Travel Review: Family fun on the waves of the Mediterranean
Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves! That bit, is certainly true, as my wife and almost one-year-old son found out last summer, as we set sail on an unforgettable Mediterranean cruise on board P&O’s Britannia.
Now you might be tempted to go straight to P&O’s brand new Arvia, launched at the back end of last year if you were booking a cruise, or Arvia’s sister, Iona, launched 2020, but why fix something that isn’t broke, literally in this case, as Britannia still felt like a brand new ship.
Launched by our late Queen Elizabeth herself in 2015, donning a large Union Flag on her bow, it even bears the same name as the Queen’s former Royal Yacht Britannia, which was decommissioned in 1997. It officially has the seal of approval.
Britannia can accommodate 3,600 passengers, but still didn’t feel busy during our stay, and we were told it was pretty full at the time. That might have something to do with there being 17 decks and at 330m (1,082ft) long, it’s longer than the Shard is tall.
Who knew that just five years after her launch we would be faced with a global pandemic, but in summer 2022, I am happy to report that for us, everything was pretty much back to normal. There was hand sanitiser, which there usually is, and all staff were wearing masks. Other than that, we felt like we were back where we left off.
Setting sail from Southampton, our 14-night trip consisted of stops at La Coruna, Valencia, Toulon, an overnight stop in Barcelona and then to Cadiz, with sea days in between. A great mix of big and small cities, with plenty of relaxing days at sea to unwind.
This holiday was all about firsts for us, our first child was just about to have his first birthday, experiencing his first abroad holiday on his first boat and visiting his first new country.
And the first massive plus point for us, as a family with a small child, is that we left from the UK, so no plane baggage allowance. In fact, P&O state “You can bring as many bags as you can comfortably fit into your cabin” so it meant we could bring everything that comes with a small child, from bottles of baby milk to Buzz Lightyear, and enough nappies to see us through two weeks, which almost filled a suitcase alone.
After a very quick and easy check-in at Southampton, we were on the ship a short time after arriving at the car drop-off, right by the ship. Exploring Britannia, sipping that first holiday drink. Has to be the best feeling, right?
As with a few things in life, Covid has brought some good with all its bad and our boarding of the ship was one of them. No muster protocol, just a quick check-in so you know where you are to go in an emergency and a quick safety video instead of a complete drill.
We were in a balcony room for our stay aboard, a good size and plenty big enough for the three of us with a travel cot next to the sofa, which we could take down in the day, and the bathroom was bigger than we have had before on a similar ship, boasting a decent size shower.
Our cabin steward introduced himself and assured us any problems or needs would be addressed straight away, which there weren’t, as all our requests had been catered for, even our suitcases had beaten us to the room. The attention to detail is what I love about cruise ships, the staff are just so good. If something isn’t on the menu, just ask and I’m sure you will be met with “no problem”. If you are struggling in any way, there is always a helping hand right there. And this is the same with all the staff we came across, from the cleaners to the waiters, the entertainers to the bar staff, even the staff out on excursions, everyone just wants to make your holiday better.
After setting sail, we had a couple of sea days before our first stop, so time to explore the ship and get our bearings. There is always plenty to do, from poolside quizzes to catching a film in the cinema. All sorts of shows and live performances, classes and talks, a casino, a library and even an art gallery. It’s a good job we had two weeks to fit it all in.
There are 11 restaurants on offer, and 15 bars and cafes, so it’s quite difficult to do a tour of the ship without stopping for a pitstop. If shopping is your thing and you need to get your fix, there is a choice of shops, with luxury branded items such as cosmetics, perfume, jewellery, gifts, clothes and accessories and all the holiday essentials.
If you have never cruised before, for me, one of those special moments is on the first morning. With all the excitement of boarding and exploring on the first evening, you sort of forget you are at sea, until the first pullback of the curtain. The morning sun, calm seas, and nothing but blue, as far as the eye can see. In fact, waking up and looking out at a new view happens every morning.
Day three’s view takes us to our first port of call, La Coruna, northern Spain. Famous for its La Estrella beer and cuisine, especially seafood, we thought it was the perfect place to do The Tapas Trail, an excursion arranged by P&O.
I felt like I was with Rick Stein on one of his Long Weekend shows, only we had Maria, who was just as knowledgeable and lovely. A walking talk through the mixture of old and new town, taking in the history and architecture, and of course the food. Stopping off at markets and restaurants, with delicious wines, cheeses, hams and seafood, along the way. Such a great introduction to our Mediterranean trip. Amazing food and a great location, this was a theme throughout our trip.
Our second stop was the vibrant city of Valencia. Lots to see here, so we put our best foot forward and took in the sights and stunning architecture of The Central Market, Palau de les Arts (opera house), Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (science museum), Jardi del Turia (river garden walk) and the cathedral.
That evening, back on board after dinner, somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea, something very special happened. Something P&O didn’t organise, or maybe they did. Cruising very slowly in very calm waters, the sun was a watercolour painting of pinks and oranges, the sea was glistening and Oscar was having his evening bottle on the warm balcony. Looking out, to the vast ocean, all you can see is water with a few ripples from the ships wave. Then, all of a sudden, we saw a fin, up pops another and another. A school of dolphins. They like to bask in the fizz of the wake of the ship apparently, like us enjoying a Jacuzzi. It felt very special in the middle of our holiday and definitely one to remember.
Toulon, France, was the next stop before heading back to Spain. It was a really nice way to discover the small seaside town on our own. We stumbled across what we wanted, in just a short walk. A lovely French cheese and wine lunch from a food hall, and taking in the sandy beach walks was a great contrast to bustling Valencia.
Back on board we explored more of what Britannia had to offer, and being a family-friendly ship it has The Reef children’s club. There are various age groups with action-packed programmes. Oscar was a little too young to join the clubs, starting from two years old, but from what we could see, The Splashers (two to four), The Surfers (five to eight) and The Scubas (nine to 12) were all having a great time, reporting to the reef ranger as they entered. There is also the H20 club for 13 to 17 year olds to hang out and make friends.
Oscar did, however, make use of the nursery on board, equipped with all sorts of soft play and interactive toys. There is also a large shaded area outside, with a play area and a couple of splash pools to cool little ones down.
If you don’t have young ones on board, you can make use of the four pools and whirlpool spas, or completely shut yourself off from children in the adults-only part of the ship The Retreat. You could treat yourself to something in the spa and salon or the steam room and hydrotherapy suite. There is also a fully equipped gym, if you wanted to work off last night’s five-course meal, or you could get active in one of the dance or fitness classes.
Barcelona next up and this was an overnight stay. Great for taking in some excellent bars and restaurants and having a bit more time to explore this feel-good city. From stunning beaches, buzzing nightlife, wondrous architecture and of course Barcelona’s crown jewel, the work of Antoni Gaudí La Sagrada Familia and the Park Güell featuring peaceful greens, winding paths and many sculptures and mosaics of some of his work, home to officially the longest bench in the world.
Just when you thought food couldn’t get any better, with tapas and sangria, sailing away, heading for our final port of call at Cadiz, we were booked in one of Britannia’s signatures restaurants, Sindhu. Nestled away on Deck 7, don’t think this is your normal Indian takeaway jobby. It is more fine dining Anglo Indian. Small plates bursting with flavour, the restaurant was set up by a previous food hero Atul Kochhar. So good, we rebooked for our last night a few days later.
Talking about food heroes, if you didn’t know, P&O have a group of chefs and experts that not only work with P&O chefs to create menus, such as Marco Pierre White’s Celebration menu we experienced on one of the ships Black Tie Nights, but there are specific cruises that welcome them aboard. They do live demos, talks and tastings where you can meet these famous foodies.
On our cruise, we welcomed Olly Smith, Saturday Kitchen’s resident drinks expert, on board for our last week. You could hear people chatting by the pool about his talks and the tips and tricks he was sharing.
I was lucky enough to get on one of his wine tastings and learnt so much. He’s such a lovely guy, and he totally gets the historic hype and traditions about wine that may be a bit outdated, and that people may have tighter budgets.
For our wine tasting, he picked his favourites, which is what I love, an expert who says these are great wines, try these. And this is exactly what Glasshouse, Olly’s bar on board, does. There aren’t your £50-plus wines, but there are some really great wines at affordable prices. It’s about what people like, not what’s frowned upon by others. If you want to add lemonade, or ice on a summer’s afternoon, do that, you heard it from the expert.
His knowledge and passion is outstanding. If you have a question or were asking for a recommendation, he not only gives you the wine, he gives you the price, and tells you cheapest shop to go to. With his descriptions and analogies, like describing the last red on the list as the inside of roast beef, I totally get what he meant. Such a great opportunity to get to meet him. He’s one of P&O’s food heroes and now I think he might be one of mine.
On to our last stop-off at Cadiz before making our way back to Southampton. Again, a contrast to the larger cities, the small Bay of Cadiz is accessible and walkable. The old town’s quirky streets made for an unusual little place.
So much to talk about, so few words. This holiday was action-packed, but also with a lot of relaxing at the same time. Well, as much down time as you can get chasing a one-year-old! I can’t wait until I’m back out on the open waves.