As a celebration of good health, Mum and I took a September trip to the Norwegian Fjords and booked the last fjords cruise for the year on Iona in the hope that we may have a chance of seeing the Northern Lights. This was the first cruise (besides a river cruise) that either of us had been on so we were complete novices and unsure what to expect. As someone who suffers from mal de mer I was a little apprehensive of how I would manage but had read loads of reports that the bigger the ship the less movement – here’s hoping!
We arrived at the cruise terminal in Southampton greeted by what appeared to be chaos, albeit somewhat organised chaos. There were people and bags everywhere but after some enquiries we determined bags were sorted by decks and so we dropped off our cases and joined the huge queue to enter the terminal. First impressions of the boat were how enormous it was! She has the capacity for 5,200 passengers, 16 decks, 5 pools, 33 restaurants and bars and 6 theatres and lounges so it certainly didn’t sound like we would be claustrophobic!
After joining the long queue we thought it was going to take ages but it moved quickly, we had all our documents checked and then moved our way up the boarding tunnel. We boarded the ship and were pointed to the grand atrium where we were given a talk about where to find out muster station before heading off to see our cabin but our first impressions were wow! It was a very modern and impressive ship if the atrium was anything to go by!
We booked quite a late deal and there was a huge price difference between the saver fare and the select fare and the outside cabins so we went for an inside cabin with random allocation. We did express a preference of being near the lift due to mobility issues and we found ourselves on the 4th deck not too far from the central lifts which we were happy with. Our cabin was compact but had everything we needed and was well organised for maximum space utilisation. We weren’t planning on spending much time in our cabin anyway:)
After some unpacking we headed for a fish and chips lunch at the Quays before heading up to deck 15 for a drink and watch us set sail. We were off and excited for the adventures the next week was going to bring!
Where we visited
There were a variety of tours available through P&O but we decided as the ship docked directly in the heart of Stavanger we would just get off ourselves and have a look. We sailed into the city early in the morning excitedly watching from the deck.
Stavanger is the 4th largest city in Norway with approximately 150,000 people living centrally. Old Stavanger where we docked hosts many wooden houses built in the 18th and 19th Century. We were really lucky with the weather as it was a beautiful day and very mild compared to what we were expecting.
Stavanger is clearly a popular tourist spot especially for cruise ships but it also managed to hold its charm and beauty with its cobbled narrow streets and boutique shops. We spent some time exploring the streets and shops, having a coffee and made some friends on the way!
This was definitely the highlight of our cruise. Olden is a small village situated at the mouth of the Oldeelva River in the Oldedalen valley and is absolutely beautiful. We arrived early morning with a low fog which just added to the mystery and the beauty of the place.
One of the offered excursions was the Loen Skylift, a cable car which reaches the 1011m summit of Mount Hoven. The station is located 6km from the cruise terminal. Rather than book with P&O directly I booked our tickets including transfers through Olden Adventures for £20 less. In addition because we booked independently it meant that we had no time set so we left earlier to miss the cruise ship crowds. The transfer bus was located right outside the boat.
We made our way on the transfer bus to the station where we crossed a short walkway and entered the station. It was really quiet so we were lucky we had no crowds to contend with being earlier in the day. The gondola took 5 minutes to climb the 1011m and the views were breathtaking.
Reaching the top it was even more so; overlooking the fjords and watching paragliders jump from the side of the mountain. We could even see our ship from up there. We stopped up here for a cinnamon bun and a coffee admiring the views.
We reluctantly headed back down to make our way back to the transfer bus and back to the boat. Not before I took a quick video of the journey back down though. The skylift should be a must do for anyone doing this cruise or stopping in Olden as it gives such a unique vantage point down across the bays.
After a spot of lunch I decided to do some kayaking; there were no tours left but I was able to hire the equipment and go out on my own. Luckily for me when I went to the boat shed I had some assistance from a lovely lady and man who helped me with my equipment and also took some shots of me in action. It isn’t likely i’ll ever kayak in a Fjord again so why not! Unfortunately for me I did capsize on my way back in drowning my phone which was in my pocket and the the water was f***ing freezing!!! it was an experience I will never forget but probably one I wouldn’t do alone again and I now know using a dry suit doesn’t necessarily mean you stay dry! Unfortunately the phone never quite recovered!
As we left Olden for Iona’s last visit for the year, some of the locals gathered on the dockside waving flags and singing. They played “Time to Say goodbye” and more amusingly “Sweet Caroline“, where Captain Wesley honked the ship’s horn in time with the ‘bom bom bom’ in the chorus which made many people including ourselves laugh.
Alesund is a place that you get the impression not much happens; especially after we completed our pre booked “Alesund Highlights” tour. We booked the tour through Expedia and eventually managed to find the bus to take us on our way. It was just us and one other guy on the tour but off we headed to our first stop on the island of Giske, a church. Not just any church but a tiny one that you couldn’t even walk in. Giske Church originates from the 12th Century and is made of marble but covered in plaster. It was pretty and quaint.
The next stop was the Alnes Lighthouse in Godøy. The lighthouse was built in 1876 in the fishing village, is protected and classed as a relic of the Norwegian Coastline. It was not huge and we were able to climb it up some steep steps which I did slowly for the views from the top.
We got the impression that this was a big highlight of the area but if i’m honest i’ve seen more impressive churches and lighthouses in the UK. When the guy informed us ‘there’s an interesting wall over there‘ we did our best not to laugh. After a coffee and a cake we headed on to the highlight of our tour; the viewpoint from Mount Aksla. We were fortunate the sun started to come out when we got there. The view was definitely the highlight of our trip and we aren’t dissing the pride the locals have in their landmarks; just that we have seen more exciting ones elsewhere.
All in all it was a nice tour, but lacking in the spectacular; I heard other passengers say they had fun with the Troll Cars (not sure what that was) so maybe that may be a more thrilling adventure especially for those with children.
Unfortunately due to rough seas we were unable to dock. A decision was made that for safety reasons due to the size of Iona it would not be safe to attempt it. Consideration was also given to heading to Bergen instead; unfortunately the same decision was made that it would be too dangerous. Instead we had an extra sea day. The one tour I did book through P&O was luckily for this stop; therefore there was no issues with any refunds.
Life on Board
Our Captain was Wesley Dunlop, a man who often amused passengers with his witty announcements and sense of humour. The staff in general on the boat were extremely helpful but clearly very busy and understaffed which was apparent sometimes in bars and restaurants. We were one of the first full capacity sailings since cruises resumed following covid and despite this the crew did very well.
There were so many restaurants and kiosks that we never made it to them all but the choice was plentiful. Horizons was probably our most go-to venue which although had a bit of a staff canteen feel being self-service buffet style but also had the best variety of food. They even served full meals at 1am!
We visited the Quays on several occasions for fish and chips, Katsu curry and a burger mostly for lunches. It was free dining and kiosk style so you just went up and ordered.
We booked the Chef’s Table meal on Celebration Night which was included in the price; some other restaurants had additional charges for fine dining so we stuck with the inclusive ones and we were never disappointed. The Chef’s Table was based in the Horizons Restaurant and we did really enjoy this although lots of seasoned travellers complained about the lack of privacy with people walking through to other venues.
We did book to go to the Pearl main dining room on one occasion using the app which was no problem and we enjoyed the table service although the portion sizes were certainly not comparable to the availability elsewhere. Some of the menus in the other main dining rooms didn’t really appeal but we had a good choice in Pearl.
Bars were plentiful around the ship but we didn’t spend too much time drinking on board for various reasons; however we did do the pub quiz in Brodies bar next to the casino. We also spent some time in the Clubhouse for the house band, bingo and a comedy show.
On our last night we discovered Anderson’s library which was quiet and had board games which we took advantage of. We kinda wished we had found this one sooner as it was away from the hustle and bustle.
There were drinks served in the main atrium but this lacked the intimacy of a bar environment as everyone was walking past. None of the outside bars were open as you would expect on a fjords cruise when the weather is a little chilly. If we are honest we mostly quaffed the litre of spirits we brought on the boat with us!
We had a daily brochure delivered outside our cabin with the next days activities and there was always something going on; whether it was exercise classes, informative talks, demonstrations, cinema or shows. We attended a show in Headliners, and accessed the cinema and casino also. There is a whole big shopping area on board too where you can purchase nearly anything you need including duty frees. We didn’t use the pools or hot tubs; they were pretty small and being on a Norway cruise it wasn’t the warmest of weather. Even if it was, unfortunately the size of them put us off.
Hints and Tips!
Free tea and coffee is available in the Quays and also Horizons; however if you like one first thing and drink copious amounts of coffee then it may be worth doing what we did and bringing some with you and milk! I have lactose free milk so I brought some to keep in the fridge. There is a kettle and a fridge in the room but the tea and coffee supplies are quite limited. Also soft drinks on board are pretty expensive if you don’t have a drinks package so if you can bring some with you or buy them in port. If you bring a water bottle with you then there are filling stations including one in the skydome. Wine was around £20+ a bottle with dinner and bar prices were comparable with higher end pub prices but it does all soon add up!
For the smokers there are two smoking areas on deck 18 one at each end. One has a bit of a shelter and one is completely exposed to the elements. Pick wisely dependent on the day but the one towards the front of the ship was definitely the most popular.
Bingo and Casino
The bingo (we love a bit of bingo!) was actually quite disappointing and expensive. For each page there was only one game, ie one line, full house so we felt a bit cheated for the price we paid. It was fun but over very quickly so something to consider. The casino is small but has a few tables and a variety of slot machines. You can either charge your card or put cash in but if you win you have to cash it out with the cashier; it won’t come off your balance.
Despite the gale force winds we encountered which led to us missing our last stop no mal de mer was encountered. Our room was positioned low down and centrally which certainly helped and the size of the ship meant motion was at a minimum even during the roughest of seas. Did we see the Northern lights? The answer is no although they were visible one night when we were in our cabin and unfortunately we didn’t hear the announcement 🙁 The next night we camped out in the freezing cold on deck 15 with copious other people under towels; alas we were unlucky again! Apparently if you have the bow cam on the TV you will hear the announcements.
Our first cruise really was an enjoyable one, the worst thing about it was the other whining, moaning and self entitled passengers we heard being very rude to staff on board; especially after the last stop was cancelled. We had no real expectations given this was our first cruise. The ship itself was lovely, very modern with good facilities and we wanted for nothing leaving with full bellies and great memories 🙂 Thank you Iona and Captain Dunlop for a great week!
Carol & Chris x