Ventura does offer a spa facilities and access to a thermal suite, which can be accessed for an additional charge. Unfortunately, I can provide feedback on neither. I didn’t book anything massage, or other treatment, before sailing, as I assumed that there would be the normal push to sell discounted spa treatments when most passengers were off the ship and exploring Bruges.
However, despite there being several sales stations set up around the ship promoting the spa, the staff didn’t seem that keen on engaging or pushing any kind of treatment. So, given that time was short on this voyage, I decided to skip them.
I did use the gym though, which was both well equipped and, on the port day, virtually empty.
I may be starting to sound like a stuck record, but I’ll say again, if I was charged with arranging a stag/hen party or a large gathering of friends, I’d be all over a short cruise on Ventura, despite previously mentioned shortcomings. One of the main reasons is that the drinks service is reasonably priced and served with a smile.
Clearly, on this short cruise on the North Sea, in the dead of winter, the poolside bars, like Beachcomber, were not of much interest to me (which isn’t to say they weren’t busy with hardier souls), but that leaves three main venues in the warmth:
There is also The Red Bar, a rather awkward space in a thoroughfare, which I photographed but never patronised.
I gave The Glasshouse a bit of a hard time over food, but it does offer a reasonably interesting wine list, all at sensible prices. It’s also never that busy - at times when The Exchange was crowded, plenty of seats were available at The Glasshouse, and they do offer a full range of beers and spirits, in addition to wine.
The Exchange, as mentioned previously, has a, rather odd, railway theme, but it’s a lively space, showing either sports or music videos on a large screen. Even when busy, the service remained excellent.
From my point of view, the best bar was Metropolis, high above the aft of the ship. Alas, it was too hard to photograph in the dark. Pre-dinner cocktails here on formal night was excellent - there were plenty of seats available and the universal adoption of Black Tie lent the place a fantastic atmosphere. On the casual night, it was busier and more boisterous.
As I said, given the captive audience, prices were reasonable (although, for strict UK measures, rather than US-style free-pour). Prices included:
Now we arrive at the meat of the review, so to speak. In a vain attempt to seem upbeat, I’m going to start with the best meal I had on board, then work backwards from there.
There are two extra fee (or “speciality”) dinner venues on Ventura; I didn’t get a chance to sample The Epicurean (£30 extra per person), but I will say that Sindhu (£25 extra per person) was excellent - one of the best Indian meals of my life. The Beach House also charges £10 extra for dinner, but the menu did not look appealing.
Overseen by Atol Kochar, who holds two Michelin stars for his London restaurant, Benares, Sindhu offers modern Indian cuisine in a great setting with excellent service. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Eating dinner at Sindhu, just after departure from Southampton, I enjoyed:
The other “celebrity” venue aboard Ventura is The Glasshouse by, wine expert, Olly Smith. I’m pretty sure that The Epicurean used to be a Marco Pierre White venue, but that tie-in seems to have lapsed.
Aside from the unfortunate “Tuscan Village” theme, The Glasshouse is fine place to sit aboard Ventura - a study in how even a modest cover charge (around £5 for lunch) repels most of the passengers. The food is OK.
A lobster roll (which actually turned out to be two mini lobster rolls) was disappointing: the lobster was in very small pieces (uncharitably; scraps), rather than meaty chunks of tail and claw; the dressing was poorly seasoned; nobody had bothered to toast the brioche roll, so it was doughy; the garnish was a rather bizarre “Caribbean salad”, which appears to be normal garden salad with some tinned pineapple.
Aside from the lobster roll and a burger, most of The Glasshouse menu features small plates, or tapas, any three of which cost £5. The results are mixed:
Dinner in the The Bay Tree (main dining room) was not a success. I chose a starter of savoury sun-dried tomato cheesecake, which started out fine, but, by the third mouthful, was sickeningly sweet. This was followed by a shrimp chowder which was tasty, but very salty. In P&O’s defence, “salty” is clearly what the market wants - my tablemates added more table salt to it. A lamb leg steak was a disaster as a main course - grey meat that was served too cold to even melt the accompanying “pink peppercorn butter”. A profiterole dessert turned out to be a slab of tasteless mousse garnished with a few buttons of choux pastry. Awful.
Breakfast in the same restaurant was worse. I decided, probably unwisely, to stray from the full-English option as it seemed a little too full-on for the early morning (including liver and white pudding). I started with fruit, which turned out to be some scraps of orange and grapefruit segments from the bottom of a tin. Next up were kippers - dry, tasteless and dyed luminous orange. Hideous. The Danish pastry was also dreadful - all glaze and stale pastry.
That, however, wasn’t the worst meal of the voyage. In the interests of providing a complete review, I visited the buffet three times. A walk through at breakfast was traumatising - like being trapped at Forton services during a closure of the M6; crowds of people and a reek of old fat. I kept on walking.
Twice, I looked in at the start of evening service. On the first night, there was a “Great British Buffet” theme. I’ve lived in Britain all my life and never before seen faggots on a buffet. The second night, I decided to sample a few morsels from the “Oriental Banquet”. As I tweeted at the time, it was some of the saddest food I’ve ever eaten: tasteless spring rolls, chewy sweet and sour chicken then a gyoza dumpling that could have been used as shoe leather.
Overall, if food is in any way a priority when choosing a holiday option, then P&O is not for you. Although, to end on a positive note, I will say that, with one exception, service was excellent.
Sorry, "staterooms", must use the correct terminology.
Ventura offers a wide range of accommodation grades, from 130 square foot inside singles (or 160 square foot inside doubles), to a 740 square foot penthouse suite.
I had booked the basic balcony grade and selected a cabin (HF), but indicated that I was willing to be moved for an upgrade; counter-intuitively, this may result in you being given a “better” stateroom in an undesirable area, such as near the lift or directly under the disco. A few weeks before the sailing, I was moved to an HC grade cabin – I understand both of these grades are around 230 square feet, but the HC is higher up. The cabin I was allocated was actually in a perfect position, midway between lifts, so minimal passing foot traffic, and, vertically, between other cabins, so suffering minimal noise. In theory.
Unfortunately, the group in the neighbouring cabin were, I can only assume, running an illegal rhino-fighting ring – nothing else explains the constant noise.
As to the cabin itself, it was serviceable if soulless. The wall finishes, ceiling finish and furniture and shamelessly cheap – worse than I ever saw in student accommodation. Somebody has tried to brighten things up be adding pictures that, I’m sure, are the psychotic daubings of a certified lunatic. There is a sleeping area with a desk that is reasonably spacious and, in this cabin, a good-sized balcony.
There is a kettle and a complimentary selection of teas and instant coffee, as well as a chargeable minibar.
I was pleasantly surprised by how large the wardrobe area was – there’s certainly enough hanging space for a long voyage.
The bathroom is cramped – not quite a “wet room” but not much better. The shower, in particular, was very small, although the water pressure was better than I expected.
At various times during my voyage, the vacuum toilet system behaved oddly and emitted concerning sounds, but is seemed to remain serviceable throughout.
Overall, the accommodation was fine – similar to a Premier Inn. I was happy with that for a few days; whether or not you could live in it for a longer voyage, I’m not sure.
Wondering what life is like on ship with over 3000 other people? Astonishingly, it’s not actually as manic as I expected.
Sure, on embarkation day everything seemed busy as groups of people excitedly explore the ship, but for the rest of the cruise, there seemed to be plenty of space. There are areas that were always crowded: the main corridor that runs between most restaurants and bars; The Exchange “pub”; and, despite the rain, fog and temperatures below 10 degrees, the poolside bars and hot tubs. The central atrium is buzzing, with various a bar, coffee shop and seating arranged around it, but, again, it never felt too packed.
The one covered pool was busy with children, but that’s to be expected on a short cruise in cold weather. There is an adult’s only pool (the Oasis), but that remained closed on this voyage; two other outdoor pools were open, but devoid of swimmers.
Ventura does have an external promenade on Deck 5, aside from the February weather, this didn’t seem to be the most inviting space as it appears to have been re-purposed as a smoker’s ghetto - there aren’t many other places on the ship where lighting up is permitted.
While Ventura is never going to win any interior design awards, most of the ship is perfectly pleasant. The straight, seemingly endless, corridors are slightly off-putting. As our, wholly scientific, comparison above shows, the famous corridors from “The Shining” are considerably shorter.
Also disappointing are the ersatz finishes in some areas, particularly The Glasshouse wine bar and The Exchange pub. We know we’re on a ship, some plastic mouldings are never going to make us believe that we’re on a Tuscan terrace or, bizarrely, under some railway arches.
It’s also worth noting that I was never able to establish a WiFi connection. That wasn’t an issue on this cruise, as most of the time I could pick up regular 3G or 4G signals from the shore or in port, but would put me off a longer voyage if I needed to remain in contact.
The pre-cruise experience with P&O is easily summarised; the online aspects need improvement, while the actual embarkation was remarkably smooth.
Online, P&O needs to up its game. Specifically, they need to look at their website through the eyes of customers who have never cruised before and then start filling in the big information gaps. There is, for example, a lot of references to a Black Tie dress code evening, but no indication of which evening that would be, complicating decisions over restaurant bookings and the precise form our “black tie would take”. Step-by-step descriptions of the embarkation and disembarkation procedures would also be helpful.
There were also some issues with the online check-in process - the PDF file for the self-print baggage tags was not correctly formatted, so printed far too small and took some considerable finagling before it was useable. P&O do provide pre-printed baggage tags in a “Welcome Aboard” brochure that’s posted shortly after you book. However, as I was offered a cabin upgrade close to departure, we had to print fresh ones.
Other online services, such as booking specialty restaurants and spa treatments seem to work perfectly well.
The actual embarkation process itself was painless. There was almost no traffic driving to Southampton on a Sunday afternoon and, with a large printed label on the dashboard, we were swiftly directed to our pre-booked parking within walking distance of the ship. For these short cruises, you park yourself on the quayside, whereas a valet system operates for longer voyages.
Approaching the cruise terminal on foot, it looked like complete chaos. In practice, all went smoothly. Large baggage was taken at various “pods” outside the building. There was then an initial line to enter the building and be handed the relevant health questionnaires, then another short wait for staff to check your ticket and allocate a boarding group before asking you to take a seat. In truth, I was sat down for less than five minutes before my boarding group was called to check-in, despite it being almost an hour before the boarding time allocated on my ticket.
At that point, after checking your passport and registering a credit card, I was issued my Cruise Card, which doubles as a cabin door key and onboard payment system, then invited to proceed through security. While featuring the same baggage and metal-detection screening as airports, somehow, the whole process was less frantic and over in minutes, then I was free to walk onto the ship.
Cabins were ready for immediate occupation, which I understand is normal for P&O. This contrasts with most American lines, who will let you board but restrict to you to bars and public areas while they complete the cabin servicing. Indeed, my luggage had also made it to the cabin before me, which was a nice surprise.
The ship seemed busy, with families and other groups eagerly exploring, but it was remarkably easy to find a quiet table for a glass of wine.
By the time this is published, we’ll be hightailing it to Heathrow, just two short flights away from boarding Carnival Triumph in New Orleans.
The Cruise Sceptic team transiting London's glamorous Heathrow Airport.
In due course, we’ll review every aspect of the experience right here. In the meantime, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for live updates and reaction.
We’re struggling with this. The editorial schedule says it’s time to outline the reasons why a sceptic might book a cruise on Ventura, and the editorial schedule is sacrosanct.
Well, writing this less than a week after disembarkation, we cannot begin to claim that the prospect of time on Ventura could tempt us away from our warm fireplace, comfortable bed and kitchen full of delicious food.
However, given how many short cruises Ventura operates from Southampton, it is an option we would consider for a weekend with friends or a get together.
In fact, if I was charged with organising a stag or hen do, I’d be all over Ventura. There’s a variety of cabins to suit all budgets in the group, the speciality dining options on board are fine and the the, strictly enforced, black-tie evening means that there is a night of dressing up that, no joke, does feel fun and special.
Plus, booze on board is very reasonably priced…
Follow along as we explain our lukewarm enthusiasm over the coming weeks.