This was our 1st time with P&O having previously been with Island Cruises, Ocean Village, Princess and RCL. For the most part P&O lived up to our expectations but it was the dining room experience which we felt let them down compared to Princess and RCL.
But first things first, we flew from Gatwick on the 9th December with Thomas Cook. As soon as we knew it was TC we paid the extra for Premium as the economy seats had been diabolical on another recent TC long-haul flight. Although the extra seat room and width was good, the seatback entertainment system is very poor compared to Thomsons. On the outbound flight there was a choice of 5 films (1 of which was extra for Premium customers) and were all either Sci-fi or children films. The TV program choice was very limited and the Map and Camera views were not available. On the Inbound flight we had a choice of 4 films (no extra for Premium) and again a poor selection. The good thing was we left on time and arrived approximately 8 hours later in Barbados.
One hour later we were at the port after the usual aircraft to port bus service. Wish every cruise could start off like this! After the usual embarkation formalities we were soon in our cabin (C752) and then had a quick walk around some of the ship to get our bearings. We headed off to dinner at 6pm (well it had been a long day) but without changing as our cases had still not arrived. After dinner we spent an hour in the Malabar lounge before deciding to call it a day and hopefully finding our luggage had been delivered. It had, so we could unpack before falling asleep dreaming of 2 weeks of sunshine.
Having spoken to a couple in the Malabar Lounge who were departing home the next day we were a bit worried about what weather we were going to face as they said they had quite a lot of rain in their 2 weeks. Thankfully, as it turned out we had nothing to worry about because it was virtually sun all the way!
Our Balcony cabin was at the rear of the ship and had plenty of space and was not overlooked. The bathroom was small but perfectly adequate and at least you had hot water in the shower. The wardrobe area is open plan with plenty of hangers, and there was also plenty of other storage and drawer space, TV with the usual sort of channels but it was nice to have Sky Sports News for us footie fans! It also had a fridge and tea/coffee making facilities.
Now I'll split the review in to specific areas:
Ship Facilities: There are a number of entertainment venues and bars -- The Playhouse Theatre is quite large and is well laid out. With such a large amount of people on the cruise most shows in the theatre are on 3 times a night which meant there was always room to see the shows. The one thing I should point out with the theatre is that they do not serve drinks there so if you want a drink you will have to bring it in with you. The other 2 entertainment venues are the Malabar Lounge and the Manhattan both of which are good venues and you would normally find various ships entertainers and guest acts (in our case, mostly comedians and tribute acts). Brodies is classed as a pub entertainment area and beside the resident duo playing there it was the normal place to find karaoke & quizzes, as well as coverage of most Sky Premiership live football. Next to Brodies, is a small casino which I didn't use and it never seemed to be that busy. There are 3 main pools and the Retreat (Adults only) where you pay a supplement. The Aqua pool area has an outdoor big screen showing films in the evening. And besides the Buffet restaurant there was also a poolside Pizzeria, a burger, hot dog and chips counter and also a counter for ice creams (supplement required). The pools on some days were fairly cold (admittedly nice after some sunbathing) but sometimes just too cold.
Restaurants: For the people on fixed seat dining there were 2 restaurants and the one (Meridian) for us people who were on Freedom dining. We generally had to wait when we requested a table for 2 but the longest we had to wait was 20mins -- for these occasions we were given a pager so we could go and have a drink while waiting. There are speciality restaurants, Seventeen (fine dining), Sindhu (Indian), Glass House (Steak & Seafood) where you pay a surcharge but I can't comment on them as we didn't use them. In regards to the Meridian restaurant we were fairly disappointed with the service on most evenings. Don't get me wrong, they are very hard working but there was no rapport with the passengers, they just want to serve you and get ready for the next people. Having been with Princess and Royal Caribbean there is a vast difference how their waiter staff treat the passengers, they build up a great rapport with you (yes, even on Freedom dining) asking about your day, where you are from and making helpful suggestions about what is on the menu. One thing which did disappoint us was the fact we did make a comment about one waiter who was very slow and very slapdash with serving food (ie quite a bit on the table rather than on the plate) to the Maitre'd so were very surprised to find us being asked to join one of his tables again 2 nights later. We politely asked to not be seated there and were relocated but I'm sure there must be some space on the Maitre'd computer system to note these things down for future reference?
As for the food we thought there was enough choice most evenings and the quality was very good. I have seen comments about small portions but to be honest I didn't find this to be the case. Every evening except for one we had 5 courses (6 on the other evening) -- Starter, Soup, Main course, Dessert, Cheese & Biscuits and Coffee. On the other evening there was Champagne Sorbet added after the Soup course. All the main courses I had were certainly more than enough for me and even if they hadn't been I would have asked for more as I did hear other diners asking for extra portions on occasions. I do, as my wife will agree, love my food but even I struggled to have a dessert if I had a Starter, Soup and Main course so I certainly don't think small portions was ever a problem! As to the quality of the food I feel I had better on Royal Caribbean but generally it was all still good and we had no complaints about the food. My wife is a fussy eater so was a bit concerned about the "always available" choices not being on the Menu anymore, but most food is available if you ask for it even if it is not on the menu which my wife did on a few occasions.
For breakfast we always used the self-service restaurant and we did not have any complaints about the choice or quality of food there either. Yes, it did get busy but we never had a problem in finding a table. This restaurant was the only place you had to use the hand gel cleaners on the whole ship. This was a great surprise to us as on all the other cruise lines we have been on it was always there when getting on the ship and for all restaurants so not sure why P&O don't do this. Interestingly, on the last evening there were staff at the Main restaurant giving you hand gel before you entered the restaurant so I wonder if there had been some cases of sickness in the days previously?
Entertainment: The Playhouse Theatre played host to the resident show team (Headliners) on 6 occasions during the cruise who performed their shows 3 times nightly (7pm, 8:30pm, and 10:30pm). We thought all but one of their shows were very good and to do the show 3 times in a night is very impressive. Over the 2 week period we saw 4 comedians ranging from okay to okay! It was amazing how many of them used the same cruise/ship jokes. There was also the "Cuban" comedian magician who we have seen on a number of ships but at least he does change most of his material. Other entertainers we watched included a couple of female singers, Andrea Dickinson and Anna -- Andrea was quite good but I thought Anna (a former headliner) struggled. There was also a "Big Band" singer in the theatre one night but we didn't go to watch that so can't comment how good or bad he was. There were also 3 tribute acts on during the cruise, John Denver, Freddie Mercury, and Phil Collins, but again I can't comment on their shows as we didn't see any. The latter two due to the shows being too busy to get seats. We also had 2 guest speakers, one of whom was a former Lifeboat captain and he did a few talks over the period -- even doing another one on our extra day at sea, so well done to him. The other speaker which was more interesting for me was former Liverpool, Everton, and Ipswich footballer from the 70's, David Johnson. Although it was a very interesting talk (even my wife enjoyed it), I found it surprising that they used the Theatre when it was at most full when the likes of the tribute acts were put in the smaller Manhattan lounge.
Resident acts included The View, Talk Back and Jet Set all of which were okay and certainly a lot better than on some other cruise lines.
Dress Code: We were informed prior to our cruise regarding the relevant dress codes, ie Formal (Dinner jacket or suit and tie), Semi-Formal (Jacket required but no need for tie), and casual. We had 4 each of the Formal and Semi-Formal and I must admit I thought virtually everyone made the effort which is very good. I did see one person being turned away (politely) from the restaurant one night because he wasn't wearing a jacket so the rules were being enforced.
At Sea Activities: The usual round of demonstrations (ice and fruit carving), making animals from towels etc. Dance classes, lectures, deck quoits, darts, art auctions etc, and a couple of crew v passengers games in the pool which were a bit of fun. As for sunbathing, on a couple of the sea days we had a lazy morning before trying to find 2 sunbeds together and we didn't have a problem in finding some so I don't think there was any real problem with finding spare sunbeds unless you were a large party who wanted to stay together.
Ships Excursions: We only did one organised excursion which was the SkyTram on St Lucia which we thought was fairly boring. The Tram takes you above the forest in the middle of the Island but to be honest all you saw was a "sea" of green -- it's amazing to be that high but there was no wow factor at all. The one thing I would say about the excursion team on board the ship is that they do not do the hard-sell as they readily give you all the information you need if you want to go exploring yourself, giving you information as to where the beaches are and how to get there etc. I found that quite refreshing as other cruise lines give you very little information for exploring yourself.
Ports of Call: For this holiday we just wanted to relax by walking in the port/town areas or going to a beach so that was the main reason we only did one excursion.
Barbados. As we had a day there at the beginning of the cruise we decided to head to a beach, in our case we took a leisurely walk to the Boatyard (approximately 30mins) where we got 2 loungers, an umbrella, 2 free drinks and the offer of a free minibus ride back to the port for $20. We spent a very enjoyable 5 hours here and I even used the free wi-fi near the bar area before walking back to the ship via some shops in the town. As we left the beach it started to rain so we timed it well
Curacao -- Willemstad is a lovely colourful little town. A pleasant walk into the town only took about 20mins provided the floating bridge was in use otherwise you have to get a ferry across the river. After a few hours walking round we headed back to ship to laze about on the top deck, but just as we had finished putting the suncream on the heavens opened and it rained all afternoon! Thankfully, that was the first and last bad spell of rain we had for the fortnight.
Aruba -- We took a short walk to the bus station near the port where we took a No.10 bus to the beach area (can't remember the cost but it was very cheap). Half an hour later we were on a beach having paid $15 for our sunloungers and an umbrella. There were places to buy food and drink but I would advise people to bring their own drinks from the ship as the prices here were very steep. Anyway, we had a very pleasant 5 hours catching the rays before catching the bus back to Oranjestad and having a leisurely walk around.
Grand Turk -- Again it was a beach day and this was the closest beach to the port I've ever known. End of the pier turn right or left and you were on the beach! You didn't have to pay for the loungers although they don't have any umbrellas. It was quite amazing swimming so near to the Azura but I was glad we arrived in port early as at around 10am a Carnival ship docked and the beach area became very busy. There were plenty of shops at the end of the pier which we had a look around before heading back to the ship.
Tortola -- This is where we should have done an excursion as there is not a lot here in RoadTown. We walked past the few stalls near the port and walked around the harbour area before returning to the ship to do some more sunbathing.
St.Maarten -- Everyone needs to experience the plane landings at Maho beach at least once! We shared a large taxi with 7 others for $9 each one way and spent a few hours enjoying the sunshine at the end of the runway. The journey there took about 45mins as the Simpson Bay drawbridge opened up on the journey which causes a massive traffic jam. I wanted to see the KLM 747 land so we waited for that before departing back into town which took about 25mins. St Maarten was definitely the place to buy the duty free goods as they had the cheapest anywhere we visited on our cruise and cheaper than on the ship.
St Kitts - We had been here before so after a couple of hours of looking around the shops which are at the end of the pier, we went back to the ship for a bit more sun!
St Lucia -- We did the shore excursion as outlined above.
Grenada -- The Azura tried to dock twice but because of strong winds the swell was too bad for us to dock and so we ended up having an extra day at sea ? Thankfully, the Captain managed to find an area where the wind wasn't too bad so we could sit on the top deck until mid afternoon when the wind started picking up again.
Disembarkation and Flight Home
Disembarkation was most efficiently undertaken with minimal queuing on the Friday morning for all passengers (even the ones travelling home on the Saturday).
We departed the ship at 12:45 for our 4:05pm flight back to Gatwick and had passed through security and in the gate area by 2pm. Our Thomas Cook flight was on time and we arrived back at Gatwick at 4am on Christmas Eve, in fact we were the first flight into Gatwick so it was fairly quick getting luggage and going through passport control -- wish it was like that all of the time!
Overall view: A very enjoyable and relaxing holiday and we would certainly go on the Azura again although as commented on above the waiter service in the Meridian restaurant could do with improvement. How do they compare with the other cruise lines we have been on? Overall, I think RCL just beat them but mainly due to the restaurant experience and I would class P&O and Princess about the same based on 1 cruise apiece with both those lines.