Cruising From Malta, Part One

I won’t bother taking you through all the preliminaries for this cruise except to say this time I choose to fly to Malta to pick up the cruise ship, P&O Azura. It cuts out a couple of days chugging down the Channel and crossing the Bay of Biscay before the weather warms up. This is a first for me and is really a couple of back-to-back seven-day cruises. The first week takes me to Greece and the Greek islands then it is back to Malta for a changeover day. Then it is a week in the Adriatic, before returning to Malta for the flight home. The ship will then be doing another weeks cruise up the other side of Italy going to the likes of Naples and Civitavecchia (for Rome), before repeating the whole procedure all summer. So, by cutting out a number of sea days crossing the Bay of Biscay, I get to visit more places and get to the sunshine more quickly.

Day 1 – Thursday. Gatwick to Malta.

My flight out of Gatwick was timed to depart at 07:25 and we were asked to check in two hours before departure. It’s about 50 mins driving time from Worthing to Gatwick so working backwards I booked my premium car parking to arrive at 05:00. You leave your car in the short-term car park at the North Terminal and walk across the bridge straight into check-in while the airport’s official company parks the car for you. It is a little more expensive than the long-term car park but having used the service at Christmas I had no hesitation in doing it again. To get to Gatwick for 05:00 meant I had to get up rather early, so I set my alarm for 03:45 and went to bed early.

I was awake a couple of minutes before the alarm went off and dragged myself out of bed. It was 04:05 when I set off for the airport and the roads were delightfully empty until I got on the M23 when there was a little bit more traffic. I arrived at the car park at 04:55 to discover that since I last used the premium parking the system has changed a bit. Instead of the attendant who checks you in and takes photos of the car, you now drive through a bay where fixed cameras take photos from all angles before a barrier rises and you park in a lane of cars all checking in.

I must say they were very efficient; I had only just got my suitcase out of the boot and the lady was there with her tablet computer checking me in, collecting my keys and handing over the card to reclaim them at the end of the holiday. The whole process couldn’t have taken more than a couple of minutes before I was off wheeling my suitcase to departures. Here I would like to thank whoever it was that put wheels on suitcases, yes, I am old enough to remember having to carry them yourself or look for a porter.

The North Terminal at Gatwick should be renamed the EasyJet terminal. Just about all the departure level you walk into is their check-in zone, from experience I knew that the TUI desks were up a level in Zone D. There were four desks open for my flight and probably 30 people in the snaking queue in front of me. But it moved very quickly, I suspect this has something to do with the arrangement P&O has with TUI. You don’t get a flight ticket, you just present your passport and put your hold luggage on the conveyor and out pops your boarding card, it took two minutes tops. Here I heard a bit of good news, due to major building work at Valletta airport TUI had been asked if they would mind taking the hold luggage in bond straight from the plane to the ship. This was supposed to be for two weeks, but this was now the fourth week!

Next comes the bit I hate, airport security. I never understood why you must put the contents of your pockets, including handkerchiefs, into a basket to be x-rayed. But oddly, since my last fly cruise I was allowed to keep my shoes on. Since the incident with the shoe bomber, I have got used to having my shoes x-rayed but my handkerchief was a first! Are they checking that you have a cold and might pass it on?

Of course, I set off the metal detector and got sent, along with about 90% of other people, to the full body scan machine. It seems it is so sensitive that the small metal clip on my trousers set it off! I had been told to put my flight bag and jacket in one tray and my iPad, iPhone, Kindle, watch, belt and the contents of my pockets in another. The X-ray machine passed my iPad etc. but rejected my flight bag. I was called over to one side, where a lady tapped into a computer to find what was wrong. Thank goodness it was nothing serious, the machine had produced a fuzzy image and the operator had to ask for it to go through the system a second time. This time it worked properly, and I was reunited with my bag.

Next is the enforced snaking walk through the ‘Duty-Free’ shops before you join the heaving masses in the departure lounge. First stop is finding a departure board, and the huge relief when you discover your flight is on time and your boarding gate will be displayed at 06:25, which is about 40 minutes. Have I got time for a Spoons breakfast? Looking at the massive queue, the answer is no, so it’s a breakfast sandwich and a bottle of water from Boots. There must be more shops in the North Terminal than the whole of the main shopping street in Worthing, but I ignored them. I don’t want a Harrods teddy bear or a bottle of spirits that is cheaper in Tesco.

The gate number popped up at exactly 06:25. Little did I know that Boarding Gate 46 is at the very end of the pier. Four travelators and two long walks later, I arrive at the Gate and plonk myself down to wait a bit longer. A pleasant couple sit down next to me, and the wife starts chatting. They live in Berkshire and had been at the airport all night. She tells me she is a nurse and had only got off shift at eight the previous evening so they had caught the last train from Reading to Gatwick and it had arrived at about 01:30. Where we were seated on the plane was discussed and my boarding card said Row 31 Seat B, it being an oldish Boeing 737-800, I knew the seating was the three wide either side of the aisle so B was a middle seat which meant that I would have a single passenger in the A seat. The lady turned to her husband and asked where they were seated as he had the boarding cards. Strangely she was in 31C, and he was across the aisle in 31D.

A plumpish girl in her late 20s early 30s arrived for the A seat. We were ready to go by 07:25, but the female pilot informed us that due to congestion she had been told that ‘Push Back’ wouldn’t be until 07:40. We finally moved off at 07:50, on a stop-start journey to the end of the runway and took off at 08:10. Unlike the flights to the Caribbean if you want food or drink on the flight it had to be paid for. The menu offered both hot and cold food, with loads of toasted sandwiches, almost every single one included cheese which gives me migraine, so they were out. But they had a hot bacon roll on the menu, and I thought I might try that. Of course, by the time the service got to me they had all gone. It seems they only had four on board which for a plane with nearly 200 passengers is ridiculously few. So, I settled for a Diet Coke, they didn’t even have Coke Zero.

The two-hour forty-five-minute flight went very quickly, despite there being no seatback entertainment on this flight. We spent a lot of time answering Hanna in seat A’s questions on cruising. This being her first we tried to reassure her that everything was simple. When we landed at Valletta, we parked miles from the terminal and endured a long airport bus ride past what appeared to be a major rebuild of the airport, I can’t see it being finished for years! We were deposited outside the arrivals building and it soon became apparent that the passport control computers were down and they were struggling to cope with three flights that had all arrived within minutes of each other. The queues in front of the desks were enormous and moving very slowly.

For some unknown reason passport control wanted the flight boarding card as well as your passport. They then scanned the passport before writing out longhand all the details on a form, including airport of departure, flight number, and for all I know your inside leg measurement. No wonder it was so slow. Thank goodness there was no suitcase to collect and lug to the coaches as they were at the far end of the coach park. It now became apparent that a third of the people on my plane were Jet2 customers going on holiday in Malta and the rest were with P&O. I later found out that the same sort of thing was happening at Manchester where a plane was operated by Jet2 and the passengers were 70/30 Jet 2 and P&O.

The coach to the port was comfortable and modern and we were at the port within 15 minutes. I must admit I was a little surprised when the coach went past the ship and pulled up at an entrance to a tunnel into a cliff face. Inside, in a large cool area, was the ship’s check-in. This was super-efficient, just show your passport and embarkation document, it was stamped ‘OK to Board’ and in the next cavern were the dreaded metal detectors and X-ray machines. But this time it was straight through without the slightest bleep. Coming out of the tunnel you were on the dockside right at the bow of the ship, so a short walk to the gangway and I was onboard.

As usual, the first step is to check in at your muster station. This is just to show that you know where to go in the event of an emergency. It is then off to your cabin where a safety video is playing on the TV. Gone are the days of making all the passengers assemble at the muster station. I am happy to say that my muster station is the theatre so at least I should have a comfortable seat if there is an emergency.

WorthingGooner, Going Postal
WG’s Balcony Cabin.
© WorthingGooner 2024, Going Postal

As is the case, I had hardly been in my cabin two minutes before my cabin steward presented himself. He introduced himself as Dexter, I thought that was a breed of cattle, and was delighted that I was an old hand on P&O ships, so he didn’t have to explain everything to me. He went away happy with a €20 note in his pocket and a promise of more at the end of the cruise if he did a good job. Tipping on P&O ships is included in the fare so anything extra like this is a real bonus.

By now I was feeling peckish, so I popped into the buffet for something to eat. I found some prawns and had a lovely prawn salad. As on most ships people crowd the tables nearest where the food is being served. A short walk takes you into a far less busy area or even outside to eat on a terrace at the ship’s stern. I headed back to my cabin to find my suitcase had arrived so thought, do I try and get an hour’s sleep now and unpack later or unpack now and sleep later? I must have closed my eyes then because I woke an hour or so later and forced myself to unpack. I have a large open wardrobe with loads of space and plenty of cupboards and drawers.

Tonight is a casual dress evening in the Main Dining Room, I shall have a shower and a shave before dinner to wash away the sweat of a tiring day and get into some clean clothes. I have plenty of time as I am on the second (20.30) sitting. On reflection, one thing I find a little strange is that when the plane landed they didn’t bother to tell people that it was an hour ahead of BST here in Malta. I wonder if it will catch out any inexperienced travellers?

At 20:30, I arrived at the MDR for dinner and despite a throng around the reception desk a commie waiter was quickly told to take me to my allotted table which I was surprised to see was a table for four. I had asked to be on a table for eight, but you don’t always get what you ask for. One man was already seated at the table, and we introduced ourselves. It turned out he was an Aussie who had worked for many years in the London Embassy and although now retired back to Sydney, Australia, he spent several months every year in a house he owned in England and visiting English friends. He said he always went on a P&O cruise while in England as he loved the style. He had cruised with many companies but found most American lines too brash.

We waited a few minutes for the other two on the table to join us, but no one did so. The waiter suggested we order. Now, the part you have been waiting for, I had tomato and basil soup, followed by a medium-rare sirloin steak with chips, broccoli and green beans. It was delicious. I don’t know if the early flights had put people off the MDR and they had decided on a quick meal in the buffet and early night, but the room was unusually quiet. Not that it bothered the Aussie and me, it meant the service was fast and attentive.

For dessert I simply had ice cream, vanilla and mint choc chip, and then coffee. P&O coffee is not the very best, but it is quite drinkable. While drinking the coffee, our waiter for the cruise came over and introduced himself and his commie waiter saying he hoped we had enjoyed our meals and if there was anything he could sort out for us we only had to ask. There not being a Crows Nest Bar on this ship, we retreated to the Planet Bar for a night cap. The Planet is similar to the Crows Nest but doesn’t have the extensive views, instead it has a TV wall which shows the skyline of world cities shifting between London, New York, Bangkok, Shanghai, Paris and many others.

Back in my cabin for a fairly early night, I still have sleep to catch up on, I discover a card in my letter rack telling me the ship’s clock will advance one hour at two AM to get us onto Greek time. Will I ever catch up on my sleep?

WorthingGooner, Going Postal
Day 2 Friday – At Sea (the Ionian Sea).
© WorthingGooner 2024, Going Postal

There is no point in pulling the curtains over the door and window onto the balcony, who is going to be out there in the middle of the Mediterranean watching you? It was still grey when I woke, and a bit overcast with a light swell moving the ship slightly. It was six-thirty, so I lay there in bed watching the scattered white horses on the sea until it was time to get up and ready myself for breakfast. By now, having read several of my cruise postcards, you will know that I much prefer to eat breakfast in the MDR where I am served, rather than the hell that is eating in the buffet. The only problem here is that my cabin is toward the front of the ship on Deck 15, the Lido Deck, and the MDR for breakfast is on Deck 6 at the stern of the ship. So, I must navigate nearly the full length of the ship every time I go to the MDR to eat.

The easiest way is to walk the length of the Lido Deck and go down in one of the stern lifts. But it is easier said than done. I must first walk past several cabins and then out through a door onto the side of a pool, then past that pool, past the mid-ship lifts, past another pool, through the buffet restaurant to the stern lifts and down to deck six. This morning at a few minutes to eight you could bag a sun lounger easily by either pool, but the buffet was busy. I got a lift down almost immediately and arrived at the Oriental Restaurant a fraction after eight. The routine is to give the receptionist your cabin number and say whether you want to eat alone or on a shared table. I tend to ask for a shared table, that way you get to meet people. This morning the receptionist said it is very quiet and it might be sometime before anyone else asks for a shared table, but being in no hurry I still took the shared option, and she opened a new one. I was shown to it through an almost deserted restaurant. I could have counted the number of occupied tables on the fingers of one hand. I landed up on a table for six next to the table I had been on for dinner the previous evening. No sooner than I had sat down than a couple were shown to the table, followed a minute later by two men. So much for it being some time.

First Sea Day

Of course I had my usual Rice Krispies, but I followed up with a mushroom omelette and bacon and of course square toast. I have occasionally complained that food in the dining room is not hot enough, but today’s omelette was extremely hot! No complaints from me. The two gents were widowers and friends who met up to holiday. They had never cruised before and were interested in picking up tips. One of the men said he had read that portion sizes had got smaller. But I pointed out that you could ask for a big portion if you were a big eater or even ask for a second helping it would always be served.

Back to my cabin which, I was delighted to see, had been serviced. A letter in my rack told me that the easy trip I had booked on Mykonos tomorrow has been reclassified as it now involved an hour-and-a-half, guided walk around the town instead of a bus tour. I think I might pop down and cancel the trip. I don’t think my back will take that. Anyway, it’s out to the balcony where it is plenty warm enough to write up this tale and to start reading a new book on my Kindle. I have about 10 novels to pick from.

Lunch time arrived and it’s only a minute’s walk from my cabin to the grill by the pool. So, I’m lazy and have a hot dog with a heap of sautéed onions and chips, washed down by a cold beer while sitting in the warm sun. It was most enjoyable. Back to the cabin for a bit more relaxation on the balcony. I even had a little snooze. It’s a formal night tonight so I must drag out the penguin suit and bow tie. They are supposed to deliver a complimentary half bottle of Champagne to me on the first ‘Formal’ night, but it hasn’t arrived, that’s another complaint to have a moan about at reception.

A quick shower and shave to freshen up. The shower cubicle in my bathroom has one of those clingy plastic shower curtains that I know from experience you have to ensure is tucked inside the shower tray or the floor gets flooded. Plenty of hot water from the shower, but it’s nowhere near as powerful a jet of water as on Arvia at Christmas. Down to dinner in my penguin suit to find that this evening we are three on our table for four. Me, Gary the Aussie and Hanna the girl I sat next to on the flight out to Malta. She says she was so tired after getting up so early and travelling she went to bed early yesterday!

So down to the food, as it’s a ‘Celebration’ night, it’s an enhanced menu. An ‘amuse bouche’ followed by a starter of asparagus, hard-boiled egg and mayonnaise. Then green pea soup (no jokes, please). My main was a difficult decision but in the end the crusted halibut in a seafood sauce with tiny crispy potato balls beat the surf and turf the others had and it was fabulous. For dessert, I had black cherry and hazelnut cake with a portion of ice cream as an extra.

I was heading to the Planet Bar for a nightcap but the football was on the giant screen by one of the open-air pools. I grabbed a chair, got a Vodka and Seven Up, and watched what I can only say was an absolute thrashing of an abysmal Scottish team by the Germans. It was so bad I gave up at halftime and went to bed

In Part 2 – It’s Greece and some Greek Islands

© text & images WorthingGooner 2024