Somewhat later than originally planned in summer 2021, despite the global pandemic, P&O Cruises' brand new state-of-the-art flagship, Iona, set sail from Southampton on its maiden voyage. On board was Matthew Gilbert, from Cruising with Matthew.
We took a moment to catch up with Matthew following his cruise on Iona, to ask him all about this very special maiden voyage!
Why did you decide to book the maiden voyage on board Iona?
I guess you could say it was a twist of fate! We’d been booked onto Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth, but it was sadly cancelled. However, I spotted that Iona’s maiden fit in perfectly with our already booked annual leave, so I jumped at the chance. I’d always wanted to go on a maiden cruise, so this cruise seemed the perfect opportunity to tick this off the bucket list!
What were your first impressions of IONA?
“I’m definitely going to get lost” – She was absolutely HUGE! I couldn’t believe I was finally able to step onboard Iona after years of following her construction. Inside P&O had done a fantastic job of making the ship feel modern yet taking aspects of P&O’s past. This included the fantastic Crow’s Nest – a large observation lounge at the front of ship and a staple on older P&O ships such as Britannia and Aurora.
You could tell P&O were aiming for a younger generation of cruiser and I think this ship was perfect for it! The relaxed approach to dining and formal nights were clear examples of this as was the new Sky Dome and the stunning aerial performances there.
How did you feel about the ship’s vast size?
I was a bit worried that I’d get hopelessly lost but the layout of the ship was really well thought out. Everything seemed to flow logically, and we never really had any bottle necks. The only exception to this was before dinner on formal night as P&O’s ‘My Holiday’ app crashed however this was quickly ratified!
With the ship being so huge, you were spoilt for choice as to what you could do I For instance, I ended up enjoying about 4 performances an evening and there was always something else I could have done at the same time!
The ship also utilised all the open deck available meaning there would be ample space to sunbathe in sunnier climbs, but the best areas had to be the reimagined promenade deck. This featured infinity whirlpools and a stunning view over the ships bow. She may be big, but you have plenty opportunities to take in the views!
Where did you cruise to on the maiden voyage?
As P&O was early in it’s restart of operations, we didn’t have any ports of call and instead we cruised round the Western Isles of Scotland and what an experience that was! This included sailing past Tobermory (the town which inspired the CBBC show Balamory which I watched as a child!) as well as anchoring off the Island of Iona.
Did you have a favourite place or venue on Iona?
This had to be the Sunset Bar at the aft of the ship. It offered amazing views over the wake of the ship with ample amounts of seats facing out to sea. I loved sitting here, reading a book with a coffee or cocktail.
How was the entertainment on board?
Due to her size, there was a huge range of entertainment options onboard. During the day there were vocal workshops, quizzes, poolside music as well as lecturers across a host of venues onboard! We even had an acapella sea shanty group sing in the atrium too!
At night there were performances by the Headliner’s Theatre Company who were super talented as well as guest comedians and soloists in the main theatre. A must visit however has to be the Sky Dome’s aerial performances. I won’t spoil the premise of each, but they were unlike anything I’ve ever seen on P&O and a massive highlight of the cruise for me. A top tip is to choose a performance when it’s dark out as it means you’ll get the most out of the amazing lighting effects too. Another amazing venue was the limelight club, although it’s normally extra charge they did open it up late in the evening so you could listen to the Limelights (the resident band) play their own set which was lots of fun.
What was your most memorable or enjoyable part of the voyage?
The moment Iona arrived at the Island of Iona! Seeing this gigantic ship anchor off her namesake island was a really special moment and quite emotional! The weather also was on our side as the clouds disappeared on our approach and we enjoyed the rest of the day in beautiful sunshine. The day was topped off with a stunning fireworks display, it’ll be a day I’ll never forget!
Was there anything you thought could have improved the ship?
I’m personally a fan of traditional set dining (1st or 2nd sitting) so I do wish they’d kept a small restaurant for this as all the restaurants work operate under freedom dining (arrive at any time). Whilst it may be more flexible, I did miss getting the same waiters every dinner as it’s always lovely getting to know them!
What advice would you have for anyone thinking of booking a cruise on Iona?
Iona is very different from her fleetmates. She offers a more relaxed cruising experience compared to some of the older P&O ships. For instance, there’s 1 less formal night per week and no set dining. Therefore, lovers of the more traditional aspects of P&O may find Iona a departure from this. Although I did miss these traditional elements it didn’t affect my overall cruise too much!
Be prepared to walk lots – she’s a huge ship so for those with limited mobility it may be wise to get cabins near the stairwells and lifts.
Study the deck plans! Some of the new conservatory mini suites back onto the promenade deck and although it isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it did surprise some people!
Make the most of her – she’s a brand-new ship packed full of old favourites and new features so use your cruise to explore them all and most of all have the best time!
Would you cruise on Iona again?
Absolutely! It was so refreshing to see a modern ship which gives you so many opportunities to see the sea. The 3 deck high glass walls of the atrium, the wrap around promenade and the infinity pools/whirlpools are all testament to this.
She felt very unique for this reason, and I do hope I get chance to cruise on this fantastic ship again in the not-too-distant future!