Onboard the UK's largest cruise ship, Iona, on her maiden voyage

P&O Cruises’ new flagship boasts a gin distillery, 30 places to eat and drink, four swimming pools, 18 whirlpool spas, and is powered by liquefied natural gas

Friday, 20th August 2021, 2:08 pm

Draped in a shawl, marvelling at the silhouette of the tiny Hebridean island of Iona across the moonlit sea, my heart skips a beat as a wave of excitement engulfs our ship.

Anchored off her namesake isle, illuminated and majestic, P&O Cruises’ new flagship, Iona, is as breath-taking a sight as the kaleidoscope of fireworks lighting the sky in her honour.

To a chorus of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ glitter twinkles into the night, euphoric confirmation that the maiden voyage of the UK’s largest ever cruise ship is finally, and spectacularly, underway.

Iona sets sail from Southampton

As celebrations spill into the early hours, it seems that – barely two days into her scenic tour of the Scottish isles - the stars are aligning for Iona. From sunny sail-away and dolphins as we dropped anchor, to tonight’s carnival atmosphere and cloudless skies, everything just seems right.

They say the best things come to those who wait. I think they might be right.

Voyage of Discovery

In many ways, she had me at embarkation. Climbing the atrium’s shimmering staircase for the first time, drinking in glorious views through three decks of floor-to-ceiling glass, I felt the flicker of a love affair.

Fireworks light up the sky off Iona, the ship’s namesake isle.

Exploring surrounding venues, The Glass House serving up tasty tapas alongside Olly Smith-selected wines, and The Keel and Cow offering dry-aged steaks and signature burgers, I grew fonder still, enamoured by a chic, carefree ambiance and ocean panorama from all floors.

By the time we’d settled in our balcony cabin and enjoyed sail-away cocktails proceeded by a Mediterranean banquet and picture-perfect sunset in the Olive Grove restaurant, Iona was winning me over.

Star-studded

It’s Tuesday evening and, after a scenic sail-by of Tobermory with its pretty painted houses followed by a couple’s massage in the spa and relaxation heaven in the thermal suite, my husband and I are laughing out loud in The Limelight Club at Britain’s Got Talent cabaret queen, La Voix.

SkyDome is a unique all-weather venue with chilled pool vibes by day and a vibrant party atmosphere at night.

Joe Pasquale’s side-splitting show in Headliner’s Theatre is a tough act to follow but this vivacious diva has the post-dinner crowd eating out of her hand.

She’s so glittery and witty, we’ll need a night cap in the Crow’s Nest, to dreamy piano melodies, to calm down before bed.

Such is Iona’s size and design concept, it’s impossible to do it all in one cruise. We’re like kids in a candy shop, spoiled for choice, eager to try everything – and Sunday really whet our appetites for SkyDome.

A unique glass dome covering a pool and whirlpools with eatery, bar and a feel-good vibe, by day we relaxed, ate pizza and soaked up the all-weather sociability, then by night marvelled as it morphed into a buzzing nightspot for bird-themed trapeze show, Rise.

The thermal suite spa on Iona

It was a spectacular change of pace, and with laser shows, aerialist displays and upbeat DJ sets from Blur bassist Alex James on the horizon, this versatile venue will surely be a hit with cruising’s young at heart.

Floating resort

So much more than just a ship, Excel-class Iona is a floating resort boasting an eclectic mix of fabulous food, entertainment and relaxation.

Whether you’re grabbing a quick bite at The Quays – a trio of takeaways in a quirky plaza offering Asian food, fish and chips and American classics – or enjoying an evening of fine dining in the exquisite Epicurean restaurant, the choice is mesmerising.

Between the tranquillity of The Retreat and the cascading charm of the infinity pools at the ship’s aft, which afforded unrivalled views of the lush green Hebrides, we’ve sampled Marco Pierre White’s inspirational five-course gala dinner in the main restaurant, authentic Indian cuisine at Sindhu and ocean-inspired Marabelle gin, produced onboard in the first gin distillery at sea.

On Wednesday night, the premiere of Jonathan Wilkes’ wellie-stomping new stage show Festival raised the roof in Headliners Theatre, where Spandau Ballet legend Tony Hadley now has a packed house in standing ovation of ‘Gold’, the pinnacle song of an unforgettable comeback show.

The Retreat is an al fresco relaxation haven on Iona

It’s a fitting end to a fabulous Thursday evening, which began in the twilight of the 710 Club, an intimate late-night music venue where the stage is set for up-and-coming performers to earn their break.

Number one hits with a house twist was the theme of the club’s resident band and, had 710’s music director Gary Barlow been present, he’d surely have echoed our applause. He’ll be cruising soon, we’re told.

Looking back, we’ve laughed, explored, relaxed, indulged and lived Iona’s momentous maiden voyage to the fullest, making new friends and unforgettable memories. Looking forward, she’s cruising Spain and the Canary Islands from September … now, what haven’t we seen?

P&O Cruises is offering a seven-night cruise on Iona from £499 per person for an inside cabin, departing Southampton on September 11 and returning on September 18. The price includes full board meals and all entertainment. Guests will enjoy the scenic coastline of the Channel Islands and France. To book, visit www.pocruises.com or call 03453 555 111.

Peace of mind

All passengers must test negative for Covid-19 prior to boarding. By car, the simple drive-through test was free, with our negative results texted swiftly to our phones. The process took less than an hour.

Until September 24 - all guests must have received either an approved second dose or single-dose Covid-19 vaccination course 14-plus days before travel.

From September 25 to December 31 2021 - all guests aged 18 and over must have completed an approved two-dose or single-dose Covid-19 vaccination course 14-plus days before travel. All guests 17 and under without proof of vaccination require a negative PCR test 72 hours before travel.

Iona in numbers

- More than 30 places to eat and drink

- 4 swimming pools

- 18 whirlpools

- 5,200 guest capacity

- 1,800 crew

- 2,614 guest cabins

- 26 suites

- 95 conservatory mini-suites

- 1,486 balcony cabins

- 174 sea view cabins

- 811 inside cabins

- 22 single occupancy cabins

- 345m in length

- Tonnage of 185,000 GT

- Speed of 17kn

Authentic Indian cuisine in Sindhu.
Enjoy mellow ambiance and panoramic ocean views in the elegant surroundings of the Crow's Nest.
Enjoy West End worthy entertainment in Headliners Theatre.
Sample tasty tapas and Olly Smith's favourite wines in The Glass House.
Enjoy the outdoors, indoors in a new conservatory mini-suite on Iona.