Arvia P&O Cruises: Exploring the Caribbean in luxury aboard Britain's biggest and friendliest ship
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Truth be told, escaping on a Caribbean cruise during Britain's bitterest months sounds like a slice of heaven. So much so, I did wonder if my expectations were too high. How on earth Britain's biggest ship Arvia managed to smash that and so much more, I'm still trying to work out. Let's start at the top of the list of things that made it special. The views, the comfort, the luxury, the food ... I could go on forever.
It was the first time in almost 20 years that my husband and I had been cruising so we didn't have a very clear idea of what to expect. I thought the days at sea would be a bit of a waste of time as we're the kind of people who love to explore and find new places. But we adored every minute of the whole week. There is so much to do on Arvia, Britain's biggest cruise ship, that you couldn't possible run out of fun. You might feel like you need more time at the end of your holiday, but not a minute passes without something new to catch your attention.
I was well aware that the food aboard is famous for providing around the clock temptation. What I didn't appreciate was that there are restaurants better than any you will find in 5* hotels, the cocktails are to die for and while the quantity is vast, P&O have a 'no food waste' pledge as they work hard to become greener. There are 30 places to eat and drink - on one ship! While some are perfect for just grabbing snack mid-afternoon, others offer gastronomy which is beyond belief. Our favourites were Sindhu and The Glass House but make sure you try the sushi, steaks and, obviously, lobster. Some of the restaurants charge a small amount extra for certain dishes and it is worth booking a table, but the onboard app means you never have to wait around and you can tell how busy everywhere is without having to turn up first.
We had flown into Barbados and the P&O Cruises team made sure everyone's boarding was as simple as possible. Our bags were taken to our room and we were ushered onto the biggest ship I had ever laid eyes on. First impressions ... Arvia is beautiful. The scale is massive but attention has been paid to every detail. The enormous windows give incredible views, every cafe and bar has its own theme and perfect decor, all surfaces are sparkly clean and glamour oozes out of each venue.
We had a cabin with a balcony and I would seriously recommend spending the extra money if at all possible. Starting the morning sat in your own space, feeling the sea breeze and watching the sunrise is magical. Cabins are a similar size to most hotel rooms, pristine and well presented. There is plenty of room to relax on the sofa or watch TV from bed, but why would you when the rest of the ship is calling?
P&O Cruises is offering a 14-night fly-cruise on Arvia (K426) from £1599 per person for an inside cabin. Departing December 06, 2024, the price includes roundtrip flights from selected UK airports, children’s clubs, full board meals and entertainment. Departing and returning from Barbados, ports of call are Barbados (overnight), Martinique, St Kitts, Tortola, St Maarten, Antigua, Grenada, and St Lucia. Link- https://www.pocruises.com/find-a-cruise/K426/K426
Our first stop was Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. I have to admit that I hadn't heard of this unspoilt spot before our visit but I left a little piece of my heart there when we departed. This is a place where the beaches are white, the seas are an incredible blue and you share deserted beaches with very entertaining pelicans dive-bombing for fish. We had the most incredible time thanks to our guides from Elroy's Pleasure Tours who truly lived up to their name, every second was pleasurable. It felt like we had stepped out of our own lives and into one reserved for millionaire celebrities. The entire day felt special and even the snaps we took on our phones made our friends back home question if we'd tampered with them to make it look more captivating. We definitely had not.
Next was the Dominican Republic. The weather wasn't great. I mean, there was no need to pull on more than a light summer dress but there were clouds in the sky and the occasional monumental downpour. It was not exactly the same as the winter weather they were experiencing back in Yorkshire and I can quietly admit that I quite enjoyed a break from the heat. This is a much larger and more of a 'working' island. The only factory that we visited made it's own divine chocolate but the whole place felt very different to Tortola. Despite a bit of rain, we attempted snorkelling for the first time. At first I felt nervous but what's the point of adventure if you duck out of the first challenge? Within a few minutes, I was hooked. Fish galore and a view unlike anything you can get from above.
Our third island stop came accompanied by the scorching Caribbean weather just as you would imagine it. That meant another enchanting day followed, as always, by a superb evening on Arvia. Saint Maarten seems to be most famous for its incoming planes because the airport is so close to the beach you feel as if you could almost touch the flights as they come into land. However, I was too busy looking downwards to be overly entertained by that photo opportunity. In for a penny in for a pound, we did more snorkelling. It was such a breath-taking experience, I would certainly love to do it again. I thought the Caribbean shades of blue and turquoise were mind-blowing but when you add in the hundreds of fish coloured as brightly as a rainbow, it is hard to drag yourself away. They darted so close to us, it felt as if we were part of their school and I was absolutely captivated.
There was plenty of drink flowing on our catamaran and more partying than sunbathing for most but the crew were so entertaining it was hard to resist joining in. Again, there are lovely gift shops and bars within a few steps of the ship for those who don't want to explore but getting about is easy so I would really recommend stepping away to hunt down your own little patch of perfection on any of the island's picturesque beaches. One of the best things about Arvia is her size which means there is something for all tastes. If you take that same attitude with you on each excursion, you will always be smiling. P&O Cruises offers hundreds of excursions for all ages. Plan ahead, know what you want and create an itinerary that is tailor made to you.
Our last sea day was our busiest. We wanted to cram is as much as possible and, though it may seem hard to believe if you haven't been onboard a massive cruise, there was much we hadn't seen. So we packed in rum making, interactive game Mission Control, a dip in the pool, splash in a hottub, one final feast, and a rip-roaring show before the day was out. Arvia holds 5,200 passengers and is already so popular, it rarely sets off on its travels without being full. I was prepared for the stereotype of ageing travellers but it isn't accurate. It is ideal for people who struggle with mobility but it is just as suited to toddlers and teenagers. I felt as if I was bang in the middle of the average age, in my 40s, and I know my kids would have enjoyed it just as much as my mum, but for very different reasons. Some days I wore trainers, on others I went full sequin ballgown. You can grab a pizza without waiting and you can enjoy 7-course meals usually reserved for Michelin restaurants. I am sure there is a different feel to cruises that travel in the school holidays but the whole point is absolutely everyone is welcome.
We departed Arvia with heavy hearts in Antigua. There is no cure for end-of-holiday-blues but this gorgeous island certainly gave us a strong dose of pick-me-up medicine. As with so many Caribbean isles, they are often the playground of the rich and famous so the quality of the hotels reflect this. We spent the day between beach, pool and barbecue at Blue Waters Resort and Spa. Idyllic is the only word suitable. The bright pink blossoms that climbed those white walls around the pool were straight from an artist's palette. There are plenty of secluded areas if you want to get away from everyone else and, if we weren't happily married, I would get tie the knot beachside here in a heartbeat. Even thinking about this resort and the whole Arvia when back home makes me smile.
'Come back and tell your friends to visit too', was the message we were given on every island. While there are lots of debates about such enormous ships bringing so many tourists for daytrips to tiny populations, every conversation with people who lived there involved them stressing how important the income was for them.
P&O Cruises is also keen to highlight its green credentials. I'm still struggling to get my head around how so many mouths can be fed with so many options and yet there is absolutely no food waste. As their newest ship, Arvia is also the country's most eco-friendly. But, let's be honest, as with all tourism, if you really care about our planet then you have to do some of it yourself and simple steps onboard like not requesting your towels to be washed unless needed, taking a refillable water bottle and only putting food on your plate if you can eat it, all contribute.
There are also lots of ways to look after yourself on board, even when vigorous exercise was not top of your holiday bucket list. The gym has top class equipment but does get busy. However, there are lots of fun classes to join in with, games to play and even specific fast walking routes for those wanting to reach their daily steps target at sea. Swimming is arguably the most enjoyable way to keep fit onboard although nobody seemed to agree with me that floating while staring at the horizon from one of the infinity pools counted!
If you are looking to top even more quality relaxation onto your holiday then pop into the Oasis Spa. It offers wide range of treatments from unusual massages to hair and nails. There are even experts on hand to make sure you look best at all times and offer make-up classes. We tried the Couples Spa and it was unlike anything I had experienced before. I had a hot stones massage, lying next to my husband who opted for the bamboo treatment. We were then left alone to make the most of private saunas, specialist showers and two individual hottubs. It all came with lashing of bubbly and fresh tropical fruit - ideal for a honeymoon or any wedding anniversary at all.
Despite thousands of people being on Arvia for every journey, it never felt it was particularly busy. The ship is big enough to absorb everyone as they go about their own favourite activities. The one thing that can be a challenge is finding a sunbed. It was never a problem for us but then we didn't spend much time lying in the sun. However, to deal with any potential problems, there is a 'marker' system which means if you use a towel to reserve a spot without actually using it for more than 30 minutes, the crew will move your things to safety - allowing other sunseekers in. Most importantly, those who work on Arvia are always happy to help so just have a chat if you need anything.
I asked my husband what had been his favourite bit of our Arvia adventure, while we relaxed on our flight home. His answer shouldn't have surprised me but it did. "The people," he said.
Yes, the ship has ever luxury imaginable, the food was beyond belief and the beaches truly are better than any postcard - but he was right. From the moment you approach Arvia until you wave farewell, every passenger is treated as if they are VIP. The staff go out of their way to make you feel part of the family. It isn't just that they'll smile through difficult requests or help whenever needed, they shares stories and jokes about life on the seas with you. If feels as if they want you to love their ship just as much as they do. The same extends to the islands we visited, with everyone we met keen to make sure we were completely charmed by their little country.
Obviously, the passengers are on cloud nine too and happy to be sailing with a ship full of friends-to-be. Everybody wants to chat, be friendly and give tips on what to do next - after all we are all in the same boat, so to speak. And you will definitely find yourself struggling to know which way to head when you step out of the lift, even when you do know which floor you need.
Much as I hate to admit it, my husband was absolutely right. He's assertion is backed by the fact that half of the people on our holiday had travelled with P&O Cruises before and some manage it several times a year. They just keep coming back and you'll only understand why, when you've done it yourself. The mere words 'Caribbean cruise' sum up a dream world but it is the people who make that a reality. Now I understand what calls people back to P&O Cruises and why it isn't always the destinations that matter most. If only for one week, we were part of a very special community who sprinkled every amazing experience with a touch more magic than I'd ever imagined.