Although we are loyal Princess customers, there are no cruises from the UK outside the summer season. P&O, part of the Carnival Group, are aimed squarely at the UK market and most passengers are British. We saw a Mini Cruise as a way for us to get from Platinum to Elite before we sail on an Australian Cruise on Golden Princess next March (of course it has just been announced that bookings on P&O from 13th December 2017 will no longer count towards the Princess loyalty program). Furthermore, it allowed us to book a cruise with our Son and Daughter in law, who had never cruised before. It was to be our Christmas present to them.
Firstly, I have to compliment P&O on the way they dealt with a major change to our booking. We originally booked a 2 day cruise to Bruges starting 15th December, but the ship (Oceana) was in for a refit just before that and P&O estimated that it would not be ready in time. They cancelled the cruise and offered a full refund plus future cruise credit or some alternate sailings at the same fare. We chose the 3 day cruise and got an extra day free of charge plus a GBP 25 on board credit per person. Sadly our Son and his Wife could not get the time off work, so we got the full refund for them instead. We had some costs that we could not recover (hotels the night before and travel insurance) but P&O refunded all those costs to us as well.
Embarkation:We booked an Airbnb for the night before because the hotels had all gone up in price since we booked for our original date. It was cheaper than the original hotel and had a friendly host, so we were happy.
Because our loyalty level on Princess counts for nothing on P&O, we were allocated a 3pm boarding time. We needed to leave the Airbnb at 11am, so we headed to the port anyway. Arrival and baggage handling were no different than Princess (We were at the Ocean Terminal in Southampton).
On arrival, we were not allowed to join the queue for check in, but were given a coloured card with a letter on it and asked to take a seat until we were called. We sat down at around 11.45am. The colour of the card indicated what time you should have been there. I asked if we would have to wait until 3pm and was told no, it would be a lot sooner than that.
In the end, we were called at 12.45pm, so the wait was only 1 hour.
Check in, security and embarkation was all very quick and easy. One difference is that your picture is taken at the check in desk instead of when you get on the ship, which I think speeds things up slightly.
When on board we asked if a main dining room was open for lunch and were told that it was only for higher tier P&O customers (equivalent to Platinum or Elite). We don’t like that sort of class segregation, which is why we don’t sail on Cunard. So we dropped our bags in out cabin and went to the buffet, which was very similar to Horizon Court on Princess.
Ship in General:Ventura is almost exactly like the Emerald and Ruby Princess. The only differences are the décor and the fact that there is no movie screen up on deck. Not an issue at this time of year, but it would be missed in summer. One of the pools is covered, similar to the covered pool on Grand Princess.
Personally, I thought the décor was a bit bright and garish compared to Princess. The feel of Princess ships is a lot more classy in my opinion. That is just my taste and others may think different. Anyone familiar with the Emerald, Ruby or other similar ships would have no problem finding their way around. Most venues were the same, apart from having a different name (e.g. the Princess Theatre is called the Arena Theatre).
One downside for us is there are a lot more smoking areas on deck than on Princess ships. Half of the area on the terrace just outside the buffet is available for smokers (this is an eating area). On Princess, the smokers are 1 deck up outside Sabatini’s/Share.
Also, the whole of the Promenade deck on the Starboard side is available for smokers. On Princess the area is restricted to a small aft section of the Promenade deck. If, like me, you like to walk round the Promenade deck, you can no longer hold your breath as you pass the smokers, otherwise you would be unconscious by the time you walked the whole of the Starboard side.
Cabin:Our cabin was an inside in the forward section of the ship (Dominica 123). This cabin is in exactly the same place as on similar Princess Ships, where it would be called Dolphin 123. It was set out in exactly the same way as a Princess cabin.
I would not recommend this cabin for two reasons. Firstly it is a 4 berth cabin, so you have Pullman beds on each side that means you cannot stand upright beside your bed if you have a Queen configuration. It is awkward getting in and out during the night and you can bang yourself on them if you are not careful. It was OK for 3 nights, but I would not want it for a longer cruise. This was not because we originally booked with our son and his wife (they were going to have their own cabin). It was just the luck of the draw on a guarantee cabin.
The second downside was noise from the theatre. The second show started at 10.45pm, by which time we were in bed, and you could hear drumming and other sounds from the theatre. There was quite a lot of vibration from the thrusters when docking, but that is just the issue on many ships when you are located forward or aft.
Our Steward was Melvyn. Not the happiest of cabin stewards and not very talkative. There are no free bathrobes available on P&O unless you are in a suite. Again, another class divide. We had 2 issues, there was no floor towel in the bathroom and the styling nozzle would not stay on the hairdryer (hairdryers are separate and not wall mounted). Both issues were fixed after we left Melvyn a note.
The bed was comfortable and P&O still have day cushions on the bed, which was nice. The TV was pretty poor. It was almost square rather than widescreen and only had 9 channels. Of these, 1 was the interactive on board account, 3 were P&O information or promotional channels and another was the webcam. They did have a range of films on demand, but the volume on the TV was set so low that I could not hear anything (I have a hearing impediment). On the plus side for the British, the plug sockets are standard UK 3 pin plugs and the on board account is in Pounds Sterling. There was no socket available behind the TV, so I had you use my power bar elsewhere in the cabin.
Dining/Food:We opted for Freedom dining, which is the equivalent to Anytime dining. They had 2 dining rooms allocated to Freedom dining, but unlike Princess, the ship allocated you a dining room. They took your cabin number each night to ensure you kept to your correct dining room. Our dining room opened at 6pm, whereas the other Freedom dining room did not open until 6.30pm. Each night we arrived at around 5.45pm and were always first in the queue. I expected massive queues, but these did not build up until later in the evening. Even then, the dining room never appeared to be very busy. We opted for a table for 2 each night and were placed in the same section. Cyril and Ma Kristina were our waiters and both were very good.
The food was good, with steak available as an option on all nights. I would have said that the food on Princess was better, but not by a huge amount. P&O do serve cheese at the end of every meal, rather than it being a dessert option.
The regular coffee on board was truly awful. On asking for decaf with dinner one evening, the waiter just poured some instant granules into my wife’s cup and filled it with water. The awfulness of the coffee was repeated throughout the ship. The saving grace was the speciality coffee on board. This is provided by Costa Coffee, which is a brand in the UK that is the major competitor to Starbucks. Their cappuccinos and lattes were excellent, but, of course, you had to pay for them.
One good feature on the ship is that the bar in the nightclub (equivalent to Skywalkers) is open during the day and they make the speciality coffees right there. On Princess ships we have to go and get our coffees and take them to Skywalkers.
On the only sea day we ate lunch in the MDR and that was as good as it is on Princess.
We did not use the speciality restaurants and we noticed quite a few food venues with added supplements for certain dishes rather than a cover charge.
Entertainment:We saw one production show and the style was similar to the productions on Princess. They had 4 main vocalists and a dance troupe that seemed under rehearsed. It may be that new members of the cast had joined and were not yet up to speed, as some were out of time with the rest. It whiled away an hour or so though. The Theatre was exactly the same on princess ships except for the colour of the seats.
We saw a Whitney Houston tribute act called Nya King on another night in their equivalent of Club Fusion. She was very good, although the show was a little spoiled by some rather drunk women on the dance floor. The entertainment team are much lower profile than on Princess. I did not see a Cruise Director and the staff did not introduce themselves when they appeared on stage. They were just there to introduce the acts.
Itinerary:Southampton – Being December, we did not head to the deck for sailaway. We left after dark and the ride was pretty smooth.
Sea Day – We were puzzled as to how they were going to turn a 2 day cruise to Bruges (our original booking) into a 3 day cruise. It soon became clear, as the map showing the progress of the ship indicated that after we left Southampton we turned away from Bruges and were heading in the wrong direction. Later that day we turned round to head back towards Bruges. The other factor was that we were only travelling at 7 to 8 knots. Usually the ship travels at anything between 15 to 20 knots. It was almost as if we were not moving. This, however, resulted in a very smooth sail and there was almost no rocking or rolling.
Zeebrugge for Bruges – P&O put on a free shuttle to Blankenberge, where you can get a train into Bruges. The transfer to the station was about 20 minutes. We arrived and there was quite a long queue for the ticket office. I spotted a ticket machine and it was very easy to use with instructions in English. I selected a return ticket to Bruges for 2 people and the machine automatically changed that to a weekend ticket, because it was cheaper. I then inserted my credit card and paid. The whole trip for the 2 of us cost less than GBP 8. P&O’s coach transfer into Bruges and back costs more than GBP 30 each. The train ride is 10 minutes and the trains run once every hour.
We had just missed a train and so had time to spare. We walked to the seafront at Blankenberge and took a very windy stroll beside the sea. It is a typical European seaside town with shops, restaurants and a couple of Piers. We thought it might be nice to explore when we return in the summer.
We caught the train and when you get off in Bruges it is a 15 to 20 minute walk into the centre. There are buses and taxis for those with less mobility, but coaches are not allowed into the centre, so passengers taking the P&O transfer, still have to walk.
Bruges is a very pretty city in the summer and no less so at this time of year. The Christmas Market was in full swing, with little cabins set around the main square selling food, drink and Christmas gifts and clothing. Christmas lights and trees were set up and there was an ice rink in the centre.
We headed for a café for a coffee and to get out of a rain shower that had started. Once the rain had stopped we walked around the market and other parts of the town. Bruges is famous for its chocolate and so we stopped by a shop to buy some gifts.
For lunch we stopped at another café and had some Belgian Waffles. One thing that struck me was that most of the staff in the cafes were very brusque and not very friendly. Maybe it was that they were just tired of tourists or wary because of the terrorist threat in Belgium at the moment. It would have been nice to be welcomed a bit more.
We walked back to the station and caught the train back to Blankenberge, where there were a row of P&O coaches ready to take us back to the ship.
Sail back to Southampton – Because we had to sail back overnight the ship travelled at 17 to 18 knots and the sail was nowhere near as smooth. It was by no means bad, but you could definitely feel the movement of the ship.
However, the Captain announced at 7am that we were not yet in port and were sitting just off the Isle of Wight due to strong winds making it unsafe for us to dock. Over the next couple of hours announcements were made saying we were going to dock at the Mayflower Terminal instead of the Ocean Terminal and that we were expected to be alongside by 9am.
In the end we did get into the Ocean Terminal, but it was a struggle and the ship needed tugs to get it moored.
Disembarkation – There were no groups for disembarkation. We were just told that passengers with their own luggage would be allowed off first at around 9.15am. Other passengers were told they would be called once the luggage had been unloaded.
An announcement was made at around 10am that everyone could disembark. We thought it would be chaos, but it worked extremely well and we were off the ship within 15 minutes. It is probably due the fantastic ability us British have at queuing. There was no free for all, just an orderly line.
Conclusion:We still think of Princess as our favourite cruise line. There were pros and cons of sailing with P&O, but the cons outweighed the pros in our opinion. If P&O recognized our Princess loyalty level, we may well sail with them more, but that is very unlikely to happen. We would certainly sail with them again, but only where there is no Princess option.
One noticeable improvement on Princess was the lack of pushy sales promotions. however, that may have been because it was only a 3 day cruise.
Our prime objective of reaching Elite level before our next cruise in March has been achieved and we are looking forward to all those new benefits.
Peter & Jacky Rayner