Boarded Azura on April 27th; P&O usually do boarding very well and I was on the ship about half an hour after arriving at the terminal. Luggage arrived quickly and I was soon unpacked, had lunch and in the library choosing books and arranging internet time which is glacially slow and expensive but no more so than on any ship.
For the first lunch you are forced, unless you have done over 25 cruises or so, to use the "Snatch and Grab", my name for the buffet restaurants, as nowhere else is open unless you are a VIP passenger. The Azura versions of the Snatch and Grab are Venezia and Verona, the latter slightly less crowded. It is difficult as I was sailing alone to get something to eat and to secure a place at a table. This is one reason why I only used it once or twice for the whole cruise. If you are alone, no one wants you to sit at their table. It's better to go to the main dining rooms where sharing tables is an accepted fact of cruise life and the waiter simply places you with others. Actually I met a lot of nice people that way.
Free champagne at sailaway as I had gone up a tier since my last cruise, which was nice, but I missed the sailaway bands which lent atmosphere to the departure. Being low down in the ship, on P deck near the atrium, I found that at the safety drill I actually had a seat; that's never happened before as I've always had to sit on the floor!
Crossing the Bay of Biscay on the way out was like a millpond, and the weather continued to be excellent, mostly warm and sunny, until the penultimate night of the cruise when we re-entered Biscay and it was quite rough. Much steadier down on deck 5 than on previous cruises up on decks 10, 11 or 12, but still a disturbed night as the waves crashed against my window and the grinding of the stabilisers was very audible in my cabin. I was afraid at one time that the sea would break my cabin window but I suppose they're built more strongly than that... Fortunately I am a good sailor so did not suffer at all, but quite a few people were ill on that last day as we crossed the Bay, before the weather calmed down as we entered the Channel on the last evening.
Ports: La Coruna was lovely and I went for a 6 mile walk taking in the Castle and Hercules Tower and returning through the Old Town. Gibraltar I have been to many times, but I walked along to the town and right down to the cable car station to go to the top of the Rock before going shopping.
Ajaccio in Corsica was also a lovely port and easy to walk round on your own. After seeing Napoleon's house and the cathedral I went for a bathe on the beach, then returned via the market where I did some shopping. Rome; well I've been there 5 times so just went for a walk round Civitavecchia which was quite interesting. Next time I think I'll do "Rome on your own". Having a quick morning walk meant plenty of time for a leisurely lunch in the Glass House and an afternoon of sunbathing and swimming, as this was a very hot day.
In Monaco I took a tour; the "highlights" which included a drive round the Grand Prix track and the Palace. I had booked "A Taste of France" but despite the cruise being a food and wine cruise, the tour was cancelled due to lack of bookings which was disappointing. However I enjoyed the tour I took, and in Barcelona I enjoyed the Gaudi Tour even more. P&O always have such excellent guides. The only thing not enjoyable was tendering into Monte Carlo. Last time I was there I was on Oceana and we had the berth, but the queue for tenders was a real pain!
The last port was Valencia and the port talk and written guide said that the seafront and Las Arenas beach were only a few minutes' walk from the ship. Having had 2 city tours, I decided I didn't want to catch the free shuttle into the city but wanted a walk instead. However when I got off they would not let anyone walk through the port and insisted that I either got the shuttle, which I didn't want to do, as it ONLY dropped off in the city, or got a taxi which as a single woman I said I didn't feel safe doing. So they had to organise their staff to allow me to get back on board. Reception was inundated with complaints including mine, about the duff information and lack of choice on this morning call. I rated all the other ports excellent or very good, but I deliberately gave Valencia a "very poor" rating on my ship questionnaire.
Food on board was very good except for the Snatch and Grab which I generally avoided. I dined at Sindhu and the Glass House as well as in the Peninsular Restaurant and was well pleased. In the main restaurant I was on a large table, with one old buffer who was a bit of a pain, and 8 really nice people, so the pain was easy to avoid. Well, there's always one isn't there? Actually I met lots of great people at meals and on deck on this cruise, and one very rude one whom I only encountered once. Maybe someone threw her overboard; I hope so!
Waiter service was friendly and generally good but I noticed how pushed they were; there are clearly fewer of them and they were dashing about all the time.
My cabin steward was charming and looked after me really well, bringing lemon slices and ice each day for my gin and tonic from the bottle I brought aboard. I also bought some brandy, but bought quite a few drinks from bars as well, to judge by the size of my bill! However the drinks on P&O are at reasonable prices as others have said, so you don't mind having a cocktail at a performance or wine with dinner each night. The "wine line" for advance orders is a good idea as your bottle is waiting for you on the table each evening, and what you don't consume they cork and save for the next night, which makes it economical for solo cruisers.
Entertainment on this cruise I thought was good with something for all tastes. Yes I hate bingo and quizzes, but some people like them, and there were classical concerts for me who loves these events. Headliners were really good and though I had seen 2 of the shows last year, this year's company added new twists to them so it didn't feel like repetition and I enjoyed every show. In the showlounge, Manhattan, the acts were mixed, with a good and a not so good comedian, and 3 excellent tribute acts. Also very enjoyable were the talks by the guest speaker, mostly on the 60s, the talks by Atul Kochar and Olly Smith, and for me one of the highlights was the Azura Vocalists. 2 of the Entertainment team, who were really good on this cruise, ran the choir, one conducting and one accompanying, and we did 2 performances on one of the last nights. I thoroughly enjoyed this experience, which I also did last year, and will do again!
Azura is a lovely ship, with enough deck space, though too much is taken up by the Retreat, which I don't think is worth the charge and which causes resentment among passengers because of the shortage of sun loungers it creates.
Of course the daily magazine exhorts people not to reserve sunbeds, but they do. The "prime spot" opposite the Seascreen on deck 16 held about 14 loungers which were occupied by the same people every day; no one else got a look-in because these people were out at ten to seven in the morning, as the deck staff put the loungers out, covering them with towels and bags. Only ONCE did I see staff removing personal possessions, and that was after a good number of people made complaints to reception.
I only wanted one of these loungers the day "Great Expectations" was shown on the Seascreen, and just about had to kill to get one. The rest of the time I went up onto deck 17 just behind the Retreat where I never failed to get a lounger. Two of the ladies on my table at dinner and I decided that we were the ONLY passengers who did as we were asked to: sat on a lounger all morning, then took our things away when we went for lunch or to an event, and returned later in the day to choose another lounger. If everyone had done so, there would easily have been enough loungers for all, even on hot and sunny sea days.
The Seascreen doesn't really work. In the afternoons it is too sunny to see it well, and people wander up and down in front of your lounger placing their bottoms between you and the screen, and talking over the soundtrack, while at night it's just too chilly even with a blanket provided! I'd rather have the dedicated cinemas on Aurora and Oriana.
Also, during Great Expectations, they paused the film at a crucial point to make a shore excursions announcement, but LEFT THE PICTURE RUNNING without the sound! Idiots! As a number of us said afterwards, it's a good job we knew the story...
There were some good films on offer though, my favourite being Hitchcock.
That's all the good stuff, and it made for a very enjoyable cruise, BUT..
Azura as I said has serious passenger space and design issues. She has over 1200 more passengers than the medium sized ships like Oriana, but very little more public space. I didn't notice as badly last year because travelling with my daughter I had a balcony, so always had some totally private space. This time in an outside cabin, it was more noticeable. Of particular note was what two of us called the "Manhattan dash or Manhattan shuffle".(Dash to get limited seats, shuffle when you had to weave and dodge around the wheelchair, zimmer and stick brigade) Each night as the theatre performance ended, there was a mad dash from the bow of the ship to the stern to get the few seats left in the show lounge Manhattan. Unlike say the Oceana's lounge, which has tiered seats in curving rows which allow a lot of people to sit down, the Azura's version had all these roomy bucket seats which allow even fewer bums to sit, with more passengers. It just doesn't make sense! There was, from a small minority of passengers, some real aggression over seats, queues and space which I have never seen before on a ship. A very strange witch like woman poked me sharply in the back one night when it was standing room only and told me very rudely to move out of her way. I have never experienced that before, and put this and other acts of aggression reported to me by other passengers down to poor design and shortage of space on Azura. As I said I never saw the woman again, so maybe someone threw her over the side! Or maybe she went back to Macbeth.
There was also some unpleasantness in the "Snatch and Grab" with people saving tables and refusing to let others sit down, and people bumping into each other as the serveries are so poorly designed that it made this inevitable. However for the most part that was avoidable by not eating there!
One place where there seemed plenty of room was the gym, which I used most days and which was excellent, with great views out to sea at the bow.
So overall, a lovely cruise: great weather, great ports, great food and entertainment, and some lovely fellow passengers. But next time I'm on Oriana. I'm going back to the mid sized ships. There's a more relaxed atmosphere and more space.