Wednesday, 30 October 2019

P&O Cruises J916 Arcadia 10th October - 29th October 2019

This was my 38th cruise with P&O and my review includes tips and advice for anyone booked with them or considering it.   The cruise was a much better experience in the main dining room (MDR) compared to my Aurora cruise in April (see here), but in other areas of the ship I was disappointed.   I contacted the Operations Director of Food & Beverage at P&O in April and many of the issues I pointed out have not been addressed and I hope to get some updates after this review.   I was told further dietary training would be carried out, but I did not spot any evidence of this personally, as staff thought I was anything but vegan, thinking I was gluten free, lactose free or vegetarian.

The cabin we had included a welcome on board box of chocolates and bottle of champagne, though no thought if vegan friendly or not.   I had a word with butler Sumanta who exchanged the champagne for Canti Organic Prosecco, but he was unable to source vegan chocolates on board.   I find this annoying as you are asked about dietary requirements on booking, which the ship should be aware of and those with dairy or lactose allergies must be equally as frustrated.   P&O could offer two products they already stock, Canti Prosecco and We Love Cake vegan chocolate orange tarts and if I saw this in our cabin on embarkation day, I would be very happy.

The evening canapes by default are not vegan, but Sumanta kindly had a word with room service chef Sigrid Gutang, who produced some scrumptious canapes throughout the cruise, which were perfect nibbles before dinner.

A letter was in the cabin from the Senior Restaurant Manager, assuring me my dining experience would be top notch, no request was too small and inviting me to a dietary meeting the following sea day.   My advice is attend this meeting and if you do not receive the letter, you are likely not noted down as vegan, so must speak to the Restaurant Manager or Head Waiter on the first night, so you know when and where the meeting is.   At the meeting you meet the diet chefs, can ask questions and see what products are on board.   The meeting I went to had Schar gluten free vegan penne pasta and spaghetti (other pasta contains egg), Alpro yogurts and chocolate and vanilla desserts, four kinds of Violife cheese, Swedish Glace ice cream, mayonnaise, rice, oat, almond and soya milk.   I find not all products are displayed and P&O are poor at letting you know what is available, like We Love Cake vegan chocolate orange tarts and apple pies available on my last four or five cruises, yet on this cruise never in the buffet diet section or at the dietary meeting.   I would suggest the dietary letter should include a full list of specialist products, whatever your dietary requirement with who to ask to access them, so passengers are fully informed.

Our grade of cabin included breakfast in Sindhu on deck eleven, an Asian inspired restaurant at night with wonderful sea views during the day, ideal for breakfast.  The service and food was excellent and once I mentioned which plant milk I preferred, it was brought to the table without prompting.   The only downside were last orders by 9.00 am on a port day and 9.30 am on a sea day, which was far too early, so most of the time we went to the buffet open for breakfast until 11.30 am.

The first night is never easy, waiters have no idea of your dietary requirement, but bear with them as it improves thereon.   My tip is do not be disheartened and ask to speak to the Head Waiter, so you are given the vegan and vegetarian menu, which has at least one vegan dish per course.   As a vegan with allergies the diet chefs look after my meals and I am given the vegan and vegetarian, lunch and dinner menus each evening, giving more choice to order for the following day.  Vegans sailing on P&O ships got in touch during my cruise via Twitter, complaining of restricted choice with only the vegan and vegetarian menu to order from on the night.   Their experiences were disappointing, with no invite to the dietary meeting, so my advice is email at least three months prior to boarding, inform them you are vegan with a dairy allergy, so will be given all three menus and be catered for by the diet chef team.

In the MDR I requested vegan versions of soups, Violife cheese in dishes like Greek or Caprese salad, risotto cakes or any dish with cheese.   If you think a dish can be made vegan do not be afraid to ask and be explicit as to what you want, I create my own menu some nights from non vegan dishes off all three menus, so be inventive.  I would also suggest if you have a less than accommodating Head Waiter speak to the Restaurant Manager immediately and complain.   Another tip is write down your order in detail and take a photo of it, or make two copies so you can make sure you get what you asked for and hand it to your Head Waiter, so if there are any problems you can refer back to it.

The experience in the MDR in the main was excellent, the diet chefs made some fabulous dishes and I had no allergy issues.   The chefs were particularly vigilant along with my Head Waiter who would print off a recipe if I was concerned about its suitability, to see if it could be tweaked by using almond milk instead of soya milk for example.   I have included photos of some of the dishes which shows the variety and if you have a large appetite just ask for a big portion or bulk out dishes with extra potatoes, chips, vegetables or bread.

 Houmous, tortilla chips & crudite

 Garlic mushroom, tomato & avocado salad

 Melted cheese, tomato & basil salad

Chickpea soup with chickpea croutons

Asparagus soup

Tomato soup

Mushroom bourguignon

 Spinach, chickpea & tomato pasta

Stir fry with crispy rice noodles

 Lemon souffle

 Chocolate brownie

Caramelised banana

Chefs work to recipes created in the development kitchen, yet dishes can be unrecognisable to those previously, which I do not understand, an example being potato gnocchi, charred broccoli, roast onions and hazelnut jus.   The dish on this cruise had no broccoli, pickled onions and pieces of carrot in a creamy sauce, looked like a plate of vomit, which I could not face eating.   How different to the dish I had on Arcadia last year, much more appetising and a completely different dish.

Some of the vegan dishes are rather sad, one being a spring lettuce and black olive salad starter, which should be removed from the menu in my opinion.   I know the trend is for chefs to be economical with the truth as to dish descriptions, so expected more, but it literally was lettuce and olives.   I posted this photo on Twitter, which attracted a lot of attention as you can imagine and the comments were not complimentary.

I was never offered petit fours on the entire cruise and it was intermittent if Steven got any at the beginning of the cruise and half way through they stopped altogether, though no idea why.   What would it take to offer something suitable for us both, with so many vegan chocolate products available and dairy, egg or lactose intolerant passengers must have the same problem,

In other areas of the ship like Caffe Vivo there were no vegan cakes and sandwiches, yet how easy to offer a vegan cake accommodating a multitude of diets, the chocolate orange tart and apple pies being prime examples.   I am used to popping into Starbucks, Costa Coffee or Caffe Nero to name but a few and enjoy a savoury or sweet treat with my tea or coffee, on P&O this is impossible unless you take your own.

The buffet is pretty dire if I am honest, so I ate baked potato, lettuce, tomato, cucumber and carrot most days, with vegan cheese, guacamole or houmous I brought on board with me.   Salads were heavily dairy or egg based and some days were better than others with dolmades, roast vegetables and bean dishes available, but ask each day as vegetables mostly had butter on. 

Twice during the cruise I was told by buffet staff dishes were dairy free but obviously not, as I was sick and felt poorly all day.   Another buffet chef said the hash browns were not vegan as they contained egg, he was wrong as someone else printed me the ingredients list.   There were no sausages on display, yet there are Goodlife vegetarian sausages, fortunately also vegan, so you can have a decent cooked breakfast, so again do not be afraid to ask.

You can order off the MDR lunch menu with your Head Waiter at night or ask for other items you fancy for lunch in the buffet, where the Head Waiter on duty will have your order brought up from the galley.   One day it took me fifteen mins to find a jacket potato and plain salad as I asked on one section about the guacamole and it had dairy in it, I asked on another section and corn on the cob was cooked in milk, another dish the bean part of huevos rancheros was only vegetarian even without the egg. 

This all takes time and is hard work as you cannot jump the queue just to ask a question (you would get lynched) and the chefs are so busy behind the counters.  There are staff walking round with aprons on saying 'Can I Help' who are lovely and want to assist, but everyone I asked thought I was gluten free not vegan.

I was collared by a waiter in the Crows Nest selling the Eric Lanlard afternoon tea one day, so asked if they could cater for a vegan with allergies, he had no idea what vegan was, so took my cabin number and said he would find out, but I never heard anything further about it.   The online menus do not include a vegetarian option, although I know people who had an excellent vegan afternoon tea on Britannia, maybe they are more geared up on the bigger ships.

I went to the buffet to see what vegan options were on the afternoon tea up there, absolutely zero and even if there were any you would have no idea, as nothing is labelled properly.

I enquired in the Aquarius pool about vegan Magnums and the waiter went off to look to no avail, yet in the UK you find them all over the place, even WH Smith on the motorway services or Tesco Express.   I asked in the pool area grill and was ecstatic to see a vegan burger, which was also gluten free, but no vegan cheese or mayo, though I was pleased to be told it was cooked separately.

I cannot finish my review without a mention of butler Sumanta, who I first met in 2013 on Oceana, he is the utmost professional and always goes the extra mile.   I never had to ask for more almond milk, coffee, bananas which he knew I liked so there were always two in the fruit bowl every day and chocolate orange tarts appeared nearly every other day, he knew what I wanted before I did.   If you asked Sumanta to do something, which was rare as he was so efficient, it was done immediately and if ever you saw him in the corridor, you always got a big smile or a wave.   When Sumanta brought the canapes each evening, we had a chat about our day, upcoming events that evening and following day, it was a pleasure to have him look after us.

This review may appear to paint a bad picture of P&O, but having heard about the woeful experiences on other cruise lines, they are miles ahead, as other lines offer nothing like the vegan products P&O do.   The staff are willing and try their hardest, but dietary requirements are dictated by Carnival UK Head Office, responsible for menu development and design, product sourcing, availability and staff training.   There is a huge growth in the UK vegan market and I was amazed at the number of vegans contacting me from other P&O ships, those with future cruises booked and those considering a cruise who had concerns, so I hope this review enlightens them a little, to ensure they get the most out of their vegan dining experience.

In years gone by I would write to P&O to request products like plant milk, mayonnaise, yogurts, margarine to be on board, which these days are a stock product.   On a stores tour on one cruise about fifteen years ago, there was a box with my name on, containing all the vegan items I asked for, so P&O are more than accommodating.

I have cruises booked next year and the year after and people ask why I persevere with P&O when I find fault, but if people like me jump ship and stop cruising, they lose my feedback to help them understand what vegans want.   I would be pretty stupid to leave now, just as things are improving, as I appreciate the logistics of changing such a huge catering operation is slow and the work involved in the background is massive.   I have offered my services to P&O to help them understand the vegan market, as well as to other vegans, so if you are reading this review and have any questions, please feel free to contact me, I am more than happy to help, being a passionate cruiser who loves being at sea.

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