Cruise Ship Review: P&O Britannia

Cool Britannia!

P&O Cruises Britannia is the best of modern Britain.

By Sharon Kenny

As my taxi approached the Southampton dock I saw the billboard, “Britannia Waives the Rules,” a clever play on the chorus of a rousing English patriotic song, “Rule Britannia, Britannia Rules the Waves.” This will be interesting, I thought. What rules are we going to waive, Britannia?

As it turns out — lots. P&O Cruises’ Britannia embodies a new British spirit and a modern British culture. And it was very appropriate, in the eyes of David Dingle, chairman of Carnival UK, that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was there to christen this grand ship in her homeport of Southampton on March 10, 2015.

Britannia is an overt celebration of Britain,” says Dingle.” It’s been 20 years since the Queen named Oriana, P&O’s first purpose-built British cruise ship, which effectively launched the growth of the modern British cruise industry and parted the waves for Britannia.

Sophisticated Style

Rule number one that Britannia breaks is her unabashed sense of pride. Britannia is a celebration of all things British, starting with her livery. Unlike the understated P&O livery on past ships, Britannia’s hull features the biggest representation of the British flag in the world, painted bright and bold at 93 meters in length (308 feet). The elongated swish of the Union Jack proudly and unequivocally evokes a sense of speed, modernity, and style.

That modern sophisticated style continued as I stepped on board. Rule number two broken? No tweedy traditional here. For the first time, P&O employed an outside firm to completely design Britannia’s interior. Richmond International, known for designing luxury hotels, has created an interior that is at times glamorous and stunning with a nod to the Art Deco period, but always elegant and welcoming.

The stunning part begins in the atrium, the three-story heart of the ship where a strikingly beautiful starburst of color and light is the centerpiece that soars nearly eight meters (26 feet) down from the upper deck. The Star Burst sculpture, created by British-based Jona Hoad Design, takes its inspiration from the night stars that ships traditionally used to navigate the world’s oceans. It’s a changeable living sculpture composed of 280 acrylic shards that dominate the space, command attention, and evoke that same sense of speed and movement as the livery on the ship’s hull.

It also does what successful public art can do, creates excitement and wonder, but also a sense of place, a landmark around which people gather informally or rendezvous with their traveling companions. “Let’s meet at the starburst,” I mentioned to my friends as we set out in different directions. Wisely, the atrium area is surrounded by cafés and bars and is also the shopping center of the ship.

Art and Décor

As I always do on any new ship, I walked every deck and explored every space, marveling at the glorious collection of unique artwork throughout the ship. The wide-ranging and sometimes surprisingly contemporary and daring collection ranged from sculpture to ceramics to metalwork and felt like a well-curated gallery of mostly British artists.

At every turn I was struck by how inviting and luxurious the furnishings were in all public areas. Lushly upholstered chairs in intimate groupings throughout the ship created an engaging feel, beckoning me to come sit, order a port perhaps. There’s a warmth that results from the combination of a sophisticated color palette and the high-end, tactile materials used in the linens, upholstery, and floor coverings. The design embraces contrast — dark woods next to light with dark bands of woodwork and fabric framing spaces within spaces, a classic method of filling larger spaces by creating a series of smaller ones, resulting in a more intimate feel in what can otherwise be cold hard expanses. It’s a strategy that’s also obvious in the three large main dining rooms, which are divided into smaller more intimate areas and where I never felt overwhelmed like I was eating in a massive dining hall.

That lush, elegant character extends to the cabins as well. The carpeted rooms feel homey and warm (and quiet!) and the furnishings look like real furniture, unlike some cruise ship cabins where everything from the sofas to the bed pillows are built in as part of the walls. I know my cabin wasn’t uniquely designed for me, but it felt like it was. There are also 27 single cabins on Britannia, including 18 with balconies.

Another rule broken by Britannia? The interior of the ship doesn’t feel like it’s lit up like an airport. Richmond International used a lighting consultant to help create mood and atmosphere through lighting. “We’re not afraid to use dark and shadows,” Dingle explained. And the restaurants and clubs can be lit differently depending on the time of day and purpose. That was obvious in both the Limelight Club, a unique dinner theater that turned into a dance club later in the evening, and the Live Lounge, which should have been called the Lively Lounge because it was always a lively dance scene. Both were dark, adults-only areas where spaces revealed themselves once your eyes adjusted to the lower light.

Built for a British-Loving Audience

It’s no secret that British-based P&O built Britannia for the British market. The line even provides package holiday plans from British cities that include a charter plane direct to your cruise ship. Caribbean Fly-cruising was first offered in 1995, and is still a popular way for British cruisers to fly directly to the ship in Barbados from their home city and not waste time and expense changing planes in major airports.

With Britannia, P&O is enhancing that alliance with the British public by also appealing to their love for “the telly.”

“If you want to relate to the people of Britain,” explained Dingle, “do it through what they watch on television.” Britannia features an array of British television celebrity chefs and a partnership with the enormously popular TV show, Strictly Come Dancing, the British equivalent of the American show, Dancing with the Stars.

Which brings me to the biggest rule Britannia breaks: Food is a major focal point on this ship. From popular cooking shows on television to gastro pubs on every corner, British food is experiencing a revolution. And Britannia embodies that change.

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Food for Thought

The 3,647-passenger Britannia is P&O’s largest ship, and the benefit is that you can justify more restaurants, explained Dingle. “The larger scale allows us to do much more.” For example, the line partnered with not one but five “Food Heroes,” all recognizable names in the British cooking world, with a bevy of television shows and successful restaurants between them. And instead of just naming restaurants after these big-time celebrity chefs, Britannia is inviting them to transform the entire food experience to reflect modern British cuisine with an emphasis on taste, healthy preparations, and celebrating local ingredients.

Marco Pierre White, probably the most recognizable of the Food Heroes, is planning menus for the three main dining rooms so these restaurants, where most people spend their time, also get special attention. And James Martin, a fixture on British television cooking shows, is in charge of the Cookery Club, a beautifully designed space high up on Deck 17 with large windows that let in tons of natural light to the 12 cooking stations.

The enhanced food experience also extends to both the more casual as well as fine dining areas. The Market Café, an informal café located around the Atrium, features pastries by Eric Lanlard, who has four British cooking shows to his name, and cheese selections curated by Charlie Turnbull, an international cheese judge and food writer. Both are also collaborating on the special high tea in the Epicurean fine dining room. And the expertise of Olly Smith, a British TV presenter and wine expert, is seen throughout the wine lists on the ship, but especially in The Glass House, a gorgeous wine bar featuring a contemporary menu of small plates to accompany Smith’s wide-ranging wine list.

Throughout the year, the Food Heroes will be traveling on Britannia along with an array of other celebrity chefs well known to the British television viewing public. All will be conducting classes and creating special chef’s dinners. “Just think, you can learn to bake with Mary Berry!” exclaims Dingle. (Mary Berry is the queen of British TV baking.)

But nothing says British culture more than a love for Indian curry. And it turned out to also be my favorite part of the Britannia food experience. Sindhu is the only restaurant on Britannia that is the domain of just one chef, Atul Kochhar, who describes his cooking as Modern British Indian, big flavors, and British ingredients. It was also my favorite space visually. Exotic finishes and more of that glorious art plus lower lighting made this a space that shimmered and glowed every evening as the aroma of spices wafted around the dining room. Magical.

And after that magical dinner I walked by Brodie’s, the classic English pub where I stopped to laugh and clap at a karaoke party; caught a few acts of the “Sound of the Underground,” a celebration of popular British music in the main live entertainment theater; and then made my way to the Live Lounge for a cocktail and dancing. Where else but on a cruise ship can you experience all of that in one evening? And as I flopped into my comfortable bed some time after 2 a.m., I thought, “Yes Britannia, long may you waive the rules!”

Photo: P&O Cruises

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