From quoits to bungee jumping, P&O's newest superliner, Ventura, offers a taste of Britain Noughties style, as it takes in the hotspots of the Mediterranean
Some cruise lines do 'intimate', some do 'adventure', some do 'child-free', but P&O is the very best at doing 'British'. The Ventura is P&O's newest liner, and, as such, was hailed as ‘the superliner designed for Britain’ on its launch in 2008. If cruising is about seeing as many different places as possible without having to unpack your suitcase more than once, the Ventura offers a reassuring reminder of home while you do so.
As the ship set sail from Southampton, at the start of a 14-day 'Riviera Romance/Tate Modern' cruise of the Mediterranean, the band on board played Rule Britannia as passengers waved little Union Jack flags. It's at times like this that a rendition of Rod Stewart's Sailing can bring a patriotic tear to a person's eye.
The Ventura offers a vision of nautical Britain for the new illennium - where it rules the waves with nightly cabaret shows, comedy acts and guest speakers (on my trip, the guest lecturers were from Tate Modern). One of six ships in the P&O cruise fleet, it comes with numerous 'wow factor' facts and figures - at 290 metres long, it's the length of three football pitches, and its walls are graced with more than £1 million worth of specially-commissioned art.
On board, it's hard not to get lulled into cruise life. The most pressing decisions you'll have to make are choosing whether to opt for Freedom Dining (which allows you to eat at a time of your choice) or Club Dining (with reserved seating at the same time, with the same dining companions, each night) and which shore excursions to take.
A magazine, Horizon, is delivered to your cabin every evening, with details of the following day’s port of call, the weather, the suggested dress code for the evening meal and a full itinerary of what’s-on-where on board - from gentle games of deck quoits to high-energy bungee trampolining. Yes, a bungee-trampoline - this is cruising 21st-century style, after all. While the afternoon bridge sessions are still on offer, you can now choose between them and circus skill workshops in the Cirque Ventura.
Booking shore excursions was a cinch too, courtesy of a special area on board, making life that little bit easier yet again, and that little bit harder to eventually adjust back to reality.
If you choose a cabin with a balcony, you don't even need to worry about finding a lounger beside the pool or mingling with your fellow passengers (approximately 3,574 of them in 1546 cabins - this is a big ship). As well as an art gallery, gym, beauty salon, casino, library, nightclub, spa, cyber centre, five pools and a two-tier theatre over 15 decks, there are also 11 places to eat and 10 venues in which to enjoy a pint.
With all the razzle dazzle of the ship itself to take in during the first few days, you sometimes forget about the ports of call. On a two-week cruise, these were numerous enough to provide a good overview of the Med's hot-spots, with plenty of variety in terms of culture and scenery.
Portugal's capital, Lisbon, with its quirky neighbourhoods surrounding the centre, and Gaudi's architectural playground, Barcelona, with its bustling Ramblas and maze of narrow medieval passages, were two highlights. Glam, sexy Cannes in the South of France, and Palma, Mallorca, provided the 'bling' factor, although Vigo, an historic Spanish port in the Galician countryside, wasn't seen at its best, given that we docked there on a Sunday when the shops and a lot of the restaurants were closed.
Civitavecchia in Italy is a pretty enough place in its own right, but, for most passengers, this 'gateway to Rome' was simply the place to board a tour bus and head off for a tour of the Eternal City. Ajaccio in Corsica, renowned as the birth place of Napoleon, was suitably French, while, for a taste of home (literally, in the form of an M&S, British pubs and shops that accept sterling as well as euros) there was Gibraltar - a little bit of Brit in the Med.
Back on board, children are kept occupied with a kid's club and five different areas for youngsters, depending on their age (from the under-twos to 17-year-olds). Children and teens can also enjoy dedicated film shows, scavenger hunts, drama workshops and ‘Rock School’ events. Noddy character breakfasts for the youngest passengers even featured the pointy-hatted resident of Toytown himself.
Adults on board can be as active or as relaxed as they like (I mostly chose the latter option, as there were numerous different cocktails to get through after all, and I take my investigative journalism very seriously.)
Naturally, there's a 'full-English' option for breakfast each morning, but it's not all pie and mash at mealtime - in fact, dining onboard Ventura is pleasingly global in scope. As well as the 24-hour self service buffet, there's an 'Asian fusion' restaurant, East, and the ship's signature fine dining restaurant, The White Room, from celebrity chef Marco Pierre White.
What pleased me most was the availability of healthy food onboard, and if you're vegan, vegetarian, on a kosher or gluten- or dairy-free diet, they can cater for that too. Both The Beach House and Frankie's Grill and Pizzeria offer casual dining for families, while The Waterside provides buffets with a 'seaside chic' ambience. Then there's The Ramblas, the ship's tapas/wine bar. Most of the food is also inclusive, apart from drinks. Just a few venues, including The White Room and East, involve an additional, but reasonable, charge.
Tour operators offering cruises on Ventura include: P&O Cruises, Virgin Holidays Cruises, Thomson and Thomas Cook.
Where to stay pre-cruise: the De Vere Grand Harbour Hotel is the premier hotel in Southampton, is in a great location and is very popular with pre-cruisers.