We've just got back from P&O Cruises' Arvia, following the ship's naming ceremony in Barbados.
The week-long Caribbean sailing, which started in Antigua, stopped at St. Kitts and Nevis, Martinique and St Lucia before ending with an overnight in Barbados.
Even though Arvia is structurally identical to sister ship Iona and shares a number of similarities, there are also quite a few differences between the two 5,200 passenger Excel-class ships.
Here's what really stood out for us, both on the ship and off.
Brand new as a restaurant on a P&O Cruises' ship and, for now, exclusive to Arvia, is the 6th Street Diner. It's billed as an all-American diner, but if you're imagining the average burger joint with a Juke box, then think again. While it does resemble a typical 1950s style diner with its high bar stools, red leather banquettes and black and white chequered floor, its menu is incredibly tasty southern fare, from Buffalo wings, to sticky pork ribs with raw slaw, to Po-Boys.
Top pick for us was Shrimp Louis Cajun salad – the shrimp were juicy, spicy and moreish. For desert there's Mississippi Mud Pie or Good Ol' Fashioned Apple Pie. Better still it serves all-day breakfasts and pancakes, which make this a great start-of-the-day alternative venue. It’s one of the best included restaurants we’ve seen. The only charge is if you want to purchase quarters for the Juke Box.
This is another speciality restaurant new to P&O Cruises and unique to Arvia. Unlike 6th Street Diner, however, there’s a small per dish charge. Décor is striking and colourful, with a showstopper amber chandelier above the sushi bar, and the menu (split into ‘land’ and ‘sea’) reflects the latest trends in vegan, vegetarian and flexitarian dining. You can stick to plant-based, sushi, or mix-and-match, depending on your taste. The blend works nicely.
Our table ordered every small plate plant-based starter (they’re around £3 each) and the standouts were the Cauliflower Popcorn Tempura, Sesame Crusted Crispy Fried Tofu (bove) and Nepalese Tofu Momos in soy broth. The sushi platters (some vegan and vegetarian friendly) were also excellent, especially the tuna and salmon Maki Platter, £22 for two sharing. Top tip: for an inexpensive, spicy treat order the £6 Hot and Sour Dashi Ramen – it’s a meal in itself.
Rum punch, anyone? Both Arvia and sister ship Iona have a distillery on board. But when Arvia winters in the Caribbean that distillery is used to make rum instead of gin. For lovers of rum, this is a real boon. The Amber Lounge in Arvia's atrium has a menu of rum-based cocktails - some include the Golden Tide rum produced on the ship. For a glass of bittersweet, refreshing loveliness order a Tortuga Cobbler (Arvia's most popular rum cocktail).
Or, to take your palate to the next level, book the rum-tasting excursion to the Mount Gay Distillery in Barbados. Here you'll learn how sugar cane is transformed into the molasses used to make rum and that, like wine, rum has notes. Toffee, honey, nutmeg and cinnamon are all notes to look out for as you sample a line-up of rums, some of which will all set your mouth on fire. The ‘Rum Shop Escapade’ excursion costs £86pp, adults only.
What P&O Cruises has created with their Deck 8 Promenade Deck has been a game-changer. We liked it on sister ship Iona and we feel exactly the same about it on Arvia. When the top decks pool areas get a little crowded (especially on sea days) Deck 8 is a calmer, quieter space to retreat to which doesn’t cost a penny. And it offers all the same things.
Whirlpools, seating and sun loungers can be found along most stretches of the wraparound promenade and there’s food available at The Quays, a food court which breathes far better than Deck 16's Horizon buffet. If anything there’s more choice here: small plates, fish and chips, noodles and now, exclusive to Arvia, the new traditional Sunday roast dished up in a Yorkshire pudding.
While the Limelight Club isn't new to P&O Cruises (it debuted on Iona), it's the first time we've experienced this intimate supper club on Arvia. And it didn't disappoint. On the bill was drag artist La Voix as well as a very special guest in Olly Murs who performed at the ship's naming ceremony.
As well as singing some of his chart topping hits, he performed a poignant cover of Sweet Caroline, which he dedicated to his dear friend who committed suicide, TV Presenter Caroline Flack. The entertainment was so memorable that the dinner of wild mushroom arancini, followed by sea bass with crispy pancetta and rum glazed pineapple confit was almost incidental.
When I learned P&O Cruises offers a £94 excursion called "Climb the Pitons" (which includes lunch) the challenge was irresistible. There are two iconic Pitons – Gros Piton and Petit Piton – and we were hiking the taller 650m peak. We set off in a group of about forty, with several accompanying guides. It was stressed that the hike would be strenuous, sheer and we wouldn’t all necessarily make it. What we hadn’t bargained on was the unevenness of the terrain. There is a trail, but it’s NOT a path as you’d imagine. It’s more a relentless, altitude-gaining rock clamber. The climb is split into four stages, which increase in difficulty. Two people gave up at this point; the rest of us soldiered on. The last two stages are tough, especially for short legs. Imagine having to climb four stairs at a time and keep at it for forty-five minutes. Only the stairs are uneven, the heat overwhelming and if you’re little you have to keep hauling yourself up. It’s as much a workout for the arms as it is for the legs. No idea how, but after two hours of intense effort, huffing and puffing, we made it to the top. Never have I been so happy to reach a summit. Be warned the descent takes just as long and is challenging on the knees. This isn’t an excursion for the faint-hearted, but kudos to P&O Cruises for offering something so extreme. If you’re physically fit and fancy a memorable challenge, this is for you. Would we do it again? Never!
All in all, we feel Arvia is a great addition to the P&O Cruises fleet. Even though it is near identical to Iona, its new swim-up bar on Deck 16 and the retractable roof over its Sky Dome (which was open during our entire cruise) add an extra touch of glamour and reinforce that this really is an ideal ship for warm weather cruises.
Plus, the introduction of amenities like high ropes and a mini-golf course (a pivot for the line) are welcome additions which seem to be drawing in a younger crowd. And, dare we say it, PG Tips tea bags and kettles in cabins notwithstanding, that crowd can no longer be said to be 100% British -- we heard a fair few different languages being spoken. One thing's for sure, everyone we spoke to seemed very happy to be onboard Arvia.