First off, a bit of background. I was celebrating my 40th whilst onboard, and although both myself and my partner have cruised before we have never been with P&O. Previous cruises have all been on Royal Caribbean out of USA to the Caribbean and Mexican Riviera. We have sailed on Freedom, Mariner and Oasis so Azura was going to be the smallest ship we had ever sailed. Undoubtedly, because of this, comparisons were made against RCI throughout. I also should say that we totally love RCI and were trying P&O just to see what an alternative line would offer. We knew there would be differences but we did book the holiday with an open mind.
Flights - we were flying from Manchester with Thomas Cook and had pre-booked our seats (1A & 1B) in Premium. I was a little concerned about the weight restrictions and size of cabin luggage but careful packing meant we were just about OK. Personally I do find the 23kg a little restrictive and the ability to purchase more would be a welcome addition. There were a few initial problems at check-in as the plane had been changed and so the booked seats had not been transferred over. This meant we now had people sat in the booked seats. It did get resolved, but there were a few irate customers at the airport who were now being moved to less desirable locations and being split up. There were also a few customers who did not realise you could pre-book seats and they were also less than happy. Not sure if the fault for that should lay with P&O directly or the TA's they had booked through.
The flight itself was excellent - food just OK but the crew were fab - really friendly and helpful. Also helped having row 1A & B as it meant we had loads of room.
When we landed I did recognise one thing that goes in P&O's favour - bussed straight to the ship with no bother about reclaiming luggage. This was done very quick and we were onboard by 2.30pm.
First stop was to book the Retreat and speciality restaurants. I did think that you could do both in the Atrium, but the Retreat could only be done at the Spa so off we went and managed to get 2 sea days at a cost of £20 each. Back down to the Atrium where we booked Sindhu, XVII and the Supper Club (held in the Glass House) - we only knew about this by reading the forums although Nestor, the Glass House Manager did also mention it to us as he was dealing with the restaurant bookings. We managed to get the nights and times we wanted, although it was quite difficult to discuss the booking as a steel band was playing right next to us, so you did have to shout to try and get any communication going. I did also wonder how people on later flights and Saturday flights would fare - we were OK as we were the first flight in and one of the first people onboard.
Next was a visit to the cabin to drop off hand luggage. Again, we had spent quite a bit of time choosing our cabin and had decided on a Superior Deluxe on deck 9 - we went for D732 which was the very last cabin on the port side. This meant we had the extended balcony which was contained within the white superstructure of the ship. First impressions were very good - great size of both cabin and balcony and a good layout. We have had deluxe balconies and grand suites on RCI and this is definitely better than a standard deluxe balcony - probably equivalent to a Junior Suite. It was also good to see the tea and coffee facilities - and once we met our Cabin Steward Manish we placed our order for a bottle of Gin. Again, we only managed to do this as we already knew about it as there was no information in the cabin about this, or on the interactive TV. I think the TV did get updated with the information a day or two later. As it was we ordered without actually knowing the price as Manish had no clue either although we had a rough idea it would be around £11. Also another bonus was the ability to bring alcohol onboard. As it was my birthday we had bought a couple of bottle of Veuve Clicquot Rose with us, as we knew we couldn't buy it on board. To be fair, they did have yellow label at a very reasonable price - as was all the alcohol and drinks onboard.
We then had our first wander and this is where I have to say I was a bit disappointed - although it is a new ship it did feel rather dated in its dEcor and design, with none of the wow factor that the RCI ships have. The layout was difficult to navigate, and I wasn't that keen on having to go through one venue to get to another. There was a lift broken (which never got repaired) and although we did try to use the stairs as much as possible, when we did need to use the lifts there was inevitable a long wait. I was most disappointed with the public bathrooms - they did remind me of those found on a public ferry and the bins were constantly overflowing with paper towels etc. They were also quite hard to find, and when they were being cleaned it was always at the most inappropriate times eg outside the MDR during dinner or outside Manhatten just after a show - there seemed to be no thought about the best times to close them, and this often meant a long search to find one that was useable.
Food - first night was open seating but from then on we were assigned a table of 8, late dining in the Oriental. I have to say we had wonderful table mates that really made the cruise for us, which was a good job as we didn't have a good time of it with the dinner itself. Our waiter seemed to be quite new and didn't have a clue. On some nights it did look as if he was trying, but on others he was just surly with a bit of an attitude. I did mention on the first night my love of vegetables, especially broccoli and I would be extremely grateful if he could try and get me some most if not all nights - this never happened even if it was on a particular meal which I hadn't ordered. I did try and request this again but just seemed to be going no-where. The food most nights was warm at best, and one night we just refused to eat it and it all got sent back. The replacement was not much better. We were constantly the last to be served, and have a feeling this may have gone towards receiving lukewarm food most nights. We did complain the maitre d' quite a few occasions, but again he seemed just so disinterested! I would have thought he would come back to our table to see how we were getting on, but this never happened either.
One night my partner and another diner ordered the Pigeon off the menu. After waiting for our main courses for over 10 mins the waiter came over to tell my partner (but not the other diner) that they had 'run out' so would he choose something else. We all laughed saying that my partner had lucked out and the other diner had got the last of the Pigeon. As it turned out, the other diner got nothing - he had been forgotten about and had to re-order as we were all eating.
One night I did actually get my plate of broccoli but it was stone cold - having asked for it to be replaced I was given another stone cold serving. This was passed round the table for everyone to feel, including the waiter. He took it way, eventually bringing back THE SAME SERVING we had all touched saying he had put it in the microwave for 5 minutes!!!!!!!!!!!! Not the type of service expected within a main Dining Room aboard a modern cruise ship!
I did enjoy looking on the interactive TV to see that evening menu's but invariable found it had slightly changed once we got to the dining room which was annoying. Example, 3rd formal night was meant to be a fish plate to include lobster tail, prawns etc. When I saw the actual menu it was prawns and cod. When I queried this with the waiter I was told the lobster had all gone, but the prawns were just as good..... Sorry but I know which I prefer...........
I also got food dropped down me on the last formal night by our waiter - very nice! No dry cleaning on board either. I did get offered £20 credit against dry cleaning when I got home, but if the dress was ruined and the stains wouldn't come out then P&O take no responsibility and I would have to claim against my own insurance. This was said to me after I went to see guest services - bear in mind I initially mentioned it to them at 9am the next day, and after going back repeatedly I was only told this at 7pm. They were supposed to get back to me during the day but had 'forgotten'!!!!!!!!!
Back to the Dining Room food - apart from the terrible service we received I would say the menus were very hit and miss. I realise that it has a very British theme, and some meals were very good, but some were plain awful. The Beef Wellington was wonderful whereas I have had better battered fish from a frozen Birds Eye packet! No one had a clue what type of fish it was - the TV said haddock, the menu said Perch. Even the waiter didn't have a clue (surprise, surprise) and just said 'fish is fish - does it matter!'
The portions were small, which personally I don't find to be a bad thing, and you could request more. The vegetables and potatoes however only ever seemed to 'go' with one of the meals on offer that night, and some combinations seemed very odd. My partner also found the choices very limited compared to RCI, although I didn't find it too bad and could always find something I thought I would like.
So how about the buffet........... I'm afraid to say this was even worse in our eyes and we tried not to go as much as possible, both for lunch and breakfast.
The layout of the venues was awful, and it was just always busy. The serving stations were small with such limited choice - I couldn't believe the same hot meals being served in the dining room were also being served in the buffet - I would have expected the choices to have been different. I also didn't like the recycling of food - coq au vin for dinner and then back on the next days lunch menu. This happened a few times!
Personally I do try to eat healthy so the poolside grill serving pizzas, burgers etc wasn't really an option, although I did find out they did baked potatoes, beans and cheese which I liked.
Maybe I wouldn't have minded the buffet choices so much if I hadn't been so spoilt on RCI. They always had so much choice with carveries every day, amazing salad selections, pasta etc....... I also found the ability to move around in RCI's Windjammer just so much easier than having to queue and wait with your tray on P&O.
It was the little things that annoyed me, like not replenishing sauces and rolls etc, or not even having bowls and spoons next to the porridge, so I would have to go right back to the entrance to pick these up.
One time I did ask where I could find some tomato ketchup - I was shown where the correct location was but they had run out. When I asked could they get me some the assistant actually sighed at me like I was putting her out!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I guess this sort of sums up the attitude I found most of the crew to have - just 'can't be bothered'. Having been used to RCI and the 'nothing is too much trouble' / 'can do' attitude I found this severely lacking on P&O, especially with the dining staff. There was no interaction, and when we did try to interact and have a chat or a laugh with someone we were just met with blank stares!
An example being that I needed a plastic glass from one of the deck bars for some water. I went up and asked if I could take one and I was told no. When I asked why, and told them what I wanted it for I was told they didn't have many and they were only for beer anyway!!!!!!! The guy then just turned away - how rude!
Anyway, on a more positive note the 'pay for' dining experiences were fabulous.
The Glass House itself was a great place to go, and probably our favourite on the whole ship. It was really nice to be able to get such a variety of wines by the glass, and they even had these miniature glasses so you could try a small amount of each wine for free. The staff serving here were lovely and so friendly, especially Nestor the manager who was fabulous.
We did try the tasting plates (3 for £4.95) which were great - everyone seemed to the love the prawns but for me the best was the bean and chorizo cassoulet.
We also did the supper club here one night (its only held on a formal night) and the meal was outstanding with each course matched with a wine. Before the evening Nestor made sure we were happy with the set menu, and on the evening was very entertaining, giving us a commentary on the food and wine we were having.
We also dined in XVII (on my birthday) and this was just amazing. Everything from the food to the service couldn't be faulted and Tony had even arranged for a bottle of champagne to be presented to me by and officer, and a cake to be delivered to the table. Wonderful experience, not to be missed.
The final dining option was Sindhu, which again we tried for an evening meal and the tasting plates during the day. Both meals were superb although we did have long waits inbetween courses during the evening meal. Again talking to other passengers this did seem to be the norm, and for some it did actually spoilt the experience. Thankfully not for us.
I should also mention here that the alternative dining options booked up extremely fast, and many people were left not being able to get in anywhere. If you want to try them - book as soon as you board as you may be left disappointed!
So now onto the Retreat which was another aspect of the ship I was really looking forward to. Unfortunately I was again left quite disappointed. We had booked sea days and I knew from reading various forums that you had to get their early to get a lounger in the sun. Well people started to get there and queue from about 8.30am and I saw on both occasions people getting quite angry as they couldn't get a bed in the sun. There are just over 50 spaces in total and I would say that 75% are in the sun, the rest in the shade.
On our first visit we were given a booklet which explained the 'use' of the Retreat and loungers. Now one of the first things the booklet stated was that you could get breakfast and lunch within the Retreat. Breakfast was served from 9am - 10.30am and on both visits we never did get offered anything. When I did query this I was told it is up to the guest to request it from one of the 2 stewards, not the other way round.
Lunch again was a bit of a strange one. From about 12pm I saw the stewards wandering round asking certain people what they would like to order - there seemed no system to who they were asking. Even though we were one of the first people in the retreat I had to call the Steward over about 1pm to ask what was happening with lunch. I was told he would be back in the next 20 mins (it was more like 45) and then lunch would take another 20 mins as they were so busy. I think the problem is that they only have 3 or 4 tables to serve lunch from (that only seat 4), for all 50+ passengers. The 2nd time we did say we were happy to eat at our lounger but it was still a wait. You wouldn't mind but they were only serving wraps and fries (and only one bowl of fries per couple, as apparently fries are classed as a complete meal so it should only be a wrap OR fries!!!!!!!!)
Another issue I had was although this was meant to be a 'quiet' area we had quite a large group near us who got quite boisterous - it would have been good if the stewards had dealt with it themselves. As it was, I got chatting to this (actually very nice) group, who had actually booked every day of the whole cruise at a discounted rate. This wouldn't have bothered me that much but we knew plenty of people who had wanted to book into the Retreat but it was fully booked. This group also seemed to be able to add 'friends' at a last minute notice, and certainly received preferential treatment. This included having their towels laid out in prime positions (as we realised on our 2nd visit) by the stewards before the Retreat was open to anyone else!
The retreat itself was very nice, although the Lavender smell must have long gone. I never saw anyone having treatments, and no-one ever came round offering them. The loungers were very comfy, although the towels were looking very sorry for themselves considering how long the ship has been in service - stained and fraying. It was great having use of the pool and 2 hot tubs but I do have to question the whole concept of the Retreat. On sea days it was absolutely jam packed out on deck, and times it was hard to get from A to B. A wheelchair user I befriended said it was nigh on impossible moving round on deck on a sea day and I can understand why.
So, what other views have I got on Azura and P&O........... Well I thought the laundry was excellent - much better than having to rely on RCI to do your pressing and washing. I also enjoyed the varied ports and the cruise did seem more port intensive than RCI.
More importantly, even though I love cruising with an international passenger list, I found the all British pax wonderful. We met some fabulous people, and even though we had quite a few gripes we did have a wonderful time and met some lovely people.
Now I know that everyone has their own opinions on a cruise and you may think that it was only us that found Azura to have a few problems, but we did speak to many, many other passengers and the general consensus was that it just wasn't up to scratch. On the last morning we went to the main dining room for breakfast. During our meal the captain came over the PA system to wish us all a good flight home, and to say how pleased he was to receive so many 'excellent' feedback forms. Everyone around us either started to roll their eyes or commented on how it wasn't them who had submitted that form................