The Journey to Southampton
We got the free coach as part of our Select fare from Bolton to Southampton. Thankfully we did, as there was a crash on the M6 which closed the motorway. After a long, nearly 9 hour journey through the back roads of Wales, we arrived in Southampton at around 4:45pm. We were due to arrive before 2pm, with Aurora sailing at 4:30pm. If we had not taken the coach, conceivably we would have missed our cruise departure. The coach itself was fairly comfortable, it was a new 19 Plate one of the grade given to football teams by Ellisons. Sadly, the seats were slightly hard as they had not yet been broken in. All in all, it was fantastic and we will definitely take the coach to Southampton as it was a stress free way to start the holiday.
Checking In Process
We hurried into the terminal after getting off the coach, and were processed very quickly by the team at Southampton. They were happy that the final coaches were arriving, and they could finally get Aurora underway. Check-in was very smooth, they scanned my husband's card for payments, took our passports, and gave us our cruise cards. They did retain my husband's Australian passport (but returned it before St Petersburg.)
After checking-in we went through security quite similar to an airport. All hand bags were scanned through x-ray machines, and we went through metal detectors. These are quite sensitive, and security staff were telling everyone to leave on their watches and keep their wallets. This led to some frustrations when the detectors kept going off. Just a heads-up that you might want to put everything in a jacket pocket to go through the x-ray to avoid the pat down/run over with wand mess.
We then went on board Aurora at reception on Deck 5. First impressions were that it was a lovely ship, with a bright vibrant interior. Not overdone, and more classically decorated. There was a photographer at embarkation, but he was busy with a larger group so we slipped by unnoticed. We grabbed the midship lift to deck 10 (B Deck) where our cabin was located in the forward section. I quite liked the new carpets on B Deck. We easily located our cabin, which was a large inside. It had a large King size bed, full size sofa, desk/dressing table, small coffee table, 2 side tables with four drawers each, a large 4 drawer chest, safe, coffee/tea making, and a large wardrobe (2 doors full length with shelf above, 1 door had space for hangable separates). The bathroom was small but serviceable (and a rather nauseating pink colour) with a shower, toilet, sink and cabinet for goods. As we were having a look at the cabin, we had a knock on our door with our cabin steward, Elvis, letting us know that our luggage had arrived. He helped us lug it in, but there was no time to unpack as we needed to attend the muster drill.
One great thing about P&O is that they make sure that you are always aware of where you are supposed to be going, with our muster station A printed on our cruise cards. Our muster station was the Curzon Theatre on Deck 7. We made our way there through the crew staircase which we were directed to by Elvis. The drill itself was painless, we grabbed seats near the front, sat through the demonstration, donned our lifejackets and it was time to go. Even had time to unpack, and enjoy a drink in the Crow's Nest watching the sailaway (and seeing Celebrity Edge go on her maiden) before dinner.
Dining on Aurora
My husband and I choose Freedom dining, which meant we had to dine in the Medina restaurant on Deck 6. It is a lovely restaurant, yet again with an understated decor. Her staff are what makes her a gem, they were all lovely, apart from one pair of waiter's who work near the main doors near the windows. We had them several times for breakfast, and always found them to be slow, consistently forgetting things, and just didn't seem very interested in their jobs. This was the only time we ever encountered poor service on Aurora.
We ate most of our meals in the MDR, party because my husband has a disability which makes eating in the buffet difficult for him. We did not regret this choice at any point in time. The menu's were varied, we could always find something we wanted to eat, and freedom dining was perfect for us. If we did not have freedom dining, it is likely that we would have needed to go to the buffet some more as the select times are either a bit too early or too late for us. On average we ate at 7:30pm each night, some nights we joined a table and others we waited for a table for two which would usually take no more than 20-30 minutes.
The Medina had four sessions of food service a day:
Breakfast (varying from a 7am start to a 9:30am finish - this depended on whether it was a sea/port day)
Lunch from Noon until 1:30pm
Afternoon Tea from 4pm until 4:45pm
Dinner from 6pm until 9:30pm
There was never any issue with the quality of the food for us in Medina. We did hear several remarks from people who said they didn't fancy the food and preferred the buffet. As we did not eat in the buffet much, I cannot comment on the quality and consistency of the food, however, I can certainly state that having a sit down meal is better than the savagery I witnessed in the buffet for the one breakfast and dinner we ate there.
We went for two meals at the buffet - one breakfast and an evening meal after the first day in St Petersburg. I have never seen such appalling behaviour from people who are truly old enough to know better. One of the highlights for me was when I was getting some fruit, my tray on the counter sliding along, selecting things, a woman old enough to be my grandmother kept repeatedly slamming her tray into mine, sighing and making passive aggressive comments to her husband about me. That was enough. The food quality as we saw it was fine, but I couldn't bring myself to go back to the buffet after the behaviour. Additionally, you can never be 100% sure if the food has been contaminated by people who came before you.
The Lido Grill
We had a lunch at the Lido Grill, and the food was quite nice. It was also a bit easier than wading into the buffet as the seating area in front of it is quiet in comparison. They stock a nice selection of sandwiches, salads, desserts, along with hotdogs, pizza, burgers and fries.
Sindhu was a highlight for us. In fact, we enjoyed it so much that we went there twice, once for an ordinary meal and the second time for the tasting menu. The food was wonderful, and the amounts were incredibly generous with the lobster biryani containing two full lobster tails. I fully intend to eat at Sindhu the next time we are on board a P&O ship.
The Beach House
On the final black tie night neither of us could be bothered getting dressed up so we went to The Beach House for a meal. It was lovely food, and incredibly well priced. I would go back anytime I didn't want to dress up again in the future, which is a major bonus for us if we are just knackered and can't be bothered. If it was an evening casual night, it is unlikely I would go, as while the food is good I do not consider it different enough from the fare in the MDR.
There is a wide variety of drinking establishments on Aurora which are designed to suit your particular wants and needs. Some are more suited to coffee and tea, and others to boozy concoctions. We found that we spent most of our drinking time in Anderson's or The Crow's Nest. The bar staff from Anderson's (in particular) were fantastic. One quick note about Anderson's and the refurbishment - if they did the Anderson's carpet in the refurb it is already coming up in the back corners and has multiple pulls in places. Additionally, outside in Charlie's there are several parts where duct tape has been affixed to the floor owing to loose/coming up laminate.
The drink selection and pricing on Aurora was incredible. I was never disappointed with a drink poured to me, and the wine selection in the Glass House and MDR was quite good. Our bar bill was incredibly reasonable - coming in at around £500 for the two of us over a 14 day period. We did not deprive ourselves of anything, as we drank what we wanted when we wanted, and had a bottle of wine every night with dinner.
One complaint was that Champions would advertise that they were going to be playing sport, but would then instead host quiz or music with branding of these events also being shown on all TV's.
We did not go to many of the shows as they did not sound like our cup of tea and spent more time listing to the musician's who were all talented. One show we did go to was to see Deano as Phil Collins - I suspect I did this as much to bother my husband who dislikes his music as I did because I wanted to see it. Being married has to come with perks, right?
Wow. Just wow. The laundrette was both useful and a massive bone of contention among passengers on the ship. When I first went to the laundrette, I was confronted in the Deck 11 Forward one with eight very angry pairs of eyes staring into mine silently demanding to know what the hell I was doing there. Feeling so unwelcome I backed away and went to one on Deck 5 Forward. This is a much tinier laundrette and can be quite hard to find. I managed to do my laundry there, and while talking to a crew member, a call came through that there was a 'disruption' in the Deck 11 Laundrette. I'm glad I didn't stay there.
The second time I used the laundrette, I made sure I was outside the Deck 11 one when it opened at 8am. Someone had left clothing in the dryer from the evening before, and waltzed in at around 9:30 am to collect it which left some people waiting for a dryer. If it had been me I'd have put it in a basket, but no one else wanted to do that.
The machines on board are quick with a wash taking about 45 minutes, have cold and warm water settings, and have the option for an extra rinse. The dryers work very quickly with it taking about 45 minutes to dry a large load. There was no facility to purchase washing powder that I saw.
In a word: Useless. My husband needed to use the internet at sea to complete something which at home would have taken 30 seconds. Speak to the in-charge in the library who tells us each webpage will be max 1 minute to load. So we decide to use PAYG. Never again. 30 minutes later it booted him, which is something we didn't know could happen, and he never accomplished what he needed to.
We complained to reception about the service they provided and the information we received from the internet in-charge. They did not care and offered a derisory 20% off. So I complained by letter to the HGM who righted it within ten minutes of reading my letter and refunded the charge with an apology. It shows that the best way to have things dealt with is to consult management rather than the people on reception who seem relatively unable or unwilling to act in this case with the reception manager.
The Dress Code
On board we had four black-tie nights and ten evening casual nights. For the black-tie nights we attended (three out of four) we conformed to the dress code with tuxedos and gowns on display. However, I did get some snarky comments from people lining up for dinner at 6pm when we were off to Anderson's for our pre-dinner tipple. Apparently to some individuals on board conforming to the dress code is 'showing off' and being 'overdressed'.
The Evening Casual nights said no jeans for women, casual separates or a dress. However, as the cruise continued I became a little more lax in my dresscode and my dark jeans were never questioned in the MDR. They are, however, quite dark. I did take a selection of cocktail-like dresses with me which were never worn and I stuck to my long flowing skirts mostly. I also, on the final evening, got away with wearing my bright coloured trainers in the MDR, this may have been because they were feeling charitable knowing my clothing had made its way to the bowels of the ship and I was attempting to drown my sorrows in beer and wine.
I think the major takeaway regarding the dresscode is that on black-tie nights, especially as the evening moves on, adhering to the dresscode is recommended and quite enjoyable. I only usually get to dress like that very rarely so for three nights it was ideal. I probably will never go to one of the black tie nights on cruises, just to give myself a break, and its also an excuse to enjoy the Beach House. The evening casual nights - don't sweat them too much - a nice sundress, casual (non-jean) pants and sweater, or a neat business dress are all perfect. You won't feel overdressed or out of place. One interesting thing on Aurora was that Black and White night was not adhered to as strongly as I suspected it would be. Many women were wearing pastels or bring sparkly red jumpsuits! I did my bit though.
The On Board Upsells
We admired P&O's restraint when it came to the on board upsells. The photographers were there - in the Horizon they told you where they would be and you could line up for a photo - but they were rarely, if ever, in your face attempting to force you to have your photo taken. The way they sold photos was much better than MSC, where the photographers grabbed and shoved people to take their photo. It was not at all intimidating, and there was no obligation to buy if you did opt to have the photos taken.
The shops were lovely, had some nice things for purchase on board, but we did not purchase anything from them - not even duty free. On board, P&O had brought on a speciality seller of Baltic goods including Amber jewellery and Russian arts and crafts. Some of these were incredibly expensive - with a set of nesting dolls I saw purchased costing £2,250! I did buy my amber jewellery on board, and found it to be good value versus what I found on shore in St Petersburg which may have also been fake. Later in the cruise they had a lovely Russian market where we got a book about St Petersburg and some bits and bobs.
I'll detail the other events P&O ran which we took part in below.
The Wine Tasting
This started at 11:30am, and I would have much preferred if it had instead started at 1:30pm. We started with a glass of prosecco and moved on to taste five different wines. They were all lovely, and Samir, led the talk well. It was an informative, and very alcohol soaked experience which I would gladly do again. Thankfully no spit buckets!
The Scenic Sailaway from Stockholm took place on the forward deck sections on each floor - we were allocated to B Deck (10th floor). We were treated to a large variety of cocktails distributed on our deck by the lovely gents from Anderson's. A favourite of mine was when one bar steward thanked us for making his tray lighter every time we took a drink off. Was very enjoyable and managed to sup back about six cocktails. Oh and be called crazy by the Captain after waving at him like a mad woman when we saw him on the bridge. He's probably on to something!
Champagne Galley Tour
This event started at 10:30am, with a glass of champagne in the Medina Dining Room. We were then taken in groups to the kitchen to meet the Executive Chef and learn how the kitchen operates. We saw the hot and cold food sides, plus the bakery and wine storage. It was very interesting to see, and meet the staff who work so hard to make so many tasty meals. It is interesting to hear their experiences, especially the poor dishwasher who was not sure what to do when people started asking myriad questions about the industrial dishwasher. After the tour we exited in the Alexandria Restaurant on Deck 6 Aft where we had more champagne and some canapes. Overall, it was a lovely tour and I'm pleased we did it.
Finally, a great start time for an alcohol fueled day drinking session: 1:30pm! This was held in Anderson's Bar at the counter, as we were told about four different martini's: the classic gin martini (with shaken and stirred varieties shown), the cosmopolitan, the English Breakfast martini and the French Martini. The English Breakfast martini was my favourite, while my husband was partial to the French martini. The English Breakfast martini is not on the menu, but you can ask for it in Anderson's and they will make it. I would definitely do this talk again, for the cheap martini's if nothing else!
In a word: Boring. We left the boat early when it first docked, took a fetching photo of my husband with a stuffed moose, walked around the town centre, picked up some souvenirs and reindeer salami and went back to the ship before 11am. We then spent the rest of the day at leisure. I believe there was a lovely nap.
We did check the prices out for having lunch but found the cost of everything around the fish market and cruise port to be prohibitive. So we just ate on board the ship. There were no shuttle buses running as it was a simple walk into the centre. Pretty, but nothing much to do.
We had been to Copenhagen before and did the best thing in the city in our opinion: Feeding Hammerhead sharks at the aquarium.
This time we decided to focus our attention on the historical palaces and touristy areas. So, we once again got off the ship, took the shuttle into Copenhagen and started following a map for our very own photographic walking tour. We looked at all of the palaces, along with the parliament buildings and some other historical sites. After we finished our walk we took a canal boat tour, which ended up being a lovely way to spend our mid afternoon. After we got off the boat we went for lunch in Nyhavn, which was expensive but tasty and washed it down with some Tuborg. After lunch we decided to walk back to the ship along the waterfront which was a lovely way to end our day in Copenhagen.
A few things about Copenhagen:
It is expensive
The Little Mermaid is disappointing for most, yet also manages to be the busiest site in the city. Key word is in the name: Little.
Remember your sunscreen - it was quite sunny there with limited opportunities for shade and my husband caught the sun.
Rather than take a ships tour, we booked the two-day All Highlights tour through TJ Travel. On Day One we started at the Hermitage, which was an impressive building for its architecture and design. The building and the art collection are lovely. However, it was a pity that the Impressionists had been moved out to a new building, and I will need to revisit one day to see the Hermitage's collection. We enjoyed the museum, but were not able to visit the gift shop, which annoyed my husband as he usually buys books from large museums which contain some of the photos of their collection.
After the Hermitage we went to the Church on Spilt Blood which was a lovely church, which is unfortunately undergoing restoration works. Our guide informed us that after the summer it will be fully under restoration for up to seven years'. We then had lunch, which was god awful, under-cooked chicken, and soup which was a chicken leg floating in broth. I was going to be hungry today. After lunch we drove to Catherine's Palace to see the Amber Room. It was a lovely palace, and we got lucky in that we got in before the major crowds. People on other tours said that they had to wait a few hours to get in because of the crowds, in particular large Asian tour groups.
We then drove back to St Petersburg and saw the Peter and Paul Fortress. It was interesting to see it, and take some lovely photos. After this my husband and I were going on our evening tour and met our guide at another area of the city. Our new guide was incredible, and helped us understand Russia as it is today. We went on the Russian Experience tour which included six shots of vodka. I now think everyone needs to try horseradish vodka once in their life. Just try it, don't think about it, it sounds like a horrible idea! We had a lovely time that evening, I managed to buy my father a bottle of vodka, and we got a taste of Russian stout which was quite nice.
Our second day in St Petersburg was an earlier start. We drove into the city and did a canal tour of St Petersburg. The highlight of this, was not the glorious scenery, but a young man who managed to run from bridge to bridge waving at us for the entire journey. We gave him 5 EUR, as my husband said he certainly earned it. We then took the hydrofoil to Peterhof and viewed the fountain park. As stated above we did not get to see the opening ceremonies, which I would have enjoyed the spectacle of. We did get a nice tour of the gardens, but it would have been nice to have been consulted regarding how we went about it. After this we then went to lunch, which was slightly better than the previous day, but was still not very nice.
After lunch we went to Yusupov Palace, which was an interesting experience given the history of the place as the site where Rasputin was assassinated, and also that of the family. I think it was a highlight of the second day. We were advised by our guide to not buy the photo ticket and many in the group were unhappy with this advice as they decided they did want photos of the Palace. Our final stop was St Isaac's Cathedral, which was a lovely church but by then I was all churched out. My husband and I went through the motions, glad that the tour was nearly over. We were then shuttled to the TJ Travel office, where we could pay for the tour, and do the 'shopping'. I think that TJ Travel should be more open about the fact that the only shopping offered on the tour is in the souvenir shop where their office is located.
We quite enjoyed St Petersburg, however, next time I am there I would probably use my cruise line tours.
Our next stop was Tallinn, Estonia. It is a lovely small city with heavily cobbled roads. As we were walking around the city touring the historical sites, we saw the tourist train as it was going over a set of cobbles. It was bouncing everywhere and sounded incredibly loud, the poor passengers looked like they were regretting their life choices. I was pleased we didn't get suckered into using it. We greatly enjoyed our walk around Tallinn, and we then found a lovely bar underground where we sampled Estonian beer. We had a lovely, pleasant day, and returned to the ship mid-afternoon and took advantage of the Lido Grill.
We took the shuttle bus into Stockholm after disembarking with the 'speed of a thousand screaming ABBA fans' as our Captain would say. After getting off the bus we then just wandered, somewhat aimlessly, through the streets of Old Town Stockholm, enjoying the gorgeous weather. After our long, mindless amble, we found a lovely restaurant and ate a truly glorious meal while drinking copious amounts of Swedish beer. Good day all around. When we were done shopping we got the shuttle bus back to the ship.
The final port on our Baltic Adventure was Warnemunde, a lovely German seaside resort. While many on the boat took the train to Rostock, we decided to just spend time in Warnemunde itself. We did some shopping - mostly beer and sausages - for my father, and wandered back with our haul to the ship. After dropping off our mass of goodies (which contrary to his belief I DID manage to pack in our cases) we wandered back into Warnemunde. There we found a nice bar to have a few pints of pilsner (you can see the theme with our travels?) After our morning of drinking we went and found some lunch which consisted of sausages in buns, fries and more pilsner from a lovely boat which sold fast food. During our meal a massive queen bee decided to make my husband her *, and sat on his head for quite some time. I ran away. Thankfully, he's Australian and is much better at dealing with creepy crawlies than I am, and casually allowed her to sit on him until she grew attracted to his ear and decided running along it like a treadmill was a good idea. There were quite a few bees in Warnemunde - just a warning for those who are bug haters like I am.
After lunch we got a lovely soft icecream with chocolate dip. Mmmm... And found another bar nearer to the train station where we sat and had a lovely conversation with a German couple over google translate. We had a fantastic time in Warnemunde, even though we didn't climb the old lighthouse because we're too damn lazy - plus stairs are our mortal enemies.
The staff on P&O were on the whole exceptional. Apart from the Reception Manager and the one pairing of waiters in Medina as mentioned above. Everyone was friendly and armed with a "Good ". They never let you feel like a bother even when you were disrupting their work. I would say that the staff are a great asset to P&O, and they are very lucky to have them.
Our cabin steward was incredible. Nothing was too much effort. I asked for ice one day and he brought it every day of the holiday. He was quick, very efficient and always kept our room at the highest standard - even when my own standards slipped. He gave great advice during our first days on board which allowed us to make the most of the facilities. We got to know about him, his home and his family. If you are on Aurora - or whatever other ship he moves to after November - and you get Elvis from Goa - you are very lucky indeed.
Captain Neil Turnbull
The man of the hour, the Captain Neil Turnbull. Unfortunately, due to a rather serious infection I was suffering from renewing our vows on board was not possible, but if we were to have done it I'm sure he would have been an interesting officiant. I enjoyed his morning addresses - though I know some did not - and his musings on his two specialist subjects children and Derbyshire. He always said he would get us off the ship with the speed of a thousand gazelles (or Cossack gazelles, or screaming ABBA fans...) and when we came back he was always pleased someone had not run off with a fisherman. We met him on the first say in St Petersburg and he seemed to be a lovely affable man. It was amusing when he complained during an announcement about people complaining about his route to Russia because he was never going to get us there and would ruin their holiday. His simple reply was that he did not want to scrape his bottom off going any other way. Backseat driving is bad enough, but I'm not sure I'd handle backseat ship steering from people with such good humour.
Things I Would Take Again and Those I Wouldn't
So, I packed way too much stuff, but live and learn. I'll just give a quick list below of things I will and will not take again:
Shoe holder for over the bathroom door for toiletries
Air Freshner for the Bathroom
Electronic tea lights
Plug for charging multiple USB devices
First Aid Kit
More than five days' clothing (with the ease of using the laundrettes)
Books (very heavy)
Final Thoughts...and will I cruise P&O again (drum-roll...)
Finally, we loved P&O. I must admit that I was concerned we would not like it very much and would be disappointed about the money spent. The reality is that we have a cruise booked on Aurora in November, and then a transatlantic Caribbean for October 2020 on Britannia. So, would I cruise with P&O again? Absolutely. You need to have your expectations set fairly, you need to understand what you are paying for and what you are not. Reality is £100pppd for room and full board is a bargain, especially with the high standards P&O hold themselves to. You also cannot underestimate the value of sailing to and from Southampton (if you live in the UK), especially with free coach travel offered by P&O as part of your select fare. I look forward to being back on board Aurora, and to enjoying many future cruises on P&O in the future.