(5 p.m. BST) -- P&O Cruises’ new flagship, Iona, departed Southampton at 9pm on Saturday, more than a year since the date scheduled for its original launch, May 2020.
The 185,000-ton, 5,200-passenger ship is carrying some 2,500 passengers -- just under the 50 per cent capacity permitted by the UK government -- and 1,300 crew. Only adults are on board, and everybody is double vaccinated. Around 85 per cent are repeaters, curious to see what the new ship is like.
Iona’s maiden voyage is a seven-night round-Britain voyage with no stops. It is currently en-route via the Irish Sea, to its island namesake where it will anchor on Monday for what's promised as an evening of celebration and a lavish fireworks display.
"This really is a momentous day for P&O cruises," said P&O Cruises' President Paul Ludlow.
"I’ve been involved with this ship for seven years now and to see her receive her first guests yesterday was a real delight. It’s palpable how excited the crew are to welcome people back."
Health protocols on board are strict and are taking some getting used to. Social distancing in popular venues like the Crow’s Nest bar, for example, means half the seats are out of use, which resulted in a queue to get in for late-night drinks, despite the ship being only half full.
To have your cabin serviced, you have to opt in by placing a sign on the door. Mask wearing is required all around the ship, a policy that is under constant review, in consultation with guests.
Bookings for speciality dining, theatre and other activities are made via the line’s My Holiday website, with which many passengers seem to be struggling. But it’s early days.
Iona is the biggest ship ever built for the U.K. market, with striking interiors and an immediate sense of space and light, thanks to a three-deck-high wall of glass in the dramatic Grand Atrium.
The ship comes with several features new to P&O and new to cruising. The first gin distillery at sea sits behind a wall of glass in Anderson’s Bar, in cooperation with Salcombe Gin, with Iona’s signature Marabelle Gin on sale in all the bars.
The SkyDome is already proving a hit, a two-deck entertainment space on Deck 16 under an enormous glass dome, the biggest at sea, rigged for dramatic aerial shows and a DJ set created by former Blur bassist Alex James, complete with lasers and dry ice.
There’s also a four-screen boutique cinema and a nightclub, The 710 Club, overseen by Gary Barlow.
New restaurants include the Mediterranean-inspired Olive Grove and the Keel and Cow, a steakhouse fast gaining a reputation for its eight-ounce Prime Minister burger, topped with Isle of Wight blue cheese, dry cured bacon and beefsteak tomatoes. "The ship is designed so that over the course of seven days, you can’t do it all, so you’ll have to come back,” says Ludlow. "We want to give people dilemmas at every turn."
There’s also a new cabin category, conservatory mini-suites, with a glass-enclosed room set between the cabin itself and the balcony, creating a light-filled sitting area. These suites, Ludlow says, have already sold out for several voyages.
Iona is powered by liquefied natural gas, the cleanest type of marine fuel. Despite the ship’s enormous size, it produces no sulphur and nitrogen emissions and 20 per cent less carbon than ships using marine diesel. This technology is still new, restricting the number of places a ship like this can visit and refuel. After her season of round-Britain cruises, Iona heads to the Canary Islands for winter, followed by a long series of Norwegian fjords cruises next summer, all from her home port of Southampton.
Iona is the second P&O Cruises ship to sail in British waters this summer; fleetmate Britannia restarted service on June 27 on a four-night scenic cruise, followed by a series of short breaks. None of P&O’s UK itineraries will visit ports of call this summer.
Construction has started on P&O Cruises’ second Excel-class cruise ship, Arvia, at the Meyer Werft shipyard in Warnemunde, Germany.