When P&O Cruises first announced that they would be launching a cruise ship called Iona, she was promised to be the ‘start of a new era in travel’.
She cost £700 million pounds to build and expectations were definitely high.
P&O Cruises have been sailing since the 1970s, Iona was designed to be dramatically different from anything P&O had done before.
Building Iona was a bold and brave choice for P&O but what I wanted to know was, did the risk pay off?
I’ve just disembarked a week-long cruise on Iona and although I thought I knew P&O cruises pretty well before the cruise, this cruise showed me things I’d never have expected from P&O.
Iona Was Meant to Launch in 2020
Iona had just been built and was completing her sea trial tests in March of 2020. Not the best timing in hindsight but that was just bad luck.
She was delivered to P&O in October of 2020 and at this point, we still hoped that the pandemic would be over soon so that cruising would resume but it wasn’t until August of 2021 that Iona finally completed her maiden voyage.
Anticipation for the ship had been building up over this time and there was definitely some level of anxiety about the changes that P&O were making compared to their traditional cruising history.
On one hand, we had families and younger people very excited to try Iona’s more flexible approach to cruising and on the other, we had traditional P&O cruisers who had been loyal to the brand for years, wondering if they would enjoy a cruise on a Megaship like Iona.
Why Did I Book a Cruise on Iona?
I was originally meant to cruise on Iona in January of 2021 and I was gutted when that didn’t happen. I knew that I had to get on board the ship to try her for myself, so I booked a very cheap week-long cruise to Northern Europe.
I booked the cruise with my brother and we paid £439 ($600) each for the 7-night cruise including gratuities.
For that price, I didn’t go into this cruise with huge expectations.
A number of my friends and fellow YouTubers had been on Iona before me and I had seen mixed reviews about the ship and cruises online but I knew I had to try it for myself.
Most cruise ships do have a few issues when they first launch.
Embarkation Was Easy, Despite The Paperwork
The embarkation process was very easy, we went through a drive-through Covid testing centre at Southampton port, waited a while for our car parking and for our Covid results, and then when we had our negative results, we went into the cruise terminal.
Like most cruises at the moment, we did need quite a bit of paperwork to embark, I had been in Spain the week before and when I told the lady at check-in this she looked concerned and said that she would have to speak to a manager.
I’d read P&O’s terms and conditions inside out to make sure that it was okay for me to board but I was still nervous while I stood there, until I stepped onto the ship I didn’t let myself get too excited.
The manager came over to us and we explained where we had been and that we had had a PCR test since getting back to the UK.
It was okay and we did get our ‘OK to board’ stamp but those few seconds were tense.
When We First Embarked Things Were a Little Different
Normally when you embark on a cruise ship you just wander off and do whatever you’d like to do, for most people they’ll either head to their cabin or to get a drink or food depending on the time of day.
Our boarding time wasn’t until after 3 pm and when we embarked Iona things were a little different, we weren’t given our cruise cards before we embarking the ship and we were sent straight to our muster station with a piece of paper to have our QR code scanned.
Our Muster Drill was ‘Virtual’
It’s a legal requirement that everybody embarking on a cruise ship has a safety drill and pre-Covid, this usually meant watching safety videos at what is called your muster station.
Believe it or not, we did all used to stand together in big groups, sometimes out on the promenade deck.
Due to social distancing, this is no longer the case and you usually visit your muster station, then watch the videos in your cabin. This is what happened on our P&O cruise.
To learn more about how muster drills work now, check out this post: Muster Drills Have Changed For The Better (REVIEW of New After Covid Process)
After scanning our QR code we began the long walk to our cabin.
How Big is P&O’s Iona?
Iona is a big ship and I did know that before I booked the cruise, I don’t think until you’re really on board though, it’s possible to get an idea of scale.
The last couple of cruises I’ve been on have been on ships half the size of Iona and until I was walking down the corridor to get to my cabin, I didn’t truly appreciate how huge Iona is.
For those who know about tonnage, she’s roughly 180,000 gross tons and that means she can hold over 5200 passengers at a time with 1700 crew members.
She’s around 4x the size of the Titanic. To learn how other modern cruise ships compare to Titanic, check out this post: Titanic vs a Modern Cruise Ship Fleet – Comparison with Photos!
Iona is designed with her size in mind meaning that there are LOTS of maps around and signs.
They also have a cool feature where the colour of the artwork on the stairs tells you where you are. These were blue at the front of the ship, grey in the middle, and red at the back.
That’s the kind of detail I like on a ship, and it makes a big difference to me, I have no sense of direction.
We Booked The Cheapest Cabin Available
We booked the cheapest cabin available which is a guaranteed inside cabin, this meant that we didn’t pick our cabin location and it was assigned to us.
Our cabin was cabin 11115 and it was right at the back of the ship. As in, there were no inside cabins further back than us.
I loved having the cabin number 11115 as it was really easy to remember our room number, we did have to tell it to quite a lot of people on the cruise, when checking in for shows or meals, but more about how that works later.
Being at the back was also great for me because that was where the buffet was.
I’m a firm believer in the idea that you don’t need to spend a lot of money on your cabin to enjoy a cruise. I hate the idea that somebody might be put off of trying a cruise because they feel as though they ‘need’ the money for a balcony. Inside cabins are totally fine.
Our Cruise Cards Were Left Outside Our Cabin
Our cruise cards were in an envelope outside of our cabin door and there are a few cruise lines that do embarkation like this.
I often hear the argument ‘what if somebody takes the card and gets into your room’. Well if they did before I got there then they’ll just be in an empty room, so not sure why they’d want to do that. If they’re on the cruise, they have their own room.
Our inside cabin was great and we were very comfortable here for the week.
P&O Clean The Cabins Once Per Day
We watched the safety drill videos on our TV and our room steward introduced herself to us. She explained that our room would only be cleaned once a day instead of the two times a day that P&O used to offer.
To be honest that suited me perfectly.
I try to keep my cabin as tidy as possible and apart from needing extra towels occasionally or needing more toilet rolls I really don’t need my room serviced twice per day.
I usually feel bad that the cabin steward has made my bed in the morning, I’ve climbed in there again in the afternoon and then they make it again in the evening, so at least I didn’t have to worry about that.
Our First Exploration of The Ship Was Exciting
After completing our muster drill we went to explore the ship.
Personally, this is probably my favourite part of a cruise, the part where you run around the ship excitedly just trying to take everything in. It can feel a little overwhelming, especially on a big ship like Iona but that’s part of the fun for me.
First, we went straight to Iona’s SkyDome.
The SkyDome is the thing that sets Iona apart from other cruise ships and although there is a swimming pool in the dome, the space was used for so much more than swimming.
Iona is Great For Swimming!
Iona has 4 swimming pools and 16 whirlpools with what felt like thousands of seats outside.
Iona is one of the very few cruise ships that is designed with cold weather in mind. There is still plenty of seating outside, but even if that isn’t being used, there are inside alternatives for everybody.
Most weren’t used during our cruise because it was pretty chilly but the sun did come out at one point and everybody flocked to the sunny side of the ship.
If you’re from somewhere cold you’ll know what it’s like to need to soak up the sunshine as soon as it appears.
Our cruise was sailing at a little over 65% capacity and only time will tell how she will feel at 100% capacity. I am going to get the chance to find out though, more about that later.
Iona also has a 4 screen cinema!
What Was The SkyDome Used For? – Taste 360 Review
The SkyDome is used as a pool in the day and you’ll find bars here too with a place to grab food called Taste 360.
Taste 360 serves your typical poolside grill type of food, pizza, burgers, chips, that kind of thing.
They also have veggie burgers which was great for me and everything was always freshly cooked so it was really hot and tasty.
I hoped that the food on the rest of the ship would live up to the quality of the poolside grill!
Those chips were perfect.
Whenever we sat here, we would have a waiter with us within minutes to get us a drink and we always found the service to be great. Helped I’m sure by the reduced capacity.
After a while, our minds started to turn to dinner, as they often do!
We Had to Book Most Things on P&O’s App
Speaking to other people on the cruise, one thing that seemed to divide opinions was how almost all of the restaurants had to be booked in advance on the app.
This wasn’t a problem for us at all, but I know how some people don’t like to use their phones when cruising.
I like to eat early, around 6pm and this definitely helped me to be able to book the restaurants I wanted on the days that I wanted. If you were cruising as a larger group, or wanted to eat later in the evening, it may be tricker to get bookings.
With over 3000 people on our cruise though, I understood the need for the booking of the restaurants.
It’s just something to keep in mind. The booking of restaurants isn’t so much of a ‘P&O thing’ as it is a ‘large ship thing’.
Lots of ‘mega ships’ of this size require bookings to be made ahead of time.
There are LOTS of Included Dining Options
We tried our best to try as many restaurants on board as we could.
Iona has 3 ‘main’ restaurants where bookings ahead of time weren’t required. Instead of going to the restaurant and standing in the queue to get a table you could instead join the ‘virtual queue’ on your phone.
You’d tell it how many people you wanted a table for and if you needed a wheelchair space, you’d then have to keep your phone on that page and it would tell you when your table was ready.
We never had to wait more than 5 minutes for our table to be ready and then at that point they would hold the table for 15 minutes.
We would be getting ready for dinner in the cabin, join the virtual queue and then just head to the restaurant when it was ready which was great.
I’ve got to be honest I did find the dining options and having to book/virtual queue for things a little overwhelming when I first got on board.
I’ve cruised a lot so I had some idea of how cruise ship dining worked but if you were new to cruise, or somebody who was used to cruising with a fixed table and dining time each night, it could get confusing and you could end up missing things.
P&O did have lots of information in the cabins about how everything worked onboard but I’m definitely one of those people who just tries things and works things out as I go.
An overwhelming amount of choice is somethings just something that comes with cruising on such a big ship.
P&O’s App Worked Well But Had a Few Features Missing
P&O cruises app wasn’t really an app that you have to download to your phone it’s more just a webpage that you have to load.
To use the app you have to be connected to the WiFi but don’t have to pay to use the WiFi in order to use the app. You’ve just got to be connected so that the ship can send you the information.
Overall it worked pretty well but did miss a few key things like the opening times of restaurants and the daily schedule.
Theatre Shows Also Had to be Booked
It wasn’t just the dining options that had to be booked ahead of time, all theatre shows did too.
Capacity in the theatres was reduced slightly for social distancing and we had to wear masks while watching the show. No drinks were allowed in the theatre at any point.
My last cruise was with Marella where they hand you a drink as you walk into the theatre so that did take a little getting used to, but not the end of the world.
I booked the main couple of theatre shows before we embarked the cruise, if you are travelling as part of a big group it might be worth doing this.
Each show was on 3x a night and most shows would be repeated two days in a row. I’m not exactly sure on the capacity of the theatre but it was quite big, that said with 5200 potential guests they need to make sure that everybody has a chance to see every show.
Sometimes we would just book the shows 10 or so minutes before we went to the theatre which usually worked.
On one evening we wanted to see the 8.30 show but it was sold out so I booked the later show.
It got to around 8 pm, we were in a lounge and we were in the theatre mood so I decided to try and cancel my later booking and book the earlier show hoping that somebody had cancelled since I first tried.
When I asked my brother if I should try he said ‘well you can…’ clearly not thinking it would work. But it did!
You can cancel and book the theatre shows at any time if you decide you don’t want to go or your plans change.
I assume that at some point before the show they release the spaces of those that haven’t shown up and let in people without a booking.
The Theatre Shows Were Great
When we were on board Iona there were two main theatre shows, Festivals and Centre Stage.
The team of dancers and singers were amazing and both shows were great. P&O made good use of the theatre space and I enjoyed the shows a lot. I’m a very visual person
I like to see bright colours and costume changes and Iona’s shows had a lot of that, plus songs I liked and knew!
We also watched a comedian in the theatre and went to a couple of presentations about satellites and space, both very interesting!
I usually like to go to the theatre each evening but because Iona is large and the shows are repeated two days in a row this isn’t really how a typical day onboard ended up working for us.
What was great was that there were also shows held in the SkyDome. These would be acrobatic shows and the dome made the most amazing setting.
The SkyDome Was a Popular Evening Venue With Incredible Shows
The dome had lights on it, lasers, smoke, you name it.
Most nights we would either go to the theatre, or we would go and see the dome show. They would also have live music in the dome, like the brilliant band She or the equally brilliant house band called Pulse.
We listened to a rock music show amongst a few other things.
For the main acrobatic dome shows it was pretty tricky to get a seat if you arrived with less than about 20 minutes to spare.
We usually just stood which was totally fine, the shows weren’t long, but if you do need a seat, get there early.
There was lots and lots and lots of live music around the ship with each show being repeated multiple times.
Covid rules meant that nobody could dance on the dancefloor but they could dance by their seats on the carpet, and they did!
Mask Wearing Was Compulsory if Singing Karaoke!
We went to karaoke one night and the person singing had to wear a mask which I thought was a little odd.
Masks have to be worn when walking around but not when seated in a restaurant or bar so nobody in the audience was wearing a mask and we were all singing along too.
The singers did a great job singing through their masks though and I guess it’s just to prevent spray singing? You’d have thought they could just put them behind a screen though or disinfect the microphone.
Oh well, it was good fun anyway.
Our Itinerary Changed – As They Often Do
When I booked our cruise we were meant to be visiting Hamburg, Rotterdam and Bruges.
It was a week before the cruise that I got the email saying that Hamburg has been replaced with Le Havre. For those of you who don’t know, Le Havre is the port that’s usually referred to as the ‘gateway to Paris’ even though it’s usually a 3-hour drive away.
It was actually my agent, also called Emma who told me about the change before P&O did and although I was looking forward to going to Hamburg as I’ve never been, that wasn’t the end of the world for me.
I was mostly looking forward to cruising on Iona.
If you’d like to book a cruise through me, and my fabulous agent Emna, you can do so by filling out our booking form here: Book a Cruise.
We Didn’t Take Cruise Line Excursions
In Bruges and Rotterdam, we created our own walking tours, stopping off at the places that looked interesting like the cube houses in Rotterdam and the quaint little streets of Bruges.
It’s really easy to wander around Bruges and Rotterdam and our main priority was just trying to walk when it wasn’t raining. We did 20k+ steps per day and really enjoyed it.
I even found the world’s biggest Pepsi Max which is my favourite drink.
I didn’t know what we would do in the port is Le Havre though, I definitely wasn’t going to spend 3 hours each way on a bus to Paris. I’ve been to Paris so I knew I’d stay close by.
We Spent a Lot of Time in The Main Atrium
After walking 20k+ steps in port whenever I came back into the ship I would be desperate for a drink.
The main atrium area of Iona is this huge area that is split over multiple levels with two staircases in the middle.
The glass windows are on both sides and we spent quite a lot of time here with a drink just sitting and watching the world go by.
P&O’s Drinks Packages Aren’t Great Value (For Most People)
I have to say, I think P&O have some of the worst value drinks packages on the market and for most people, it makes more sense to pay as you go.
That said the prices on board were really pretty good, a Pepsi cost less than it does in my local pub. Not only that but it was proper Pepsi and as the waiters always asked if we wanted ice, we always said no.
Here in the UK, it isn’t the default to always get lots of ice in a drink in the way that it seems to be in the US and other countries.
It was pretty cold on this cruise away and the way I see it, if I’m paying for a glass I’d much prefer it to be full of Pepsi than half full of ice which just hits me on the nose and gets annoying.
Don’t get me wrong, if I’m cruising on the Caribbean the ice is much appreciated but on a northern Europe cruise in October, no thanks! Let me know if you’re on team ice, or team no ice in the comments.
They did have both Pepsi and coke to keep everybody happy.
Also in the atrium, there is a Costa Coffee and a restaurant called the Keel and Cow which does cost extra.
The Main Dining Rooms and Buffet Weren’t The Only Included Dining Venues
As far as included food goes though, even on our 7-night cruise, we could have eaten in a different place every night without paying anything extra.
There are LOTS of included food restaurants.
P&O Iona’s Buffet Was Open a LOT and Served Great Food
The first and the biggest is the buffet, the buffet was open from way before I got up until 1 am in the morning and would only be closed for a few hours in between.
Lots of cruise ship buffets have long opening hours but P&O’s are extra good. The late-night snacks and late-night chocolate cake were AMAZING.
In the buffet I found the BEST Yorkshire puddings and lots and lots of roast potatoes. I couldn’t fault anything with any food item in the buffet, it was brilliant.
They even have veggie sausages for breakfast and vegan desserts! Woohoo. 10/10 from me.
There’s also tea and coffee available in the buffet all the time that it’s open at no extra charge.
P&O Provide Kettles in The Cabins!
Every cabin does come with a kettle and as I usually drink peppermint tea I took a few peppermint tea bags back to my room so that I could have tea in the mornings.
As well as having a kettle in your cabin we would also find little biscuits delivered each day.
The Quays was a Great Additional Dining Venue
An extra addition that most other cruise ships don’t have is a food court called the Quays.
This is kind of like an extra buffet but everything is made to order. We came here for pancakes for breakfast and burgers in the evenings.
This area did remind me of the food court ‘galley’ that Virgin Voyages have on their cruise ships that they are so keen to not call a buffet.
The Quays is located in the middle of the ship by the atrium and they even have a ketchup station here. I put ketchup on almost everything so this was great.
Afternoon Tea is Served in One of The 4 Main Restaurants
P&O have 4 ‘main dining’ rooms as I mentioned earlier and as far as I can tell they all served the same menu which changed each night.
There are two main dining rooms at the back of the ship which I loved and also two on the sides. We only went into the restaurants on the sides for afternoon tea in true British style.
Afternoon tea was a little strange because you didn’t order any food like you usually would, you still got food of course but it would just arrive.
This meant that anything we didn’t eat would be thrown away which seemed like a waste but really it would just be mushed up and released as fish food so any cakes I didn’t eat were just dessert for a lucky fish.
P&O Are Great For Vegetarians and Vegans
The food in the main dining rooms was always good and there were lots of vegetarian options.
P&O are one of the best cruise lines I’ve found when it comes to vegan dining with a vegan starter, main and dessert on every menu.
The Dress Code on P&O Cruises is Quite Strict
P&O have fairly strict dress codes compared to some other cruise lines but the dress codes mostly apply to the main dining room.
On ‘formal’ night called celebration night, most men wore a suit or at least a shirt and tie, you could probably get away with just a shirt though, maybe.
On non-formal nights the dress code is casual but you’re not meant to wear trainers, hoodies or light jeans in the dining room.
In reality, as long as you don’t look scruffy and don’t have big logos all over your clothes I don’t think anybody would mind.
If you do want to dress up though and have a prom dress or bridesmaids dress you’d like to wear you won’t feel out of place on a P&O cruise, some people went all out and looked lovely having photos taken in the main atrium.
There Were no Photographers Onboard
Interestingly there weren’t any cruise line photographers onboard for ‘Covid reasons’.
Not too sure why Covid means P&O can’t have photographers as most other cruise lines have managed it since but it doesn’t bother me, I quite liked the prime photo spots not being taken up by photographers.
We ate in The Beach House and Olive Grove Restaurants
There’s also the Beach House and Olive Grove restaurants which are both included in our cruise fare on Iona.
Both have to be booked in advance and made sure we went to both.
The beach house served south American food and it usually costs extra on other ships but was free on Iona for our cruise, I suspect it will cost extra on Iona soon though, but it was never very expensive.
The Olive Grove restaurant is Mediterranean. I had a pizza in the Olive Grove which wasn’t Princess cruises Alfredo’s standard, but all in all the food was really good.
I Had a Decision to Make
As the cruise went on I was thinking more about the price I’d paid and the experience I was having.
I knew that I had other family members that I’d left at home that would enjoy the cruise so I did start a bit of cruise planning, while on the cruise.
Something I’ve never done before.
In Le Havre we Saw a Boat Show (By Accident)
When we visited Le Havre we were treated to what I can only describe as a boat show, but by accident.
We planned to walk into Le Havre just really to get some fresh air and stretch our legs but when we got to the main bridge the road was closed. The bridge was open to let in boats and we sat there for about 45 minutes, with other passengers, waiting for the boats to go by so that we could go over the bridge.
It turns out that a big boat race was due to leave Le Havre the next day so there were TV crews there and all kinds of people.
It was pretty cool to see but not what I had planned when I got off the ship.
We did have sunshine in Le Havre though which was amazing. We spent the rest of the day having drinks by the pool or wandering around the promenade deck.
Iona has a LOT of promenade deck space with infinity whirlpools and other things.
P&O’s Iona Has Some STRANGE Cabins on The Promenade Deck
It’s here on the promenade deck that you’ll find a group of balcony cabins with a very strange design.
The balcony cabins sit just above the promenade deck so when sitting out on your balcony you’d almost be sitting with the people on the promenade deck.
You’re also a long long way from the edge of the ship and when walking by you can see into these cabins quite easily, not sure who designed these cabins but I would try to avoid them if cruising on Iona. Very strange!
The Ship Felt Clean and Modern
The non-restaurant areas on the ship were also lovely.
My brother described the aesthetic as being that of a ‘nice hotel’ and I think I agree. There was lots of marble, sparkles, and clean lines which I liked.
There were lots of nice little touches like cushions and fabrics which made the ship feel quite expensive.
We Visited The Pub Most Days
Even the pub was nice and we did trivia in here most days. It definitely had some sort of nice Wetherspoons vibes, but without the stickiness, you usually get in Wetherspoons.
It was great for me that the trivia was so British, I often get confused on American cruise lines as the questions are very US-based but on Iona, there was even a question about Coronation Street!
Can You Book a P&O Cruise From Outside The UK?
Guests from outside the UK can and do cruise with P&O and the easiest way seems to be to book through VacationsToGo.
My friends Sean and Stef came over to the UK a few years ago and took two P&O cruises which they loved. It was so funny for me to watch my American friends discover British things on their P&O cruise. You can watch videos of their P&O cruises on their channel here: Sean and Stef IRL
I Rebooked Iona, while Onboard
When onboard I actually booked another cruise on Iona and I really think that is the highest praise I can give to a ship.
Not only because I’ve booked it again but also because I’m going to be bringing 8 family members with me including my 2 nieces who haven’t ever cruised before.
For 2 adults and 2 children in a balcony for a week was only £1500 ($2000) and for me in my inside cabin was only £385 ($525). It’s impossible to argue with that price, it includes gratuities too!
I only hope that Iona lives up to what I’ve promised and that the increase in capacity won’t change things too much.
The cruises sails from my local port which makes everything a lot easier, my last cruise was a fly cruise, and as amazing as it was to get out of the UK, it wasn’t without it’s problems.
To find why I nearly got stranded in Spain and how that cruise went, check out this video next.