As this was the last scheduled cruise by the Aurora before its well-publicised re-fit, we did wonder if standards might be expected to slip, but our fears were groundless. This was our third cruise but we have never been with P&O ... Read More
As this was the last scheduled cruise by the Aurora before its well-publicised re-fit, we did wonder if standards might be expected to slip, but our fears were groundless. This was our third cruise but we have never been with P&O before, and the convenience of boarding at Southampton meant no flights and therefore no weight restrictions on baggage. Paying the cheap rate for P&O cabins means you don't get a guaranteed car parking slot on the dockside, so we did the next best thing and booked with Alternative Cruise Parking (ACP). That was also a good move, since mini-bus transfers to and from the ship are included in the price, and the staff there were extremely friendly and helpful.
Both embarkation and disembarkation procedures at the Ocean Terminal in Southampton worked flawlessly and we had virtually no delay for queues either getting on or off the ship. That was another big plus for us, having previously suffered chaos and long delays with MSC at Genoa.
We booked a balcony cabin on deck 12 (Lido deck) which is on the same level as the bridge, and by chance were allocated a cabin on the port side just two windows behind the bridge itself. It was clean and tidy, and everything that we had expected. The bed in particular was much bigger than the one we have at home, and has set my wife off on another shopping hunt for a new one, but that's another story. The balcony was the type with a framed opening rather than floor-to-ceiling view, which was quite good on some days for minimising the spray from the Bay of Biscay! Even so, the two wooden chairs and little coffee table out there did tend to get wet overnight, and we got into the habit of stashing the seat cushions vertically against the forward wall so they didn't get splashed.
We booked excursions at each of the five ports of call: La Coruna, Casablanca, Malaga, Cadiz and Lisbon. On reflection this was probably a bit on the "manic" side for us, and another time we'd probably set aside at least some of the ports to do our own thing. However:
La Coruna: we booked a tour called "Discover the Way of St James" which involved a 90 minute bus trip, then a 3km walk through verdant green rolling countryside, followed by a further short trip into Santiago de Compostela where we had free time to wander around the shops and admire the architecture. The weather was initially very wet but we had taken the precaution of wearing walking boots and carrying waterproofs. Our guide was Jutta, who was enthusiastic at describing the local culture as it differed from national Spanish culture. Exploring Santiago was fascinating and we found a good tapas bar for lunch (Taberna do Bispo) and bought various gifts at other shops nearby. The Spanish bagpipe player in the town square, wearing a sort of jester outfit, was memorable.
Casablanca: the quayside was covered with a slick layer of filth that looked like a mixture of tar, molasses and camel poo. We had no option but to walk across it in the morning, although by our return in the afternoon it had to some extent been covered up by sawdust or sand. Everybody complained about it, not least those operating wheelchairs. The Captain later apologised and said that a complaint would be made. We had booked a tour covering the Hassan II mosque, the olive market and some free shopping time. The mosque was certainly impressive and we learned a lot about it from our friendly guide (Radwan) who had a good sense of humour. The olive market was colourful and noisy, but in the end we didn't have enough time to explore the bazaar area for ourselves, although we bought various craft items such as a leather belt and some coloured scarves, very cheaply.
Malaga: after another day at sea, during which our very helpful cabin steward (Floyd) had managed to clean the Casablanca stuff from my shoes, we docked at Malaga in the evening for a 24-hr stay. The contrast with Casablanca could not have been greater. Very modern cruise terminal building with automated walkways adjusting to the height of the ship. In the evening we decided to stay on board for the excellent dinner in the Medina restaurant, but many others went ashore to find dinner there. Next day our excurson guide was called Sergio, although he pronounced it Serchio with the ch as in the Scottish loch. The first part of the tour took us around the narrow streets of Malaga to visit the statue of Picasso seated on a bench, then the unfinished "one-armed lady of Malaga" which is an unfinished medieval cathedral that should have had twin towers but they ran out of money when only one had been built. The best part of the trip was a visit to the hilltop Castillo de Catalina. This started life as a castle, became a private residence maybe 100 years ago and more recently converted to a hotel. Impressive tiered gardens with good views of the city below. In one of the rooms adjacent to the rear courtyard we were treated to a wonderful flamenco music and dance display by four performers in national costume, which we thoroughly enjoyed.
Cadiz: another clean and tidy quayside, and docking was a bit like reversing up the high street. Some of the quayside buildings were taller than the ship. Our vivacious tour guide (Antonia) accompanied us on a 45 minute bus ride to Jerez, where we passed huge sherry warehouses adorned with familiar names such as Harvey's Bristol Cream. The initial stop was at the Williams Humbert winery, where another clear-voiced guide called Christina explained the process of sherry blending, which involves siphoning a portion of each year's production into the barrels on the layer below. We were then seated around large tables and invited to taste three different sherries. I always thought I didn't like sherry and now I'm quite certain, so the less said about that the better. The final stop on the excursion was to the Equestrian centre in Jerez where we saw a terrific performance by the Royal Horses. With rousing Spanish orchestral music and interesting coloured lighting, up to eight riders at a time were demonstrating absolute control of their horses including sideways, diagonal and reverse steps, airborne kicks, threading between poles and each other, etc. There was a carriage driving section as well. Very impressive, and something that my wife has always wanted to see.
Lisbon: the weather had sadly deteriorated to some extent, but the arrival up the Tagus river was nevertheless impressive. Underneath the suspension bridge buzzing with road and rail traffic, then another dockside with two other cruise ships already in place. Steeply sloping terrain rises behind the waterfront, covered with white-walled and red-tiled buildings. Must be one of Europe's most beautiful capital cities, and despite the rain we were able to appreciate it. Our afternoon excursion, in the company of our multi-lingual guide Isabel, took us to the charming medieval village of Obidos, some 70km north of Lisbon via the A8 motorway. The weather was still wet but it didn't detract from the quaint cobbled streets, the archways and viaduct, the blue tiled wall decorations something like delft pottery, and the inevitable souvenir shops. We bought superb cotton bedspeads here (after I had learned the Portugese word for cotton) and found some late lunch in a very good little restaurant called the Petrarum Domus bar (review on Trip Advisor). The bus driver did well to get us back to the ship on time despite continuous torrential rain on the motorway.
Dining: we were given table 74 in the Medina Restaurant and ate there every evening with two other couples, with whom we struck up an instant friendship. Our waiters (Noel and Monico) were attentive and soon learned our preferences. Sadly this is apparently the last Aurora cruise to feature silver service by waiters at tables, since the forthcoming re-fit will change the manner in which food will be plated and served. We wondered what will happen to the waiters then? Apart from the Medina we sampled the Café Bordeaux which was particularly nice for both breakfast and lunch, which is another shame since it is as I write in the process of being ripped out and replaced with something completely different. The Orangery buffet was also very convenient for quick breakfast when we were short of time, or afternoon tea with naughty cakes, particularly as it was a quick walk along the same deck from our cabin. The Crow's Nest bar featured wonderful sea views, discreet piano playing, and sadly repetitive background music when the pianist wasn't there. How many times did we hear two half-strangled girls singing about how easily they bruised, or begging for mercy? I would definitely have bought more drinks in the Crow's Nest if it hadn't been for them.
Entertainment: theatre and shows are not really our thing, although we did support the crew talent show one evening. We saw at least two very good films at the Playhouse cinema ~ "Lucy" and "Saving Mr Banks." The TV in the cabin had one film channel with a somewhat limited repertoire, but I did get to see one or two memorable films there too. There were very few children on the ship during this cruise but there are clearly facilities for them.
Activities: about the only on-board activity we sampled was swimming. The Jacuzzi pools were very warm and lovely, the Riviera open-air pool was also slightly warmed and quite invigorating. The Crystal pool has a roll-over roof something like the one at Wimbledon, but that was firmly closed at this time of year. The table tennis tables around the upper balcony overlooking the pool appeared to be popular with other guests.
Days at sea: a welcome break from excursions, really! And we saw dolphins on at least three occasions, and one sighting of a whale spouting not 50 yards from the ship, just below the bridge. After consulting a number of books in the ship library I came to the conclusion this could have been a female or juvenile sperm whale. It had the right nose shape, with the blowhole right at the front, the dorsal fin was not noticeable as with many other types, and the size was at least three times that of the dolphins we had seen. Not one of the world's commonest whales, that's for sure. We saw this on the approaches to the Gibraltar straits between Casablanca and Malaga.
Summary: we loved every minute of this cruise and are already thinking of a Caribbean trip next, probably one starting and finishing in Southampton. Although we live in the Scottish highlands we have family and friends in Oxfordshire, and we can combine visiting them with the drive to Southampton.