NEW YEAR ON A FERRY WITH A HINT OF FLOATING BENIDORM
We spent New Year 2015/2016 on P&O VENTURA on a 4 day cruise going to Zeebrugge and Amsterdam. And the bad outcome was my fault 100%. Of course the question is “why did I choose P&O ?”. Two main reasons: 1) Never been on it and I just wanted to try and 2) Previous year I was on Queen Victoria on the same type of cruise and itinerary and I was thinking that being under the same corporate umbrella the experience will be more or less the same. On top of that my favourite cabin was not available on QV so I choose Ventura to spend the longest night of the year. BIG MISTAKE ! Why ?
Ventura, which launched in 2008, aimed apparently to transform what many people consider P&O’s somewhat stuffy ambience to one more in tune with the times. The result was a floating pub resembling more a ferry than a cruise liner. As I read, in April 2013, the ship had a multi-million pound makeover including new soft furnishings in the cabins and new carpets throughout but the result is a ferry pretending to be posh and taking you back in ’70 cheap all-inclusive sea side resorts.
Even if a fast track embarkation and a dedicated check-in desk are promised for suites on our arrival in Southampton a “charming lady” sent us in a line shouting that P&O don’t do dedicated check-in….”maybe only for the Cpt”. On disembarkation we were queuing on stairs, in a very well organised chaotic way ignoring any safety rules but having an “intellectual touch” as the queue was passing twice the Art Gallery. Quite happy when we reach the shore !
Ventura has 1,555 cabins, of which 434 are inside, 1,103 are outside and 881 have a balcony. Aiming for the best experience we choose the most expensive cabin on board (£2000/person/4 days) – ORIENTAL SUITE. There are two of this kind on Ventura, side by side on Deck 12 right at the aft of the ship, 742 square feet (with a 216 square foot balcony). And the Penthouse was the first shock on board. The living area and the bedroom were very generous from the living space point of view, with a lot of storage space and big balcony and bathroom. The deco was what made us scream; a lot of unused space, with furniture that reminds me of a ‘70s all-inclusive cheap resort in Spain with some random paintings who seems to come directly from a B&Q sales. When spending a quite afternoon in the living room I had the feeling that the deco was the result of a “choose the ugliest and the cheapest stuff you can find” competition.
According to P&O website a Penthouse includes some “special touches: Butler service, daily canapes, and a Senseo coffee machine with complimentary pods included”. The reality was a little bit different: the coffee machine was replaced with a kettle and the coffee pods with some instant coffee sachets, the daily canapes were randomly selected from the yesterday buffet’s leftovers. The Butler was like a drop of fresh water in the seat: very kind, polite and excellent manners. “Fortunately” his first class service was “well balanced” by the rudest steward I ever meet who has as a main duty to moan every day, sometimes twice a day about almost everything. Even the tip (50 Euros for 4 days) wasn’t good enough for him and he told us off after we had a little cocktail party with some friends in our room.
Looking again at P&O website I can see that is mentioned for Penthouse “a flat screen TV, MP3 compatible music player, an iron and ironing board and trouser press plus White Company amenities”. And again … 25% correct! The TV hand an excellent free movies selection but the system didn’t work most of the time and the “play&pause” option was a non-sense. The music system was indeed Bose (wow, wow, wow!!!!!) but didn’t work (still pretty as a piece of furniture) and the iron was probably recuperated from Titanic after staying on the bottom of the Ocean for couple of decades. Initially I was very happy with the amenities as the 4 bottles (shower gel, shampoo, conditioner and body lotion) of White Company were a bonus for the cabin. The surprise was that after 2 days when we requested an replacement we were told by the “nice” steward that we are not entitled to get new ones – “only one set per cabin per cruise”. I was checking the P&O website again and didn’t find any information about 2 mandatory showers/cabin/cruise … maybe I missed the page!
P&O’s marketing blurb claims there are 10 restaurants. There aren’t. There are five genuine restaurants (Bay Tree, Cinnamon, Saffron, The White Room, and East); the rest are more casual eateries.
Having a penthouse we were entitled to have our dinner in Cinnamon (Deck 5, midships) on a freestyle basis. No difference in the menu between this restaurant and the main one – Bay Tree and to be honest I don’t believe that Marco Pierre White, the creator of the menu, apparently, will be happy with the “corner pub” style of food or “whatever, I aint bovvered” rushed service style. I think for those who will be brave enough to try P&O in the future and eat in the main restaurants the safest option is a salad and a “eat quick and run” dinner style. I manage to take a photo of the “delicious” petit fours at the end but unfortunately I missed the “alien” lamb served that night. For a company that sells its cruises on The Fine Dining experience. Silver Service has gone, but they won’t tell you. Wine waiters have an impossible work load, not leaving their previous duty until they are already required for Dinner Service and then too many tables. It’s obvious then that most tables are not even going to get their wine order taken until after they have started eating and most will not get … their wine until they have started main course. This is far from Fine Dining and nothing like the claims made in the brochure about attention to detail to the whole food and beverage experience. In the Cinnamon the portions were a bit mean – one floret of cauliflower and broccoli as vegetables on one occasion (no opportunity to reach ‘5-a-day!).
We had dinner twice here and we decided to try our luck in the speciality restaurants. And there was a different story.
Atul Kochhar, the first Indian chef to be awarded the coveted Michelin star, brought his highly sought-after talent and years of experience to Sindhu, a fine dining restaurant where you can experience modern Indian cuisine with a British twist. Fabulous service, elegant deco and amazing food mad worth it the fee that you pay for dinner there. Dinner menus are changed twice a cruise and are drawn from dishes in Kochhar’s Benares Restaurant in London. For starters expect shammi kebab (spiced lamb cakes), jai tarang (pan-fried hand-dived scallops) and gosht ke dhuandhar soole (marinated smoked beef skewers). For mains we had Atul’s signature plate of lamb rogan josh, chicken murgh and cod jai pari which was sublime .And Sindhu was actually the best dinner we had on board.
For New Year Dinner we opted for The Epicurean, positioned right at the back of the ship high up on Deck 17. The former White Room now is an elegant space, with plush carpets and dark furnishings; the menu for kind of imaginative, creative cuisine – molecular gastronomy type – which has style as well as content. The menu presents as traditional but the dishes are re-interpreted for today’s modern palates. The New Year dinner, which has a double price than a normal one, included different types of wine with each course and lots of other fun touches: Bloody Mary lollipops to start with a dash of Worcestershire sauce in the centre; salt and pepper oyster and jumbo prawn tempura that comes with an artist’s ‘paint tube’ of sweet pimento sauce; a sorbet designed as a tube of lipstick or a ‘poached egg’ with a ‘yolk’ of mango and a ‘white’ of coconut milk. Again a great decision to spend the night there. One of the few drops of style and class on Ventura.
I always believe that cruise entertainment attempt to be generally of high quality but this is clearly where P&O cut costs. Very little entertainment during the day and the quality and choice in the evening was not much better. P&O doesn’t go in for the huge West End-style productions the big US ships have popularised. Instead, expect British comedy; revue-type shows where the emphasis is on the singing talents of the performer rather than what’s going on behind her; and magicians, ventriloquists and tribute acts.
On two evenings the entertainment was a film, yes that’s correct, a film. On another day a young artist called Karl Lewis was an Olly Murs (!!!) tribute who later in the week returned as himself. He bore no comparison to either. The band called “The Flyrights” were more interested in “chatting up the chicks and having some booze” than performing on stage.
Havana, the main nightclub and entertainment venue, where movies are sometimes shown, is an activities room by day and a sultry Cuban-inspired club by night, but sight lines are extremely poor from many seats. Lucky the band “Serious Souls” performed time to time there making the venue more attractive.
A video wall in the Cosmopolitan club lounge screens real-time footage of the world’s seven most famous city skylines – Sydney, Paris, New York, Rio de Janeiro, Las Vegas, Hong Kong and London but in the evening reminds me a pub in Crawley Friday night.
P&O claims the 785-seat Arena Theatre, at the front of the ship and spanning two decks, is the largest show lounge aboard a UK-based cruise ship but in fact the show lounge aboard Queen Mary 2 is larger, with 1,094 seats, as is the Show lounge aboard Independence of the Seas. But that was the place were we have a surprise. “Destination Dance” was the only real entertainment during our 4 days on Ventura. Excellent choreography and performance, amazing lighting and costume, fantastic choice of music and vocals made this show even better than the same production seen couple days later on Queen Victoria.
But in general to set a comparison the entertainment was at a level that would expect from a local town talent show.
Ventura Fellow Passengers
That’s a very delicate point because, based only on what I experienced on board Ventura between 29th december to 2nd of January, I think P&O build its business model around the crowd on board. Food, entertainment, service style (a lot of “All right mate ?!” and “Cheers mate !” in the staff vocabulary) are created for fans of “let’s get pissed in the pub” kind of fun.
A typical short cruise will have one formal night and the rest will be ‘evening casual’, which is defined as open necked shirt and ‘tailored trousers’ or smart jeans for men; dress or casual separates for women. Forget the rules don’t expect something like that on board. Ventura during this New Year Celebration Cruise was an invasion of bad hair extensions, massive fake eyelashes, cocktail dresses two size smaller when the dress code was formal and of course jackets, ties and bow ties removed and abandoned on chairs, sofas or necks after 5 minutes of wearing.
Class or style can hardly find a place on corridors or decks full of ladies collapsed on the floor and crying for lost love around 1.00AM, having in one hand a glass with Echo Falls and in the other the shoes. Was like they were filming a new episode of Benidorm on board! By the way Ventura is the first cruise ship where I saw in the buffet an “Enomatic wine dispenser system” … and that’s says all!
Maybe was just one off occasion !
Of course reading P&O Facebook page and other sites I realised that P&O and Ventura in particular have a big army of fans. From this point a view P&O scored big time as they created a product for a certain type of market.
However if you look for style, class, service standards, elegance and enchanted experience for sure you have to look somewhere else.
Is nobody to blame….P&O do the right thing for the right market. Was me who booked the cruise! But at the end of the day our journey was part of a learning curve. Fortunately for us after 4 days on board P&O Ventura we board Cunard Queen Victoria for a 7 days cruise. And, like in the L’Oréal advert, that will smooth the wrinkles of Ventura’s experience!