On Wednesday 26 February, 2014 Jenny, Siobhan and I caught the 9pm from Sydney to Southampton. Armed with passports, new ID cards and a clutch of vaccination certificates (I swear, some cost more than the diseases they were meant to protect) we boarded the P&O liner Arcadia, 83,700 tons of reinforced steel with the odd timber and plastic veneer. We joined a precious cargo of 2000-strong mostly superannuated clientele (adults only!) all keenly anticipating 46 days of discovery, adventure and luxury.
Of particular interest was finding out how things had changed since I was an Assistant Purser on the Shaw Savill liner Northern Star 50 years ago. The main change, of course, can be attributed to the development of the computer. With it a ship can be steered with the minimum of fuss (look ma no hands), communications are immeasurably quickened, the stage and lighting in the principal performing venue can be changed and configured at the press of a button, the reception staff can keep track of your spending patterns etc. etc.
There are so many other innovations, especially in the entertaining and restaurant departments. Portholes in your cabins, (sorry…staterooms) are out, replaced by small balconies from which you can view the world go by at 15 to 20 knots. Television screens take pride of place and movies, sitcoms and in-house programmes are shown 24 hours a day. Alas, Australians are not well catered for (despite representing more than a quarter of the passenger complement at all times) and NRL or AFL games miss out, as is any likelihood of down-under news. The exception proved to be when the search for flight MH370 was in full flight and pre-budget (pre-winking?) Tony Abbott made cameo appearances spruiking the latest, now abandoned, underwater search attempts.
The number of public rooms is breathtaking. They take up the length of a lower deck. Stretching from the Meridian restaurant aft, through to several bars (including a pub amidships) and a casino, they extend forward to the principal performing venue (Palladium Theatre seating approximately 700 people) which caters to a nightly dose of cabaret acts. Among the usual itinerant suspects were jazz soloists, singers galore (including an excellent Tongan tenor), comedians, magicians and a clever young ventriloquist called Gareth Oliver who performed without a dummy but used his wife to project his voice and vice-versa. A troupe of resident song-and-dance entertainers also perform at regular intervals.
Besides the usual pastimes of table-tennis, quoits and deck cricket, quizzes are held almost nightly with victory invariably claimed by the same cliques. They were obviously more knowledgeable than us especially when most questions were geared to the British majority. Drinks, by the way, are not cheap. No cash changes hands, all being tabulated by use of an ID card (as with other purchases on board) and transmitted to the reception staff (the old Pursers’ Bureau – if you can recall that far). When in port the card also records your departures and arrivals on the ship and also serves to open your stateroom door – when the magnetic strip works. It can be temperamental.
The majority of the crew are either waiters or stewards. Most come from India or the Philippines and all are exceptionally obliging. Our cabin steward was a Filippina and her talents extended to making facsimile bulldogs out of bath towels. Occasionally she’d pull a rabbit out of the towelling. Alas, the laundry facilities are inadequate. There are only 12 machines, spread over three decks, and the ship’s official laundry is expensive. Arm yourself with a washing line and wash your smalls in the bathroom. Alternatively chuck everything overboard and eventually they’ll get washed ashore! I’m joking, of course! Also expensive is the wi-fi provided; that too can be temperamental and quite hair-thinning.
The waiters are obviously encouraged to be friendly with passengers, a few becoming chummy by the time we disembarked. They quickly discover your personal interests and are more than willing to discuss them. We received wonderful service everywhere especially at the pub which we frequented if there was a quiz or a karaoke in the offing. In the restaurant each table is allocated 2 waiters who are also responsible for two other tables. The only time you are assigned a set time and table in the two-tiered Meridian Restaurant is at dinner although, as at breakfast and lunch times, you can opt to be adventurous and be seated on an ad hoc basis in the second tier. There is a 24-hour buffet restaurant on an upper deck flanked by 2 open-air swimming pools, one with a retractable roof. Lunch is also served daily at poolside.
Classical music is not well catered for. Classical duos perform in the Crows Nest Bar (a wonderful vantage point sitting above the bridge) but the times coincide with what would normally be siesta time. There are, however, several musical groups doing their thing somewhere on the ship at most times of the day. The cinema, by the way, caters for only 30 viewers and booking is recommended. The shop and library are on the same deck. There is also a shore excursion office in the reception area.
I’ll leave you with an incident that occurred on the ship’s lift. Ventriloquist Gareth Oliver was present as the captain was making his daily announcement. Quick as a flash, he pointed to the loudspeakers and, with a twinkle in his eye, said: “Clever aren’t I?”
PS..We did our trip between February and April 2014. Things may have changed (like cruises are few and far between these days) but everything I described actually occurred. Cheers.