We booked the Christmas and New Year cruise on the Azura and had been looking forward this all year. As this was our first cruise on P&O and we had many friends telling us how wonderful this cruise was going to be, I was slightly disappointed.
We have cruised several times before with Celebrity and NCL. Although we expected a very "British" cruise, I guess we didn't quite bank on what it would really be like!
CABIN: We opted for a standard balcony on the AFT of the ship. I love the views in these cabins for sailaway, and having stayed on the back of the ship before in NCL's Penthouse Suites, I thought this would be a nice idea. Although the cabin was a perfectly acceptable size, I was very taken aback how a ship that is only a year old could have cabin's that looked so dated! I'm sure brass light fittings on the ceilings and various other items of brass and the dark teak wood are reminiscent of a bygone era, but this is 2012 and the cabin looked like something that should have been overhauled many, many years ago. The shade of creams they use on the walls and in the bathroom don't look fresh or clean, they look like someone had been smoking in there very heavily. It's such a shame as they could have really made an effort here, but this dated look just didn't do it for me after Celebrity and their more contemporary feel. The bathroom was particularly disappointing, very small and when in the shower, you very easily ended up with the curtain wrapped around you. Kettle and tea/coffee is always a nice touch, but milk portions that were in date would have been even nicer! The cabin steward was very friendly and always ready to help, but unfortunately hadn't grasped the use of a vacuum cleaner and the cabin didn't feel it's cleanest!
WARNING -- Some balconies on the AFT have a huge chunk of metal pillar running through them vertically. Although it's in the smallest print in the brochure that you can find, we don't all read that do we, so be careful! We had a sizeable chunk of this pillar on our balcony. Luckily, it didn't cause too much of an obstruction, however, next door's was taking most of their balcony up. Again, I'm not sure the green matting on the balcony is the nicest of looks or feelings. It's very uncomfortable if you have no shoes on!
DINING: When booking, we requested Freedom and were told that this was all confirmed. However, on advice, I changed my mind and called the travel agent to request 2nd sitting, table for 2. By this point, it was a waiting list. I accepted gracefully that I wasn't going to get this confirmed and assumed that if it wasn't the case, I would remain on Freedom Dining. However, on embarkation, we found a card in our cabin confirming our 1st sitting dinner on a table for 8! I couldn't believe it. I then went down to the restaurant (Peninsular) to speak to someone to get this changed. After having been passed from one member of staff to another, told to walk to other restaurants and been sent back, joined a very long queue full of people also complaining. We were told that Freedom was never confirmed and that the travel agent knew this (Watch our Virgin Holidays Cruises! They tell you what they think you want to hear!). Eventually, after being patient with the restaurant manager, we were re-allocated a nice table for 2 in the Peninsular. Our waiters were wonderful and very accommodating. The restaurant was far too hot, and after having complained to the Head Waiter, the policy each evening became to open an additional set of doors. Several other guests were also complaining about the heat.
The food in here started off very well, by towards the end of the first week, the menu seemed to repeat itself in different guises and the quality dropped off. Everything came with a "Silver served" offering of 2 vegetables each nice. Sometimes they really didn't go with what you were eating... but they were offered anyway! A lot of the food is very british and some of it was quite bland. Who's seen an Egg Mayonaise starter this century???... well they had it on-board! If that's your bag, then you'll have no problems, but if you want something more exciting, you need to go to a speciality restaurant.
We tried the Sindhu which was an absolute delight for lunch or dinner. The Glass House is also very good, however it became very over-subscribed. Getting a seat was near on impossible if you arrived after 7pm and the traffic coming in and out to get the theatre was a real off-putting experience too. It became a stampead between shows!
We didn't try room service, no need on this trip. However, the one real disappointment was the buffet restaurants. At lunch times, it seemed a constant battle to guess which section they would open or close next. The way it is set out is also a little baffle and reminiscent of a contra-flow! You get told off by the staff if you walk the wrong way, and believe me, I am not on holiday to listen to that! It is such a strange set-up. We also noticed that each buffet restaurant is divided into quarters and the same food is repeated on each section. Therefore, you think that there is a lot more choice, but you get disappointed to see it is just repeated as you walk around. Some of the logic of the offerings and how they think items such as Singapore Noodles and Beef & Ale Pie go together was quite bizarre! Still, plenty of people were happy to just chuck whatever was there on their plates and hope for the best!
There is a pizza station around the pool and this was always popular but we never tried it. Similarly, there is a Grill station that offered the usual burgers, hot dogs etc. They also did a lovely baguette of the day which was freshly made.
Bars/Drinks: On the whole, the service inside the ship is excellent. The Coffee lounge has particularly good staff and very efficient. However, don't be fooled by the Costa Coffee... it doesn't taste the same with UHT milk!
Getting a drink on the pool decks was more of problem. They did have staff wondering around, but never when you needed one. If you wanted to go to the bar and order yourself, you can't. The bar tender gives the order to a waiter and he has to serve you... very odd!
Drink prices are good and the selection is excellent. I only missed the fact there was no soft drink package. This was something I really enjoyed on other lines.
Entertainment: Although the Cruise Director was quite unobtrusive, I think the entertainment was somewhat lacking on this cruise. The "Headliners Theatre Company" were often referred to on-board the "Flatliners" and appeared out of sync with each other on many performances, so much so, that we and several others gave up watching!
There were a couple of vocalist on the cruise, Zoe Tyler being one of them and she was very good. The other's were tribute act's and not terribly good. However, the lecture from Ray Clemence was hardly entertainment for the masses unless you were a football fan. And this was sadly done in the theatre. Many of the headline acts seemed to end up in the bars and the less popular in the theatre, so maybe some better planning needed there.
Ports/Shore Excursions: The itinerary was excellent. We started the first week with stops at the Dutch islands of Aruba and Bonaire. Both were lovely and worth a trip back sometime.
However, we then seemed to have several seas between everything and then the last week became a very port intensive week. I didn't really notice how the itinerary was top heavy on the second week when I booked, but now I wish I had paid more notice!
All of the ports were generally great, with the exception of Ocho Rio's and Antigua. Both of these can be a little intimidating with the locals hassling you for taxi's etc. Fortunately, we had been to both before and knew what to expect!
Dominica is enchanting and the sulphur spa excursion here should not be missed! Were really enjoyed it.
St Maarten is amazing too, well worth getting a taxi down to Maho Beach and watching the planes land over your heard and blow people over as they take off. Really amazing experience! There are some lovely beaches here too and nice atmosphere.
My surprise here too was Grand Turk... you literally pull up at the beach and it really is an amazing place to swim and sun bathe! Just stunning!
Flights: We were flying from Birmingham as the East Midlands departure is apparently sold out to people with Gold loyalty cards the moment is goes on sale. The flights were operated by Thomson Airways, typical charter affair. The crew on the outbound journey were clearly not impressed to have to be going to Barbados on Christmas Eve and made sure the passengers knew this by chastising them on boarding if they didn't the slightest thing wrong. It was quite embarrassing to watch!
Food was truly appalling on both flights. I am not sure if they quantity of salt used is meant to increase the amount of drinks you might want to buy?
On a positive note, one free drink was served to each passenger twice on the outbound journey. On the return, typical overnight service with the crew wanting to spend as much of the eight hours in the galley chatting to one another as possible.
The plane was an ex-First Choice Airways plane still with the green leather seats and a nice 2-3-2 config. However, after 8 hours, I'm not sure what happened to the padding on the seats but it has no effect! Getting off the plane and on to the ship in Barbados is a treat, very well organised and means just literally stepping off the plane on to a bus and being taken straight to the ship! Well done P&O!
General: Although the ship is so new, it is a real shame they have made certain areas of it feel so dated. It is an incredibly large ship and I don't personally think I would want to travel on something with this much capacity again. It did feel crowded and certain times.
Sea days were a nightmare. Sunbeds on sea days were near on impossible and I saw many people who must have fallen asleep on their sunbeds and woke up to find they couldn't get off them as they had been joined by people to on more sunbeds to all four corners of their beds! It was funny to watch, but really not a good state of affairs.
The staff on the whole are friendly, although I do question why they have a policy of no Phillipino staff in the restaurant, only Indian?
Everything is quite organised and on the whole, this was a enjoyable cruise... just maybe not the experience I expected!