The nebuchadnezzar of British bubbly that HM the Queen sent flying to launch P&O's Britannia on March 10 was not the first bottle of fizz to explode against the bow of the colossal new ship.
More than a year before the royal christening, Britannia's official float-out took place in Fincantieri's shipyard in Italy and, in true maritime tradition, the madrina (godmother) celebrated the event by smashing a bottle of champagne (in this case, prosecco) on the ship's hull. And you can be sure there will be many millions more bottles of British wine consumed on board during Britannia's lifetime, which is estimated to be at least 30 years.
What's involved in building Britain's biggest ship? For a start, money. It cost$913.2 million, from the design stage to its launch. When you consider a new Airbus 380 costs about $550 million and construction of Perth's new sports stadium is costing $862 million, the cruise line is investing a vast sum in the success and longevity of its newest star.
Britannia's life began in 2011, when P&O placed the order with Fincantieri. It is the same template as Princess Cruises' Royal and Regal Princess, but its character and exterior appearance are very different. Captain Paul Brown has been involved with Britannia since 2012, when the British design team visited Azura (which he was captaining at the time) to check out what features worked best on this and other P&O ships and what to incorporate in the newbuild.
According to Captain Brown, "Whenever P&O take on one of those designs we make quite a lot changes, so Britannia looks quite different from the outside [to a Princess ship] not least because she has two funnels with our new dark-blue livery and the big union flag on the bow."
In a first for the cruise line, P&O commissioned Richmond International, a company specialising in upmarket hotels, to design the ship's interiors from stem to stern. Carnival UK's chairman, David Dingle, said the brief was to "re-create the spirit of modern Britain" and represent the sophistication and energy of the "newly vibrant country".
As well as consulting key departments on board existing P&O ships, the design team canvassed about 20,000 passengers and non-cruisers to find out what they imagined their ideal ship to look like.
Just over three years after Richmond International started work on the project, the first passengers to board Britannia – the day before the Queen christened it – saw it for themselves. The result, according to everyone I spoke to, was overwhelmingly positive. "It's like a really cool, five-star London hotel," said one travel agent; another passenger, a veteran P&O cruiser, said she loved the ship's Art Deco look and the "subtle, soothing colours".
It's certainly a far cry from the gaudy glitz of some modern cruise ships – although comedian Rob Brydon, who hosted the inaugural events, likened the eight-metre Star Burst sculpture in the atrium to "Beyonce's earring" and compared the three-deck atrium itself to "Elton John's downstairs loo".
Itmust be a very stylish loo; the atrium features marble floors and a colour scheme that mixes shades of cream and brown with bronze, olive-green and soft blue. The understated colours flow through the whole ship. More than 6000 original artworks are displayed on every deck, adding to the classy ambience.
Single cabins with balconies, more restaurants and more shops were on the wish-lists of those 20,000 people consulted early on in the design stage, and Britannia doesn't disappoint. There are 27 single cabins (inside and balcony) out of a total 1837 (which include 64 suites), 13 dining options and a substantial shopping precinct. Oh yes – and Britannia also has the biggest spa in the fleet.
It took about 20 months to build Britannia. Shipbuilding is a booming business: Fincantieri employs 4000 workers in its Monfalcone shipyards and the company has constructed 68 cruise ships since 1990, with 16 more being designed or built. Britannia's keel was laid in May 2013. The six pre-manufactured blocks making up the first section of the hull weighed 408 tons and contain 214 tons of pipes, cables (4000 kilometres of them), insulation and other equipment. In all, 74 sections were used in the ship.
The all-important float-out took place in February 2014 and seven months later the engines were started up for the first time. Its four diesel engines deliver a total of 84,000 horsepower, which is equivalent to 110 Formula One racing cars and gives the ship a cruising speed of 22 knots.
P&O claims that Britannia is the "greenest" ship afloat. Its hull was designed to reduce fuel consumption by up to 20 per cent and two of its engines are fitted with an exhaust gas cleaning system. It can produce 1500 tonnes of drinkable water daily, converting seawater using waste heat from its diesel generators.
The ship's distinctive livery was completed in September 2013: 420 litres of paint were used for the 97-metre union jack on the hull, which is reckoned to be the biggest version of the flag in the world.
On February 22, 2015, P&O officially "took delivery" of Britannia from Fincantieri, at another big ceremony in the shipyard. Fincantieri's CEO, Giuseppe Bono, said the attention to detail involved in building Britannia was like that of Leonardo da Vinci - "I'm not saying this is the Sistine Chapel, but it is a masterpiece."
Among the Italian dignitaries and P&O officials attending the handover event were three of Britannia's specially recruited "food heroes": patissier Eric Lanlard, wine expert Olly Smith and international cheese judge Charlie Turnbull. The other big names are Marco Pierre White, who has worked with P&O for 10 years; Indian chef Atul Kochhar, whose signature restaurant Sindhu was introduced on Azura; and popular British TV chef James Martin, who was invited on board to design the Cookery Club, P&O's first cookery school.
The culinary stars have been involved with the ship's planning process from the start. Their mission is to offer the best of British and international wining and dining, from the Market Cafe on Deck 5 to the Epicurean restaurant on Deck 16 and all the bars and eateries in between. Brodie's pub on Deck 7 serves an astonishing 70 British boutique beers and ciders, and 20 British gins (and several varieties of tonic) are on offer in the spacious Crow's Nest bar on Deck 16.
Lavish inaugural events were planned for the day before the christening, including a gala dinner for all the special guests on board. James Martin spent five and a half hours julienning ginger, maintenance men were rushing around checking air-con in cabins, crew were swabbing the decks in the rain and police and sniffer dogs were checking every nook and cranny of the ship.
Despite the clouds, the night's fireworks were, as expected, spectacular – as was the royal christening ceremony the next day. The Brits are experts at pomp and ceremony and it looks like all the hard work, fanatical attention to detail and massive investment is already paying off – Britannia is 70 per cent booked for its maiden season.
Order placed: June 1, 2011
Project 6231, later to be named Britannia, is the fifth P&O ship and the 62nd Carnival-owned ship to be built at the Fincantieri shipyard in Italy.
Design team commissioned: December 5, 2011; UK company Richmond International takes on the job of designing the entire interior of the ship, a first for P&O.
Keel-laying: May 15, 2013
The keel-laying ceremony marks the official start of a ship's construction. Originally, it involved placing newly minted coins under a central piece of timber that would be the ship's backbone; today, ships are built in massive pre-fabricated sections and it's the lowering of these modules into place at the shipyard that is known as the keel-laying.
Naming: September 24, 2013
"Britannia is a fitting name for the newest addition to P&O Cruises, which, with its long and famous heritage remains Britain's favourite cruise line," said David Dingle, chairman of Carnival UK. It is the third Britannia for P&O: the first entered service in 1835 for the General Steam Navigation Company, from which P&O was created. The second was one of four built for the 1887 Golden Jubilees of Queen Victoria and the cruise line.
Float-out, Fincantieri: February 14, 2014
Ships used to slide down a slipway to meet the sea for the first time; now the dry dock where the ship has been built is flooded with seawater, to test its seaworthiness. Britannia is blessed by a local priest and the madrina, English travel agent Louise Hunt, smashes a bottle of prosecco against the hull.
Naming ceremony: March 10, 2015
Queen Elizabeth, accompanied by Prince Phillip, christens Britannia in Southampton, England.
Maiden voyage: March 14, 2015
Britannia sets sail on a 14-night Mediterranean cruise.
Length: 330 metres (longer than 4.5 A380 superjumbos)
Tonnage: 141,000 GRT
Facilities include: four swimming pools, adults only Retreat (with pool), Oasis Spa, gym, Limelight Club (entertainment and dining venue), The Studio (multi-functional entertainment space), Crystal Room (showlounge with dance floor for Latin and ballroom dancing), 936-seat Headliners Theatre, age-specific kids' clubs from 2 to 17, toddlers' pool, teens' sun deck, sports court, library, self-service laundrettes, in-cabin kettles, tea and coffee.
The writer was a guest of P&O Cruises World Cruising.