For our latest cruise we stepped out of our comfort zone of Celebrity and Fred Olsen to join P&O's Azura in Barbados for a Caribbean cruise. After twenty-five cruises this was our first time with P&O.
The embarkation process was great. We handed over our luggage at check in at Gatwick Airport, and we got it back in our cabin on the ship. We walked off the aircraft in Barbados, straight onto a bus which took us directly to the ship, and whilst I'm on the subject of aircraft, we had the massive bonus of flying on the Dreamliner. Anyone with an interest in airplanes will know what a bonus that is, more space, larger windows, mood-lighting, quieter engines, healthier air conditioning. In fact, you don't have to have an interest to appreciate those benefits.
Boarding the ship was a fairly speedy process, given that many of us arrived on buses from the airport at the same time, but we were disappointed that for the first time in nearly twenty-five cruises, we were not greeted by an officer, nor were we offered a welcome aboard drink. First impressions are important, and this was not a good one, we were also unimpressed by the attitude of the staff on guest services.
I have never understood why this is so often a weak point on a cruise ship. Personally, I believe if you can't smile at your customers you should not be working in the customer service industry, and you certainly should not be disinterested, patronising, condescending and unhelpful as the guest services staff we encountered on the Azura were. We heard a number of disgruntled passengers talking about their encounters with guest services, and indeed the friends we travelled with had a problem with the lack of hot water from the taps in their cabin which was only rectified after four complaints, and nine days later. Two out of the four tumble dryers in the laundry on our deck also didn't work for the entirety of the trip, and when a fellow passenger complained, she was told she would just had to use a different laundry, and received no apology of any kind for the inconvenience.
Generally, in our experience, British ships do not always have the same 'can do' attitude that is so often prevalent on the American cruise lines.
I don't want to be too hard on this ship, or P&O for that matter. We got a really good deal on this cruise, and it's true you get what you pay for. To me, P&O is cruising for the masses, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that. One of the highlights of the cruise was the amount of really nice people we met amongst our fellow passengers, and no pretentiousness.
The other reason why I don't want to be too harsh on P&O is that we are big fans of Celebrity, and more importantly, we are big fans of the smaller ships. One of the frustrations for us on the Azura was everything always seemed so far away, and also it often seemed difficult to get from A to B, as there seemed to be a lot of dead ends on this ship, although on the plus side, you could always find peace and quiet if you wanted it. The ship was spacious, clean and well-decorated, although sometimes some of the toilets smelt a bit. Unlike Celebrity, there did not appear to be washroom attendants around frequently, though the toilets always seemed to be fairly clean, just a little smelly.
Drinks prices were reasonable on this ship, and most of the wait staff were friendly and helpful. The food was of a decent quality, and there was plenty of variety, although sometimes the descriptions bore no resemblance to what you actually got. P&O seemed to have written their own food dictionary. So look out for the gammon steak, and the 'Barnsley Chop' which was nothing like it should have been (I know because I live in Barnsley), also the Welsh Rarebit that comes with haddock.... My wife had some 'interesting' vegetarian meals too, but to be fair, the waiters did their very best to accommodate us. In fact Lydrian and Balam are probably the best waiters we have ever had, which is really saying something as the dinner waiters on every ship we have been on have always been of an extremely high standard. And like Lydrian and Balam, our wine waiter Ramir had a fantastic sense of humour too. It's fair to say that all the staff and management we encountered in the Peninsular Restaurant were brilliant, and we loved the way they were keen to make sure we enjoyed all our meals, breakfast, lunch and dinner, and there was always someone on hand to deal with any problem, not that we had any in the restaurant.
As always, I spent a lot of time talking to my fellow guests who gave mixed reviews on the freedom dining option, as they did about the Sindhu speciality restaurant, and the ship's wine packages. As for the Costa Coffee bar in our opinion the only similarity is the sign on the wall, and we considered the coffee package to be a waste of money.
The cabins were clean and spacious, and the beds were very comfortable, our cabin attendant Dipu was great, but be warned, some of the cabins have folded bunk beds attached to the walls, as the friends we cruised with discovered. And on the subject of friends, we booked this cruise late, and for some reason we were allocated cabins at opposite ends of the ship!
Another thing we were unhappy with was the gym, which although fairly well equipped with state of the art machines, did not open until 8 am, which is by far the latest I have ever known on any cruise ship we have been on. Also, the gym staff seemed more interested in talking to the girls in the Spa. Often there were no towels available, and no anti-bacterial wipes either.
The guest entertainers and shows were of a very high standard, though personally I wasn't impressed with the ship's activities/entertainment team who did not seem very friendly, not one of them spoke to us for the entire cruise, and we certainly never saw a smile from them unless they were performing.
I was not impressed with the officers on the Azura either who were hardly visible on the Captain's evening. It spoke volumes that they were huddled together on their own, and only seemed to talk to the passengers who approached them. Again, it was the first time in twenty five cruises that we never had an officer speak to us.
The I.T. staff were friendly and helpful, and the wi-fi system was excellent. It worked everywhere on the ship, and was reasonably priced for a cruise ship. However, they told us that our pre-paid internet package would cut off 24 hours before disembarkation, so we made sure we used it all, but actually we were still able to access the internet right up until we left the ship, though we had to use the more expensive pay as you go rate.
We only went on four of the ship's shore excursions. The Best of Tortola was great value for money and worth doing. The Best of St Kitts was also good value, and included a visit to Brimstone Hill Fort which provided awesome panoramic views, and a fascinating insight into the history of the garrison.
The trolley train tour of Bonaire was a complete waste of both money and time.
Our final ship's excursion was a Sunset and Champagne catamaran sail in Barbados, and tho we never saw the sun set, and the quality of the champagne was questionable, it was still a good trip, and the crew were friendly and entertaining. So we would thoroughly recommend three out of the four we did. It was also nice to be treated as adults by the excursions staff by being allowed to meet on the quayside, rather than having to wait in a theatre and all walk off the ship together.
Our friends did the Harley Davidson 3 ½ hour bike ride in Bonaire and thoroughly enjoyed it, and would have no hesitation in recommending the ship organised tour.
In Dominica we did our own bus tour organised by the island's Tourist Board, which at twenty US dollars was well worth the money, as was the bus tour we undertook in Curacao, which included a free tasting of their famous liquer.
In St. Maarten,we revisited the Honky Tonk Bar on the seafront which provided excellent food and free wi-fi, as did the Marina Bar in Bridgetown, Barbados. And if you are visiting Barbados in January, don't assume it's going to be sunshine all the way, as it rained for a fair amount of the time we were there.
To summarise this cruise I would say yes, we would sail with P&O again, but only on a smaller ship. Generally the waiters and bar staff were friendly, and the cruise was good value. As for the guest services staff, well.....