We’d decided we wanted to go somewhere warm to escape the January gloom, and we’d settled on the Caribbean. What we couldn’t decide was which island to go for, and that was how we ended up booking a week-long cruise with P&O Cruises.
We chose their flagship, the nearly-new Britannia, and we’d be flying out to Barbados to join the ship in Bridgetown. After that, we’d have a day at sea to adjust to life on board. The next two days would be spent in Curaçao and Aruba respectively, followed by another day at sea. Then there would be two more days of new ports, with a day in Tobago and one in St Vincent. We’d disembark in St Lucia and fly home from there.
What follows is my account of our amazing week on board Britannia, in which I hope to show that people of any age can have a great time on a cruise. This isn’t sponsored or anything like that, by the way! P&O have no idea I’m writing this glowing endorsement!!
After a comfortable Tui Airlines flight on the marvellous Boeing 787 Dreamliner, we landed in a (disappointingly!) rainy Barbados, where we were met literally beside the plane by a series of coaches. This spared us the trauma of passport control by taking us straight to Britannia. Our luggage had already been taken from the plane straight to the ship, and would be left outside our cabin within the next three hours.
Nothing can prepare you for the sheer scale of Britannia. She’s Britain’s biggest cruise ship, and it’s amazingly difficult to get her all into one photograph! This is a pic of her when we docked in Aruba, as I didn’t manage to get one when we boarded in Barbados.
The check-in process was dead easy, with very little paperwork and only a short and fast-moving queue. We were each issued with a cruise card, which is scanned whenever you board or leave the ship so that they always know who’s on board. It’s also how you pay for things like drinks and shopping on board, so you never have to have cash with you (and being a British ship, all the prices are in pounds, which is jolly handy). In Barbados, as is the case wherever the ship docks, they had set up a little gazebo handing out chilled water so that you don’t get dehydrated – just one of many examples of how much you feel looked after right the way through your holiday.
In no time at all, we were walking up the gangway and onto the ship, and then it was just a matter of locating our cabin. You wouldn’t believe the length of the corridors, which run the whole length of the ship on the decks with cabins. We’d chosen a cabin ‘midship’, with the aim of being equidistant from either end of the ship, which proved to be a good choice for minimising walking. Just getting to the restaurant was great exercise, especially in heels!
Our cabin was lovely: the perfect retreat and just like a good-quality hotel room. This is how it looked just after we arrived, with the unfortunately un-photogenic Bridgetown port in the background, and a protective luggage sheet on the bed!
The bed was super comfortable: a decent size, with lovely soft bed linen. All the plug sockets are British, so you don’t even have to bring adapters. Your cabin is made up every morning, and each evening while you’re at dinner your cabin steward comes in and turns the bed down, draws the curtains and leaves little chocolates on the bed for you. :) They also leave you a ‘Horizon newsletter’, which tells you everything that’s happening on board the following day, along with the day’s dress code, information about the port, etc.
The bathroom was great too – small but perfectly formed, and the shower was almost a double. The hot water was amazingly reliable and I never had a single issue with it, unlike in many hotels! There was loads of space for all our stuff.
The toiletries provided are really nice and from the White Company, a brand I’m fond of. They were the same scent as the reed diffuser we have in our bedroom at home (Flowers)!
We were so glad that we went for a balcony room, and I would thoroughly recommend doing so, as it’s more than worth the extra cost. You wake up to a different view each day, and you never quite know what you’re going to see when you open the curtains each morning. Except on a sea day, of course!
This was the view looking down from the balcony when the ship was at sea.
And by night…
It’s the most wonderful thing to sit and have breakfast while the ship is guided into an exciting new port, or with the most marvellous sea views when you’re out to sea. The view is almost as good from the bed, but I loved being out in the fresh air whenever the sun was on the other side of the ship.
The balcony is also a lovely place to sit and read, or just watch the world go by (below is the port of Scarborough in Tobago). Out at sea one day I saw a shoal of flying fish, and there were lots of interesting sea birds everyday, the likes of which I have only ever seen in Attenborough documentaries (e.g. frigatebirds). Some would follow us for mile after mile, taking advantage of the updrafts caused by the wind hitting the ship.
Left: St Vincent. Right: Tobago.
It’s also fun looking out for land and saying “land ho!” whenever any is sighted (which actually only happened once when out to sea – the rest of the time it was just when approaching a port!)!
Exploring the ship
After we’d freshened up in the cabin, we couldn’t wait to get out and start exploring the ship (interrupted only by an emergency drill during which we had to congregate at our ‘muster point’ and our lifejackets were explained to us!). There are 19 decks on Britannia, 14 of which are accessible to passengers. Navigating your way around them takes a little bit of getting used to, but there are maps in all the lift areas and you fairly quickly get the hang of it as long as you know which end is which (not always obvious unless you can see movement!). You have to get used to a bit of nautical terminology – ‘forward’, ‘aft’, ‘midship’, and so on – and there are one or two quirks, like the fact that our restaurant on deck 6 wasn’t accessible from the midship lift, so you had to go to deck 7, walk a fair distance aft and then go down a level! It was great fun roaming about the ship.
This is the Lido deck, the main focal point of the outside of the ship.
The high vantage point of deck 19 gives you a fabulous view over the Lido deck and whichever port you happen to be docked in. In this case, Tobago.
It’s lovely by night, too, when there’s virtually nobody out on deck. In the photo below you can see another cruise ship leaving port.
One of my favourite decks was the promenade deck, seven laps of which equates to one mile. I enjoyed putting my headphones on and listening to music while I walked around it on sea days, enjoying the amazing views.
The ship is just as lovely inside, too. At the heart of the ship is the Atrium, which spans three decks. There’s a bar or two, coffee shop, patisserie, various shops, and comfortable places to sit and relax.
The ship has a library, where you can sit in tranquility and read by the window.
Our favourite place on the ship was approached down this stylish corridor…
It’s called the Crow’s Nest bar, and it’s right at the front of the ship.
It has Art Deco-style decor and it’s a quiet and civilised bar – my kind of place!
Don’t you just love the brass telescopes? They really add something.
The ship would leave port about 5.30pm each day, and with our dinner slot at 6.30pm we quickly got into a nice routine of going to the Crow’s Nest for a drink before dinner. Located right above the Bridge, the Crow’s Nest is the perfect place to watch the ship undock, which was particularly interesting in Aruba, where the ship had to perform a rather intricate manoeuvre to get through a narrow gap in the reef. This pic is not of Aruba though; it’s Curaçao.
There were ‘sailaway’ parties up on the Lido deck at about this time on some days, but we didn’t go to any of these because I don’t go in for any of that vulgar flag-waving nonsense!! Give me a glass of Prosecco and a quiet, sophisticated bar over that any day! This one was in Tobago.
And this was when we were about to leave St Vincent.
The Crow’s Nest is also the perfect place to watch the sunset, which conveniently fell between 6pm and 6.30pm each day.
It was invariably spectacular, and you could literally see the sun sinking fast beneath the horizon.
Entertainment and other things to do on board
There’s loads to do on board, but one of my favourite aspects of life on Britannia was the black tie evenings. I’m a huge fan of black tie, and have a fairly extensive and under-utilised collection of cocktail dresses that I was glad of the chance to wear. I liked the fact that the dress code was enforced, and secretly rather enjoyed seeing a man in shorts given his marching orders from the Crow’s Nest!! Hehe. It was such fun roaming around the ship in black tie late in the evening – it gave the holiday more of a sense of occasion, and it felt a bit like my Oxford days, except on a ship. These were my dresses of choice.
The two black tie evenings coincided with sea days. On the first sea day there was a black tie Captain’s Gala Reception in the Atrium, at which the Captain gave a speech and introduced his senior crew, followed by a five-course dinner. It said on the invitation delivered to our room, “enjoy a complimentary drink”, and we were delighted to find that nobody was keeping tabs on how many drinks you’d had, so we and many others got two glasses of Champagne! Hurrah. (I should add that if you’re not a black tie kind of person, you can still go to the buffet in ‘evening casual’, just not the restaurants and at least some bars.)
The ship’s big theatre spans two decks, and we spent a couple of evenings in there watching a Derren Brown-style magician and some singers. Among the many other venues there’s also the Live Lounge, where we went to see a pretty good covers band singing movie songs. We also enjoyed the ship’s excellent resident pianist on several occasions in the Atrium or the Crow’s Nest. All this entertainment is included in the price of the cruise, and I was impressed with the quality of the shows we went to.
You don’t have to go to anything if you don’t want to, of course, and there were loads more things going on than we had the time or inclination for. There’s a cinema, for example, and a venue where you can have dinner at the same time as watching a show. There’s an English-style pub/bar where there are quiz nights and such like (we went to one pub quiz). If you want to stay in your cabin there are loads and loads of films to watch on your own massive TV, as well as a few British channels like the BBC, ITV, Sky News etc. The ship also has a lovely spa, and on the second sea day I had a relaxing Swedish massage.
Wining and dining
Having previously had a bad experience of an all-inclusive holiday, I was a little worried about what the food would be like on board Britannia. I’m happy to say that I needn’t have worried! The food was invariably brilliant, and it’s all included in the price of the cruise. The other thing I worried about was having to socialise over dinner, but again, I needn’t have worried about that either. With our booking, we were able to specify that we wanted a table for two, and we went for the first dinner sitting at 6.30pm (the second being at 8.30pm).
This meant we had our own table in the restaurant each night, and it was the same friendly waiting staff everyday, which was really nice. There are several restaurants on board, most of them included in the price, and a couple of fancier ones that you have to pay a bit extra for. Drinks aren’t included with the price of the cruise, but we were given £125 each of on-board spending money with our booking, which easily covered our drinks for the week with some left over for an extra shore excursion.
There are loads of options for breakfast, including going to the same restaurant as for dinner, but we soon discovered that the best option was to order breakfast to our room (this is free). That’s because the ship would arrive in each port at about 8am everyday – perfect timing for breakfasting on the balcony while the ship was guided into its berth (the example below is in Curaçao). The pastries and muffins were perfect, and I got completely addicted to the banana yogurts (not pictured!).
We were allocated the Oriental Restaurant, but the main restaurants are all the same: elegantly furnished and set, with nice big windows so you can admire the views. The dining experience in the main restaurants, whether for breakfast, lunch or dinner, is formal and I would say it’s akin to a four-star country house hotel (they put your linen napkin on your lap for you, for example).
For lunch, you can have a full three-course meal or a lighter option in one of the main restaurants (as pictured below), or there’s a poolside grill and pizzeria, which also has a ‘Grab and Go’ bar where you can help yourself to sandwiches, wraps, salads and desserts on the go. Our evening restaurant was also open at 4pm for afternoon tea, but we never had this as it would spoil our 6.30pm dinner!
The other dining option all day long is the buffet, where you can eat as much as you like, whenever you like. We didn’t go there often as it tended to be a bit busy, but it was good for the day we missed lunch because of our shore excursion. I tended to go for salady bits and pieces, but there were loads of hot options each day too.
If none of those options take your fancy, there’s also an excellent room service menu. While it’s free for breakfast, you have to pay small amounts for the other things on it (I was slightly annoyed, as the whole menu was free when we booked the cruise and they introduced the charges a few months before we sailed). However, they’re very reasonable prices; this plate of smoked salmon only cost £2, for example.
In the evening, we chose to dine in our allocated restaurant every night because the food, service and overall experience was so good. There were loads of dishes to choose from and a different menu each night. The food was really good quality and nicely presented, like this duck starter. It didn’t feel at all mass produced, or as if it had been done as cheaply as possible because it was free. I was really impressed.
This was the mouth-watering venison I had one night. It was so perfectly cooked and succulent, and served with dauphinois potatoes – my favourite!
The only thing I would say was a downside to the on-board dining was that it was difficult to find the opportunity to try Caribbean food. We did on our final shore excursion, but the menus were mostly European dishes. All delicious, but it would’ve been nice to try some local cuisine as well!
Of course, the whole point of going on a cruise is to see the world, and so for each of the port days we booked shore excursions for the mornings and kept the afternoons free for doing our own exploring. You don’t have to book excursions with P&O – you can just do your own thing, or sign up directly with a local company – but we chose to do so because if the tour is delayed for some reason, the ship will wait for you! We were also a little nervous about exploring the Caribbean on our own, and didn’t want to worry about driving.
Our programme of morning tours and afternoons exploring the ports worked really well, as the tour guides are all local to each island and give you a great introduction to life on that island, as well as guiding you through whatever activity you’re doing. There’s loads to say about each of the tours we did, so I’ll be writing some more posts with tonnes more photos! In the meantime, here’s a flavour of what’s to come…
I can honestly say it was one of the best holidays I’ve ever had, and it left me puzzled as to why it seems to be mostly older people who do cruises! It was so relaxing and fun, both on the ship and on the laid back Caribbean islands we visited. We’re already planning another one for the same time next year, but with a different set of islands. I can hardly wait!