Technically, this was my second cruise with P&O-but the first was on the Canberra in 1992 so I can't really compare this trip to any P&O ships. This was my ninth cruise and also my 50th. birthday cruise. To say I was a little disappointed would be an understatement. I have been planning this for nearly two years and I was really looking forward to it, but as the trip started, I became aware of a few problems. These were minor glitches, but they made the trip less enjoyable. As with my previous reviews on this website, I am going to split the review into catergories starting with....
P&O (along with Princess) have this process down to a fine art and all of the details had been worked out beforehand. I travelled on a scheduled flight from Gatwick and had to recalim my baggage in Barbados but the charter flight passengers from Birmingham and Manchester had their baggage handled by P&O so the next time they saw their bags, they were outside everybody's cabins onboard. After passing through Barbados Immigration, we were taken to a large shed-like building to get our cruise cards. All of the P&O staff were extremely helpful, the entire process was very quick and I was on the ship in no time at all.
It was the same in reverse..Superb arrangements with P&O taking your bags to the airport with loads of very helpful and friendly staff to guide you on your way. If only all of the cruise companies were like this. Brilliant!
According to who you spoke to, the average age of the passengers was around 66. In my opinion, I would put this figure a little lower to around late 50's/early 60's. There were several families with children aboard but not many-I estimate that there were less that fifty kids (I don't count teenagers-only under 12's). The ship was not fully booked. Azura can carry 3,600 but again depending who you spoke to, there was about 2,750 onboard. This meant that the ship was around 76% full meaning that almost two decks were unoccupied. This was comfimed by my cabin steward (Inacio) who told me that of the cabins he was responsible for, almost a third were empty. This resulted in the ship being very quiet and one of the reasons I was disappointed with the trip. I will elaborate in my section "Conclusions" at the end of this review. The passengers were exclusively British. Apart from the crew, I only heard one foreign accent. I would have expected a few Americans or Europeans but Azura is targeted at the British market. The only foreign voice I heard was a German Swiss guy called Paul who sat at the same bar as me.
The ship and it's staff.
This ship is big! A little too big in my opinion. As I have said in "Demographics" above, this made the ship feel empty. When we docked in St. Lucia, I was on an excursion and when we got up in the mountains looking down at the main town, the biggest thing we saw was the ship. In fact it was the biggest thing on the entire island! I think that cruise companies need to rethink their policy of building bigger and bigger ships and start building smaller, more intimate cruise ships. P&O have another ship coming online in 2015. This ship is the "Britannia", and at 142,000 tons, will be P&O's biggest-Azura is 115,000 tons.
The lower order of the crew (waiting staff and cabin crew) were almost all Indian with a handfull of Filipinos. Additionally, the Indian crew were (almost) all male. I only met a few female crew members who were Filipino. I was told by some of the senior staff that because of the recent tornado in the Philipines, a high percentage of the Filipino staff went home to look after family members who had been affected. The staff were extremely attentive, very helpfull, very friendly but they seemed to be a little stand-offish and didn't seem to want to interact with the new passengers. The ship itself was spotless. The decor in the public areas was in neutral colours-beiges, muted browns/reds/blues etc. and in my opinion a little too beige. The decor in the main public areas needed to be spiced up a little with a splash of colour here and there. My own cabin was an Oceanview with a partially obstucted window. This made the cabin very light and airy and was kept immaculate by my cabin steward.
Also, throughout the entire cruise, the main public areas of the ship had piped music fed through the ships speaker systems. This music was Reggae. I am aware that the overiding type of music in the Caribbean is Reggae, but how many times do I have to listen to "Young, Gifted and Black" played at mealtimes?
Food and drink.
The food on offer was top notch. I was in the Oreintal restaurant on traditional dining first sitting at 6.30pm. I was on a table of eight. Two gay guys George and John, Two Welsh sisters, a mother and daughter, a bloke called Jeff and me. They were very friendly and we had a great time. The fly in the ointment was Jeff. He is a Brummie who now lives in Hartlepool. All Jeff did was talk all of the time about anything and nothing. We wouldn't have minded, but his speech was very blurred and most of the time we couldn't understand a word he was saying. On the last night before we all left, Jeff didn't turn up and we all breathed a sigh of relief (it later turned out that Jeff had gastrointestinal problems). On the first sitting, the restaurant was virtually empty all of the time. I estimate that over 50 tables were unoccupied the entire trip-and that was just on one side of the restaurant. The second sitting was a little better with around three quarters of the tables full. An alternative was the "Freedom Dining" restaurant Meridian. There was always a queue to get a table and I heard of waiting tilmes of over an hour. The menus were exactly the same as the other two resaurants, So why didn't P&O put some of the "Freedom" diners in the other two restaurants? It makes sense to me.
The buffets-Verona and Venesia-also had great grub. Lunch and dinner offerings were very varied and very good food indeed. One part of Venesia turned into a trattoria in the evening offering Italian cuisine with a (very small) charge on some of the menu. My only complaint on the buffet was breakfast. This was permanently "Full English". Just how many fry-ups can you eat in two weeks? There was cereals/fruit/yogurts and kippers/smoked fish on offer as an alternative but a little variation would have been welcome.
The beers on offer were Stella, Carling and Boddingtons on draught with a large, varied selection of premium bottled beers, along with all of the usual spirits, cocktails and champagne. Prices were a little dearer with the Stella at £3.75 a pint. In my local, I'm paying £2.90 for Carling. Refreshingly, there was no "automatic gratuity" added to your drinks bill. On past cruises, an automatic tip of 15% was added to your purchases and there was nothing you could do about it. P&O don't do the automatic tip-Hurrah! It's about time the rest of the cruise lines did the same.
There were three speciality restaurants-Sindhu (run by Michelin starred chef Atul Kotcher), the Glass House and XVII-appropriately on Deck 17! There were cover charges of between £15/£28 per person depending on which restaurant you went to. I had first-hand reports of these restaurants and all of them were very good to fantastic.
There was the usual in-house troupe "Headliners" doing musicals etc. in the Playhouse Theatre. I didn't see a show-I'm not a show person. Reports from those who did were all "very good".
There were a number of guest acts onboard. I'll start with Miss Gemma McDowall-a Liverpool singer with a very powerful voice and at only 20, has a bright future in front of her. She mainly did 60's/70's songs and her shows were very well attended. BUT, inbetween all of the songs, she carried on talking a bit too much. Apparently, she was a resident singer at Ricky Tomlinsons' club (of The Royal Family fame) and all she kept on saying was "..I was a singer at Ricky Tomlinsons.." and "..Ricky Tomlinson said this.." and "..Ricky Tomlinson said that..". Additionally, she kept on about Cilla Black trying to compare herself to Cilla with "..do you think I look like Cilla?..". And to cap it all off, she rattled on about her boyfriend all of the time and the fact that she was on "Stars in their eyes" or "Britains got talent" or some other TV talent show-I didn't need to know any of this. People were starting to complain. All I can say is that Miss McDowall needs curtail her comments about Ricky Tomlinson, her boyfriend, Cilla Black and the TV shows she was on-she kept calling Cilla a "chipmunk". Miss McDowall does not look like Cilla-Cilla has red hair for starters.
There was a Neil Diamond tribute act. I did see one of his shows and he does look and sound the part. However, the singer kept on saying things like "Neil Diamond wrote the next song for.." and "Neil Diamond wrote this in..." We know that Neil Diamond wrote the songs you're singing-you're a Neil Diamond tribute act. I wouldn't expect a song by The Stranglers or "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" by The Smiths! Acts like this just need to get on with the songs-I for one would have enjoyed the show a lot more.
There was a Kenny Rogers singer along with a Dolly Parton tribute. The Kenny Rogers guy was good but I can't comment on Dolly Parton. There was also a magician/comedian-again I can't comment as I didn't attend a show.
The highlight of the entertainment was a Mr. Pete Finlay. Mr. Finlay is a retired Flight Engineer on the Concorde aircraft and has flown countless times on Concorde all around the world as the Chief Flight Engineer. He gave four lectures on Concorde-the development of the plane, the crash of the Air France Concorde, the rival planes that other airlines tried to produce and the future of supersonic passenger aircraft. On this last lecture, Mr. Finlay outlined a British company-Reaction Engines-who are currently developing an engine to power a Hypersonic (that's Mach 5 or beyond) passenger aircraft to get from London to Australia in four hours! Reaction Engines have got the financial backing of the EU and the European Space Agency and expect to be producing a prototype engine in a couple of years. Mr. Finlay is an extremely articulate lecturer and is a delight to listen to-P&O need to get more people like Mr. Finlay onboard. His lectures were very well attended with "standing room only" on some occasions.
The islands and excursions
We visited St. Kitts, St. Lucia, Dominica, St. Maarten, St. Vincent, Grand Turk, Tortola-British Virgin Islands, Grenada and of course Barbados. We were supposed to visit Antigua but due to quite severe weather conditions including a 60/70 mph. crosswind, the captain couldn't get the ship in port and after five or six attempts decided not to try again. Antigua is unique in the Caribbean as the entrance to the main port has a deep water channel which is only 90 metres wide. The ship is around 40 metres wide which means there isn't a lot of spare room to manouvre. The excursions I chose were quite enjoyable. I particularly enjoyed the Concorde Exhibition in Barbados, a rum distillery in St. Lucia and botanical gardens in St. Vincent-despite the fact that in St. Vincent we were caught in tropical rainstorm and got drenched. The rest of my trips were Best of/Highlights of various islands.
P&O (like other cruise companies) make a daily charge to your account. This is for gratuities for the staff. In this case it was £3.50 per person per day (including kids). I had mine stopped as I don't like to be told who/when/how much I'm tipping. Additionally, as I am a "cash only" passenger, I placed around £900 on my account at the start of the trip. The day before Barbados, I asked when I could close my account only to be told it was already too late as I had to close my account by 6.30 pm. I did argue that I was a "cash" customer but the reception assistant was adamant. I eventually spoke to a deputy Pursar who extended my time until 10pm. I went to reception at around 9.45 to close my account only to be told by another assistant that "I could close it anytime" so I left my account open. I did go back at 10.45pm. and spoke to (yet another) assistant who then said that 6.30pm. was the original time and that the rest of my deposit was "lost". By now I'm getting angry (I'm not a patient man). I suggested-quite loudly and forcefully-that if I didn't get my money back (around £260), that when I got back to the UK, I would sue P&O in the Small Claims Court in my home town. I also suggested that I would be looking for damages and costs for this action. This did the trick and I got my money back. A warning to "cash only" passengers-P&O will make your life difficult. Make sure you get your money back as they won't hesitate to keep it.
On a personal note, as the ship wasn't full, I asked if I could upgrade to a better cabin-even a balcony- only to be told that this "wasn't possible". Considering that I knew that a lot of the balcony rooms were unoccupied, I thought that it was a little unfair. Why leave them empty if they're not being used? I know that a lot more passengers also asked for an upgrade only to be told the same thing.
Also, as I have to plan things well in advance due to my work shift pattern, I was disappointed to hear of all the offers-P&O calls them "getaway prices"-to get people on the cruise. As a single traveller, I have to pay a lot more than two or more occupying a cabin. I heard of passengers paying £600 to £900 for the cruise including flights!
All things considered...4 out of 10. P&O must do better. The fact that the ship was not fully booked didn't help. The cruise didn't have the fizz or buzz of a busy ship and the atmosphere onboard wasn't there. It seemed as if the staff were "going through the motions" and didn't seem to be interested. This spoilt my trip and as I have previously mentioned, I had been planning this for nearly two years, and I was very disappointed.
Would I reccommend? Errrrmm...No. P&O need to try a lot harder. I WILL give P&O another chance in the future, but it won't be on the Azura.
As a Post Script to this review, two or three days before the end of the trip, we were hearing rumours about the Christmas cruise which sailed on December 14th. Apparently the ship was fully booked BUT there were 700 (THAT'S SEVEN HUNDRED) kids onboard. Anybody that booked the Christmas cruise hoping for a quiet trip has made a huge mistake. I for one (along with a great many of my fellow travellers) were delighted to get off the ship before all of the kids showed up!
An update to this Post Script (I wrote this review in December with additions in January)....Since writing this review, I have been contacted by several people who travelled on the Christmas cruise which left Barbados on December 14th. They tell me that the number of kids on this cruise numbered at only around 200-250. The rumours (and the staff) on the cruise I was on said 700 and yet the passengers who were actually on the trip said 200 to 250. I will leave the reader to make up their own mind.