We have done 15 previous cruises with a variety of lines but felt if the opportunity arose we should try P&O as departing from Southampton was very convenient. This opportunity came with a short break we were planning to Lisbon and Porto and we discovered that Ventura was doing a 7 day cruise with these two ports on the itinerary plus Vigo and Guernsey and it would work out roughly about the same cost as a land based trip
We had ‘parking’ included in our fare and arrived at the port at 12.30 pm, only to be held in a queue gazing at the ship for 45 mins until we could start the drop off process for the car and our luggage. Apparently this was due to the late clearing of the ship from the previous cruise.
When we made it into the cruise terminal an hour or so later it was heaving with people; it appeared no-one had actually been boarded yet. The culprit of this delay turned out to be a malfunctioning air bridge and eventually after much time spent trying to fix the problem unsuccessfully, boarding commenced via the key side gangplank. Fortuitously, we had been given a blue card which meant that we were amongst the first to board.
We found the layout of the Ventura very familiar to other similar class ships we had sailed on and so were very comfortable with our surroundings, we were also pleased to find that although now quite old by cruise industry standards, and a bit dated, she was in good conditional overall.
We had booked an ocean view cabin, figuring that we wouldn’t have much use of a balcony crossing the bay of Biscay in April (good call as it turned out) but had to settle for an ‘obstructed view’, this also turned out better than we had hoped as the obstruction was a white life raft container which only blocked half the window vertically so we had an uninterrupted view from the other half. Our steward dropped by to introduce himself and to remind about muster drill at 4.30 pm and to ‘remember to take our life jackets’ (slightly disappointing as other lines no longer require you to take along your life jacket, sensibly deciding that passengers trailing straps caused greater H&S hazards). Our steward was efficient, pleasant and unobtrusive, so full marks there.
We headed to the Waterside buffet for something to eat, expecting it to be busy but it was surprisingly quiet. Our first meal was a little uninspiring – limited choice and quite bland, but our expectations of buffet food are never high. We followed this up with coffee and cake at the Costa outlet – whats this? Only ‘one treat’ supplied with each drink purchased!!! We tried not to make comparisons with the International Café on Princess ships where you can gorge yourself on as much as you can eat 24/7 and so many tempting choices.
At 4.20 we thought we should get ourselves prepared for muster drill and set off to try and get a seat at our muster station. We did this very easily – there was no-one about apart from a few passengers wandering aimlessly with their life jackets and a bored looking ‘Muster’ crew member perched on a window ledge studying his phone. 4.30 came and went and only one or two people appeared for the drill so we waited, and then just before 5.00 pm it was announced that due to the late boarding of many of the passengers, muster drill had been put back until 5.30 pm grrrrr..
We were on flexible dining and headed off to eat at about 7.00 pm and as we were happy to share we were seated quite quickly with some pleasant table mates. Bread rolls were offered and these were of the soggy dough variety. My husband and I both ordered prawn cocktail for starters and both vowed never to order it again – it was vile. We then both had steak which was passable. My desert was a mango and passion fruit pavlova; its presentation caused much interest around the table and could best be described as a ‘deconstructed pavlova’ – seems someone has been watching too much Master Chef!
Next day was sea day. Breakfast in the buffet – what can I say, standard canteen fare and if you chose hot food it was cold by the time you came to eat it. On the plus side though there was no problem finding seating if you headed to the back of the ship. We passed the day exploring the ship and taking part in some trivia and were thrilled that we were able to watch the Grand National live in the Exchange bar. We liked the ambiance of the Exchange bar and took part in several rounds of trivia there and played on a few on the limited slot machines. It was also ‘formal night’ and it appeared that my husband had brought the wrong colour suit. We were firmly told that unless it was a dark coloured suit we wouldn’t be allowed in certain venues so we opted to eat in The Beach House and had a very good meal there – well worth the additional cost. We were somewhat miffed however to see other gentlemen passengers in formal attire that was anything but ‘dark’. We ate at The Beach house again on the next formal night and also tried ‘Sindhu’ which we felt was ‘nice’ but more style than substance.
Entertainment was hit and miss. We very much enjoyed the Tina Turner Tribute act. There was a singer scheduled in the Havanna club one evening just after the ‘family disco’ finished. The small kids were so ‘hyped up’ by then that they continued to run around on the dance floor whilst this poor girl was trying to perform and behind us a group of single mums chattered away oblivious to her performance – we felt so embarrassed for her. Later in the cruise we got chatting to a couple who were first time cruisers; the wife was a retired nursery nurse at Butlins and even she was horrified that the children on the cruise were allowed so much freedom; she said even in Butlins they weren’t allowed in the venues after 9.00 pm, and their experience this time made them question whether they would cruise again. The weather was too chilly to use the pool decks much and the entertainment team seemed to struggle to come up with indoor activities to fill the void; who would guess that ‘how to make a bed properly’ had so much potential to be a spectator sport!
Our first port was Vigo. We realised that being Sunday there would be very little open so we were not disappointed. So after a pleasant stroll around the town and up to the fort we returned to the ship. Hubby fancied a burger so we headed up to deck 15. I took one look at the offering and headed back into the buffet for a cheese roll! Hubby bravely went for burger, hot dog and chips and even he (who will eat most fast food) had to admit that the pre-cooked items wrapped in paper, was not an experience he wished to repeat.
We then hit Lisbon, which for us was the highlight of the trip and we were not at all disappointed. We enjoyed the best weather of the trip which for the most part was very disappointing. The Captain had already announced that we would be missing Porto due to the weather and sea conditions but the bonus was that we were to overnight in Lisbon allowing us a few additional hours ashore next morning.
Our final stop was Guernsey, a tender port, and we received a notification in our cabin the day before that ‘demand for tenders was expected to be very busy up until about 11.30 am but after that we would probably be able to breeze on to a tender as we wished’. It appeared that most of the ship had headed this advice and as we headed for the departure lounge at about 11.20 we found a queue which snaked from one side of the atrium through the art gallery and up to other side of the atrium before even reaching the point where the tender tickets were being issued. We had a trip booked for 1.30 pm and had planned to have a few hours exploring St Peter Port and a spot of lunch before the tour. We started to panic at about 12.15 when we were still queuing for tickets and mentioned that we were booked on a tour so were fast tracked through – even then we didn’t make it onto shore until 1.20. Guernsey was delightful – we were on a mini bus tour of the island with a final stop for ‘gin tasting’ – the samples were very generous and having missed lunch we quickly got quite light headed. We were taken back to port for 4.30 pm (last tender was supposed to be 5.00 pm) and found that the queue to get back on the ship was already snaking half way round the port! So another hour or so queuing was awaiting us. We eventually made it back to the ship for 6.00 pm. Nobody could explain exactly what caused the delay, there were suggestions of adverse sea conditions, insufficient numbers of tenders being used and an unexpected arrival of a ferry which stopped the tender process. Someone in the queue worked out that they had queued for 5 hours to get on and off for an 8 hour port stop! The Captain’s evening update included the phrase ‘I understand some of you had a ‘bit of a wait’ for the tender!’ You can’t help but wonder how other lines with the much larger ships manage apparently to operate their tender process much more smoothly and surely P&O have sufficient previous experience to avoid such chaos.
We were so hungry when we got back on ship that we hot footed it to the buffet and as they had just opened for evening service we had a surprisingly good turkey carvery.
So our last night and the Captain announced that we would be docking back in Southampton during the early hours when most of us would probably still be asleep. Our disembarkation information told us that we had to vacate our cabins by 8.00 am and that we would be due to leave the ship by 10.00 am. Later that evening, the Captain announced that there was a chance of plan and that due to orders from port maritime officers in Southampton, we now couldn’t dock until 7.00 am – no mention that this might cause a knock on effect on the disembarkation process. We took breakfast in the restaurant after clearing our cabin at 8.00 am and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast (don’t order the ‘healthy poached eggs on wholemeal toast’ option – the healthy toast appeared to be very small rounds of something akin to polystyrene). Leisurely chatting with our tablemates we were ‘thrown out’ as they needed to clear the dining room. We then waited at our disembarkation point – The Havanna Club, and being at the back of the ship, we were the last to be called, some 75 mins later than the scheduled time. Never have we been more pleased to get off a ship!
Our overall impression of our P&O cruise was mixed, some good, some bad. We enjoyed the port stops and met some nice people, and the crew were lovely. The queuing to get on and off the ship was frustrating and so bad that it was almost entertaining - it certainly sparked the pioneer spirit amongst the passengers. We agreed that it wasn’t one of our best cruising experiences and had it been our first time, I am not sure whether we would be tempted to cruise again.