P&O Western Meditteranean Cruise. Azura. 6th -- 19th May 2012
This was our first cruise (my wife's been on at me for years and I ran out of excuses this time!) so I didn't really know what to expect. I'd read a number of reviews but some were good and some bad. Overall experience -- hard to find fault with anything. P&O extremely professional and efficient, crew marvellous, food exceptional.
So, in a little more detail. Embarkation very slick, we were on board within an hour or so of arriving. Our bags were taken out of our car for us and spirited away, the car parked by someone else and all we had to do was wait a short while on the terminal before being issued with our on-board charge card/cabin key. Couldn't quite see the reason for airport style security before boarding but can't blame P&O for that.
We soon found our balcony cabin, which was bright & airy, and certainly big enough for the two of us. Nice to have a decent size fridge, handy for keeping the wine cool!
Our cabin steward, Harak, was great -- nothing was too much trouble for him and he always had smile on his face. A nice touch was the individual chocolate on our pillows every night when went to bed.
We found our way round Azura with ease, plenty of 'you are here' boards to help. Lots of lifts, some waiting at times for these but the ship was full and there were a lot of people in wheelchairs or on mobility scooters. So we used the stairs instead, which was good exercise and enabled us to see the wonderful artworks in every stairwell.
The usual array of 'duty free' shops at the Atrium in the centre of the ship. Don't rush to buy though, as they had various half-price sales during the cruise. And cigarettes & spirits were a lot cheaper in Gibraltar and Spain. We'd been told beforehand that P&O don't let you take alcohol on board but they do. Also at the Atrium (3 levels) is the library, book shop and an inspiring art gallery.
Lots of bars throughout the ship, with drinks at lower than UK pub prices (a pint of draught Boddingtons Â£2.70). Even though the ship was full, we could find a seat at one of them!
As to the food . . . in a word, exceptional. We ate in the Meridian restaurant on Freedom Dining which was great because we sat with different people every night, and we weren't tied to a specific time. A five-course silver service dinner every night, and never more than 15 minutes from sitting down until the first course was served. Without exception the food was truly excellent -- one of our fellow passengers enjoyed his so much he had the main course twice, much to his wife's embarrassment. Breakfast and lunch we used self service in the Verona/ Venezia restaurants on deck 15 -- again, super food - lots of variety, always something different and never a problem finding a seat (you just have to accept that sometimes you might need to share a table, but our view was that meeting other people was part of this holiday). Afternoon tea was as good as we'd been told, my only regret is that I was too full to eat all of it! We ate in Sindhu one evening for an additional cost of Â£15, and the food was exquisite with exemplary service. Recommended.
There's disinfectant hand-wash at every restaurant, which everyone appeared to use. The public toilets were very clean, with emphasis on hand washing and hygiene.
There's plenty of room on the top outside decks -- we always found sun beds even though the ship was full. The swimming pools aren't huge but were never full anyway. Plenty to do on board, with shuffleboard, table tennis, the gym and some interesting talks & lectures. We enjoyed the Arts tours (Azura has 7,000+ pieces of art on board) and the tour of one of the spotlessly clean galleys -- 165 chefs aboard! My only gripe was showing films (eg Iron Lady, War Horse) in a bar that seated 100 maximum whilst the 700+ seat theatre was empty.
Tours. Expensive for what you got, but we knew the prices before we booked.
We went to:
Gibraltar -- half day. Glad we've been, wouldn't worry if we didn't go again. Good for duty free wine & spirits etc
Ajaccio (Corsica) -- disappointing. The only subject the guide spoke about was Napoleon, you'd have thought Nelson lost! Lack of public toilets. Wouldn't bother to go again.
Rome -- all day. If you like being constantly pestered by men trying to sell you fake designer goods then this is the place for you. The Italian ice cream is good though, as is the coffee.
Florence & Pisa -- all day. Lots to see in Florence, would go back. Pisa is just the tower and a big church, surrounded by market stalls selling the sort of gifts you give to people you don't like, plus the obligatory young men flogging fake designer rubbish (they really are persistent).
Monaco/Monte Carlo -- all day. Very clean and very expensive looking -- how the other half live! But, we found that prices for souvenirs and coffee were reasonable.
Barcelona -- all day. We'd come back here, too much to see in a day with lots of Gaudi inspired buildings, shops etc etc
In general, knowing what we do now, we'd avoid the Guided tours and just use the P&O arranged transport to the cities/ towns and then do our own thing -- open top bus tours for examples. As long as there's some element of P&O in your shore trips then the ship will wait if their transport is late back. If you use your own transport and are late, the ship won't wait.
I'd agree with other reviewers about the 'whisper-mic' that tour guides use. They speak into a lapel microphone, and we were given receivers and an earpiece to use. And even at just a few feet away we couldn't hear them as there's too much background noise and static. Our Barcelona guide had a small loudspeaker attached to his belt and that was much better.
Ship's crew. Housekeeping, restaurant & bar staff all Indian. All very polite, cheerful, smart and eager to help. Whenever we walked past one of them, we were always greeted with a good morning/afternoon and a smile.
Entertainment. The shows we saw were very well presented. Xtra factor was very entertaining! Individual acts eg Phil Collins Tribute again very good. Would have liked a little more variety as mainly singing acts -- a couple more comedians for example. Some of the 'sail away' events on the top deck were a bit like Butlins and a little jingoistic when leaving Barcelona, but the ship is so big you don't have to be bothered by it.
Things we ran out of time for. We didn't discover until the last day that you could watch films on your cabin TV. Didn't have pizza by the pool, but told it was very good. Didn't have room for one of the the barbecue lunches but they looked good too. Didn't have time to eat at Seventeen. And I think we didn't get round to one or two of the bars either!
Tipping. We liked the idea of a flat charge as we wanted out tips to be shared amongst all the crew. We though it a very reasonable amount for the service we received.
Disembarking. P&O's usual slick operation. We were told 36 hours before where to be and at what time on our last morning. A slight delay due to the port, but we were told to start disembarking at 9.40 and were driving away in the car at 9.55. Beats the waiting around at airports!
To sum up. As I said at the start of this review, it's difficult to find anything to criticise P&O for. We had a great time, and are saving up for the next one.