A Canary Islands and Portugal cruise that is full of highlights.
It’s carnival time in Funchal. Floats strung with lights and streamers pass along the waterfront, brightly costumed dancers atop them. Everything is sequins and music and bright lights; I am mesmerised. Fortunately, I needn’t rush off. Instead I can party with the Madeirans until late, drinking poncha (rum, sugar and fruit juice) and admire the spectacle until well past midnight.
That’s because P&O’s Canary Islands and Portugal cruise includes an overnight stay in Funchal, so I can get back to the Ventura docked in the port just behind me at any hour I choose.
It also means that the next morning I can head up into the towering mountains and ancient laurisilva forests of the island’s interior for a levada walk. Levada walks are unique to Madeira, leading ramblers along the edge of the island’s irrigation channels, or levadas.
My three-and-a-half-hour guided tour is one of P&O’s excursions, for which there is an additional charge. It’s well worth it though, the local guide leading us along an easy, level track beside the Levada da Serra do Faial, pointing out lily of the valley trees and stopping to let us photograph brilliant white cala lilies.
Being able to explore Madeira for two full days is just one highlight of this 14-night cruise around Macaronesia. We also have a full day in each of the Canary Islands of La Palma, Gran Canaria and Lanzarote. At each of these stops the city – and generally a sandy beach – is just a short 15 or 20-minute stroll from the port, and no tenders are needed; we dock alongside every time.
This is particularly good for the many passengers with mobility requirements who are onboard. This sailing departs from and returns to Southampton, so no flights are required for many of the mostly British passengers onboard. Everything on the ship is accessible too, with lifts and ramps serving all venues and a lift for access to the main swimming pool.
That pool is under cover, something that was much appreciated on the three-day sailing south.
Leaving Southampton, we stood in a chilly breeze to drink our sailaway champagne, but as we cruised past France, Spain and Portugal and struck off out into the Atlantic the weather began to improve. Jeans were gradually swapped for shorts, the indoor pool emptier each day as the three outdoor pools got busier.
Although the Ventura takes over 3,000 passengers, there are enough public spaces to lose them in, and I find a lounger by the pool, a seat in the hot tub and a table for dinner easily every time. P&O has made the pool next to the spa adults-only, and this becomes my main hangout, sitting in the hot tub with a pina colada as the sun sets each night and dipping into the water first thing in the morning each day for a swim.
The spa itself offers a range of treatments and I treat myself to a full body massage on one of our many days at sea. My therapist Mary Anne melts the knots in my shoulders as we cruise south towards Madeira and I return to her for a hot stone treatment as we cruise back up through the Bay of Biscay in rocky weather. We haven’t been able to call at Lisbon as planned due to that weather, but I soon forget about it thanks to Mary Anne.
Thanks to the Ventura’s stability at sea, most passengers are able to forget we are sailing through such choppy waters too. I watch a film in the main theatre as we sail up the coast of Portugal and witness the sun sinking into the whitecaps of the Atlantic from the 18th-floor Metropolis bar; even from this high up in the ship and sitting right at the stern those gale force winds and large swells don’t cause too much movement.
The Metropolis bar is my favourite place for a drink – for its panoramic views and for its extensive list of British gins – but I also enjoy British ales in the Exchange, decked out like a pub, and a glass of wine in the Glasshouse, where the list includes everything from chardonnay to malvasia. For food, there is the Waterside buffet, where a different theme each night means the selection is ever-changing, as well as three traditional dining rooms serving a daily changing menu. For a little extra spend there is also the Beach House for cook-your-own beef fillet, Sindhu for Indian dishes by chef Atul Kochhar and The Epicurean for British haute cuisine.
I also enjoy eating off the ship. In Las Palmas de Gran Canaria I order a salty pile of prawns at the unassuming Amigo Camilo on the waterfront, and in Arrecife in Lanzarote sit in the castle to dine on local fish overlooking the port – and staring straight back at Ventura.
She has been my home for two weeks of touring some of my very favourite islands. I cannot believe how easy it has been to visit so many so quickly. And to get involved in that carnival.
Ventura’s next Canary Islands and Portugal cruise departs Southampton in July. Prices start from £939 for 13 nights full board. pocruises.com