Farewell, Oriana – Queen of a New Age

Image of P&O's Oriana cruise ship at sea

You won’t often find us extolling the virtues of the mega-ships of the world, those ocean-going leviathans that look more like floating apartment blocks than anything truly nautical. We’d rather spend a week in the neon garishness of Las Vegas than put to sea in some of these modern marine monstrosities.

There are more on the horizon, too, you know. Another 10 gadget-bestrewn vessels in excess of 150,000 tons, all boasting the most ghastly superstructures and dreadful sense of style. That will mean there are some 32 of these over-sized peripatetic eyesores mucking up the cruise lanes of the world in the not-too-distant future.

Hopefully, at least one of them will be called the SS Carbuncle in a rare outbreak of seafaring candour. But they do say nothing succeeds like excess.

Anyway, where were we? Ah yes. A ship that broke the mould, a large vessel that actually retained true vestiges of maritime charm. For this, we were prepared to make an exception.

In fact, by today’s terms, the ship in question barely qualifies as a blip on the radar of the cruising colossuses (Note to editor: should that be ‘colossi’? We never were very good at Ancient Greek. Too much ouzo, probably).

But perhaps some context is in order here (on classic ships, not our failure at learning Greek). As regular readers of our irregular ramblings will know, our history with cruising goes back in time. Way back.

We have been sampling a life on the ocean wave since the 1960s (inspired, no doubt, by a certain Stanley Kramer), and we have been fortunate enough to sail on many of the classic liners of yesteryear, including the venerable QE2, the Windsor Castle and SA Vaal of Union-Castle Line, the Orpheus of Swan Hellenic and SS Rotterdam of Holland America.

Also on that list was a night or three onboard another veteran of the period, the dear old Canberra of the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company. This was a ship that practically defined the British cruise ethos of the 1970s and ’80s, a period that was not so much marking time as counting it down – to extinction.

With the exception of the QE2 and Canberra, there was virtually no British cruise industry to speak of; it was utterly moribund. Until 1993. In a fairly major throw of the dice, P&O Cruises announced they would build their first ship specifically for the British market – a radical idea at the time, with the industry dominated by American lines – and it would be the largest ever built by the company.

At a shade under 70,000 tons (only 10 ships were bigger at the time, and none more than 77,000), the Oriana promised to be a major breath of sea-going air, effectively breathing new life into Southampton’s increasingly under-employed port and revitalising a UK industry that was all but defunct. Here at T&T Towers, we cheered long and loud. Rule Britannia, and all that – it was Last Night of the Proms every night!

And, while the newcomer would certainly be larger than most and bigger than any other vessel we had sailed on, with the exception of the SS France – then travelling as the SS Norway of Norwegian Cruise Line – we were heartened, nay, inspired, by the actual specification of P&O’s latest creation.

Not only would Oriana rekindle a fading nautical flame, but she would also be a graceful upholder of P&O tradition, following in the wake of an illustrious predecessor of the same name. She would be designed for long-distance voyaging and world cruises, not any of this Johnny-come-lately seven-day cruising nonsense. In short, she would be a proper ship.

And, sure enough, the reality of the new British cruise flagship was every bit as good as they promise. She was a wonderfully refined and elegant vehicle, with excellent sailing lines and a sense of true spaciousness, especially compared to the ageing Canberra, with shared bathrooms and Tourist-class court cabins barely larger than the average cupboard.

Here were balcony cabins, an expansive lido deck, multiple public rooms, an alternative restaurant and a Spa. But there was still a sports deck and other traditional touches, including the Lord’s Tavern pub.

Carrying 1,760 passengers – the same number as Canberra but almost 25,000 tons larger – Oriana was everything we hoped for in a new, large ship that sported the Red Ensign and could take us to places like Greece, Norway and Morocco from her home in The Solent.

Interior photos of a Mini Suite and the Atrium on P&O Cruises' Oriana ship

The crew – many from Goa and other parts of India – were delightful, and the menus often featured sumptuous curries and other dishes from the Subcontinent. There were proper cocktail parties, bridge tournaments and shuffleboard contests. We were in cruise heaven.

Oriana underwent major refurbishments in 2006 and 2011, the latter of which was part of her conversion to an adults-only configuration that did away with the children’s quarters and built in a series of cabins at the stern. A Gary Rhodes-branded speciality restaurant was also added, and, for another eight years, this polished wanderer continued to captivate guests with her unique charms and style.

But, as we all know, time passes. After 24 years as P&O’s most poised and distinguished vessel, there is now cause for much chagrin and sorrow for Oriana is no more. Instead, the distinctly more prosaic Piano Land (yes, Piano Land; one wonders if ‘Ukelele Land’ was already taken) is now undergoing a refit to prepare her for the Chinese market, to sail henceforth for government-owned Well Star Travel Cruise. How the mighty are fallen.

If that is the rather-less-than-distinguished future for this grande lady of the seas, what is her legacy?

Good question. It is easy to wax lyrical about Oriana, as she came along at exactly the right time and in exactly the right style to capture the imagination of cruisers both old (like ourselves) and new (like we were back when God travelled first class). It was a major gamble by P&O, but it paid off handsomely, not least because the company merged with the giant Carnival Corporation soon thereafter and benefited from a major injection of new-build cash.

Now, the fleet consists of six mega-ships that all dwarf the 1995 trailblazer, with two more on the horizon that could fit Oriana inside, two and a half times. Let that sink in a bit. When she made her debut, she was just short of being one of the largest of her kind. Now, she is not even the same conversation as ‘large,’ let alone ‘mega-ship.’

Happily, we managed to get the full experience before mega-ships became the norm, when she was genuinely the Queen of the New Age of cruising. And, for that, we will always be grateful.

Treadwell & Tenny

Did you ever sail on the Oriana? What did you think of her and what kind of experience did you have? Give us your thoughts in the Comments section below.

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Treadwell and Tenny

About Treadwell and Tenny

Treadwell & Tenny are long-time cruisers (and writers) with a penchant for stylish experiences. The husband-and-wife duo’s cruise adventures date back to 1969, encompassing almost all types of sea and river-going ships. Together they have sailed the the Pacific and Atlantic, the Med and the Caribbean, into deepest Patagonia, around freezing fijords and along tranquil rivers while enjoying a cocktail or two. Each week, they offer inside looks at the cruise business and their own unique slant on experiential travel. They promise not to swear. Much.

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