We had a very enjoyable holiday aboard Azura, with fantastic, not too hot weather, and interesting ports. We didn't get to know any of our fellow passengers well, but those we spoke to were very pleasant and good company and there seemed to be fewer people making comparisons with other cruise lines and cruise holidays. There were quite a few largish family groups and lots of children (middle of the summer holidays) who, from what I saw, were very well behaved and credits to their parents. The captain was personable and whilst not a highly visible presence, was around the ship from time to time and friendly. Crew were generally polite, cheerful and helpful. Azura's a nice enough ship, but I didn't fall in love with her. Here is my take on various aspects of our cruise.
20-30 minute queue before we were able to unload luggage (not a problem for us). Pleasant, efficient parking attendants and embarkation team. Whole embarkation process took maybe 30 minutes and we were soon lunching in the buffet. No general announcement of cabin availability, or announcement of groups of cabins as on Aurora last year, so it was only through overhearing other pax saying cabins were available that we knew we could go and drop off our hand luggage.
By the time we reached our first port, Azura had developed thruster problems. Our first attempt to dock in Lisbon failed and we had to have assistance from a tug, as was necessary in Gibraltar. Thereafter the problem appeared to be resolved (no further mention was made of it in the Captain's broadcasts).
By half to two thirds of the way through the 12-night cruise, Azura seemed to be having plumbing and other technical problems. Our cabin was opposite a pursers’ office and they had a significant leak, with water pouring out of the ceiling, which resulted in carpet being ripped up and industrial heaters/dehumidifiers brought in to dry things out. Other, smaller leaks were seen around other parts of the ship. Our cabin toilet started playing up (we’d adhered strictly to the usage guidelines) and despite reporting the issue and it supposedly being rectified, it continued to be a minor inconvenience (no pun intended) until the end of the cruise (erratic flushing). This was apparently the same in several other parts of the ship. Given that within two hours of embarkation my daughter and I came across a public toilet down which someone had stuffed a baby’s dirty nappy and wipes, plumbing problems would hardly be surprising if other pax continued to show the same disregard for correct usage. Also several lifts were out of commission at various times, the most being about four at once.
We’d been upgraded from the 4-berth inside cabin we’d booked on Riviera deck to an outside cabin on P deck (deck 5). I have to say it was lovely having a window (first time ever). The room was beautifully maintained by our friendly, efficient steward, Rocky, and the "walk-in wardrobe” and bathroom off to the side of it worked well for the 4 of us.
Pros: wonderfully convenient for the Atrium, shops, services, MDRs and the main public/entertainment areas on decks 5, 6 and 7. Also usually easier to get a lift up to decks 15/16 for the buffet and pools. Convenient for gangways in port, which were usually located on decks 4 or 5.
Cons: being only a few feet from the entrance to the Atrium there was often clearly audible music from the Atrium until quite late. Despite slight to moderate winds there was a lot of noise from waves against the side of the ship. As the deck below (deck 4) is mainly the business part of the ship, we quite often experienced noise (clanking, banging, whirring), which progressively increased throughout the cruise, until we docked at Southampton when it was impossible to stay in bed after 5 a.m., as our cabin was directly above the area where the luggage was being placed and then unloaded with fork-lift trucks.
We were on first sitting in the Oriental restaurant. Although we’d said we were happy to share a table, we were on a table for 4 at the stern. I quite missed the chance to chat to other pax about their experiences and excursions. Our waiters, Devashish and Ramesh, were great - polite, efficient, friendly, chatty. We’d had an unfortunate experience on Aurora last year regarding our children’s severe food allergy, which rather spoilt the dining experience for several days. In an effort to prevent a recurrence, I’d spoken to P&O Customer Services and been told that upon embarkation I needed to talk to the head waiter for our restaurant. I duly went there, only to be told by a "minion" that it wasn't necessary for me to see him. When I insisted that I'd been told to do it, I was then instructed to go to the other restaurant, where I joined a queue of people, most of whom had been given dining arrangements they didn't like and were trying to change to a different sitting/table etc. After queuing for an hour, I finally got to see one of the restaurant managers. Initially he was a bit patronising and tried "patting me down”, but once I had firmly, calmly and politely made my point he definitely understood and, I must say, superbly got the message across to our waiters and our head waiter Danny Fernandes, who was just brilliant. Result: happy, stress-free dining.
At breakfast and lunch we ate in the buffet or had pizzas/burgers from the poolside grill. The layout of Venezia and Verona is poor as other pax have said, which results in people spending a lot of time wandering haphazardly around trying to find things. We tried the nashta at Sindhu, which were superb, good value and just right for a lunchtime snack and also lunched in The Glasshouse, where the food and presentation were very, very good. The difference in quality compared with the MDR was very evident. We intended to, but didn’t try, Verona and thought that the supplement for Seventeen was just too expensive (it would have been nearly £120 for four of us). Incidentally both Sindhu and The Glasshouse had no problems dealing with the allergy issue " maybe because they have smaller, separate kitchens.
The standard of food in the MDR has definitely declined, even from last year. I’m all for prudent management and good housekeeping " but at home, not when one is supposed to be on a "luxury” holiday with "fine dining”. Bubble and squeak appeared on the dinner menu several times over the 12 days (and at breakfast), as did pease pudding! I don’t think dry, roughly mashed potato with the odd pea or lump of carrot really constitutes bubble and squeak either. On Aurora we had a choice of potatoes and two veg with our dinner, this year it’s down to one veg. There seemed to be less choice in the buffets, too, and dishes were less imaginative " there were maybe two dishes during the whole holiday that made me say "Wow, delicious!” or made me think "I’d like to try to make that at home”. The table setting was also frequently missing glassware, cutlery, butter " again, minor niggles.
There was a much harder sell of drinks packages (wine and soft drinks) on Azura and I suspect that this is because it makes life easier for the staff. There certainly seemed to be fewer wine waiters at dinner " our waiter, Alex, was covering a massive area (at least 16 tables). There was more of a hard sell on select dining venues, too " mainly Seventeen and Sindhu.
Children’s club: brilliant. We registered our son (nearly 13) soon after embarkation (daughter now too old for clubs), staff very helpful, friendly and immediately picked up on his allergy when I completed the registration form. For the next 12 days he dipped in and out of activities and soon had a big group of friends. On sea days we really only saw him at breakfast and dinner.
Other entertainment was much better than on Aurora (last year we quite often found ourselves sitting playing cards in the evening, because there was nothing else we wanted to do), but nothing spectacular. Lots of quizzes, dance and exercise classes and similar throughout the day on Azura, but they were usually fun, well organised and a good way to while away 30 minutes. The ballroom dancing instructors (Diana Clifford and Mark Anthony) were very good, as was Millei from the Entertainments team who taught line dancing. The (tutored) wine tasting in The Glasshouse was worth every penny: interesting, amusing and delicious, with the little tasters supplied to accompany the wines and show how they paired with food. It was only here that we heard about the wine flights, and the possibility of trying a little of a wine to see whether you like it before committing to a glass or bottle. The wine prices at the lower end were quite reasonable. Evening entertainment consisted mainly of duos/trios, tribute acts (Freddy Mercury " very good, Phil Collins " too loud), singers (Elio Pace " brilliant, Chilli Gold - OK) and comedians (Kev Orkian " brilliant). The one Headliners show we went to (Reel to Reel " great British movies) was well done too. The Entertainments Director, Neil Oliver, was incredibly hard working and always around. We frequently saw him racing from one end of the ship to the other in the evenings, having just compèred one show and heading off to do another. I thanked/complimented him a couple of times and he seemed genuinely appreciative and almost surprised. Maybe he normally only hears from people having a moan! The sail-away parties were particularly good (the sail-away from Lisbon was one of my daughter’s cruise highlights) and even the Great British Sail-away from our last port, Cadiz, was done with a sense of fun, rather than jingoism. I think P&O’s entertainments formula needs updating, though, and there’s nothing really for people of my daughter’s age, who’s just out of the kid’s clubs.
Even less pushy (compared with RCI) than on Aurora last year, but generally not very good, whereas the photographers on Aurora were, resulting in us making several purchases. Often seen prowling around the MDR but never came near us " perhaps we aren’t photogenic! Even casual "around the ship" shots taken by the photographers were poor " in fact most pax would have done better. We did get a good portrait of our children and bought a photo of my son and his group of friends, but out of all the photos taken, these were the only good ones " taken by the same photographer. We actually had big problems with the photo of the children: when we went to collect it at the specified time it wasn’t ready. We were told to come back the next day, did so, and it still wasn’t ready. They tried to give us a photo of a baby, claiming it was ours (the children are teenagers), at which point it became clear their system had totally broken down. They subsequently blamed a processing dept mix up and backlog due to printing equipment malfunction. When we next tried to collect as instructed, still no photo, but the attitude of the staff was that they couldn't care less. We didn't receive a word of apology. We were told a message would be phoned through to our cabin when it was ready for collection " after 2 days no such message had been received, so we went back to the photo desk, as this was now the day before disembarkation in Southampton, and they finally located it. Again, not a word of apology for the lack of phone call, or the delay. Two or three days before the end of the cruise they had tables out with stacks of hundreds of photos, and there were still people trying to collect and pay for photos, or track down photos they’d been expecting, on disembarkation morning. Some people were obviously very annoyed, probably with good reason. The whole thing was a shambles.
Ports and excursions
We had two sea days, which was a nice way to relax into the holiday, then our first port was Lisbon.
Lisbon DH and I had been here 20 years before and we were looking forward to showing the children around. Unfortunately DH was unwell and had to stay on board ship. We docked at the Jardim do Tabaco, which was brilliant, being a 5-10 minute, level walk from Praca do Comercio and the main shopping streets. Also right next to the Alfama. The disappointing thing was that we were there on a Monday, when almost all the attractions are closed. On our previous visit we had not visited Belem (Jeronimos Monastery, various museums…) and I really wanted to do that this time, but everything was shut. We visited St George’s Castle and the Cathedral, which were open, and generally wandered around. I’m sorry to say this, but Lisbon has obviously been hit hard by the recession and the Portuguese economic problems, because it was dirty, run-down and everywhere smelled of urine and worse. There is a big problem with pickpockets, although we never felt at risk.
Gibraltar I’d booked a private island tour with John Lopez of Gibraltar Rock Tours. The tour was supposed to be 2 1/2-3 hours, but was nearer 4, at no extra cost. John picked us up from the cruise terminal and we travelled in a cool, clean MPV. John was polite, constantly solicitous of our welfare, engaging, humorous and a mine of information about the island, both historical and general. We had a fabulous afternoon and the tour was worth every penny, covering St Michael’s Cave, the Pillars of Hercules, the Ape Reserve, the top of the Rock, the Siege Tunnels, the 100 Ton Gun, the Moorish Castle and Europa Point, plus various other minor sights, such as a stretch of road which featured in a James Bond film. The fact that in the evening Roman Abramovich’s yacht, Eclipse, was docked on the opposite side of the quay to Azura, caused quite a stir.
After another day at sea, our next port was Barcelona, which we did DIY. We caught the ship’s free shuttle to near the Columbus Monument, then walked to Drassanes Metro at the bottom of Las Ramblas, where we caught the Metro to Sagrada Familia. Having researched the Metro online, using it was a breeze - it was clean and far less busy than expected. We bought advance tickets for the Basilica online and were glad we had " when we arrived around 10.00, the Basilica was at capacity and no more visitors were to be admitted for the next 3 hours! After queuing for about 10 mins we were in and - wow! Sagrada Familia is quite mind-blowing. Unfortunately the time on our tickets for going up one of the towers was three hours after our admission time, and when we enquired we were told we couldn’t leave and come back. This conflicts with info. that other CCers have been given, so I think it is very much a case of the guide/customer service person you happen to speak to on the day. Took the Metro a few stops back and walked down Las Ramblas, detouring into the Boqueria market which I loved. Having lived and worked in Europe, I still don’t understand why such a fabulous variety of fruit and vegetables is available there that you never see in the UK. Daughter wasn’t too keen on the sheep’s heads and just about every other part displayed on the butcher’s stalls. Exiting the Boqueria was the only time we felt at risk from pickpockets; there was a big crowd by a road crossing and we saw locals clutching their bags a little more firmly and looking round very carefully, so we did the same and came away unscathed, although we’d taken nothing of value with us anyway. We then went to Port Vell, because my daughter hoped to visit the Aquarium, but the queue was about 2 hours long, so we had a pleasant time strolling around, then headed back to the ship. We saw very little of Barca and were very disappointed, because we loved what we saw. This was mainly due to the ship docking at 08.30, but departing at 3.30, so you really only had a half day. Guess we’ll just have to come back!
Can’t say much about our next port, Valencia, because we opted for a ship’s morning beach break excursion (son’s choice) so didn’t see the city at all. The beach we went to, El Saler, was lovely. Clean, peaceful, quiet " with plenty of loungers and parasols (included in the price). Small snack bar for drinks and ice creams - no hawkers, no pickpockets, no blaring music. Our group were virtually the only people there in the morning; later in the day the beach filled up further along with Spanish families. Lovely, gradually shelving beach, very safe for children. Being a big Formula 1 motor racing fan, DH was delighted to find we drove on part of the actual F1 circuit on the coach ride back to the port. Getting back on board ship was a little slow; apparently the Spanish had insisted that they would supply the security people and matters were not expedited. We were lucky " pax returning later in the day were left standing some considerable time in baking heat. Once again, an early departure time precluded going into the city in the afternoon.
Malaga We’d booked a ship’s excursion to the Automobile Museum (daughter’s choice) followed by a walk around Malaga. The Automobile Museum is in a massive converted tobacco factory, and takes up just a fraction of the ground floor, although there are over 100 cars on display. The exhibition is not so much about car engineering, but about the golden age of motoring - the glamour, the association with the Roaring Twenties, Hollywood and so on, so in addition to many beautiful and unique cars, there are also displays of gowns, hats, furniture and other items consistent with the era. The cars’ owner has also commissioned individual works of modern art based on the theme of cars and/or using car parts. I’ve visited a fair few car museums and there were many cars here I’d never seen before and I thought the way they were displayed was very appealing. We then went to the Gibralfaro and looked down from a point where we could see Malaga spread out below and particularly the bull ring. In the city centre we saw the house where Picasso was born and the church where he was baptised (but couldn’t go in either building), and walked past the Roman amphitheatre. We also saw the Cathedral but couldn’t go in. Then had an hour free for shopping in Malaga’s pleasant shopping streets. The tour was OK, the highlight for us being the car museum, but the rest was a bit so-so, perhaps because our guide came across as very bored. She also took us to a viewing point outside a hotel, which was pointless when a) we didn’t have time to stop and get a drink and b) there was actually a much better, designated viewing point a couple of hundred yards up the road, as we realised when we had to walk past it to get back to the coach!
Cadiz Our final port was probably my favourite. We were docked on a Sunday and because Cadiz is so walkable had elected to do it DIY. We followed the painted routes on the ground, which took us through the old town, past Medieval towers, gateways and merchants’ palaces. It was very quiet, with the town just waking up, and everything spotlessly clean because the streets had just been washed. The narrow streets also meant that a lot of the walking is shaded, so very comfortable. Around 10.30-11.00 shops started to open, so we browsed, and finished off our time with a couple of drinks at a café in a square just a short walk from the ship’s berth.
Our cruise ended with two days at sea, spoilt a little by iffy weather. The response to the shop sales in the Atrium and on the walkways was incredible - the shelves and tabletops were stripped bare and sadly some people got quite aggressive. The disembarkation process was very well organised (much better than Aurora last year) and very smooth, as was car collection.
Would we cruise with P&O again? Yes, although I think they need to sharpen up their act in many respects. Would we sail on Azura again? Yes, depending on destinations.