Have you ever wondered why tradition dictates that we smash a bottle of Champagne against the hull of a ship when we name her? You may be surprised to learn that it was the indirect result of a cost cutting exercise by the Royal Navy (which just goes to show that the more things change, the more they stay the same!). Ceremonies of some sort when vessels are launched, to request the safety of those who sail on them, have been around as long as humans have been fashioning boats. Although ceremonies were initially religious, after the Reformation members of the royal family would typically come aboard, take a ceremonial sip of wine from the ship’s standing cup (a large, ornate and expensive goblet usually made of silver) before throwing the rest of the contents across the deck or bow. The cup was then thrown overboard to be caught and kept by a lucky spectator. As the cups were expensive, this practice was ended by the Royal Navy in the 17the century when the cup was replaced by a bottle of wine and later Champagne to be smashed against the bow. And I had never actually seen such a ceremony in person, until a couple of weeks ago when I went to Southampton to watch Queen Elizabeth name Britannia, Britain’s newest and largest cruise ship.
Britannia is a 143,000 ton cruise ship built for P&O Cruises – the largest ship in their current fleet. She is a massive 1082 feet long (longer than the Eiffel Tower is tall) with 17 decks and she can comfortably carry 4,372 passengers. Britannia is also very striking, with a 94 metre Union Jack painted on her bow. During her summer season, Britannia will sail to from Southampton’s impressive Cruise Terminal to the Mediterranean, Norwegian fjords, the Baltic, Canary Islands and Atlantic Islands. In winter months, the ship will sail 14-night Caribbean itineraries.
Design-wise, the brief seems to have been contemporary luxury with a strong British influence. There is nothing brash or Vegas-esque going on here – the colour palette throughout the ship runs to cool blue tones, olive greens and a soothing neutral that designers would probably call “wet beach sand”. Many design details also seem to hark back to a golden age of cruising – I was particularly taken with many of the chairs in the Blue Bar with their contrasting piping and Art Deco feel. The grand three-deck high atrium at the heart of the ship also contains a grand spiral staircase and the ship’s most talked-about design feature: the Star Burst sculpture, which extends almost the full height of the room and is illuminated with subtle red, white and blue lights after dark. I was also massively impressed with the art aboard – over 600 pieces of art were commissioned from artists around the world at multi-million Pound expense. The result is a hugely diverse and enjoyable selection of paintings and sculptures throughout the ship, often with an artist’s bio on nearby plaques.
The gorgeous painting above is “Port” by American artist Randall Stoltzfus – read more about it here.
At the time that we spent a night aboard, Britannia had not yet made her maiden voyage and we did not leave our mooring. The entire ship was pristine with new ship smell (like new car smell but a lot more of it!). Many of the speciality restaurants were not open or not serving their usual menu, and the ship was abuzz with security ahead of the Queen’s arrival for the naming ceremony (we got to meet some pretty gorgeous police sniffer dogs!). So I have chosen not to review our visit as a cruise, but rather as a first look inside this impressive ship’s amenities as well as a first-hand account of the tremendously enjoyable inaugural celebrations.
CABINS/STATEROOMS ABOARD BRITANNIA
Britannia boasts 1,837 staterooms which include 460 interior cabins (15 sqm); 1,222 balcony cabins (22-27 sqm); 92 mini-suites (26-31 sqm); and 64 premium suites (30-44 sqm). In response to customer demand, 27 single cabins (14 sqm, inside and outside) are also available, which removes the awkwardness of the single supplement. In a bold step, all outside cabins have balconies (the first P&O ship in this configuration), so no more peering through a salt-encrusted porthole!
All Britannia ship cabins feature an understated and soothing colour scheme with all the amenities you would expect from a hotel room. I was particularly impressed with the open-front walk-in style wardrobe, situated outside the bathroom and screened off from the rest of the cabin. No more fighting with sliding doors! My outside twin cabin on C-deck was surprisingly spacious for a ship (although it would have felt less so if there was another person in the cabin!). Although the cabin was set up as a twin, all cabins can be converted to a queen-sized bed and I liked that they have a special vinyl throw on the bed for luggage – no dirtying the sheets with your suitcase while you unpack. My cabin also came with air-conditioning; a 37″ flat-screen TV (for films on demand and cable/satellite programs); an original artwork above the bed; a small coffee table, armchair and desk; a safe; a fridge and coffee/tea making facilities; White Company toiletries; a good amount of storage space; and a bathroom featuring a shower with a glass screen (a departure from P&O’s traditional shower curtains), a massage shower head and a hairdryer. There were also sliding doors onto a cosy balcony, just big enough for a small table and two chairs. Room service is available (although not while we were aboard) so breakfasting or sundowners on your private balcony is definitely an option. Here’s a short video tour:
The suites, designed by Richmond International, offer an extra an extra layer of space (separate living areas, baths and extra beds) and luxury in the form of their own butler. We had a look at both a junior and a premium suite and although both were cosy by landlubber standards, I was impressed with the spacious and clever bathroom design as well as the huge wraparound balconies that some of them have, depending on where they are situated. Here, too, there was some attractive bespoke art on display – a welcome recurring theme throughout the ship.
Above two images © and courtesy of May from Eat Cook Explore
EATING AND DRINKING ABOARD BRITANNIA
Anybody who thinks that they will be bored by cruise ship dining has clearly not been aboard a ship like Britannia: she boasts a whopping twenty seven places to eat and drink, including thirteen dedicated dining venues ranging from restaurants serving the food of Michelin-starred chefs to informal pizzerias and 24-hour self-service venues serving snacks. The remaining 14 places to eat include music venues and bars. Included in every cruise package is the option to eat breakfast, lunch and a five-course dinner in one of the ship’s three gargantuan main restaurants (Oriental, Peninsular and Meridian) or the self-service restaurant Horizon on Deck 16 (loved the blue-and white nautical-themes tile walls there!). In response to customer demand, there is a move away from large communal tables at meals and many more 2-seater tables are available than before. In addition, there are also a number of speciality restaurants which can be booked as part of an additional meal package including The Epicurean (fine dining), Sindhu (Atul Kochar’s signature restaurant), The Glass House (wine, steak and seafood), The Limelight Club (modern European with live entertainment in a supperclub setting) and the Market Café (Eric Lanlard patisserie and Charlie Turbull’s cheese selection). More informal options include the Grab ‘n Go and Lido Grill beside the pool on Deck 17, or the Blue Bar, Brodies (featuring 70 British beers, ales and ciders) and the Crow’s Nest (with an impressive collection of 20 different artisan gins) for something to drink. Each venue has a quite distinctive feel and décor – it was great fun following the self-guided tour and checking out each in turn!
The only restaurants that we experienced exactly as a passenger would were Peninsular for an a la carte breakfast (tasty but plated with zero imagination); and the Market Café. Other than serving patisserie by Eric Lanlard (one of P&O’s food heroes), it also serves a rather excellent cheese selection chosen by international cheese expert Charlie Turnbull, whom I had the pleasure of interviewing. Charlie grew up on a farm, learning the importance of knowing where your food came from and that simple is best. After deciding that neither engineering nor accounting were for him, he toyed with the idea of farming. The farming idea never came to fruition, but while working with Francis Wood who farms buffalo up near Shepton Mallet and sold her cheese at London farmers’ markets, Charlie discovered a fascination for the “magical process” of cheesemaking. He became convinced that what he needed to do was establish a kind of farmers’ market outlet for cheese, but on the high street – and that is exactly what he aimed to do when he opened Turnbulls cheesemonger and deli in Shaftesbury in 2003. As one of P&O’s food heroes, Charlie will be leading cheese excursions on some of Britannia’s cruises. The idea is to visit local cheesemakers, but if there are none within reach of the port, the excursion might include visiting local cheesemongers or chefs who cook with local cheese. Charlie will also host cheese and beer pairings on selected cruises, rather than the more traditional beer and wine pairings. He told me: “Many of the cheeses I chose for Britannia are English and everybody knows that food pairs best with whatever drink is made in the same area. And what could be more English than beer?”. That said, he also waxes lyrical about pairing British cheese with Somerset Pomona apple liqueur. I was also curious what he looks for in a cheese when judging international competitions, and he listed three points: multiple/complex flavours; balance of said flavours; and length (how long the flavour lingers in your mouth). Surprisingly, with French cheese, only 20% of the total mark is down to taste – the rest of the total is composed of “breed standards” – e.g. correct shape, texture etc. And of course, the cheese fiend in me could not resist asking Charlie what his three desert island cheese would be: Quickes Cheddar, Gorgonzola dolce and Bitto (an Italian Alpine cheese made from cow and goat milk).
The cheeses at the Market Café had all been selected by Charlie, so it seemed rude not to try a platter just after I had interviewed him. Each platter comes with a generous amount of crackers and chutney – more than big enough to share. On our platter we had: Beauvale Blue from Nottinghamshire; Quicke’s cheddar; Red Leicester; Delice de Bourgogne; and Rosary Goat’s Cheese from Landford. The cheeses were all outstanding – the blue was ridiculously creamy, as was the Delice de Bourgogne (not a cheese I am familiar with) – but the highlight was surely the Red Leicester with a subtle smokiness unlike any Red Leicester I have ever tasted. Big thumbs up too for the garlic chutney – super potent but an addictive umami bomb! We also treated ourselves to some of another P&O food hero Eric Lanlard’s signature patisserie available at the Market Café. I had the St Clement chocolate cup – an unusual combination of blood orange cream, stewed apple compote, and caramel apple popcorn, all encased in a thin chocolate shell. It was rich, yet subtle and beautifully balanced – a real standout. My companions chose the berry cheesecake which was more of a mousse cake than a cheesecake but did come with a hidden centre of berry compote. The winner in the looks stakes, though, was definitely the lemon and yuzu tart with its adorable Japanese-themed chocolate garnish.
LEISURE AND ENTERTAINMENT ABOARD BRITANNIA
The chances of being bored aboard (hah!) are pretty slim. In the unlikely event that you have exhausted all the dining options, there are a wealth of other leisure options to explore. One of the major highlights of Britannia is the Cookery Club, chef James Martin’s 24-person state-of-the-art teaching kitchen where passengers will have the hands-on opportunity to learn some new cookery skills under the guidance of one of P&O’s food heroes: James Martin, Marco Pierre White, Atul Kochhar, Eric Lanlard, wine expert Olly Smith and cheese expert Charlie Turnbull. In addition, the Cookery Club will play host to other famous chefs throughout the year including Mary Berry CBE, Pierre Koffmann, Paul Rankin and Commendatore Antonio Carluccio OBE.
If you feel the need for a little exercise after all that food, never fear – you will be well catered for. Britannia boasts four pools, at least one of which is a kid-free zone (the Serenity pool). In addition, there are also outdoor Jacuzzis on the lido deck. If you are after more strenuous exercise, make your way to the spacious and well-equipped gym with its wall of treadmills, stationary bikes and Concept 2 rowing machines, all facing out to sea. There is also a free weight area, weight machines and a shiny new gym studio equipped for traditional classes as well as TRX and spinning. The only thing that I felt was missing was an outdoor jogging or walking route on the Promenade Deck. There does not appear to be any way to do a complete and uninterrupted outdoor circuit of the ship which is a great pity for those preferring to take their exercise outdoors.
If that all sounds too strenuous, you can always indulge in a bit of retail therapy (there is 660 sq ft of retail space, clustered around the central atrium); hunker down with a good book in the peace and quiet of the library or visit the largest British spa afloat featuring treatments rooms, a pool, sauna, hair and nail salon as well as offering cosmetic procedures such as Botox and fillers. Once you are all dolled up, head for the Crystal Club which has a dedicated dancefloor where you can dance the night away; or maybe visit the cinema or the state-of-the art (and huge!) Headliners Theatre for on-stage entertainment.
And don’t think that while mom and dad are catered for, the younger generation have been left out. On the contrary – the Reef Club on Deck 17 provides dedicated facilities for everyone from toddlers to teens in five age-specific clubs in dedicated rooms: Tumblers (six months to 2 years), Splashers (2-4), Surfers (5-8), Scubas (9-12) and H2O for the teens (up to 17-years-old). All rooms are hey are flooded with natural light from floor-to-ceiling windows and each area is kitted out with age-appropriate activities, from craft tables and Gameboys; to puppet shows, dress-up cupboards and X-Boxes; to squashy sofas around a TV, pool tables, a mini-disco and retro 2-player PacMan arcade games. It kind of made me wish I was a teenager again! Reef club hours are usually 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., 2 to 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 11 p.m, but parents must remain on the ship on port days if their child is at The Reef.
BRITANNIA INAUGURAL GALA DINNER
Having spent the afternoon exploring the ship, it was time to put on our party frocks and head for the gala dinner, which kicked off in the atrium with glasses of British fizz – Wiston Estate (Sussex) Brut NV to be precise. After an amusing speech from P&O ambassador Rob Brydon, guests all headed off to their assigned tables in one of the ship’s three main restaurants. I had the good fortune of sharing a table with Michelin-starred chef Nathan Outlaw and London’s favourite chocolatier, the thoroughly charming Paul A. Young. The special meal had been designed by a number of P&O’s food heroes and here’s what we had: We started with a little skewer of chicken tikka makhani masala with spiced tomato foam and kachumber salad, devised by Atul Kochar. Next up was Bourbon whisky and vanilla-cured salmon, Exmoor caviar, Morecambe Bay shrimps, picled cucumber ketchup with ginger tapioca beetroot rye crisps by James Martin. The meat course consisted of Romney saltmarsh lamb Dijonnaise with slow-cooked Madeira-infused lamb and truffled potato croustade, buttered samphire and orange-cured baby carrots by Marco-Pierre White. Our sweet course consisted of a trio of desserts: quenelle of red berry parfait en velour; a dark Maracaibo chocolate teardrop with Amarena cherry; and lemon cheesecake with Amaretti biscuits, all by Eric Lanlard. We finished with a cheeseboard selected by Charlie Turnbull, complemented by Ditty’s smoked oatcakes, fruit & nut toasts, and a glass of Pomona cider brandy.
After dinner, we were all ushered out onto the deck for a fireworks display. For a moment, I was worried that I might freeze to death in my party frock… but I hd forgotten that I was in the tender care of P&O: soft pashminas were handed out to us as we stepped outside, and so we watched the rather impressive fireworks display in warmth and comfort before heading back indoors to finish off the evening in the Crow’s Nest Bar.
BRITANNIA NAMING CEREMONY AND CELEBRATION LUNCH
After having gone to bed on a rather blustery, cold and rainy night, I was thrilled when the day of the naming ceremony dawned crisp and sunny. Apparently the weather gods had received the memo that the Queen was on her way and does not like wet feet! After a quick breakfast and a stroll around the lido deck, we disembarked and headed for the grandstand on the quay where a variety of entertainers had been rehearsing the day before. Even the most ardent republican could not deny that there was a huge buzz in the air as we grabbed our goodie bags (a warm drink in an insulated mug and a hand-warmer – could P&O get more considerate?) and headed for our seats. Proceedings kicked off with another speech from Rob Brydon, followed by an eclectic mix of royal regiment marching bands; a ballroom dancing display and my personal favourite, the Red Hot Chilli Pipers – a group of lovely Scottish blokes, resplendent in their kilts, belting out a rousing version of Don’t Stop Believing accompanied by their brass section. The happy marriage of bagpipe and trombone – who knew?
On the quayside red carpet with Paul, May and Alan – photo © and courtesy of Eat Cook Explore
I had already spotted the impressive Nebuchadnezzar of sparkling wine (English, not French – a Wiston Brut NV from Sussex) dangling on a zipwire above our heads, awaiting its moment of glory, and soon a ripple of excitement ran through the crowd as the lady who had an appointment with said bottle arrived: Queen Elizabeth, looking rather fetching in peach, accompanied by Prince Philip. After another few formalities, HRH stepped up and uttered the familiar words: “I christen this ship Britannia – may God bless her and all those who sail on her”, and with that the bottle started its one-way journey to meet the ship’s hull with an impressive crash. This was followed immediately by a veritable blizzard of red, white and blue confetti and rousing renditions of both God Save the Queen and Rule Britannia. It was a glorious reminder of just how effortless the British can make pageantry seem.
Once the Queen had departed and the confetti had settled, we made our way back on board for an inaugural lunch in the Oriental restaurant. I started with rillettes of pheasant and bacon with raisin chutney, pickled radish, brioche toasts and a shard of crisp pancetta – I found the rillettes to be too dry and lacking in the unctuous fattiness that I would have expected). This was followed by an outstanding fillet of gilthead bream with a subtle crayfish and orange chowder, vegetable pasta and sugar snap peas; and an absolute winner of a dessert: coconut, lemongrass and lime panna cotta with mango – just stellar. This was all washed down with P&O’s own-label rather excellent The Bon Viveur white Colombar-Ugni Blanc bend from Cotes de Gascone. It was with some reluctance that I had to disembark after lunch – I felt as if I was only just getting to know Britannia and now I had to leave. But I hope to be back sooner rather than later, to experience the ship at sea, as she is meant to be experienced.
The Britannia left Southampton on its maiden voyage on 15 March and will be continuously at sea for the next 5 years, cruising the Mediterranean, the Norwegian fjords and the Canary Islands in the summer; and the Caribbean in the winter. Most of Britannia’s cruises will be 7 or 12-14 night cruises but there are also a few 2-night short breaks to Guernsey or Bruges available. Many of the cruises are designated as “food hero”, meaning that one of P&O’s food heroes will be aboard to lead shore excursions and conduct classes in the cookery school. To give you an idea of pricing, a 7-night Norwegian fjord cruise in Summer 2015 starts from £799 per person sharing a balcony cabin. For more information on all of Britannia’s destinations, have a look on their website.
For other impressions of Britannia’s inaugural celebrations, have a look at May’s post and Alan’s post. If you like cruise ships, you may also want to read my comprehensive review of the Celebrity Reflection.
DISCLOSURE: I attended the Britannia inaugural celebrations as a guest of P&O Cruises but received no further remuneration. I was not required to write a positive review and retained full editorial control.