WHO AM I
I hope that this review, conveys some of the joys and frustrations of cruising. To hardened veterans there will be little new, except my personal take on things, but for those planning to cruise for the first time I hope it represents an honest and open assessment that helps you decide if cruising "is for you". I apologise to those who think it goes on a bit, however I have included some sub headings so you can jump straight to any bits that might interest you.
I always like to understand who is writing these reviews as it helps to put the comments into perspective. My wife and I are both professionals in the construction industry and commute into London every day. I am in my early 50's and my wife in her late 40's. Our son is 10. We are reasonably well travelled, mostly from before our son was born, since when we seem to have spent an inordinate amount of holiday time in Florida -- you know the places!! We have been on one cruise before on P&O's Ventura in the summer of 2010 to the Western Mediterranean.
AN INAUSPICIOUS START
We were unfortunately on the other end of the three hour delay, caused by engine trouble on the previous Scandinavian cruise which is reported in other reviews. The chaos did not end with disembarkation unfortunately, with virtual gridlock ensuing around the dock area as for some inexplicable reason, P&O did not choose to use the departure lounge at the Mayflower terminal (there seemed to be one tantalisingly visible through the building windows). The net result was that cars could only be unloaded at the speed at which passengers in the embarkation queue could be registered. 3500 people through a single queue led to the mother of all traffic jams that extended way outside the docks and into the surrounding roads. The staff on the desks were brilliant but they never were going to be able to work fast enough. P&O please note (more haste less speed and upset passengers to boot -- better to have operated normally and accepted the delay -- we did not leave any earlier than the initial 3 hour delay so nothing was gained by not following the normal procedures). After the embarkation debacle, things settled down to what, at least for us, was the anticipated normality. The late departure meant that our cabin was available immediately which was nice and the luggage arrived very quickly .The semi chaos of the emergency drill matched our previous experience, it may teach you how to don a lifejacket but it hardly breeds confidence! By the time dinner came around we, at least, were back on track with everything stowed away and a feeling that the holiday had started.
We had a deluxe balcony cabin which was configured with a double bed (two singles linked together but pretty comfortable none the less), a fold out sofa and a reasonable amount of room for the three of us. For anyone more used to hotels it would seem small. It was reasonably well appointed with enough space to stow away my wife's copious wardrobe and, with the foresight to have cases which nest inside one another, to hide away all the bags. Two TV's allowed continual tracking of our progress whilst being able to catch up with news or watch a programme from the limited on board selection. Not that we spent much time doing that but it's there if you want it. I would advise turning the sound down on the tracking and mast camera channels as the music selection is bizarre and defies all my efforts to understand who it is aimed at. An MP3 dock would be a good addition to the cabin inventory in line with most good hotels these days.
The balcony was small and overlooked as to get the extra space in the deluxe cabins they project beyond the ones above. This might also be an issue if you have elephants in the cabin above as their balcony is directly over the 'living' area of the cabin. So far in two trips we have been lucky in this respect and as for the overlooking, well what are you planning to do? And if you are confident enough to do it, do you really care?
The steward was brilliant and really made an effort, in a quiet and unobtrusive way, to get to know us and to make us feel like we were one of just a few cabins he was looking after (the reality is unfortunately somewhat different I suspect). The cleanliness, tidiness and general appointment of the cabin were always good although there are a few signs of wear and tear appearing after just a couple of years in service which will need attention before too long.
We chose freedom dining which worked well for us on the only other time we have cruised. Why is it though, that it is a nightmare on the first night? (And in this case the second) with long waits even if you are prepared to share a table. Maybe some people have not yet found the buffet or perhaps the novelty of formal dining has not worn off. Anyway it was over 30 minutes in each case this time which seems excessive given that on every other night we just breezed straight in. (I suppose I should note that there were three of us and we were always happy to share a table and meet new people each evening. If you wanted a table for two or were in a large group I am sure that wait times would have been a more regular occurrence). The food was good and occasionally very good and the loss of the regular standard items off the menu (which others have complained about) seemed to be compensated by additional main course choices compared to our last trip. Suffice it to say that even our ten year old son always found a couple of mains that he was happy with without having to resort to the kids menu. The wine packages were good quality and good value. I particularly liked the package where you could choose from a selection of around 15 selected wines each night rather than being stuck with a specific selection from the outset. Last time we selected a package of 6 whites and 6 reds and towards the end of the cruise found that this began to dictate our menu choices which was rather limiting. With this method we could have had 12 bottles of the same wine had we been minded to, but still received a healthy discount on what were already reasonable prices compared to most restaurants . As it was, we tried a good number of them and were never disappointed.
We booked two nights in Seventeen and one in Sindhu. All were really enjoyable evenings , though both restaurants are very quiet to the point of slightly lacking in atmosphere. The fact that no attempt is made to turn tables in the evening does however ensure a very relaxed meal and the service and the food was excellent in both restaurants.
Never got round to trying the Glass House (though it gets good reviews elsewhere), we were not enamoured by the decor which has something of a first class airport lounge about it. Quality, but better if you are just passing through! There seemed to be some quite interesting wine flights on the menu but after a couple of sundowners, half a bottle of wine and a digestif it was difficult to contemplate this as an after dinner option.
As for the mad house buffet on deck 15, we popped in a couple of times at lunch when peckish but the chaos was reminiscent of a large department store cafe restaurant on a busy Saturday lunch time (even if there were better views from the windows) It was actually preferable to queue for a pizza or a burger at the outlets around the pool.
Breakfast can be taken in the buffet but we preferred the more sedate service in the Oriental restaurant to start the day and found that more times than not they found us a table to ourselves which was handy when we had slightly overdone it the night before. Whilst I admire those who are able to be bright and perky first thing in the morning it is not always easy to match and the ability to plan the day ahead (for this read arrange our time table around the kids club activities!) whilst absorbing that first coffee and without feeling that you are snubbing others at the table was appreciated.
The bars and the lounges are reasonably varied on Azura and it was generally not difficult to find a spot to perch unless there was a popular act on. Steve Larkin was standing room only, but if you have been lucky enough to catch his Mercury Rising show then you will understand why.
The Planet Bar was our favourite especially when sailing east as it is a fabulous location for a sundowner before dinner. The video walls are also an intriguing backdrop and add a variety that makes each evening a little different. (It's also an excuse to try the different themed cocktails which match the particular evenings display -- well you have to, don't you?). One slight issue was that it becomes adult only after 11pm which put an irritating curfew on our use of the bar if we happened to have our son with us after dinner. It's a personal point of view but if Azura is to be marketed as a family ship then aside from the Casino and the Retreat (and if your kids are well behaved it is annoying to be denied a peaceful sunbathe and swim away from the ones that aren't, in any case) I cannot see why it is necessary to place age limits on areas of the ship. Those that do not wish to travel with children have two thirds of the year and countless 'adults only' ships to satisfy their needs.
Brodies was a good place to watch the football of which pretty much all the Premier League games seemed to be screened. Each little enclave of seating had its own TV so there was no trouble finding a place to watch without having to balance your pint.
The shows in the theatre, Malabar and Manhattan were good 'after dinner' fare and there seemed to be plenty of daytime activities for those that wanted entertaining below decks. I found myself hooked when catching the end of a lecture, before watching a film in Malabar with my son, by a Chief Engineer from Concorde. I ended up going back for three further talks in his series which was way out of my normal comfort zone.
On the subject of films, one of the selling points of Azura is the Sea Screen. In practice however this isn't as good as it might be, particularly in the daytime, when the sound has to compete with the sound of poolside activity and parties in the other pool areas. At night, the ship is usually cracking on to get to the next port and therefore it gets pretty breezy which is distracting when you need to hang onto your blanket at the crucial moment of the plot. (For some reason Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy pops into mind but that was towels not blankets!?) We found ourselves trying to catch the films we really wanted to see the next day in Malabar although that was not without its problems as we sought out a location to sit that was not blocked by drapes or columns. P&O why do you not use the theatre for the indoor shows? I'm sure they could be arranged around the stage rehearsals??
PORTS OF CALL
I guess that these are usually the highlights of any-ones Cruise and in most cases probably a major reason why they booked it. We enjoyed all our stops on A220, though the machine gun nature of most of them, day after day for five days, in the middle of the cruise , did leave me wondering why cruise planners couldn't try to place the stops on an "every other day" routine which would be much more restful.
A half day stop barely gave time to draw breath, but was a welcome interlude in what would have been a long sail to Korcula. Because we had never been there before, we chose to take an organised tour, fearful that by the time we had got our bearings there would be little time to see the sights. Our choice proved to be a good one including a trip to a vantage point overlooking the city which was good for orientation and a break from the heat which even in the early morning was up in the 30's. The main event was a collection of superb vintage cars clearly chosen for their aesthetics as well as their historical significance. I would recommend it to anyone stopping in Malaga, not just the petrol heads, the cars are stunningly beautiful. Finally we were dropped for 45mins in the centre of Malaga which was just long enough to take a peek in the cathedral and grab a drink.
We visited Korcula back when it was still part of Yugoslavia and little has changed other than that the quiet beautiful town we remembered was completely overrun by the huge influx of people from the ship.
Note to P&O cruise planners: Korcula is a bonkers choice for the first full port day after four and a half days at sea with a brief stop in Malaga. Firstly it is a tender port and secondly it is very small. The charge of stir crazy passengers overwhelmed all the tender planning/organisation and meant that many people only had a half day ashore having waited hours to get off. Having finally got ashore, the narrow streets, so cleverly designed to shade the residents and catch the prevailing winds to keep the city cool were so full of people it was unpleasant to move around let alone shop or visit the few small historic attractions.
In the end we bailed out, having had a brief struggle through the crowds to show our son a bit of the town we had admired so much when we visited last, and walked along the waterfront where we found a terrific little restaurant with a view back to the town across the crystal clear water. Day rescued!
What can you say, Venice has to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world and certainly one of the most individual. Rising early, we were on deck for the whole sail in (our cabin was on the port side which misses all the major action on the way in). What a surreal experience! Slowly moving through the lagoon and then past St Mark's square looking down from what felt like a 19 storey mobile contemporary office building; which could not have been more out of context with its glorious historic surroundings both in appearance and scale if it had tried. Setting aside the incongruity and a slight feeling that we were somehow intruding and spoiling the view for all those on the ground, the photo opportunities were amazing. The sense of anticipation once we were finally moored was palpable. P&O arranged motor boat transfers to St Mark's Square for those prepared to pay an additional fee. We thought that it would be a rip off with a captive audience, but the price was exactly the same as on the quayside, so well done P&O!
We decided to take the motor boat and walk back to the ship though the day. Wanted to show our son all the major sights and therefore did not really expect to have the time to go inside anywhere, however when we arrived at St Mark's Square, whilst there was a long queue for St Marks and the Campanile, there was virtually none for the Doge's Palace so we jumped at the opportunity. The rest of the day was spent lazily exploring the back streets and picking up the major points of interest along the way; a leisurely meal overlooking the Giudecca Canal, hoping that one of the other cruise ships would leave so that we could get the other view of the surreal experience we had coming in. No such luck! Caught the people mover/light railway back to the terminal from Piazza del Roma and marvelled that the Italians could be more uncoordinated with their public projects than us. How difficult was it to put the station next to the cruise terminal rather than have people have to walk Â½ a mile to it thought the car parks?!! Still nothing could spoil the warm glow of a day well spent.
Dubrovnik is a fabulous town although the surroundings have grown in the 20 years since we were last there. Thankfully there is no obvious sign of the impact of the war and any repairs that had to be carried out were not visible to us. We chose to walk the walls which in the searing heat was quite a challenge however there was at least a breeze up there, unlike down in the town which was packed and oven like. The town is a 'gem' whether you choose to visit the key sights or just wander the streets in search of photo opportunities which are numerous and delightful. Like Korcula the prices for food and drink in Croatia are astoundingly low compared to home or Italy. (Mental note to check the price of air fares). The local currency 'Kuna' was useful to have as there was no concern as to whether credit cards would be accepted. Many places seemed happy to accept Euros, however I suspect that there was a poor exchange rate with a lot of rounding up. (The same applied in Korcula).
This island was new to us and with little obvious site-seeing in the port we chose the best of Cephalonia tour. It's a nice Greek island with all one would expect but it struggles to entertain as a cruise destination when set against Venice and Dubrovnik. The longish bus tour did give a good precis of what was on offer if you were to return for a longer period. A hilly terrain with some stunning beaches (Myrtos was a photo stop) some pretty little port harbours (Fiscardo in particular) and great weather. The caves at Melissani were billed as the main attraction on the tour including a boat ride into the caves. In the event 6 coaches arrived at the same time, the queue in blistering heat had some people on the verge of collapse and the boat trip when it came was ten minutes long at best. It beat watching the hills go by from the bus window, but not by much!
As a day out this trip was rather underwhelming, unless perhaps you were a devotee of 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin', which seems to be the islands only major claim to fame and from the film of which, every scene location was enthusiastically pointed out and discussed. ZZZZZZZzzzzzzzz.......
To be fair, the guide was very enthusiastic and knowledgeable and made the lengthy bus transfers between stops less tedious than they might otherwise have been; it's just that, other than the view of Myrtos beach, there was the continual feeling that we had seen better versions of the same thing elsewhere.
If we stop here again on a future cruise I think it will be a day at the beach for us.
I had not been to Messina for over 40 years (I was only nine) but remembered (or so I thought) vividly the beauty of the amphitheatre at Taormina and was keen to share it with my wife and son. We also liked the idea of going to see Mount Etna and whilst it promised to be a marathon of a day we booked a trip that combined the two. In actual fact the travelling seemed less than in Cephalonia and the coastal motorway made short work of the transfer to Taormina which was a half day journey on twisty roads when I last went there. The town and the amphitheatre are set against the backdrop of stunning views and my memories had not let me down. The guide was possibly the most knowledgeable I have come across; in Greek and Roman architecture, local history and, when we reached Etna, geology. Her easy manner, born of being a school teacher for most of the year, endeared her to my son who was hanging on every word and for once on one of these trips, I really felt that I'd learned something along the way as well. The trip included lunch at a restaurant 2/3 of the way up the volcano and despite my cynical fears about such stops, the food was passable and plentiful and the service efficient. We then walked around one of the smaller lateral vent craters; examining, under our guide's tutelage, the various types and colours of the pumice and learning about their chemical composition. Yes I know it sounds like school, but for an hour or so and with the right commentary, it was quite enthralling.
Note that P&O's trips do not take you by the cable car to the active craters on top of the mountain, however I suspect that unless Etna was the only stop, it would be difficult to allow enough time.
The views from the mountain were superb and emphasised just how many lateral eruptions there have been over the centuries, with cinder cones peppering the side of the mountain right down to the coastal plain.
After the intense day most people dozed off on the way back, aided by the copious quantities of red wine consumed at lunch and the only awkward point of the day was on returning to the cabin, when my son revealed his new found interest in geology and emptied several pounds of pumice from his pockets.
'Well the lady said it was ok!'
We had stopped in Palma on a previous cruise and taken a trip to the caves on the east coast (better than those in Cephalonia) and looked around the Cathedral, so this time we decided to take a trip to the beach at Formentor. The tour was however much more than the simple beach transfer that we presumed it to be and made stops to view the craggy coastline, including some fabulous vistas and after an hour and a half or so at the beach, included a short boat trip along the coast to Puerta Pollensa and some time to grab a bit of lunch before returning.
The beach at Formentor is in two relatively small and narrow sections, is very picturesque and the clear water was a joy to swim in. There are good facilities alongside the beach which I believe are part of a hotel which stands just back from the beach. It is the very antithesis of what you might expect a Mallorcan beach to be and I have to say that our impression of northern Mallorca in general was very positive and may well cause us to return for a longer stay.
THE LONG WAY HOME
The three days at sea to finish the cruise, brought into focus the quality and the variety of the ships facilities and activities and whilst my wife was happy to sunbathe for all the hours that the sun stayed out, my son and I are a lot less in love with the sun lounger lifestyle.
In my sons case, he was very well catered for, as the kids facilities on board are excellent and the Reef Rangers, creative and friendly. Apparently there were over 700 children on board this cruise, but for most of the time you would never have known it. I think perhaps one of the kids clubs contains a 'Tardis'.
In my case, I re-engaged my passion for reading, which always wanes between holidays as the pressures of everyday life, seem to turn time spent with a good book into an unaffordable luxury. I used this new found reading fervour to savour the various spaces around the ship, by deliberately changing locations between sessions of reading and incorporating, periodically, that stalwart of cruise leisure activities, observing your fellow passengers. Obviously the two activities are not really complementary and the best places for the former (probably the Blue Bar) are the worst for the latter (Midship on deck 15 can deliver the same level of incredulity and entertainment as a visit to the Zoo).
We all really enjoyed the opportunity to kick back and shake off the timetabling that had been essential to surviving the rash of port days and despite the lapse with the Concorde lectures, there was no need to learn ballroom dancing, bridge or painting, or to resort to joining the many competitions on the deck or in the pub. I did slightly regret not joining the ships choir; simply because they sounded so brilliant when performing towards the end of the cruise. This would of course have been self-defeating, as my contribution would have probably have ruined the whole thing.
THE RETURN TO SOUTHAMPTON
About 5 days out you will be invited to come to reception to choose a disembarkation time, assuming you do not choose to carry off your luggage yourself. (Not an option for us as my wife, along with it has to be said the majority of P&O customers does like to indulge herself in fully supporting the dress codes with an appropriately sized wardrobe of clothes). Get along as soon as possible if you want one of the early slots, but for us, the best is the one which allows us to have one last leisurely breakfast before leaving. The process was entirely painless and surprisingly rapid; probably taking no more than 15 minutes from handing in the key card, to picking up the car keys. What a contrast to getting aboard.
This was our second cruise and whilst the first was virtually perfect, this one had a few glitches. Not enough however to change our mind about cruising, which is an excellent way to spend a vacation. With the benefit of a couple of weeks back home and the loss of the additional pounds gained due to the temptation of the food offer, the small negative issues are subsumed under a wealth of positive memories and stories to tell and the determination to do it again, if not next year, then certainly before too long.