P&O Cruises – Oriana cruise ship review
David George secures a late deal with P&O Cruises to Jordan via Suez . . .
With cruise companies competing to sell their unsold staterooms, there are some mouthwatering deals on offer during the countdown to departure and last month I decided to track one down. P&O Cruises call these promotions Getaway Fares and there are genuine savings to be made – in my case about £1,500. But, as ever, there’s a downside. Perks like onboard credit, free parking and choice of cabin are reserved for those who book early but of course late deals exclude them. Of all these lost benefits, my chief worry was not finding out where I’d be resting my head until I had committed to the cruise and paid in full.
So how did reality match up to the sense of excitement I felt before boarding Oriana for a 30-day cruise to Jordan via the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal? The first doubts began when I received details of my cabin. I had been allocated E104. The deck was fine – an easy walk to the Peninsular Restaurant and, being beneath the prom deck, more stable in choppy seas – but 104? It’s well forward, so far forward in fact that the cabin has two portholes rather than a window.
Too late for regrets though and I forced myself to think about other things, like the money I was saving . . . and, less positively, the chances of bad weather stirring up the Med in November. But the weather proved to be no problem at all. Temperatures soared well into the 80s once we were sailing eastwards via Messina in Sicily to Port Said, Egypt, and the sun continued to shine for the best part of our 8729 nautical miles, including on Malaga, our final call before Southampton.
E104 wasn’t a problem either. The cabin has the same facilities enjoyed by everyone else in this grade but I found its position had other advantages. Firstly, Prathyush, my steward, was one of the best I have had on any ship, servicing the room almost as soon as I had left it for breakfast and often leaving towel sculptures to welcome me back. Secondly, the location towards the end of a corridor resulted in few people passing my door and as a result the cabin was very quiet. I say that even though there was some noise from the side thrusters used whenever Oriana arrived and left her berth. But I soon became used to it and in any case Captain Pembridge needed to use them for only ten minutes or so at each port.
My cabin took on a life of its own at dinner, creating much merriment. It seemed that none on my table had seen a porthole before and my invitation to view was quickly taken up. They arrived with their glasses of champagne at one of the sailaways and decided that my portholes added a truly authentic touch to the cruise experience. We had such a sociable time that we agreed to have another ‘Porthole-us Club’ party before we disembarked.
The meals in the Peninsular dining room were as good as ever, my favourites being the salmon mousse starter, the roast beef and for dessert, the ginger stem sponge pudding with custard which our waiter gravely assured me had been prepared only with the very minimum of calories. It was Jaison, the restaurant manager in Peninsular, who inspired this cheerful and efficient service from his team and we agreed that we had been particularly lucky with Cyril, the waiter. One evening, we had the urge for some good old-fashioned egg and chips, rather than any of the grander items on the menu, and Cyril delivered them without a murmur although I think I detected a quizzical look as he wished us Bon Appetit.
Of the other outlets, we celebrated a friend’s birthday in Marco Pierre White’s Ocean Grill. Here a supplement is paid but it was worth it. My prime haddock in “The Governor” beer batter was superb with the triple-cooked chips complementing it perfectly. Afterwards I fell in love with Marco’s sherry trifle Wally Ladd. It was so creamy that I would happily have eaten another but, with the pounds piling on, I didn’t say so. Knowing how attentively we were being served under the watchful eye of restaurant manager, Reginald (formerly a manager at Café Bordeaux on Aurora and thus a man with just the right pedigree to oversee the Grill), my guess is that a second helping would have promptly been placed before me.
For lunch I tended to use the Conservatory, a self-service restaurant. The curries offered each day were full of flavour but later in the cruise the salads and freshly-made sandwiches (to order) were equally good. Al Fresco on Deck 12 provides Italian cuisine at lunchtime and the lasagna was always freshly made and tasty. This is a popular place to eat and my tip would be to make sure you arrive by 12.15 to secure a table if you want to avoid queues. A rather quieter venue for lunch on sea days is the carvery downstairs in The Oriental Restaurant. Both the gammon and turkey were excellent, and afterwards waiters were on hand to serve tea or coffee. This facility is relatively new to Oriana which may explain why it was always so quiet.
Life after eating remains as relaxing as ever and sea days provided much-needed respite from busy schedules ashore. Oriana is now a child-free ship and I was interested to look at the new accommodation on Deck 8 where the play area used to be. The cabins are bright and fresh, of course, and another bonus is that the aft pool is now an additional facility for adults. I used it several times and appreciated its plain oblong shape: a good pool for swimmers.
Entertainment and daytime activities were as varied as ever. I attended the art classes and benefited from a gifted teacher. Easa led us through a range of watercolour techniques with good humour and he gave his time freely. Lessons set for 45 minutes extended to 90, both morning and afternoon if you wanted to attend (most of us did), and indeed Easa was never happier than when he could go on even longer. After one lunch break I recall his triumphant announcement: “Today we have plenty of time, ladies and gentleman. I have been told we can go on until 4 o’clock . . . . tomorrow morning!” Easa’s dry wit and artistic knowledge was a major cruise highlight and I returned home with 16 paintings, some of which I might even risk showing to friends.
There was a wide programme of excursions on offer, from the Valley of the Kings and the Pyramids in Egypt to Jerusalem and Bethlehem in the Holy Land. However, as a fan of the Indiana Jones’ movies, Petra in Jordan was my priority excursion and judging by the number of coaches that departed the port of Aqaba, many others felt as I did. The 80-mile journey was a wonderful experience in itself – a chance to admire the vast desert landscape, home to Bedouin tribes for centuries and home as well to Lawrence of Arabia who led the Bedouins’ forays to sabotage Turkish supply lines in the First World War.
Entry to Petra is by a narrow mile-long chasm but Bedhouin horsemen were on hand to offer rides to visitors who prefer not to walk. These rides are free of charge but more comfortable transport in the form of pony and trap is definitely not and I spotted more than one passenger who took the easy option only to face a fare of $40. My group walked both ways and the first glimpse of the Treasury with its wonderfully carved façade is one I won’t forget. As you walk between soaring rock faces the full beauty of the 130 feet high tomb is slowly revealed and its dramatic impact stopped us in our tracks. No wonder the location was chosen to film The Temple of Doom!
Judith and Chris Butcher from Hartlepool in County Durham summed up the thoughts of many. “Petra was magnificent,” Judith told me, “but so was the overall organisation. More than twenty coachloads of people went there, yet we didn’t queue for very long at all because arrivals were staggered. The same happened at lunchtime. Different hotels were used to minimize waiting time and ours was brilliant. The food was excellent – and there was free wine too!”
Our cruise sailed by all too quickly. Thirty days seem a long time when you embark but, as ever, once we’d reached the halfway point time raced on and soon we were heading home through a calm Bay of Biscay. I had enjoyed a great cruise at a good price and my commitment to cruise holidays remains as strong as ever. Fellow passengers sounded equally positive and when I caught up with Helen Skoins, Oriana’s Executive Purser, I asked her about P&O’s famed customer loyalty.
“Our feedback tells us that what people value most is the peace of mind that comes from knowing that we will always work hard to achieve the highest possible standards of service and I think most times we succeed. We want people to be happy and we want them to come back to us; it’s as simple as that. Being on Oriana, or on any of the fleet’s ships, is like a little piece of home away from home. You have all the excitement of exotic places to visit but know that home comforts await you when you return on board.”
For me, this magical combination of comfort and excitement is a huge attraction, so much so that I know it won’t be too long before I feel the need to embark on another cruise adventure.
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.
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