Okay, so this is not a cruise-moaners review. We all know them, "The cruise with P & O was awful, standards slipping, but I have another four cruises booked before the end of the year".
Ships cater for different clientele, and in an international business such as P & O's that is entirely justifiable.
We are a family of four; mum, dad and two children aged 8 and 12. We have all cruised before (all with P & O), previously on Ventura and Azura. Our cruise on Aurora took place from 21st May to 4th June and included spring-bank half term week.
So, where to start. Well, Aurora is a ship that accepts families, it is not a 'family friendly' ship. Yes, there is a Reef zone, staffed by the ever excellent and professional Reef Rangers. The Reef is hidden away in a corner of the ship - children should be seen and not heard eh?
Now, as I said, we have been on the family-friendly Azura and Ventura. Both are vibrant, although we have definitely seen a reduction in the children's facilities on board (Rock School, Cirque Ventura, dance machines, Scalextric track). Our children are exceptionally well behaved and polite, as indeed were all the children on board Aurora. Having been on previous cruises they know how to behave throughout the ship, from swimming pool to formal dinners. Part of their holiday is dressing for dinner, ordering their own food and conversing throughout the meal.
From reading reviews of Aurora we expected a more sedate ship. However, we were shocked at how sedate the ship is. Don't get me wrong, we are certainly not the sporty type, and don't join in every activity from morning until night, but we do like to hear some music around a ship such as entertainment around the pool (live bands, a barbecue etc...) Aurora has none of these.
Entertainment on board consisted of the superbly titled 'Knit and Natter', or one could listen to some 1940's or 1950's music of an evening. The piano playing in the public areas (generally silent for most of the day) was truly shocking with frequent wrong notes and a steady loud volume whatever the music being played.
More on those public areas. In an afternoon we frequently walked from one end of the ship to the other, through the main indoor bar area, library (understandably quiet) and coffee shop area without hearing a single noise, apart from the occasional snore; 90% of the passengers were asleep! That explains why no announcements of forthcoming 'happenings' we made, except one at 9.30am in the morning.
It seemed that the passengers routine was
1. Wake at 6am
2. Breakfast at 7am
3. Sleep 8.30am to 9.30am
4. Wander and attend talks
5. 11am tea
6. 11.15am lecture
7. Midday - lunch
8. Sleep from 2pm
9. Afternoon tea at 4pm
10. Dinner/shows 6.30/8.30pm
11. Late night snack 10.30pm
12. Crows Nest or other bar until 1am
13. Do it all again!
You may have noticed that there is only 5-hours allowed for sleep in the above list, and that's because the passengers did nothing in the day but sleep! They didn't need any more rest!
How about the food? Well, the menus are the same as last year which is absolutely fine with us. The food on P & O has always been to our liking, and we get excited just thinking about what will be presented each evening. However this time the presentation was certainly not to standard (sounds ridiculous doesn't it when there are people starving in the world and so I again remind you this is not the review of a 'cruise-moaner'). On several occasions we had puddings, and then saw other tables puddings which were the same, but presented differently; some had chocolates on them, others cream, some without. We also had the same pudding, but each one presented differently, so it wasn't a case of individual requests. There were many other examples too, but the conclusion was that the food was not being checked before it left the kitchen.
Our restaurant waiters were friendly, although they seemed reluctant to chat and weren't sure how to treat the children. However, when they were in the buffet (The Orangery) they would make a special effort to talk to the children and make a fuss of them. All a bit odd really.
On the other ships we have been on Tropical night is an excuse for the waiters to wear tropical shirts, and to get in the spirit of things. Not on Aurora! I asked out waiter where his Hawaiian shirt was (I wore mine) and he responded, "We do not do that sort of thing anymore Sir". I suspect there were probably ten fellow passengers wearing Hawaiian shirts...fun eh?
There was also no Chef's Parade. Why was this? It was as if anything which could be construed as being slightly fun (or to some, even tacky) was strictly off limits.
It seemed as if the life had been sucked out the ship.
Restaurant opening times are much different to the larger ships too. Breakfast was served until 11am, but food cooked to order such as waffles, pancakes, omelette's etc... were only available until 10am. When you are having a break from work you certainly do not want to get up and rush into breakfast early each morning to have an omelet made for you.
There is no late night buffet. The Marco Pierre White restaurant becomes a waiter service facility for late night snacks, and so the idea of grabbing something quick before bed is a none-starter. Again, unsuitable for children.
Very few of our fellow passengers acknowledged our presence, despite us going out of our way to say good morning, good evening etc... They regularly glared at the children, one ladys attitude summing things up perfectly and I tell you this story as true as I write this now...
One evening we entered the lift with said lady. My 8-year old daughter asked the lady which floor she would like to go too. My daughter then pressed the requested lift button upon which the lady snapped at her, "Oh, you do know your numbers then, even though you are not at school!". I kid you not!!!! In one of those 'did she just say that?' moments, none of us responded, but with the benefit of hindsight I have thought of plenty of things to say to her!
Cleanliness around the ship is good. There is an ongoing problem with the toilets, and around the corridors one will randomly see industrial dehumidifier's drying carpets. There are also smells of stagnant water and sewerage here and there; nothing major but enough to map you think 'Yuk'. One poor chap must have drawn the short straw because one afternoon we walked past him with his hand in the back of a toilet, carrying out an unblocking and the smell throughout the corridor was, well, sickening. No wonder there were several illnesses on board.
Thinking of the 'family friendly' promotion of the ship, I have to say the captain (Neil Turnball) was, well, a little crude. He made a comment in the Captains reception which was inappropriate (try explaining sexual comments to an 8-year old), and then again in his interview he was equally crude. We are not prudes, and if it was an adults only ship it may raise a snigger, but the Captain made a point of telling us he has four children (and may have more, hence to comments), he knew children were on board and still went ahead with his comments.
You see what I mean about it being a ship that accepts children - not family-friendly?
But what about our cabin? We had a mini-suite (usually Superior Deluxe Balcony on Azura and Ventura). It was spacious and very clean, perfect for the four of us. Room cleaning/tidying was as usual proved superb. However, after the first couple of nights the duvet and pillows from the sofa bed were left out in the room. Again an example of things being a little sloppy (and again I remind you this is not 'cruise moaning', we were so fortunate to be there). However, this is only a minor point, but one which illustrates our impressions. The cabin steward was superb and kept things very clean and tidy, and there's no way I'd do his job!
Please don't think we did not enjoy ourselves. We had a superb cruise, and as a close family happy with each others company we laughed our way through. The port talks were a must see on the antiquated TV information system, and the ports we visited were very good; a superb educational experience for us and the children.
We were extremely lucky with the weather, but make no mistake about it, the Baltic is cold! As soon as you are out of the sun and the wind blows over the sea, it reminds you this is no summer holiday!
Would we travel on Aurora again? No. It's a quiet adults ship for those who want silence. Most who travel on her have cruised on her many times before and this was just one of several cruises they would be doing this year (we know this because we went with my wifes mum and dad who were talked to more. I should say here that I get on really well with my in-laws and we always enjoy being together). They have been on Arcadia as well as Ventura and Azura (and tens of other cruises including Saga, whom they said would be livelier than Aurora). Their opinion is that Arcadia (which they highly recommend) is much livelier than Aurora; they wouldn't travel on Azura and Ventura if it weren't for us as they find them a bit too big but they do enjoy these ships too. In fact, mum-in-law was going to book a 24-night Caribbean cruise on Aurora this year but now will not be doing so.
P & O got the marketing right when they promoted Ventura and Azura as their family-friendly ships. Although in the past couple of years they have been toning this down. It's a marketing strategy I don't understand; surely having the louder, bigger, brasher ships for families brings a new generation to cruising, who then go onto adult only ships as their children grow up to have families of their own, who then travel aboard the family-friendly ships again?
Perhaps with an overdue change of management, a new ship and the far more sensible Getaway pricing P & O can get back on course. Here's hoping!