Inspired Travel was whisked away on a press trip with a difference to Amsterdam and Bruges. Jenny Ardagh describes her experience on board the P&O ship and on shore, making waves on a cruise liner for the first time
I will start by admitting, I have never considered going on a cruise. That was until the biggest cruise line catering to the British market emailed me with an offer I simply couldn’t refuse.
So, why not cruising? Well, to put it very bluntly, I had always imagined a cruise to be catered for a slightly different type of traveller to myself; someone who enjoys the structure of an all-inclusive; who relishes guided tours; who cannot fathom a holiday without entertainment; and, let’s face it, someone older than myself. As someone in my 20s, the targeted marketing, many television adverts and online offers have gone over my head – as I’m sure it in fact was intended to.
Cruises, in my and I think most people’s minds, are traditionally for the older generation and families, so P&O can forgive me for not having booked my single and youthful self on one of their, or any company’s cruises previously.Having said that, I have never been averse to trying new things and part of me was delighted to be given the chance to ‘sample’ the ways of life on the water. I was invited on a four-night excursion from Southampton to Amsterdam and Bruges on the Ventura – one of P&O’s larger ships within its fleet of seven. Other ships include, Britannia, Azura, Arcadia and Oceana, with a few smaller, more traditional ships: Aurora and Oriana.
Another extremely tempting addition to my itinerary was a ‘chocolate theme’, with activities including: a guided chocolate tour in Belgium and an onboard chocolate masterclass with none other than chocolatier, Paul A. Young.
So, I was booked in to embark the ship on 15th February, and disembark on 19th: a full working week of excitement. Often spending winters in the Caribbean, and on the water for 14 nights at least, this was a very short trip for the Ventura and those aboard – a mini-cruise.
Everything was new to me, so even embarkation was an experience. My plus-one and I were taken to the port and, in true chicken pen fashion, all the ship’s guests sat waiting in one large room to board group-by-group in a very organised way. Finally, we boarded the Ventura: a magnificent specimen of engineering, architecture and design. Standing next to it, you suddenly understand how ants feel next to humans, with the sheer size of at least a ten-story building lying horizontally on the water.
“This was more like being in a London hotel than on a ship, just with the slightly disorientating idea that when you stepped out onto the balcony, you’d be met by a vast body of water, rather than the tourist centre of the Capital.”
I already had an idea in my head of what the interior would look like. However, in hindsight this was based on nothing more than a particular, very famous film; my only real peek into life on a cruise liner. Trying desperately to put Rose and Jack out of my mind, I spent a few minutes just taking everything in as I stepped into the atrium, surrounding by two curved staircases, and two sets of glass, tube-like lifts. Blue lights outlined the room’s curves, reflecting off of the gleaming surfaces, and the whole thing looked wonderfully luxurious and inviting.
We made our way straight up to our cabin – a superior balcony cabin on the port side of the ship, on Deck 9. It was much more spacious than I had imagined (at 314 square feet, including a 42 square foot balcony), extremely clean, well laid out and with various amenities and useful facilities, including a double bed, ensuite, a sofa, an armchair, two televisions, two deck chairs on the balcony, a dressing table with hairdryer and plugs, two mirrors and a wardrobe – there were even a pair of binoculars. We also had a bottle of chilled chmpagne and a box of P&O Belgian chocolates awaiting our arrival, which was a delightful and much-appreciated addition. This was more like being in a London hotel than on a ship, just with the slightly disorientating idea that when you stepped out onto the balcony, you’d be met by a vast body of water, rather than the tourist centre of the Capital.
By the time we had boarded, it was 3pm and with a safety announcement and ‘drill’ at 4pm, we had time to explore the ship and plan our next day at sea.
The Ventura consists of 15 decks, with 1,555 cabins, of which 434 are inside, 1,103 are outside and 881 have a balcony. There are eight types of cabins: Penthouse, Suites, Superior Deluxe Balconies, Superior Balcony, Balcony, Outside, Inside and Singles. P&O is renowned for its dining, and the Ventura is no exception to this. The ship’s signature restaurant, The Epicurean is where my partner and I were booked for dinner on the first evening on board, after we had set sale at around 5.30pm. There are also 11 other restaurants, including, The Bay Tree, an Indian restaurant called Sindhu, where we ate on our last evening on board, Waterside, The Beach House, Cinamon and Saffron – among others. My partner and I were in fact booked onto Club Dining (except on the first and last night) despite thinking we would be on Freedom Dining. This was a bit of a shame, as I didn’t get to try as many different restaurants as I had hoped. However, the Bay Tree, where we were booked in for second sitting (8.30pm) was perfectly good for us, even if a little restrictive and crowded. The ‘sittings’ system was new to me also: one sitting at 6.30 and another at 8.30. Although I was happy with the 8.30 sitting, it made attending any evening entertainment a little difficult. Most things started at 10pm, which may be plenty of time for some people, but we like to take our time over dinner so often didn’t make it out of the restaurant until gone 10.30 at which point – feeling very boring indeed – we were ready to get to bed and to sleep before the day ahead!
“It felt exclusive and inclusive all at the same time; as if myself and the other passengers on that deck were part of a club that the mainland didn’t know about and wouldn’t be privy to.”
The various bars were stylish and inviting, and I was pleasantly surprised by the very reasonable prices of the drinks themselves. On setting sail, we headed to Deck 10, the Lido Deck, for cocktails and to watch Southampton drift off into the distance, all to music from the on board DJ. This really set the tone for the days ahead, and a pleasant tone it was. It felt exclusive and inclusive all at the same time; as if myself and the other passengers on that deck were part of a club that the mainland didn’t know about and wouldn’t be privy to. I sipped my Piña Colada, wrapped up in the thickest coat I owned, a scarf, hat and gloves (an odd combination) and took in the view. We were sat by one of the two outdoor pools on the ship and, although we had bravely brought our swimming gear with us, we weren’t quite confident enough to take a dip in the maximum 3-degree (Celsius) weather. As the sun set on this crisp, clear and in fact rather beautiful evening, the cold got the better of us and we headed inside to get ready for our first evening meal on board the Ventura.
The Epicurean that evening was an experience to say the least. Firstly, despite being practically the only people in the restaurant, we were left waiting for a surprisingly long time before being offered anything to drink. And, there was a strangely long pause in between ordering our wine and receiving it. Despite this, the service itself was polite and efficient (excluding time, of course). As an amuse bouche, we were served an intriguing Bloody Mary ‘ice-lolly’ (yes, that’s exactly what it sounds like), which was actually a fantastic flavour, but perhaps not something I’d choose to have again. The menu was diverse with a range of meat and fish, so it was difficult to decide what to have. I stepped right into the holiday mode and went with a lobster dish, served – again, inerestingly – with a side of slow cooked beef and Dauphinoise potatoes. Each component of this dish was absolutely delicious; the beef was tender and full of flavour; the lobster tail was meaty; and the sauce was creamy, going well with both the meat and fish. All together, it was a strange sensation but it certainly didn’t clash.
Having both starter and dessert, my stomach was full to the brim, and I couldn’t possibly eat any more. Overall, the atmosphere was nice, with a bright look and feel, and black and white, wood-panelled décor. It was stylish, sophisticated and modern with a sense of real occasion.
My first night’s sleep was fairly disturbed. Whether this was simply not being used to travelling on the water overnight or something else completely, I found it difficult to switch off and ignore the steady bobbing of the ship. In general, it was quite smooth – I often wouldn’t even notice the movement. However, I did certainly need at least a day or two to adjust to the very slightly, but nonetheless affecting movement, feeling a bit dizzy for at least the first day or two. I was also surprised to find that morning started fairly early on board the Ventura with an announcement from the captain as to our whereabouts. The announcement was not in our cabin itself but nonetheless loud enough from the hallways to wake me. On land days, this was around 6 – 7am, which would be fine perhaps for some, but I wasn’t best pleased, especially given that I often didn’t get to sleep until gone midnight due to soaking up the on-board entertainment after dinner.
“All the ladies came down to dinner in their ball gowns and sparkling shoes, and all the men came down in their tuxedos or two-piece suits. This was truly like being thrown back in time and was a fantastic celebration of where we were. The whole atmosphere changed. Everything was tinted with even more decadence and beauty.”
The second day was a sea day, so I woke to the sound of water still lapping against the ship’s port side and popped my head out of the cabin to get that day’s itinerary. I skimmed out the brochure and saw a few things that may be of interest. Unfortunately a lot of things clashed with each other, and a few other things had already started – or were about to start – by the time I had seen the itinerary (I got to it at around 9.30am before having had breakfast). Nevertheless, we already had an activity booked in for early afternoon: a chocolate class with chocolatier, Paul Young. Located in Sindhu, we headed down for our interactive show. Paul is an inspirational chocolatier who has previously worked as Head Pastry Chef for Marco Pierre White and in 2014 was named Outstanding British Chocolatier by the International Chocolate Awards.
He showed his small audience how to create the perfect truffle, with white, milk and dark chocolate. My favourite was the tequila dark chocolate truffle with lime zest grated over the top (my mouth is watering just thinking about it). He showed us all the right techniques – and wrong ones – and inspired us all to make our own chocolate. This was a wonderful experience and certainly filled us up till our second sitting dinner!
That afternoon, we did in fact try to go for a swim, but it seemed the rest of the ship had the same idea and we struggled to find a spot to even get in the pool, let alone sit in the hot tub like we had planned to. This was a shame, but nevertheless, we enjoyed just sitting and watching the world go by – if a tad cold – and drinking a refreshing glass of ginger beer.
This evening was a bit more exciting than the other evenings, as it was formal evening. All the ladies came down to dinner in their ball gowns and sparkling shoes, and all the men came down in their tuxedos or two-piece suits. This was truly like being thrown back in time and was a fantastic celebration of where we were. The whole atmosphere changed. Everything was tinted with even more decadence and beauty. The decks were filled with people all at their best, as well as photographers wanting to take posed photographs of everything looking fancy. We had our photograph taken by a few different photographers in different areas of the ship so that we could make our choice before our last night. These images then went onto tablets in the hallway on the main deck. Unfortunately, the price to buy the images was extremely high, so we only invested in one good one as a keepsake. We went to bed that evening feeling vey classy indeed and looking forward to our first day on land: in Amsterdam.
“Aware that we had a restricted amount of time to see everything we wanted to see, we rented a couple of famous Amsterdam bikes and rode the streets. We explored the many bridges, drank some Dutch beer, tasted some (sort of) Dutch cuisine, had a must-do photograph with the ‘Amsterdam’ sign and sped quickly past the red light district.”
The next morning, after waking up to the shudder of the ship docking, my partner and I had our breakfast and moved down to join the queue in the atrium at around 9.30 am. The queue took a fair amount of time, only getting on to dry land over half an hour later. But then we were free to roam this beautiful city – one that I had never had the privilege of going to before. Aware that we had a restricted amount of time to see everything we wanted to see, we rented a couple of famous Amsterdam bikes and rode the streets. We explored the many bridges, drank some Dutch beer, tasted some (sort of) Dutch cuisine, had a must-do photograph with the ‘Amsterdam’ sign and sped quickly past the red light district.
I should point out that we could have booked ourselves onto a guided tour whilst on board, which varied in price and time taken. There was a choice of taking a river cruise, seeing the tulip fields outside of Amsterdam itself and a half or whole day guided tour of the city. However, we were already booked on a tour the next day in Belgium and thought it best to simply explore ourselves.
We had to be back on the ship by 4.30 pm so, with heavy hearts, we made our way back to the ship for around 4 pm and took up our ‘usual’ spot on the top deck to watch Amsterdam shrink into the distance. This was in fact a beautiful evening, so I took the opportunity to take lots of photographs of the ship in the twilight, reflecting the bright lights of land against the darkness of the journey that lay ahead.
Belgium was a very different experience as we were booked onto a tour to Ghent, a small city in the northwest of Belgium famous for its medieval architecture and, of course chips and chocolate – although, not together. Around 20 of us headed off on a coach with our tour guide and Paul Young. The journey took around 30 minutes, so I gazed out of the window and tried my best to get a feel for the country (fairly difficult to do from a motorway). Arriving in Ghent, I was amazed by the beauty of the streets: how calm it all was and the elegance of the buildings that lined the cobbles.
Unfortunately, it was a pretty disgusting day weather-wise, but we pushed through, admiring the views as we went and headed into a chocolate shop. Here, we had a chocolate-making demonstration, showing us all the process with which they make their delicious chocolate – some plain, some filled. Trying everything I could along the way, I suddenly truly understood what all the fuss was about. Belgian chocolate really is incredible. It was rich, creamy and so pure tasting. The chocolatiers – husband and wife – were passionate about ‘real’ chocolate; not the stuff you get in supermarkets that have an expiry date two years on from purchase. After our demonstration, we had a bit of time to explore Ghent. Unsurprisingly, a lot of the group went to find a Belgian waffle, including my partner. I, on the other hand went in search of some chips, learning that my tourist status was given away by the simplest of things: that I had ketchup with them, not mayo. I in fact went for having both, just to confuse the vendor.
“I most enjoyed being able to see the stars from our balcony. It was extremely eerie walking out of our cabin to such a wide expanse of nothing. In daylight, you could see glimpses of the English coast, but in the darkness it was a fairly isolating feeling.”
Back on-board, I was aware that this was our last evening. We were booked into the Sindhu restaurant for 8pm, which made for a nice change as it was all beautiful Indian cuisine. I chose an extremely tasty duck curry, which burst with spice and flavour, and the duck was absolutely perfectly cooked. My partner had a trio of creamy curries – chicken and lamb – which were all delicious. All the plates were beautifully and precisely presented to a very high standard, coming with a side of raita and naan bread to complement our meals
This restaurant was a great demonstration of the famous Ventura food experience. After dinner, we spent the time simply wandering about the decks, looking on at people enjoying their time on board. In the atrium, people were ballroom dancing: jiving and quickstepping. In the bar, there was karaoke, with a list of 50 people to sing their song – no chance of having a spontaneous singsong then! There was also comedy on in the theatre, which was packed full each night, and plenty of others wandering about as we were. I most enjoyed being able to see the stars from our balcony. It was extremely eerie walking out of our cabin to such a wide expanse of nothing. In daylight, you could see glimpses of the English coast, but in the darkness it was a fairly isolating feeling.
We disembarked the next morning feeling as though we had been on an adventure. We were surprised at how manic the morning felt and we didn’t get time to have breakfast before being ushered back to Southampton docks, which was a real shame as we would have liked to enjoy our last morning at a more relaxed pace. I personally feel that this was the defining issue of the cruise as a whole – it simply wasn’t relaxed enough. Perhaps my holidays are too sloth-like for some, but the mini cruise did feel more like a whirlwind tour than a holiday. I would highly recommend anyone trying a mini cruise in order to get a feel for what it’s like. The 5 days did provide me with a good idea of what cruising is all about, and also gave us a fantastic opportunity to hop to and from Amsterdam and Belgium in a way that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise without a lot of hassle, time and effort on our part. This way, the hassle of travel was taken away, but the freedom restricted somewhat. Perhaps a longer cruise would be more free, but I think I’ll leave that to the enthusiasts and stick to air travel.