Way back in the summer of 2018, P&O Cruises launched a competition for travel agents, offering the chance for six winners to become ‘Iona Insiders’. The competition celebrated the announcement of the cruise line’s brand new ship, Iona, and the prize was the chance to follow her build from keel laying to launch.
To win, all agents had to do was send a short video detailing what they were looking forward to most about the upcoming vessel. Hundreds entered from up and down the UK, including our very own Chris Mayhew, who, as you may have guessed, was chosen as one of the winners.
Here is Chris’s entry. Warning, earworm alert…
Being named as one of six ‘Iona Insiders’ initiated the start of an 18-month journey for Chris – one that is still in progress. Just weeks after he pushed send on the above video, he found himself being whisked off to Norway with five other travel agents to experience some of the thrilling activities that cruisers can look forward to when Iona visits the Norwegian fjords in her debut season.
Over the course of four days, he sampled a range of different shore excursions that will be offered, including kayaking through Nordfjord, hiking to the Briksdal Glacier and riding the Loen Skylift. You can read more about this epic adventure here.
April 2019 saw the first ever Shine Surprises Party, an event designed to celebrate members of P&O Cruises’ Shine Rewards programme and thank them for the bookings they have made. Details of the evening were shrouded in secrecy and the location, itinerary and special guests were all a secret right up until the start of the party.
Chris and a whole host of lucky agents soon discovered they were in for a night of treats at West Midlands Safari Park. Themed around the story of Phileas Fogg and his journey Around the World in Eighty Days, guests were invited into his home where more surprises awaited. Different rooms included different activities (a gin bar, a casino, a snake dancer?!) which provided the pre-dinner entertainment before a meal that included a live ‘performance’ dessert and a mouth-watering doughnut wall. Later, The Cuban Brothers got everyone on the dance floor until the early hours.
The next step on the journey aimed at pleasing stomachs. Chris and the other Insiders were invited to an exclusive event in London’s Broadgate, during which P&O Cruises would announce their new Local Food Heroes. There will be a heavy influence from the kitchens of Norway and Spain (Iona’s home for winter 2020/21) and so reinforcements have been brought in to help produce some local flavours.
It was revealed that José Pizarro, Kjartan Skjelde and Marte Marie Forsberg will all have a hand in creating dishes for Iona’s dining venues and Chris was given the honour of being one of the first people to try some of these. An evening hosted by another of P&O Cruises’ Food Heroes, Olly Smith, included morsels like presa Iberíca, trout fillet and a decadent chocolate pot. This blog post has more details from what was a delicious evening.
Not content with merely tasting these dishes, later in the year, the group got the opportunity to attend a food masterclass with José Pizarro, during which they learnt how to cook some of them. Starting with a lesson in how to perfectly carve a leg of jamón Ibérico, one of the most revered and expensive cuts of meat in the world; continuing with a competition to see who could create a selection of squid croquetas in the quickest time; and ending with a tutorial on José’s beloved chocolate pot, the day revealed more about what cruisers can expect when they sit down to eat on board Iona.
One thing that was definitely evident was José’s passion for Spanish food. Whether he was regaling tales of his grandmother cooking for him as a child or talking about the providence of the ingredients he uses, it was clear that anyone who chooses to cruise on board Iona is in for a treat.
When September 2019 rolled around, it was time for another adventure. This time, the Insiders headed off to the Canary Islands, another of the destinations Iona will visit in her first winter season. A few days in Grand Canaria not only highlighted the fact that this is the perfect place for some winter sun, but also gave Chris and the group another chance to try out some exciting shore experiences.
As this blog post shows, there is plenty to keep you busy in this part of the world, including surfing, dune buggies, coffee plantation tours and rum distillery visits. It was another great trip that gave Chris plenty more insight into what the ship will offer and plenty more memories to treasure.
The Insiders’ latest event took place in London a couple of weeks ago. P&O Cruises was planning to announce its new brand ambassador and Chris was invited to an intimate venue to enjoy a live performance from the mystery musical personality. Following video teases in the lead up, it was revealed that pop icon Gary Barlow will play a leading role in Iona’s launch, becoming the music director for the 710 club and performing during a number of sailings in 2020.
After the big reveal and an interview with TV’s Fearne Cotton, Gary delighted a room of media representatives and people from the travel industry with a short performance of some of Take That’s biggest songs. The night was made complete with a delicious array of streetfood dishes to try, gin cocktails featuring iceberg-size ice cubes with Iona’s logo carved into them, and a DJ set from Blur bassist turned cheesemaker Alex James.
So, as we embark on the year in which Iona will finally grace the oceans, the journey for Chris and the Iona Insiders is coming to an end. However, with a trip to the shipyard in Germany on the horizon and a 7-night cruise to look forward to, the amazing experiences are still coming thick and fast.
Chris will be sad when this ever-surprising ‘prize’ draws to a close. It has been a fantastic opportunity to be part of Iona’s build, meet some great people who work in the crazy industry of travel and, ultimately, step aboard the ship herself.
Look out for more updates in the coming months as the revelations keep on coming.
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