By Kelly Ranson, Cruise Critic contributor
When cruise ship staff members have really genuine smiles on their faces, it's a good sign that they're happy to be onboard. And, when crewmembers are happy to be onboard, you will be, too, because their cheerful demeanours reflect the vibe of the ship and promise good service and good fun. On our very first day onboard P&O Cruises' newest ship -- 115,000-ton, 3,100-passenger Azura, which launched in April 2010 -- we passed by a cabin steward singing Madonna's "Celebration" and grinning from ear to ear. From that moment, we knew we were in for a fabulous cruise.
The ship, which is the second ship of this size for P&O Cruises (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 Cruises' traditional style: full dress codes, afternoon tea, deck games and ballroom dancing. Dancing is especially popular. Within 24 hours we had seen passengers dancing along to a band in the atrium twice and dancing sessions featured 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 to P&O Cruises. Many of these features -- such as SeaScreen (the new outdoor cinema) and the adults-only Retreat sun deck -- have been borrowed from sister line Princess.
Exclusive to P&O Cruises, however, are the two fresh dining concepts the ship has introduced to the line -- the Indian-fusion restaurant, Sindhu, which is the creation of Michelin-starred chef Atul Kochhar, and the Glass House wine bar, for which TV wine expert Olly Smith has selected 32 different wines for cruisers to enjoy. Both of these modern venues have proved to be hits, and during our cruise, both were busy each evening (and during lunchtimes, too).
Then there are the well-publicised solo cabins -- a rarity for new-builds in this day and age. 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. There are only 18, and by the ship's launch, they had already sold out for the entire first season.
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.
Azura Fellow Passengers
During the summer and school holidays, Azura is a ship for all -- families, couples, friend groups and seniors. During our July cruise, there were 600 children onboard. Out of season, the ship is geared more to couples. 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.
Azura Dress Code
P&O likes to celebrate British tradition, and dress codes are included in that. Men should be sure to pack tuxedos, and woman will want a couple of posh frocks. On a 16-night cruise, there are usually five formal nights. On cruises of seven nights, there are two. Other nights are either semiformal or smart-casual. Semiformal means dinner suits for men and nice dresses or smart separates for women. Smart-casual allows dark, smart denim to be worn at dinnertime, but no sportswear (such as football tops or jogging bottoms) is allowed at all. Children are more than welcome to dress up, but smart-casual is allowed for youngsters on formal nights. All dress codes apply throughout the ship after 6 p.m.
Tips are usually given in cash at the end of the cruise to the cabin stewards and restaurant waiters.
For cabin stewards, the recommended amount to tip is about £1.50 per person, per day. For Club Dining passengers, the recommended amount to tip the waiter is £1.60 per person, per day, or £22.40 for a 14-night cruise.
For passengers who have opted for Freedom Dining, an automatic gratuity of £1.60 per person (older than 12 years of age) will be added to your onboard account for restaurant stewards. You are able to increase or decrease the amount by speaking to the reception desk.
Travellers used to American cruise lines may be pleased to know that a gratuity is not automatically added to bar bills on Azura.
Azura is advertised as a family friendly ship and it is not!
What you get is a ship with fantastic kids clubs but nothing for families to do.
I am amazed that other passengers were surprised to find children on a family friendly ship. Yes my ...continue
I should make it clear that embarkation from Southampton couldn't be easier, and for us very convenient. It was a quick well organised start and finish to the cruise.
We have cruised on AZURA before, to the Baltic, a wonderful trip altogether. We ...continue
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Boarded Azura on April 27th; P&O usually do boarding very well and I was on the ship about half an hour after arriving at the terminal. Luggage arrived quickly and I was soon unpacked, had lunch and in the library choosing books and arranging ...continue