Little Britain

MAUREEN MARRINER
Last updated 05:00 06/04/2014

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It's Madge, the scary grandmother from Benidorm, I'm sure of it. I had seen her before we left Auckland but she was in the distance, across rows of deck chairs and sunbathers and she wasn't the only one on a mobility scooter.

The weather had been glorious and Arcadia's passengers returning from day excursions gushed about what a wonderful day they'd had and how beautiful the city and it's surroundings were. We preened.

But the sun's down, we're underway and I am stuck behind Madge's scooter in one of the long narrow corridors. I still can't see her face but the hair's the same and so are the pea-stick leathery brown arms. A cabin door opens, my view is blocked and Madge trundles on.

There are few Europeans on this, Arcadia's first circumnavigation since a major refit. A horde of Australians boarded in Los Angeles but the majority are Brits, many having locked up retirement units and fled the worst of the northern winter. More than a few of them look as if they spend their summers in Spain, tending their tans.

They often seem to want to chat, especially in lifts, so, bah goom, we go with the flow. Sometimes it's like living in a soap opera. There's Madge of course, and older versions of her daughter and sunburnt son-in-law.

I'm sure I've seen Rolf Harris getting away from it all, and I know Our Cilla (Black) is on board - she wore an audacious pink feather fascinater to one of the evening shows. Well, it's Cilla getting on a bit, with platinum-blonde hair and a dicky hip. Pam Ayers is also here and I know because we spoke. The entertainer has been on holiday in New Zealand and is doing a couple of shows en route to Sydney.

At a breakfast, Aussie Gordon gives us chapter and verse on how the Arcadia's efficient and ever-polite staff (860 for 2000 passengers) could teach waiters in his home town a thing or two.

One of the reasons he's keen to talk is that his wife has not been feeling well and has been confined to her cabin for days. Any hint of a tummy upset and it's cabin fever until you are better. The concern about norovirus is everywhere.

"Never touch the rails on the staircases," a colleague had screeched pre-trip and there are, apparently, old hands who never shake on board - they touch elbows. It is explained simply: "If we were in an isolated village and there was an incidence of norovirus, it would be like wildfire. Well, we are a village and we need to take stringent precautions."

Arcadia is a no-children ship, which also excludes most young couples whose ideas of a quiet getaway may not include spending it among a couple of thousand with an average age of 67. Given that average, many have health challenges and one of the busiest sections - there are directions in all lifts - is the health centre. And there is a morgue.

Similarly eerie, I am awoken one morning by the sound of foghorns and the early rounds of the promenade deck are strange as we slip through grey-white cottonwool.

The captain, Coventry-born and bred Aseem Hashmi, tells us during a visit to the bridge that they had spent the early hours dodging fishing boats.

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Among the statistics he rolls off are that although we are rudderless, there are two propeller pods beneath the stern, each the size of a double decker bus and that he's the one in charge of what he calls "the controlled collision" as Arcadia comes into each port.

According to maritime law Hashmi is god here. He officiates at a wedding and could mete out punishments but he would later have to justify them. And he's the man during the pirate-riddled leg from Dubai to Egypt where P&O has armed guards for two years. Not that the captain has any real concerns.

"Pirates would be more worried about the passengers than the other way around," he says. "All those Dorises and Norrises would be hitting them with their handbags."

When someone with a mobility-scooter fixation mentions them, he quips: "They would be run backwards and forwards over the pirates. Wouldn't have a chance."

He warns that we are heading into "weather", which results a cradle-rock night and a bit of up and down for the next day or so but nothing I think is major, despite this being my first crossing. However, it is apparently the roughest on the trip so far and proves a challenge for the recently refitted sewerage system. Some cabins report nasty smells but maintenance crews turn out and the glitch is disappeared.

I love our balcony cabin and feel sorry for those whose inside rooms have curtains that are always closed because the "window" is nonexistent. Not so apparently. Experienced cruisers started with balconies then went to outside cabins (real windows), then moved inside. "Why pay all that extra when I only use it for sleeping."

When they are awake their options suit the active, the inactive and those in between - that probably takes in the knit-wit class. But unlike other cruises, there are no Friends of Bill meetings, the onboard Alchoholics Anonymous sessions. Neither are there any Friends of Dorothy get-togethers, which means that despite this being a little Britain, there are no gays in this village.

As with all cruises, the food is non-stop. The main, two-tier restaurant, the Meridien, now offers a "freedom dining" option for those who don't want to be restricted to the first or second dinner sitting.

We hear murmurings of discontent, however. Some bristle that they don't know what shipboard life is coming to - they want organisation and that includes silver service. Far more relaxed is the cafeteria-type Belvedere, open 24/7 and with Arcadia's best breakfasts.

Two further options are the fine dining East restaurant, specialising in Asian fusion, and Marco Pierre White's Ocean Grill, which is glory on many plates.

A run-through of the menu offers: smoked finnan haddock and quail scotch eggs; grilled lobster; five different cuts of grass-fed British steak; Gloucester Old Spot pork belly; Valrhona chocolate truffle tart; and baked brioche and golden raisin bread-and-butter pudding. Amazingly not all the tables are booked.

What is going on? This food, this presentation, these surroundings are lovely and the individual surcharge is the equivalent of about $30 a meal. Probably belongs in the horses-for-courses basket. Spoilt for choice.

The second half of the trip has the weather behind us and the baskers take over the sundecks, some like sea lions moving only to heave themselves from one side to the other. I want to prod them, say they are not in Benidorm now and ask if they have heard about the hole in the ozone layer. I say nothing but think, smugly: "you'll be sorry".

Trip's end in Sydney and awaiting our disembarkation timeslot, I look over the balcony and see Madge, scootering away, equipped for a day trip. I shout, calling her name. She must be too far away to hear.

FACT FILE

Catering exclusively to adults, P&O Cruises World Cruising's Arcadia will undertake a full world circumnavigation over 106 nights in 2015, with visits to 36 destinations in 25 countries.

The 83,700 tonne Arcadia offers 12 decks of facilities including theatres, lounges, shops, deck sports and gymnasium, two pools and five whirlpool spas, as well as the Oasis Spa and thermal suite. It is also home to five dining options including specialty dining with Marco Pierre-White's Ocean Grill and Atul Kochhar's East, as well as 14 bars. Almost 70 per cent of the liner's 1050 cabins offer balconies.

Arcadia's 20-night voyage from San Francisco to Sydney departs on January 31, 2015 and is priced from $4479 per person twin share. The full 106-night world voyage, which departs Southampton on January 6, 2015, is priced from $25,919 per person twin share.

Meanwhile Arcadia's sister ship Aurora will visit Tauranga, Auckland and the Bay of Islands in 2015 on her 105-night South America and Pacific Adventure, with fares from $6849 per person for a 33-night sector from Auckland to San Francisco departing February 26, 2015.

For more information and bookings please see a travel agent, call 0800 543 430 or visit pocruises.com.

The writer travelled courtesy of P&O Cruises World Cruising.

- Sunday Star Times

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