This was our first cruise since March 2020 and also our first on P&O‘s new ship, Iona. This cruise had been originally scheduled for December 2020 and was originally planned to visit Hamburg, Zeebrugge (for Blankenberge or Bruges) and Rotterdam.
In November, Hamburg was replaced by Le Havre as Germany decided not to allow cruise ships from the UK to dock. The order of the ports was also re-worked as P&O replaced Hamburg on the itinerary within a few days of the announcement of the closure.
We had ordered lateral flow test from Boots as per the UK government requirements after our return. P&O had provided us with a checklist of “things to do “. The first and arguably the most important was the UK Passenger Locator Form on government website. This was not the easiest of forms to fill-in, especially given the double negative questions on the first page! We filled out our forms and then they were not accepted as it was too early before our return to Southampton.
After all the itinerary changes we then had to start again. Also we had to replace the lateral flow tests with PCR tests as UK government returning rules changed.
We booked walk-in appointments at a pop-up test centre in Wokingham for our PCR tests.
From friends recently returned from Paris, we learnt from their experiences what might be needed in France. Their recommendation was to go to a “pop-up “ in Wokingham town centre for our return test (rather than use the Boots postal service.) There we were able to book appointments on the afternoon of our return to Southampton.
The one thing that P&O did mention in the checklist what is the requirement in France to have a Covid pass. Again from our friends, we learned that this was best provided using the French smart phone app. In Paris they had had to use the app for entry into every bar or restaurant as well as even into some shops.
Once the UK passenger locator form was completed, we did the much simpler and user-friendly Belgium government website for their Passenger Locator Form. This was helped by P&O kindly providing all the necessary information for Iona‘s docking in Zeebrugge.
Three days before our departure we had to complete the P&O medical departure checks online and check-in. At the same time we printed boarding passes and luggage labels.
Our printed copies
In order to make sure we had no issues we now had printed copies of everything:
- UK Passenger Locator Forms
- Belgian Passenger Locator Forms
- NHS QR codes for our three vaccine jabs
- The P&O medical departure checks showing okay to board
- Appointment confirmation for our PCR tests on return
- Travel insurance papers including a reference for Covid support
- French government sworn undertaking forms (not filled in)
- NHS Covid passes showing details of every jab
- And our boarding passes
- Car park signage
All the above were carefully filed in a 1 inch ring binder in their own individual packets!
In our baggage we also had two boxes of lateral flow tests and our blood oxygen sensor. On our phones we had the NHS app showing vaccine status and our vaccine status logged into the French app!
Saturday 11th December 2022 Southampton
At Southampton docks
After leaving the motorways we followed the signs for dock gate 20 as advised by P&O. The Covid testing centre was well signposted and obvious as it was a large tent in a large open area on our right off the dock road.
First off we were asked if we had filled in the Belgian Passenger Locator Form and then we received a small sticker on our windscreen. After queueing for about eight minutes we drove into the tent. There we answered questions from our boarding passes plus gave mobile numbers and we watched as our details were entered into what look like smart phones.
Next we arrived at another station almost out of the tent and there we had our first lateral flow tests of the cruise. The ladies administering the tests were in full protective outfits. We were promised that our results will be texted to us shortly. Next we were told to drive to Iona’s terminal.
This meant leaving the port, passing IKEA before then going back into the port.
Rather than parking alongside the terminal, we were directed to one of the nearby car parks. There the car was photographed all around by CPS, we handed our car keys in. In another Covid related change we had to take our suitcases ourselves across to the terminal to be put onto the ship.
So far we have not been told if we were clear to board.
We entered the main hall and then sat and waited for our results to be texted. They came and were thankfully negative. We joined the queue for check-in. After our passports and boarding passes the only papers that we had to show from our stack of paperwork was our Belgium Passenger Locator Form! Having already done everything else online this made the checking process very easy.
Our boarding passes were needed to enter security and then again to enter the ship.
This was the next change in boarding the ship as our cruise cards would be at our cabin rather than being given to us at check-in. We followed all the directions and went to our designated muster station and again we scanned to show that we knew where it was.
Now it was time for lunch and we went to the Pearl restaurant on Deck 6. There we joined a table with three other passengers and had a restful buffet lunch while we waited for the cabins to be made available. It was a nice experience being able to simply sit at a table and chat to people about mundane things about cruising and what we were all expecting to see and do on the cruise.
We were relaxed enough that we waited long after the public announcement that the rooms are available before we made our way up to Deck 11. Much to our pleasant surprise our suitcases were waiting outside.
The next change on this cruise we could watch the details of ship safety on our TV in the room rather than going to the muster station for a long period of lectures. Downside of our cabin was that as we unpacked we found that there was not that much space for our clothes, so thankfully we were only on the ship for a week.
We tried to follow all the instructions on how to book restaurants and discovered that the only available slots were incredibly early or very late in the evening. Eventually we gave up and decided to simply turn up at the restaurant when we wanted to eat. The aft lifts were very close to our room and as there were eight of them in the lobby it was very easy for us to get down to the Pearl restaurant for dinner. After having our temperatures checked we joined a short queue before the desk and then were led to a table for two. We found it strange not sharing our table with other passengers as this had always been the case on earlier cruises.
Our first wander around the ship took us to the Atrium where we sat and had a drink in the Keel and Cow.
Then went up to have a look inside the Skydome.
Then we visited the Clubhouse bar on Deck 8, where we watched the house band Pulse and had our last drink of the evening.