Ventura Cruise N703 to Amsterdam and Brugge. Wednesday 15th to Sunday 19th February 2017.
Day 1 - Wednesday 15th February 2017
With a 'priority boarding' time slot of 1230, we aimed to arrive at the Mayflower Cruise Terminal at 1115, this being the earliest advertised time for car drop off with CPS. Having had a hassle free drive down to Southampton, in spite of the rainy weather, we arrived at 1110. Much to our surprise, we were struck by the fact that a lot of passengers were still disembarking. The traffic Marshall told us that there was a delay with disembarkation due to the "luggage having been loaded on the wrong side of the ship". On the basis that luggage probably spans the entire width of the ship, we doubted the validity of that explanation, but we agreed to drive off and return 30 minutes later. As we turned the corner, another marshal beckoned us into a holding lane on the dockside railway tracks, so we duly obliged! After around 10 minutes we were called forward to the unloading lanes where we vacated the car with our luggage.
Due to the delayed disembarkation, we then had to stand and wait around 15 minutes for the CPS staff to 'check in' the car and then a further 15 minutes until the porters arrived as they were having their coffee break. No complaints though as we were conscious that we were very early and we were still inside the terminal by 1145. We were ushered straight to the front of the priority boarding line but then had a 5 minute or so wait there until called. Again, no problem - we were now in holiday mode! Check in complete, we proceeded to the priority boarders 'lounge' (a roped off corner of the general waiting area) where we enjoyed a very welcome cup of tea and a delicious millionaires shortbread. As disembarkation had been delayed, we relaxed thinking that the usual 1230 embarkation would be later than usual. Much to our surprise, at 1210 we were told that we could now board! Whizzing around the perimeter of the main lounge, we were through security in around 2 minutes and on board by 1215. Most impressive.
Although we had an invite to the priority boarders reception in one of the main dining rooms, as creatures of habit we headed straight to the Waterside buffet for one of the delicious P&O curries. Embarkation is the one and only time we use the buffet as we are there ready for when it opens. I have followed too many of my fellow male species out of the loos over the years who have failed to wash their hands and then head directly into the buffet, in addition to countless folk of all ages and sexes who have a habit of licking food spills off their fingers and then continuing to handle the serving tongs. Over 8 previous cruises we have managed to avoid Norovirus (even when there have been outbreaks on board) and I am convinced that this is due to our avoiding the buffet other than on day one when we are first in! Come to think of it, they didn't have the usual staff manning the entrances forcibly squirting hand gel. Sadly, there was no normal curry on offer, just a biryani which was very dry and almost all rice. We had enough food to quell the 'post travelling hunger pangs', by which time our friends had texted to say that they were in the priority boarders restaurant.
As we were carrying a small amount of hand luggage and were wearing coats, we diverted via our cabin (A752 Peninsular Suite, classed as a Penthouse).
First impressions of the suite were good. The furnishings are quite dated and (in the case of TV's) sub-standard compared to Britannia, but we knew that would be the case. There was plenty of space, with a dining area, large lounge, adequate bedroom area, good bathroom facilities and a large balcony. The only negative was the tiny wardrobe area which would be adequate for up to 7 nights, a crush for 14 nights and impossible for anything longer. The design (difficult to describe) was poor and access very difficult as 50% of the (limited) hanging space is hidden behind shelving. The biggest positive, as we would discover, was that we didn't hear a sound from any other passengers throughout the 4 days, other than the dragging around of deckchairs above on a couple of occasions (the first time at 0630 on the first morning which, given the time and weather, we figured was the staff moving them in order to clean the decks). Noise and vibration from the stern thrusters was enough to wake the dead, but this is short lived and serves as an alarm clock to alert you to port arrivals, so no complaints about that. Strangely, vibration in the public areas at the rear of the ship (Epicurean, Beach House etc) was quite noticeable when the ship was moving, but was not evident in our suite. Very odd. An added benefit was that, although the suite had a standard width door, the wheelchair (a narrow version) just about squeezed through without having to be dismantled.
Next stop Saffron restaurant for the priority boarders reception. This was better than the one we had on Britannia last summer. Although still very limited, there was a wider selection of food (still snacks rather than meals) and the freebie sparkling wine, whilst definitely not Champagne, was at least palatable, unlike the stuff served on Britannia which we couldn't drink as it was so vile. Drinks service was very good, but wouldn't be representative of what we would experience throughout the rest of the cruise.
Back to the suite to unpack before the safety drill. Our butler (Dinesh) introduced himself. Nice chap but we don't really use them other than for the delivery of the very poor canapés (other than the lovely chocolate covered strawberries on formal night) and next day menus (which didn't materialise on this cruise). The cabin stewards do all the real work. As we reached the lifts, life jackets in hand, there was an announcement that the drill was going to be delayed by 30 minutes as some coach passengers hadn't arrived. We decided to go to our assembly lounge (The Tamarind Club) anyway to ensure that we had a seat. A very officious crew member (who looked like a gym instructor) was wandering around checking the assembly letter on people's life jackets and being very insistent that they moved to the correct assembly point if they were in the wrong place. Quite right. Although the drill is essential, I love it when they end, as it's the one and only thing that you have no option but to attend and our time is our own thereafter.
Back to the suite just in time to watch our departure (over an hour late) from the balcony and to relax prior to the evening activities. Around 7pm, whilst travelling around the Isle of Wight, we had a very unexpected surprise which would be one of the two highlights of the cruise. We suddenly became aware of a very loud noise from outside and ventured out on to the balcony. Had it not been for a lunch we had with P&O's overall Head of Security a year or so ago (following a ship visit), we would have been convinced that the ship was being subject to a terrorist attack. Thankfully, as he had told us that this happened from time to time, we instantly realised that we were witnessing a SBS (Special Boat Service, the Naval equivalent of the SAS) exercise. There were 5 or 6 ribs (rigid hull, inflatable sides), each containing around ten SBS operatives, all dressed in dark clothing, taking it in turns, two boats at a time, to roar right up to the stern of the ship (through the wake). They must have been touching the ship as they disappeared under the balcony and couldn't be seen at all. After a short time, they would roar off to the side (they sounded as though they had very powerful engines) and immediately two more would roar in from behind across the wake to take their place. All very dramatic and quite a sight and sound and, of the several thousand people on board, there were probably less than a dozen of us who witnessed it or were even aware of it having happened.
We were going to dine in the Beach House, but a last minute change of plans resulted in us dining in Sindhu. Although curry is my favourite food, I can take or leave Sindhu, but this was a lovely meal to start the holiday and service was very good (unlike the other Select dining restaurants, as we would discover later in the cruise).
We finished in time for the 1030pm show which, unusually for a first night, was a full scale Headliners production. I am told it was quite good but I only saw the first 5 minutes and was woken intermittently by the clapping. Time for bed.
Day 2 - Thursday 16th February
After a good nights sleep (other than being woken at 0630, which was really 0530 as the clocks had changed) by deck chairs being dragged around overhead, we headed to The Epicurean for the Suite passengers breakfast. On Britannia, this is an absolutely superb experience with very good (albeit limited) food and exemplary service. Frankly, it's a major reason we book a Suite as it's a lovely way to start the day. Sadly, on Ventura, this is a poor replica. Having placed our order as tea and toast arrived, we proceeded to wait 50 minutes with no sign of our order materialising. When I eventually called a waiter over to ask what was happening, panic seemed to set in and our hot food arrived quite quickly, the previous parts of the order (cereal etc) having been missed altogether. Food quality and presentation wasn't quite as good the standard on Britannia. The usual delicious fruit smoothies were all completely flavourless, until the last morning. Very strange. All in all, very disappointing for the supposed top tier restaurant.
Sea day activities are usually very limited for the under 70's, unless you are in to health and beauty, low level exercise or sport. As none of these appeal, the best we could find was a talk on LS Lowry which, to be fair, was quite interesting. I managed four laps of the promenade deck before lunch, something that you cannot do on Britannia. We ventured into the main dining room for lunch but, with breakfast having arrived so late and our one and only afternoon tea looming, we just had a light meal. We rarely elect to share a table but did so on this occasion with another couple, a mother and daughter and a retired gentleman who was either travelling or dining alone. I broke the awkward silence a minute or so after we had all ordered and it turned out that the couple and the mother and daughter all came from Southampton, so we had something in common as we lived there for a while over 20 years ago. Next the husband of the Southampton couple raised the subject of how much they had paid (£399, which I presume was each). I never understand why people do this. Either you hack other people off or ruin your own holiday by finding out that you paid more than they did. Sure enough, the mother and daughter had paid £349. All failed to mention which category of cabin they had, but from the prices they were clearly both inside cabins. We opted out of this part of the conversation, not just because we had paid a lot more, but because we would have had to explain that there are around 25 categories of cabin and the reason we had paid a lot more was because we were in a top tier suite. Sometimes, diplomacy is the best approach! The solo traveller didn't say a word (he didn't want to talk at all, even when I tried to engage him in conversation - all I managed to establish was where he was from) and I was unclear why he wished to dine on a shared table.
After lunch we headed to the Arena Theatre where we watched the film 'Sully' about the emergency landing of a passenger jet on the Hudson River in New York. As it is a true story (which we could recall) we enjoyed the film, in spite of the poor picture quality (slightly out of focus or insufficient picture quality to be blown up to that size). What is it with some people who feel that's it's acceptable to enter 10 minutes after the film has started and expect half a row to stand up (blocking the screen for all those behind) as they progress to the centre, illuminating their route (and dazzling everyone in the process) with the intense light on their mobile phones? Perhaps they are in the same category as those who insist on bringing the noisiest possible food (crisps or wrapped sweets) into theatres. Sadly, there were no windows nearby for me to throw them overboard. I shall watch the film again at home when it comes on TV, in glorious high definition and without the presence of these thoughtless idiots!
As the film ended, we had to hot-foot it to The Epicurean again, this time for the Eric Lanlard afternoon tea. On this occasion, food quality and service was on a par with Britannia and it was a most enjoyable experience.
Although this evening was a Gala Black Tie Dinner, there was no Captains Welcome Aboard Reception. Clearly 4 day cruises don't warrant giving passengers a free drink. As with other shortcomings that we noticed on this cruise (our 9th with P&O but our first short cruise), we felt that this was a mistake. Most passengers were first time cruisers and things like that help to get them 'hooked' on the whole cruise experience. The lack of this reception resulted in the evening not feeling quite as 'special' as it usually does. We dined in the main dining room (after a wait of one hour for a table for four) and the food quality (Marco Pierre White menu) and service were good, other than cheese which seems to be served reluctantly these days (when we first cruised with P&O all passengers were offered cheese after desert. Now they seem to think it is instead of a desert and if you want both it's a bit of an effort for them).
In another break with what we are used to on formal nights, there was no Headliners production show, just a 'famous' soul singer who was so famous we had never heard of him, a comedian (there's only so many cruising gags you can laugh at in one lifetime) and Gareth Oliver, a ventriloquist from Britains Got Talent. As this seemed like an entertainment line up from the 1970's, none appealed so we headed to Metropolis for an after dinner drink, listening to Shades Duo. We would have preferred a Crows Nest bar but Ventura and Azura lack one in favour of the gym, which is daft. Drinks service was poor. The waiter was disinterested and unhelpful. The female singer of Shades Duo has a very nice voice but her repertoire was sadly cut short as an obnoxious and very drunk man who, although probably in his 30's was on holiday with his grandparents, started verbally having a go at her. Clearly distressed she left the venue and shortly afterwards a P&O security officer arrived. We didn't stay to see how it all ended, but he surprisingly wasn't offloaded the next day. Sadly, this wouldn't be the last example of appalling passenger behaviour we would witness.
Day 3 - Friday 17th February
After another good nights sleep, we woke to the bow thrusters as we manoeuvred on to the berth in Amsterdam. Although we have bad memories of Amsterdam, having been pick-pocketed there over 20 years ago, we were pleased to find that our berth was an easy 20 minute walk to Dam Square, even with the wheelchair. We ventured off the ship after a leisurely breakfast (service was better but the smoothies remained flavourless) but, being the morning, the more unsavoury elements were not yet on the streets so we had a good wander around, including the canals and notorious Red Light district, in complete safety. The weather was looking quite threatening so we headed back to the ship for a late lunch in The Glass House. Sadly, yet again, service was poor. Waiters weren't at all attentive and had to be called over after an unacceptably long wait to order. Our main courses were very good but the desert, a sundae that was meant to have blondies and cake pieces in it was served as 100% ice cream and had little resemblance to the desert advertised.
We then visited the On-board Costa (Tazzine) for a hot chocolate. This was nothing like the version you get on land and looked and tasted like drinking chocolate powder in hot water with a splash of milk. Vile.
We found a Rolling Stones double CD in the library which we thoroughly enjoyed listening to on the Bose sound system provided in our suite as we relaxed during the late afternoon.
The sail away from Amsterdam, although in darkness, was fascinating as there were lots of multi-story office and residential blocks all illuminated, where you could see hundreds of people in meetings, cooking in their kitchens, eating their meals etc. It reminded me of the Alfred Hitchcock film 'Rear Window'.
Dinner that evening was in The Epicurean which, although a bit short of the overall experience on Britannia, was still very good. Unfortunately, as with the main dining room, cheese was an inconvenience to the waiting staff. The show was 'Don't Blame it on the Boogie', which we have seen countless times so didn't bother with.
Day 4 - Saturday 18th February
We awoke to a real pea-super in Zeebrugge (which we now know is pronounced sea-brooge and not Zee-brugga as us brits call it), so much so that you could barely see the end of the mooring ropes!
We had pre-arranged a cab transfer to and from Brugge (€50 each way) with Martin's Taxis, so, after breakfast, we disembarked and waited 10 minutes for the free port provided shuttle to the dock gates (one had pulled away as we were walking down the ramp) where 'Lou with the white hair in the air' (as she had called herself) was waiting for us. After the SBS excitement the first evening, this journey was to be the 2nd surprise highlight. Lou was wall-to-wall entertainment and really made the trip one to remember. Her political incorrectness made Joan Rivers look like Mother Theresa. We didn't stop laughing all the way to Brugge and the return journey was equally entertaining. Any of her one liners repeated on here would be sure to offend somebody or other, so I shall refrain!
Brugge was fantastic. We couldn't do the boat trip as wheelchair access wasn't possible, but we had a good walk around the historic city. By luck, there was a Salvador Dali exhibition in Market Square, which we enjoyed prior to wandering around the shopping areas. Realising that the horse and cart trips would be on 'step free' terrain, we walked around some of that route prior to returning to a street full of chocolatiers where we had earlier spotted a shop / cafe advertising hot chocolate. Comprising hot frothy milk with a large chunk of Belgian chocolate moulded on to the tea spoon which slowly melted to make the drink, these were the best hot chocolate drinks we had ever tasted and were a thousand times better than the foul version we had been sold in Tazzine the day before. After a thoroughly enjoyable few hours 'Lou with the white hair in the air' transferred us back to the ship, delivering yet more memorable lines that have amused us ever since. As a word of warning, there is a flat fare of €50 per vehicle each way from Zeebrugge to Brugge, regardless of the number of passengers, and you pay on the day, even if you have pre-booked (as we had). There was a group of passengers at the dock gates who had pre-paid €240 and the cab hadn't showed. They were understandably getting very anxious as a condition of booking was that if they didn't show up they would be charged anyway. The fact that the cab hadn't showed would make it difficult for them to prove that they had indeed turned up. Even more worrying, our cab driver hadn't heard of the firm, but she did later say (on the return run) that she had found their website which looked legitimate.
Lunch again in The Glass House. Service was slightly better (although still not attentive) and the quality of food was good. Another restful few hours in our suite prior to the uneventful sail away which, from this port is sobering as it's where the Herald of Free Enterprise capsized in 1987 with the tragic loss of 193 lives in the most terrifying circumstances. The only thing of interest was the 30 or 40 gulls which swooped around the aft of the ship for over 30 minutes, presumably in anticipation of food scraps being tossed to them.
Our last dinner on board was in The Beach House. Once again, the comparison against the version on Britannia wasn't a favourable one. Although on both ships this is a cordoned off area of the buffet, on Britannia it is a smaller, more intimate affair that has the feel of a proper restaurant. On Ventura it still feels like a section of the buffet. The lean ribs which I had thoroughly enjoyed on Britannia were very fatty here. Service was again patchy with the wine waiter making a real fuss about having to go to a bar to get the bottle of wine that we ordered - which was on the wine list for the Beach House!
Sadly, the evening was somewhat spoiled by a party of 6 (3 couples, all middle aged to retired) where one of the ladies was being ridiculously loud and obnoxious. Whether it was drink, ignorance, lack of etiquette or, as I suspect, a combination of all three, this revolting creature could not be ignored, even from a distance, so we all retired early leaving the poor staff to contend with her.
Day 5 - Sunday 19th February
Unusually, we berthed in Southampton Mayflower Terminal the 'wrong' way around, with the stern facing the outward route and the starboard side against the berth. No idea why this was.
After our final breakfast in The Epicurean, we proceeded to The Exchange for the assisted disembarkation, where an assistance helper disembarked us immediately although, to be fair, there was virtually no queue for regular passengers by this time so we gained no real time advantage this time. Suitcases were found in a minute or so and we were in the car 5 minutes later. As is always the case when cars are parked at this terminal, the vehicle was absolutely covered in a heavy dust from the adjacent grain loading facility.
In conclusion, although service levels were below those we have come to expect from P&O, this was still an enjoyable cruise and very relaxing. Out of several thousand passengers, less than a handful were worthy of being thrown overboard for poor behaviour and these were all adults. All the children were very well behaved and never a nuisance.
Hopefully, these negatives were mostly attributable to it being a short cruise where the lower price encourages a more, shall we say, 'diverse' profile of passenger and the staff aren't out to impress, as passengers are on board for such a short period. Time will tell. Ventura is showing her age, but is still a nice ship, it's major failing being the absence of a Crows Nest. However, Britannia is a better product (even without a promenade deck), as far as the large ships go.
Penthouse Suite. No complaints with this cabin. Very spacious (other than inadequate hanging space for longer cruises). The only (slight) noise disturbance was from staff dragging deck chairs around overhead early morning. Couldn't hear other passengers at all, so ideal if you want a very quiet location.