This is now about the 8th or 9th cruise review that I have created, and 3 of these were on Azura and Ventura, so you might think there was little more that could be said, unfortunately for P&O that is not the case because IMO there is quite a lot to say about their declining standards. But for all their faults we did enjoy the cruise because even with reduced standards a cruise is still a very enjoyable way to spend 17 days in pleasant accommodation, with all meals provided, plus a wide variety of sometimes quite excellent entertainment.
Where I make comparisons with Celebrity Eclipse this is purely because that is the only other line we have sailed on recently.
The cruise was 17 nights from Southampton to Venice and back, with port stops in Cadiz, Messina, Corfu, Dubrovnik, Malta and Lisbon.
The best bits included an excellent cabin steward who really did keep our cabin clean, as well as providing a very prompt and efficient service for any requests we made.
The entertainment was very good, including the best tribute act at sea, Steve Larkin as Freddie Mercury, some excellent Headliners shows with very good singers, one of the best party bands at sea in Catch 22 fronted by a superb female singer, two very good young dancers in Joanne Almond and Leighton Jones performing exhibition dances in the Atrium as well as teaching latin dance classes and culminating with Craig Revel-Horwood, Darren Bennett and Lylia Kopylova featuring in the Strictly Come Dancing finale.
Interestingly we had two Cruise directors on board until Neil Oliver disembarked in Venice and left Liam-Jay in sole charge, and the entertainment staff certainly do put on some excellent sailaway parties.
The accessible shuttle service in Venice was first rate, the buses were in easy walking distance of the ships gangway, at the coach park in Tronchetto we were met by a P&O guide who led us down to the Vaporetto landing stage and pointed us in the direction of the ticket booth, then advised us that he would be there or at the car park on our return. But the best bit was that the fare, a return trip down the Grand Canal to St Mark’s Square was Euro 2.60 for my wife in her wheelchair whilst I, as her carer, travelled free.
But this is where the bad bits start for P&O. They also offer an accessible shore excursion in Venice complete with Venetian guide, but as far as I can see this tour offers very little extra from our own DIY experience, other than a guide who, according to P&O’s excursion information provides only minimal assistance and cannot stop at any monuments to give any historic or cultural information, but P&O charge £90pp for this tour. The following attachment takes you to the P&O on line info. and if anyone can see the extra £88.89 value in this tour please let me know.
The one ships excursion we did take in Malta cost £60pp, which sounds pricey but with only 10 or 12 passengers in total, in a specially adapted vehicle with a driver and a full time guide for the 4.5 hr. trip, is probably in line with most other accessible shore excursions.
Our other complaints on Ports of call were the lack of accessible shuttles in Corfu and Dubrovnik both of which require a shuttle to reach the town centre. Whilst I accept that P&O is limited by what the local agents can offer, in Corfu at least some of the local transport buses do have a central ramp access, so why cannot some of these be hired, and what pressure, if any, is being applied to these ports to provide some wheelchair access vehicles.
Poor service in the dining room is probably our major complaint, there appeared to be more than enough waiters in the Meridian freedom dining room, but service was very erratic with sometimes quite lengthy waits between courses, and this slow service led to several people either opting to skip the desert and coffee, or miss their chosen show. Possibly the problem is in the galley, if so someone should be seeking improvements, but we never had a table visit from a head waiter or assistant Maître D’ in our MDR during the entire cruise, but we did dine in the Oriental dining room one night with friends and the service there was much better, not rushed just a reasonable pace, and the assistant Maître D’ visited us twice to check if things were OK.
Similarly the table clearing service in the buffet was also erratic, and again although senior staff were present and sometimes helping to clear tables, there seemed little or no management being exercised, unlike our experiences on Celebrity where the head waiters actively encourage the staff to clear any used crockery, and ensure that service standards are maintained at a high level.
The general cleanliness standards in the public areas were also well below Celebrity levels, as an example I never saw a dirty lift button on Celebrity, on Azura I seldom saw a clean one.
Probably the other major complaint was the quality of the food in the MDR; meat standard in particular was well below even our previous P&O cruises, and several stars below Celebrity. The presentation on the plate was often very amateurish and quite a lot of the main course dishes were too cold. Maybe the proposed change to plated meals will improve both the serving temperature and help make the vegetables a better match to the main dish.
However I do hope they improve the quality, it started badly for me with a rather tough and stringy sirloin steak on embarkation day, complete with tasteless savoy cabbage and what looked like Tesco everyday value croquettes. The “shaped” roast potatoes, P&O’s description, looked as though they had been sliced from a long stick of frozen reconstituted potato and for the first week they were undercooked. The mushy peas served with most fried fish dishes looked as though they had been measured in a tiny egg cup, much less than one mouth full. Rack of lamb was one rather tiny lamb chop and 2 small thin slices of rather fatty lamb which might or might not have been from the leg. I could go on but you get the drift; it wasn’t all bad but certainly not up to past standards.
However we had no complaints about the quality of the food in the buffet, although we only ate breakfast and an occasional lunch or afternoon tea there. The choice for breakfast was extensive and should satisfy most people, lots of fresh fruit, a large selection of cereals and porridge, along with croissants, Danish pastries and toast as well as my choice of good old British bacon and eggs; and for afternoon tea the freshly baked warm scones with jam and clotted cream take some beating.
There are some things on P&O that are better than Celebrity though, the lighting in the cabin bathroom with a light over the shower area, a washing line in the shower and better drainage around the roll in shower area, but Eclipses bathroom has more cupboard and shelf space around the sink, and looks to be better quality. However the P&O cabin has far better wardrobe, drawer and shelf space than Eclipse, their coffee mugs are also much better than Celebrity’s tiny glass cups, but the cabin furnishings and quality of bed linen on Eclipse are better; and, other than C deck on Azura, the Eclipse standard balconies are more spacious than P&O.
Overall for wheelchair users Celebrity’s Solstice ships are much better than P&O’s Grand class ships. The cabin doors have powered entry and exit, and all the doors on the public areas have automatic openers, and the toilets also have powered push button access. Most of the floors on the public decks are carpet free including the sun deck, which makes pushing a wheelchair much easier than over a carpet. Hopefully Britannia will have lost those silly lengths of carpet on the sun deck, surrounded by rubber beading which makes wheelchair travel very difficult; and they perhaps they will also mark out a walkway which could be kept clear of sunbeds.
Cadiz – this is one of our favourite ports and easy to DIY, even with a wheelchair, you exit the port straight into the town itself. The old Town area has some semi pedestrianized shopping streets, and an interesting market building with a fascinating sea food section.
Messina – again you exit the port straight into the town and only a short distance from the Cathedral with its animated clock tower which has a daily show at noon. This is possibly the only attraction in Messina for wheelchair users, as the streets inland get progressively steeper, and P&O do not offer any accessible excursions here.
Corfu – As commented earlier there are no accessible shuttles or tours here and the area around the commercial port is not at all pretty, we found a reasonable café about 1km from the ship but that was the extent of our touring.
Dubrovnik – Unfortunately there was torrential early morning rain here and all the ships tours were cancelled by the operators for safety reasons, which was a pity as we had a tour booked and this was the only place we had never visited. Again there was no accessible shuttle offered and since it continued to rain most of the morning, although not as severe, we stayed on board rather than risk taking a taxi.
Venice – I covered this earlier but should stress just how easy it was for us to use the Vaporetto (water bus) even though my wife is a full time wheelchair user when outdoors. The boats manage to berth at each stop without any gap between boat and dock and, although the boat does move up and down a bit it is easy to get on and off as long as you pull the chair backwards. You board in the centre of the boat and there is seating fore and aft, all on the same level with spaces next to the boarding area especially for wheelchairs.
Malta – We had planned to DIY here using the new lift, which is only 200 yds. from the berth, to take us up to the upper Barack gardens and then into Valetta itself, but swapped our Dubrovnik tour for one here instead. The tour was to Mdina but also took in a visit to a newish Roman Domus museum just outside the walls. The Saturday traffic jam, plus problems with the wheelchair lift in the Domus reduced our time in the old walled city, but our very amusing guide kept us entertained throughout.
Lisbon – We were berthed down river at Alcantara which meant we needed a shuttle to take us into town. There was quite a long wait for an accessible bus on the way into Lisbon, but fortunately no wait at all on our return. The area the shuttle drops you is quite central and includes a couple of large squares and a pedestrianized street with lots of sidewalk cafes and plenty of shops to browse. This part of Lisbon is still near the river and quite flat and is relatively easy for wheelchair users, but further inland the streets become steep and quite unsuitable for wheelchairs.