BACKGROUND We are relatively new to cruising, and had been on five cruises before. I won't fly, so we only cruise from the UK, usually starting with holiday dates and looking for good itineraries that fit in with them. Because itineraries are more important to us than cruise lines, we had cruised with four different lines: Fred Olsen (Braemar) to the Norwegian Fjords and North Cape, Princess (Sea Princess) to Iceland, Norway and the British Isles, Cunard (QE2) to the Central Med as far as Turkey, Royal Caribbean (Jewel of the Seas) to the Baltic, and back to Cunard (Queen Victoria) to New York, New England and Eastern Canada. Not much chance of collecting many loyalty points like that!
We liked the idea of trying P&O, but don't fancy anything as big as Ventura or Azura, have read some uncomplimentary reports of Artemis and didn't really like the idea of Aurora with her history of mechanical problems. We were really looking to try out Oriana, but it was an Aurora cruise that fitted the bill this year on the combination of dates and itinerary, so after quizzing a friend who loves Aurora we took the plunge and booked a 16-night cruise on her to the Adriatic. It only called at one port we'd been to before (Malaga) and offered two full days in Venice, which we gather was a selling point for quite a few people.
Although we had taken balcony cabins on our previous two cruises, we decided on an outside cabin this time, partly because the enclosed balcony design on Aurora didn't really appeal and partly because she has such good public deck areas that a balcony isn't quite as essential as it is on some newer ships. We booked less than two months before departure so we were offered a very good deal on a guaranteed cabin basis, but I had noticed that some of Aurora's outside cabins face onto public decks which we didn't fancy so we paid a little more for a nominated grade KC cabin on D-deck (deck 8, or Devanha Deck) just forward of amidships on the port side. The K grades are the lowest grade that gets you a bath as well as a shower.
The travel agent (Iglu) was very helpful and the booking process was painless.
TRAVEL TO PORT We live about two and a half hours drive from Southampton so for us a same-day departure by car is the obvious thing to do, especially with the amount of clothing that a cruise with five formal nights implies. We chose the CPS parking option, which is expensive but very convenient as it just involves dropping the car off at the cruise terminal. We don't like the alternative idea of driving to the other side of Southampton Water and being brought to the ship by shuttle minibus. We lived in Southampton for ten years (at the time when QE2 was new and the old Queens were retiring) so we quite enjoy driving there for a look around.
Dropping the car off took a little longer than on previous occasions, but this was excusable on a day when CPS had three P&O turnarounds to cope with (Oriana, Aurora and Azura). Check-in at the City Cruise Terminal was quite quick and we didn't have to wait in a holding lounge but walked straight to the ship at ground level and up a short gangway to deck 4. Our cabin was ready for us and our luggage arrived within minutes of our arrival there. Our cabin stewardess, Mary Jane, greeted us with a natural and pleasant smile which lasted throughout the voyage.
STATEROOM It appears acceptable with P&O to refer to the stateroom as a cabin, which still comes more easily to most Brits. Ours turned out to be as well-located as had appeared on the deck plan - very handy for the forward stairs and lifts but not on too busy a thoroughfare, and handy for the many public facilities on decks 6, 7 and 8. The doorways from the public part of deck 8 to the cabin area are quite discreet and don't invite use by people not occupying cabins on that deck.
The cabin was on the small side, but not unusually so for a cabin of this grade. As usual, having the beds made up as a double rather than twins meant a bit of a squeeze between the desk and the bottom of the bed. It was reasonably well-equipped, with plenty of hanging space, a hair dryer and basic toiletries. A bowl of fruit drop sweets and a couple of small bottles of mineral water were provided and, joy of joys, tea and coffee-making facilities. These we really appreciated and made a lot of use of, as we are not room service people. Drawer space was a bit tight, but otherwise we found the cabin perfectly adequate. The bathroom had storage behind the outer wings of a triple mirror, ideal for preening. Tea and coffee ingredients and biscuits were replenished and mugs washed for us twice a day. Pillow chocolates were still provided, but Mary Jane wasn't into origami animals with the towels. I can't say this bothered us. Only one electrical socket was provided, and this was of the British type.
The decor was pleasant if unexciting, with light-coloured wood and walls and large prints of scenes that were familiar to us (Leeds Castle in Kent and Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire).
THE SHIP The "pleasant if unexciting" description applies throughout the ship. Pale colours predominate, which I have to say I prefer to the dark panelling on other ships that accentuate the traditional like Queen Victoria and, I gather, her half-sister Arcadia. Theming, where applied, is very subtle. The main restaurants, Alexandria and Medina, are billed as having Egyptian and Moorish decor respectively, but you probably wouldn't notice unless you were told. The buffet restaurant, called the Orangery, benefits from colourful laminates but is still quite restrained. Most of the lounges have British country house furnishings and are very comfortable and restful but hardly inspired. The atrium extends from decks 5 to 8 and is not as big as on most modern ships. Again, pale colours predominate, including the tall sculpture which is in a single shade of pale green. The main shops off this area rejoice in the names of Piccadilly and Mayfair, further emphasising the restrained Britishness of this ship. The good library, well-supplied with board games and jigsaw puzzles, is also in this area. The theatre, forward, is well-designed, with very few seats suffering from an obstructed view of the stage. The main show lounge, Carmen's, is aft and is reasonably fit for purpose, with a dance floor you would call quite spacious if you hadn't sailed with Cunard. The Playhouse, centrally positioned on deck 8, looks very fresh with comfortable moquette seats. It is used for talks, recitals and films.
If the above description makes Aurora sound like a rather boring ship, this is probably a bit unfair. Rather, it is very comfortable, liveable and relaxing, though it would not be a good choice for cruisers who demand pzazz and a substantial wow factor from their cruise ships.
The open decks are superb. There is a huge amount of deck space (real teak, of course), and it is well-stocked with sunloungers, steamer chairs and reclining chairs. Deck 7 offers a continuous promenade of just under a third of a mile for walkers, though it is internal at the bow as on many ships. The tiered decks at the stern are magnificent, a feature sadly missing on more modern ships where every edge is taken up with balcony cabins. Deck 6 aft is home to the Terrace pool and a paddling pool and was almost exclusively used by families on our cruise. It is adjacent to good indoor facilities for children from infants to teens. Decks 12, 13 and 14 are mainly devoted to two pools (one with a retractable roof), bars and large sunbathing and recreation areas (shuffleboard, quoits, golf, a multisports court and table tennis), though it is also home to the Orangery and the Sidewalk Cafe where burgers, pizzas and fish and chips can be obtained. It is very pleasant to be able to take food to the open areas on deck 12 when the weather permits. Deck 12 also houses the spa and fitness centres, but nobody we met used these facilities so I cannot comment on them. Deck 13 also accommodates the Crow's Nest, a fine lounge with great views forward and to the sides.
DINING All passengers are assigned to a table in one of the two main restaurants for one of two fixed sittings, at 6.30 and 8.30pm. We ate in our assigned restaurant every night, so we are not able to comment on the alternative dining facilities, comprising open dining in the Orangery with a different theme each evening and open dining for a supplementary charge in Cafe Bordeaux or the Pennant Grill. The food in the main restaurants is good, mainly British, three-star hotel restaurant fare. I would have said English, but there is an interesting smattering of Scottish dishes like haggis and neeps, Cullen Skink and Cranachan. Portions are, in our opinion, generally just right, though with occasional inconsistencies. Sirloin steak or salmon are always available for those who don't like that evening's choices of main course, but we never had to resort to them as we always found at least one, usually more than one, choice we were happy with. Oddly, the salmon was served with the tomato sauce favoured by Americans even though there were hardly any Americans on board (one US citizen, one Canadian and one Colombian in a total of 1935 passengers). Vegetables are interesting and varied, though on the potato front there is too much reliance on rather unappetising roast potatoes. Desserts were of a very high standard, including an excellent Grand Marnier souffle on one evening, but strangely there was no baked alaska evening (which didn't really worry me as I find it rather over-rated). Up to five courses are available if desired, plus coffee and petit fours.
Our waiters were very friendly and obliging and did not try to hurry us away from the table even when we were getting perilously close to the time for the second sitting. Our wine waiter was charming and attentive. We did not seek his advice on wines so we do not know how knowledgeable he would have been. He gave good service even though we chose the inexpensive house wines every evening, and did not try to steer us towards more expensive choices. We were on a table of eight, and all our table companions (excellent company) dined in the Alexandria Restaurant every evening so we received no reports of the other venues. Some of them ate in Cafe Bordeaux during the day and seemed to like it.
Virtually everyone seemed happy to adhere to the dress codes in the evening. This extended to most people dressing in black and white on the formal evening of the black and white ball, whether they were going to the ball or not. Most men chose to wear a tie with their jacket on semi-formal evenings, though this was by no means obligatory. And most people managed to find something flowery or parroty to wear on the casual tropical evening, when we were also given garlands on arrival in the dining room. A nice touch, that, and most people chose to wear their garlands for the rest of the evening.
We used the Orangery self-service restaurant every day for breakfast and lunch. The servery areas are not all that well laid out, and obtaining hot food could be a slow affair on account of the lack of decisiveness and dexterity of fellow passengers and a British reluctance to move ahead even when you only wanted something at the far end of the counter - not, of course, P&O's fault. Nevertheless, the food was good and replenishment was very efficient. There was a good range of cold food but it was nearly always the same range of items. Desserts were very British, almost quaintly so with trifle, jelly and a good stick-to-your-ribs hot sweet like spotted dick or rhubarb crumble, though gateaux and cheesecakes were also available. The picture was not as good at the drinks station, where they were constantly running out of cups, tumblers or spoons, sometimes even hot water, and at breakfast time fruit juices often ran out. Cutlery and napkins could take a bit of finding at times too. In common with most ships, the fruit juices are made up from concentrates and are pretty awful, spoiling an otherwise good food experience. We were disapponted that there was not even a basic still soft drink like lemon squash available on tap; in fact after noon, water was the only cold drink that was available without additional payment to the ever-present and over-attentive drinks waiters.
Food was available in the Orangery throughout the day, though strangely not for midnight snacks, which were waiter-served in Cafe Bordeaux.
There was a galley walk-through on one afternoon, along with a chocoholics' buffet which was very good and very popular.
ACTIVITIES There seemed to be a reasonable range of activities available for the adult passengers, ranging from the deck sports mentioned above to computing and craft classes. We spent part of most sea days at talks given by a very amusing archaeologist and a former RAF Officer and at port presentations, which although mainly concerned with selling shore excursions also gave some information for people wishing to sightsee independently.
Although we weren't travelling with children and therefore had no first-hand experience of the children's activities, I have to say that the youth staff seemed to make an excellent job of keeping the many children and teenagers on board amused and occupied. Our cruise took place during the first two weeks of the English school holidays, and seeing the number of children boarding at Southampton I feared that the cruise would be less than restful for adults, but the children were kept so well entertained that irritation was limited to a small number of occasions when teens got a little bit intrusive late on a couple of evenings. If you used the aft decks the noise level could get a bit high, but only for relatively short periods in the day and usually with the happy and amusing sounds of a member of the youth staff being ducked in the pool by his charges. Activities were generally divided into three age groups so the littlies weren't vulnerable to being bowled over by the larger children.
SERVICE As already mentioned, we had good service from our cabin stewardess and table and wine waiters. Bar service was reasonably good but constant enquiries whether you would like a drnk were very wearing, with up to three requests by different waiters in a five minute period. Officers and staff appeared relaxed and friendly, which of course helped the passengers to relax too.
ENTERTAINMENT The highlight of the entertainment was the Headliners Theatre Company. On other cruises we have been mystified at the limited use made of the resident song-and-dance troupe, but on Aurora they performed 50-60 minute shows roughly every other night, each show following a theme like Musicals, Abba, Queen or Las Vegas. There weren't any star performers in the group, but they were all good, well-rehearsed and worked their socks off. Their shows were all well produced. They also performed at a very enjoyable al fresco party on the upper decks on one evening. Other entertainers appeared in the theatre and were of a reasonably good standard, with an emphasis on comedy-and-music acts.
There was one female singer whose appearances were delayed owing to illness; when she did appear her voice was obviously not back to full power but she was still quite good. A classical pianist gave a few recitals. The ship's orchestra was superb, supporting both the Headliners and the visiting performers magnificently. Other bands and individual musicians played in the bars and lounges throughout the ship, and were all good though not outstanding. The disco didn't appear to get very busy, except when quizzes were being held there.
A talent show was held on the last evening of the cruise, and some of the passengers taking part were very good. More importantly, none of them were cringe-worthy as can sometimes be the case. Passenger acts were supplemented by turns by crew and entertainment staff.
PORTS AND SHORE EXCURSIONS The ship called at Malaga, Dubrovnik, Venice (two days), Split, Corfu and Cadiz. The voyage was symmetrical, with two sea days and a day in a Spanish port and then a further two sea days to reach the Adriatic, and the same on the homeward journey. Once we had reached the Adriatic we had five shore days on the trot, all in good places that were well worth visiting, but very tiring. We were very lucky with the weather, which had been alternating between 40-degree scorchers and thundery rain, but we had sun and temperatures in the upper 20s and lower 30s throughout. The selection of shore excursions on offer was good, giving opportunities for scenic, historical, beach, activity or entertainment outings. We like to explore independently where it is sensible to do so and we do quite a bit of research on the internet before we set off, investigating opening times and prices and local public transport services. This was important on this occasion to avoid disappointment, especially for our Monday calls at Malaga and Corfu and our Sunday call at Split.
MALAGA With the Alcazaba, the Picasso Museum and the Botanical Gardens all being closed on Mondays, we decided to go on a ship's tour. The classic tour from Malaga is to Granada, but we were put off by the two-hour journey each way so we opted for a more modest but still very enjoyable trip to the town and caves of Nerja, on the coast about an hour's drive east from Malaga, which has the advantage of being in the opposite direction to Torremolinos. Malaga is a pleasant enough city for a day's local sightseeing and shopping, but we had already done this on a previous cruise. There is a hop-on hop-off bus service covering all the major attractions, but most of these are within walking distance of the port and each other so we do not think we would want to spend 15 Euros each on the fare. For a good low-cost excursion, take a number 35 bus from near the port (fare 1.10 Euros) to the outstanding viewpoint of the Gibralfaro, then walk back down to the Alcazaba through pleasant parkland. The cruise quay is rather a long way from the port entrance, so a free shuttle bus is usually provided.
DUBROVNIK This was our first time in Dubrovnik, so there was only one thing to do, take a walk through the walled Old City. We prefer to do this kind of thing at our own pace so we didn't consider a ship's tour. Most ships come in to the port area of Gruz, two kilometres from the Old City. Our port presenter had not let on that P&O were going to lay on shuttle buses, and had in fact advised us to take local buses 1A or 1B to Pile, the end of the Old City nearest to Gruz. Having done this, we were somewhat surprised to see P&O shuttle buses when we were on our way back, but by then we had already bought our bus tickets. Our own fault - we should have checked the ship's newspaper for last-minute information - and hardly serious, with bus tickets at just 8 Kuna each (just under £1). It's quite fun getting the local sights, sounds (and smells) on the local bus anyway. The Old City is just amazing, with all its old pale stone buildings. Shopping, eating and drinking are all good, though not particularly cheap. The must-do activity is the walk around the city walls, which are still complete. The circuit is almost two kilometres round and there are limited opportunities for getting on and off. A fee is payable. To avoid over-exerting ourselves in the mid-day sun we did the wall walk as soon as we arrived, starting at the north-east entry point to get the uphill bit of the walk over first. You are only allowed to do the walk in an anti-clockwise direction, and there are some pretty big drops in places. I am not very good with heights and there were a few places where I had to look straight ahead along the path to avoid panic, but there are parapets all the way round and the fantastic views are worth a few moments of anxiety. There is an attractive old port at the eastern edge of the Old City with excursion boats coming and going all the time.
VENICE Venice in the flesh is just like the Venice you see on the tourist posters. It does not disappoint. Yes, it is hot, heaving with people and very tiring, but it's worth it. When the hubbub of St Mark's Square or the Rialto gets too much there are quieter backwaters to explore. Our ship had many tours on offer, all involving water transport from the ship's dock, and a boat shuttle to St Mark's Square costing £7 each way. This seemed a bit expensive but it was very convenient and didn't compare too badly with the single fare of 6.50 Euros on the local water buses (the vaporetti), especially considering that the walk to the nearest vaporetto stop was quite long and best avoided by using the limited free shuttle bus provided by P&O. With two days to explore the city, we had bought 36-hour passes for the vaporetti on the internet for 19.55 Euros and made very good use of them, making seven journeys which would have cost 45.50 Euros at single fares and involved a lot of queueing at ticket booths. We visited St Mark's Basilica and a few other churches, but didn't go inside the Doge's Palace on this trip. We had been advised that the best viewpoint was the top of the belltower on the island of San Giorgio, but you are just as high on the top deck of your cruise ship as you sail in past the end of the Grand Canal, so we didn't bother with that. The few bridges that cross the Grand Canal also make great viewpoints, especially the Rialto and Accademia Bridges.
SPLIT Split is a tender port on most cruise visits and was reached by tender from Aurora, though Royal Caribbean's Splendour of the Seas was at the quayside the day we were there. Tenders drop you within easy walking distance of the old town, built inside a Roman Emperor's palace. If you've had enough of old cities then the Marjan country park is also within (longish) walking distance. We elected for a ship's tour, which started with a short walking tour of the old part of Split then took us by coach to Trogir, a small and very old city occupying a small island sandwiched between the mainland and the larger island of Ciovo. On the way we called at a restaurant in a converted water mill for a snack of bread, cheese, cold meat and local wine. Our free time in Trogir was shortened partly by having a very loquacious tour guide and partly because the walking tour of Split had taken longer than it should have because our party included some people with very limited mobility, despite the tour being clearly advertised as involving a high level of physical activity. All the same, it was an enjoyable tour. Although our visit was on a Sunday a large number of souvenir stalls were in evidence in Split along with a local market.
CORFU Our research had revealed that many of the visitor attractions in Corfu Town would be closed for our Monday visit, though the town was very busy with shoppers and sightseers. There were three cruise ships in town that day, and only two cruise berths, so we ended up being tendered in from Aurora. The sea was calm and the tendering process seemed efficient so this wasn't too much of a problem for us, though people with mobility problems who had expected the ship to be docked might have seen it differently. The cruise terminal is a bit too far from the centre of Corfu Town for most people to walk, so P&O provided a free shuttle bus, though only a few days earlier they had been unsure whether their local agent would manage to arrange this. We did not think there would be enough to do in Corfu Town for us to want to spend a full day there, so we went on a morning tour entitled "Leisurely Corfu" which visited the pretty west coast resort of Paleokastritsa, with stops at the village of Lakones whose elevated position gives good coastal views and at a distillery producing orange liqueur. Our route back to Corfu Town took us high into the hills separating the northern and central parts of Corfu, with panoramic views of both. Corfu Town was very hot so after a quick look around the shops we returned to the ship fairly early.
CADIZ Our call at Cadiz was in some ways similar to our earlier call at Malaga, in that there is one classic tour, in this case to Seville, but the one and a half hour journey each way deterred us from trying it and we settled for the more leisurely "Mountain Villages" excursion to Vejer de la Frontera, one of the prettiest of the Andalucian "white villages". We continued down to the coast to see Cape Trafalgar and visited the pleasant seaside resort of Conil where we had an hour's free time, which we used to enjoy a proper Spanish lunch. We didn't have much time to explore Cadiz after our return, even though the ship's position in the harbour made it only a short walk to the city centre. Those who had stayed in the city for the whole day said that it was pleasant enough but we hadn't really missed much.
DISEMBARKATION We were told that we could leave our luggage outside our cabins any time on the day before disembarkation, which meant that the clutter in the corridors was not as bad as usual just before bedtime. The blow of an early rising was softened by the clocks going back an hour that night, so the late finishing time of the talent show was not a problem. Our disembarkation at Southampton was the most relaxed and pleasant we have ever encountered. Restaurants on the ship remained open long enough for a leisurely breakfast and we had been told that we didn't have to vacate our cabins early. We chose to leave ours some time before our allotted disembarkation time anyway and went with our overnight bag to the Crows Nest which was almost empty. Someone told us that things were quiet enough at the gangway that the crew were not insisting on people waiting for their time slot so we disembarked earlier than expected. Luggage collection and our return to our car were smooth and easy, and we drove away fresh and unfrazzled, a continuation of the relaxed feel that had been a feature of the whole cruise.
SUMMARY Aurora was better than we had expected. She is not an exciting ship, but she and her crew are set up to give a comfortable and relaxed holiday, with facilities that make the cruise enjoyable whether you choose to be active or to do as little as possible. She is very British and makes few concessions to the tastes of people based elsewhere. On our cruise, with 1921 of the 1935 passengers being from Great Britain or Ireland, this was clearly no great problem. This was our first cruise with P&O, and whilst I don't think we will become as attached to P&O cruising as many Brits clearly are, we would be quite happy to cruise with them again given the right itinerary on the right dates.