David George revisits his first choice of cruise ship . . .
Despite enjoying my first cruise holiday six years ago on board Arcadia, I wasn’t feeling as excited about my return as I should. Recent whispers about viruses and concerns over service standards circulating on some websites had raised a number of doubts and I only went ahead with the booking when I decided the itinerary, from Southampton and through the Med into the Black Sea, was simply too good to miss.
Although we boarded Arcadia with some trepidation, within hours the misgivings began to disappear. Paresh, a member of the Passenger Services’ team at Reception, spotted me as I checked in at Ocean Terminal and came across to say hello. As he had last set eyes on me nearly two years ago when I was on Oriana, you’ll see why I was impressed – he even remembered my name!
The cabin was another eye-opener. 80 cabins on E deck have ‘obstructed views’ behind the lifeboats and, after poring over the deck plans, I had finally opted for E071. Good choice! A floor-to-ceiling window provided 85% visibility and the rest of my new home was just as impressive – a king-sized bed, large sofa, a generous bathroom with both bath and shower, and a first-class steward in Antonio who soon showed he was up there with the best, making sure I had a good supply of my favourite honey-and-oat biscuits on port days.
The public areas were equally impressive. Pale woods and modern artwork made the ship feel contemporary and contributed to the sense that this is a ship with real style. Alisdair Ross, the Executive Purser, told me that some £2,500,000 had been spent on the provision of pictures, ceramics and sculptures when the ship was built, and they certainly deserve more than a passing glance. The piece that impressed me most because of its size and dramatic impact was Jonathan Clarke’s cast aluminium and Murano glass sculpture called The Fortune Teller; well worth a look. Overall, Arcadia feels spacious and there are plenty of nooks and crannies for her 2,000 passengers if they want a quiet backwater every now and again.
One of the key indicators of a successful ship is surely the visibility of her senior officers and during my three weeks on board I had no worries on this score. On sea days, Captain Ian Walters could often be seen chatting to passengers and crew, and when I first heard his words before each sailaway I recognized his voice from my first ever P&O cruise:
“Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome back on board . . . welcome home!”
Each captain has a different style but, for me, this simple phrase underlines the comforting sense of being part of very special community of people and I looked forward to hearing it whenever I returned on board. Captains do not generally remain with one ship for any length of time but Captain Walters is an exception. However, this cruise is his last and he will soon be taking over command of Azura.
“I’m going to be sorry to go,” he told me. “This is a great ship and I’ve had a fabulous time, meeting some wonderful characters along the way.”
What will he miss in particular?
“Apart from the passengers and the ship’s company, you mean? It’s got to be my two azipods! Arcadia’s the only ship in the P&O fleet that has them and they provide incredible manoeuvrability.” Sensing my lack of technical knowledge, he added: “Azipods provide propulsion and steering through components that sit both within and outside the hull. They’re wonderful!”
But what about the cruise itinerary? Of the ports we visited, Odessa’s elegance impressed me hugely – find time to admire the rococo confection that is the Opera House – and in Athens, an inexpensive (€1,70) metro journey from the port of Piraeus which takes 20 minutes, the New Acropolis Museum delivers a stunning setting for the city’s archaeological treasures. You’ll need a couple of hours to do it justice.
For Keith and Doreen Bunby from Northwich in Cheshire, however, it was our overnight stay in Istanbul that thrilled them most. “What a city! Teeming with people and with so much to see,” enthused Keith. “Sailing in was really special with palaces, domes and minarets spread out before us. We’ll never forget it and have already decided to return.”
From Istanbul’s Hagha Sophia – the city’s first and greatest Byzantine monument – to the palace of Topkapi Sorayi, centre of the Turkish empire for 400 years, the main sights are easily accessible by foot and Michael Bedenham’s expert commentary on the open decks as we arrived helped us to find our bearings when we went ashore. But as magical as these sights were, it was the buzz of daily life that truly assailed the senses and underscored the city’s status as the crossroads of Asian and European cultures. The rhythmic clacking of wooden counters on backgammon boards and the scent of tobacco smoked through bubbling hookah pipes blended with the cries of street traders and Muslim calls to prayer, creating an exciting introduction to what must surely be one of the most colourful and vibrant cities in the world.
Dinner is the main focus each evening and Executive Chef Stuart Pitcher’s team produced some splendid meals with service as good as any I’ve known. A starter of Bury black pudding with duck’s egg and bacon bits remains in my memory because of its mixture of different textures and flavours and a main course of lamb shank was exceptionally good. As for the sweets, the American cheesecake was beautiful and made even better because of the addition of scoops of ice cream. Chocolates with the coffee were always appreciated but on other evenings, most of the sweetmeats were left untouched. As for the wine list, bottles started at around £13, a lot cheaper than on many competitors’ ships.
On one of the evenings, we went down to the Ocean Grill restaurant and paid a £12.95 supplement for a special dinner presented in sumptuous surroundings, each course served on Villeroy & Boch bone china. Theofilo Fernandes, the new manager (recently promoted from Adonia where I first met him) was on hand to welcome all his guests and we sat at a spacious table with magnificent views of the setting sun. My smoked finnan haddock and quail scotch eggs with curried mayonnaise whetted the appetite and my friend was equally impressed with the crayfish cocktail. To follow, and only when we felt ready, we embarked on the fillet steak and grilled lobster. The lobster was done to a turn, the meat lifting out of the shell with ease. My decision to select the baked brioche and golden raisin bread and butter pudding was judged to be an inspired choice.
During lazy days at sea there was much to do, apart from reading and sunbathing. The shops on the prom deck have changed even in the short time I’ve become addicted to cruise holidays. The units are small, not giant retail malls as they are on some larger ships, and each has its own specialism. Harding Brothers operate the shops and those on Arcadia were their first, opening some 12 years ago. There’s a chemist for people like me who run out of sun cream, general shops selling books, cards and stationery and, at the top end, jewelIers with a huge stock of watches and fashion jewellery costing from a few pounds to thousands. The manager, Andy Follows, has worked in shops at sea for three years and he obviously enjoys it.
“The people we see each day are on holiday and so the mood is always good-humoured. We can’t stock everything but we can often help those who’ve left things at home. You’d be surprised how many wives come down here on our first formal night because they’ve forgotten to pack the bow tie for their husbands!”
Dr Nick Slope’s talks on sea days attracted a loyal following. His description of the military and political blunders which caused so many soldiers’ deaths in the battlefields of the Dardanelles provided useful insights when we viewed the coastline where so many had died. On a lighter note, some of the shows I saw in the magnificent Palladium theatre were great value. Lee Wilson’s Black Country humour appealed to me as much as it did to the many who attended both his appearances. Of the shows, Destination Dance compared well with anything I’ve seen in the West End, and Annette Wardell, a rising star in the world of opera, provided spine-tingling performances. Even if you’re not a painter, I suggest you consider the art classes. I went along and soon became hooked, perhaps because the teacher, Yvette Fuller, was such good fun and made us feel that we really did have a talent to be nurtured. Or maybe it was because she was able to sell P&O’s stock of Winsor & Newton art materials – brushes, paintboxes, top quality art paper – at hugely discounted prices!
During the cruise I spoke to passengers of all ages and the great majority of them spoke loyally about P&O and about the success of this itinerary in particular. During 2012, bookings have increased following a small dip in January and Southampton departures remain as popular as ever. Brian Adams, a passenger from Salisbury in Wiltshire is a loyal customer. “You always know where you are with P&O – we love the ships so much, we keep coming back for more!”
Arcadia’s Executive Purser, Alisdair Ross, is equally upbeat. “The image of cruising is changing. Nowadays we attract people who are taking extended breaks from work, or who are retiring early, and are using the opportunity to explore the world whilst they’re still young. But we can’t stand still and P&O is always looking at ways to develop new cruise experiences. Take 2015, for example, a particularly important year for us because that’s when our new ship comes into service.”
All of us have our own ideas about those elements that produce a memorable cruise. I asked Alisdair for his. “That’s an easy one,” he replied. “The crew. Without the crew, we don’t have a ship: they are the soul of Arcadia.”
After my 20 days on board Arcadia, I can’t disagree. What a team!
David George took up cruising six 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.