We have now enjoyed two family holidays on the P&O liner Azura, one last year (August 2010), on the itinerary that sailed to the Canaries, via Madeira, and then returned via Lisbon and Vigo to Southampton, after a 12 night cruise (which I'll call the Canaries Route), and this year (August 2011) on the 16-nighter that goes from Southampton, Malaga, Cephalonia, Dubrovnik, Venice, Korcula, Corfu and Vigo (the Eastern Med route).
I partially wrote a review last year and never got round to finishing it or posting it. So at the risk of confusing people, I've included stuff where relevant here from the first review, particularly my first impressions (as those might help those, like us, that were new to cruising). As you might expect, second time around, we were better prepared for what to expect.
I have 3 children, which on the first trip were aged 12 (boy) and two girls aged 13 and 15. We were in 2 balcony cabins, on C-deck, right in the middle of the ship. I booked this trip in May 2010, only 3 months before departure. I had excellent advice from the P&O staff about which cabins to book (eg they advised me against the Lido deck because of noise drift, and suggested I could save money by booking one outside and one inside cabin). However, I ended up booking online - it's a little challenging, as you need 3 (website) windows open to view availability, cabin locations and the bizarre cabin coding/grading system. Once mastered though, it worked well.
Our timing was also fortunate - as I was lucky to get a significant price reduction during a sale period, which saved more than 15% overall, and this covered our entire cruise bill on board.
We live in NW London, around 70 miles from Southampton, and so it's a quick drive down the M25 and M3. Only to encounter very long queues to reach the dock and it took around 45 minutes just to get into the car park, followed by another 30 minutes to be able to hand over the car and get the bags out. This was after advance booking the (very expensive @ £120 for 12 days) CPS service. The stevedores literally put all the bags on a big trolley, and put them straight into the handling system. No tips seemed to be expected and it worked well. The CPS took the car keys and we were free to go through into the terminal with just our hand baggage.
The terminal is modern although there were queues to enter, which took another 15 minutes to get through. We were handed boarding priority colour cards. There is a big waiting area, with seats. Extremely limited, if quick service, catering from just one outlet. It took more than an hour to get called up for the issue of our cruise cards. The check-in staff were friendly and efficient. Yet another queue for around 15 minutes to get on board.
Much is made of the superior experience when cruising vs going to an airport. My first experience was that it was mildly better - but only just -the long traffic wait just to get into the port, the wait for the car queue for baggage drop off and car handover was more convenient but just as long as waiting to check in, and then the extended period in the terminal was just as an airport, with far more limited catering and (no) shopping options.
I think we got on board around 15.15, having arrived at Southampton at around 12.30. It does make me feel that the roads, ports and terminals are not yet ready for ships the size of Azura.
Eastern Med trip
I booked this one in March, taking the benefit of a "you choose the type (inside/outside/balcony), we choose the cabin" offer. I again booked via the really helpful P&O telephone line, after verifying the price (which meant close to 25% discount this time if one paid in full) was the same as online and asking for the 4 of us to be in adjacent cabins ("which we can't guarantee but will try"). I was a little concerned that we might end up in 2 very different parts of the ship, although close to booking, we got allocated two cabins side by side, albeit on B-deck, at the very back of the ship.
This time the four of us (1 adult, 3 teens, aged 17, 14 and 13) went a little later, getting into Southampton for around 14.15. No traffic queues this time (although this time there were motorway delays). Car parking was even more outrageous - around £160 for 16 nights, which is more than Heathrow would charge for valet parking. It is efficient, I grant you, but I think there is monopoly pricing working here and competitors are needed for CPS. It was also quicker to board - maybe around 45 minutes waiting for the colour coded cards to get on board.
Once on board, we went to our cabins. All our bags were already in the corridor close to (if not outside) our cabins. Our two adjoining double cabins were really excellent - plenty of hanging space (and hangers), roomy cupboards for clothes and other items, and empty bags could be stored under the extremely comfortable beds. If you're reading this, you can check on the graphics at the P&O website for a detailed description of the cabins.
The bathrooms had decent light, excellent ventilation and good water pressure in the showers. You get unlimited White Company shampoo, conditioner, body lotion and shower gel, and we found any empties left out were refilled the same day. Plenty of fluffy towels and 2 extra towels for pool and beach. On the first trip, we did note that the vacuum loos (similar to aircraft) sometimes failed to work for up to 20 minutes. This was a minor inconvenience as once the button was pressed, it did eventually work whether you were there or not. But it happened several times towards the end of the trip. It didn't happen at all on the second trip.
As mentioned, the cabins were roomy. Beds were really, really comfortable and I am very picky. There is plenty of controllable light in the cabins, although I noted that the bedside lamps were old-fashioned tungsten rather than modern energy-saving bulbs. The interactive TV lets you see around 10 channels, including a ship locator, BBC and Sky news and other channels. In addition, you can check your bill and watch pre-stored TV series and films on it. There's quite a lot of free stuff like old comedies such as Fawlty Towers, drama such as Doctor Who and episodes of Scrubs and House, although first and recent movies can cost £4-6. There is a kettle, fridge, lots of coffee, tea and biscuits and a hairdryer. Two plug sockets, including one that is always on. The air conditioning in the cabin is powerful, but quiet.
The C-deck balconies seem larger than those above and below. They (and most balcony cabins) have locked panels that can be opened for adjoining cabins on request and this is great for families. They have two very comfortable deckchairs, with a modest recline, a footstool and small side table.
The B-deck balconies at the rear of the ship were a bit smaller than the C-deck ones, and one had a metal supporting strut that blocked some of the space. Never a real problem, and again the opening panel is great for connecting with the next cabin. The rear rooms are considerably noisier than the mid-deck ones - hardly surprising as you are above the propellers - although one got used to this very quickly, and it didn't disturb the sleep.
As it's more than a year ago, I've limited my comments to things that might help others.
Itinerary: Madeira was excellent (and you don't need an excursion to take the cable car to the top, walk around the really beautiful gardens and then queue up to take the basket ride chairs part-way down). The other stand out location was Tenerife, where we went to the Siam Park waterpark. I've been to the Florida Disney waterparks, and this is as good as, if not better, especially as the excursion takes you there for arrival at 10am, before too many others get in so the queues for the best rides are a matter of minutes if that. The rest of the Canaries were pleasant, if hardly memorable. Lisbon was gorgeous and a city to soak up whilst wandering around. It rained in Vigo, but it's still an atmospheric city, with excellent restaurants, good "fashion-brand" shopping (like Zara and Mango) and a shopping centre literally 2 minutes from the berth.
Overall, the 12 days rushed past. The younger 2 kids made friends quickly in the excellent Kids' Club facilities, and my son was well catered for in the medical facilities when he managed to fracture his finger playing football. My older teenager just loved the freedom to make friends and stayed in touch with many, including some that were on the cruise next year. We had one rough night at sea - which did bring on sea-sickness in many. All of us really loved the experience, and it made us convinced that another cruise would be a good idea.
Eastern Med trip (August 2011)
So this year, we did book - largely because of timing - again on Azura for a longer 16-night trip to the Eastern Med. I did look at other lines but concluded that P&O had the best mix for us.
This trip really worked well for us. Apart from a brief break at Malaga (perfect for a quick shop and a visit to the Picasso museum, within 15 minutes' walk of the drop-off point), you spend several days at sea getting to the Eastern Med, to be followed by 5 ports, (3 of which are exceptional), in successive days. And it's the same going back, with a longer sea cruise, apart from the day stop at Vigo. This helps you get used to the ship and the family rhythm of getting the teenagers up for a port day too.
Stand out ports on the itinerary were Dubrovnik, Venice and Korcula. As there is much available online about Dubrovnik and Venice, I'd only say you should absolutely do the walk around the walls in Dubrovnik, no matter how long the queue to get tickets, and in Venice, it's worth taking advantage of the organised tours for the Basilica where the licenced guides work the line and offer tours in English. You miss out on the 40 minute wait, get a very informative tour and it costs about €6 per person more than the entrance. Well worth it (and the Basilica is just astonishing). Bear in mind in Venice to be up for 7am to see the approach to the City - and the staff let you walk into the Spa "Retreat" area to get a great view of the entrance and take your photos. There was a running commentary too which was very informative.
Korcula was the real surprise, as I knew nothing about it. It's a mini-Dubrovnik - a walled medieval town on a promontory, sitting in crystal-clear waters. You moor offshore and need to land on a ship tender. Very straightforward to board and land and 5 minutes in the boat. The town has attractive stone architecture and multiple bars, restaurants and shops around the walk that circles it. There was a small market and we bought snorkels and masks and went snorkelling literally off the stone rocks at the edge of the walk (whilst the rest of the party ate pizza). Warm water, beautifully clear and you can walk along from the town to various points on (slightly stony) beaches to go swimming.
As for the other ports, Cephalonia was a typical Greek island location - pretty enough, with plenty of shops, bars and restaurants to take your money and in Corfu, we went to the waterpark, which was good enough, if not up to the Tenerife, Syam Park standard. By the way, on our trip, the water park excursion was completely sold out despite multiple coaches. It's not far away from the port (20 mins) and admission was around €25 per person. The other "swim from beaches" trips also sold out early in the cruise.
The ship was as busy as last time, with over 700 children on board, but you'd never have known. It soaks up people and it is never difficult to find a sun bed when you want it. They seemed a bit stricter on pointing out the dangers of "reserving" sunbeds this year - and some of the table guests we spoke to said that books and towels were removed after the statutory 30 minutes if people got up too early and tried to reserve.
Food was excellent on both trips. Even with a full ship, Freedom Dining waits were never more than about 20 minutes, and we were often seated straight away. We ate in Sindhu again (peppered steak to die for), 17 (twice and really delicious) and the Glasshouse (decent and filling snack food). You pay extra for these but the surcharge is not unreasonable for the quality.
Much credit to P&O for their fair-value drinks pricing too. There are plenty of decent wines under £15 per bottle and you can ask them to keep the remains of a bottle until the next time you dine. Beer is around £3 per bottle and there are various 5 for 4 deals available. Having compared P&O with the US lines, where you routinely have 15% service added and the prices seem higher, this seems very good value indeed.
Gym facilities were good - and it was rarely difficult to get access to a treadmill. The classes (particularly Pilates and Spinning) fill up on the first day so book then if you want to go. There's a not unreasonable charge of a few ££ per session.
Entertainment was pretty good too. Standouts were Steve Larkins as Freddie Mercury, Tony Lewis as Robbie Williams and particularly the Four Tops tribute band, and the acts that "did" Elton John and Cher were pretty good too. Didn't like the comics very much, and some were dire. The Headliners theatre company were excellent as always. I missed Sandra Marvin and wished I'd seen her as she did one song for the Tops and it was brilliant.
We tried the spa - with a hot stones massage, and the girls had their hair straightened and their nails done. Not exactly cheap, but they seemed professional and a mistake over a prior booking was fixed with an apology and a discount.
There's plenty of guidance on tips. On Freedom dining, it's added to your room charge, and you are encouraged to tip your cabin steward around £1.50 per day per person. You can tip more (and others) as you see fit.
So grumbles - not a lot really. Cabin cleaning was a little perfunctory on a couple of days, there seemed to be photographers at every turn (but I did end up spending money on their prints so they were pretty good) and as noted before, the parking was really expensive. I would have been happier with fewer than 4 black tie nights but others seemed to enjoy them.
On the last day, when you get off the boat in Southampton, you have to pack most of your stuff up the night before, and so you need a small bag to take your overnight change of clothes. You then get a colour coded card, have to quit your cabin by 8am and if you are travelling independently, you generally get off last, around 10.30. So you sit around for the last 90 minutes, which is a little tedious.
Net, I highly recommend these P&O cruises. It's a safe environment for teenagers (and younger children), with excellent food and drink and you can absolutely choose whether to relax or get involved in life on board. Food and drink are fairly priced (or included in your cabin price) so you can budget pretty easily. And the convenience of being able to take what you want in your own car makes a big impact on the trip. Also, with the exception of the pricey shuttle in Venice (think it was about €35 for a family ticket), all the bus shuttles from ship to dock are free with P&O and I heard from others that some lines charge a few $$ just to transfer you to the keyside.
This year round, I met one of my cousins and his extended family as well as a former business colleague on board, with his family. The rest of the Freedom Dining table visitors were a hugely interesting bunch, from teachers (male and female) to firemen to lawyers to families. Not a boring evening with any of them.
The question I've been asked most by friends and family after both trips is "Aren't cruises just filled up with people of a certain age?" (as in are they full of older people?). And both years I've said no, there are plenty of people of all ages. With more than 700 kids on board (and their parents), it hardly feels like an over 60s ghetto. There are plenty of twenty and thirty-somethings too, some with multi-generational families. And the older people we did meet on board were charming, interesting and much like our parents. The ship is more than big enough to avoid sharing crowded space with anyone, if you're so inclined. It is overwhelmingly British - if that matters to you. There were only a handful of other nationalities that I spoke to.
Having looked again at other lines, for those that go from Southampton, I see they tend to do shorter trips and the prices for service and booze do seem much higher. Sadly, from a timing perspective, given exam results, unless we want to repeat the Canaries cruise, there's probably nothing on P&O for us next summer so we will either have to take a "normal" holiday or be tempted to try another line... suggestions most welcome. I'm happy to answer any questions if you want to post them.
By the way, will someone tell CruiseCritic that Southampton is not London, and Southampton needs its own entry in the port section. I nearly gave up looking for it and didn't post a review accordingly.