Let me start by saying that despite the "Comedy of Errors", overall the cruise was very enjoyable and being able to travel to the Caribbean and back from Southampton is very relaxing - no airports - no long flights and no jet lag.
There were however many areas where P&O need to improve.
Checking in at Southampton was fairly straightforward. Those with "Gold" status looking forward to their priority check-in were disappointed if they arrived early. Their large numbers meant they had to wait in a long queue.
It was immediately obvious that the ease with which one could travel to and from the Caribbean over Christmas and the New Year, attracts those with disabilities, or of an age where flying is no longer an option. The number of passengers in wheelchairs, scooters, or with walking frames was a sight to behold and at times the ship did resemble a floating care home.
Before those of us, who are still relatively mobile, moan about these people getting in our way, we should remember that if we live long enough, we will all eventually reach this stage in our lives. It must also be remembered that every one of us, however fit we may be, however young we may be, could be in a wheelchair tomorrow, through no fault of our own. Just because a disability affects someone's mobility does not necessarily mean it has affected their brain and intellect. They are still entitled to enjoy holidays.
Once on board we were advised that the cabins would be ready by 14:00. In the meantime, lunch was available in the Orangery. All fairly civilised, with only few who wanted to push and shove, in case the food ran out - which it did not.
CABIN. Our cabin was ready early. This being our third time on Aurora, we were pleased to see that the cabin furnishings remained in very good condition with little sign of wear. Two large wardrobes are provided, plus three chests of drawers. The beds have relatively soft, comfortable mattresses. If used as two singles as opposed to a double, they are very narrow and looking at the size of some of the grossly overweight passengers (sorry, but they were), they may have found them much too small. Fairly narrow duvets are provided, but there are soft cotton duvet covers and sheets. The duvets are also very short. Anyone over 5' 8" tall would find them much too short. The small foam filled pillows will not be to everyone's liking.
The shower room (we had an inside cabin) was also in good decorative order. There was always a constant supply of hot water. The thermostatic shower was not very efficient at maintaining the water temperature, which tended to fluctuate.
The shower did not drain away quickly enough and tended to flood the rest of the floor. We mentioned this and it was cured within a few days. After a week the drains started to smell and despite them being inspected and regular drain cleaner being poured down them, they continued to emit an unpleasant smell. We have had other types of cabin on different decks in the past and the drains always seem to be a problem.
Good quality, generously sized towels are provided. The White Company bath and shower gel is provided, together with shampoo and conditioner.
There is a hair dryer at the dressing table. As with other ships and many hotels, they do not provide even one light bright enough for shaving or applying makeup.
There was a personal letter in the cabin addressed to us saying we should attend the Safety Meeting.
ERROR 1. The letter stated we should go to Muster Station "A", the Curzon Theatre at 16:00. I thought this strange, as in "Horizon", the daily sheet, it stated the Safety Meeting was at 16:45. I telephoned Reception and queried the time and explained the discrepancy. I was assured that 16:00 was the correct time. I also queried the Muster Station, as the sticker on the cabin door said our Muster Station was "B" and "B" was marked on our lifejackets. I was told we must go to Muster Station "A" at 16:00.
We duly sat in the Curzon Theatre at 16:00, with about 10 other passengers, who had also been told to be there at 16:00. Everyone else, including the crew, turned up at 16:45!! We were also told we were in the wrong Muster Station, even when we showed them the letter!!
The original cruise itinerary and final itinerary, sent just prior to the cruise, stated we would spend the afternoon of Monday 20th December and the whole of the following day, in Madeira.
ERROR 2. We did not arrive in Madeira until the Monday evening. I asked the Captain about this change of itinerary and he said that as far as he was concerned it was always the intention to arrive in the evening. He pointed out that it was impossible to do otherwise, as Oriana was scheduled to be on our berth and would not leave until Monday evening.
In other words, P&O were fully aware that we would not arrive until the evening, but did not feel it necessary to advise the passengers of the change to the printed itinerary.
Shuttle buses were provided to take us the short distance into the town. The day was spoilt by frequent heavy rain showers, but this cannot be blamed on P&O.
ERROR 3. We were provided with a printed "Cruise Overview" listing where we would be each day and the main items of entertainment each day.
This publication showed us to be in Madeira on Monday 20th December and at sea on the 21st (as did the chart displayed next to the Crows Nest), the day we were actually in Madeira.
The days in the "Cruise Overview" jumped from Thursday 30th December to Saturday 31st December, which was in fact a Friday. From then on the days of the week were incorrect.
I did mention the inaccuracies to the Cruise Director. Her reply was "Oh, no one (other members of the crew) has mentioned it to me" - probably because it is a common problem and they saw nothing unusual.
ERROR 4. The Horizon daily sheet often had glaring mistakes. For instance, we had one headed Wednesday 22nd December followed the next day by Wednesday 23rd December. The film listed as being shown in the cinema was sometimes different from the one advertised outside the cinema.
By this stage I am sure you may think I am nit picking and being pedantic, but when you are on a ship, particularly with many days at sea, it can all become a blur and you lose track of the day of week. It would be helpful if the ships publications can at least get the information right.
BARBADOS. Of the 6 ships docked in Barbados, 5 were in the cruise terminal and we were in the commercial flour mill dock. Shuttle buses were provided, but these took us to the cruise terminal, not the town, which was about a mile away.
ERROR 5. We had watched the Port Talk and heard about the good shopping and how the sales would have started. What we were not told, is that it was a public holiday and all the shops were closed, as were most of the bars and cafes. We were also recommended to visit the large craft centre. This was also closed. Had P&O not changed the itinerary a few weeks prior to departure, we would have been in Barbados on New Years Eve, when the shops would be open.
ST LUCIA. Instead of being docked in the town, we were docked across the harbour. A very pleasant terminal, but a walk of about a mile to the town, with no shuttle bus provided.
P&O had issued a Press Release:-
"P&O Cruises passengers will have free of charge shuttle buses provided in ports of call where it is not possible to walk into town from Monday November 1, 2010.
P&O Cruises managing director, Carol Marlow, said: "Where possible our ships will dock at the heart of the destination so passengers can explore on foot but when this is not possible we want to make it as easy as we can for our passengers to make the most of their time ashore."
When I mentioned this press release I was told "P&O liked to support the local businesses" and the policy did not apply to the Caribbean. No such caveat was stated in the Press Release. If they like to support local businesses, they should pay for the shuttle buses, not expect us to pay for a taxi.
ST MAARTEN. We docked in the cruise terminal in St Maarten which is well over a mile from the town and no shuttle buses were provided. As the weather was overcast with very heavy rain showers all day, a walk into town was out of the question.
ST KITTS. Heavy rain showers continued in St Kitts, but we docked in the terminal which was directly adjacent to the town with good access.
ANTIGUA. Again, docked in the cruise terminal adjacent to the town with good access. Warm sun all day and a good end to our Caribbean island visits.
AZORES. Docked in the cruise terminal adjacent to the town, with good access.
SOUTHAMPTON. How nice to be able to stay in your cabin until 10am, enabling you to have a relaxed breakfast in the Medina restaurant. Well done P&O.
Once you are off the ship in the Mayflower Terminal, you descend into disorganised chaos. Firstly there is only one small lift for all those elderly and disabled passengers to get to ground level. As a result there is a very long queue. One elderly man in front of me was too impatient to wait for the lift and went down the escalator, only to fall near the bottom. As a result the escalator was turned off, delaying the rest of us while it was reset and started again.
Then there are the porters. They do not consider they should queue up to exit the terminal, but push in at the head of the queue, thus delaying other passengers. Chaos outside, because taxis are blocking all the lanes, preventing others from driving away. Never mind, it still beats airports!!
AURORA DINING. Aurora still has traditional "Club Dining" with silver service. Two sittings, at 6.30pm and 8.30pm. Although the standard on the food has declined over the years, there was always a very good choice at dinner, with a selection of starters, soups and different meat and fish main courses, plus a vegetarian option, followed by a variety of desserts, plus ice creams.
A selection of cheeses was also available. A rather strange dish was always offered after the coffee, such a welsh rarebit or sardines. A strange way to finish a meal. We asked our waiter, from whom we received very good service, if anyone ever ordered this additional dish. "Not yet!" was the reply.
So, overall, fairly good food on offer, but certainly not fine dining.
The alternative dining in the evening was in the Pennant Grill or Cafe Bordeaux, where a small charge applied. £8,50 or thereabouts, I believe, plus supplements for some dishes. Also available was a themed buffet in the Orangery each night. As we found the food and company on our table more than acceptable, we did not eat elsewhere.
During the day Cafe Bordeaux is open for a limited breakfast service, a limited lunch menu and also through the night. There is no charge at these times. We found the standard of the food at lunchtime was not as good as in previous years. As a result we tended to eat in the Medina restaurant at lunchtime, where there was always a good section on the menu. We found that on many occasions the standard of the food was better than in the evenings, perhaps due to greater care being taken with a smaller number of diners.
We also ate breakfast in the Medina restaurant, where a varied selection of food was available, generally of good quality. The service was often very slow.
Tea in Medina was also an occasional treat.
At the Orangery, buffet breakfast, lunch and tea was available. At busy times seating space was very limited. There was also the Sidewalk cafe which served the likes of burgers, fish and chips and sandwiches during the day.
DRINKS. The prices charged for the drinks were very reasonable and far less than on other cruise lines. In addition, no service charge is added. For instance, bottles of wine were available from around £12.00. Cocktails from £2.95.
HYGENE. After previous outbreaks of Norovirus on Aurora, it was good to see you were "invited" to use the hand gel when entering the main restaurants. This worked well, with the normal offenders not able to avoid the restaurant staff holding gel dispensers.
The weak link, as usual, was the Orangery. There were gel dispensers at each entrance but there were always those who ignored them. These are probably the same passengers seen leaving the ladies and gents toilets without washing their hands!! When these same people have used the tongs and spoons to serve their food in front of you, the whole system fails. On the occasions that we ate in the Orangery, we would use our own supply of hand gel after serving ourselves. As a result we did not suffer even the mildest stomach upset during the whole cruise.
CONCLUSIONS. As I said at the outset, overall a very enjoyable cruise. However it would have been so much better if P&O did not adopt such a cavalier attitude towards their passengers. Once they have your money, they do not feel obliged to keep you advised of any changes. They seem to treat you like naughty school children, who must do as they are told without answering back or questioning the actions of the staff.
There does seem to be a total lack of communication on board and any question put to the staff at Reception are answered with a blank look, or a standard reply, which even you know to be totally untrue. You soon realise it is a total waste of time to queue up to ask any questions.
I have listed here some of the main errors I noticed, I am sure there were many more.
If you were cruising on one of the budget priced ships, you would not be surprised if the organisation lacked professionalism, but from a company such as P&O you expect much more.