Andy Mossack boards a P&O Cruises Iona Cruise around Portugal and Spain with the added bonus of an onboard Gary Barlow concert.
Full disclosure here. Sally from Birmingham was beyond excited. She’d just been chosen by Gary B to join him on stage so he could serenade her with A Million Love Songs. Honestly, just one song would do for Sally given the state she was in. Bless her. But I’m not ashamed to admit I loved it too. Gary was a real pro, a showman who never shirked from giving his adoring flock exactly what they wanted to hear. His hits, backed by a scintillating band of top-notch musicians.
Mr B is a P&O Cruises Ambassador and music director for the 710 Club, an intimate music venue on Iona where a cracking four-piece house band knocks out three jazzy Jamie Cullum-esque sets a night.
It seems we were overflowing with ambassadorial excellencies on this cruise, with not only the aforementioned Mr Barlow, but wine connoisseur Olly Smith and Spanish king of tapas, chef/restaurateur José Pizarro, who jointly hosted a few wine-tasting dinners at Iona’s Cellar Door venue. They even hosted a Saturday Kitchen with Gary Barlow who now has his own organic wine range.
But I’m getting ahead of myself because the headline act of this entire production is Iona herself. She is the biggest cruise ship ever to fly the UK flag, and the first British cruise ship to be powered by liquefied natural gas. Two remarkable statistics. But here’s a few more to give you some idea of scale and context. She is 345 metres long (that is more or less a quarter of a mile) and can comfortably carry 5,200 guests in 2,614 cabins with 1,800 crew.
There are over thirty restaurants and bars, four swimming pools and eighteen whirlpool spas. There’s even a working craft gin distillery on board. The Headliners Theatre takes up the front of decks six and seven, a state-of-the-art theatre that hosts nightly Broadway-quality shows, while the four-screen cinema that is Ocean Studios, screens multiple Hollywood movies from morning to night with a new programme each day. And if you’re a fitness fanatic you’ll love the giant gym, all the latest equipment and a studio for yoga and aerobics.
However, the beating heart of Iona is the Grand Atrium, an immense space taking up three decks and the main artery for getting to anywhere. Then there’s the two-deck-high Sky Dome, a glass-domed pool space by day, transforming into a performance space after dark big enough to host high-flying ariel shows.
But here is the kicker for me, Iona’s interiors were extraordinary. Sumptuous levels of design and comfort seldom seen on the seven seas, let alone on a ship this size. Plenty of quiet corners to sit and read (The Library was a particular favourite of mine) while the Grand Atrium was the perfect place to pitch up and people-watch.
My deluxe balcony cabin was probably the finest I have experienced on a cruise ship. Full stop. A spacious cabin space in comforting pastel blue and beige, with a large settee and lounge area at one end and a comfy queen bed with plenty of wardrobe space at the other while a huge flat-screen TV adorned the wall. Patio-style doors led out to a good size balcony with a table and two reclining chairs.
The bathroom was well appointed with White Company toiletries (robes, body lotion and conditioner available on request) and an excellent shower. Francis, my steward, always polite and helpful, was prompt every morning cleaning and refreshing the room by the time I was back from breakfast.
A perfect segue to bring up food if you’ll pardon my expression. It’s all well and good boasting about the number of food options but how practical was it feeding over 5,000 passengers in the real world? P&O Cruises puts heavy emphasis on its My Holiday app, a portal for pre-booking tables in the four freedom restaurants, Opal, Pearl, Aqua and Coral and the speciality restaurants Epicurean, Keel and Cow, Sindhu, Olive Grove and Beach House which came with supplements.
Unfortunately, it proved almost impossible to get a booking other than very early or late, so we ditched the app and simply turned up, grabbed a pager and in most cases got a table within 30 minutes. All good then.
Horizon is the all-day self-service restaurant offering a giant selection of choices if that’s your thing, and in the evening a section of it is transformed into the Beach House a table service restaurant with a menu of Caribbean-inspired flavours. The Quays is a new all-day dining choice for P&O Cruises; a food court with three cooked-to-order outlets – Hook Line and Vinegar for fish and chips, Asian Fusion for steaming oriental bowls and Boardwalk Diner for burgers.
I fondly remember Irene and Mark, seasoned P&O Cruises regulars, telling me as we lined up together, they always go for the fish and chips lunch every day. Taste 360 was the place for freshly cooked pizzas and burgers for an easy informal lunch.
There is no getting around the fact that Iona is a giant ship, and for anyone who is more familiar with smaller vessels, you might have reservations about a cruise with 5,200 passengers on board, and I count myself on that list. But my initial reservations were superseded by slack-jawed wonder at the slick organisational masterclass I witnessed.
There is clearly a team at P&O Cruises who are logistical geniuses. Everywhere you look there’s a challenge, and each one is addressed with consummate ease, from embarking and disembarking, to feeding thousands of people. And, honestly, Iona is so big I rarely saw people more than once or twice. Even on sea days when the weather wasn’t great, I loved spending some time in my cabin, it was that good.
The World Cup was in full flow during the cruise and the group-stage matches proved to be a nightly distraction. But even they didn’t stop me from enjoying plenty of theatre performances, not only from the resident entertainment team (which were excellent by the way) but plenty of other entertainers. Pick of that bunch for me was 2009 BGT semi-finalist Gareth Oliver, a hilarious comedian who had everyone rolling in the aisles and deserved a shout-out.
The day before we docked back at Southampton there was a retail frenzy. Everyone was cashing in their leftover onboard credit. I spotted Irene and Mark there too. It seemed buying some booze and a new handbag took priority over a final plate of fish and chips at The Quays!
Which brings us back to Gary Barlow’s two terrific shows. Tickets were won via an onboard £10 raffle, with all proceeds going to Child Bereavement UK and Teenage Cancer Trust.
I do wonder if Sally from Birmingham has calmed down yet. Somehow, I very much doubt it.
Ports and Excursions on this Iona Cruise around Portugal and Spain
This Iona cruise around Portugal and Spain was a round trip from Southampton stopping at Madeira, Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote (visit cancelled due to dangerously high winds), Cadiz, and two nights at Lisbon before spending the final two nights at sea returning to Southampton.
Whale and Dolphin watching in Madeira
Quite the contrast switching from my floating city to a fast RIB but nothing beats being at one with Nature. The sea life off Funchal’s coast is never disappointing with a full cast of characters from hog-nosed turtles and bottle-nosed dolphins to hugely graceful pilot whales. An exhilarating three-hour trip on a beautifully sunny day was the perfect tonic after three days at sea. Knowledgeable guides getting us as near to these fabulous creatures as was allowed so we could see them do their thing. Back in time for a lovely stroll around Funchal’s old town and a munch on that lovely traditional bolo do caco garlic flat bread.
Laurel Forest Hike in Gran Canaria
The Canary Islands have many ancient evergreen laurel forests, but the nature reserve of the Los Tilos de Moya Forest is one of the finest examples in the Canarian archipelago. Perched around the Moya ravine, the forest is not that big, but richly dense with subtropical fauna and flora often covered by low sea clouds. A gentle hike along the well-marked trails was an enjoyable way to experience a forest only found in Macaronesia.
Jerez Royal Horse Training and sherry tasting.
To see stunning Spanish horses trained in equestrian arts dressage up close was really something. This was the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Jerez de la Frontera, a training academy for talented riders celebrating the ancestry of dancing Andalusian horses, and the classical traditions of Spanish baroque horsemanship.
A remarkable tour around the stables and performance ring and then watching the horses being put through their daily exercises. As Jerez is also the home of sherry, one shouldn’t miss the opportunity for a tipple or two, and we took full advantage at the famous Tio Pepe distillery.
Lisbon never fails to impress. This extraordinary city along the banks of the Tagus River, with its steep hills and its clanking trams, seduces you every time you visit. Bairro Alto and Alfama are my two favourite districts, offering up lofty views of the city and the river. Grab a Lisbon Card and get free transport all over the city.
I visited Quake, a new attraction using state-of-the-art technology to recreate the devastating earthquake of 1755 which led to the rebuilding of the city, creating many of the magnificent squares you see today.
Feature main image (C) Herman IJsseling. . Excursion images and Ariel Sky Dome (C) Andy Mossack
Tell me more about P&O Cruises Iona Cruise around Portugal and Spain
P&O Cruises 14-night Iona cruise around Portugal and Spain costs from £669pp for an inside cabin, departing from Southampton on March 4, 2023.
P&O Cruises 14-night Iona cruise around Portugal and Spain costs from £899pp for an inside cabin, departing from Southampton on September 23, 2023.