Boarding: Took approx 30 mins from leaving the car with CPS to boarding the ship. Smooth and well organised.
Cabins: We had 2 Deluxe Balcony Cabins, mid ship on A Deck. First impressions were of a clean, conservatively decorated cabin with a couple of touches of colour in the cushions and bed runner. The walk in wardrobe does make the cabin feel smaller but will be appreciated by those with longer dresses and those who prefer a little more privacy when getting dressed. No sofa, just two chairs. Good interactive TV with around 7 channels plus dozens of on demand TV shows and films most of which were free. You can order room service using the TV and can check the restaurant menus in advance to influence where you may wish to eat which was helpful. Balcony was small but functional with two reclining chairs, a table and a footstool. As has been debated many times, Balconies on C deck are deeper however its a toss up between the extra depth and the loss of privacy given that there are three decks above who can look down on you. The Riviera deck above from mid ships to aft has an overhang which will limit sun for most of the day. This overhang actually impacts on A and B decks to some extent too meaning the sun has to be lower in the sky to catch the rays from your balcony. Our cabin Steward was excellent, very friendly and kept the cabin immaculate. We had an annoying creaking noise from the ceiling and after the third night spoke to reception who sent a maintenance chappie that hacked away at the wood trim that adjoined the ceiling. It solved the problem but I'm not sure P&O would be too happy with the damage he caused to the wood trim in doing so. Bathroom was compact but perfectly usable. Some complained about this but how long do you spend in the bathroom?
Food: We had breakfast mainly in the buffet. An excellent choice of hot and cold food, and no traffic jams in accessing the buffet. Yes you had to look for a table but we could usually find a table, especially in the Verona Buffet toward the rear. We tried the sit down breakfast in the Oriental Restaurant which again was fine but we preferred the convenience, choice and speed, of the self service. The buffet at lunchtime was a bit disappointing. Food was a bit repetitive and at times canteen like. We tried the pizza place by the pool deck and thought the Pizzas were excellent. Freshly cooked and with thin and crisp bases. The hot dog and burger outlet served a limited range of food but again this was good although their tendency to handle everything by hand including grabbing handfuls of fries to plate up after just preparing beef, chicken and prawn wraps with the same hands was a bit off putting and certainly not veggie friendly.
We chose freedom dining for our evening meals having used RCI's version of this the year before and enjoyed the flexibility. If you are prepared to share a table then there appeared to be no waiting but if you wanted a table to yourselves then this could incur a wait especially as the Playhouse shows ended. We were given a buzzer on 3 out of 10 nights and had to wait no longer than 10 minutes before a table for four came available. It's a shame you cannot reserve a time each day as on RCI but not a major issue. The choice was ok but did become a little repetitive with dishes whose name changed but really they were the same core meals. Lots of Beef, Pork and Lamb, some fish and one choice for Veggies in each course although nowhere on the ship are desserts marked up as suitable for vegetarians. Ice cream in the main dining room was said to be veggie but not that in the Verona Trattoria which seems a little strange. One of us was veggie and they found the vegetarian dishes to be rather poor and always on the small side. Nice to have lots of fresh vegetables but more salads would have been appreciated. I have to mention the soups. After a week we gave up ordering them. We all like soup but the ones we had were disappointing including on one night one which was so salty none of us could get past the first spoonful. However overall we always walked out of the dining room full. I have to mention the service. Now we can only compare this with RCI but we were not overly impressed. Yes it was functional but it varied considerably. It was as though the waiters were under pressure to turn tables so didn't have time to build any rapport. On one night we went from sitting down to having coffee in 45 minutes which was very rushed. On another night it took 1 hour 50 to complete our meal. I'm not saying that the service was bad, it just wasn't done with any flair. On RCI the waiters made recommendations and if you didn't finish a plate they were genuinely concerned and desperate to get you something else that would suit you. On Azura they just took the plate away. We often sat down to butter dishes that were empty and missing glasses and trying to get a second bread roll often meant several minutes of trying to get someone's attention. A couple of times we were seated next to a waiter station and they just appeared fed up. I hope it's not the case but we felt as though the waiters know they are getting their tips so don't try too hard. Perhaps in Club dining the experience may be different but on RCI we always were made to feel special in the main dining room.
Speciality Restaurants: We tried them all and I've commented elsewhere on this forum about them so will just say that we were not impressed with Sindhu or Seventeen. Portions in Sindhu were small and under-flavoured and our meal in Seventeen took an eternity from start to finish (almost 2 hrs 30 mins from sitting down to leaving). Also our well done lamb came pink and our new potatoes were hard. My duck terrine was horrible and had a strip of raw duck through the centre surrounded by duck fat. Obviously everyone's experience is subjective but we were disappointed with both of these venues and thought they offered more style than substance. However, many raved about them so each to their own. Sindhu was usually very quiet but we had to book 4 days in advance for seventeen. We liked the Glass House. It's a lovely venue for just sitting and having a drink and the bistro type food is excellent and good value. This wasn't very busy as I think many preferred the venues with live music but we thought it was a superb space.
The Verona Buffet turns into an Italian with waiter service in the evenings. You don't book and we tried it twice and had lovely meals. Plentiful and well prepared and as the cruise progressed this got very busy as more people discovered it. We had a room service breakfast for our sail into Venice and this was pretty good.
Public Rooms: The atrium isn't huge and doesn't have a wow factor but it serves well as the hub of the ship and was never overwhelmingly busy but after experiencing RCIs Royal Promenade this was more like a hotel foyer. The bars on board are excellent, from Brodies pub to the cabaret bar Manhattan. All were a good size and very nicely decorated. Drink prices are reasonable and the choice is wide. Service in the bars was superb. The main dining room has 84 different bottles of wine to choose from! The layout of the ship isn't very user friendly and you did need to consult the maps to work out how to get to a certain area. For instance to get from the Planet bar to Reception you had to take a lift down to Deck 7, walk through this deck to the Atrium and then take another lift down to Deck 6. Deck 7 is the only Deck you can walk through although outside on this deck you cannot circle the ship entirely as the front section is for crew only. There isn't a natural flow to the ship however I have to say it swallows its passengers very well. On cloudy sea days you could always find somewhere to sit and the ship never felt overly busy perhaps because the public rooms are so disparate. This is despite the ship being full.
Similarly up on deck you cannot get from fore to aft without a fair bit of up and downing. In fact there are rather a lot of steps to navigate the different levels from the Lido Deck up to the Sports Deck and the different levels around the Seascreen. However again because there were so many different areas we could always find somewhere to rest even on the hottest days. We didn't try the retreat. It never looked very busy, possibly because only a handful of the beds are in the sun, the rest sit under the big canopy to the front. I'm not a fan of having 'upgrade' areas like this. Surely it would be better to have this part of the ship for the benefit of everyone as on Ventura rather than limit it for the enjoyment of a small minority who are prepared to pay for it? We used the gym a lot and it is well laid out. We didn't use the Spa for any treatments but thought them very expensive.
Entertainment: The Entertainment team worked extremely hard and the program of activities was very full. Again it's personal taste but we didn't enjoy the evening entertainment in the Playhouse. The Playhouse itself is a bit bland and lacking in warmth and the stage looks small in proportion to the seating area. We saw 2 Headliners shows but they were not to our taste. Many seemed to love them but we found them to be clichEd. The one featuring west end musicals was a let down as they chose lesser known songs from the featured shows. Strange when they have so much well known material to choose from-maybe a royalty issue? We didn't bother going to any more of their shows after this. If the headliners were not on it generally seemed to be different comedians and there is a lot of repetition with acts being on for 2 nights with a few days in between. The Seascreen was a novel touch and we did watch a couple of films whilst enjoying the sun but the films were repeated too often and you needed to be fairly brave to endure an evening showing in the Med in May.
Ports of Call: We enjoyed the ports we visited, especially Venice, and if you are booking a balcony then go for one on the Starboard side as the sail into Venice at 7am is simply stunning. Where a shuttlebus was required there was no charge which is a nice touch. We took two tours from the ship which we thought were reasonably priced and well organised.
Overall: We enjoyed the cruise. Azura doesn't have the wow factor. It's a nice ship with good facilities, is nicely decorated and does most things well. However we didn't feel it did anything exceptionally nor did it have any specific outstanding features but as a venue to cruise to different ports it's very comfortable. It takes a fair amount of time to get to grips with the layout which is far from logical but this isn't a bad thing as long as you like to explore. It feels very swish and many who had been on Ventura said this was like being on the same ship but with a bit more class. I still don't understand the marketing for Azura. It has been aimed at previous cruisers and couples but has the same capacity for kids and for entertaining kids as Ventura. There were only a handful of kids on our cruise so the kids facilities and the area they take up surely are wasted most of the time? Why didn't P&O keep Azura for adults and Ventura for families? Still can't get my head round P&O's marketing objectives. There really isn't anything about Azura that would draw us back for another cruise on her as there are there are many alternatives we would like to try. As this was only our second cruise we can only compare this with our previous cruise on the IOTS. We took a vote on our way home and all voted the Independence as the better of the two.