Azura Cruise Review by wharfboy: Great value, tiny issues
Great value, tiny issues
Having completed a small number of cruises at every end of the spectrum (Crystal to MSC), I expected P&O to sit right in the middle-- and it does. We (both male, 35 & 39) booked Azura as a last minute getaway fare, almost entirely on a whim and in need for a simple week away. Admittedly, I had been keen to try the line and indeed this ship for some time, so when the choice came up between an inside cabin on the Indy and a balcony on Azura for the same price and similar route, I opted for the Azura. I have no regrets but I do have some feedback which might help others.
Let's start with the positive- Azura is beautiful. She gleams outside and in and whilst there is none of the "wow" you might see on the American super-ships (no soaring lobby, no state of the art sports facilities, no "biggest" or "best"), I immediately liked the style-- think neutrals, golds and glass. She's a large ship and on this trip sailed at full capacity. Had I known it was a school holiday, I More wouldn't have booked but as working adults with no kids, how are we to know. Yes, it was busy-- lines for food and the pools had a "carnival" atmosphere which some will adore.
Embarkation at Southampton was simple and the immediate impression was positive. I noted the more relaxed, British reserve from day one that I felt myself yearning for on previous NCL trips. A warm welcome, cabin ready, smart staff and a distinct lack of banners and balloons (thank you, I like!).
Our cabin was spacious, stylish and had a very good balcony. The walk in wardrobe was an unexpected bonus and made for a clean room with a lot of luggage. A problem with our balcony door was fixed quickly (gaps in rubber seal letting in a whistle when open). Our stewardess was awesome- discrete, efficient and smiling every morning. Comfortable twin beds and good quality shower products. It's a long ship, so we appreciated the mid-deck although there are NEVER enough lifts (up and down the 19 floors is sometimes by foot although you'll usually use only deck 7 and 15).
The buffet- everyone heads here first and I could see my companions eyes drop a little when we did. Poorly lit, terrible colour scheme (washed out greens) and although it sweeps around the ship, it's too busy on days like embarkation. We avoided it the rest of the trip apart from late night snacks (which were very limited). Do what we did and take a little cash to upgrade your afternoon options and you'll be fine.
The 'alternative buffet' confused at first (being a sit down restaurant in the evening) but turned out to be an excellent, free of charge option for when your main table doesn't appeal.
We prefer to dine alone and enjoyed a table for two in Oriental for evening meals. Sat near like-minded couples (accident or well planned?!?) it actually became an extended group event. I would not have enjoyed the Peninsular so much, simply because the Oriental (two main restaurants, identical menus) has obviously better decor... dark woods, reds, golds. It matters to me and makes the occasion.
Waiters in the main dining room were great, accommodating my fussy diet (gluten free, no alcohol) but planning for this fell apart on the rest of the ship with very limited options between 3pm and second sitting (20:30). If only we'd known at the start a gluten free snack is available at all times in the Java cafe!
Food overall was very good- I certainly rate it higher than NCL and miles above MSC apart from the buffet which oddly I preferred on both of those cheaper lines (and of course it wasn't anywhere near Crystal, but shouldn't be at the price).
The Glasshouse is a great alternative bar/restaurant. Lovely layout for added privacy, sea views, superb service, hardly an extra cost (£5ish) and worth trying several times for lunch or dinner. We don't drink but the wine list looked extensive and affordable.
Sindhu was excellent but we had a terrible table near the main kitchen (think crashing and banging throughout the late meal). Ruined the atmosphere and I left comments to say so (no response). A £40 upgrade for two I regretted because of this. Ask for a table in the main section, not near the open kitchen (which isn't noisy but is located near the ships main kitchen which is!). The upgraded meal was also quite inflexible "no you can't have the kulfi to try, just one option sir!"- an example of strictness to dining that I didn't like an experienced more than once. In my mind, if you fancy trying two things on the menu (especially if one is just ice-cream!) you should have the option, especially if willing to pay for it. I was made to feel ashamed for asking, which I didn't appreciate. Bear in mind it's a "set experience" not really a restaurant and you'll enjoy it more than I did.
So, the negatives-- there are few but they are important... it was simply too busy. That's my fault, I picked a busy season full of kids. Every pool is filled with children soup and there is not one single quiet area on the main deck to escape it. I appreciated that not all of them played loud music (unlike NCL!) and there were higher sun-decks, but with the open cinema also showing movies up here, you won't get that "away from the world" moment you might be dreaming of. That is of course, unless you upgrade to The Retreat! The Retreat is a private area (sun bathing, pool and spa bath) with waiter service at the front of the ship. It's hardly beautiful but it is... erm... think "W Hotel" and you'll get it. I liked it and I wished I had used it more. I was charged only £12 for the day I went (9am until I left at 3pm) and that included a light lunch. On boarding I toured the spa and was told it was only available on a week's package. This was a hard sell and not true. One of a few times I felt I was being misinformed for the sake of £££.
Other negatives are related-- we went to see a Bond movie at 22:30 at the sea screen and despite turning up early, had trouble finding a lounger and were not able to get a blanket (they were handed out to those arriving late but nearer the chap carrying them!). It's Norway... it's cold... you're going to need one. A ship this size should carry hundreds and when it's a main form of entertainment, it's not good enough to simply say "all gone, yes I know the sunbeds are wet" and walk away. Still, it was an experience I'll remember.
Tip-- ask your steward for a blanket for your cabin, easy to do, accommodated and joined me wherever I went for the rest of the trip!
My main negative point is simply that the ship is inflexible. I made small complaints but I made them in writing and was told "they were logged" but despite a second request for feedback or response had none by the time I left the ship (today). I felt dismissed when I asked for things that were said to be part of the package (adult pool, day use of Retreat, alternative food) and although all staff were polite, I don't think at capacity this ship can do much more than "what you get".
Above all else, this ship *may* not be my return option, simply because it's just SOOOO British. Sail-aways with plastic flags, war songs booming, cups of tea, larger and beer in hand- it's fun for many but for me it was naff and I'd have hated to be the table of Japanese watching astonished. Camp in a bad way. However, all of this is optional-- do your own thing or enjoy your cabin.
Theatre was fine (limited seats), bars were great (plenty and clean) and shops were there if you want them.
It's not five star, it's 3 or 4 and that's fine.
Final tip-- pay in cash when you join the ship (we offered £200 each but they didn't suggest a minimum). At check-in when asked for a credit card I just said "Sorry, I don't have one and I'm paying cash". It won't bother some people but I've seen too many people struck by the weight of held funds (they pre-authorise of course as is usual!) and unexpected temporary costs. With £200 each on the account, we controlled every penny we had available and just added more as we wished.
Enjoy Azura, I did. I wish they had responded to my (private) complaints but I'm a nobody and they were not major. You'll love the ship for what she is and some won't sail on anything else. For me, next time it's RCL but only because I'm still looking for that one notch above "fine" and below "take out a mortgage".
PS- No need to review Norway itself, it's simply breathtakingly beautiful.
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