Britannia Christmas Cruise – Tortola & St Maarten

Devils Bay Virgin Gorda 3

Our next ports of call following the Christmas sea days are two of our absolute favourites, Tortola and St Maarten both of which we’ve been lucky enough to visit a few times before.

We first called at Tortola in the British Virgin Islands in early 2010 on Ocean Village from where we took our first ever excursion to Virgin Gorda, a small nearby island with spectacular boulder strewn beaches. We love the place so much that the trip from Britannia would be our third visit and we’d highly recommend it to anyone if you get the chance.

Ships dock at Road Town in Tortola from where we boarded a large air conditioned catamaran for the 30 minute sailing which passes close by Richard Branson’s Necker Island along the route. On arrival at Virgin Gorda we took open sided safari style buses for a short drive through colourful streets filled with strolling chickens and cool little bars and restaurants.

Ten minutes later we arrived at The Baths, the first of the two beaches you can visit and after a short safety briefing we made our way down a path to the sea. It’s quite a tricky descent in parts so it’s not ideal for anyone with walking difficulties but our 8 yr old managed it with ease as did many of the older passengers from the ship. The path brings you to the most stunning beach of white sand surrounded by huge volcanic boulders. The sea is crystal clear turquoise and there’s also a bar selling reasonably priced drinks, restrooms and a t-shirt stall. We spent an hour enjoying the sunshine and paddling in the sea before it was time for the highlight of the trip, a climb through the ‘caves’ to reach Devil’s Bay, a wider, even more beautiful beach on the other side.

The Caves Virgin Gorda

The Caves are actually a route through the boulders which require you to crouch down in places and squeeze through gaps in others as well as wade through knee deep water and climb occasional ladders and ropes to help you up the sloping rocks. It’s great fun and not at all scary or claustrophobic as the sunshine is always streaming in but you do need to be fairly fit to make the journey. We fondly remember carrying our son Finn through there when he was just two years old and receiving a round of applause from fellow guests we met along the way!

This trip he happily clambered through unaided and on the other side you reach Devil’s Bay, possibly the worlds most beautiful beach. On our last trip I told Andy it’s where I want my ashes scattered but he pointed out that The River Irwell which runs through our village was far more likely!

Devils Bay Virgin Gorda 2

We spent a lovely few hours sunbathing, picnicking on cakes we baked in yesterday’s family Cookery Club class and drinking rum and cokes we’d pre-mixed and brought along. All too soon it was time for the walk up to the bus via a less strenuous route following signs for the car park spotting lizards and iguanas on the way and even small snakes on a previous visit. Keen to maximise our time here we were actually the last back to the catamaran and received a friendly round of applause from our fellow waiting passengers – oops!

Although we were on a P&O excursion we did meet a couple who’d done the trip independently. Personally I’d be a little nervous as it involves a boat and bus ride and there’s a possibility you could miss either and be stranded so if I’d definitely recommend an organised excursion here.

The next day was St Maarten, an island which is half Dutch and half French giving it a unique character. It’s possibly one of the easiest islands to travel independently and feels very safe and friendly. On previous visits we’ve just taken the water taxi from the port across the bay to Philipsburg for the beach and shopping which costs $7 per person for an all day wristband although you can walk around the bay into town in around 15 minutes. The beach is lovely with fine white sand and calm waters surrounded by waterfront bars offering great deals on sun beds, an umbrella and a bucket of beers from $15 – $25 dollars.

Maho Beach Instagram

This time we decided to visit the famous Maho beach near the airport where you can watch planes take off from the runway behind you and land literally over your head. We took a taxi which should have been $9 each but we haggled a little and settled on a price of €25 in total for the three of us and enjoyed a 30 minute scenic drive across the island before arriving at Maho. The beach itself isn’t particularly spectacular as it’s just a small strip of sand with bars at each end but the wow factor is the planes. We must have seen around 20 or 30 in the hour or two we where there, everything from small prop driven island hoppers to larger passenger jets so it really is a plane spotters dream. The pilots clearly enjoy flying from the destination as they were waving to the crowds before take off and one particularly large jet blew a sandstorm across the beach as it throttled down as peoples hats and other belongings flew into the sea! We saw several people with suitcases obviously waiting to board flights and having a last minute beer before heading to the airport terminal. It really has to be the world’s best departure lounge!

Maho Beach St Maarten 2

The sea was quite rough at this end of the island and we saw several people knocked over in the surf so we decided to return to Philipsburg beach for a swim and a bucket of beers. Maho was full of Britannia passengers, easily identifiable by the blue beach towels and we were just about to take a taxi back when one of our fellow Brits helpfully told us we could get a public minibus for a flat fee of $2 each from the nearby roundabout. They all have a white sign in the window with the destination in red capital letters and we got straight into one heading for PHBURG making just two stops for other passengers along the way. It was a great tip and saved us enough to pay for our sun beds and beers! We enjoyed a lovely few hours swimming before picking up a litre of Appleton rum for just $9 from the duty free shop beside the water taxi pier and heading back to the ship.

Britannia Christmas Cruise – Xmas at Sea

Jingle Bells Rock

Probably the biggest question most people will have when thinking about a Christmas cruise is how does it compare with the festivities at home. I thought it would be helpful to write a post with a little more information on how P&O delivered Christmas on Britannia.

The ship is beautifully and tastefully decorated throughout with numerous Christmas trees in bars, restaurants, stairwells and even one on high overlooking the pools! We asked Andrew our butler to find out how many trees there were on board and after checking he said 23 but we also heard it was close to 70 which seemed more like it. There are also carefully colour coordinated wreaths and gingerbread villages dotted throughout the ship and each cabin has a small and tasteful door decoration courtesy P&O which magically appeared after the first night on board adding to the mounting excitement. Many passengers including ourselves also brought their own additional door decorations which makes the walk along the corridors even more festive.

As a parent it’s a bit of a logistical challenge managing Christmas away. We had a small celebration with the in-laws the Sunday before we left when Finn received a few of his presents that would be useful for our holiday such as his own camera! Santa would then hopefully find us on board but would only be delivering small items because we’d have to bring them home and we only have a 23kg each weight allowance. Finally Santa will be leaving some of the larger items on Finn’s list at home for when we return.

The bars, DJ and bands were playing Christmas tunes from the minute we boarded and swimming in the pools in the Caribbean sunshine to Wham’s Last Christmas was a little surreal but highly enjoyable.

P&O Monopoly

On Christmas Eve our cabin steward delivered a Christmas present from Britannia which to our delight was a fabulous limited edition P&O cruises themed Monopoly set. This is such a brilliant gift and we’ve seen lots of families playing it around the ship. We have had a game, Finn beat me but I did manage to buy my all time favourite port of call Tortola! We also received a card and a Xmas cake from our cabin attendant Renalyn and butler Andrew and we reciprocated with some small gifts we’d brought along for both of them.

Santa Britannia

There was a note in the Horizon daily newspaper asking everyone to be up on top deck from 7pm and at around 6.30pm there was an announcement over the main PA system from the Captain saying something unusual had been spotted on the radar and that he would monitor the situation and provide us with updates to the squeals of excitement from children and adults alike! Everyone made there way up to the Lido deck where the entertainment team were in full party mode and dancing away to Christmas hits while the captain confirmed that a man in a red suit had indeed been spotted heading towards the ship. Search lights scanned the warm night air before finally focussing on one of the two blue funnels just above where we were standing and there he was, Father Christmas waving to all the crowds below. He made his way down to top deck to party with the passengers and asked all the children to visit him in his grotto on the big day. Beautifully done P&O.

Jingle Bells Rock 3

After all that excitement it was time for the performance of Jingle Bells Rock in the Headliners Theatre, a show featuring song and dance routines to all the big Christmas Hits from Santa Baby to The Pogues wonderful ‘Fairytale of New York’. Hats off to the cast who had put so much effort into a routine they can only do on one night of the year.

Balcony Britannia Suite

Thankfully the man with the white beard found our cabin and Finn was delighted with lots of small things to open on Christmas Day. We toasted It with a glass or two of champagne on a sun filled balcony before a steak breakfast in the Epicurean Restaurant – not a bad start to the day!

After breakfast it was time for the nativity which many of the children onboard had been busy rehearsing in kids club for a performance on the main stage in the Headliners Theatre. Finn refused to take part as at 8 I think he’s getting a little too self conscious and didn’t want to be a donkey! He was however happy to watch and it was very cute with several heartwarming and amusing moments and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. At 12 noon the captain did his daily announcement and wished every one a very merry Christmas replacing the noontime bells with sleigh bells – a lovely festive touch.

The main Christmas meal is an evening dinner rather than the lunch we would usually have at home so we treated ourselves to a Glass House lunch and a flight of red wine while listening to a choir of passengers sing festive carols and songs in the atrium.

Atrium Xmas Carols

After lunch we visited top deck which the kids club staff aka the Reef Rangers had transformed with a grotto and a Christmas fair featuring lots of traditional stalls like Hoopla and Hook a Duck. We joined a short queue to meet the big man himself and Finn received a great quality remote control toy car. There was an age appropriate gift for every child and no expense had been spared. We also won an armful of prizes at the stalls and the reef rangers seemed to be genuinely having a great time and were very generous and forgiving of rules when it came to winning!

On Christmas Day the buffet and Beach House are closed and all passengers have set dining, even if you are on freedom dining. We were allocated a late sitting but managed to change this on board to an early sitting at 6.15pm. Christmas Day is a formal dress code so we donned our tuxedos and a cocktail dress and went to the Peninsular restaurant where we joined a table of ten. The table was dressed with festive chocolates and quality crackers and there were Christmas hats for all the passengers and all dining room staff wore Santa hats. There was a special festive five course menu from which we opted for the traditional turkey main course with all the trimmings although there were several other options available too. We had a thoroughly enjoyable evening chatting to our fellow guests and will be joining the same table again on New Years Eve.

In summary, I think P&O delivered a wonderful Christmas on board and we’ve absolutely loved the festivities at sea. It’s been a magical and memorable one for us and Caribbean sunshine certainly beats the torrential rain and flooding many have experienced back home.