The 3,100-passenger Azura is one of P&O's largest ships at 115,000 tons. It was christened in Southampton in 2010 by ballet dancer Darcey Bussell and is one of the most popular of the seven P&O Cruises vessels, partly because it is the second-youngest in the fleet (Britannia is the newest).
The ship, which is the second ship of this size for P&O (the first was sister ship Ventura, which was launched in 2008), will be familiar to fans of Princess Cruises, as it is built on the same design as Princess' Grand-class ships. Yet Azura definitely oozes P&O's traditional style: full dress codes, afternoon tea, deck games and ballroom dancing. Dancing is especially popular, and dancing sessions feature prominently in the daily programme. There is always something happening on one of the ship's three dance floors, including the wooden one in the atrium, which hosts regular dance evenings.
While these much-loved favourites strike a chord with P&O Cruises aficionados, some innovative firsts, such as new dining venues and entertainment options, are exciting repeat passengers and attracting new ones too. Many of these now established features -- such as SeaScreen (the new outdoor cinema) and the adults-only Retreat sun deck -- have been borrowed from sister line Princess.
Azura is marketed as a family-friendly ship and has clubs for children ranging from 2 to 17, plus a good range of sports courts for tennis, football and basketball. Children over 14 are also allowed in the excellent gym if accompanied by an adult.
However, couples and singles are well catered for with sophisticated evening venues such as The Glass House -- a wine bar and restaurant for which TV wine expert Olly Smith has selected 32 different wines for cruisers to enjoy -- and Sindhu restaurant, where the menu is by Michelin starred Indian chef Atul Kochhar. In all there are nine restaurants and 10 separate bars including the night club style Planet Bar with a giant plasma screen.
Passengers who prefer an adults-only vacation can book into The Retreat, a stylish sun terrace with cabanas for alfresco spa treatments. It has easy access to the spa and thermal suite plus its own pool -- one of four pools on the ship. There are also the well-publicised solo cabins. The fact that there are no extra supplements to pay is great news for single travellers -- but be warned, you will need to plan ahead to nab one of these cabins as there are only 18.
Evening entertainment is a mix of family and adult entertainment ranging from tribute bands to West End shows and dancing until the small hours.
Overall, P&O Cruises has done a good job of making sure everything runs smoothly. The staff work hard and create a pleasant atmosphere for passengers, the entertainment and dining options are appealing, and the new additions give the right amount of extra sparkle to this mainstream ship.
P&O Cruises are tailored to the needs of British passengers, so there are few other nationalities onboard, except a few English-speakers such as Americans or Antipodeans. Many passengers are so loyal they would not dream of cruising with another line. Longer cruises attract a mostly 60-plus crowd, but there are plenty of families during school holidays.
Azura's increasing number of mini-cruises are popular with younger folk, including 40-somethings. Azura is also popular with solo passengers thanks to its 18 purpose-built single cabins and activities for single travelers. The welcome mat is rolled out for solo passengers, as the ship offers singles meet-ups, including a number of solo afternoon tea parties and "travelling alone" get-togethers with crew and officers.
Smart-casual is the norm during the day, and at night, three evening dress codes prevail. "Evening Casual" means open necked shirts and tailored trousers or even smart jeans for men, although most wear lounge suits or jackets. Dresses or casual separates are fine for women. "Smart, Jacket Required" means a blazer or sports jacket for men (although suits are equally acceptable) and dress, trouser suits or smart separates for women. "Black Tie" is the most formal, requiring a dinner jacket or tuxedo for men (dark suits are acceptable) and evening or cocktail dress or trousers suits for women. Ties are mandatory, and children ages 13 to 17 should wear Evening Casual dress or smarter.
The dress code is announced in the Horizon daily paper and enforced from 6 p.m. in the Meridian, Peninsular and Oriental Restaurants, as well as the speciality Sindhu and Seventeen Restaurants and The Planet Bar and Blue Bar. A men's black tie hire service is available through P&O's Web site for pre-cruise bookings. Swimwear is never allowed in any indoor bar, restaurant or lounge.
A £3.95 GBP per person auto gratuity is added to your bill daily. Other tips are at your discretion.