This Baltic cruise on the Azura was from 19 May to 2 June, starting from Southampton. We took the train from Cardiff, but due to track maintenance work, a double-decker bus (eventually packed and piled chest high with suitcases in the aisles) was provided from Salisbury on. On the way back, we had a sprinter train with no room for luggage, and was so packed another carriage had to be laid on from Bristol Temple Meads, eventually delaying us by nearly 30 minutes. Why is First Great Western so incapable of getting even the basics right? They are serving a cruising port for Heavens sake, with elderly people and loads of luggage. Doh!
EMBARKATION: was quick and well organised, taking just under an hour.
DINING: we booked late, so had to have fixed early dining on a table for ten. We had all asked for a table with a maximum of eight, so this was naughty, P&O.The service was very good, though we thought the food standards had declined somewhat since we did the Caribbean on her eighteen months previously. The self-service restaurants Venetia and Verona were full whatever time of day you went there, and having a table to yourselves was never an option. Tables were always cleared very quickly, however. This ship is not ideal for the Baltic, everyone crams inside in bad weather, but it's plentiful outside space can be utilised in the Caribbean, so people are not on top of each other.
A tip on the Verona. At night a segment is cordoned off as a trattoria (no surcharge).The menu is limited, but excellent, as is the service. The problem is, they don't take bookings, so by the second week the word has got around and it's difficult to get in unless you queue early.
DRINKS; the great advantage of P&O compared to American cruise lines is the comparative cheapness of drinks. A G&T is Â£3.65 for example, whilst I paid Â£7.00 on Celebrity. Some people bought the drinks package, then find they had to drink wine they didn't want. My one reservation is the draught lager which I don't think is well kept, so we bought the odd bottle or two in Denmark, Estonia, Belgium etc, at a fraction of what was charged onboard. One expensive German lager which is Â£2.20 a bottle in Tesco was 68pence in a Warnemunde supermarket. Drinking that on your balcony with the sun setting was something to remember.
ENTERTAINMENT: Surprisingly, the poorest we've come across, added to which you had to get to the theatre 30 minutes early to get a seat for the first performance. The ensemble production were the same as on the previous cruise, others saw them on the sister ship. The level of humour of the comedians was that of a working mens club or British Legion. It says something about the professional acts that the most popular turns were talks by ex police superintendent and royal bodyguard Simon Dinsdale, and then you had to get there 40 minutes beforehand to get a seat.
EXCURSIONS: were expensive, but in fairness, P&O lay on free shuttle buses, which few companies do these days. Be careful in St. Petersburg. First-timers booked 3 trips on the first day, and inevitable Russian traffic jams caused delays, so some did not eat or drink for 12 hours. And Russian guides haven't heard of comfort stops, which nearly always cost around 70 euro cents when you can find a loo.From experience, the trips I would recommend, in priority order, is the Hermitage, the Peterhof Palace with its incredible gravity fountains, Catherine Palace, and the canal boat trip combined with the Usupov Palace where Rasputin was assassinated. Not recommended is the St. Petersburg on foot excursion; nearly Â£50, a few miles in the bus, and no admission to anything included.
CONCLUSIONS: we like P&O, it has the integrity so many lines lack. The itinerary was first class, and for variety and sheer value for money how can a cruise be beaten?