I had meant to write posts about both fellow travellers and disembarkation, but there really wasn’t enough to say.
The other guests aboard Ventura were exactly as you’d expect - the same mix of people you’d see in most British city centres. There were a lot of multi-generational family groups and a few large parties onboard for celebrations.
Disembarkation was simple. Only having to carry enough for two days, I chose to carry my own luggage off, and was back on dry land and behind the wheels of my car minutes after the gangway opened.
Writing an overview is more difficult. A couple of days on Ventura wasn’t an unpleasant experience, but it’s not one I would rush to repeat and I certainly wouldn’t want to spend more than a few days in that environment. As I’ve said before, if I was organising a stag party, hen party or any other large group celebration, I would consider this as an option, but I would be sure to book the extra-cost dining options - Sindhu one night, Epicurean the next.
For me, the poor standard of food was the standout memory of Ventura. Sadly, this view has been reinforced by a subsequent cruise on P&O’s sister brand, Carnival.
To be clear - the standard of included food on Carnival Triumph shames P&O.
I’m not talking about a preference for American-style food over British food or suggesting that P&O starts to major on fried chicken, I’m talking about a level of thought and care in preparation that’s in a different league.
Compare, if you will, the gelatinous profiterole horror served by P&O with Carnival’s chocolate melting cake. One is tasteless sludge dressed up as something pretty, the other is just delicious. And that sums up P&O for me - too much effort into pretending to be something they’re not while failing on basics.
Indeed, the vastly superior value proposition provided by Carnival, much to my surprise, has had a huge impact on my impression of this cruise on Ventura - I feel robbed.
I can’t help feeling that P&O is somewhat lost in the vast brand matrix of the Carnival Corporation. It has to be “British”, but downmarket of Cunard; this could have led to the sort of ‘modern with a nod to the past’ approach done so well by brands like Jaguar and Mini, or the informal luxury of Lime Wood Hotel, instead, they appear to be driving back into the 1950s.
For me, this offers nothing more than a convenient party venue with reasonably priced drinks. If P&O want to claim that things are different on longer cruises, then I have to ask if the revenue from these “taster” cruises is worth the damage it’s doing to their brand.
Apologies, we have fallen behind the sacred editorial schedule because of too much cruising. True story.
Speaking of being busy - what’s there to do aboard Ventura? After all, I’m forever being told that “it’s impossible to be bored aboard a cruise ship!”. Cruise fans say that highlighter pens are an essential piece of kit, so rich in choice is the daily schedule.
Not so much. At least, not on this cruise.
There were plenty of product pitches dressed up as entertainment, like some floating version of The Ideal Home Show:
Gloriously, there was an actual shuffleboard tournament (“3.30pm - Shuffleboard Friendly; suitable footwear essential”), as well as a variety of trivia competitions and unhosted (i.e., amuse yourselves) slots for bridge and whist.
Other than that, most of the schedule was focused on the evening events; dancing, karaoke, cabaret and singers impersonating stars in the main theatre. “Jayne Middleton As Annie Lennox” was, actually, perfectly plausible.
I know there is an argument that this short voyage isn’t the “real P&O” experience and that the longer cruises are wall to wall political briefings from Henry Kissinger and writing workshops hosted by Hilary Mantel. Then I have to ask, what does P&O hope to achieve from these short cruises? If it’s not representative of the experience, then it’s not a “taster” for new cruisers - only manners prevented me from spitting some of these small bites out.
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.
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.
So, now we’re familiar with P&O, why Ventura in particular? Honestly, for us sceptics, the choice may be made by the fact that, in the currently published schedules, Ventura seems to offer more short cruises than the rest of the P&O fleet combined.
Ventura, and close sister ship Azura are among the larger ships in the P&O fleet, topped only by new flagship Britannia. Although Ventura and Azura are based on the Grand Class platform of, sister line, Princess Cruises, they were originally built for P&O, in contrast to the smaller Oceana, which began life as Sun Princess, before being “re-themed”.
Although considerably larger than the adults-only ships in the P&O fleet (Oriana, Aurora and Adonia), carrying just over 3000 passengers, Ventura is really only a mid-size vessel in today’s world of 5000 passenger floating resorts. So, what’s on Ventura that you’ll find on all P&O ships, what’s unique to Ventura and what’s available on other members of the fleet that Ventura is missing?
Ventura doesn’t have quite as many dining options as Britannia, but more than the smaller ships. In addition to the main dining rooms and buffet, there are two specialty restaurants (Sindhu and Epicurean) as well as The Glass House - a wine bar serving “small plates” and other dishes for a modest cover charge. As you’ll discover in later installments of our review, these specialty restaurants are your friend.
In contrast to the smaller, more traditional, P&O ships, the “pub venue” is less traditional; screens showing sport and music videos replace wing-back chairs and tranquility. Think “6am in a Wetherspoon’s at Gatwick” rather than “thatched Cotswold coaching inn”.
There are four pools aboard Ventura, as well as multiple hot tubs. Crucially, for a ship that does a lot of short cruise sin the North Sea, one of Ventura’s pools can be enclosed by a retractable roof. There’s also an adults-only pool, open to all, next to The Retreat, an adults-only sun deck, featuring more comfortable loungers, which is only accessible upon payment of an additional charge.
Now, time to start looking back at the Ventura experience...