It was a journey of many firsts… P&O Cruises’ new ship Iona was at long last setting sail from Southampton with guests aboard, many of us were finally able to enjoy a much-needed holiday since the beginning of the pandemic, and it was also my very first time on a cruise!
Iona’s maiden voyage was originally meant to take place in May 2020, which means anticipation has been building up for more than a year, so I wasn’t about to say no when offered the opportunity to preview her shiny new features!
I LIKE BIG BOATS AND I CANNOT LIE
For those new to cruising, no photo will ever prepare you for the sheer size of a ship like Iona. As the largest of P&O’s fleet built specially for the UK market (at least until Arvia enters service in 2022), the sight of her completely blew me away. Basically a floating five-star resort, Iona is even larger than most hotels on land, and some of us wondered if we’d have time to see everything during our staycation (though we were certainly determined to do our best). Thankfully, our holiday could begin as soon as we stepped on deck, so we went exploring right after we unpacked.
NAVIGATING A POST-COVID FUTURE
Many are understandably concerned about the health protocols of cruise lines, but cruising is currently one of the safest ways to travel, particularly with P&O Cruises since everyone on board, whether guest or crew, has to be double-vaccinated (with a minimum of 14 days following the second dose). Their strict policy requires confirmation before embarkation, and they will only accept as proof of vaccination an official certificate issued by the NHS (not the record card), or the digital Covid Pass via the NHS app. Taking a coronavirus test at port is also required—possibly the only time when being negative is desirable! The boarding process went swimmingly and we were soon gazing upon the dazzling three-deck Grand Atrium, the heart of Iona.
Before we could proceed to our cabin, we were led through to our Muster Station (The Coral Restaurant) which is where passengers would assemble in an emergency. Similar to the safety demonstration at the beginning of flights, the muster drill would normally be carried out at the station. However, due to Covid measures, passengers would instead watch a video of it in their cabin.
Hand sanitisers could be found throughout Iona, and masks were in evidence everywhere, but you’re only required to wear it indoors and not outside on deck—all the better to bask in glorious sunshine and enjoy the fresh ocean breeze! Speaking of which…
WAKING UP TO A SCENIC VIEW
Undoubtedly the best part of cruising is the stunning scenery that you can take in from almost any venue on the ship, made all the more incredible if you’re fortunate enough to get a balcony cabin like me and my roomie Jess, so you’ll have your own private gateway to the great outdoors.
It was easy to forget I was on a ship when indoors… only when watching the waves (and the world) go by did I get any impression of movement. Good news for anyone who’s worrying about seasickness.
Our ensuite cabin was much larger than I expected, with all the comfort and amenities you’d require for a holiday, and we even had our own cabin steward who welcomed us not long after we arrived.
You will also receive your sea pass upon boarding, giving you access to any onboard credit you have. This also doubles as a key card, so don’t leave your cabin without it. The little map you get with your pass is also pretty handy, though there are deck plans on screens and signs all over Iona so you won’t ever feel “at sea” no matter where you are on the ship.
STEAK & CHIPS AHOY!
A holiday simply isn’t complete without tastebud-tantalising moments, and I really could not fault the food on Iona. All cruises with P&O include dining in the main restaurants, with four on Iona—Coral, Pearl, Aqua, and Opal, as well as the buffet at Horizon restaurant. She can boast a total of 30 places to eat, including seven speciality restaurants. Guests with special dietary needs are also catered for; simply make your requests at time of booking so the crew will be able to prepare in advance.
One of the advantages of dining on Iona is that you can turn up anytime in the evening at the main restaurants, and open seating also applies to breakfast and lunch. However, pre-booking is advised at speciality restaurants. For those who are curious about prices, you might be pleasantly surprised, because you won’t have to pay over the odds (as I’d envisioned) for speciality dining.
Whilst classic favourites, such as fish finger butties or steak, are on the menu (and put together with more than their usual flair), you will also get the opportunity to savour a wide range of culinary delights aboard, from a flavour-fest of contemporary Indian cuisine at Sindhu, to sophisticated fusion fare by top chefs at The Epicurean.
With so much choice available, the difficulty was in deciding what to eat! We eventually settled on tapas at The Glass House on our first night, and a gastropub feast at The Keel & Cow on our last night. As you can no doubt imagine, there were happy bellies all round the table! I was also particularly impressed by how helpful the staff were. Despite the challenges of the pandemic, each member of the crew delivered impeccable service, and all that with a smile on their face.
WISH YOU WERE BEER?
As if there’s not already enough to tempt you, Iona has 12 bars in case you fancy a bit of cruisin’ and boozin’. Whether it’s a glamorous lounge like the Crow’s Nest, or Brodie’s with its traditional pub vibe, you’ll certainly be kept in high spirits!
P&O provides a variety of drinks packages that will suit all palates and occasions, starting with the ultimate, which includes every drink they serve, to non-alcoholic beverages (mocktails anyone?) and hot drinks such as speciality teas, coffees, and decadent hot chocolate.
Iona also has the distinction of being the first ship with a distillery, tucked within Anderson’s Bar & Library. Award-winning Salcombe Gin has partnered with P&O Cruises to create an exclusive recipe that will be the star of the sea. Marabelle Gin will be entirely distilled, bottled and labelled aboard Iona, allowing guests a taste of the unique botanical mix inspired by her namesake Scottish island. You can also join a masterclass with a make-your-own-gin session, so the experience will be even more unforgettable.
Cocktails made with Marabelle Gin are also crafted at Anderson’s, though I have it on very good authority that other concoctions like Iona’s frozen Strawberry Daiquiris and Pina Coladas are also not to be missed, especially at the poolside cafes on deck, or even better… at the very appropriately named Sunset Bar! This is where you’ll want to get your camera ready because the ship’s wake against a backdrop of the setting sun is a memory worth capturing.
WHATEVER FLOATS YOUR BOAT…OR SHIP
One common assumption among those unfamiliar with cruising is that you’d be stuck on a ship, a-bored with hardly anything to do, or that you’d be obligated to take part in a series of programmes (like at a holiday camp), but nothing could be further from the truth.
You do receive a newsletter in your cabin every morning, with a full lineup of activities and entertainment, but none of these are obligatory, and you are free to spend the day (and night) as you wish. Even the Gala Evenings, also known as Black Tie Nights, are pretty laid-back, so ball gowns and tuxedos aren’t actually compulsory, though dressing up to the nines is encouraged.
As with most cruise ships, Iona has a number of swimming pools (four in total, including two infinity pools), and more than her fair share of hot tubs dotted about, indoors and outdoors. The SkyDome, which has pride of place on Iona, has a pool with a retractable stage so it’s a relaxing space by day (regardless of weather), and by night it transforms into a centre of revelry, with spectacular aerial displays, live music, light shows, and partying under the stars.
There’s no shortage of entertainment aboard Iona, with talks and cooking demos in the Grand Atrium, and round-the-clock performances at the lively Club House, elegant Limelight Club, and classic yet contemporary two-deck Headliners Theatre. Sadly our celebrity-spotting only yielded two TV presenters, and not the much hoped-for Gary Barlow at The 710 Club, which he oversees. However, he is due to make an appearance on Iona later this year, so book a voyage with us and you might just get lucky!
If you’re in the mood for the latest movie blockbusters, Ocean Studios is where you’ll have an action-packed time without leaving your seat, but for more thrills, head towards the Sports Arena for an archery lesson, or perhaps a friendly game of football. There’s even a giant chess set out on deck! A different sort of adrenalin rush can be experienced in the casino where the cards might turn in your favour, or for those who aren’t keen on high stakes, The Club House also hosts Bingo games.
It’s not just grown-ups that get to have all the fun. Although there were no children aboard Iona during the shakedown, a good portion of the ship is dedicated to kids from toddlers to teens, ready for the day when families can sail together again. The Reef is where you’ll discover age-specific clubs and play areas, such as the Night Nursery and SplashZone. Access to these safe environments is complimentary, and all programmes are led by qualified Reef Rangers.
When you’ve had your fill of excitement, take a breather in the library at Anderson’s Bar and dive into the literary world, or perhaps let the artistry of 20th century masters sweep you off your feet at Whitewall Galleries.
Prefer the sunshine and fresh breeze? The Retreat is the best place to unwind. It’s a premium VIP adults-only alfresco terrace, where you can order chilled refreshments and luxuriate in a spa treatment in the privacy of your own cabana with an ocean panorama before you. I wish my holiday aboard Iona were longer just so I could have the chance to indulge in one of the beauty and holistic therapies at Oasis Spa & Health Club, but I’m pretty sure there’s going to be a next time.
I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to be able to go on holiday again, and what a way to connect with the world! They say it’s not the destination that matters, but the journey, and it certainly does help if you’re on a beautiful ship like Iona. My bucket list has grown even longer now I’ve got hooked on cruising, and hopefully it won’t be long before I’m on another voyage (this time with shore excursions). In fact, I’ve already been dreaming about sailing through the Norwegian Fjords!