Living With Our Rapido 963f Le Randonneur Motor Home.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

It's blacking time again

After spending another relaxing weekend at our on line mooring, in what turned out to be unexpected fine weather, we cast off the lines on Sunday for the short journey to our local marina, where KL was booked in once again for hull blacking.

It has been two years and six months since she was last blacked (by us) in September 2009, again at the same marina. This is the most convenient location for us to have the job done, and I also like their method of removing the boat from the water, which is a custom built dolly on a slipway - all nice and gentle, with no stress.

Our journey to the marina was completed in high cross winds, which didn't bother us too much, until we actually entered the marina entrance, to pull up alongside the internal fuelling and pump out dock, whilst I asked at the office where they would like her berthed. I came alongside in the conventional manner, but, due to the high wind that was hitting us broadsides, it was almost impossible to tie her off before she was blown out again. It was just too much for the both of us to hold. A second attempt saw the centre line tied off though. We then had to move her again, and negotiate her into one of the pontoon berths, which I managed at first attempt this time.

Gone are the days when I would contemplate a DIY job of this nature, and am happy to pay the £600 cost, which includes taking out, and putting back in the water, a high powered jet wash, two coats of International Paints standard bitumen blacking, and a week's stay at the marina. The tell tale rust bubbles had started to appear along the waterline, indicating that it was time to do the job again, and she should now be good for another two years with the standard paint. Like others, this marina offers many boatyard services, including a full grit blast back to bare metal, and two pack blacking, which I may consider as KL approaches 10 years old or so.

We will collect KL next weekend, and then it is time to consider a major engine and gearbox service. I have a recommended mobile engineer lined up for that - one job at a time.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Review of P+O Cruises Oriana's 2012 World Cruise

Huatulco, Mexico
Well, here it is, my full and honest review of our experience of our P&O Cruises World Cruise on MV Oriana between 5th January 2012 and 10th April 2012.

I had been waiting for a reply to an email I had sent to the company on our return home, before publishing this, to allow them to comment on certain aspects of our cruise. It is now on the wrong side of 3 weeks since I sent that, and haven't as yet had my reply, even after a reminder, so I will publish anyway. *See footnote.

Before I start, this is our second P&O Cruises World Cruise, our first one, also aboard Oriana, was in September 2010, where we spent six weeks aboard, half of the cruise, from Southampton to Brisbane. We then spent a further four weeks, both in Australia and Abu Dhabi on our way home. Having had a perfect experience on that occasion, I wrote a piece for P&O's James Cusick's blog. You can read that here: James Cusick's blog

This year's cruise cost us £85 per person per night, for 97 nights aboard, booked in March 2011, for our OB grade inside cabin, C256. That is extreme value in anybody's book surely, for a more or less all inclusive holiday, (main exception being alcoholic beverages). Although we found it difficult to find any kind of further discount through our UK travel agents this time, we did manage to negotiate a total of around £700 off the asking price by giving up our entitlement to the £250 each on board spending money that is usually offered by cruise lines as an incentive to buy. Since we have arrived home there are once again hugely discounted cruises being offered in the UK market, but read on, all may not be as it seems..........
A Pacific Sunset leaving the island of Bora Bora
There is no doubting that a cruise such as this must be the only way you can visit so many different countries at such a low cost. We had 38 ports of call in 24 different countries I believe, and again I can confirm that the experience was truly memorable, and in general, we had a fabulous time.

Lombard Street, San Francisco
You can read about each individual port of call of this cruise, (except Oporto, Portugal, which for some reason my report didn't make it to my blog at the time), through the January - April 2012 archives here, in the right hand column.

A world cruise is a completely different experience from any shorter one, as visiting worldwide destinations, there are usually days at sea between each port of call in which to rest and relax. A Mediterranean cruise, for example, will usually have a port of call on consecutive days, which can be quite tiring.

A sunrise over Sydney Opera House as we arrived.
You also have to remember that you will be spending at least 3 months aboard a ship, with all the implications that brings with it, from looking after the place at home, usually during winter,  (home insurance usually has a time limit of 30 or 60 days away at a time), to taking care of yourself, should you need prescribed medication to take with you. A good quality travel insurance is also essential, and, as one gets older can be quite expensive for such a duration abroad, worldwide.

Some have questioned me about the short time spent in each country, suggesting they would want more. Well, you have to look at this as a complete holiday in its own right, probably as a tour bus travelling the world, getting off here and there to have a look around. The time on the ship forms the backbone of the holiday, not the means to it, as an aircraft to a destination would. Where else could you visit Mediterranean, Asian, Malaysian Australian and American destinations all within the same holiday package? For a more detailed logistical analysis, read my post on that here: The logistics of world cruising .

There are six restaurants available on Oriana, The Peninsular and Oriental are the two main dining restaurants. There are two evening sittings, 6.30p.m. and 8.30p.m, and the Peninsular also offers inclusive silver service breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea. Then there is Al Fresco which offers inclusive meals on an Italian theme, and at the time we were aboard, was open from 10.30p.m. until 2 a.m. as well as throughout the day. The Conservatory provides inclusive casual self service meals throughout the day and evening. There are then two speciality restaurants, The Marco Pierre White Ocean Grill, which has a £12.50pp cover charge, and extra costs for certain menu dishes on top, and Sorrento, again an Italian themed restaurant, with open air dining if you wish. This has a £5pp cover charge, again with additional charges for certain dishes. The Oriental, at the stern of the ship, can, at times suffer from vibration from the engines below. Lunchtime snacks, speciality coffees, and cakes, are also available at extra cost around Tiffany's bar in the atrium area.

The crew of the ship were superb, especially the waiters and stewards, who would take care of our every need. We found Captain Robert Camby to be an informative, honest and sociable young Captain, on his first full command on our cruise. He is a credit to P&O Cruises. Also worthy of special comment are Serendipity, a superb duo, who joined us in Singapore, and performed in the Lords Tavern Pub. We tipped the waiters and stewards personally, in cash, at P&O Cruises' recommended rate of £3.10 per person per day (in total). They deserved every penny.

So, from my first paragraph, you might have gathered that not all went exactly to plan this time. Rather than enter into a long essay, I will describe the problems we encountered as numbered points. There was one aspect, which really did annoy us, that we felt P&O should really answer for, but first, here are the "minor disasters" that I could put explanations to........

1) The table tennis table location caused problems throughout the cruise and became the subject to have fun poked at it by the comedians in the theatre. It used to be located in the children's area. After a recent refit, to convert the ship for adult only use, there was no place for it, so it was put under the covered area near to the conservatory buffet restaurant entrance. This caused complaints from the occupants of the suites below, so it was moved to under the stairwell of aft terrace deck 8 (near the aft swimming pool). This resulted in complaints from the table tennis players who said the location was unsuitable due to windy conditions. So, it was moved again, this time to aft terrace deck 9, (the location of our own peaceful days at sea). This caused complaints from the passengers who used this area to relax during the day, particularly when the deck was taken over by 20 or 30 table tennis players at the times of the am and pm tournaments. It was moved again, this time to the Medina room, by the Crow's nest lounge, another quiet location.........and so it went on. I suspect the table tennis table went overboard in Southampton when the world cruise ended.

2) Vietnam. Our call at Phu Mai (for Saigon) was a washout for independent visitors, (those who hadn't booked tours). Saigon, or Ho Chi Min City as it is now called was a 2 hour taxi ride away from port. Our Australian friends, who are very frequent P&O world cruisers, said that there would be a free shuttle bus to Vaung Tau for us to use, as it had been many times in the past in their experience. This was a beach resort with much interest. The P&O port presentation aboard ship also reported the same info. However, when we arrived, the shuttle buses took us to a small town with only a supermarket to look around - a complete waste of time. It later transpired that one of the paid for excursions in fact went to Vaung Tau. Was that the reason for this? We never found out, but this event caused many complaints.

3) Singapore. We docked in the container terminal as Oriana wouldn't fit in the cruise terminal due to an overhead cable car. Again, our experienced Australian friends said that the free shuttle bus usually took us independents into town. This time, again unannounced in advance, it only took us across the docks to the cruise terminal, from where we had to pay for a taxi into town. Not a major problem to us.

4) Bali. A very late Captain's announcement declared that "due to there being a problem with public transport at our planned destination, our port of call has been changed. P&O Cruises always have their passenger's interest at the forefront, and the facilities at the planned port were not found to be suitable". When we arrived at the re-scheduled port, Benoa, we found that those who had booked tours were fine, but independents found themselves in a place miles from anywhere with no public transport at all and no shuttle buses. Most of us spent no more than 10 minutes ashore here. This was later explained that this was due to a security problem, which I have explained on my own website post about Bali. Port Benoa, Bali. I accepted this explanation after googleing it and found it to be true.

5) Dubai. We were already 2 hours late due to a major engine breakdown at sea. Repairs at sea. (This in turn caused huge additional vibration problems for the occupants of the aft cabins and the Oriental Restaurant as the remaining engines were re-configured to make up for the lost one). However we were held up a further 1 hour stood at the gangplank, not being allowed off the ship by the authorities. Again, it was explained that the ship's pursers were all female. That department deals with the immigration clearances in port, and the Dubai authorities would not deal with females. Captain Camby dealt with them personally, and got us off the ship to rounds of applause.

6) India. The immigration authorities had boarded the ship earlier to do all the required face to face checks whilst at sea, so we could just leave the ship unhindered once in port. This didn't happen. As we arrived in Mumbai they insisted on second face to face interviews as we disembarked, taking much longer than it should have done. It was again later explained that due to the way things are done here, a "remuneration" would make our passage ashore run more smoothly. Apparently this was refused, and as a result they seemed to make life difficult for us thereafter. Further praise was given to the Captain after he consulted the passengers for permission to allow the crew off first, after the long delay, as many of them were meeting family.

7) Aurora, Oriana's sister ship, which was circumnavigating the other way round the world was the subject of a major drugs bust in the USA. Aurora's US drugs bust. Unbelievably, this happened again in Sydney, with an even bigger find. Aurora's Australian drugs bust. As Aurora had been through Australia before us, we became a targeted ship. In Sydney, they brought the sniffer dogs aboard Oriana, and one 85 year old single male passenger, who had his "do not disturb" card displayed, was awoken by loud banging and shouting outside his door. One of the ship's security officers accompanied by an Australian dog handler were shouting at him demanding he open his door, which he eventually did, only to be asked to wait in the corridor, in his pyjamas, while his cabin was searched. Maybe the dog picked up a scent I don't know, but his treatment was extremely severe. He was unsettled for days and as a regular world cruiser, he complained about this, but didn't get a satisfactory answer, (he was told to refer his complaint to the Australian authorities).

8) Brisbane. Our planned docking area was undecided. I had asked myself because we were meeting my cousin, and couldn't get an answer. Last year we docked at the industrial grain terminal on Fisherman's Island, miles out of town. Some of the Australian passengers had been told it was to be there again on this cruise. They formed a delegation to demand the ship docked at the cruise terminal in town. It was thought by some that Oriana would not fit under Gateway Bridge on the Brisbane River, which it needed to in order to access the cruise terminal. Unfortunately, many of the Aussies had witnessed both Aurora and Oriana going under the bridge in the past, and refused to accept this. A day later, a special announcement was made "we are pleased to announce that after consulting the Brisbane Port Authorites, we now have clearance to dock at the prestigious Portside Cruise Terminal in central Brisbane". You could here the mumblings of "told you so" throughout the ship! Our Australian friends told us that this also happens to be the most expensive cruise terminal in the world for cruise lines to use. Whether it was the delegation that forced that decision I don't know, but that is how it panned out.

Finally, this is the reason for my enquiry to P&O Cruises after we arrived home. As yet, they haven't answered me.*See footnote.

The cruise was split into 5 sectors. Up until Dubai, we were mostly from the British market. Everything was pretty normal, except perhaps for a noticeably slow service in the main restaurant, which was possibly due to staff cuts somewhere I don't know, but nothing to concern us. It was how we remembered our 2010 world cruise, also on Oriana. We were with our Australian friends on a linked booking, but they would be leaving us in Brisbane.

The day before we arrived in Hong Kong we noticed small changes taking place. In Al Fresco, a buffet restaurant which is inclusive in the price of the cruise, and where we usually had lunch, the tables were always set with cutlery and a cup and saucer in each place setting. As soon as you sat down, a waiter would attend and offer coffee or tea from the pot. On this day, I immediately commented that the cups and saucers had been removed and replaced with a (paid for) menu of speciality coffees on each table. We queried this, and were told that the inclusive tea and coffee would now be served by the waiter, which it was, but only by request, and brought to the table in a single cup. We thought nothing more of this until after HK, when 800 Australians had boarded, and we saw they had no idea that inclusive beverages were available there, and were seen to be requesting the paid for beverages instead. When those of us "in the know" ordered our inclusive tea or coffee, it was brought to the table already poured into a cup, so everybody else was none the wiser. Very clever, we thought.

After spending time with the 800 Australians it became apparent how cheaply they had got their holidays back to Australia. (There were also other very cheap offers available only to them from Auckland to Southampton, which included all flights and 3 nights in London for $100 a night all in, although from the announcements made in Auckland, I believe only 100 or so joined the ship there. This offer was later confirmed to me by email after our Aus friends had arrived home to find travel agent's emails waiting for them there). Many had made group bookings through newspaper offers at $50, (£32), a night with an upgrade to an outside cabin thrown in. Many who responded to the offers had never cruised before, and hadn't brought any "dress" clothes with them, having no idea of the dress codes operated by P&O Cruises UK (as opposed to P&O Australia which is a different company). During this time period, the main restaurants were half empty, although some came in on formal dress nights in inappropriate clothes, unchallenged, probably because there were so many aboard. (I am not against informal dress, but the company does operate dress codes, and dressing for the evening forms part of the cruise experience for many people, including us).

The main restaurant menus became very bland, with more dishes such as curry, shepherds pie, steak pudding chips and mushy peas, gammon egg and chips, replacing the fillet steak, lobster, crepe suzette and flambeed cherries jubilee we had been used to. One cutback that sticks with me, is that I enjoyed an asparagus risotto starter throughout the cruise. Normally, this would be a portion of rice in a cream sauce, arranged with 4 asparagus tips like a clock face. During the HK - Sydney sector, the asparagus tips were sliced in half, and placed on the plate face up! I know this would make twice as many servings for the same outlay, but can you believe that? The cruise menus are presented to the ladies at the end, or in our case, at the end of each sector. At the end of the Hong Kong to Brisbane / Sydney sector, the menus were not presented to us, although they were to our Australian friends who disembarked in Brisbane, and were on the same table as us, but not doing the whole trip like us. All the other sector's menus were presented. It was only after we arrived home and thought about it that we realized why this may have been. By the time we started the final sector from SanFrancisco, when most of the Aussies had left and had been replaced by Brits, all the speciality dishes had returned to the menus as if by magic.

The theatre. From our own experience we would expect at least one famous TV headline act to appear in the theatre on each sector of a world cruise. On the first it was Roy Walker. On the last it was Tom O'Connor. In the middle two sectors - nobody, just second rate pub acts, who, in the main, still proved to be good entertainment in any case. The resident Headliners Theatre Group always gave us polished, West End style shows throughout, although by the end of the cruise we had seen their shows several times, sometimes due to the lack of anything else we might fancy.

The cinema. Again on a world cruise we would expect movies from the recent past, eg 2010 - 2011. During those middle sectors we got old 50's and 60' black and white ones. In the final sector we watched War Horse, The Artist and The Iron Lady, all 2011 movies. The same happened with the TV movies.

I could almost accept all this as being a symptom of competitive pricing, even though it had now affected our own experience, and we had paid a much higher price for our cruise, except for my final point. During the sector that was sold very cheaply on the Australian market, and consequently there were many from that country aboard ship, an advertising flyer was made available only to those passengers. It offered 2013 cruises from $100Australian per person per night, (currently = £63). Our Australian friends responded to this offer, and attended the future cruises desk where, they tell us, they were able to book their 2013 cruise on Aurora's world cruise, between Southampton and Brisbane for $5000pp (£3155 @4/5/12),with £100 on board credit for booking whilst on board for their chosen OC grade cabin and 47 nights aboard. ( Basic OD cabin price for this exact cruise as of 4/5/2012 on P&O's website is £4679pp)  They suggested that we should also attempt to book the world cruise again, so that we could cruise together again in 2013, just as we had done this year. I attended the future cruises desk, and this was my quote:

Aurora R301 7 Jan '13 106 nights, OD inside.....£9,149 + £250 fuel surcharge = total £9399pp, which included £220pp on board credit, with an additional £100pp OBC if booked on board. £1500 deposit required. I later saw that my quote was exactly as per the current brochure price for the cruise, and equates to our quote made at the same place, for a booking on the same cruise as our Australian friends, being 25% more expensive on the daily rate. That is not on in my book!

*Footnote. I have now received a reply from a P&O Cruises customer relations executive in answer to my concerns. The two page letter didn't actually answer anything unfortunately, which I expected. However, one paragraph of interest relates to my concerns over pricing. Quote: "I would assure you that the brochure fare is being offered to both Australian and UK passengers. I have checked this with our yield department no reduced fares are being offered at the present time. However depending on which travel agent passengers use may mean a difference in incentives being offered".

1). The $5000 (£3097), OC grade cabin quote (Southampton-Brisbane), given, and later sold to our Australian friends was available to them at P&O Cruises own sales desk aboard ship. The offer was not available to me, (being from their British market). P&O Cruises website current price, (15/5/12), for this cruise is £4679 - basic OD grade cabin.

2). When I contacted at least 6 UK travel agents while booking this cruise in March 2011, each one of them informed me of a change of policy by P&O Cruises, which no longer allowed them, (UK based agents), to offer further cash discount incentives from their own commission, (they would all now be offered a flat rate). I found each price quote was identical to the P&O Cruises website. The only further incentive I could get was by giving up my £250pp on board credit, in exchange for a £350pp cash discount. My booking was eventually made with our trusted agent The Cruise Specialists, who provided an excellent service. I was happy with the price, and would have had no concerns, if only it hadn't appeared to us that we experienced a reduction in quality to subsidise the large percentage of passengers who were aboard for a part of our cruise at a fraction of the price we paid. After all, as my letter from P&O Cruises states: "We cannot, however, offer a guarantee that fares will not be reduced at a later date as occasionally we still have cabins to sell close to departure". I accept that - it happens throughout the package holiday industry, but should I, who paid the higher price, also expect a reduced offering?

3). A quick check on the Australian travel agent websites on 15th May 2012, revealed that I could buy, (if I was Australian), the Aurora 2013 world cruise sectors from Southampton-Sydney, OC grade cabin, for $5829, (£3616). Source: The P&O Cruises website had that exact cruise on offer at £4379, (15/5/12). Source: Currently have this cruise reduced to £4119 for a basic inside cabin. Others I checked were not publishing their prices and were "enquire only".

Another resources that I have found, who is a specialist cruise agent based in the USA and offers visitors to their website the opportunity of matching their perfect cruise choice with the best value price, alongside an easy online booking process is

It would appear that the Australian agents are certainly already able to offer a much deeper discount again this year. It would also appear that P&O Cruises took full advantage of the 800 or so Australians they had enticed aboard at $50 a night, to offer them similarly cheap cabins in 2013. Generally, it would not be possible for a UK resident to book a P&O Cruise via an Australian agent. I wonder why, in this age of internet communication? Is the British market seen as a "soft touch" by major retail organizations, and we accept higher prices as normal practice? I believe we do.

We don't intend making any future world cruises now until the market has settled down, but may well take up one of those very cheap offers where we wouldn't be too bothered if there happened to be a reduction in quality as a result.