Best for: Families, couples who enjoy plenty of evening entertainment, younger cruisers
Not for: Those seeking a quiet, small-ship experience
Bottom Line: Big ship with impressive choice and quality entertainment geared to British tastes
P&O Cruises' Iona is the biggest ship ever built for the UK market, packed with entertainment venues and more than 30 places to eat and drink. With a capacity of 5,200 passengers, the ship has the feel of a lively but classy floating resort.
Despite its size, Iona has green credentials. It's the first British ship to be powered by liquefied natural gas (LNG), which means zero sulphur and nitrogen emissions and significantly less carbon than ships running on marine diesel.
The ship is certainly striking. At its heart is the Grand Atrium, with walls of glass on both sides spanning three decks, flooding the space with light and sea views. Polished white marble and gleaming chrome add to the elegant, airy feel, while a curved marble staircase sweeps down into the centre.
The SkyDome is another 'wow' moment at first sight, and a first for P&O Cruises, too. An enormous glass dome covers a double-height space on decks 16 and 17 which serves as a pool, drinking and dining venue by day and a dramatic entertainment space in the evenings. Other intriguing features making their debut include a boutique, four-screen cinema, an intimate nightclub masterminded by Gary Barlow and the first gin distillery at sea.
Iona is a departure in tone for P&O Cruises. It's clearly aimed at a younger demographic than the line's more traditional ships, in the style of the entertainment, food and nightlife. There are nods to tradition in the formal gala nights, the captain’s midday announcement and familiar venues that P&O regulars expect, including Brodie's pub and the Crow's Nest lounge. But in other areas, there's big change; open seating dining, for example, and the requirement to book everything via the MyHoliday app, which was experiencing big teething problems on our cruise.
There's a lot that's well planned about this ship. Instead of one big pool and the overcrowding that can bring, there are two infinity pools on the cascading aft decks, the indoor SkyDome pool and the smallish Beachcomber pool on deck 18, which spreads passengers out efficiently. With so many bars and restaurants, you really could eat and drink somewhere different every day and the concept of lots of smaller venues as opposed to a few huge ones means the ship doesn't feel crowded.
The decor is soothing and tasteful, never veering into the garish. The colour palette throughout is inspired by the British coastline, cabins done out in soothing shades of sand, pale oak, stone and white, with splashes of gold and nautical navy. The collection of 4,600 pieces of contemporary British art adds to the sense of style and good taste.
Not everything works. Some of the new dining venues feel soulless. There's a frustrating adherence to exactly what’s on the bar menus, so you can't, for example, get a martini in the Crow's Nest; you can only order from the fixed menu. Covid protocols have affected service; there's no turndown in the cabins anymore, which feels odd for anybody who enjoys the sense of luxury a cruise brings. The Wi-Fi is also extremely expensive, at £140 for a week of unlimited use, for one device.
Overall, though, Iona is an impressive ship, packed with quality entertainment and likely to be a huge hit with younger cruisers looking for nightlife, good food and affordable entry-level pricing.
P&O Cruises requires all adults to be double-vaccinated. Children from five upwards who are not vaccinated must take a PCR test within 120 hours prior to embarkation. All guests, including vaccinated adults, must take a lateral flow test before boarding, which is offered free of charge at Southampton as either a drive-through facility, shared with other Carnival Corporation ships (so busy when more than one ship is embarking) or a walk-in space at the terminal itself for those who arrive by train or taxi.
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Brilliant holiday - everything we had hoped for and more.
Iona, Nice ship but the P+O money making machine is out of control. Time for a change to another cruise line.