A116 - 15th to 22nd July 2011
We booked this cruise following two very enjoyable trips with Princess to the Mediterranean (2009) and Baltics (2010) and thought it would be interesting to write up a review of our trip and include some comparisons between P&O/Princess and the ships themselves (Azura and Grand Princess)
We were asked to arrive at Ocean Terminal no sooner than 1pm for embarkation.
Having not much else to do, and from previous experience, we drew up at the terminal just before 11, where our luggage was offloaded and taken away, swiftly followed by our car courtesy of CPS.
On entering the departure hall, we were given our embarkation cards (E!!. Wonder what time A-D arrived!!!!), completed the health questionnaires and waited. Complimentary magazines seemed to help the hour pass before registration was opened at 12. After a quick credit card registration and photograph we passed security and headed down the gangway
Upon arrival onboard, we were advised that our cabins would not be ready until. 2:30pm but that the buffet was open. This was our first encounter of a difference between P&O and Princess. On our previous cruises, we have always been able to head straight for the cabin even at this early time.
A wander around the ship was made easy by the fact that Azura and Grand Princess are built from the same basic template. The decor was more Contemporary than the Grand and had a fresher feel to it but, to be fair, the comparisons I make are prior to the Grands refit.
What was extremely disappointing was that our luggage was not delivered to the room until 16:30 which meant a mad rush for sailaway.?
Over the week, several differences would become apparent both with the ship and on-board culture:
There was no way to access the area above the bridge as this was through "crew only" doors
You could not walk completely around Promenade deck as there was no way to get around the nose of the ship on that deck. From the deck plans you would have to go up one deck and out doors at end of corridor which we didn't try.
You could walk around the front of the ship above the bridge area, starting on the starboard side but the port side was blocked by cabin balconies.
The Manhattan venue located at the rear of Promenade was the ships nightclub (as opposed to the Planet Bar or, as was, Skywalkers on the Grand. this seemed a good decision as it was always busy until about 2am, leaving the Planet Bar as a quieter location for drinks
Azura has two dining rooms for fixed dining and one for freedom dining whereas the Grand had two freedom and one fixed. I was slightly surprised at this as i thought freedom dining was gaining popularity
Both top deck centre pools are open to the elements whereas the Grand has one covered
Azura has 3 staggered layers of decking which can be used to view the seascreen (aka movies under the stars)
Azura outer doors onto decks are largely automatic (helps on those blustery days)
Cabins have tea/coffee making facilities
In-cabin tv has the facility to view hour bill making reception (as its called on Azura) a much quieter place
Azura only had one ping pong table whereas it could have done with four as this was a very popular activity amongst teens
Tipping on Azura was set at £1.60 per person per day for restaurant staff through an automatic charge and a recommended £1.50 per day for cabin steward. At £3.10 per person per day, these charges compared very favorably to Princess who charge d $10.50 (£6.56)
Shuttle buses from the ship to the town centre in each port were free. Princess charge approx $10 for each person return trip
Drinks were very reasonably riced. The very agreeable house white wine was priced at £11.95, Princess cheapest were near $20 (£14). Two beers was £6.40, again not too bad. All prices were what you paid, i.e. No 15% gratuity visible on top (not to say its not built in somewhere)
Strangely, P&O seem to miss a trick in the main theatre by not offering drinks, whereas Princess had waiters in the theatre who were very attentive.
On port days there is no water or soft drinks to take ashore, albeit this may change from cruise to cruise.
Shop prices excluded VAT so you had to remember to add 20% to all prices
The popcorn on Azura for Seascreen was not free
There is no unlimited kids drinks card with P&O. coke was £1.50 or £1.75 a glass but you could buy a 20 drink package for £30 which was a bit pricey considering the base cost of these mixers. However, to sweeten the deal a little you could add a 20 ice cream card for £10. Both cards were identical and any many staff would not have noticed an ice cream card passed for a drink. Ethics aside, useful for those trips which turn out to be less sunny than expected. Ice-cream is of the soft whippy type served in a nice thick chocolate tipped cone. This type of Ice-cream was free in Princess
Breakfast - largely a full fried breakfast and could really have done with more fruit/smoked salmon a la Princess. Compared to the waffle station on Princess, the Azura failed badly with no cream, almonds or fruit.
Dinner - food was very good but portions of the main part (beef etc) were quite small and fleshed out by veggies. At one sitting the waiter offered another portion as "the chef was not giving big portions". Good for the water to do it but shouldn't be necessary. However, on the flip side I hate wasted food so tough to call.
Besides Formal and Smart Casual, P&O have a semi-formal dress code some nights. I found this a real pain as I didn't mind bringing formal and casual but just didn't like to have to bring a jacket for one night. Personally, I don't see the need for this and think that P&O should get rid of semi-formal
Buffer venues - three serving stations as opposed to the Grands two which alleviated the queues although not the dash for tables!!!!
the ship was 90% UK passengers with slightly less observing formal evenings than I saw on Princess
Photo prices were high i felt - £15.95 for portraits and £6.95 for casual prints. Printed books containing 5 portraits could be bought (and printed) on board - not a bad deal as you also got the hard copy prints free. However, this compared very badly to the Panraven book i ordered on Princess last year which worked out at 100 pages for £40 and you could fill the book with all your own photos and any you had bought, the only downside being you did this when you got back and required some effort.
P&O do not offer any type of Ultimate Tour experience. The Captain advised that they had considered it but, in his opinion, it was down to security. This is understandable in todays world but doesn't explain why another line under the same Group differs in opinion..
All in, I believe that both cruise lines offer a great experience but the drink prices, free shuttles and lower tips result in P&O offering better value fr money. On a weeks long cruise, i would expect a family of four to save £250 plus ($400) by traveling with P&O.
At this port, the shuttle stopped at three points - maritime museum, town centre and "marina". Docking on a Saturday, we were very surprised at how quiet the town centre was (we are talking ghost town here at 11am) so we didn't stay long. We hopped on the shuttle to the "marina" which seemed to comprise of some very poor cafes and industrial buildings. Very poor and we would certainly not get off the ship at this location again. We were back on boat in less than two hours and were not the only people by any means and throughout the cruise there were various jokes we heard about how bad the port was.?I appreciate it can be tough deciding on ports and that you cant please everyone but this port definitely felt like a "filler" to me.
Split into two areas (old and new town), we found this port to be very pleasant. Unfortunately we docked on a Sunday which meant that most of the new town was closed but a pleasant walk down by the river and across to the old town soon had us in a bustling and vibrant area. After a pleasant stroll around the old town, we returned to the new town area and wandered until we came across a nice park and, in particular, a servery selling possibly the largest ice cream cones I have ever seen... yum yumm!!!
By the time we headed back to the shuttle bus, a queue had formed around the corner and down the street but this very quickly moved and we were heading back to the ship in under 20 minutes.
Azura docked at Ringiskiddy which meant we had a nice 20-25 minute through the countryside to arrive in the centre of Cork (thank goodness the shuttles are free!!).?Cork is a typical city with many of the same shopping brands as here in the UK. ?We opted for the "dual" city bus tour which encompassed an inner city tour and an outskirts tour, each lasting 45 minutes. The dual tour was good value at only 6 euros more for a family of four than either of the single tours. The inner city tour was narration was prerecorded but the outer tour brightened things up with an amusing and pleasant driver adding his unique and tongue-in-cheek comments to the proceedings.
Undoubtedly the cream of the ports we visited, the town centre was a short drive from the port. The shuttle buses dropped us in the centre of this architecturally beautiful city.?There are two main bus tour companies (CitySightseeing and Dublin bus) and this competition was to prove fruitful for us. Our shuttle dropped us right in front of the CitySighseeing tours which were doing a roaring trade. However, a very short walk around the corner was the Dublin Bus. Although seeing the prices displayed (€60 for the four of us), i opted to play it a little dumb and ask how much. Pleasantly surprised, the guide confessed that the other tour company had got prime spot and offered us the tour for €28 which was even cheaper than if we had pre-booked online and got 20% discount!. With Dublin Bus being state run, it turned out a good decision and the tour was informative and stopped at the main attractions. The rest of the day was spend meandering along o'Connel street and into St.Stephens Green which was very pleasant.
I felt the onboard entertainment was very very good - particularly the onboard Headliners shows a not to be missed and surprisingly a young classical act whom was superb. The comedians onboard were nothing to shout home about as they had the same old jokes i have heard in the past three years!!.
I understand the need to use venues for rehearsals etc but when the weather is poor, I would have hoped that the company used the main theaters more for movies etc to keep both adults and children occupied.?It is fair to say that, similar to Princess, the daily schedules follow the same base structure with a few features changing each day.
Room & Cleaning
On our previous trips, we had sailed in a balcony cabin on C deck with a larger balcony.?This trip, we opted for an inside cabin for the four of us due the upgrade costing an additional 50% of what we paid. The cabin was very clean and functional with a surprising amount of hanging and shelf space. The four of us comfortably managed to enjoy the week in the room but I would add that (as with any cabin) organisation and tidiness are the key. ?
The cabin was clean and well decorated with the mirrors used to good effect to make the room seem much larger than it actually is. ??The one difference with the interior was that due to the layout of the cabin the top bed ladders could not be put at the bottom of the bed but were put down at the side, meaning they crossed each other. On more than one occasion I did almost trip over them whilst walking between the beds.
Room cleaning was friendly, extremely fast and efficient, everything you want it to be. ?I actually have no idea how the room was cleaned within the time we were out of the room!
We were lucky enough to be early for photos with the Captain and he was extremely approachable with excellent people skills. Now, in my limited experience this is a rarity as they are often engrossed in their jobs and don't like to be seen front of house. The Captain was happy to spend ten minutes chatting about experiences onboard, the Grand, our prior cruises etc... Very pleasant and a credit to the company
Another excellent trip, slightly let down by the weather and the first port (but hey, thats why we cruise to learn). I feel that P&O/Princess would do well to study each others onboard operation and take the best bits from each. Thats not to say they should retain individuality but i do think both sides could learn from the other.