Founded in 1837, the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company, as it was then called, was the first to offer cruises as we know them when passengers joined Royal Mail ships sailing to ports in the Mediterranean and the Iberian peninsula.
The legendary SS Canberra, in service from 1961 to 1997, featured in the bond film Diamonds are Forever. Connery’s Bond survived the ‘Bombe Surprise’ presented by Blofeld’s assassins and Canberra was dubbed the James Bond cruise ship.
Now part of cruise behemoth Carnival Corporation, P&O Cruises stands out for its ex-UK (no-fly) cruises from its homeport of Southampton and good-value fly-cruise holidays to the Caribbean and Mediterranean.
These are “home from home” cruises. Yes: there are curated cocktails, Elemis facials, Body Sculpt Boot Camps and menus by Marco Pierre White, but every cabin in the seven-strong fleet has a kettle and Twining’s tea and you’ll always find a decent pint on board.
Shore experiences and drinks can be pre-purchased in sterling and passengers can spread the cost of their holiday with monthly payments at no extra cost when booking directly with the line.
Along with theatre shows, live bands and comedy, the line offers supervised round-the-clock complimentary children’s clubs on its family-friendly ships and family-oriented shore excursions incorporate fun elements.
Godmothers have included HRH The Princess Royal, Dame Kelly Homes DBE, Dame Helen Mirren DBE, Dame Darcey Bussell DBE and Queen Elizabeth II. Nicole Scherzinger, who christened the line’s newest ship, Arvia, joined the illustrious line-up in March.
The launch of stylish flagship Britannia in 2015 ushered in a new era for the cruise line. New ships have bright, open public areas, plush spas and gyms and contemporary restaurants. Interiors showcase extraordinary works by contemporary British artists and in Southampton the line has christened recent vessels with nebuchadnezzars of sparkling Sussex wine and home-grown cider.
“Food Heroes” chef partnerships with the likes of Marco Pierre White, master pâtissier Eric Lanlard and James Martin have been a huge success, and effervescent wine critic Olly Smith helps pick the line’s tipples.
There is always a choice of multiple cabin categories ranging from, for example, a single (101-130 sq ft) to a suite (382-937 sq ft).
Before booking you will need to get your head around the line’s fare structure, which caters for various budgets with Select Price, Early Saver and Saver fares. All cruises include service, dining in the main restaurants and at pool-side venues, children’s clubs, babysitting and flights and transfers on fly-cruise holidays.
All seven of P&O Cruises’ ships have multiple main restaurants, in which dining is included. Speciality restaurants incur a surcharge and some are dedicated to Club Dining, for passengers who have opted for fixed sittings and an allocated table, while on each ship one or more (all, in Iona’s case) is allocated to Freedom Dining (no time restriction between certain hours).
No two ships in the P&O fleet are the same so do your homework before booking.
Where does it cruise?
P&O Cruises sails to the British Isles, Northern Europe (including Iceland and Norway) the Mediterranean, Spain (including the Canary Islands) and Portugal and the Caribbean. It is the go-to cruise line for short weekend and mini-break cruises from the UK to Bruges, Amsterdam, Cherbourg, St Peter Port and Hamburg.
This summer and autumn P&O Cruises’ newest ship Arvia will sail from Southampton for a maiden season in the Mediterranean. Iona, which launched in 2022, offers seven-night holidays to the Norwegian fjords from Southampton and Britannia will sail from the UK city to the Mediterranean, where Ibiza is a new port of call.
Azura will sail to/from Valetta in Malta on Mediterranean fly-cruises. Arcadia and Aurora will take guests on cruises around the British Isles and to Northern Europe, the Mediterranean, Norway, Western Europe and Iceland.
Fly-cruise winter 2023/4 holidays to the Caribbean are available on Arvia and Britannia. The introduction of seven-night fly-cruise holidays on Arvia to the Caribbean will suit those looking for a shorter long-haul trip and the line has charter flights to Antigua and Barbados with Virgin Atlantic in the pipeline.
The new cruising year kicks off on January 6, 2024, with a World Cruise – a 99-night Western Circumnavigation on Arcadia departing from and returning to Southampton and visiting the US, Central America, the Caribbean, Australia, New Zealand, Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Shorter sector fares are available to book.
Who does it appeal to?
Sailing ships built for UK cruisers from its home port of Southampton, P&O Cruises flies the flag for British cruising with wallet-friendly holidays tailored to UK tastes. With five family-friendly ships (Arvia, Iona, Britannia, Azura and Ventura) and pools, movie screens and age-specific children’s clubs, families are well catered for too.
Older cruisers are drawn to the more traditional, adult-only ships Aurora and Arcadia, with their formal nights; the informal buzz and contemporary decor of the line’s newer ships (Arvia, Iona and Britannia) will appeal to a younger demographic.
In 2022 Gary Barlow joined P&O Cruises as music director of the adults-only 710 Club, where live music is curated for British music lovers. A newer entry to the P&O entertainment stable is Nicole Scherzinger, godmother to Arvia, who has created late-night shows for the SkyDome venue on Iona and Arvia.
Aimed squarely at UK cruisers is a new crop of “sail with the stars” holidays including a TV Talent cruise with insight from Jay Blades, Helen Skelton and Ross Kemp and a Sporting Icons sailing, in the company of Sue Barker, Matt Dawson and Phil Tufnell.
The P&O Cruises fleet
Sister ship to Iona, the 16-deck Arvia (5,200 passengers) epitomises the forward-thinking P&O Cruises brand of the 2020s.
The ship shares many design features with Iona including a SkyDome with food, bars and entertainment under a retractable glass roof and a “conservatory mini-suite” cabin category, but also brings new features to the table including an exclusive stage musical, Greatest Days – The Official Take That Musical, a swim-up bar, an escape game set on board a fictional submarine and a 54 metre-high ropes course. Iona is the first ship to offer Freedom Dining in all its restaurants.
Sails to: Mediterranean and Caribbean
Iona (5,600 passengers) is the largest ship to fly the UK flag and was the blueprint for the line’s new LNG-powered, Excel-class ships. This means no sulphur or nitrogen emissions and a 20 per cent reduction in carbon emissions.
Iona features the first gin still at sea, in collaboration with Salcombe Gin, and live music at the 710 Club, curated by Gary Barlow. There are more than 30 places to eat and drink and four pools and 18 whirlpool spas. The heart of the ship is a three-deck atrium offering panoramic sea views.
Sails to: Norwegian Fjords, Spain and Portugal, Canary Islands
Launched in 2015, the £473 million Britannia (3,647 passengers) made a splash with its stylish interiors, molecular dining, world-class spa, gin menu, Cookery School and eye-catching artwork. Decor will appeal to minimalists and the oasis spa, with its hydrotherapy suite, heated loungers, saunas, steam grottos and tropical showers, will please hedonists.
There is also an exclusive open-deck area called The Retreat, and 26 places to eat and drink including the lounge-style Limelight Club and an upmarket Indian restaurant, Sindhu. Britannia was christened by the late Queen Elizabeth II in 2015 and underwent a million-pound refit in 2019.
Sails to: Caribbean, Mediterranean, Scandinavia and Baltic Sea
Family-friendly Azura (3,100 passengers) has broad appeal. An 800-seat theatre offers West End-quality shows and passengers can perfect a passo doble or learn to waltz on the dance floor in Azura’s three-deck Atrium.
The under-the-stars cinema suits her Caribbean and Canary Islands cruising territory, as do the family friendly pools. A new partnership with animation creators Aardman brings characters Wallace & Gromit and Shaun the Sheep on board.
There is also a small casino. Launched in 2010, the 14-deck ship underwent a refurbishment in 2015 and brought fresh decor and a sizeable spa.
Sails to: Mediterranean, Canary Islands
Sister ship to Azura, the 14-deck Ventura (3,078 passengers) is a good all-rounder. The four pools and sports facilities (tennis, cricket, five-a-side and basketball) will appeal to teenagers and more active cruisers and there is the age-specific Reef Club and new for 2023, Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep characters to keep children entertained (plus a night nursery for parents).
Her two-tier theatre hosts shows, music performances and talks from special guests and movies are also screened here. Nine restaurants include Olly Smith’s Glass House, The Waterside and Beach House buffet restaurants and, for speciality dining, The Epicurean and Sindhu. The last refit was in 2018.
Sails to: Mediterranean, Canary Islands, short breaks
Exclusively for adults, Arcadia (2,094 passengers) is the “quieter life” ship, for passengers seeking fine dining, fewer “do-this” distractions and a relaxed ambiance.
Arcadia is the only ship in the fleet with a Marco Pierre White restaurant, the Ocean Grill. It also has an upmarket Indian restaurant, Sindhu. Cabins are comfortable, if slightly dated, and the ship was refurbished in 2017.
Sails to: Canary Islands, short breaks, Spain and Portugal
Christened by Princess Anne in 2000, Aurora (1,874 passengers) is the second of two adult-only ships and is the oldest in the fleet. With only nine decks and six restaurants the ship has a more intimate feel and will suit those who prefer their cruising to be low-key. A significant refurbishment in 2014 introduced The Glass House and Sindhu and there is buffet and outside terrace dining at The Beach House.
Sails to: Mediterranean, short breaks, Norway and Iceland
Only with P&O
- The chance to see Gary Barlow perform in an intimate lounge space (Northern Europe, April to December 2023)
- The first rum still at sea (on Arvia). The “perfect serve” from Jersey-based Tidal Rum is infused with coastal botanicals and finished with a sprig of samphire
- A fleet of seven British-inspired ships and flights from seven regional airports
Three P&O cruises to book right now
A seven-night Spain and Portugal cruise on Ventura with sporting legends Sue Barker, Matt Dawson and Phil Tufnell and former British snowboarding champion and TV presenter Aimee Fuller on September 2, 2023 costs from £849pp. Round-trip from Southampton and calling at Vigo, Lisbon, Porto (from Leixoes) and Cherbourg.
A seven-night Norwegian Fjords cruise on Britannia with “food hero” Marco Pierre White costs from £699pp departing on September 15, 2023. Round-trip from Southampton and calling at Stavanger, Nordfjordeid, Flam and Haugesund.
A 14-night Caribbean fly-cruise round-trip from Barbados costs from £1,399pp departing on November 10, 2023. Calling at the British Virgin Islands, Dominican Republic, Saint Maarten, Antigua, St Kitts and Nevis, Martinique and St Lucia.
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