Credit: Mike O'Dwyer/P&O Cruises

Welcome to the pleasure dome - sailing on the maiden voyage of P&O Cruises’ new ship, Iona

Author: Dave Monk

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P&O Cruises new cruise ship Iona sailed on her hotly-anticipated inaugural sailing in August. Dave Monk sailed aboard - this is what he discovered.

The last time I sailed to the Scottish island of Iona was on a small boat with eight other passengers. Now, here I was on a ship with 2,500 other people - and even then, it was less than half full.

As Iona, the new P&O Cruises flagship, approached its namesake islet, guests started to assemble at the Sunset Bar to witness spectacular fireworks to celebrate the maiden voyage of the largest-ever vessel built for the British market.

And, boy, it is big. Three storeys of glass flood the atrium with natural light while, a few decks above, the two-level SkyDome is a pool area that turns into an entertainment venue at night, staging aerial acrobatic and music shows.

Iona is designed so you can’t "do it all" in a week. During the seven-night inaugural cruise that had no port stops I only found the outdoor pool by accident on day five, perched on deck 18.

However, despite the size of the ship, things soon become familiar. What seems like a long walk from bow to stern on each deck is broken up into individual areas, all designed to be different but united by a cool, contemporary look.

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Food for Thought

You could spend a week - as I did - eating in a different venue every night. Aside from the four dining rooms, there are the speciality restaurants for which you pay by the dish.

These include The Glass House, the latest in the series of wine bars curated by TV wine expert Olly Smith, with tapas designed by Spanish chef José Pizarro.

What’s claimed to be the ‘best burger at sea’ is served in a new restaurant, The Keel & Cow, with ingredients including Isle of Wight blue cheese, dry-cured bacon, beefsteak tomatoes and roasted garlic mayonnaise.

There’s the return of Asian fusion at Sindhu, as well as Mediterranean food at The Olive Grove, fine dining in Epicurean and dinner cabaret in The Limelight Club.

But not everything has to come in three courses. Snacks around the ship include ice cream, a separate gelateria, and The Quays ‘street food’ concept serving fish and chips, burgers and Asian bites.

At the base of the atrium is the intimate 710 Club, named after the shipyard number for the ship, where acts are curated by Take That star Gary Barlow, who himself will be on several cruises next year.

Chef Marco Pierre White and master patissier Eric Lanlard are still on board, metaphorically and occasionally physically.

At the fore of Iona, close to where I found the outdoor pool, is The Retreat adults-only area - a comfortable haven of outdoor beds and chairs - though you’ll find hundreds, if not thousands, of loungers laid out around the acres of open decks.

P&O Cruises: The Retreat is a comfortable haven of outdoor beds and chairs. Credit: Mike O Dwyer

Let’s Entertain You

Entertainment comes in all forms, from the familiar bands and atrium pianists to a new show called Festival, based on the type of songs heard over the years at outdoor concerts.

On our cruise we had the delight of seeing Spandau Ballet’s Tony Hadley and comedian Joe Pasquale perform on stage, as well as a question-and-answer session with actress Stephanie Beacham.

Walking around the ship at night, there’s always something going on, often in two or three different venues at the same time.

Iona: Entertainment comes in all forms, from the familiar bands and atrium pianists. Credit: P&O Cruises

Fancy a tipple?

As for drinks, the Emerald Bar serves some imaginative cocktails, such as The Smoke That Rocked, described as the "Black Forest gateau of Old Fashioneds", made with bourbon, cherry liqueur and chocolatey Spanish fortified wine, all presented under a bell jar filled with cherry wood smoke.

Gin lovers will raise a glass to the first distillery at sea in the dedicated Anderson’s bar. The experts at Salcombe Gin in Devon have created a special blend called Marabelle for the ship, with botanicals inspired by its Scottish links.

To work off those potential hangovers, there’s nothing like a brisk walk around the promenade deck, running around the jogging track, enrolling in a fitness class or taking a dip in one of the four pools - including two infinity pools - or 18 hot tubs. You can even take an archery class in the sports court.

The spa also offers a wide range of treatments including massages on a crystal quartz, while, for retail therapy, there are boutiques including Mulberry.

P&O Cruises: The experts at Salcombe Gin in Devon have created a special blend called Marabelle for the ship. Credit: Alun Callender/P&O Cruises

British and proud

Though German-built and US-owned, Iona is a very British ship, christened with English cider, and offers all the home comforts you would expect, such as kettles in the cabins and back bacon and fried bread in the breakfast buffet.

Our cruise to Scotland - including sights of Fingal’s Cave, Duart Castle and the Mull of Kintyre - was the longest number of sea days I had been on a ship since a transatlantic crossing on Queen Mary 2. But with so much to do on board, I wondered how I could have ever fitted in port visits. There was also that wonderful feeling of an open schedule with time to watch the world go by.

Covid precautions included pre-boarding tests, masks worn everywhere inside and seats reserved to maintain social distancing.

With Iona designed largely to spend the summers sailing from Southampton to Norway, the huge glass roof over the SkyDome is permanent, whereas the one on sister ship Arvia, sailing in the Caribbean from next year, will be retractable.

The P&O cruise to Scotland - including sights of Fingal’s Cave, Duart Castle (pictured) and the Mull of Kintyre. Credit: Shutterstock

My verdict

P&O Cruises may have evolved over the years to suit changing lifestyles but one tradition remains on Iona - black-tie nights. We had one during our week and, I have to say, it was nice to dress up again. With a generous luggage allowance sailing from Southampton, it’s easy to pack a few extra outfits just in case.

My last cruise in Scottish waters was on a tiny vessel of The Majestic Line. Gleaming new Iona was the other extreme in terms of size and amenities.

They say there’s a ship and a cruise to suit everyone. If big open sunlit indoor spaces, a vast range of activities and restaurants, and a floating home from home appeal to you, then the new P&O Cruises baby will certainly float your boat.

A seven-night no-fly Norwegian Fjords cruise on Iona leaving Southampton on April 23, 2022, costs from £559 per person. Book through ROL Cruise here.

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