After a pause of nearly eighteen months cruising has restarted in the United Kingdom. How has the pandemic changed cruising, and what did I make of my first time sailing with P&O? Join me as I take one of the first cruises back on the seas.
As cruising restarts in the UK sailings have been limited to UK waters & ports only, although that is now beginning to change. Our cruise embarked in Southampton Thursday 5th August 2021 and was a 3 night, all sea days, sailing.
This would be my first time on P&O Cruises, a line I’d always been curious about but had not yet booked with. I suppose I had some preconceived notions of what a British branded, British marketed cruise would be like. I went into this cruise with an open mind.
Embarkation in Southampton
In the days leading up to the cruise I was able to complete an online check-in process on the P&O website that provided me with PDF copies on my cruise ticket, boarding pass, luggage tags and health declaration. These need to be printed out to bring with you.
Because of the changing public health situation you’re now required to have comprehensive cruise-specific travel insurance to sail, this should cover COVID care, medical bills up to £2m, and repatriation. Proof of cover should also be printed and brought along.
On arrival at Southampton Ocean Cruise Terminal we dropped our bags in the zone colour coded to our luggage tags and joined a moderate queue for COVID-19 testing.
Although there were a decent number of people in the queue it moved at a steady pace. Within 30 minutes of arrival we’d been able to drop off our luggage and had a COVID test administered. The test is a standard nasal swab, with results in 30 minutes. You’ll need a mobile phone with you to receive your results via SMS.
Once tested we were given a colour-coded wristband and shown our area of the terminal to wait in. In almost exactly 30 minutes we got our negative result SMS which meant we were allowed out of the waiting area and to proceed to the check-in desk. Because I’d completed check-in online this was as simple as showing the SMS, boarding pass and our passports – we got a ‘OK to board’ stamp and proceeded to the security area.
Unfortunately, security is where our so far smooth embarkation ground to a halt. We waited an hour in the security area whilst the team turned up and started setting everything up for the day. We’re not sure why it wasn’t ready ahead of passengers waiting, and given how slick everything had been so far we found this somewhat frustrating – as did many other, more vocal, passengers. But after that hour wait, and processing through standard security, we were on our way to the ship.
First impressions of Britannia
Entering through the atrium on Deck 5 you quickly get a good impression of how Britannia was designed. The decor is muted, there’s dark wood panelling, iron-effect railings – it says “upscale hotel lobby” more than cruise ship atrium. The atrium centrepiece is a starburst chandelier which rather than containing its own lights is lit from spotlights around the atrium, allowing it change colour and appearance depending on the time of day.
The darker, more intimate, upscale hotel feeling continues throughout the ship with well-blended choices of wood, marble, and blue accents – all with subtle lighting.
Britannia is a Royal-class cruise ship, weighing in at 143,000GT she’s one of the biggest ships to serve the United Kingdom. Britannia was launched in 2014 by Queen Elizabeth II, and saw a comprehensive refit in 2019.
At the time of booking we chose a ‘Guarantee Balcony’, which means that you don’t choose your specific cabin – just the grade of cabin you want. A couple of days before boarding we were told we’d be in A247, a HF grade balcony on Deck 15. This room is perfectly located right next to the forward lifts & stairs, with just one flight between you and the pool deck.
On arrival at the stateroom we saw that the room had been cleaned and a blue seal had been put across the door to show no-one had been in it since its cleaning – part of P&O’s ‘Sail With Confidence’ health programme. Our smart cards were waiting for us in the post box area just to the left of the door.
As you enter the stateroom, there’s a large dressing area & wardrobe immediately to your left. This is easily the biggest wardrobe I’ve seen on a cruise ship. I liked how it kept all the clothes, bags, shoes etc out of sight from the main room. There are also shelves, cubby holes and a safe big enough for an iPad.
The bathroom is accessed through this dressing area and is compact, but has just about enough room for anything you’d need. The only real pinch-point was entering/exiting the shower. The glass shower door opens outwards into the bathroom – you kind of have to stand right next to the toilet to open & close it as the door passes (and occasionally knocks) your knees – but it’s fine. A bar of hand-soap is provided, as well as shower-gel and shampoo from The White Company.
On this particular sailing I was travelling with a friend, as my partner couldn’t get time off work, so we had our cabin set up with twin beds. The same room is reconfigurable as a double if you submit your preference ahead of time, or ask your stateroom attendant. We found the bed and pillows incredibly comfortable, if a little soft for my personal preference. We both slept well.
The main room is of a decent size. Plenty for two adults to move around and co-exist without getting in each others way. Aside from the beds there are was one bedside table, a small desk with mirror and chair, an arm chair and matching side table. There were also two full length mirrors in the room, which is always welcome when more than one of you is trying to get ready for dinner.
Our only slight disappointment with the room was that there were no USB sockets for charging devices. For a ship built in 2014 and refurbished in 2019 this seems an odd omission.
Balconies on Royal-class ships are known to a be a little shallow, and Britannia is no exception. It was a bit snug out there, but room enough for two chairs and a small drinks table. We found the balcony to be well shielded from the wind, with plenty of privacy from the cabins either side of us.
Bars and Lounges
Compared to other ships her size Britannia has fewer bars than you might expect, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to be short of places to drink. Here’s a quick tour of the places you can grab a drink onboard.
The Blue Bar & Market Café in the atrium on Deck 5 is the the place to see and be seen on Britannia. These two venues sit starboard and port of the atrium seating area respectively, with The Blue Bar serving champagne and cocktails whilst the Market Cafe serves Costa Coffee and cakes. This space often hosts live music such as pianists and saxophone players throughout the day and into the night.
Moving up to Deck 6, just off the atrium you’ll find Brodie’s Bar. Brodie’s is the traditional British pub featured across the P&O fleet. Here you’ll find a wide range of beers and ciders, both on tap and by the bottle or can. This venue is also home to the daily trivia and quiz events – as well as where you can watch live sport onboard. During our cruise the 2021 Tokyo Olympics were shown in Brodie’s. There’s extra seating and pool tables just outside of Brodies on the port side, to the starboard side you’ll find the small casino area.
Heading up to Deck 7 aft you’ll find the Live Lounge which is one of the Britannia’s show lounges, host to nightly musical performances and gameshows. Live Lounge is a dark but elegant venue and offers table service of cocktails, champagne and wines. Seating is limited for the shows, so if there’s something you want to see – turn up early.
Walking forward on Deck 7 you’ll find the Sindhu Bar. Whilst officially part of the Sindhu Indian restaurant the bar was open to all passengers who wanted an evening drink. This venue was not open during the day on our cruise.
Now back in the atrium on Deck 7 you’ll find yourself with The Glass House on the port side and Java on the starboard. The Glass House is a wine bar styled and curated by Olly Smith of the BBC, here you can pick from a variety of wines not seen elsewhere onboard, as well as wine flights for the adventurous wine explorer. Java is another coffee shop, serving Costa Coffee in a similar fashion to the Market Cafe on Deck 5. Both The Glass House and Java have access to an outdoor promenade seating area – though due to the weather on our sailing this wasn’t used.
Continuing forward on Deck 7 you’ll find The Crystal Room. This light and elegant venue was used for talks, seminars, ballroom dancing lessons and in the evening – karaoke. Much like The Live Lounge this venue filled up fast and more than once we had to change our plans. There are benches outside The Crystal Room on the port side, but you won’t get drinks service sitting there.
Decks 8 through 15 are purely staterooms, so let’s hop in an elevator and head up to Deck 16 forward. Here you’ll find The Crows Nest. This is Britannia’s observation bar. During the day it offers 270º views from the front of the ship, you’ll find books and boardgames along with an extensive gin menu. When evening comes around it turns into an elegant piano bar – our pianist onboard, Paul Cassidy, was excellent. Due to limited seating and the size of the venue we had trouble getting in here a few times on our cruise. Sensing a theme yet?
Leaving The Crow’s Nest and heading outside you’ll come to the main pool, or lido, deck. There are two bars one either side of the pool area. The Lido Bar and the Riviera Bar both serve this main pool area with seating areas and sun lounger service.
Heading aft, through the Horizon Buffet you’ll find the Sunset Bar. This aft-facing bar both serves drinks and provides an outdoor seating area for the buffet. There’s plenty of table and sofa seating on both sides of the bar, with the port side being a permitted smoking area. In the centre the main bar is styled like a beach hut with quirky seaside styling and faux foliage. This was a great place to experience sail-away, find a quiet spot during the day, and to stargaze at night.
Finally, if we take the steps either side of the sunset bar and follow the jogging track all the way to the front of the ship you’ll stumble upon the adult’s only Serenity Pool & Bar. This space is exclusively for the use of passengers 18 years of age and over. Comfortable seating, loungers, and attentive table service make this a great place for a peaceful drink in the sun.
Whilst the Britannia has no shortage of places to eat, due to COVID safety measures choices were often quite limited and we didn’t feel quality was up to par with other cruise lines. Let me explain.
Breakfast in the Main Dining Rooms. Preferring a more relaxed a la carte breakfast we ate in The Meridian Restaurant on two out of our three mornings. Booking a table was slightly chaotic, we’ll get to that later, but once we were seated we found the service attentive and polite. Our Eggs Benedict were perfectly cooked and came out quickly, the orange juice was freshly squeezed and the coffee perfectly acceptable.
Celebration (Formal Night) Dinner in the Main Dining Rooms. I’m eager for any excuse to dress up, so formal night aboard a cruise always gets my vote. Once again we had trouble securing a table to eat at, more on that later, but eventually we were seated in Britannia’s other main dining room – The Peninsula Restaurant.
Due to the chaos getting a table we were seated fairly late into the evening by which point it felt like presentation and service had gone out of the window somewhat. We opted for the Marco Pierre White recommended menu and ordered a bottle of wine to match.
The ‘Amuse bouche’ didn’t arrive, instead we were offered another bread roll. My Crab & Scallop Ceviche, whilst tasty, was both very small and offputtingly warm, my companion’s Smoked Duck looked a better choice and he seemed to agree.
For our soup course I opted for the Chicken and Sweetcorn Soup and my companion chose the Cream of Artichoke Soup. Neither had any real flavour and there was soup down the side of both bowls. Disappointing.
Onto the main courses. Here things started to look up. I opted for lobster, as I do any time it’s on offer, and my companion went for the Beef Tenderloin. The half lobster was well cooked and the Mornay sauce was rich, the creamed potatoes were perfectly smooth – unfortunately the greens were cool to the touch and limp. The beef tenderloin was served medium-rare as requested, the jus was rich, the cauliflower delightful – but again limp and cool greens.
Finally, for dessert I opted for the Mango & Pink Peppercorn Sorbet, which was incredibly refreshing and delightfully picante, it felt like it could have used some flair or garnish however. My friend picked the Biscuit Glace which he enjoyed – especially the variety of textures.
All in all it was an enjoyable meal, it just felt like that because we’d been seated so late (due to issues outside our control), that we weren’t seeing the best of Britannia. We didn’t see our waiter after we ordered, just other team members who delivered our food, presentation was sloppy, courses were missing, sides were cold and everything felt a little… rushed.
The Horizon Restaurant (Buffet). Deck 16 aft is where you’ll find Britannia’s buffet. The space is bright and airy, with many tables next to or facing a window out to sea. The buffet stations are arrange in a grid fashion in between the two seating areas – with drinks stations peppered throughout.
To try and better facilitate social distancing and safer cruising P&O have divided the buffet stations in four quarters – serving only the area of seating closest to those stations. Unfortunately, what this means is that the food choices were vastly reduced from what we were used to – with maybe only three or four hot options and a salad bar for lunch. This was by no means a disaster, and we understand why it was necessary, but if you cruise during a time of COVID restrictions it’s something to be aware of.
Pizza, Hotdogs and Burgers – oh my. The pool area on Deck 16 is home to some grab and go hot food options throughout the day and early evenings. On the port side you’ll find a pizzeria offering three options of pizza for you to take away, on the starboard is the grill where you can get made to order burgers, hotdogs and fries. Due to the issues with virtual queuing for restaurants, I’ll get to it I promise, and limited choice in the buffet these two venues were very busy on our sailing. We ate here most days and were never disappointed with the choice or quality.
We had the pleasure of dining at two of Britannia’s Speciality restaurants on our short sailing, we ate at the Glass House on night one and the Epicurean on night three. We didn’t have a chance to eat at Sindhu, the ship’s Indian restaurant – a guest favourite, and due to buffet space issues the Beach House wasn’t open during this sailing.
The Glass House overlooks the atrium from Deck 7 and serves up small, tapas style, plates. The cuisine is very international, from scotch eggs to tempura, and steaks to Sicilian stew. Each course has a recommended wine, or as mentioned earlier, you can choose a flight of wines to accompany your meal.
I won’t go into every plate we ordered, or we’ll be here all night. The stand out plates for us were the curried scallops, polenta fries and the sticky oxtail bonbons. The dishes came out as they were ready, and with the possible exception of the beef salad (which felt more like a stir-fry without rice or noodles) everything was excellent. Plates are priced individually or 3 for £6.95.
The Epicurean is P&O’s top-tier specialty dining experience and it certainly lives up to its reputation. We dined at The Epicurean on the last night of our cruise after managing to bag a last minute booking.
Bright, airy, with pastels and plenty of glass, The Epicurean feels upmarket and at the same time comfortable. On arrival we were given two glasses of Tattinger Rosé whilst our table was prepared.
When we were seated we were offered a choice of multicoloured breads with flavoured butters and we chose ourselves a bottle of wine whilst we perused the menu.
The menu is small enough that you know each dish is going to be made with care, but large enough that there’s something for everyone.
For starters I opted for an Alaskan Snow Crab, Langoustine and Caviar cocktail which came with a pea custard and shot of mojito, Craig chose 24-hour slow cooked ox cheek with a parsley sponge. Both were incredible, both in terms of flavour, presentation and variety of textures.
On to the mains. Even with the good portions of the starters my stomach was rumbling – because it knew what was coming next. As mentioned earlier in my review, if I see lobster I physically cannot not order it – so with that in mind I chose the Black Cod and Cold Water Lobster with a Caviar Gratin, Craig picked the Beef Fillet with Confit Bacon and Mushroom Pureé. Our sides were thick cut chips, tenderstem broccoli and a garden salad.
I cannot put into words just quite how succulent and tender my fish were, I’ve never had lobster quite like it in my life – and I’ve eaten a lot of lobster. Craig’s steak was perfectly cooked and it now feels wrong if bacon isn’t confit’d.
Between our main and our dessert our waiter brought over some liquorice lollipops. Whilst I appreciate the thought, if there’s one flavour in the world I cannot stand it’s liquorice – but Craig assured me it was delicious.
Much like my obsession with lobster, I cannot say no to a crêpe. So Grand Marnier crêpes were a no brainer for me. Wonderfully light with a sauce that perfectly straddled sweet and cheekily alcoholic. Craig picked a deconstructed Jaffa cake that came with handmade vanilla ice cream – and to finish were got some little novelty truffles.
I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that this was hands down the best meal I’ve ever had on a cruise, and close to the best meal I’ve ever had – period. The service was attentive and friendly without being too much, the space was upscale whilst still being comfortable and the food was simply divine. If you’re sailing P&O I’d heartily recommend you treat yourself to The Epicurean.
Entertainment and Leisure
P&O has never been the go-to line for over the top gimmicks and amusements, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be bored. The daily planner, in paper form, delivered to your stateroom each evening is packed with things do – there are quizzes, enrichment lectures, dance classes and films throughout the day, as well as mixers with your fellow cruises – that said we were surprised not to see an LGBT mingle event.
Pools & Hot Tubs
We found the ratio of pools to hot tubs slightly confusing on Britannia. There are three full sized swimming pools and a small wake view pool, but only two hot tubs – with a further two in the for-fee Retreat area. Compare this to another Royal-Class cruise ship, such as the Sky Princess, which has nine publicly accessible hot tubs. It just didn’t make sense to us, and was another comment several people I spoke to made. The three swimming pools are of a decent size and depth.
Music & Performers
We enjoyed the fact that no matter where you went on Britannia that there always seemed to be live music. This is something quintessentially cruise. The atrium almost always had a pianist, guitarist, sax player or even a sea-shanty band playing. The Crows Nest, whilst quiet during the day, hosted the excellent pianist, Paul Cassidy in the evenings. Live Lounge was home to the onboard band, Pulse, who blew me away with their excellent covers of well known songs split into three themed nights. The Crystal Room hosted karaoke and dance classes.
On the last night of the cruise the onboard DJ hosted a silent party on the pool deck. Everyone gets a set of wireless headphones, and can choose between three simultaneous stations – each of which is playing a different style of music but somehow mixed together so it felt like we were all dancing to the same beat. Really good fun.
We didn’t have time to see any of the onboard theatre shows but having spoken to many of our fellow cruisers they could be summed up as follows: ‘Mr Tickerton’s Clockwork Circus’ was excellent and people wished it was on multiple nights, the comedian was awkwardly unfunny and several people we spoke to left.
Cruising during COVID
Running cruises during COVID is no small feat, the fact we’re able to cruise at all is a true joy, that said there were definitely highlights and pitfalls during our short three night sailing. These can be broken down into 3 categories:
The MyHoliday “app”
Whilst P&O refer to MyHoliday as an app, it’s actually just a mobile website you visit through your phone’s browser. MyHoliday is essential for booking tables in restaurants, queuing for the buffet, booking seats for theatre performances, and buying WiFi packages. Unfortunately we rarely found it worked as advertised.
For example, queuing for breakfast – not all the restaurants would show up on my phone, but they would on my friends – we waited for nearly an hour for our buffet spot when we somehow fell out the queue and had to start the process all over again. The page frequently logs out too, leaving you unsure if you’ve lost your progress.
Because you can’t book in the main dining rooms, you have to join a queue. We waited over 90 minutes for a table on Celebration Night – which as mentioned earlier meant we got seated super late and we felt that our meal & service suffered as a result.
There were several missing features that would seem a no-brainer and super simple to implement. There’re no deck plans to find out where you are, or where you’re going. You can’t see the daily planner either, a simple link to a PDF copy would keep people happy.
The concept is sound, even if it seems already outdated compared to Princess’ OceanMedallion app, but there’s a lot of work to be done.
Social Distancing and Mask Wearing
Conditions of this cruise were that all guests were double vaccinated, were tested at the terminal before boarding, wore a mask when moving around the ship and observed social distancing instructions where necessary.
We found all guests onboard to be respectful and following the requests without complaint. Simply having to wear a mask is a very small trade off for being able to safely cruise once again – we wouldn’t hesitate to take another cruise during this time at all.
Britannia was spotless. From our staterooms, to the stairwells and the bars everything was super clean. It was very notable that there were an army of cleaners all diligently keeping every area of the ship clean and tidy. When a table in a bar was vacated it was immediately disinfected and the soft furnishings fogged. We felt very safe sailing with P&O onboard Britannia.
When we booked onto Britannia I freely admit I had concerns that P&O wouldn’t be the cruise line for me. Several of our friends referred jokingly to the cruise as the HMS Brexit. I very much viewed this cruise as an experiment and went in with an open mind – and I’m glad I did.
We were definitely some of the younger guests aboard, but we never felt unwelcome or out of place. I was worried about all the over-the-top patriotism and flag waving but we managed to successfully avoid any of that.
Britannia is a handsome ship with some elegantly designed spaces but we did notice that in some areas, such as the Crow’s Nest and Crystal Room, that some of the furniture was looking a little worn and tatty – something we thought would have been addressed during the many months of inactivity.
We were disappointed that P&O don’t offer beverage packages on their shorter sailings (below five nights), which puts them out of step with most lines offering UK short sailings these days. Drinks prices onboard certainly aren’t terrible, but they’re not cheap either, with bar bills quickly adding up. As UK consumer tastes and expectations change towards all-inclusive sailings it feels like P&O needs to catch up here.
As mentioned previously the MyHoliday portal used to manage dining, view your account and make bookings really isn’t quite up to scratch and caused plenty of headaches for us and our fellow passengers. Combine this with poor WiFi speeds and we found ourselves frequently frustrated by the lack of onboard tech.
The crew onboard were a credit to P&O and themselves. Everyone was always friendly and smiling, drinks service was swift, and if we ever looked lost onboard someone always came up and offered to help.
The question I always ask at the end of a cruise is “Would I sail with this line/ship again?” – and I think the answer has to be a “yes”. I don’t think the product is entirely right for me, based on my demographics, but this didn’t stop us having a really enjoyable cruise. Britannia is a handsome ship with some great staff and stunning venues, and P&O should be very proud.
I’m already eyeing up a trip on P&O’s newest ship, Iona, so that should tell you all you need to know.
If this was interesting to you consider sharing it using the buttons below. Have you sailed on on Britannia? What do you think of the P&O product? Got a question I haven’t answered here? Feel free to leave a comment, or contact me on twitter at @CruisingWithTom or Instagram at @TomLovesCruising