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The name Arcadia has a strong emotional bond for many Australians, especially those who sailed aboard the second British P&O liner, Arcadia, toward a new life in Australia under the migration program affectionately referred to as the ‘Ten-pound Pom scheme’. It was one of the greatest planned migrations of the 20th century, and in the decade between the 1950s and the ’60s, more than one million Britons migrated to Australia.

In P&O UK’s history, four ships have proudly sailed under the name Arcadia. The first was launched by P&O in 1887 to coincide with Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. Built at a cost of £186,000, she was one of a trio of new steamers built for the company’s Royal Mail Service: Victoria, Britannia and Oceania. Then, in 1953, came the second Arcadia, adored by those migrating to Australia as well as by travellers and cruise passengers. She became a popular cruise ship between 1973 and 1978 and, in 1975, was the first P&O ship to be based permanently in Australia.

During her 25 years of service after World War II, she carried more than 430,000 passengers around the world. Many who sailed on her made lifelong friends: some passengers even met the loves of their lives on board and a number of marriages ensued. Meanwhile, her successor, originally Sea Princess, was renamed Arcadia until 2003.

The new, sleek, white-hulled beauty launched in 2005 is a far cry from the first Arcadia, with its three decks and coal-fired engines. The new Arcadia is the largest P&O Cruises ship ever to visit Australia. While steeped in history, she is one of the most contemporary liners to sail from the UK under the P&O flag, and is an exemplary ambassador for 130 years of cruising history.

Life on board is a far cry from those early days, when accommodation was basic and the food was not a great deal better. At that time, vessels carried mail as well as passengers. The first Arcadia carried 250 First Class and 159 Second Class passengers. She made 45 return voyages to Australia before she was retired in 1915.

Today’s Arcadia has 11 passenger decks, six dining options, 14 bars, two swimming pools, external glass lifts overlooking the ocean, the Palladium – a 700-seat, three-tier theatre, a boutique cinema and a three-level atrium. She is also child-free.

Arcadia was built as a Holland America Line ship, so those expecting a classic P&O ship with traditional P&O fittings might notice a few differences in her configuration and layout. But they won’t be disappointed: she is handsomely outfitted in tasteful colour schemes with a wide choice of quietly comfortable but stylish lounge areas and bars – each with décor appropriate to its function.

Needless to say, as it’s a British-based cruise liner, the majority of passengers on the voyage I took were British – though I saw plenty of happy Australians on board. As you would expect, dining experiences are tailor-made for this clientele. The main restaurant, Meridian, offers traditional cuisine during breakfast and lunch as well as first and second dinner sittings.

But the dining ace card is the elegant Arcadian Rhodes restaurant. Created by celebrity chef, restaurateur and television identity Gary Rhodes, Arcadian Rhodes is a triumph over the seemingly impossible – the reinvention of classic British food – and a reawakening of Britain’s gastronomic heritage, enhanced by Rhodes’ contemporary take. So if you are inclined to pre-judge all British food as being overcooked with limp vegetables, think again.

Lucky old me was fortunate enough to meet and eat with the multi-Michelin-starred chef during one of his ‘inspection’ visits to Arcadia. Gary Rhodes is not based on board but makes regular quality checks over the course of the year. “Detail is the most important ingredient,” he says.

Rhodes also has a restaurant on P&O Cruises’ Oriana. As these restaurants are limited to between 60 and 80 covers and each has its dedicated kitchen, staff and waiters, there is a £15 premium per guest and reservations are essential.

Our dinner began with seared fillet of red mullet and warm duck confit with fresh grape-butter sauce, then moved on to steamed halibut with crab ravioli and buttered leeks. A slow roast of pork with seared tiger prawns and sweet pea puree followed, and dessert was iced lemon chiboust with red berries and shortbread fingers. Familiar ingredients, certainly, but under Rhodes’ mastery, they are transposed to giddy heights.

Rhodes impresses with his sincerity and quiet commitment. His style is not confrontational and he shows great respect for his staff. “You must have the right team and back-up,” he says. “I have had one chef with me for 18 years.” But Rhodes doesn’t rest on his reputation, asserting “I give back; I sweat like everyone else.”

If there is one term he would love to change, it is ‘fine dining’. He prefers to view dining as part of the entertainment. “It’s all about theatre, and providing a good show,” he says. No argument here. The food is exquisitely presented, and Rhodes can comfortably claim to have raised British cuisine to the status of an art form.

FACT FILE

Cruise Line: P&O Cruises

Vessel: Arcadia

Star rating: 4

Maximum passenger capacity: 2,556

Passenger decks: 11

GRT: 82,972

Entered service: 2005

Cabins: 998

Crew: 886

Facilities: elevators, 2 swimming pools (one indoor/outdoor with retractable roof), 5 whirlpools, spa with thermal suite and hydrotherapy pool, beauty and hair salon, 24-hour food court, Asian fusion restaurant, Deck Grill, Gary Rhodes’ restaurant, 14 bars, casino, nightclub, New Horizons communication lounge.

Highs

Michelin-star-awarded Gary Rhodes’ restaurant, overall ease, comfort and tasteful surroundings and appointments.

Lows

Slow embarkation/disembarkation procedures, especially in Adelaide and Melbourne, though in fairness, this is more likely to be the fault of port operations.

Words: Maggy Oehlbeck.