We have just spent a fortnight crossing the Atlantic on Azura, visiting Punta Delgada in the Azores, St Martin, St Kitts, Antigua, St Lucia and Barbados. What should have been an incredibly relaxing and fun holiday turned out to be a rather strained and underwhelming affair.
We began at Manchester Airport for our courtesy coach transfer to Southampton for boarding. Never in more than 40 years of travelling worldwide have I encountered a more disorganised and unwelcoming start to a holiday. Over 700 people were crammed into a portion of the coach station with no signage, no one on hand to offer guidance and just one person at the front of the queue ticking off names and assigning passengers - many of whom had already had a long journey - to 20 coaches. We had arrived at 7.10am expecting to be in plenty of time for our 8.30 departure. In the event, the single queue was so long that we only reached the front at 9.20am, boarding our coach at 9.40am for a departure at 9.50am.
It was a total, absolute shambles. If P&O are attempting to exude an air of class and comfort, this could not have done more to destroy that image. My impression was compounded when I tried several times to phone the company's customer services and, despite promises to the contrary, they failed to ring me back.
On reaching Southampton, there was a further hour to wait in the cramped and crowded cruise terminal before being called to the check-in desk. This entailed a further long queue. After check-in for the ship, there was another half-hour queue to clear passport control and board the ship.
In all, the most stressful beginning to a holiday we've ever had - and we''ve been in some difficult airports in far-flung corners of the world. P & O like to market the fact that you "avoid airport queues" when you check in on their ships. That's a shame, because airport queues are so much shorter and easier. Never again.
The Azura itself is lovely. Huge, new (or, rather, just a couple of years old) and sparkly. Clean and well-appointed, it's a testament to the efficiency of the wonderful crew. Nothing was too much trouble for these folk, from the waiters and cabin stewards to all those you don't see. Most of the staff (at least, the ones you DO see) are Indian, and they do a really fantastic job.
However, here the split between crew and management begins, because the ship is FAR too overcrowded. We sailed at full capacity and, while in theory there should be plenty of room for everyone, the truth is everyone wants to be in the same place at once.
We chose the second fixed dinner sitting (8.30) as we like getting to know new people and didn't want to have to rush back from shore trips. By the time we'd finished dinner it was all but impossible to get seats in the Playhouse for shows or in the Malabar or Manhattan bars where cabarets were taking place.
During the day, and once we reached sunny climes, there was just not enough deck space to accommodate everyone. Sunbeds were cheek-to-jowl and the 'towel' brigades were out in force, despite pleas from the crew. It was cheap 'n' cheesy in the extreme, and not something we wanted to be part of.
Although we travelled out of the school holidays and there were only some 30 children on the trip, the four tiny pools were still packed and there was no way they could be used for real swimming - we didn't even attempt to try.
Food on the boat was generally very good. Fine dining it wasn't, but with the choice of sit-down restaurants, buffets, deck pizza/burger outlets and room service, it would be a very difficult person indeed who couldn't find something they liked at most hours of the day or night, and a type of service to suit. We didn't try any of the restaurants which incurred extra cost - Sindhu, Glasshouse, 17 - but as we were enjoying the company so much on our shared daily table we didn't feel any need to. Most of the food comprises British standards, from steak to roast beef, lamb chops and cod.... The buffets included curries and national dishes from other countries. All very focussed at British clients, though, all safe and involving little imagination. I guess this is what the punters want. I take my hat off to the guy who organises it all.... What a well-run operation.
The entertainment was pretty damn awful, to be honest. Cheesy bands and tribute acts, a theatre group with zero panache and embarrassing 'sailaways' with giveaway Union Jacks so everyone could flag-wave and sing 'Rule Britannia' as we left countries we stopped ruling a generation or more ago. Pretty desperate. It was loathsome.
THE HARD SELL...
Just vile. The whole ship is geared towards QVC-style hard-selling - bags, watches, jewellery, endless photographs, on-board sales talks, shore excursion sales, you name it. Boy, do they try and raise those profit margins. Apart from BBC world news and Sky news, there's nothing to watch on the TV in your cabin apart from people trying to sell you something. It's just awful.
Crossing the Atlantic by ship was something we wanted to do but, once done, it's not something we'll be repeating. Of course we chose the itinerary and P & O have no control over the weather, but for anyone thinking of doing the trip in January, I can tell you that it's very rough. Especially if you have a cabin near the front of the ship, as we did. We spent several days and nights being tossed from side to side, thinking we'd crashed into something in the middle of the night and clutching the sheets thinking we were about to be thrown out of bed. Very few hours' sleep. What fun - not! It was cold, extremely windy (force 9 gales) and miserable, too. On the seventh day of our trip - two days after reaching the Azores - people were actually able to start taking their outer clothes off and venturing onto the decks in temperatures approaching 20C.
In other words, half of your hard-earned holiday gone before you see any sunshine. So think carefully if this itinerary's for you!
We hoped it would be an adventure, and in some senses it was, but in truth there's very little to see. Not a bird, not a boat, not a plane in five days crossing the mid-Atlantic. Five dolphins at a great distance. I absolutely love the sea, and just a talk or two or more contact with the technical crew might have helped to bring the trip to life, but that wasn't on offer. All in all, it was a very artificial experience.
I spoke to many pasengers on the trip, and didn't meet one who said they would repeat this itinerary. So judge for yourself.
Are very dear. Do your research before you go and book an independent tour or a taxi online. It'll save you a fortune and you'll get a far better, more personal service at half the price. Or, walk off the ship and book a tour at the port terminals. It'll still be cheaper and better.
A clean, anonymous ship with a great crew, huge yet desperately overcrowded. If you want a home-from-home among fellow Brits with a bit of sun thrown in, and you have no real interest in experiencing other places or cultures, then this may be for you.
If you're seeking peace and quiet, want discerning personal service and enjoy mixing with people of all cultures and discovering new places, then avoid at all costs.
If you've read this far, congratulations!!
- You can't buy duty-free to drink on board, so take a 'bar' with you or buy a bottle or two at your first destination.
- Soft drinks aren't free, either, apart from juice at breakfast time. Take a plastic bottle or two that you can fill at breakfast from the machines to drink through the day and use as mixers with your evening tipple.
- The same goes for water. You have to pay for bottled water in your room at the ghastly price of Â£2 a pop, so take your own bottle and fill at any time from the machines.
- Try and eat when others aren't. If you want a sit-down lunch in the 'formal' Oriental or Peninsular restaurants, go very early to avoid the queues. In the buffets, eat early or late, or you'll struggle to get a seat.
- Sort out any important email communication before you leave home. Internet is VERY, VERY expensive and extremely unreliable with lots of drop-out as it's by satellite. A 'package' starts at Â£35 for just 100 minutes; pay-as-you-go is 50 pence a minute. Don't plan on doing any important business online here!!!
- AVOID a cabin at the front of the ship. The metallic thud of huge waves crashing against the bow will drive you crazy and keep you awake all night.
...HOPE all this may be useful to someone making a decision about a holiday aboard Azura or with P & O. Whatever you do, happy travels!!