AZURA, NICE PEOPLE BUT SERIOUS ISSUES ON THIS NEW SHIP
AZURA Baltic cruise, 26 May 2010 - Great people, but some real issues. First time cruisers though we did a "crossing" on the wonderful QM2 last year. I am a wheelchair user, my wife is a celiac, so some may find the feedback on accessibility and food choice useful. What follows is we hope a balanced review which reflects a good holiday but equally suggests that P&O have not got everything right with Azura and some aspects will be very off putting for certain potential customers.
Embarkation. We arrived early, had a 15 min wait in car park queue and 30 mins in the check-in hall at the bright and breezy Ocean Terminal. Disabled access is good here & you should go to the "mobility assist" area, it will pay off. We were onboard in 30 mins, were directed to deck 15 for lunch which was fine and in our superb (disabled) inside cabin by 2.30 as promised. All very smooth and well managed.
Disabled stateroom L248 Lido Deck 15. Outstanding. Loads of room. One of the best designed disabled accessible bathrooms we have ever seen. Good wheelchair turning space, excellent wheel-in shower area with a very good large fold up seat and good access to wash basin. Toilet has grab rails on two sides but if you need three rails ask about this before booking. Cabin steward (Manoj) was excellent. All in all a very impressive accommodation. But....this is state of the art Azura, or that's what P&O tell you in the brochures. Two different people designed this ship. One did the disabled cabins, the other the rest of P&O's flagship. LIFTS. Appalling, simply appalling. After the absurdly poor safety briefing we waited 45 mins for a lift back to our cabin. It must have been a one off we thought....wrong. P&O have built a` ship the same size as Ventura but put 500 more passengers onboard. Most were 70+ and/or disabled. We were babies in our early fifties but we aged 10 years waiting for lifts on this cruise. It just doesn't work, too many people, and a lift service where only one lift seems able to stop on a deck at one time. Peak times it's a fiasco. You need to leave 30 mins before dinner to arrive on time. This is not OTT, the lifts are not able to cope and it can spoil your day, trust me, this is a serious problem and if you have no choice but to use the lift prepare for absurd waiting times. THE RETREAT. Again, appalling. We really wanted to use this innovative facility but on this brand new state of the art ship it is NOT accessible to wheelchair users or those who don't fancy climbing loads of steps. How P&O can justify this is beyond me but there is no lift inside the three-deck spa / retreat facility and access to the wonderful heated pool with its wave machine is up 3 steps, then 7 more, then down another 7. Crazy and hugely disappointing. And even the staff were embarrassed that this has been allowed to happen and spookily it isn't mentioned in the adverts.....indeed we had three calls before the cruise trying to sell us spa packages.
THE FOOD. We were club diners in the Oriental, 1st sitting. We were so lucky to have a table of 6 superb companions. Great conversation and lots of laughter. Such superb company can and did make for some very enjoyable times. Food was generally good. A couple of ordinary meals but overall lots of good eating. Portions are a bit small at times but in truth there's always more if you ask. Service was good. We also tried "Seventeen" which is P&O's attempt at a celebrity restaurant without a celebrity and it is amazing. Really good and a steal at £20pp cover charge. "Sindhu" is fine dining Indian style and equally good. Subtle flavours and surprises between courses ! We loved our meal experience there and both this and 17 are worth the extra money. The Glass House was a favourite, great "taster" plates and really good turf and surf and very sweet wine ! Verona and Venetia were okish and we heard that the Italian trattoria was excellent. My wife is a coeliac and providing you make your meal choices the night before with the menu provided then you are pretty well catered for. Less well if you turn up unannounced at an alternative venue but even then they will try to sort things.
ENTERTAINMENT. Very mixed. Headliners Company did 6 shows which were ok'ish but the lead vocalists lack "range" and the Playhouse gets absurdly crowded for the middle of three performances. Warning : there are just 6 disabled spaces in the Playhouse on deck 7 and 8 on deck 6. It's very poor this and given the huge numbers of less-than-mobile people on this cruise it's a real shame that P&O do not understand the issues this causes. The rest of the entertainment is made up of Tribute Acts and Comedy, and we thought much of this was disappointing. A couple of the singers were good and to be fair if some stopped describing the entertainment onboard as "west end" quality it would ease expectations. We got a bit bored on sea days in particular when there really isn't enough to do if the weather is poor. We mostly had great weather but try watching the disappointing "SeaScreen" in rain and a cold wind, it's not fun.
TOURS. We did 5 disabled accessible tours. Very expensive but we found them to be outstanding vfm. Mostly it's just 4 of you and your professional guide. How good is that ? We enjoyed Tallin and loved St Petersburg and Copenhagen and Oslo were real highlights. P&O are the only company who can be bothered to help disabled customers in this way and they deserve great credit for so doing. If you need accessible transport then try these tours but note that in some ports like Stockholm there are free accessible shuttle buses. In a few like Oslo and Kristiansand you can walk in from the berth.
OVERCROWDING. What can you say ? It's a mix of greed and poor planning added to inadequate design but for us Azura is simply not able to effectively cope with 3100 passengers. There is an extra deck of cabins and one lounge less than Ventura. It doesn't work, it's just too crowded in the public areas and the lounges (Manhatten and Malabar) are too full too often. And did we mention those LIFTS ? ! We met lots of very nice people, the staff were generally very good and the ship is pretty but flawed. We rested and appreciated the sun and the trips ashore and eat pretty well. Not a bad holiday by any measure but Azura is far from perfect and some of the problems are serious enough to surely impact on repeat bookings. If anyone wants more on the disabled access etc very happy to discuss !