cirque Ventura's bungee trampoline (which cost £3 for about 5 minutes) was listed every hour.
The best event of the cruise was the "British Sail Away Party" from Gibraltar, which was a bit like Last Night of the Proms and nearly everyone was on deck.
Very few on our cruise and the ones that were on board seemed to spend most of their time with the various childrens' clubs. Apparently 300 children were due on board on the next cruise and up to 800 in the summer ! The childrens' facilities are well advertised and probably good. Noddy even put in an appearance at the welcome party !!
The Ship - A Little More Detail
Ventura has 4 pools, a small one on the back terrace, two main pools on the lido deck (one with a retractable roof) and a lovely "endless pool" in the spa area where you can swim against the current. The sunbeds around this pool were the only ones to have cushions, the ones elsewhere on the ship being less than comfortable.
No ship can have everything, but the facility we missed most on the Ventura was a card/games room. There were non-hosted bridge & whist games in one of the restaurants at certain times but the only place to play a private game was in one of the bars or in the buffet restaurant. We heard others bemoaning the lack of a cinema, dance floor and chairs on deck. But Ventura has a lot of good points too, most of the public rooms (with the exception of the Havana lounge where many of the seats have blocked views of the stage) are very nice, comfortable and friendly. Bar prices seemed very reasonable compared to the ships we are used to, at about £2.50 for a pint of beer, spirit or glass of wine. Cocktails started at about £4. There does not seem to be an additional "gratuity" added to bar bills which is a pleasant change. Likewise you tip the cabin steward (and anybody else you wish) in cash at the end of the cruise whatever you see fit, there does not even seem to be a recommended amount. Again, this seems far more like a tip than the fixed $10 day (or whatever) added to the bill on most ships which has become more like an addition to the cruise cost than a gratuity.
Ports of Call
I intended this review to focus on the ship, as there is a lot of information already on CruiseCritic.com about the standard western Med ports that we visited - Barcelona, Livorno, Civitavecchia, Villefranche & Gibraltar. There were also 2 new ports for us. Santa Margherita which I had considered to be the jumping off point for Portofino but in fact was a really lovely Italian resort in its own right. We tendered right into town and had a lovely day exploring the interesting shops, harbor and beaches. Alicante was our second new port and had a lovely long beach but other than a lovely harbourfront promenade the town seemed rather grotty. I suspect the better area would have been along the beach towards Benidorm where the hotels seemed to be located. Another time we will take the tram that ran from the shuttle bus drop-off and explore in that direction.
This was a maiden cruise and we had expected some hiccups but the only real problem we encountered was at the first tender port where apparently there had been some technical problems with some of the tenders and it caused a huge queue. There were also long queues to get on and off the ship at some other ports and going by the anger expressed by a lot of passengers I gather this is not a usual P & O failing, so I am sure the organization will improve with a little time and experience.
I do not intend this to be a negative review - Ventura is a nice ship, we enjoyed our cruise very much and would be very happy to sail on her again. However, I don't think we are likely to take many P & O cruises for the very same reasons that we have not done so in the past - namely itinerary and price. This was a good cruise without being particularly memorable and there was nothing that made us feel we had had good value for the extra money over other cruise lines. That said, for anyone who likes several sea days on a larger ship and prefers not to fly then the Ventura will be a good choice.
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