I must admit that as the date for this cruise approached, I really did not want to go ahead with it. Only a couple of weeks before I was due to start my Mediterranean cruise, the omicron variant of covid was running rampant, especially in the Netherlands, which is the principal country that this cruise would be visiting. There had been riots in Rotterdam against the tougher restrictions that had been imposed on that country. The cruise itinerary had already been changed to omit Hamburg (which I would have liked to visit) and Le Havre (which had no interest for me) had been substituted.
If I could have transferred my booking to another cruise without penalty, I would have done so, but whilst P&O allow free transfers up until the balance of payment due date, thereafter there are increasing cancellation charges up until the departure date. When I paid the balance back in September, things looked fine, but only a couple of weeks before the cruise, I would have lost most of what I paid if I cancelled. I believe quite a few people did cancel though. I had been told there would be 3800 passengers for this cruise but I later learned there were actually only about 3150 on board. P& O only promoted the cruise as being to Northern Europe but many agents marketed it as a Christmas Markets cruise and it was looking like the Christmas Markets might not be as promised.
I wasn’t so bothered about the Christmas Markets, so I went ahead with the Northern Europe cruise and despite some things not being perfect, overall, I really did enjoy it.
When I booked the two cruises, my travel agent was unable to allocate the same cabin for them both, but at the start of the Mediterranean cruise, I did ask at reception whether I could keep the same cabin. Thankfully, this was arranged, as it saved me having to move all my stuff, even though I could have had a larger double cabin to myself for the second cruise instead of the tiny inside single cabin I had been allocated for the first cruise.
When the Iona got back to Southampton from the Mediterranean cruise, I could have stayed on board but I decided to go ashore as an ‘in transit’ visitor. As such, I needed to get a covid antigen test that morning but it took awhile to get the result before I was allowed to leave the ship. As I waited, it was strange to see the ship devoid of passengers and when I finally got to leave the ship, the arrivals part of the terminal was deserted because all the other passengers had long since left. When I eventually got outside it was raining, it looked like I might have to walk a fair way to get anywhere where I could get online (which was the main reason I wanted to go ashore), and my bad leg had begun to ache badly (see part 1). So I turned around and went straight back on board the ship. It had all been a complete waste of time and trouble!
Returning to the ship was very easy, as I did not need to go through the whole embarkation process again because as an ‘in transit’ passenger I could just go back on board via the crew entrance. I didn’t even have to join the crew queue as I was told to just walk right up to the front of the queue and go straight in. And I was back in time to have a ‘priority’ lunch that is normally given to passengers in the superior cabins when they board, but I had been given a ticket as a privileged B2B passenger.
During the afternoon as the ship filled up with a new batch of passengers, I discovered that I need not have bothered to go ashore to find a café with wifi in order to get online. I found the reason I had hitherto been unable to get internet access by using mobile data whilst on board was because the free ship’s wifi was blocking access to the internet. The ship’s full wifi with internet access was very expensive (as explained in part 1) but the limited free service was needed to use the ship’s ‘My Holiday’ app (an app to access your ship account, book shore excursions, speciality restaurant and theatre places, etc.). By switching off the ship’s free wifi, I was suddenly able to get internet access on my smart-phone using mobile data as long as I had a mobile signal. I didn’t need to go ashore and it worked even in European ports for free as there was no roaming charge for Europe (this may change in 2022). I just had to watch not to exceed my mobile data allowance and switch to airplane mode as soon as the ship left port to avoid international roaming charges at sea.
The excellent ‘priority’ buffet lunch had included champagne (I had two glasses!). Then later when I went to the Crow’s Nest bar for the sail away from Southampton, I had four more free glasses of champagne! Vouchers had been given to all passengers for the sail away and after I used mine, I used another that had been given to me by one of the ladies I befriended on the previous cruise that she hadn’t used. I happened to be sitting near a lovely couple and when I told them I had been given the second voucher, they gave me theirs, as they did not like champagne. So after two glasses at lunch, I had four more free glasses of the bubbly. Then just as the couple were about to leave, they asked me what I normally drink which I told them is a gin and lemonade. They bought me one and left before I could return their very kind gesture.
After that, I went for dinner and asked the lovely Pilipino receptionists (who knew me very well by then) for a sharing table. I was lead to one with a very pleasant couple and was soon joined by a lady who I later learned was Diane Janes, the guest speaker for this cruise, and then a mother and daughter, Chris and Jenny, with whom I got on very well. I met the latter three ladies again later in the cruise.
Normally, P&O only list a solo get-together in the daily newsletter for sea days, but because the itinerary had been changed, the first sea day would unusually not be until day 4. But I thought day 4 of a 7-day cruise would be far too late to try to meet some fellow solo travellers and I did ask at reception to have the get-togethers listed everyday, including days in port. They did comply when we asked them to do that on the previous cruise, but I was very disappointed that they did not do so for this cruise, even though I did ask every day.
So, now that I could freely get online whilst in port, I tried posting on a Facebook group page devoted to the cruise asking whether there were any solo travellers who would like to meet up each evening. A couple of ladies did respond over the next two evenings and I did dine with each of them separately.
The port visited on the first day of the cruise was Zeebrugge. There was not a great deal of interest in Zeebrugge but I would have liked to take an excursion to the much more attractive town of Bruges, which was not too far away. But regrettably, I decided against going ashore because I thought such an excursion would require a fair bit of walking which might be too much for my bad leg.
The next day was at Rotterdam where we were to stay for two days. As it was a short walk into Rotterdam, on the first of the days there, I did try to venture across a spectacular bridge into town. The bridge was very close to the Iona and I took a few photos of the ship from the bridge before had to give up and return to the ship as there was a bitterly cold wind and my calf muscles were troubling me again.
On the second day in Rotterdam, I was determined to make an effort as otherwise; I would hardly have any shore experiences on this cruise. I wanted to go to Amsterdam and to avoid walking too much, I took a tram to Rotterdam station, a train to Amsterdam, and then did a canal boat cruise to see something of the city. It was a pretty miserable day but I was glad to get out and about a bit. On returning to the ship, the bridge near to the Iona partially opened to let a boat through but something happened to prevent the bridge re-opening to the road traffic. I was in a tram stuck in the traffic on the bridge, seeing the Iona so close and longing to get back on board, but unable to move. Eventually the tram driver opened the doors to allow passengers off, as whilst vehicles could not cross, those on foot could dodge under the barriers to walk across. I believe it was about 50 minutes before the traffic was able to move again.
The next day was the first sea day (day 4) and a morning solo meet was finally listed in the daily newsletter. About a dozen ladies (no men) turned up, including the two I’d already met. But it was nothing like the solo group of the previous cruise and it did not lead to any further evening meets even though I did suggest them. So it was back to just taking my chance of with whom I dined by going back to asking for a sharing table each night. But that sea day evening, the sharing table experiences was not so good as there was one man who completely dominated the talk, leaving others at the table little chance to butt in.
Then the final port was a day at Le Havre, France. Again there was not much to see in Le Havre but I wouldn’t have minded an excursion to the nearby picturesque harbour village of Honfleur. All the ship’s excursions were booked up but I thought I might be able to get to Honfleur by train, so I tool the shuttle bus to the centre of Le Havre. I thought the shuttle would drop us off near the station but it turned out to be some distance away and further than would be comfortable for me to walk with my bad leg. So I soon returned to the ship.
That evening the dining experience turned out to be very much better than the previous one. The same mother and daughter, Chris and Jenny, that I had dined with on the first night, just happened to be brought to my table again. We got on extremely well and they took a great interest in what I had done in my life. After dinner we went together to see an excellent band perform in the Club House.
The last day of the cruise was a sea day but it was only a short distance to Southampton and the Iona could easily have done it overnight. But we needed to delay the return to make up the 7 days of the cruise (if we’d been able to go to Hamburg, as per the original itinerary, that was much further away). So the Iona took a very indirect route back to Southampton but we actually did get into port that evening because strong winds were forecast for the next morning. We weren’t allowed to disembark until the pre-determined appointed times next morning though.
The last night on board whilst docked in Southampton, I hoped to dine again with Chris and Jenny but my sharing table had been filled with others by the time they came to dine. They saw me though and suggested I join them at their table that was nearby, after we had finished our meals. When I did, I learned that Chris, the mother, had been avidly reading my life story on my website and was most impressed. They just could not believe my age. We had a great evening, seeing a show together in the Skydome and then drinks in the Club House where we were joined by Diane Janes, the guest speaker with whom I’d dined earlier. Chris and Jenny have become great friends of mine and they say they will definitely be coming to my garden party in June and perhaps Jenny and her sister will join us in Whitby in April. We’ll see!
It is the people I meet and the friendships that are made that I enjoy most about cruising. I was very unsure about this particular cruise before it started but I’m extremely glad that I did it. However, I would not choose Northern Europe again, especially at this time of the year. And I’m very unsure about booking another cruise for awhile with the covid situation being so unpredictable. If this cruise had only been a week later, we wouldn’t have been able to do the shore visits as new restriction came into force the very next day