Background - family of 6 - me & hubby late 30's early 40's, 3 kids, aged 10, 7 & 7 plus 79-year-old mother-in-law on her first cruise. 5 of us have been on 2 previous Caribbean cruises out of the US with RCI in 2009 and 2010.
Flights -Sat. 5th Feb, got to Gatwick at 6.00 am just after check-in opened- long check-in queue 45 minutes wait. Gate opened at 8 am, 10-15 minute walk to gate - got there & walked straight onto the plane. Airbus 330 - 3x3x3 seat configuration and we had pre-booked our seats. Headphones were free - good choice of entertainment throughout - we only had non-alcoholic drinks but they were free and good size cans/bottles - wine with the meal was free, can't comment on other alcoholic drinks. Meal served approx 2 hours into flight - as good as BA/Virgin in my opinion, small ice cream mid-flight then sandwiches & a scone before landing.
Landed at 2.40 pm Barbados time - walked straight off the plane onto the bus and then had a 45-minute journey to the port.
Check in - approx 30 minutes very quick and painless compared to some RCI check-ins in the US so we were on the boat by 3.15 pm.
Cabin - we had two cabins D332 superior deluxe balcony and D318 inside cabin. D332 was lovely very spacious, good size bathroom with bath and shower, box of chocolates and bottle of champagne in the fridge, we were overlooked by the decks above but that was never a problem for us. The inside cabin D318 seemed quite spacious and I never heard my mother-in-law complain about anything. We had the same cabin steward for both cabins Amelita who was great and looked after us very well and we even had towel animals on two of the formal nights! We did get one bowl of fruit and two lots of canapEs as well.
MDR - Freedom dining in the Meridian Restaurant on Deck 5 - 6 of us so we had a table on our own every evening, so impressed with the service we got from our Waiter Cyprian and Assistant Waiter Regan on the first night we asked for a table in their area every evening. Lots of variety and choice and alternatives were always available. We were offered the kid's menu on the first night but declined and never used it at all. Nothing was too much trouble and we felt that the food was better than RCI and the service was as friendly and possibly more efficient. The portions were bigger not just because there were more courses but because you were served additional vegetables. My husband is a big eater and often went away from dinner on RCI still hungry but this never happened on Azura. The waiters got to know what we liked and two helpings of a main course were sometimes suggested, including the Beef Wellington, which was one of the best meals we had. We had breakfast in the MDR every morning except one just because the kids wanted to try the buffet but I didn't enjoy it at all - the choice in the MDR was great and you could have as much or little as you wanted and being a party of 6 we always had a table to ourselves.
Venezia -tried the buffet for breakfast once - a good choice but after the luxury of being waited on in the MDR it all seemed too much hassle and difficult to find a table for 6 people. Had trouble finding a big table in Venezia a lot, was frustrating when just 2 people occupied big tables! Lunchtime in the Venezia was nice although there was by no way the amount or quality of choice that there is on RCI for lunch or dinner but it was always fresh and edible. Went here 3 times in the evening - I don't understand the need to theme the evenings, some nights we didn't go because we didn't like the theme whereas on RCI every night there was a choice of salads/English and American hot and cold plus some Indian and oriental dishes so it catered for everyone. We did the "country and western" night and the "best of British" night!
Coral Grill and Pizzeria - great, would've liked this on RCI - choice of burger / cheeseburger / chicken burger / fish goujons / hotdog / jacket potato or baguette with filling of the day - really nice food. Pizzeria was good too as were the ice creams although there was an additional charge for these - lovely but melted faster than we could eat them!
Verona Italian -got a table on our second attempt, you need to be there and queue before it opens at 6.30. We got there at 6.20 and got in the queue but had to go away with a buzzer and were called back 30 minutes later. All the tables weren't full but they allow a certain number of people in and to order and get their starters before they let anyone else in. The service was quite slow and hardly any staff compared to customers - the food was nice but I preferred the MDR.
Costa Coffee - tried this once for a mid afternoon snack we had 4 hot chocolates with marshmallows and an iced cappuccino plus 5 pieces of large chocolate cake and we paid £8.80 which compared to coffee bars in the UK was very reasonable - I know you only pay for the drinks on P&O but even so that works out less than £2 per drink!
Drinks - we were impressed with the choice of drinks on offer at the bars and they were bar far cheaper or in comparison to UK bar prices. We paid £30 for a soda card, which entitled us to 30 large Pepsi/diet Pepsi or lemonade and could be used at the bars and in the MDR and buffet. We did notice that you got a bigger glass by the pool than if you ordered on the soda card in the MDR which was interesting but nevertheless it was still good value for money for the kids.
Pools - this was our main disappointment - when we booked the Terrace Pool in our brochure said it wasn't adult only but by the time we came to sail it was - there was a splash pool near the Terrace Pool for toddlers but our main niggle was the depth of the two main pools which were 1.8m at the shallow end and 2.2m at the deep end. My 7 year old twin daughters aren't confident swimmers so never went in the pool for the whole 2 weeks and I am only 5ft 3" so even I was on tiptoes so I didn't use it much either. Was expecting a zero level entry pool on a family friendly ship and I did notice a lot of space around the pool, a tiled area with high sides and wondered why they hadn't used this area to extend the pool and make it shallower. However on a rough sea day it became obvious that it was for the access water slopping out of the pool when there was a big swell. On RCI the pools would probably have been closed in these conditions but rightly or wrongly P&O choose to keep the pool open. I did think on a couple of occasions when the kids club had their swim in the Coral Pool that it was a bit dangerous with the amount of swell and movement of the water but I guess kids see no danger and to them it just added to the fun!
Sunloungers -they were very close together which in some respects it was good as we got to know some of our fellow passengers quite quickly but not so nice if you were unlucky with your choice of neighbour. It wasn't that hard to find a seat if you were patient and polite. Despite reminders each morning in horizon the reserving of sunloungers was by far the worst I've ever encountered some people were gone for up to 2 hours and still expected their lounger with no belongings on it but simply the folded over padded cover to still be there's when they got back! On our 3rd day my husband encountered a prime example - some of the loungers had padded covers on but not all of them, we were in Dominica and there were a few light showers, which we found refreshing and stayed sat around the pool. A group of 4 in front of us left, 2 of them left a towel but 2 left nothing. My husband had no cover on his lounger so he got up and took one from a chair with no towel on it. About 20 minutes later all 4 people came back and the man beckoned at my husband - in the manner of a teacher telling off a child to put it back but he said he was keeping it dry for him!
Kids Club - went to register the kids on the 2nd day so that when they wanted to use it the forms had all been completed. The facilities looked great, really fresh and clean with lots to do and the programmes were well thought out and it was nice to have the full 2 week programme on the 1st day rather than each day like RCI - although it appeared that they didn't always stick to the programme. My 7 year old twin daughters spent lots of time in the RCI kids club but 2 of the staff were a bit too pushy in trying to get them to join in when we registered they were totally put off and couldn't be persuaded to go in ever again even when I picked out activities on a sea day that I know they would enjoy. My son spent most of the sea days in the kids club - I didn't find the staff as friendly as I had experienced on RCI, some of them were very nice but on a couple of occasions we dropped my son off in the morning and none of the staff could be bothered to speak to us at all whereas on RCI there was always some sort of conversation. I was also not keen on the male staff member who seemed to be in charge of my sons group - he never spoke and always seemed very loud and arrogant - one day the kids had an open cafe for parents and he spent most of the time being loud above the rest of the kids and then covered his face in ice-cream not a particularly good role model!
Ports of call/Shore Excursions - the main reason we booked the cruise was the number of ports we covered over the 2 weeks and the first day was going to be spent at sea giving us time to unwind and unpack, explore the ship and recover from the 8 hour flight! However P&O changed the order of our ports about 6 weeks prior to our cruise and we lost our 1st day and sea and it was changed so that we had 2 days at sea at the end of the cruise, which wasn't so good. As someone has already said the main theory behind this seems to be that P&O were keen for Azura and Ventura to dock together at our last port Aruba - a big deal was made of this and we left port and waited out in the ocean just off the coast of Aruba to do a sail past with Ventura which was quite a sight but I would've preferred the original itinerary. Luckily we had our day in Barbados at the end of the cruise which helped to perk us up otherwise I think if we had flown home on Friday morning and not had the day in Barbados it would've seemed like a bit of a anti-climax to have 2 days at sea before we flew home!
We booked 3 excursions with P&O -
Tortola - Cane Garden Bay - heard bad reviews about the roads so I'm glad we booked with P&O.
Curacao - trip to Sea Aquarium Beach - wanted the 9.30 trip but it was fully booked so we ended up with the 10.30 slot - 10 minute walk to the beach chairs only to find they had all been taken by the 9.30 slot passengers so then a 5 minute walk back to another area which was a bit frustrating.
Aruba - wanted to take the kids to De Palm Island but for some reason P&O have a minimum age range of 8 on this excursion so we couldn't - they couldn't tell me why but it seemed a bit bizarre so we did the glass bottom boat instead - was ok but I wouldn't do it again.
Seascreen - choice of films throughout was strange wanted more light-hearted possibly family viewing during the day but they showed things like Moulin Rouge and Inception and then kept The Wizard of Oz to show at midnight on "Oscar Night". It didn't really come to life on sea days until 2pm and there was a Wii bowling slot at 4pm everyday but this was not open to children - quite frustrating for the kids onboard having a huge screen by the pool but them not being able to use it! .
Playhouse - the two headliners shows we attended "Reel to Reel" and "Blame it on the Boogie" were excellent and well attended. We also went to the show by Andy Leach who was a magician/comedian some of the material was very funny but some of it was very predictable.
We were also disappointed that some of the parties which would've been suitable for the children like the disco/party by the coral pool on the Caribbean theme night didn't start until 9.45pm by which time my kids were struggling to stay awake!
Immigration and disembarkation - I went along 10 minutes earlier than my time slot to Manhattan for immigration as we had a full day in Barbados planned. I arrived at 8.40 - went straight in and had all six passports stamped and forms checked and was back in the cabin in about 15 minutes! On the last day we had to be out of our cabin by 9.00 we booked a day cabin about 6 cabins down from ours so there was hardly any inconvenience - the day cabin was ready at 10 am we put our hand luggage bags in there and spent some time at the pool. We had a quick early lunch in the Venezia, back to the cabin to freshen up and down to the atrium for 1 pm with our leaving slot allocated as 1.15 pm. We left the ship promptly - for some reason P&O don't let you keep your cruise cards like RCI so my kids were really disappointed, we were at the airport by 2pm. We already had luggage labels so we didn't have to check-in at the airport but merely go through security. This was great as there was no queuing but once you go through security there isn't much to do in the airport and being a Saturday afternoon it was very busy and difficult to get a seat, we didn't board our plane until 3.45 (4.15 take off) so had 1 ½ hours doing nothing.
The flight home was also very good and very quick, we landed 20 minutes early at Gatwick - good choice of entertainment again and food.
Overall impression of Azura - very smart and stylish but for me there was not the WOW factor in any of the public areas like there is on the RCI ships but I guess as long as it's clean and presentable it doesn't really matter much. I didn't feel like I wanted to take photos of the public areas like I did on the RCI ships. For example the MDR was split into 3 separate restaurants so there wasn't quite the same elegant feel as the 3 tier MDR we have experienced on RCI.
Overall - we enjoyed the cruise and loved the ports; the ship was nice but no WOW factor. The staff were amazing and couldn't be faulted - comments had been made about the staff from Goa not being friendly but in my experience they were far nicer than many of the English/European staff on board and every bit as nice if not nicer than staff on RCI. If we ever get chance to cruise again I would like to try Ventura - I think that the efficiency and ease of the P&O embarkation and disembarkation procedures and the fantastic choice of ports far outweigh the little niggles that we had with the pools and the kids club.