Travel to the port, and embarkation We took a train from Waterloo East station - a train that started at Charing Cross, but Waterloo East is a bit easier for us to get to from home. The train departed at 0956 and arrived at Dover Priory on time at 1132. The exit from the station required us to cross by a footbridge, but there are lifts if you can't manage stairs. At the taxi rank, we found another person heading for the ship and so the three of us shared a taxi, which was £9. It wasn't on the meter, and I seem to recall that there are fixed fares for this trip. It seemed a bit on the steep side - but it wasn't much when divided between three people.
Queuing was reasonably well managed. There was a queue at ground level to get into the terminal, and people were released upstairs in batches. Security was first, and then we headed for the check-in desks. Latitudes check-in was at the far end, and the queues were very short.
Boarding was also managed by coloured cards, given to you as you enter the terminal. By the time that we checked-in, we could go straight on board the ship as our colour had already been called, and we were clutching a glass of champagne just after 12 noon.
The ship It's been a while since I've been on a ship that doesn't have a tall multi-deck atrium. It was a bit of a surprise to see an atrium that was only two decks tall. But I didn't think that this affected the "feel" of the ship very much. The biggest annoyance of the cruise was situated here: the giant TV screen. Are people's heads really so empty these days that they cannot sit down anywhere without having to be distracted by inane moving pictures and a backing techno soundtrack that belongs in a nightclub?
Having heard about the brightness of the décor on board, I thought that it was actually not over- done. It was cheerful, and playfully kitsch and post-modern by turns, without being brash. One thing that was particularly clever: the "louver" effect on the cabin doors - created by corrugations, appropriate paint, and a down light - that made them look like wooden doors in the tropical style with angled slats, when they were in fact good solid cabin fire doors. I was also entertained by the pink chairs in the atrium and the various sofas in the Spinnaker Lounge. This is also the first ship on which I've been where the two main dining rooms have been decorated so differently. The Tsar's Palace is genteelly-faded ornate, whereas Azura is distinctly wooden Scandi.
The cabin We had an aft balcony, which would have been more use if the weather had been better. We didn't end up using it much, and not at all when the ship was moving, so in the end we might as well have been anywhere on the ship. But that's life, particularly with unpredictable Atlantic weather.
Much in the cabin was pretty standard and unremarkable. It was nice to have a sliding door for the shower, rather than a sticky flimsy curtain. But although the idea of also having a sliding door to partition off the toilet is superficially good, the layout means that it is a very cramped area whether or not you close that door.
Oddly, there were no hand towels or face cloth until the following morning. Ship's laundry not keeping up, I suspect. Toiletries are provided by the World Floating Spa Domination Company, as one would expect, but they're better than what I've had before on NCL.
Food and drink After boarding, we actually headed straight to the Tsar's Palace for lunch, with a splendid view of the dock and the luggage loading crane. If this is representative of the quality of the main restaurant food, it is now at least a couple of notches better than it was last autumn on the Sun - very welcome. The various waitresses in our area were too keen to come and chat inanely to us, when there came a point at which we really wanted to have lunch by ourselves. But we can't fault them for trying to be friendly.
On the way, we had made reservations for dinner on both evenings, to make sure that we didn't miss out. In contrast to the dedicated desk in the atrium on the Sun, this was a pretty haphazard- looking operation run from portable tables. But in the end, the only specialty restaurant that seemed to have any real pressure on it on this cruise was the teppanyaki. The main restaurants seemed to have some queues at the height of dinner time (about 8.30 - 9.00 pm). However, I don't think that one would really have had to wait very long for any other venue.
Dinner the first evening was in Tango's. Fortunately, the techno soundtrack was mostly switched off in favour of the string quartet playing one deck down in the atrium. I still had to sit with my back to the screen, though, otherwise it would have seriously annoyed me. The food was generally good, but our margaritas were both disappointingly weak and the "dulce de leche" dessert turned out to be an overcooked crème caramel.
Our second dinner was teppanyaki. They have four sittings, at 5.00, 6.30, 8.00 and 9.30. As there are two tables, each with two chefs' stations, I had thought that they would be staggered, as 1½ hours just isn't long enough for an entire meal. (On the Sun, they have always had to throw us out after about 2¼ hours in order to get the next sitting in.) But they do in fact use the entire restaurant for each sitting. Unsurprisingly, by the time of our 8.00 booking, the operation was seriously over-running, and we didn't get started until almost 8.30. But we did use the time productively - a cocktail each at Chin Chin's bar, about which you could not make a complaint that they were weak!
There was one annoyance: the teppanyaki is designed to sit 8 at each half-table, 2+4+2 in a U- shape. But a single passenger, who had just turned up immediately before we arrived, was squeezed in by setting a third place on one side. This meant that not only were we more tightly- packed than we should have been, I was also sitting where my knees were banging up against a protrusion in the table, where nobody should have been sitting at all. No apology, or indeed acknowledgment. I think that they should have shared out the extra $25 amongst the other 8 of us - or, perhaps, given it to the passenger who suffered the ignominy of having this interloper start eating her dinner half-way through the meal.
Other meals: we didn't make it to breakfast on Sunday, but we did on Monday just before disembarkation. Although arriving at almost exactly 6.30, the time when we'd been told that the Tsar's Palace would open, we had to wait a long time before our orders were transformed into real food. It was almost as if the kitchen didn't start work until 7.00. The Tsar's Palace was also where we had our second lunch - and the standard was pretty much as on the first day.
The only "bar" that we spent any real time in was the Java Café, mainly because of the location and entertainment. But it was seriously under-staffed. In the end, we didn't discover our "favourite" bar until the very end - the Star Bar, which is where we'd head next time. Bar City seemed horrendous, just on walking through.
Entertainment The sailaway party had to be moved into the Spinnaker Lounge, due to the weather. Probably as with all UK-based crowds, it was difficult to get anyone up and on their feet. But the staff made a valiant attempt.
We had grand plans to go to one of the shows after dinner on the first evening, but had to admit defeat and go to bed. However, we did make it to Cirque Bijou on the second evening. Although my companion loved it, I was distinctly underwhelmed. It seemed like a show which didn't really know what it wanted to be. Some of the circus acts were genuinely good, but there was an awful lot of song-and-dance filler which would have been better and more coherent in a conventional Jean Ann Ryan song-and-dance show. The most surreal was the sudden appearance of a Riverdance segment. I would have thought that Riverdance and Cirque du Soleil were about as far apart from each other as Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Bizarre.
Disembarkation It was puzzling to have been given no information at all about disembarkation. I later found out that the relevant copies of the Freestyle Daily obviously just hadn't made it down to our end of the ship, where nobody seemed to have been given anything like it. But at least all we needed to know was when breakfast would be and where. It was a good thing that innate disbelief didn't lead us to go to the Garden Café at 4.30, hoping to disembark at 5.00 - the ship wasn't cleared until 6.30 anyway. We eventually staggered off not quite an hour after that, paying £8 for a very fast taxi ride back to the station and missing the 7.35 train by about 30 seconds. Pity, but it was only about another half an hour to wait. (We could have got back to London faster if we had changed at Ashford, but it was more energy than it was worth.)