On board the cruise ship with the first ever gin distillery at sea and a night club designed by Gary Barlow | The Sun

WHEN you book a cruise holiday, size really does matter.

Often previously likened to floating hotels, floating palaces even, ships have upped their game and the new breed are floating towns.

P&O Cruises' Iona, with 5,000- plus passengers and nigh-on 2,000 crew, is massive.

At 345 metres long it's among the world's top ten largest.

So bear that in mind and don't do what some of our fellow passengers were doing and complain it's "too big".

Surely that's something you might take into account when choosing your holiday?

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As relatively experienced cruisers we were ready for something different and, on the whole, found our Iona experience very rewarding — helped by a stay in a superbly appointed balcony cabin on deck ten (of 19).

Our 14-day trip from Southampton at the back end of November was due to call at Madeira, Tenerife, Gran Canaria,

Lanzarote, Cadiz and then overnight in Lisbon before returning home.

Weather meant Lanzarote was cancelled but that gave us the bonus of an overnight stop in Cadiz, so it was decent compensation.

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One feature of our cruise was that Gary Barlow came on board in Lisbon. Yes, that Gary Barlow.

He played two charity concerts in the ship's theatre, with passengers buying £10 raffle tickets to get a seat.

It raised thousands for good causes and provided hundreds with a night they will always remember.

Gary is a P&O Cruises "brand ambassador" and has helped design Iona's 710 club, a very popular live music venue, which was thronged every night.

Other celeb visitors who performed, gave talks, demonstrations and shared anecdotes included telly wine expert Olly Smith and chef José Pizarro, educating us on pairing food and wine.

Actress Jean Heard gave an entertaining talk on royal mistresses, and X Factor veterans Matt Terry and Christopher Maloney starred in Iona's Limelight Club.

The Limelight is one of a whole host of venues.

There are more bars and restaurants on Iona than you can comfortably visit on a fortnight's cruise and you're sure to find one with an ambience to suit, be it the sophisticated Crow's Nest (at the top of the ship, as you might imagine) or bustling Brodies, ten decks down, the social heart of the vessel.

Of course, a major part of any cruise is the destination ports and excursions.

While the delights of Cadiz and Lisbon, especially in the Christmas market season, are superb, and perfect for walking around with the ship berthed pretty centrally, we had our greatest fun ashore in Madeira and the Canaries.

Obviously, the first thing you need to do after being on a ship for three days is get off and enjoy a boat trip!

We did two, booked through P&O Cruises — a catamaran trip from Tenerife, to seek out whales and dolphins, and a RIB ride from Madeira to seek out, er, whales and dolphins.

Both expeditions were successful, the former had the advantage of free booze, the latter had the sheer joy of getting incredibly close to pilot whales —so near you could hear them blowing and see them under the water as they passed next to and beneath the boat. Awesome.

Back on board, Brodie's was the place to be as England launched their ultimately fruitless World Cup campaign against Iran.

You could have heard the cheers a mile inland from the Bay of Cadiz when Jude Bellingham put the Three Lions in front.

Blend your own Like a quiz? Go to Brodie's.

Enjoy a pint? Go to Brodie's.

Like a jukebox? Go to Brodie's.

Enjoy a quiet coffee and a chat? Don't go to Brodie's, go to the magnificent atrium instead.

Also worth stopping by is Anderson's bar, home of the firstever gin distillery at sea, producing a signature Marabelle tipple created in partnership with the Salcombe Distilling Co.

As well as sampling them in the bar, there is an opportunity to blend your own and take it home.

But enough of drinking. What about that mainstay of cruising, filling your face with food?

There's another change here from the tradition of P&O Cruises, "freedom dining". It's now the only offer in the MDRs (main dining rooms, to any cruise virgins).

A minority of people aren't entirely happy about it, with some bemoaning the fact they don't get to sit with the same people for dinner every night at a large table and forge new friendships.

My wife Lucy was among them, fed up of sharing a table with me every night now we both work from home, she'd been hoping for a break.

You can either arrange your mealtime in advance — using the "My Holiday" app which has been introduced to allow you to book restaurants, the premium payment speciality dining venues, entertainment and excursions —or join a virtual queue and get a message sent to you when your table is ready.

The virtual system is a good idea in principle, but there are teething problems with it — waiting times vary widely and there is no indication of just when you will be called to your table.

Service in the MDRs could best be described as "leisurely". While the waiting staff, like all the crew, were good-humoured and friendly, there were long pauses between courses.

The food was very good, but the menu samey, so by the end of the fortnight you were running out of options.

But that's all the more reason to pay a little extra and head to one of the speciality restaurants.

Modern Asian venue Sindhu was my favourite, while Lucy kept heading to the Med-inspired Olive Grove.

We also had great meals in Epicurean and the Beach House, though never got round to trying the tasty-looking steaks in The Keel And Cow.

Rest assured, P&O regulars, all your favourites are still there: the deck games, the guest speakers, the formal nights, the magical Headliners Theatre shows, kids' clubs, craft classes, the casino… but it's all wrapped in a bigger package.

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And relaxing in the ship's impressive Sundeck infinity pool or the SkyDome —with its pool and glass ceiling by day and thrilling entertainment by night — demonstrated how big can always be better.

Giant Iona's not for everyone but don't knock it without trying it. It's all about choice, and we chose a great voyage.


GETTING/STAYING THERE: 14-night cruises on Iona to Spain and Portugal cost from £669pp for an inside cabin, departing Southampton on March 4, 2023.

Or from £899pp for an inside cabin, from Southampton on September 23, 2023.

See pocruises.com, cruises G306 and G333 respectively.

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