P&O’s Ventura Ship Review
I have cruised with many of the major cruise lines, and some of the minor ones too, but P&O had escaped me so far. However I decided to put that right in their 175 anniversary year.
I picked one of their newer/bigger ships, purely because of the unusual 16 night Western Mediterranean itinerary from Southampton to Oporto, Cefalonia, Dubrovnik, Venice, Split Corfu and Gibraltar. I went in the peak season of the August, during the School summer holidays.
Interestingly, for much of the itinerary the ship had to cruise at 21-22 knots (near full speed) to cover the large distances to the heart of the Mediterranean and then back to Southampton. Fortunately the sea conditions were excellent, otherwise at that speed, the journey could have been a little uncomfortable. (The fuel cost for this type of cruise must be higher than many, which will be reflected in the fares paid).
P&O offer a British on-board experience which is most noticeable in the main dining room menus and with little touches like afternoon tea, Boddington’s draught bitter and Twining’s tea bags. The onboard currency is sterling. Bar prices are more reasonable than on US ships, which is a major attraction for many British passengers.
Ventura a fairly large contemporary ship at is 116,000 gross tonnes and a 3,597 berths, although there are now many bigger ships on offer. Ventura’s design is based on the Princess ‘Grand Class’.
The ship was fully booked, probably because it was a peak holiday-season cruise to ‘hot’ destinations. There was a full range of passenger ages, including many families and 600 children. P&O seemed particularly popular with people from the North of England and Scotland.
Ventura is due a refit at the time of writing (August 2012) but was still generally in very good condition.
Embarkation was at Southampton’s ‘Ocean Cruise Terminal’, named after the original Art Deco style terminal. However the modern reincarnation resembles a B&Q’s style warehouse. The café inside looks like an after-though and looks more like a serving hatch at a Church community hall.
The number of check-in desks was probably sufficient, but the security process carried out by a limited number of hand-baggage x-ray machines, delayed matters. The embarkation process took me around one hour.
Southampton should note that at RCI’s Fort Lauderdale cruise terminal, it took me just 15 minutes to travel from kerb to cabin, embarking onto the 6,000 passenger ‘Oasis of the Seas’.
I boarded and entered Ventura, via the atrium which is large, yet modest in scale, when compared to many modern mega-ships. The ship has a feeling of contemporary ‘class’. The décor ranges from understated to bright, colourful and modern, with hints of tradition.
The Atrium has its own ‘Costa Coffee’ bar (chargeable) although you do get some delicious free cakes. However they only used long-life milk which tarnished the taste of the cappuccinos etc.
Just to make life more confusing than it needs to be, all of the 14 passenger decks (numbered 5 – 14, without a deck 13) are known by numbers, but also have names. However in addition they are commonly known by letters (the first letter of the name). My cabin, for example was on deck 8, which is E Deck or Ecuador – take your pick.
I did not find the layout of the ship particularly easy to navigate. The navigational signage was not as good as on-board many other big ships. When returning to my cabin I constantly got confused which was the odd cabin number corridor and which was the even numbers . There was no colour coding of carpets for port and starboard and no large/clear signs on each landing to inform me. There was some mobile signage, often outside the lifts, which has obviously been added as an after-though and was not part of the original build. The lifts were plentiful (three stair/lift towers) and very efficient.
The ship certainly had a very busy feel about it, in fact it felt over-crowded at times. If you wanted to see a live show, you had to arrive up to 45 minutes early in order to get a reasonable seat, as many venues were often packed to capacity before the kick-off.
Much of the sun deck was extremely crowded at peak times, with very loud music being played and with kids dive-bombing into the pools. Unfortunately, some of the standards of passenger behaviour (adults and children) was worse than I have seen on other big ships, in the summer peak. The cruise staff seem extremely reluctant to enforce the lines own rules, so generally avoided passenger confrontation.
It is interesting to note that since the original ‘Grand Class’ design was launched in 2008, the passenger capacity of these ships has been increased by adding an extra deck of cabins. Ventura carries up to 400 more passengers than ‘Grand Princess’ and at times, it certainly felt like it.
The cabin corridors had understated décor which I found very restful. Although the ship has hundreds of balcony cabins, these are sold at quite a premium. I picked an Ocean View (picture window, partially obstructed by a lifeboat) on deck E (Ecuador or deck 8), cabin 231. This was considerably cheaper than the standard ‘balcony grade’.
The cabin was in excellent condition. The décor of the cabin had a ‘retro’ brown wood (Formica) look to it, resembling a cabin on a much older ship, which I liked. There an excellent ‘almost’ walk-in-wardrobe area with a long clothes rail, which my wife found to be perfect for extensive range of clothing. There were two single beds, unusually facing the actual direction that the ship moves in. These could be pushed together to form a double. The cabin had British power-sockets, LCD TV, kettle and a Fridge.
The cabin was reasonably sound proofed from the neighbours, although the door leaked noise when excited passengers passed through the outside corridor. This included the occasional child, running down the corridor, at full-pelt.
The bathroom products supplied were good. The shower had reasonable pressure, but it only supplied hot water as did the sink – there was never any ‘real’ cold water.
The TV was a smallish LCD type, but the range of channels was quite poor featuring mainly Sky and BBC news and virtually no entertainment. However P&O do have the nerve to charge £3.75 for pay-to-view movies.
Room service was very efficient; they always got my order right and delivered it on time, something that many other ships/lines have often failed to do for me.
Unlike many mega-ships, Ventura does not have one large main dining room, it has three, built on a more human scale. These are called ‘Bay Tree’, ‘Saffron’ (both located on deck 6) and ‘Cinnamon’ restaurants (located on deck 5). All passengers are allocated to one of the three dining rooms, although the ‘Cinnamon’ is reserved for those passengers who choose ‘Freedom Dining’.
Although each dining room is still quite large in reality, they certainly feel intimate compared to those on many other mega-ships. The décor in each is very ‘classy’, but being all single height room, they do lack the much talked about ‘wow factor’.
All three are all located on a low decks, so in very stable positions, although the Bay Tree being right at the stern does suffer from some engine vibration at times. (There are no propulsion pods on the Grand Class design). The three dining rooms share two galleys.
Afternoon tea is served in one of the dining rooms 4.00pm on sea days. It lasts around 45 minutes, so is faster than Cunard’s more leisurely affair and not quite so formal – no harpist or string quartet, just some recorded background music. I did see one family of four attend with their pool-towels still around their necks – they obviously did not ‘get’ the concept of refined-ambience. The scones, tea-cakes, crumpets and sandwiches were distributed pretty efficiently by waiters, without limit, but there was no Cunard white gloves.
Buffet Lunch Embarkation
The buffet (deck 15), adjacent the busy pool deck areas, is reasonably large and divided into two main areas, ‘Water Side’ and ‘Beach House’. At times of low demand, one section can be open, while another is closed. At times of peak demand both areas are open, but like any big ship the buffet can struggle to cope with the times of highest demands.
I had s boarding time of 3:00pm, but got on a little earlier. At 3.00 many of the hot buffet selections changed to sandwiches and wraps. This clearly disadvantaged those who had a late boarding time and wanted some hot food. I did manage to sample some hot dished and found them to be quite good, but not exceptional. Hand sanitation was not enforced by the crew so many passengers did not bother – surely this is a Noro-virus outbreak waiting to happen.
The first meal in the ‘Bay Tree’ dining room was very mediocre, to the point that I have had much better on Ferries and budget cruise ships. My Prawn Cocktail was tasteless, my soup was not much better and my well-done steak was only well done on the outside. Worryingly all the hot dishes were lukewarm. However I was impressed with the ‘physical’ aspects of the menus, which had wooden covers. I asked the waiter to ensure that all future meals where hot, which he generally did.
Fortunately the evening food improved. Many options were definitely of the British ‘meat and two veg’ type. The vegetables were served ‘silver service’ buy the waiters. You could ask for more or less. Salad courses were surprisingly rare on the menu. All the fruit dishes (fruit cocktail, melon etc.) were very good.
The evening food in the inclusive dining rooms proved to be as good as you could expect from a big mass market ship, but could be inconsistent at times, depending on your choice of dishes. The dedicated sommeliers (wine waiters) were very efficient and friendly, but sometimes a little too keen to pour your wine into your glass, and sell you another bottle.
As an alternative to the buffet, Lunch was served daily n the Saffron Dining room by the wait staff. The food and service were consistently excellent, making me wonder why anybody used the buffet, apart from the fact that it is near the pool deck. That traditional British favourite, an ‘Indian Curry’ was often available.
The waiters on-board the ship were mainly India, with Filipino staff being in the minority. They were friendly, efficient, and often rather reserved, which suited me. However I heard one passengers say that she liked American style service with a higher degree of ‘friendliness’, even if it is a little false at times.
The Dress code: In the sixteen nights, Ventura had five ‘formal’ nights (black ties) which were well adhered to. There were no ‘informal’ nights on this ship (unlike sister ship Azura), just ‘casual’ nights.
The ‘Ventura Theatre’ at the bow of deck 6/7 is typical of those on big modern ships. The seats are comfortable, raked, with excellent site lines. It is bigger, better equipped and certainly more comfortable than many of London’s West end Theatres.
Ventura does not have a big glitzy style Casino unlike nearly all American ships do. A modest Casino area, ‘fortunes’ forms part of ‘Exchange’ (deck 6), which is the British Pub. This reflects the fact that Brits do not embrace gaming tables and slot machines with as much passion as American cruise passengers do.
The ‘Exchange’ décor is Pub/Cellar like and definitely NOT Las Vegas in style. The beer on offer is a typical international mix, but ‘Stella’ Larger is on draft. ‘Boddingtons’ is the draft Bitter option, although it is chilled, which is of course sacrilege. (Real Ales/Bitters should be served a cellar temperature and NOT artificially chilled).
A model railway that runs above the bar, but in keeping with the British transport tradition, it had broken down and was not running.
The Havana Room (Prom. deck 7), at the stern of the ship, is a traditional ‘show lounge’ without any fixed or raked seating. It had an attractive Cuban décor theme. It has some very attractive panels, with fluorescent lights, which divided up the room. However, the designers had obviously not considered that the chairs were low and the panels were quite high. When seated, many passengers could not get a full view of the stage due to these oversized panels…duh! The room did have some video monitors to assist, but ideally such room should not need them!
Of an evening the Havana room became the young people’s night-club, yet strangely not too much dancing actually took place. Small crowds of youngsters often hung-around outside and on the adjacent prom deck, into the very early hours of each morning. They formed a slightly intimidating crowd at times: blocking the prom deck. Cigarette butts, food, beer bottles and broken glasses could be found on stairs, carpets, prom deck and in the lifts, in this area each morning.
I heard one couple proudly boast at dinner that they had not seen their teenage kids for two weeks. However, I probably had, they were outside the Havana all week,
Metropolis is a bar/disco perched high on the aft of the ship (deck 18). On the original ‘Grand Princess’ design, this room was raised high on two columns (nicknamed the shopping trolley handle). However possibly due to stress fractures in the steel and the fact that it cast shade onto the rear terrace pool, the design has been modified. The bar has been dropped back onto the deck.
The bar is still one of the highest parts of the ship and offers excellent views mainly of the ships port side, starboard side and stern, but there are a limited number of forward facing windows.
The ‘gimmick’ for this room is that there are 21 video screens which show different city-scapes. Although the idea sounds great, it is not as effective as I had hoped. I expected a continuous screen, rather than a serious of conventional LCD monitors mounted vertically, so you could see each join. These were not very effective in daylight, as they faced the bow windows and suffered from the ambient light and reflection. They only became effective at night when the ambient light was minimal, but even then the effect was not over impressive.
The entertainment was very traditional in style being a mix of guest musicians, comedians, singers and production shows by the on-board troupe ‘Headliners’. There were two ‘house’ bands: the ‘Electrics’ (bass, drums, guitar and keyboards) and a ‘big band’ featuring traditional brass instruments. The Electrics were the most competent collection of musicians that I’ve ever seen on a cruise ship. They could play swing, rock, pop, blues and country music all with extreme accuracy.
Headliners were quite a large troupe (there were at least 14 of them) of young singers and dancers. Their shows were fast and lively, with some very good dancing, but they often lacked vocal talent. (Unfortunately this is not just a P&O issue). In fact I suspect that there were members of the audience who had better singing voices than some of the performers on stage. Taped backing music and backing vocals was often used to enhance the sometimes live band.
The Headliners shows were the standard ‘West End’ show tunes, type of thing. I did hear comments from a 40-something passenger, that much of the entertainment was very old-fashioned. There was certainly no ‘Cirque’ show or ‘Blue Man Group’ here.
The guest entertainers were generally of higher quality. Lecturer Simon Dinsdale, former Essex Police Man/Detective provided eight (yes eight) fascinating lectures about crime and one about the Loch Ness Monster, of all things. Tribute acts, Rob Lewis (as Phil Collins), Fogwell Flax (as Sting) and Steve Larkins (as Freddie Mercury) were brilliant; all being backed superbly by the ‘Electrics’. Classical guitarist ‘Luis’, found in Las Ramblas each evening, was an excellent. There was also a pianist playing popular tunes.
The White Room is Marco Pierre White’s alternative restaurant offered an intimate experience for the additional cost of £20 pp. The ‘White’ room’s décor is actually mainly black and rather stylish. The restaurant is situated at the rear of the ship located high on deck 17, just under the metropolis bar. It would not be a good location, in a storm, for those susceptible to motion sickness. There are a limited number of tables on an open veranda, over-looking the ships stern. These are of course in high demand in good weather.
The menus were the heaviest (in weight) that I have ever experienced and were actually difficult to lift. Some of the menu items themselves were a little too heavy for me, in consistency, too.
I chose a Lobster-spaghetti dish for the main which was a little over-rich and tomatoey for my tastes. Pierre White’s version of a Tiramisu tasted exactly the same as everybody else’s version, in fact I have had better on many occasions before. A successful dining experience in the White Room would seem to be very dependent on ones menu choices. My wife really enjoyed her choices.
The service was certainly very attentive. Most passengers agreed that the food was very good, better than most of the dining room’s evening meals (and so it should be) but in my opinion it was not worth such a large surcharge.
Another alternative dining option was ‘East’, offering a pan-Asian cuisine (a Chinese/Thai/Indian mix) for a supplement of £15 pp. Once again the restaurant is very attractive. It is located on deck 7, so is much more stable in a storm, but unfortunately the photo gallery is outside it’s door. This can be quite a busy part of the ship and this noise can filter into the dining room. However East is quite a large, deep restaurant, so it is possible to sit well away from the door. I actually thought the food was better than the white room. However my wife asked for some well-done red meat and was served meat that was blood red inside, so she disagrees. The service was attentive as you would expect.
Las Ramblas, on deck 7, is a large bar, unsurprisingly with Spanish style décor, including a large ‘fake’ tree. There is a Tapas dining area adjacent to the bar. The bar was easily my favourite on the ship, being very spacious and featured a classical guitarist each evening. (If they really want to capture the atmosphere of the actual Barcelona street, they need a few people pretending to be human statures and a few pickpocket’s).
Although the Tapas carried a surcharge, it was surprisingly reasonable and very tasty. It was also open much of the day. Three small dishes were £2.50 or a main and a sweet, was £5.00. Unfortunately I believe this area of the ship is being redeveloped to create an Azure ‘Glass House’ style area, which also has higher surcharges.
The ship of course has extensive beauty and fitness facilities at the bow of deck 16/15. I cannot comment on these as I am normally too busy eating and drinking, to attend.
There is the normal cabin laundry service. however there are also a number of self-service launderettes, with washing, drying and ironing facilities, all free to use. You just need to buy some washing powder on-board.
Most bars would serve tea or coffee without any qualms.
Smoking was only allowed on the starboard side and not in any public rooms, including the Casino
There was a wrap-around promenade deck, although there were a set of stairs at the bow (port and starboard) to negotiate.
The daily cruise news ‘Horizon’ was in colour, but extremely poorly printed.
Tea and cakes were served on deck a ‘tea time (on sea days) by trolley. This is something that I have not seen before on other big ships.
From my first P&O cruise, I was expecting a little more ‘class’ and ‘tradition’, than I would find on-board the American mass-market lines. I was also expecting a more upmarket experience than Thomson and Fred Olsen, who also offer a British experience. However, I was wrong on all accounts. The Ventura experience was firmly mass-market and on some occasions in the very worse sense of the term.
Ventura had a split personality: The pool deck was often noisy and crowded, truly a ‘Butlins’ at sea. The prom deck and lower decks were more sedate and were often frequented by the mature traditionalist passengers, wanting peace and relaxation. I am not sure that it is possible for Ventura to be “all things to all men”, which is why P&O aim different ships at different clientele.
In the words of P&O, Ventura is “family friendly”; although I would suggest Royal Caribbean and NCL do this better. In terms of ‘tradition’ and ‘refinement’ Cunard and Celebrity do this better. However, at times P&O are no cheaper that the latter two.
Never the less, P&O do provide a solid ‘standard’ product, although it can be over-priced at times. Irrespective of my criticisms, P&O have an incredibly loyal following, with many repeat passengers and I cannot see this changing.
I think the big attraction is P&O’s range of no-fly itineraries from Southampton, coupled with the pound as the on-board currency and cheaper bar prices than US ship. However I would suggest that the P&O faithful should at least evaluate the competition. They might be surprised.
(Footnote: I’m sure that some P&O regulars will have never have experienced some of the issues documented above. However have you been on Ventura, in August to the Med? My review may not be applicable to all P&O ships, all itineraries and all dates).
Sapphire Princess (Grand Class) Review: http://wp.me/PfRKD-2S3