My grateful thanks to Neil for this wonderful insight into what the fantastic new P&O Azura has to offer. Read Neils thoughts and observations during his recent cruise to Venice and the Central Mediterranean
I returned on Tuesday 21st September from a stunning Central Mediterranean cruise on Azura. As usual here is my report that will concentrate mostly on what the ship has to offer and not be a blow by blow account of the whole cruise.
Firstly check in Southampton could not have been smoother. We arrived quite early and were directed to the short stay car park until CPS were ready to start checking in cars for our cruise. After a wait of approx 30 mins we were directed to check in the car and our luggage was whisked away and we soon found ourselves sat in the waiting area with boarding cards “A”, within a very short space of time check in was started and we were ready to go through security. For the first time security requested that some people’s shoes be removed, mine being one of them. By 11.45am we were stepping onboard Azura, luckily complete with shoes. Now here is where my first gripe comes, I’ve sailed on Ventura five times so know the layout like the back of my hand and Azura is no different, on the inside at least. We were told to go up to deck 15 to the Venezia self service restaurant. Now we knew where to go cos this is the same as the Waterside on Ventura, but I felt sorry for anyone boarding either of these ships for the first time because there was nobody to point you in the right direction once you’d left the atrium. In fact the signage onboard proved to be very poor indeed as the cruise progressed. On Ventura the stairwell carpets are colour coded so you at least know whether you are forward, midships , or aft. On Azura they are all the same, which is fine when you know the general layout but cruisers new to this class of ship must have been lost for most of the cruise. It’s easy to get it into your head that you are facing forward when you exit the main lifts and are facing aft when you exit the glass atrium lifts, but if you lose your concentration for a second you forget which stairwell you are in and there are no signs to give you a clue. All it needs is a sign on the wall facing you as you exit the lifts that tells you whether you are fwd, mid or aft and a sign to point you to port or starboard. I know which side is which but there are many pax, especially new ones, who do not have a clue which side is which.
Once we’d found our way to the Venezia we settled down to a light lunch before setting off to tour the ship. As you all no doubt know Azura is almost identical to Ventura in its layout with many of the lounges being very similar indeed with only the colour scheme being the noticeable difference. But I’m going to start at the top with the pool areas and here is where the major differences are glaringly obvious. Breakers bar appears on Ventura too but here on Azura the furnishings are much classier looking with black raffia chairs and marble effect tables. The sun loungers throughout are brown framed instead of white and i suppose thats down to personal choice but I prefer the brown version. The main outdoor pool is the Coral pool and is identical to the Ventura version with the poolside grill and pizza bar in the same places. The menus vary a little from Ventura with the welcome addition of jackets spuds at the grill, available with a choice of fillings. Moving aft to the Aqua pool is where the biggest difference to Ventura’s pools can be found, here there is no sliding magrodome and you are confronted by the “Sea Screen”. Loved by us but hated by some, more of which later. The flooring in all pool areas is much better quality and no longer resembles the type of flooring you get in a Macdonalds at home. We now have flooring which looks like teak decking and is better than the similar stuff used on the promenade deck. This flooring here on the pool decks is textured which helps with the look of it and no doubt helps with traction when you are walking with wet feet. As mentioned earlier the main self service restaurant is the Venezia which is very similar indeed to the Waterside. The Verona is Azuras version of the Beach house and is decorated in more muted and darker tones giving it a much more intimate feel. The Terrace pool, all the way aft, is again the same as Ventura’s version. Going way up to the top of the ship on deck 19 there is the sports court and instead of the bungee trampolines they have installed a deck games area with shuffle board and deck quoits available. More of the brown sunbeds can be found up here too.
Into the Planet bar which is again decorated in richer fabric and darker tones than the Metropolis on Ventura. The layout is almost identical with the only real difference being the removal of a small bar area to the left of the entrance to the bar. The mood lighting is red in here as opposed to blue in Metropolis. One thing which baffled me is that they had a beautiful bronze sculpture of planet earth on display at the entrance to the bar, this “planet” was stationary unlike the chrome “crisp packet” on Ventura which rotated, surely they should have had the globe rotating too???!!!
The spa is very nice, again very relaxing darker tones seem to have been used throughout. We got dragged into a guided tour which seemed to take forever as every aspect of the spa was explained to us in minute detail. “The Retreat” is the new pay for use luxury spa area situated at the forward end of the ship, I personally don’t think the cost is worth it just to get a private use sunlounger most of which are in partial shade anyway, though I’m sure some people would love this “private” area. It is very very nice to look at, and when full only holds a small number of pax, but for fees into the hundreds of pounds for this area I think its just a bit much. I did hear that no day passes were available on our cruise but whether that was just hearsay I don’t know, I never checked it out.
Down and inside to deck 7 the entertainment heart of the ship. The Playhouse Theatre takes up decks 7 and 6 and is decorated with colours more suited to a theatre with seating upholstered in reddish fabric not the bland beige/green of the Arena on Ventura. “The Glass House” replaces “Ramblas” and is a quite stunning bar in shades of light oak and lime greens with chocolate browns and burnt orange bringing a taste of a chic London wine bar or bistro. Glass is evident everywhere some of it see through and some of it mirrored giving a very light open airy feel to the area. The area is made up of several small seemingly enclosed areas which give a very intimate feel to this bar. I’ll touch on the food and drink available here later in this report.
Going aft we reach the top of the atrium with the “Blue Bar” on the port side. Similar to Ventura’s “Red Bar” but with fabulous swivel chairs and a stunning colour scheme, though its more of a grey bar than blue as most of the furniture is upholstered in shades of grey and the only blue to be found is in the carpets and a few sculptures adorning the walls. Still I think this bar is an improvement on the red version of Ventura. Further aft brings you to “Malabar” similar in many ways to “The Tamarind Club” but lacking the stunning chandelier and the lime green seating didn’t do it for me. Still this room is stunning with its brass lights and “palm trees”. Continuing into the photo gallery we have on the port side “Sindhu” the Indian alternative dining venue much like “East” on Ventura but with beautiful chrystal partitions to the dining area making for a very elegant intimate dining experience. On through the photo gallery we end up all the way aft in the “Manhatten” night club and cabaret lounge. On first sight this looks identical to “Havana” with classier silver clad pillars but on closer inspection I noticed that the walls of the “cattle sheds” were much lower in here than on Ventura which meant each seat in the venue had a sight line to the stage, a great improvement in my opinion. This venue was used for tribute acts and the usual nightclub disco.
Down to deck six and we find “Brodies” the pub and casino. This altogether a much nicer place than the equivalent bar on Ventura. The decor is dark and intimate with very classy touches to the decor with lovely lighting. The layout is opposite to that of the “Exchange bar” with the casino taking up the port side of the bar. The whole area is smaller than Venturas due to the fact that they’ve added single cabins to the port side of this deck which takes up the space somewhat of this bar. Many interesting pieces of P&O memorabilia are on display in cabinets around the bar and there is a welcome addition of a pool table and dart board. The reception and the “Peninsular restaurant” are also on this deck, the “Peninsular” is given to club dining, as is the “Meridian Restaurant” at the aft end of this deck. Down on deck 5 is the “Oriental” restaurant given to freedom dining. Also on deck five is the gallery and the coffee bar “Java”. The library, “Chronicles” is more of a book store on Azura and the Cyb@study is now a small reading and lending library with a few PC’s dotted around to keep people “connected”. The usual future cruise and excursions desks are here too. In the centre of the atrium as an oval wooden dance floor which although not large is easy to dance on and in the evening the seating is pushed back to allow dancers to overflow onto the tiled flooring of the atrium which I as a professional dancer did not find a problem at all, and with one of my former students onboard, I got plenty of chances to show off my dancing skills.
Before we set sail on this cruise, much had been said about cutbacks and lack of freebies. Well on Azura there were no obvious cutbacks, indeed some things seem to have been upgraded a little. Things like the toiletries were of a better quality and the addition of a good selection of Twinings teas at the self serve restaurants are an improvement on boring old Tetleys, and in the cabins the addition of coffee bags was a welcome sight, with all the hot drinks gear being presented in a nice wooden box instead of stuffed into part of the tea service. I do wish they would have kept the chrome tea service they have on Ventura instead they have a plastic kettle and china mugs. Food in the restaurants was up to the usual good standard with the waiters emphasising that larger portions were not a problem if required. Cheese has been noted as lacking recently in some reports, well on Azura cheese was on the menu every night and on formal nights the sorbet was there too, even savouries were offered to finish, though why anyone would want one after dessert is beyond me. Each night the food was well cooked, hot and well presented. Sirloin steak did make several appearances as a menu item and there was no lobster which disappointed me as its one of my favourites. Our waiters were, in a word, superb. There was nothing too much trouble and it took them no time at all to figure out our preferences. The wine waiter was very efficient and had a good knowledge of what he was serving, maybe this had something to do with Olly Smiths input on Azura. The food in the self service areas was excellent with a great choice available at all times of the day though I did hear one or two complaining that the choice was poor, but with more than twenty five choices of hot or cold food available at any one time, what on earth they thought was lacking is beyond me. Sadly we didn’t get to eat in “Seventeen” but we did try “Sindhu” and “The Glass House”. “Sindhu” was sublime with the most mouth-watering flavours I’ve ever had from and Indian meal. You can eat here at lunch time when they do a type of tapas service called Nashta which is delicious too. “The Glass House” serves a variety of dishes during the day some are individual dishes and others you order three of from a list. We only ate in here a couple of times, but the food was to die for, with prawns as big as Maine Lobster and Bison Burgers as big as… well… Bison. They also serve vintage wines by the glass, made possible by a dispensing system that fills the bottle with nitrogen as the wine is drawn off, therefore preventing oxidation of the wine. The wine can be kept in this way for around three weeks but I was told that no bottle lasts longer than the day it is opened. They also serve “wine flights” which is a selection of three different wines selected by Olly Smith to compliment each other, there were several of these wine flights to try. The Verona self serve diner becomes a Trattoria in the evening with full waiter service but we didn’t get round to trying here either. We’re back on board in April next year on freedom dining and we will be using the “Glass House” much more I’m sure. Food on the pool decks was the usual fare of grills and pizza with two deck BBQs during the cruise.
Entertainment was generally very good with the usual offering of tribute and cabaret acts alongside the big theatre productions. Entertainment is very much a personal preference thing and our party of six had varying opinions as to what was good and what was not so good. My opinion was that the big productions though spectacular and well staged were lacking something and I put it down to a couple of weak links in the company. They all worked very hard but there were a couple of weak links that, to me, took the edge of the performances. We didn’t go to as many of the shows or cabarets as usual tending more to make our own fun in the various bars and lounges. One highlight for me was the lack of brash entertainment in the pub, things in here were far more civilised than on Ventura with “Jukebox Duo” performing their melodic set here most nights with just a few nights given over to fun quizzes and Karaoke. Now to my first real gripe as I turn my attention to “The Planet Bar”. As I stated earlier this bar is a lovely venue with the decor and lighting giving a very different feel to Ventura’s “Metropolis”. Here too is a large video wall showing stunning films of the wonders of the world around us, but this bar has been designated a quiet bar (the bar manager informed me of this) and so there is NO entertainment whatsoever. It really lacked a quiet piano playing in the background. It doesn’t need any cabaret acts as such, just some soft, melodic, live background music. It was never as busy as Metropolis and having tried it three times we struck it off our list of venues to visit at night, due to the lack of atmosphere. Ballroom dancing was a feature of the atrium most nights with an excellent live band playing all the strict tempo ballroom and Latin favourites. I spun a former pupil of mine round the floor several times during my time on board and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
During the day the usual assortment of speakers and lecturers were onboard with an excellent set of talks from a former Scotland Yard detective and a former Concorde pilot. Art lovers were well catered for with “Tate Talks” and a preview of an exhibition of Rolf Harris paintings which premiered onboard Azura before a national tour.
Another negative about Azura is the addition of some balcony cabins on deck eight which cut off the bow walkway from the promenade deck, so you cannot fully circumnavigate the ship. They have also added some balconies to the port side of the spa which again means you cannot walk around the front of the ship. So nowhere on the outside of the ship is it possible to walk all the way round. You can still get to the bow via doors on deck eight but it was much better when you could just access this area by going up a few steps from the promenade deck.
Perhaps my biggest gripe, as usual, is the behaviour of some of the passengers. There were only 23 children on board so no competition for pool space, but the biggest competition came from some of the older ignorant passengers who had to get to where they were going at whatever cost. Barging into lifts before the people inside had even started to step out. I had a rare old do with a man whose wife walked straight into me as I was exiting the lift and he blamed me for coming out of the wrong side of the lift. Some people wander aimlessly about the self service areas just pushing in front of you to get what they want whilst you are forming an orderly queue. Then there’s the old old problem of the sun loungers. I don’t bother about a bed near a pool, I don’t care if I’m atop the funnel as long as I get one for about half an hour or so (I get bored for longer). We observed one group of four who laid out their worldly goods on the loungers before departing for a few hours and coming back expecting their beds to still be there. This happened every day including port days, now if I’d wanted a poolside bed I would not have hesitated to tell them in no uncertain terms but nobody seemed to have the bottle to tell them that they were out of order. Each day in the horizon paper there was a piece about the sunbed situation and on some days this was quite strongly worded but to no avail. P&O really need to address this situation more head on police the beds more directly, words in the paper are obviously ignored, where direct action couldn’t be. There are enough sunbeds on the ship for all passengers but obviously not enough to accommodate vast numbers in the premium spots by the pools. Now to the promenade deck which is narrow indeed when compared to ships like Aurora, Oriana and Oceana, but people still like to walk the lengths of the deck for excercise and the bracing sea air. This wouldn’t be too much of a problem if passengers left the chairs situated where they are with the backs up against the ships walls but OH NO some rude and ignorant passengers insist on pulling the chairs out in order to get into the sun and put their feet on the railings whilst reading a book or sleeping or both. This causes an unnecessary cluttering of the prom deck and makes a walk along it more like a game of dodge the deck chair. Once again consideration for fellow passengers goes out the window.
Now to the “Sea Screen” Ged and I used this a few times, it was great lying on the padded beds with our blankets to hand and a carton of popcorn and a drink. During the day they showed a film in the afternoon then some music videos before a daily comedy classic. The night time show that we went to was 10.30pm and was just great. We heard a lot of complaints from people who felt the sound from the screen disturbed their day by the other pool but unless you were right at the point where the two pool areas meet you could not hear much from the screen. When about 30 ft away from the Aqua pool you couldn’t hear it at all during the day. We had a cabin on R deck not too far from the screen pool and can confirm that at no time could you hear anything from the screen even with the loudest films like “Clash of the Titans” playing. Even walking on the corridors directly beneath the screen you were TOTALLY unaware it was there. I suppose some people just have to have something to complain about.
So in conclusion… I am a big Ventura fan and have had some fantastic cruises on her but Azura is a definite improvement. The atmosphere is very different, maybe because of the lack of children on this cruise, but I think its more down to the decor and the “feeling”. It’s hard to put it into words but I’m sure those who have been on both ships will know where I’m coming from. The atmosphere seems more grown up, more mellow and the crew do seem to be trying hard to create a more traditional cruise atmosphere akin to that on Aurora. It worked for me anyway and for the rest of my party, though one did say he preferred Ventura for the entertainment. The cruise itself was stunning with Venice to highlight which every cruiser should visit at least once for the experience of sailing in and out of. We’re doing the exact same cruise in April next year to cover ground we missed this time and we’re doing it on the fantastic Azura nuff said.
Of course someone else on the exact same cruise may have completely the opposite view, but this was the cruise and the ship as I saw it. I had the best time, made even better by the fantastic celebrations we had for my 50th birthday whilst onboard. Friends, crew, entertainers and many passengers went a long way to make my day very special indeed, and my birthday went a long way to make this cruise very special. Here’s to the next cruise on the lovely Azura. Just Ged and I on the next one, on freedom dining so it will be different again… can’t wait.
If you’ve managed to get this far without nodding off, thanks for taking the time to read it and I hope you gain at least something from it.
Happy Cruising from Neil and Ged