Since taking our first cruise in 1995 we find it one of the most addictive forms of vacations available: there is nothing quite like stepping on board, unpacking only once and seeing a host of different countries without the hassle that goes with a land trip.
After several cruises with Princess/RCI/Celebrity, we decided to try sailing from the UK with P&O, and being impressed with their new ship Aurora in June, within four days of returning we booked to sail on Oriana for our wedding anniversary in September.
We also decided to sail on Oriana, when several people we had met whilst on Aurora raved about her and the atmosphere onboard, so she obviously has developed a following whose loyalty is quite exceptional. It also seems that P&O in general has a very loyal following, as you will see below by how many repeat passengers were on board.
Oriana was built at the Meyer Werft shipyard in Papenburg, Germany. She was the first ship designed and built specifically for British-style cruising, with a wide range of bars and intimate spaces, and huge expanses of teak open deck areas including numerous private and secluded corners. Christened by Queen Elizabeth in April 1995, she is a ship which maintains the classic traditions of style and service for which P&O are justly famous.
Traveling down overnight from Scotland two days before departure, once again we decided to stay at the De Vere Grand Harbour Hotel. This 5-star hotel is ideally situated for both the port itself and for exploring Southampton, and has a view over Southampton Water. We arrived at 8:15am and even though the hotel was full, we were allowed entry to our room when normal check-in time was 2pm. When we stayed there in June it was the same -- for this kind of service to happen once is excellent, to happen twice is astonishing.
Our visit also coincided with the BT Global Challenge Round of the World Yacht race which would be starting a week later from Ocean Quay. This meant there was a carnival atmosphere with big bands on stage, street theatre, jugglers, fancy dress competitions, etc., and culminated in a spectacular fireworks display in the evening, so this was a nice start to our cruise on Oriana.
We also took the opportunity to see Aurora sail out of port on Saturday evening. We walked the few minutes from the hotel to Mayflower Park to watch the spectacle. She was so close we could see the passengers on deck waving as the cars and people were lined up to see her off -- it was like poetry in motion as she sounded her horn three times on her way past. I was glad that only the next day we would be on Oriana as that somehow relieved my feeling of homesickness for Aurora.
Embarking and Departing
Boarding began at 2:30pm and being one of the first on board, we were met and escorted to our cabin by a white-gloved cabin attendant who carried our carry-on baggage for us; the rest of our luggage was already at the cabin awaiting our arrival.
Departure time of 6pm grew near and with the formality of Life Boat Drill over, the crowds gathered along the promenade deck to wave to friends and family on the raised gallery opposite. We opted to watch the sailaway from Lido Deck (12) directly above the open bridge wings where we watched the captain give a small flick of the little joy stick and Oriana was pushing away from the dock. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon, so the atmosphere was set, with the streamers being thrown, and the accompanying band on the quay, someone on the Visitors Gallery dressed in a black and white cow costume . . . much to the amusement of the crowds and to Captain Richard Fenelow as he drew out his handkerchief and began waving it. As Oriana began to move away from the pier, one isolated voice from the crowd of spectators could be heard clearly shouting "I Love you, Mum," which was a very poignant moment; I think that mother surely had tears in her eyes.
We were soon on our way down Southampton water and on passing Hythe pier on our starboard side people were lined up, many happily giving Oriana a wave. Dropping our pilot off at 8:40pm, we took a General SW heading down the English Channel towards Vigo, Spain, 675 nautical miles away at an average cruising speed of 21.7 knots.
We were in Cabin B133, classed as a Stateroom with Balcony. It measured approximately 210 square feet in size, and was decorated in light woods, complimented with greys/blues/golds. There was ample drawer space, a double wardrobe with two shelves above, a small safe, an empty refrigerator, a full sofa/bed/settee, and coffee table. The two twin beds were pushed together to form a king-size bed; there were tea and coffee-making facilities, biscuits replenished daily, and nice fluffy terry towel bathrobes and slippers. Even a set of binoculars were provided.
The bathroom came with a full-size bath with the shower situated over the bath, so there was plenty of room in the shower, and the bathroom was a reasonable size. There were ample shelves behind mirrored doors. Soap and Sports Wash were provided, as well as a small toilet bag with amenities like a shower cap, sewing kit, cotton balls, etc.
The balcony was about 9 feet long by 7 feet wide, and had two nice lounge chairs and two small tables. The only time we heard our neighbours was when we stood at the rail. Our cabin was well placed to watch the officers on the open bridge wings as we entered and left port.
The First Day & Our Shipmates
Our first day was spent cruising through the Bay of Biscay, which was relatively smooth with sunny skies. The officer of the watch pointed out dolphins and whales, and these could be seen on and off for a period of several hours. Having said it was smooth going through the Bay of Biscay, I must mention the night that we left Lorient (Day 5) to head round the tip of France towards Guernsey: it did get quite rough -- while performing in the theatre, which is in the bow of the ship, the comedian that night made comments. You could feel the rise of the bow which just seemed to hang there forever, then come crashing down through the water with a serious thud. As our cabin was in the forward part of the ship, it was quite a sensation to be standing on the balcony before retiring to bed, watching the rise and fall of the ship and listening to the thunderous sound of the seas. Needless to say, my husband thought I was mad -- he stayed firmly inside the cabin.
Passenger Nationality Breakdown
Of those 1,794, 1,440 were repeat passengers. There were 94 children onboard, and we found them to be conspicuous in their absence, and their behaviour was extremely admirable.
Oriana has no fewer than nine bars and lounges, but I will describe only those that I found most memorable.
Crows Nest Bar
Oriana has three full-sized swimming pools. One is aft, surrounded by those wonderful teak-decked horseshoe tiers -- if you were early enough, you could settle down in the nook at the end of one of those tiers and have a wonderful view over the stern of the ship. All lounge chairs are padded and quite comfortable.
There is no covered pool like on Aurora, but as the weather was very kind to us, we did not miss this feature on this cruise. However, considering Oriana does World Cruises starting in January from Southampton, I think I would prefer Aurora with her covered pool so you do not miss out when the weather is cold.
Vigo, Spain - Sept. 5, '00 - 79° and sunny
As the clocks were moved forward one hour, it meant that at 7am our entry into Vigo Harbour was in darkness, but I could see the bright headlights of the Practicos (Pilot) approaching the ship. We barely stopped as the pilot got on board, and we were soon docked and alongside the pier starboard side in, and as our cabin was on this side, we had a good view of the city. It is an easy walk to the start of the shopping area, but as Vigo sits on a hill, it means there are a lot of steep climbs, so it may not be suitable for anyone with walking difficulties.
About 30 minutes before the ship's departure, a small group of musicians dressed in local costumes appeared on the quayside to play and entertain the passengers as we left. As the ship began to prepare to slip its moorings they left, but one solitary player whose instrument was a type of pipes appeared from nowhere and started playing "When the Saints" and held his hand out, and it was not long before the passengers were throwing pesetas onto the quay for him. I do not think he belonged to the original group, but was a rogue player who had thought of this enterprising idea.
At 6pm, Oriana let go her lines and moved ahead off her berth, swinging her bow to port before following reciprocal courses back out towards the pilot station and the Atlantic Ocean. At 6:30pm the pilot disembarked and then Oriana took a southerly heading for Lisbon, 246.4 nautical miles away at an average speed of 18.6 knots.
Lisbon, Portugal - Sept. 6, '00 - 90° and sunny
We took the "Scenic Southern Hills and Tagus Bridges" tour at £22.00 per person. We drove over the River Tagus on the 25th April Bridge, 230 feet above the water and the second largest suspension bridge in Europe. We took a photo stop opportunity at the statue of Christ the King and a view over the city of Lisbon. We carried on through the Serra da Arrabida mountain range with some twisting and turning roads and drops into the ocean -- not for those with vertigo, but it did offer some magnificent views of an unspoilt beach of almost 7 miles in length. Our next stop was the town of Setubal, the third largest port in Portugal, which has a population of 100,000. A lot of street repair work was being done, so the effect of the narrow streets and old buildings was spoiled somewhat.
On the return drive we crossed the recently inaugurated Vasco de Gama Bridge, which is currently the longest in Europe and the third largest in the world at a length of 9 miles. This tour was worth taking, but the air conditioning in the coaches could not cope with the extreme heat.
Lorient, France - Sept. 9, '00 - 75° and sunny
Lorient, an important U-boat base in WW2, was bombed extensively and the town left in ruins, so that means there are no buildings of great historical antiquity. The sea remains the dominant influence in the life of the town -- with commercial and fishing harbours, marina, and a military port. It is also the gateway to some of the most attractive places in Brittany.
Guernsey, Channel Islands - Sept. 9, '00 - 75°
Being familiar with the Channel Islands and the Island of Jersey, this turned out to be my favourite port, as Guernsey was just a smaller version of Jersey where we spent our honeymoon, so it brought back many fond memories. There was a person from the Guernsey Tourist Board handing out tourist information as we got off the tender, so we enquired as to the nearest Car Hire office. It was only 10 minutes' walk away, and by 9am we were on our way around the beautiful island of Guernsey. Nothing could have been simpler: it cost £28.00 for the day, including insurance and petrol. It was a brand new car with only 20 miles on the clock and came complete with air conditioning which, considering the temperature, was greatly appreciated.
I was delighted to see that honesty boxes were still around in Guernsey. Many cottages, farms and small holdings had flowers, tomatoes, melons, or strawberries placed out in front of their homes, with boxes beside them for placing the money in. It showed that honesty still prevailed in this small island community.
There is a speed limit of 35 miles per hour, which is logical considering the narrowness of some of the roads. The freedom of having a car meant that we could stop off at any of the beautiful bays and beaches and could go to any of the many attractions on the island when we wished. During the day, we returned to St. Peter Port to check it out; there were some good bargains to be had there with jewelry, watches, etc., and most passengers were pretty well laden down on the return tenders.
At 6pm, Oriana weighed anchor and with all tenders recovered made her way out of the bay. She then turned to the north once clear of Sark, and headed up towards the Alderney race and the English Channel, crossing the busy traffic lanes in the late evening on her short passage to Southampton.
The two restaurants on Oriana, the Peninsular and Oriental, were both quite stunning rooms, the Oriental situated aft, and the Peninsular midships.
Catering to British tastes, we found the food to be good, not haute cuisine but with generous portions during dinner. There were four different vegetables silver-served along with your entrée. P&O always serves its lobster as Lobster Thermidor, but I prefer it grilled and served with melted butter, so on speaking with the Head Waiter, it was arranged that it would be served as I preferred it, and it was delicious. However if you see "Tarte a l'Oignon" (a light Onion Tart with Emmenthal Cheese) on the menu avoid it: the pastry chef must have had a bad night, as you would have needed a pickaxe to cut through it. Other than that, there was nothing we could have complained about. There were a few deliciously memorable desserts, and generally we were extremely satisfied with the food.
The dinner menus are printed daily with the date on them, and some are adorned with artwork of previous P&O ships. They are presented to you on the last evening of the cruise by your waiter -- a nice memento to keep.
There was also a separate Pizzeria restaurant serving various type pizzas and a salad buffet. Several days there were themed buffets on deck, as well as all other dining options, which made for a very wide variety of food being served.
There were no fewer than eight different bands and groups performing around the ship, as well as the Stadium Theatre Company whose review-type shows with beautiful costumes were well received. The tribute to Freddy Mercury show was performed in the Pacific Show Lounge, but we felt the show on Aurora had more atmosphere and excitement. But it was nice to see it done once again.
The comedian was John Martin from Liverpool, who was excellent. His ability to ad lib was tremendous; one night after the show had commenced, people kept arriving in the theatre -- this continued for 10 minutes or more. He had the lights put on and he proceeded to continually barrage them until they stopped coming -- it was the funniest thing I have ever seen. I would not hesitate to see this man again and again.
Various days the band "Natural High" played at the Riviera Pool and one day they performed "I'm the Music Man - What Can I Play?" and it was most amusing to watch most adults (not all) completely let their inhibitions fly in the breeze and get really into the song. In fact, there was one guy on the top deck overlooking the pool who was so into the actions that his wife walked off and left him. I think she was bit embarrassed when it came to playing the Bagpipes -- he launched into a full version of the Highland Fling, but this made for a great time by all who joined in, myself included.
There was the usual variety of events throughout the day, including quizzes, and the one that we participated in was obviously attended by the regular experts each day. But I noticed when the toting up was done and it was won by the same team that had won the previous day, one point was deducted from them to give the others a chance, so it was a draw, which I thought was a very fair way of dealing with the teams who obviously are so good that they would win nearly every quiz they entered.
There was a £40,000 Lotto special night; five tickets cost £10 with an extra ticket thrown in for free. We did not attend this and I never did hear if anyone won the jackpot.
Tiffany Court Bar/Lounge
P&O is laid back about trying to extract more money from the passenger. I did not see any cocktails in fancy P&O glasses being pushed; the photographers did come round during dinner, but disappeared quietly if you said no; there were no pirates accosting you as you left the dining room; glasses of champagne were offered at a cost on sailaway from Southampton, but they were not being pushed strongly; a large bottle of mineral water was in the cabin on arrival and when it hadn't been used by the next morning, it was removed without ceremony. There are no boxes of sample menus being charged at $6 -- the menus for the cruise are presented free of charge, as I mentioned above.
There was the usual Inch of Gold and Watch sale, but they were only a few tables outside the shopping area and were pretty unobtrusive. There were no announcements other than the noon announcement from the Officer of the Watch, and on entering and leaving port, some disembarkation/embarkation details. There were announcements to the crew when they were doing safety drills on a port day -- these are drills that happen on most ships that I have been on.
At the Captain's Welcome Aboard cocktail party we attended, the drinks flowed freely with none of your watered-down cocktails being offered. There was a good selection of spirits and wines, and these were offered again and again. In fact, we were amused when we overheard a conversation between two elderly gentlemen sitting at the pool: one said that he could down five whiskies during the cocktail party -- I would liked to have been at his table for dinner.
Return & Disembarkation
I was looking forward to seeing the QE2 when we arrived in Southampton, as she was beginning a transatlantic crossing later in the day. So was Oriana -- the first transatlantic for P&O in almost 30 years, but it was not to be. Having just got to bed at around 2am, the fog horn was soon being sounded; on arrival at Southampton we could see nothing other than the quay below. I later found out that QE2 was late into port, but Oriana was smack on time, fog or no fog.
Disembarkation was done by colour (like on other cruise lines). We were given the third-to-be-called colour, but like on Aurora, a visit to the Purser's desk explaining we had an 8-9 hour drive in front of us got us changed to the first colour called -- this was met with a smile and "No problem, madam." We were in our car by 9 am and on our way home. Driving out of the port, I wanted a last lingering look at Oriana, but she was still shrouded in fog.
We enjoyed our cruise on Oriana, but for some reason or other we preferred Aurora. I would sail on either of them again in a heartbeat.
Exterior Full Ship photo courtesy of P & Cruises. Other photos courtesy of Mary G. Kerr.
Mary G. Kerr may be reached at: Scottylass@hotbot.com.
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