Everything had come together well. The cruise had almost chosen itself. All criteria had been met and the holiday booked. Departure from Southampton to facilitate a quick and relaxed departure,check. Reasonable price to accommodate our bank balance, check. Destination, The Baltic States, for culture, history and adventure including the date of our 20th wedding anniversary, check. And lastly, P and O's sparkly new ship, Azura, for a stylish, contemporary and yet still quite traditional floating hotel from which to venture into each port and return to each day for fine dining and entertainment, check.
After traveling the short distance from Petersfield to Southampton by limousine, (organised as a surprise by my husband!) we negotiated embarkation swiftly and arrived on board ready to find our cabin and explore the ship. From this moment on I started to experience the rather odd sensation of hearing the many "voices" speaking words of wisdom that I had discovered on the cruise critic forums. "Will we find our luggage awaiting us in the cabin? Should do. Should we unpack first? No, we might miss the "sailaway". Don't forget, the champagne will not be free. Try the buffet for a light lunch. Here's the Verona, it changes from buffet to Italian Trattoria in the evenings. Make sure you book those tables in XVII and Sindhu and check out when Olly Smith will be speaking and doing the wine tasting...yum! Now it is time to unpack and hang that shoe holder over the bathroom door, (snipping two little holes for the robe hooks) and stow away all those troublesome toiletries that might clutter up your bathroom." Well, so far so good! Thanks to the "voices" I often felt prepared for the many new things to experience while cruising and yet still had the delight of learning other things for ourselves by trial and error. I did however leave behind the duct tape and bungee cord suggested by many "voices" after much teasing from friends and family and no, we didn't need them! It was fun and we soon relaxed into the rhythm of port days/sea days, morning, noon and night.
Our inside stateroom (B747) was compact but beautifully formed. The open wardrobe space, cupboards, drawers and under-bed storage were more than we needed and I had SERIOUSLY over packed, despite the "voices" telling me to take less clothing and more money! I loved the shower and the bathroom was fine. We liked the decor, the bed was comfy, the pillows quite thick so I only needed one and the interactive TV was very useful to check our on-board spending and to watch all kinds of TV programmes and films (103 choices!)when ever we wanted. We were surprised to find a couple of passengers moaning about the TV on day 12 of the cruise saying they thought the choice of viewing was poor. It turned out they had not used the TV choices and had only tuned in to the 7 live channels which included CBeebies, documentary, lifestyle, history and news channels. We also met someone who didn't know they had a fridge!! Of course we suffered a little stateroom envy when we saw some new friends' balcony stateroom but we constantly reminded ourselves of how much more money we had to spend on other things.
The "voices" had warned me that we may well come across people who had cruised so much before that they had become very picky, opinionated and not reticent in sharing their feelings.Indeed, some of the "voices" themselves were like this and their opinions are valid while on land and they can be taken into account when making choices but best ignored if they find their way onto your dining table! I know that as first-time cruisers we have nothing to compare our experiences with but I hope, if we have the good fortune to cruise again, we will stay positive and upbeat once on-board. Yes, the knives are oddly balanced, yes, Azura is a very big ship (duh, read the brochure?) and yes the promenade deck does not go right around the ship but at least you won't get dizzy walking in one direction the whole time!!
We very quickly found our favourite places...The Planet bar with it's HD TV screens showing worldwide panoramic views in real-time for pre-dinner drinks;up on deck to read, sunbathe, doze and relax in the afternoons; Brodies for a game of pool or scrabble and the Karmala room (sadly windowless) for the 11pm quiz. All this makes us sound like we shun exercise but to be honest this holiday was, for us, about physical as well as mental rest. I regret not getting to try shuffleboard and quoits but will save that for the next cruise! So, onto one of the highlights of the cruise, the dining experience. We had booked second sitting (20.30hrs) and a table for eight. I knew, of course, that if we wanted to enjoy the fantastic views during the "sailaways" and not be in a rush after getting back from shore excursions this would be the best time for us. We found ourselves allocated to The Oriental and a table for... two. Initially I wanted to change this as I had wanted to meet and get to know people but we gave it a few days and in the end found we preferred the option of dining alone at times as at breakfast, afternoon tea and sometimes even in the buffet we shared tables. We did get to know some lovely people whom we met for drinks or dinner at other venues around the ship. We enjoyed all the select dining on offer both for lunch and dinner and the cover charges (the "voices" had said £20 for XVIII and £15 for Sindhu) we thought were very good value for the superb quality. The activities on-board were quite varied, we tried a few quizzes, took part in Cupid's Couples (and won!) learned how to play Blackjack and that we were not very good at it! We tried karaoke and joined the choir called Azura vocalists. We rehearsed on sea days and performed a concert in the atrium on the last evening, great fun! We watched several films on the Seascreen (outdoor cinema) but had to wrap up warmly for the evening shows as the Baltic weather was nice and warm in the daytime but a bit chilly later (blankets were provided). The cruisers to warmer climes will enjoy this feature more. Much was made of the lack of a covered pool but again, the warmer weather will sort that omission out. We are not great dancers but we saw dancing in several venues around the ship.I thought the choice of shops was varied and attractive to browse in but I bought all our gifts ashore. The much vaunted Spa was too expensive for us. We had planned to give the Retreat a try for a half day but never got around to it. It looked lovely from afar but mostly underused. Again, maybe in the Med or Caribbean it will get more patronage. The entertainment was a little patchy. We enjoyed the Headliners Theatre Company as we like musical theatre but we are not fond of tribute acts and none of the speakers were appropriate to our taste or indeed age group. We were among the youngest on board (43 and 50!!!) but we enjoyed Rebecca Storm, Olly Smith and a couple of the comedians. Greg Bentinck was a superb piano player and singer with a dry wit and much cheery banter, he was also the choir's pianist. The daily Horizon newspaper was very informative and clear and with my highlighter pen at the ready each evening (thanks "voices"!) I was able to pick out possible events of interest to us for the next day.
There were only 45 children on board for our cruise but we occasionally saw them around the ship and they all seemed to be having a great time with the very enthusiastic youth team. I had a quick peek at the children's tea menu and it would have suited our daughters down to the ground. Apparently the stateroom phones could be used as a baby alarm for parents who wanted to leave older children sleeping or you could use the night nursery.
Now, how about the Ports of call? Wonderful and so refreshing to be visiting a part of Europe we had never been to before. I had spent much time on Cruise Critic's Baltic forum and researched my socks off! What did I learn once ashore? That my husband does not like to be too organised and has less stamina for sight seeing than I bargained for. I had so much planned, (maps, walks, glass galleries etc.) but had forgotten that my husband was physically drained and although a sprightly 43 years old (and a Judo black belt) really needed to rest as well as explore. We took two ship's tours in Stockholm and Oslo, a two day private tour of St. Petersberg (SPB) with Alla tours as a result of advice from the "voices" and the rest we managed ourselves. I was able to cancel one trip while on board (with 48hrs notice) as we had done so much in SPB that we gave Helsinki, our fifth port day in a row, a miss. We learned that we would rather do one thing really well, i.e. The Vasa Museum in Stockholm than try to see many things quickly. We will know next time how we like to do things and plan accordingly.The highlight for us was SPB and the eight other folk on our trip quickly became friends during a meet and greet over afternoon tea and then later during our private tour which was a fantastic success. Each day ashore we would return "home" to Azura and rest, eat well and relax. The service in the bars and restaurants was always exemplary and our cabin steward, Joseph was excellent.I found the ship's crew to be friendly and approachable although we never saw the captain as I believe his wife was unwell.
Disembarkation was a breeze and we were off the ship forty minutes ahead of schedule and on our way home. I will know in future how much and what to pack and we will not have to take four suitcases ever again! With a laundry on-board it was very easy to do a quick couple of loads of casual clothing and wear some of the formal clothing twice, no one would notice or care.Much easier!
In summary, we had a wonderful time and were able to rest and recharge our energies which was exactly what we had wanted from the experience. We enjoyed being on our own for the first time for years and were pleased to discover that we still like to spend time together! Celebrating our anniversary in this way was perfect. If we cruise again we would probably be taking our teenage daughters with us and we will then look for a ship offering different facilities and activities to suit all of us. That is where research and a good trawl through the internet will hopefully be of benefit. Thanks to Cruise Critic, we got it right this time around!