Andy Mossack spends two weeks eating aboard Iona to bring you his guide to cruising Iona’s best restaurants.
P&O Cruises’ Iona is a very big ship. Perhaps that’s something of an understatement, as at almost a quarter of a mile long, she is the biggest ship to ever fly the UK flag. That’s an impressive statistic from P&O Cruises. But perhaps more impressive are the logistics that ensure her 5,200 guests have an enjoyable cruise experience. And, of course, right at the centre of all that is the food. With thirty-three restaurants and bars, Iona has plenty of options, but in the real world, which ones are the most enjoyable? Well, I was about to find out. In November, I joined Iona on her two-week cruise to the Canary Islands, Madeira, Lisbon, and Cadiz and tried them all. So, let’s find out which were the winners for me as I went cruising Iona’s best restaurants.
Freedom Dining Restaurants
Iona has four main freedom-dining restaurants. Pearl, Coral, Opal and Aqua. These are table service restaurants, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner and afternoon tea, and all share the same three-course menu (five courses on the two Celebration Nights with menus designed by Marco Pierre White). There is no set seating, so you can elect to eat on your own or share and you can access advance bookings for these via the onboard My Holiday app.
My view: I only ate dinner in the freedom dining restaurants simply because the choice of other daytime outlets was so wide. Sometimes the service was a little rushed, but all the teams were extremely helpful and highly organised. No problem with ordering extra dishes and sides, and I found asking my waiter to make sure the food was hot, ensured it was exactly that. The menus always had enough options to satisfy any palate.
On a particularly picky note, I would have preferred to see more fresh vegetables included in the main courses. The quality of the fare, while not reaching the heights of the speciality restaurants, was perfectly acceptable to me for a very pleasant dining experience. I found the only times available to me for dinner most days, were either too early or too late. My solution was to arrive at a time convenient to me and put my name down for a table if one wasn’t available. You’re given a handy mobile buzzer to take to a nearby bar, and mine normally buzzed within twenty minutes. 7/10
The Olive Grove
While not on the list as one of Iona’s speciality restaurants, The Olive Garden’s Mediterranean-inspired fare proved to be one of the ship’s most popular dining destinations. Most of the menu was included in the standard eating plan but there were a few dishes with a small supplement such as the seafood, chicken and chorizo paella, slow-cooked Moroccan lamb tagine, the kofta hanging kebab and small seafood platter (all £4.50). Other than these, the sharing plates, pizzas, pastas, salads, and grills were all fare game.
My View: I loved the ambience and the informality. The open pizza oven area was a lovely piece of kitchen theatre. The Greek mezze, Italian antipasti and Spanish croquettes, chorizo and cheese-sharing plates proved to be perfect appetizers. I was puzzled to find a side supplement of £1 for chips and another 50p for added parmesan cheese or truffle oil, considering chips were in plentiful supply all over the ship for free. 8/10
The Keel and Cow
This is P&O Cruises’ version of a trendy gastro pub, open for breakfast and all-day dining. It is essentially a big bar with tables, but the food on offer is excellent, particularly the dry-aged steaks, which proudly hang in the glass cold locker at the front of the open-plan kitchen. There are also excellent wine parings from Iona wine ambassador Olly Smith, who was onboard with chef/restaurateur José Pizarro during my cruise. Keel and Cow is about as hipster as you can get on Iona and the prices are very reasonable for the quality of fare.
My View: I really enjoyed dining here, particularly as they didn’t accept any reservations, so there was no struggle for tables. It was a relaxed place to sit, enjoy a drink, and then tuck into a good meal, so the term gastro pub is a perfect description. The steaks were outstanding, with the 42-day dry-aged 32 oz tomahawk with chunky chips, battered onion rings, portobello mushroom, roasted tomatoes, and iceberg wedge lettuce top of the pile at £32. The slow-cooked beef and ale pie was very popular at £6.50, but the jaw-dropper for me was the Prime Minister burger known locally as the ‘boss of burgers’. An 8 oz dry-aged prime beef patty with the kitchen sink thrown into it for £8.50. Plenty of options for non-carnivores too. 8/10
Iona’s signature fine-dining restaurant and everything about The Epicurean is top-notch, from top to table. It is designed to be a culinary journey of discovery of fine British ingredients with all the theatre you would expect from a Michelin-esque experience. The supplement is from £28 pp and pre-booking is essential.
My View: You can tell The Epicurean is special because it’s tucked away at the very front of the ship next to the Crow’s Nest bar. Up here, even the carpets seem plusher. Yes, it is quite the culinary experience and I remember my waiter telling me “This is a gastronomic journey, so expect your dinner to last a minimum of two and a half hours.” Beautifully cooked and presented and worth splashing out on some fine wine to make it even more memorable. 9/10
A new Iona food offering, The Quays is a spacious food court with three cooked-to-order outlets open from noon to late; Hook Line and Sinker serving fish and chips and seafood, Fusion serving a few freshly prepared Asian specials, and Boardwalk Diner, if Americana fast food is your thing. Just around the corner, a salad and dessert buffet awaits with ready-plated dishes.
My View: This was a firm favourite for the lunchtime/early afternoon crowd with the fish and chips proving to be the most popular. Always a line there most days. I came here frequently as all the food was freshly prepared in open-plan kitchens. Top tip: I used to grab a big empty bowl from one of the outlets, go to the salad buffet and pour the ingredients of each small individual salad bowl into my big bowl. Voila, a fantastic salad lunch! 8/10
Something of a P&O Cruises fleet favourite with an almost legendary reputation, Sindhu specialises in a la carte Indian fine dining within a sumptuous and decadent interior of gold and brown more like a maharaja’s palace.
My View: With such a glowing reputation, I was really looking forward to trying out Sindhu, but for me, it didn’t really live up to the billing. I found all my dishes lacking any distinct or memorable flavours, and I tried most of the signatures including hand-dived scallops and coconut prawn masala. My Kolhapuri Gosht – beef tenderloin, curried mash, garlic spinach purée, bhuna masala sauce, just didn’t work at all. 4/10
The Beach House
Come nightfall, a section of the Horizon buffet restaurant is transformed into a Caribbean/South American-style table service restaurant with just a few supplement dishes. Very informal with real comfort food classics. There are also sizzler and lava stone dishes too. Once a week during black tie Celebration Nights, it becomes the Chef’s Table with an extended five-course menu designed by Marco Pierre White also offered across the other restaurants.
My View: Bit of a mixed bad. I thought the sizzler and lava stone dishes were outstanding, as was the sharing slow-cooked leg of lamb (£7.95 supplement). The sizzling tiger prawns (no supplement), and the outrageously good 8 oz lava stone-cooked filet steak (£3.95 supplement) were the standouts. Typically, I’m not a fan of TexMex, so found the cheesy nachos disappointingly soggy and the hanging kebab not worth the £5.95 supplement. The Celebration Night dinner was excellent, particularly Marco’s beef wellington and New England lobster mornay. 7/10
The Glass House
Wine expert Olly Smith and tapas king José Pizarro have curated this bijou-style wine bar which pairs some excellent wines with some very tasty bites. The menu varies depending on which cruise you might be on and is priced a la carte.
My View: I was lucky to find both fine gentlemen on the Canary Island cruise, and they were highly entertaining hosts. José provided a succulent tapas menu including some knockout freshly sliced Iberian jambon. At the same time, Olly’s wine selections were spot on. Food prices from £2.75, with wines from £5.20. 9/10
Iona’s huge self-service buffet restaurant offers all-day dining with a huge array of food options from full English breakfasts to Sunday roasts and everything else in between. There are daily specials including authentic curries, salads, and cheeses.
My View: Horizon’s food options are really quite something. Somehow, it manages to morph itself into breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner without missing a beat. I found out early on that I could ask for particular fruits like banana or kiwi or get the toasting server to toast some artisan bread instead of the normal white or brown. Nothing is too much trouble. I’m picky about my breakfast eggs and was happy to wait for a freshly cooked one. On nice days you can take your food and eat al fresco. 7/10
Images of Beef wellington and Sindhu chicken dish (C) Andy Mossack All other images (C) P&O Cruises.
Tell me more about cruising Iona’s best restaurants
P&O Cruises 14-night cruise on Iona to Spain and Portugal costs from £669pp for an inside cabin, departing from Southampton on March 4, 2023.
P&O Cruises 14-night cruise on Iona to Spain and Portugal costs from £899pp for an inside cabin, departing from Southampton on September 23, 2023.