What could gin, low emissions and Gary Barlow possibly have in common? They all play key roles in Iona, the latest addition to P&O Cruises' fleet.
Launched last night with a naming ceremony in Iona's homeport, Southampton, she is Britain's largest and most environmentally friendly cruise ship to date. Fuelled entirely by liquefied natural gas, Iona – P&O's first next-generation, Excel-class ship – generates minimal exhaust emissions, with significantly less CO² and zero nitrogen or sulphur.
Innovations around the ship include an extraordinary 'SkyDome', the first gin distillery at sea and the 710 Club: a live music venue helmed by Take That's Gary Barlow.
Iona's launch sounds a positive note for an industry hammered by the pandemic. “It's a landmark day for P&O Cruises and the travel industry as a whole," said company president, Paul Ludlow. “We're on the cusp of a bright new beginning and Iona’s inaugural season of UK cruises has seen overwhelming demand.”
Here's what to expect onboard.
Style and design
As the largest ship ever to fly the UK flag, Iona presents an epic canvas for showcasing the best of British. Public areas have been designed to maximise a sense of light and space, with a versatile, three-deck atrium filling the heart of the ship and an airy, multi-purpose SkyDome: an all-weather, glass-roofed venue that lets the outside in. Decorating it all is a multi-million-pound, 4,600-piece art collection that celebrates the work of over 60 UK artists spanning photography, paintings, reliefs, textiles and sculptures.
Staterooms and suites
Iona can accommodate 5,200 guests across seven cabin types, from suites and balcony cabins to inside cabins, sea-view cabins and single-traveller cabins. Styled by London-based hospitality design firm, Richmond International (whose previous projects include The Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas and London landmark The Langham), they're all decked out in a tasteful palette of navy blue, white, sand and touches of gold. Of particular note are the 95 conservatory mini-suites, a new addition for P&O Cruises' inventory that feature an outdoor/in, conservatory-style space that connects the main room with the balcony.
Bars and restaurants
Dining is a cruise holiday highlight. Iona's 30 bars and restaurants have something to please every palate, be it 'the best burger at sea' from The Keel and Cow gastropub or a six-course Nordic tasting menu at Epicurean. New additions for Iona include The Glass House's tapas menu from award-winning Spanish chef José Pizarro and a Chef's Table menu from the UK's own Marco Pierre White. Also seeing its debut for the brand is Ripples, an ice-cream café whose offer includes a gelato afternoon tea. Bar-wise, The Crow's Nest serves drinks with panoramic views, or try Emerald for cocktails and live entertainment.
The first gin distillery at sea
One of Iona's most noteworthy 'firsts' is the introduction of a gin distillery. Created in association with Devon-based Salcombe Gin, the on-board still will produce P&O's own-brand Marabelle Gin flavoured with 18 different botanicals including heather and sea kelp (a nod to the Scottish island after which the ship is named). As well as providing gin for cocktails served in Anderson's Bar and Library, the distillery will host gin masterclasses that include an option for guests to create their very own gin recipe to bottle and take home.
Health-conscious passengers can get their heart rates up in any of four swimming pools or at the gym, whose all-new exercise classes include boxing and high-intensity cardio. Relax afterwards in The Retreat, an adults-only outdoor space with cocktails, cabanas and ocean views. More peaceful still is The Oasis Spa, which offers a hydrotherapy suite and – a first for P&O – a salt steam room.
After a year's worth of Covid restrictions, we're all looking forward to a few nights out. Iona's entertainment offering provides plenty of options – from acrobatic shows in the SkyDome to movie screenings at Ocean Studios. The biggest news though is The 710 Club, an intimate bar that's set to become the most exciting live music venue at sea. Under the auspices of music director, Gary Barlow, the late-night venue will showcase the talents of up-and-coming musicians, giving them an opportunity to get their first big break.
There's also plenty of distraction for younger travellers, too. An onboard activity programme caters for all ages from toddlers to teens, in the guise of computer games, puppet shows or pirate treasure hunts.
With so much to celebrate, Iona merits the fanfare surrounding her launch. The event was held at sunset last night and hosted by DJ Jo Whiley on the quayside in Southampton, attended (virtually, of course) by 25,000 guests. Iona's godmother, Dame Irene Hays of Hays Travel, Britain’s largest independent travel agency, named the ship with a specially produced Nebuchadnezzar of Britpop cider before the highlight of the event – a short set by Iona's musical director, Gary Barlow. It all added up to a show-stopping send-off for this remarkable new ship.
Iona's inaugural season kicks off in August with a series of UK coastal cruises, including a maiden voyage that takes in her namesake Scottish island. A seven-night UK cruise costs from £579pp. Book via pocruises.com or through a travel agent.