(6:35 p.m. BST) – P&O Cruises’ highly anticipated new flagship Iona finally set sail from Southampton on August 7, 2021.
The ship is on a seven-day cruise around Britain carrying 2,500 passengers (just below the government limit of 50%), 85% of whom are P&O regulars.
There are no port stops, but yesterday we docked off the island after which the ship is named after her and enjoyed a spectacular fireworks display.
But after all the preparation (the ship was supposed to be launched over a year ago), how are things on board?
Stunning new spaces
With a barrel of 185,000 and a length of 345m, Iona is undeniably huge, but once you start to get your bearings there is a lot to like. The focal point is the magnificent Grand Atrium, with light streaming through three floor-to-ceiling glass decks, interiors all in white marble and shiny chrome, and a sweeping marble staircase in the center to strike a pose.
The places around the atrium have a happy buzz. There are a few old favorites, including an expanded Glass House, wine bar, and tapas restaurant with wines by the glass selected by Olly Smith. The Keel and Cow, a new restaurant, terrace, enjoys the same dreamy views and offers steaks and burgers.
Much has been said about the SkyDome, an intricate glass dome covering the two-decker pool on Deck 16. The largest structure of its kind at sea, the dome is rigged for aerial acts and laser shows, while a cover mobile turns the pool into a stage at night. On a cool day this area gets crowded, albeit noisy, and I imagine it will turn into a bustling nightlife spot once the ship is full, with DJ sets hosted by former Blur bassist Alex James, laser shows and dry ice.
The air shows are repeated three times a night and are certainly dramatic; it’s like being in a big glass circus tent. They are all thematic. We saw âRise,â a loose story about birds of paradise and pigeons, but the theme doesn’t really matter – it’s the trapeze numbers and costumes that everyone wants to watch.
Other new and impressive features include two infinity pools overlooking the cascading back decks and offering fantastic views. We are currently in the Hebrides and lying by the edge of the infinity pool, contemplating the rocky islands scattered around the ship is breathtaking. Well below the pools, on Deck 8, the Sunset Bar, overlooking the wake, is shaping up to be the best place for sunsets, with live music and a great buzz. A pod of dolphins frolicking in the back of the ship provided additional thrills yesterday.
There has been a lot of talk about Gary Barlow’s involvement with P&O and last night we went to his place, the 710 Club. I liked it. Because Iona is so huge, a lot of the lounges and bars seem rather cavernous, but this dark, intimate little space has the feeling of a real jazz club, with a great band last night doing acoustic covers of rock anthems and jazz classics. However, someone needs to train the bartenders not to shake the shakers in the middle of a number.
Other new additions to P&O include a four-screen boutique cinema, which looks popular and is a fun way to spend a drizzly afternoon, and the first offshore gin distillery, sitting behind a wall glass in Anderson’s Bar. and producing Marabelle, P & O’s signature gin, on sale at every bar.
And the cabins?
New to Iona are 95 conservatory mini-suites and I am fortunate to be in one. That’s wonderful. Between the cabin and the balcony there is a glazed living room with a large sofa and ottoman and (artificial) green planters as well as a potted orchid. When the ship is in the Norwegian fjords, these suites will take on their full meaning.
You can sit on the veranda or in the garden, as our cabin steward kindly calls it, and stay warm while taking in the view, or open all the doors to let in the fresh air. These mini-suites are located on decks 8 and 9 and my advice would be to go for deck 9, looking at the promenade deck. If you are on Deck 8, people walking along the promenade can look over your balcony railing. You don’t have the same relationship with the sea either.
What do the new health protocols look like?
One thing that’s becoming clear as the big cruise comeback progresses through the summer of 2021 is that each line interprets health protocols differently. P&O Cruises requires all adults to be doubly vaccinated (and children can travel from September 25 if they take a PCR test), but you still need to take an antigen test at the port.
All Carnival brands share a large drive-thru test center in Southampton, so we checked in at the same time as Regal Princess. From arrival at the port to embarkation, it took two and a half hours, including one hour of waiting in a waiting car park. People arriving by train crossed in 30 minutes, using a test center at the Ocean Terminal. So there is a lesson to be learned: arrive by train.
On board, there is social distancing everywhere, with around half of the chairs and tables at each site sporting stickers indicating they are out of order. This means that there can be queues at popular places like Crow’s Nest Bar late at night, which bothers P&O regulars.
Wearing a mask is compulsory everywhere inside and passengers comply with it; I haven’t seen anyone break the rules. Taking a temperature doesn’t seem like a requirement, although there is hand sanitizer all over the place and I have noticed that many teams diligently clean high contact areas like stair railings. But life on board seems pretty normal in many ways.
One thing that strikes me as strange is that the nightly turndown service has stopped. Our cabin steward says it’s “because of the protocols” but if the cabin can be cleaned in the morning, I don’t see what is different from cleaning it in the evening as well. I’ve always thought that preparing for the night was one of the little luxuries of the cruise and I’m sorry to see it go.
What do the passengers think?
The profile of the passengers on this maiden voyage is unusual in that they are around 85% repeaters, all of whom have their own ideas of what a P&O vessel should be. Cruises after that, President Paul Ludlow tells me, have a much higher proportion of new cruise and P&O passengers. âThe average age of people booking is lower than we had when the world was ‘normal’,â he tells us. “Before the pandemic, our average age was in our late 40s. Now we are in our mid 40s.”
These young passengers, looking for the experience of a huge floating resort with live music everywhere, masses of entertainment and for families, P & O’s usual high standard of kids’ clubs, are going to be blown away by Iona. Among the regulars is the inevitable “it wasn’t like that on Britannia” (which was of course the biggest P&O ship ever built at the time).
Service in restaurants is slow, the internet is hopeless (and will be fixed, we’re told) and the My Holiday app, through which you make dinner and entertainment reservations, is causing a lot of confusion. It is much easier to book a restaurant over the phone. But this is the beginning, and the atmosphere is happy.
Iona will make five more ‘stay’ cruises in British waters following the maiden voyage, then sail to the Canary Islands in winter and the Norwegian fjords next summer, with capacity gradually increasing and a navigation target of 100% d. ‘here March. For now, however, we are enjoying the feeling of space offered by a half-full ship.