This was our second cruise in 2 years, last year with RCI, so I will inevitably draw some comparisons. I think Aurora is a beautiful ship - classy and elegant. She might not have the bling/wow factor of some other ships, but more than made up for it in warm, welcoming atmosphere. Other contributors have remarked on leaking pipes and general shabby appearance, but during the whole week I saw nary a leaking pipe or bucket anywhere on the ship. We saw maintenance work in progress the whole week.
We drove to Southampton (first time) and found Aurora's berth with minimum trouble, despite a last-minute change from the Mayflower to the Ocean Terminal. We'd booked parking with CPS and despite arriving early due to the quietish roads, had no trouble handing over our car and bags and heading up the escalators to the pleasantly cool and airy check-in area. The whole process was delightfully quick, smooth and easy, with polite, chatty and helpful staff - a great contrast with the hot, hectic and disorganised RCI embarkation process and surly staff in Venice last year. In less than 30 minutes we were on board and directed to the Orangery for lunch, where we found a plentiful, varied and tasty choice.
Our stateroom was midships on Deck 8 - very convenient for the children's clubs, Terrace pool area and library and handy for almost everywhere else. Teo, our steward, kept our stateroom immaculate - tea, coffee and biscuits replenished daily, always clean pool and bath towels (in fact I felt guilty as they seemed to be changed every time we used one!). We saw little of Teo, but when we did he was lovely - smiley, chatty and pleasant.
The children (17 and 12) received a warm welcome from the children's club organisers, and were soon planning their activities. They dropped in and out of the clubs as they wanted and had a great time. We were kept comprehensively informed of everything that was going on through Horizon, the ship's newsletter and broadcasts from Captain Turnbull. This man is an absolute treasure and I'm sure is in no small part responsible for the lovely, friendly atmosphere on Aurora. The crew all seem to rate him highly too. His announcements were humorous and informative and if he ever decides to retire from a life at sea, a career as a comedian surely beckons.
We breakfasted in the Medina restaurant for the first couple of days, but thereafter in the Orangery due to early starts for excursions. On the Sunday morning DH ordered the special - scrambled egg and smoked salmon - and was disappointed to be served a dessertspoon of scrambled egg on a round slice of baguette at most 3 inches across. In general, though, we found the food to be of a very high standard and plentiful. The Sidewalk Cafe near the Crystal Pool did very good burgers (according to my son). We were on the early sitting for dinner in the Alexandria restaurant, and this was where we encountered the fly in the ointment. Our waiters, Jack and Terence, were surly, uncommunicative, and on a couple of occasions downright aggressive. Both our children suffer from a severe allergy to egg, a fact to which we had alerted P&O well in advance. When I mentioned this to Jack at dinner on the first night, I was very brusquely told they would have to order off the menu and choose things that would be safe for them, which is OK if you can assume that you know exactly which ingredients have gone into a dish. Thereafter they were given the next day's dinner menu every evening so they could make a choice in advance. The problem came with the lack of feedback regarding their choices. RCI operated the same system, but if the children had chosen something unsuitable, the waiter would come back and either ask us to choose an alternative, or the chef would suggest a way to adapt the dish to make it suitable. This worked very well and was handled in a very friendly and professional manner by RCI's restaurant staff. Not so on P&O. To give an example: one night both children chose spaghetti with meatballs. When the dish arrived, there were meatballs with no spaghetti. No-one had told us the pasta would not be suitable. When my husband enquired whether some rice or potatoes were being provided as an alternative, he was told in a very rude manner that if he wanted to order off-menu items, he had to make special arrangements and do it in advance. When my husband explained the reason for his request, our waiters became downright rude. The head waiter, Nil, also intervened, and although he handled things better, he also struggled to grasp the concept of feedback and provision of alternatives. Similar incidents occurred on 3 consecutive nights, which made for very stressful mealtimes and was very embarrassing for the children. Special mention must go to our wine waiter, Arven, who was a star, and our thanks to our table companions Matt, Jane and their gorgeous boys Robert and Adam, who were great company.
The entertainment varied in quality. We saw Destination Dance, by the Headliners, which I thought was rather amateurish, although you couldn't fault the performers' energy and enthusiasm. The comedy magician, Andre, was great for adults and children. Although I didn't see his show, Maurice Grumbleweed was apparently rather near the knuckle, despite there being children in the audience. A daytime talk by Dame Mary Peters was fascinating, as was An Interview with Captain Turnbull, which was very funny. The range of daytime activities was good, but I found that after the main evening entertainment for first sitting diners, at around 8.30, there was little else available other than to sit in a lounge with a drink. We played cards on several evenings, either with the children, or on our own if they were at the clubs.
Overall we found the service to be good, but perhaps not as good as hubby and I had experienced on P&O years ago. We liked the fact that waiters were less pushy than RCI regarding selling drinks out on deck and in the lounges, the photographers were also less pushy, but achieved far better results. Consequently we purchased several P&O photos as they were so good. We did object, though, to a photographer calling us "sad" to our faces when we declined a photo as we came down the gangway for an excursion one morning. When out on deck early-ish in the morning, and walking through lounges on our way to breakfast, we were surprised to see plates, cups and glasses left from the night before.
We enjoyed the ports, especially since we had generally good weather. The Petroleum Museum in Stavanger was a great way to spend a drizzly morning, and it was lovely walking round the cathedral, lake and old town in the afternoon sun. Olden was just stunning. We did the walk to the Briksdal Glacier. The scenery was breathtaking but beware - even fit people found the walk quite strenuous. The cake buffet and coffee laid on at the end of walk was a good way to replenish the calories though. The quantity and variety was just amazing! The Land of the Trolls tour at Alesund was marred by poor weather in the morning, which meant we didn't get good views of the Troll Wall, or from the top of the Trollstiggen road, which was a real shame. Unfortunately we also had a Slovenian tour guide, with a very poor command of English, who repeated herself ad nauseam for the whole 8-hour tour. As a linguist I was able to back-translate for my family much of the Norwegian, Italian, German, Spanish and other languages she threw into her commentary, but I think other (all British) passengers were heartily fed up. The delicious Norwegian buffet lunch (including reindeer stew) was spoiled by being served at 3 pm. Thank goodness we had taken some fruit and biscuits from the stateroom with us! The weather improved in the afternoon and we were treated to fabulous views of the mountains and fjords. Unfortunately the tour was late back, so we didn't get an opportunity to see any of Alesund's Art Nouveau architecture. We did Bergen DIY. The compulsory, free shuttle bus (cruise passengers were not allowed to walk around the port area) dropped off by the central lake, around which are located most of the museums, and from where it's a 10-minute stroll to Bryggen (the old wharf area), the fish market, and the funicular station. If you fancy a reasonably priced coffee, go the cafeteria on the 5th floor of the indoor shopping mall. If you have filter coffee from the jugs on the counter, refills are free and a cappuccino was only mildly extortionate! By sheer coincidence relatives had booked a Norwegian cruise on Queen Victoria during the same week, so we met up with them in Bergen. Consequently we did not see as much of Bergen as we would have liked, and both hubby and I would like to go back.
Despite a Force 8 blowing on Wednesday night/Thursday morning as we traversed the North Sea, we barely felt a thing and slept soundly. Aurora really is a good ship in open sea, as the captain confirmed. The force 6 which was still blowing on Thursday morning meant the sea was rather choppy and outdoor activities not practical because of the wind and spray, but this eased in the afternooon.
The disembarkation process and car collection process on Friday morning was as swift and smooth as embarkation, taking at most 30 minutes before we were on our way.
I adore Aurora and would happily sail on her again, particularly whilst Captain Turnbull is in charge. Our daughter liked her and would go again, our son wouldn't say no, but prefers RCI. If you are looking for a quintessentially British cruising experience, on a friendly ship, with old-fashioned style, then you could do much worse than give Aurora a try. We did, and had a fabulous week.