"THE HOLIDAY from hell" is how passengers have described their voyage on a Southampton-based cruise ship after hundreds were struck down with norovirus.
It left scores of passengers on board Oriana facing daunting medical bills of up £3,500, while many were confined to their cabins, unable to see some of the Baltic cities on the cruise, including Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Oslo.
Some holidaymakers compared the experience to being in prison, as they returned to Southampton today.
Bosses at P&O Cruises, which is owned by parent company Carnival, have today issued a grovelling apology to passengers and pledged to refund all medical expenses they incurred while on board.
But many have now vowed to lodge bids for further compensation, after claiming their holiday was “ruined”.
Mary Ellcone, 66, from Portsmouth, who was travelling with her partner, John Cross, 74, said: “It's been the holiday from hell to be honest.
“They left us letters when we got on board explaining about norovirus and that procedures were in place. The fact that they knew it was on board before we got on and still let the ship sail is terrible.
“The one trip we wanted to go on more than any other was to Copenhagen to see the Christmas market and we had to cancel that.
“We got that refunded but we paid £500 each for the holiday so we will be putting in a claim to P&O.”
Pete Baker, 67, from Grantham, in Lincolnshire, told how he thought his wife Carol was having a heart attack when she was struck down by the virus.
Mr Baker said: “We set sail on the Tuesday and on the Thursday we went to the theatre and three-quarters of the way through the performance my wife collapsed in the chair.
“I thought she was having a heart attack or a stroke. It was terrifying. The next thing I know she started vomiting and just covered herself from head to toe.”
Mrs Baker was taken to the medical unit on board the ship, before returning to her cabin with her husband.
But she said their room was not thoroughly sanitised by P&O staff - and hit out at the room service she received during the 48 hours she was confined to her cabin.
Mrs Baker said: “You would wait for hours to get something to eat and when it eventually came it was awful.
“I've never been to prison but I'm sure they get better meals there.
“You were made to feel like you were an inconvenience to them. They couldn't cope with it.”
Dennis and Sandra Pearce
Sandra Pearce, 56, whose husband Dennis contracted the virus, said: “We could hear people vomiting in other cabins next door and above. All you could hear was people crying and screaming.
“If anyone elderly got it I'm surprised it didn't kill them off.”
Mavis Miell, 71, and her husband Robert, 71, from Shirley, have been on 14 previous cruises with P&O, six of which were on board Oriana.
But the couple said the experience has made them reluctant to travel with the firm again.
Mrs Miell said: “The room staff worked their socks off, but we have seen very little of the official crew or the captain.
“We heard him a few times on the tannoy and he said the embarking passengers brought the virus on board, which put a lot of people's backs up.
“We got on board the ship Tuesday morning and by that afternoon someone had come down with it, so it was obviously on board the ship beforehand.”
Chris Meadows and Vanessa Herrington
Another Southampton couple, Vanessa Herrington, 30, and Chris Meadows, 28, said they would be appealing for compensation after forking out £599 each for the cruise.
Vanessa revealed that she was charged £35 just for a doctor to come and visit her in her cabin.
And she revealed how another passenger, who passed out in a public toilet on board, had been left with a medical bill of £3,500 for his treatment.
Vanessa said: “Stewards would come in dressed in plastic aprons, gloves, masks, but they would only wipe over the fronts of wardrobes and clean the bathroom. It was so lax.
“They wouldn't clean things you touch with your fingers like light switches and telephones - that's not going to help the situation.
“And although they shut off the self-service restaurant, they left open the speciality restaurants and the casino, which are the places they make their money.”
Carol Marlow, managing director of P&O, told the Daily Echo: “I'm really sorry that some people have been ill during their cruise. It's not what we want - we want people to have a great time on their holiday.
“Having said that, norovirus is prevalent in the UK at the moment and we have rigorous cleaning protocols in place and we've managed to get the number of people affected right down.
“It's around about 300 that were affected, which is a very difficult number. But through all the cleaning protocols only five people are effected today.”
Ms Marlow admitted there were “a few cases” of norovirus reported on Oriana's previous cruise, but claimed the liner was “fresh and clean” when it left Southampton last week.
She added: “We can't blame people for bringing it on board, but it came from somewhere.
“All we can do is have these rigorous cleaning regimes so that if anyone does express symptoms, we can control it and bring the number of cases down.
“I wrote to all our passengers on board a couple of days ago to say how sorry I was and inform them that medical fees would be waived.
“I have invited anyone who has any further issues to contact me and we will deal with them.
“It's all down to individual situations, individual circumstances, but we are very happy to hear from people and we will be dealing with every case fairly.”