The maiden voyage of any new cruise ship is a very special occasion. You’re among the first people in the world to experience the ship, meet the staff, and use the facilities. So, I couldn’t have been more thrilled to have been invited onto the maiden voyage of Iona, P&O Cruises’ beautiful new flagship last month.
Iona was originally scheduled to launch last year, with her maiden trip set to explore the beauty of the Norwegian Fjords. The pandemic disrupted that plan, but instead, on this trip, we would be exploring the beauty of the Scottish islands with a stop at Iona’s namesake island in the Hebrides. To me, the new itinerary and the chance to cruise in Scotland seemed even more special and unique, which made being a part of it even more momentous.
Iona is the largest ship in the P&O Cruises fleet and the biggest ship ever built for the British holiday market. At full capacity, she can accommodate 5,200 guests and 1,800 crew, and she is fueled by LNG gas, making Iona one of the greenest (and noticeably quietest) ships in the world.
The maiden voyage departed from Iona’s home port of Southampton, and as I headed up the gangway and into the Grand Atrium, I was instantly struck by the vast sense of space and light. Iona’s designers have departed from the traditional and sometimes gaudy cruise ship atrium vibe for something modern, minimal, and chic. Each side of the space is flanked by huge glass windows spanning three decks, providing an ever-changing outlook.
The atrium is the hub of any ship, and on Iona, that’s no different. It’s where you’ll find some of the 30 places to eat and drink. It’s home to The Glass House, the 710 Club, the Emerald Bar (a must for lovers of well-made cocktails), and Vista’s coffee bar.
The way dining works on P&O Cruises is that you have access to their main dining rooms, buffet, and grab-and-go food spots as part of your holiday. However, should you wish to try somewhere different, they also offer a selection of ‘specialty restaurants’ which are available at a small supplement.
One of my absolute favorite dining venues on Iona is the Keel and Cow. It’s located within the atrium, and some menu highlights include their dry-aged steaks and the Prime Minister Burger (dubbed by P&O Cruises as the best at sea). The quality of the food is second to none, and given the very reasonable supplemental charge, it’s incredibly good value. We opted to share their mighty tomahawk steak, which comes with a selection of sides and sauces for £30 between 2. If you’re someone who doesn’t often splurge on dinner, then this is a great way to indulge without incurring a huge cost.
Iona is a massive ship, and initially, navigating your way around can seem a little daunting. By day 2, I realized that the flow of the various spaces and venues actually worked very well, and I had found my bearings.
Cruise ship cabins are inherently small, but they are ingeniously designed to make the most of the compact space. On Iona, I found the modern, Scandinavian style of the furnishings and interiors helped create a greater sense of spaciousness. I was in a balcony cabin, and I found there to be plenty of storage, a full-sized shower cubicle, a large comfortable bed (with some of the best pillows I’ve used in a long time), and a sofa area for relaxation.
Aside from the amazing food and drink offerings on Iona, there’s plenty to keep you entertained both day and night. At the very top of the ship is the Skydome, a relaxing venue with an indoor pool by day that transforms after dark into an entertainment space hosting acrobatics shows, vocal acts, and a mesmerizing laser light show – all under a giant glass roof.
One thing I particularly love about the P&O Cruises brand is how they’ve adapted to the ethos of modern cruising while maintaining many of the beloved traditions of a holiday at sea. Black Tie nights, now known as ‘Celebration Nights,’ are just one example of this. On those evenings, the atmosphere on the ship is elevated, guests dress in their finest attire, and it truly feels like a special occasion. You can tell that people enjoy the opportunity to dress up by the beaming faces you see as you explore the various decks. It’s not something I’d want to do every night (normally the evening dress code is smart casual), but having one or two a week (on this cruise, there was only one) makes it feel more like an occasion.
The Celebration night is also an excellent time to visit one of the specialty restaurants on the ship. If you do, I’d recommend the Limelight Club. It’s a P&O Cruises venue, essentially a supper club where you are entertained by a top performer after your meal. On this cruise, the drag performer La Voix headlined the venue, and it was the hottest ticket on the cruise, with every evening selling out fast. My top tip is to book this venue as soon as you can to avoid any disappointment.
A couple of days into the cruise, we reached the breathtaking Hebrides Islands. No sooner had we dropped anchor off the coast of Iona when a family of dolphins appeared, eager to check out Iona for themselves – much to the delight of myself and the other guests who were lucky enough to catch a glimpse.
It’s hard to put into words just how special that day was, enjoying a panoramic view of beauty, bathed in warm sunshine (a rarity in those parts), while relaxing in the infinity pools onboard the ship. Days like that don’t come along very often, and I felt privileged to have been there to experience it for myself.
As the sun went down, I spent my evening enjoying the drag show in the Limelight Club, followed by a performance by the fantastic aerial artists in the Skydome, before savoring a whisky nightcap in the relaxed Crow’s Nest. While sitting there, sipping on my Black Label, I reflected on all the experiences I had in just one day at sea and realized there’s nowhere else on the planet where you can experience such variety in just 16 hours.
When the weather isn’t cooperating during the day, there’s still plenty to keep you busy on Iona. Iona is home to a 4-screen cinema at sea that showcases a selection of different blockbusters daily. You could treat yourself to a visit to the spa, take part in a pub quiz, find a quiet corner to catch up on your book, book a session for the delicious ice-cream afternoon tea at Ripples, or browse the shopping arcade, which includes the first-ever Mulberry boutique at sea.
If, like me, you enjoy staying fit during your holiday, you’ll be delighted to hear that the gym on Iona is one of the swankiest I’ve ever seen, packed with the latest training equipment. If you prefer an instructor-led workout, they also offer a variety of daily fitness classes that you can book for a small fee.
To be honest, a week is not nearly enough time to experience everything a ship the size of Iona has to offer. There’s always a choice to be made regarding where to relax, dine, or be entertained. The beauty of this is that returning guests, as well as those on a longer cruise, can always find a new experience while revisiting their favorites.
If Iona sounds appealing to you, this is an excellent time to book as P&O Cruises has some fantastic deals in the next few months, including a 14-night trip on Iona departing from Southampton on October 9th, 2021, priced from £849 per person. Considering this includes accommodation, food, as well as entertainment, it’s a steal!
Head over to pocruises.com to book!
Images: P&O Cruises