This was our first visit to the Norwegian Fjords, on a 7 day cruise from Southampton with P&O. The weather was generally good, enabling us to enjoy the spectacular scenery. Overall, it was a great holiday and Azura made a good base from which to explore. Some aspects of the break were better than others. Norway was great, Azura was good, service was polite if not friendly, some of the meals on offer disappointed us. Norway felt a very safe place to wander around, communication in English was easy and a range of currencies were accepted in the tourist centres. Norway in June means very short hours of darkness. We noted that sunset was forecast at 11.32pm one night - and it wasn't really dark then!
We are recent converts to cruising, having sailed once in each of the last two years on Azura. Sailing on the same ship has been a coincidence of time we could take off and the cruises available on those dates. The itinerary was the driving factor in our choice, not the ship.
Our experience of the P&O embarkation process at Southampton has been consistently good. It was quick and well organised. The ship was as we expected – relatively large, clean and modern. There was sufficient going on for us to engage to the extent that suited us. Assessment of entertainment will always have an element of personal taste. Similarly, we would be pleased to dispense with the formal dress evenings, but fully co-operated with the dress code as expected.
Azura stopped at Bergen, Geiranger, Flam and Stavanger, but the journeys through the fjords were as much an experience as the ports/communities visited. The snow melting on the mountain tops was fuelling spectacular waterfalls – as impressive for the sound as for the sight. We caught Bergen in the sunshine – apparently a rare experience. We had not booked an excursion and as the ship was moored within the commercial port area this required use of a courtesy bus service to the city centre. This service was initially inadequate for the numbers wanting to use it. Informed of this we delayed our start and had no problem – but this was clearly frustrating for some people. Bergen was easy to find your way around and there was plenty to see and do. We would happily return there.
Approaching Geiranger and Flam needs an early start to the day if you want to make the best of the scenic views when travelling down the fjords. At Geiranger we took advantage of the walks that are available and had a coffee break at the information centre for this World Heritage Site. At Flam we went on our only organised tour - “Norway in a Nutshell”. The guide on this trip added huge value by explaining so much about Norway, its history, economy and people. We really enjoyed this trip – first by coach, then lunch in Voss followed by train return to Flam that included the Flamsbana. The views from the Flamsbana are quite spectacular.
We had no particular expectations of Stavanger and were then pleasantly surprised. The ship docked in the heart of the city enabling easy access to the old town, cathedral and museums. Having had no particular interest in the place we would now be happy to go back and spend more time there!
We found the food quality in the main dining room and the self service restaurants was a little disappointing. On our third trip on the same ship we observed a reduced choice and poorer quality of food offered. This led us to make more use of the speciality restaurants where we found great quality, but at a price. Dining in "Seventeen" was a very special experience, and it was fun cooking your own steak on hot lava rock in the Verona Trattoria one evening.
This was the first cruise on which we had opted for Freedom Dining. The extra flexibility on timing worked well with the cruise itinerary. However, there is not the opportunity to develop stronger relationships with a single group of passengers or with the same waiting staff. We have enjoyed the fixed time dining in the past. P&O has changed its Main Dining Room arrangements and now serves meals ready plated rather than service at the table. We knew of this change and, other than noting some reduced flexibility to vary what was provided, this was not an issue for us. Portion sizes were adequate – but it was just all rather ordinary where we would previously have rated it as good.
The usual mix of entertainment was available. We tried the theatre just once. The Headliners performance was good, but I found the sound level too high for the slight hearing difficulty I have. We dipped into some of the other entertainment options around the ship and also enjoyed after dinner drinks in the Planet bar with its spectacular views – either out of the window or on the wall screens. A highlight of the entertainment programme for us was the talks from the guest speaker, Gervase Phinn. These managed to be informative, entertaining and very humorous whilst conveying something of his own personality and his lifetime interest in helping children to learn.
Overall, a great holiday! If we were to cruise with P&O again then we would have to prepare to spend more on the speciality restaurants as the “no cost” dining options fall short of what we would seek for a main holiday experience. This takes the price comparison into a different range and we will probably try another cruise line next time if the dates and itinerary fit.