David George, an independent cruise blogger, sometimes travels alone. Here he rates P&O’s Oriana and offers tips on how to maximise value from your holiday.
If you’re a single traveller and you enjoy cruise holidays as much as I do, you’ll want to consider carefully the impact of the single supplement on overall costs.
THE BOTTOM LINE
I’ve just returned from two cruises on board Oriana, one of P&O’s mid-sized ships with around 1800 passengers, and both provided exactly the sort of cruise experience I expect from one of my favourite ships. These were consecutive cruises, known in the trade as back-to-backs, and as a result I qualified for a saving of 10%, a reduction that goes some way to lessen the impact of the supplement paid by those travelling on their own.
If you’re doing more than a couple of cruises each year, this is an option worth considering. However, it’s not only a matter of saving money. There is also something very satisfying about being able to relax into the ship’s style across two cruises: you get to know the crew and the ship’s layout for a start and, more practically, can sometimes put this to good use. A friend was joining me for the second leg, for example, and because I’d had the opportunity to view Peninsular restaurant, I was able to have a quiet word with Jaison, the manager, to ask for a specific table. As our bookings had been linked, Jaison was happy to sort things out especially as I caught him before table plans had been finalized.
I also enjoy the changeover day in Southampton. With most passengers disembarking, back-to-backers are free to take a leisurely breakfast before leaving the ship via the crew gangway for some shopping in town. Returning later with new passengers milling about and trying to find the right deck, let alone the correct side for their cabins, I tried not to appear too smug as I bestowed my insider knowledge gained from having already been on board for 17 days!
GOOD SERVICE STARTS AT THE TOP
Throughout the cruises, officers and crew delivered excellent service. In my experience I find it it pays to show appreciation rather than simply take it for granted. I’m not talking about tipping but rather suggesting that a smile, a thank you and perhaps completion of the Extra Mile crew nomination form for particularly good service can often secure more than a warm glow. From my cabin steward, Russell, to waiters Satish and Nibu, the care and interest they showed ensured the best cruise experience possible. Meals in Peninsular were of a high standard with plenty of choice and main courses like the beef Wellington and grilled lobster were superb, as were the desserts.
On some ships, senior officers are rarely seen and I find this disappointing. Not so on Oriana. From the moment we embarked, Captain Robert Camby signalled his intention to be seen and heard around the ship and he kept his promise. I caught up with him over coffee when we were returning to Southampton.
As a youngster Robert Camby showed potential as a classical pianist but his ambition was a career at sea and since joining P&O as a deck cadet he has risen through the ranks to become P&O’s youngest captain and a member of the Honourable Company of Master Mariners.
The Captain is happy to concede that he hasn’t worked in all his ship’s departments. “I can’t do every job on a ship – all my experience has been on the Bridge – but of course I have insights elsewhere and when I secured promotion to Captain, my next ambition was equally clear to me. It was to become a good captain, a master of my ship. I have a great team and my belief is that by empowering departmental heads to give of their best we succeed in providing passengers with the best cruise experience possible.”
DAYS IN PORT
Our final port on the first cruise, which had taken us to places like Venice, Dubrovnik and unspoilt Korcula, was Valencia, a vibrant city and Spain’s third largest. As in all the ports there are a range of organized tours available but there is also a free shuttle bus (for those on Vantage fares) to the centre. The old quarter is fascinating and the 13th century cathedral in Plaza de la Reina is well worth a visit. But another sight not to be missed lies just outside the port gates and returning to the ship on the shuttle bus at lunchtime, I managed both. In 2008, the first Formula One Grand Prix was held in these streets and I walked part of the circuit as I made my way to another very different part of the city, the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias.
Not only is this a fascinating science park, it is also a great opportunity to see futuristic architecture at its best. The park covers a considerable area and so I only had chance to walk through the manicured gardens to ogle but I’m glad I made the effort and intend visiting one or two of the exhibitions next time.
SEA DAY ACTIVITIES
From Valencia we headed home (or rather the others did; I was staying on board) and the weather couldn’t have been more glorious. Along with others I made the most of it, topping up my suntan, reading and swimming in one of the three pools. It came as a surprise therefore when just 24 hours later and sailing out of Southampton for my second cruise, we experienced such different conditions. Biscay was no longer a millpond; instead moderate winds had produced a swell sufficient for the promenade deck to be closed off and we didn’t see the sun again until we had swung left back into the Mediterranean.
For me, weather like this is all part of the magic of cruising and even though we couldn’t walk the prom decks I had enough to keep me busy with the daily timetable of onboard activities. The art classes were as well attended as ever and our new teacher, George Grunshaw, inspired us sufficiently to produce watercolours that were to feature later in an exhibition.
Then there were practices for the Oriana choir concert to attend, ballroom, Zumba and line dancing to enjoy and, for me, essential sessions in the gym to counteract the five-course dinners.
For those seeking calmer pastimes, there were daily port talks, theatre lectures interrupted by a Costa coffee and muffins in Tiffany’s, reading in the library’s very comfortable wing-back armchairs, films like Les Miserables in Chaplin’s Cinema, and maybe even some retail therapy in the shops.
If you cruise as much as I do, you may be wondering why I haven’t mentioned late deals as another perk. After all, every cruise line wants to ensure there are no empty cabins and P&O is no exception. They have special offers which make those of us who booked as soon as the brochures came out green with envy, our consolation being that at least we reserve the cabin we want; late bookers must accept what is allocated.
The reason I’ve not flagged these deals until now is that they do not apply to single passengers. Even if you offer to pay the combined fare of two occupants, ie a 100% single supplement, the cabin will not be sold for sole occupancy. I tried to book such an offer when I was on board – after all, even paying double would provided worthwhile savings. But Emma Wilson, one of the ship’s patient and knowledgeable loyalty and cruise sales’ managers, explained that these offers were not for those travelling alone.
“However,” she added with a smile, “P&O have listened to passengers like you and the policy is changing. From September (2013) onwards, single passengers will be able to take advantage of these very special fares!”
The second cruise was very different from the first and just as fascinating. We stayed in the western Med this time and focused on ports like Alicante, a city that surprised me because I saw it only as an airport for Spanish package holidays but the old town is very pretty with narrow streets, churches and an imposing castle to explore.
Sete in the south of France was new to me as well. It is a typical French town and port with lots of character, known locally as the Venice of Languedoc because of its network of waterways.
PEACE OF MIND
When I’m chatting to passengers, many remark on one attraction of cruising that I have never considered until now. It is the existence of a fully equipped and staffed Medical Centre, an onboard 24-hour hospital and surgery that nobody wants to use but which reassures simply by being there.
When I met Dr Dale Thorne at the Captain’s welcome party, he invited me down to Deck 4 to view the facilities. He is the senior doctor on board and has worked with P&O since 2009, a career decision influenced, he believes, by his father’s background in the Royal Navy.
“I enjoy being able to help passengers with their medical needs and at the same time visit parts of the world I never dreamt I’d see,” he explained. “I remember sitting here in my surgery early one morning after three or maybe four days at sea when I glanced up and there, perfectly framed in my porthole, was Sydney Opera House! I think that best sums up the attraction of working on a cruise ship – it is professionally satisfying and at times, surreal.”
Dr Thorne has had his share of major emergencies since working on ships. “In rare cases it’s not always possible to treat a patient and when that happens, we will consider evacuation by helicopter, or ‘helevac’ as it’s called. We need to be within 150 miles of land to action it and when we do, the passenger decks are cleared – not just of people but tables, sunloungers, the lot.”
It is no wonder, then, that so many passengers judge the presence of medical facilities to be yet another advantage of cruising.
I have enjoyed cruise holidays for seven years yet I only heard recently about my final source of extra value. When you buy 100 shares in P&O’s parent company, Carnival, one of the benefits is additional onboard credit, as well as share dividends and the tantalizing prospect that the share price might rise (or fall!). In my case this cruise, the first of 17 days and the second of 13, provided me with the allocation of £150 of credit for each one. I call that good value. For more details visit the P&O website and check out shareholder benefits.
In fact it’s so good I think it might be time to book another holiday. A fine drizzle is falling and the argument for embarking on another P&O cruise seems unanswerable. The family probably thinks I’m spending too much of my savings on cruises these days but what’s the point of saving if you can’t occasionally swap rainy days for the excitement of life at sea?
David George retired six years ago. He worked in education as well as in broadcasting as a producer with BBC Radio. He now blogs about his cruise experiences and writes UK and European city guides.
WRITTEN BY: David George