Well, here we go. We have just finished our 17 night cruise to Venice on Azura (A214) and as this was our first cruise with P & O I wanted to post a review with particular comparison with Princess (with whom we have sailed 8 times). We wanted to go back to Venice and the itinerary offered two days in port and so this was an ideal opportunity to try P & O.
We were in a suite (R 401) and this was identical to a suite we have had on the Ruby Princess and so the cabin type/position was not a factor in our opinions.
Embarkation was very swift. We arrived at 11.30am and by the time we had dropped the bags off we walked straight up to the priority check in. Our cruise card had a small black diamond symbol to indicate that we were in a suite and when we presented this in the terminal waiting area we were shown straight onto the ship. (This was the only time that the diamond symbol had any significance at all)
We were directed to The Meridian restaurant where we were offered champagne and a very nice buffet. Our first impressions were good. Other suite passengers we spoke to told us that our butler would collect us and take us to our suite when it was ready, but this never happened. About 2pm there was an announcement that cabins were ready and we made our way to the suite.
It was as we were expecting, but apart from the normal passenger information there was nothing to indicate what additional facilities were available in a suite. Princess have a folder listing all the "perks". Our butler, Sayeed, arrived shortly after and introduced himself and told us that he would deal with dining requests and laundry but the cabin steward would look after the room.
The suite was comfortable and we are not put off by the overhang over the balcony. Dependent upon the ships position we had plenty of morning and evening sun and shade during the heat of the day. Yes, we did hear some footsteps from passengers on the Lido deck but this was not intrusive. However, during the Sailaway party and the Tropical Night Party on the Lido deck the base noise from the music system was very annoying. The Sailaway parties were not really an issue as we were not normally in the cabin at that time. The Tropical Night was a problem as we came back to the cabin at about midnight to find the coffee machine rattling with every beat of the music. It was impossible to try and get to sleep and to make matters worse the party went on after the 12.30am scheduled finish time. After phoning down to reception at 12.50am we were told that they were playing the last song and indeed, 3 songs later they did finish!
We had opted for Freedom dining and being aware of the normal first night queues I asked the butler if he could arrange a table in the main dining room. He told me this was not possible and we would have to present ourselves at the dining room whenever we were ready. I found out that he would reserve Select dining (Sindhu or Seventeen) for us, but given that our experience was that we could reserve this ourselves and that he had no capacity to obtain a booking we couldn't, there seemed little point in it.
We therefore went to the Meridian the first night and asked for a table for 2. Having been given a pager we did not have too long a wait before we were paged and then shown to our table.
The experience in the MDR was not good. The food was fine, but there was no attempt by any of the waiters to introduce themselves or interact in any way. This was in direct contrast with our experience on Princess, where the waiters would always go out of the way to create a good atmosphere. We tried the Meridian again on the second night, where we sat on a different table, but the experience was no better than an up market canteen. Sit down, eat, leave. Definitely not a relaxing dining experience. We never used the main dining room again.
The alternative dining options on Azura which do not require pre booking are Venezia (buffet) Verona (buffet daytime and Italian table service evenings) and the Glass House (lunch and dinner). There are also two Select dining venues which require booking and for which there is a cover charge (Sindhu and Seventeen). We used all of these during the remainder of the cruise.
Unfortunately, our experience of the Meridian buffet when we boarded Azura was never to be repeated. Whenever we used the buffet we found a poor selection and the quality ranged from average to very poor. There were "themed" buffets which meant that on an Indian night for example, if you weren't particularly keen on curry you had no other choice.
Verona on the other hand was very good. We dined there six evenings and were impressed with the service and the food. It was normal to collect a pager and have a drink in The Planet bar whilst waiting. Some menu items were charged for but there was plenty of variety and the steak served on sizzling lava rock was superb as were the sizzling strawberries with prosecco.
Sindhu's was the best dining experience on Azura. Everything from the atmosphere, service, food and personal attention was first class. There were many added touches such as the hot towels to wash your hands, small appetizers to start, sorbet after the main course and biscuit/chocolate selection to accompany coffee. I am not a big curry fan, but this was not curry. It was fine food with delicate spices. We ate there three times and the cover charge of Â£15 per person was well worth it.
Seventeen is promoted as the top restaurant on Azura and there is a cover charge of Â£28 per person. We ate there twice in the evening but as suite passengers we were able to have breakfast there as well, which we did on numerous occasions. In our opinion it does not justify its reputation or the high cover charge. Service was adequate at best but very often poor. We were aware of at least one couple who left dinner after 50 minutes, having still not received their starter. Our experience at breakfast confirmed that the staff are lacking in training. On several occasions I had to leave the table to find a waiter to ask for our order to be taken or for something to be fetched. The staff had a particular expertise in walking through the restaurant without managing to look at any of the customers or tables!
Having owned a restaurant for many years which served a similar style menu to Seventeen, we were particularly keen to try the flambes. I am afraid we were very disappointed. Both the pineapple flambe and the crepe suzette were not good enough. There was insufficient sauce, particularly with the crepes where the waiter used the same quantities for two as he had for one on the previous table. Consequently the pancakes caught on the pan and were dry.
We had purchased a "Dining Gift" before sailing which allowed us to book a meal in Seventeen and a bottle of wine for Â£53.50 (saving Â£2.50 and the price of a bottle of wine). Quite a good deal, but you have to choose the wine when you purchase the gift before sailing, and you cannot change the wine when you arrive. This can restrict your menu choice if you are particular about the type of wine you have with a meal or (as we did) you have to order another bottle as well. When you have a meal at Seventeen you have chocolates delivered to your cabin at night but this did not happen with the "voucher" meal. It could have been an oversight or it might be that "voucher" customers do not qualify. If so then this is penny pinching to the extreme.
The breakfast menu in Seventeen was standard fare and did not offer anything that was not available in the buffet. On Princess, suite passengers can breakfast in Sabbatinis (their Select dining restaurant) and can order virtually anything they want (if it is on the ship) and also have a mimosa (champagne and orange juice) every morning. We did ask for fresh milk (as opposed to UHT) but it was very difficult to communicate what "fresh" meant and the staff kept just taking away the existing jug of UHT milk and bringing a new one in its place. We eventually convinced the restaurant manager what "fresh" milk meant and sometimes we got it and sometimes we didn't. We were later informed that the ship had run out of fresh milk altogether.
We only had a lunch in The Glasshouse which we enjoyed very much. We did intend to have dinner there but it was full on the night we tried and there was no obvious way to queue for a table.
We did not use the room service menu and we were disappointed to find that whereas in a Princess suite the next day's lunch and dinner menus for the main dining rooms were delivered to the cabin every night, this was not the case with P & O. With Princess, we could order anything from these menus to be served in the suite. The butler did not offer any alternative, even when we informed him after the second night that we would not be using the main dining room anymore. Towards the end of the cruise we discovered from another suite passenger that with 24 hours' notice the butler will serve food from the main dining room in the cabin. This information was not made available in the cabin and the butler did not offer it.
Overall, we did enjoy the food but obviously paid six cover charges and several menu item charges in order to receive the quality of food and service we expected.
Prior to the start of the cruise I had requested P & O to book The Retreat for every day except the two days in Venice. We have always enjoyed The Sanctuary on Princess where we were able to select our loungers (in semi shade) for the duration of the cruise on boarding. Accordingly, soon after boarding I went to the Oasis Spa (who operate The Retreat) to confirm my bookings and asked to select our loungers. I was very disappointed to be told that this was not possible and that I would have to turn up at 9.00am every day when they opened to select the loungers. For the rest of the cruise this became a major inconvenience. There are only a limited number of loungers in the shade and the majority are in full sun. This meant that demand outstripped supply. In order to get a lounger in the shade we had to be at the reception by 8.00am at the latest (7.30am on sea days) and then queue until 9.00am when we would be allowed in. Matters were made worse by the fact that on port days Seventeen stopped serving breakfast at 9.00am and therefore our suite "perk" could not be used unless we were prepared to get up very early.
We were not alone in being very annoyed about this situation. There were about a dozen of us who had booked The Retreat for the majority of the cruise and were forced to form an early morning queue in order to reserve a lounger in our preferred locations. The staff could not offer any reasonable explanation for the stupidity of the system. We were told that loungers could at one time be reserved on booking but that this had caused arguments when late bookers or those who just turned up on the day were unable to get a lounger where they wanted. Surely, that is the point of booking early? You are able to get what you want. Paying nearly Â£400 for the privilege of standing in a queue for an hour every morning is not my idea of great service!
To make matters worse, my wife asked for her lounger to be turned around so that she could look out to sea, only to be informed that this was not allowed. Apparently the rules require all loungers to be left in the same position. We did not want it moved, just reversed so that she could recline looking outwards. The answer was still NO.
Despite the problems, the alternative was not much to be desired. On sea days the main sun decks were absolutely packed solid with loungers virtually touching each other. Every space that could be filled, was. It was often difficult to navigate along the ship because of the loungers and even the areas next to the noisy vent outlets were full. Anyone near the Coral Pool or the Aqua Pool had to suffer the loud music or film soundtrack from the Seascreen. Alright if that is what you want but not nice for those who want some peace and quiet!
The one area where we felt that P & O excelled was in the dancing. Being keen Ballroom and Latin dancers we were pleased to discover that we could enjoy 3 or 4 dancing nearly every night in either The Atrium or Malabar. The dance instructors Simon and Julie Curtin were first class. They went out of their way to ensure that everyone had a good time, offering a good range of sequence dances as well. It's a pity the oval wooden floor area in the Atrium couldn't have been squared off to allowed more space but I still counted 16 couples in one sequence dance -- tight but fun.
We did not see all the other entertainment on offer but very much enjoyed the Freddie Mercury tribute act and the New York City Rhythm show.
We expected the dress code to be better observed on P & O than Princess and this proved to be the case. Strangely, I found that the ladies were better dressed on the "Jacket required" nights than on the "Black Tie" nights. It is easy for us men to put on our dinner jackets and we are formal. It seemed to me that many of the ladies were unsure about "formal" dress and although a number had ball gowns or cocktail dresses, there were a number who clearly found difficulty in finding suitable dresses. Whereas, they were clearly much more comfortable in smart separates or elegant dresses on the "Jacket required" nights.
Two days before leaving and I asked for an appointment with the Passenger Services Manager and spent 30 minutes or so telling him about our experiences on the ship and letting him know my feelings. Not with any intentions of looking for compensation because I don't believe any was due. P & O had (mostly) provided what they described, but there was no feeling that they wanted to go the extra mile to make our experience special. He listened politely and said he would look into the issues surrounding The Retreat but I had the feeling that as long as I was not making any formal complaints everything was alright from his perspective. In view of my experience and lack of use with the main dining room I did ask him about the automatic tipping system. He was able to explain exactly how it all worked and what would happen if I removed or changed it and what happened to individual tips given to staff. In the event I did not remove any of the automatic tips and felt reassured that any staff I tipped individually were able to retain the money themselves.
I wish I had been able to tell him about the Java (coffee shop/bar) on deck 5 the following morning. Having missed breakfast in Seventeen we decided to go to Java and get a coffee and something to eat. I ordered the two coffees and asked for two croissants for me and a muffin for my wife, only to be informed that I was only allowed one item of food with each cup of coffee. I was staggered!! A cruise line denying a passenger a second croissant surely is unheard of?
Overall, we enjoyed our holiday and as with any cruise there were plusses and minuses. Venice, Dubrovnik and Korcula were excellent ports to visit and places we will go again. Will that be with P & O?
The answer is NO. Our experience with Princess was always that of being made to feel special. We always found that staff would try and find a way to fulfil any request made. We felt that with P & O the attitude was more about sticking to what was on offer and no more. I will go back to Princess or try other cruise lines where hopefully they value the passengers more and provide an experience to be remembered for all the right reasons.