David George returned last month from his longest cruise, 35 nights with P&O Cruises – read his Oriana cruise ship review and join him as he visits the Caribbean and takes in the sights and sounds of New Orleans.
I had never been on a cruise as long as this one and when I booked it, all 35 nights of it, I wondered if I could stay the course. Well, after visiting so many destinations new to me, and having done it in such style on board P&O Cruises’ mid-sized Oriana, I needn’t have worried.
I reserved my place more than a year ago and what a good job I did because there were no last-minute Getaway deals for Oriana’s cruise to the Caribbean, Mexico and southern USA – every cabin had been sold.
Oriana is an easy ship to like and I settled in quickly after the challenge of driving down to Southampton in wintry weather. With 1800 passengers it’s not too big and the main areas of activities – the café bars, the shops, the theatre, the cinema and the library – are centrally situated on Decks 7 and 8. I had an outside cabin on Deck 8 and my stewardess, Rosanna, did a wonderful job keeping it presentable; she even arranged for the carpet to be shampooed when she decided it needed it, even though I thought it was already spotless. Many people opt either to base themselves on the top decks for ease of access to the self-service Conservatory and the swimming pools or on the lower decks for greater stability, but I prefer to be midway. From my cabin it was only a matter of a few steps to reach Tiffany’s for a Costa coffee or light snack and my favourite bar for a pre-dinner drink was just one flight down in Andersons.
Visiting the Caribbean on Oriana
Most of the Caribbean islands I had visited before and so when we reached Basseterre, the port at St Kitts, I decided to do something different. With others on my dinner table, we shared a taxi to the Brimstone Hill Fortress, a World Heritage site, and in Vernon, an accredited driver, we found a real star. Nothing was too much trouble for him. He took us via the Governor General’s residence and was happy to make photograph stops along the coast.
His charge of $50 for the morning tour (about £10 each) was superb value. Vernon was proud of St Kitts and it was good to be in his company. He showed us a picture of his 13 year old daughter who wants to be a dentist – a grand ambition but realistic, he said. If she gets the grades, she will train in either Cuba or the US. I asked him if she will then return to St Kitts to practice? Vernon’s expression seemed to suggest not. Brimstone Hill is impressive. The first cannon was mounted there by the British in 1690, the fort being originally built by slave labour to defend the island from the French.
The islands that were new to me included Montego Bay and Grand Cayman. The two are totally different. Montego Bay in Jamaica I found dusty and slightly threatening in the town centre where cars, lorries and pedestrians pack the streets and knots of youths hang about staring at tourists brave enough to explore independently. That evening, other passengers who had been on tours of the island had a different story to tell – they spoke only of the stunning scenery. Grand Cayman, on the other hand, was altogether different, a much more sophisticated port and home to various international stores and banks. The bright sunshine and pale blue sea set it off perfectly.
Into New Orleans on a cruise
New Orleans on the Mississippi was the first of our overnight stays and we disembarked surprisingly quickly. I had been warned about bureaucratic US immigration procedures and long queues. In fact the opposite was true. Possibly because we disembarked early before breakfast there was no waiting and the Immigration officials were charming. By 9.00 we had made our first major find, Café Beignet in Royal Street in the French Quarter and easily walkable from the ship. Surrounding the art deco cafe were elegant homes with their trademark wrought iron balconies.
The city is renowned for its beignets, square doughnuts drowned in icing sugar and loaded with calories. With a cup of coffee they are delicious, but be warned – they are sold in threes, more than enough for sharing.
From here it was a short stroll, via the cathedral in Jackson Square, to Bourbon Street, home to most of the city’s clubs and bars, many of them dedicated to jazz, much of it played live. This was my first visit to the States and the kindness of everybody we met that evening will stay with me; passers-by and bar tenders were equally charming and nothing seemed too much trouble. We asked someone for directions to Fritzel’s, a well-known haunt for jazz lovers, and rather than point us in the right direction he happily walked us to the door.
Onboard Oriana – food and entertainment
Back on board Oriana, the cruise had well and truly settled into its stride. The ship has long been one of my favourites but on this cruise she seemed to have upped her game another notch.
Okay, Oriana may be getting on in years but she still sparkles and every officer and crew member we met impressed with their courtesy and interest. The United States is deservedly famed for the quality of its service culture, sadly something that seems less evident these days where I live, but I’m pleased to report that on Oriana it is still very much alive and well.
Some of the shows in Theatre Royal were really enjoyable. Comedian Lee Wilson, ventriloquist Gareth Oliver and the Johnson Brothers, singers of light classics, received enthusiastic responses and some of the Headliners’ shows were good too although there is a need to introduce new ideas. I have seen We Are The Champions rather too many times now but there were some fresher shows like to Reel-to-Reel and the cast members gave it everything they’d got.
New Orleans’s jazz featured in the programme of events with jazz historian and clarinetist Chris Walker giving some entertaining talks about music and the history of the areas we were visiting. On one evening his jazz trio played in Marco Pierre White’s Ocean Grill and we were lucky enough to get a table. It was a great success, the music and the fine food re-creating the authentic atmosphere of a swish restaurant back in New Orleans. My starter of deep-fried soft-shell blue crab with sesame coleslaw and red chilli dip provided a delicious wake-up call for my palette but it was the Chateaubriand of Beef that stays in my memory.
We asked for medium rare and it arrived with impressive ceremony, delivered by waiters Bright, Nixon and Elwyn, and carved with quiet efficiency by Maria. The first slice confirmed that chef Joseph’s definition of ‘medium rare’ matched mine exactly; this was beef at its most tender, the flavours enhanced by the Madeira jus and accompaniments of triple-cooked hand cut chips, field mushrooms, crispy onion rings and vine-roasted cherry tomatoes. Wonderful! The recommended Argentinian Malbec was a good choice and by the time we had finished, we needed extra time before summoning the courage to select desserts.
With the trio playing such swing classics as Ain’t Misbehavin’ and It Had To Be You, this was no problem at all and we settled back to savour the atmosphere of a swish New Orleans’ restaurant.
Colin and Sylvia Jarvis from Bradford in West Yorkshire loved every minute too. “We’re into jazz and we’re also into good food,” Colin told me, “so what better place to be than here in the Ocean Grill? We really are ‘Puttin’ On The Ritz’ tonight!”
Next day, new adventures awaited us. This is the bonus of cruising for me – there’s never enough time for time to stand still. On sea days I joined Tony Westmore’s art classes and over the length of the cruise completed eight watercolours related to the ports we had visited.
I’m no artist but Tony is an exceptional teacher and his encouragement and practical tips inspired us to achieve ever more challenging paintings. Those art sessions helped to make the cruise the success it was and I hope one day to attend another of Tony’s cruise classes. Others found their enjoyment in such activities as bridge classes, port talks, quizzes and gym workouts, all organized by Cruise Director Jon Bartram and his team.
The weather had been kind, ranging from 27c in the Caribbean to a brisker 15c beneath blue skies in the States but on the way home across the Atlantic our luck ran out and squally showers kept us indoors. None of this bothered me. I continued to complete my paintings, table companion Meirion Roberts-Thomas continued to defy logic by arguing that England would never beat Wales on Saturday to win the Triple Crown, and our waiters Chandru, Bala, Sandip and Vineeth continued to spoil all of us each evening in Peninsular Restaurant.
Reflecting on my Oriana cruise
What did senior officers make of the cruise? I had the opportunity to ask the Head of the Hotel Department, Executive Purser Ian Wynne Smythe, and he too sensed that overall the cruise had been a great success with passengers.
“But for me it has been memorable for another reason,” he added. “For the first time, we’ve achieved three major challenges which are unique to visits to the States – we met the US Coastguard inspection requirements, US Immigration was our most efficient yet and the icing on the cake was that we also passed the US Port Health inspection, a very stringent examination of Oriana’s standards of hygiene. I’m very proud of the ship’s company for these achievements – they’re on a par with winning our very own Triple Crown!”
Quite rightly Ian was delighted to receive such public recognition and from my point of view Oriana has never looked and felt better. The events before Christmas when the ship was the subject of so much negative press coverage following the norovirus outbreak are thankfully being forgotten. Oriana is a successful ship and I would be happy to return on board for another long cruise. A world cruise, then? I think first I’d better see what my savings accounts have to say!
David George took up cruising seven years ago, having spent a career in education and broadcasting. He worked for BBC Radio in Birmingham, primarily in news and features as a reporter/producer, and more recently has written travel guides for UK and European cities. If you have any questions for David regarding his Oriana cruise ship review, please leave them below in the comments field. Alternatively, if you’re interested in enjoying a cruise on P&O Cruises‘ Oriana, please call 0800 008 6677 for our latest deals and offers or view our full schedule of Oriana cruise ship itineraries.