I’d never left a port with a 30-strong police boat escort before, so Azura’s departure from Venice in the face of threats from anti-cruise ship protesters was a novel experience.
There were just a handful of keen photographers at the bow, including those from the ship who had swapped the usual drudgery of soft focus snaps for something a bit more action-packed.
As it happened, after several hours of delay, during which we were entertained by eight police jetskiers, numerous small craft and corralled on the berth, we were able to make our way out without any trouble, passing a military flotilla which had been lying in wait for trouble.
A major incident was averted although the captain said that riot police had ordered the port gates to be closed against demonstrators during the morning.
We boarded for our 17-day cruise at the Mayflower terminal in Southampton which was rather gloomy compared to the comfort on offer at the City and Ocean berths.
We hadn’t cruised on Azura before but stayed on board overnight for her 2010 christening. She’s pretty much identical to her sister Ventura with a couple of notable exceptions, the main one being the pool roof cannot be closed in cool weather, although as we didn’t use it that didn’t inconvenience us.
We’re cruising again later in the year so for this Med cruise we decided on an inside cabin, near the Terrace pool area on Riviera deck. It proved a good location as the cafeteria was just one flight up.
The cabin was adequate and we didn’t spend much time in it. Our attendant provided a very basic service, if you asked for ice, for instance, you would get it, but not the same day.
I’m not sure if this was down to him or maybe it’s P&O’s new policy, but if you used the little bottle of shampoo provided then it wasn’t replaced / refilled.
The food was about the same as Ventura in 2011, much better than Independence of the Seas and we generally enjoyed it. Sometimes we used freedom dining in the main dining room but the cafeteria had a theme every night and we enjoyed the Asian food in particular.
The waiter service on formal nights was a bit chaotic, I’d probably have said it was a little understaffed as all the waiters were working flat out so we were understanding when they forgot some things.
We found the price of alcohol on board very reasonable although we didn’t bother with a wine package this time. We liked the Planet bar for cocktails in the evening. It could get crowded but it soon thinned out as second sitting passengers headed down for dinner.
It would have been nice to watch a film on deck some afternoons but there was nowhere to sit, all the sunbeds were in use.
However, we found plenty to do and spent quite a lot of time on the bow with our cameras where we were treated to plenty of dolphin displays and saw four whales, two on either side of the ship.
Much of the day was spent up in the Planet Bar where I did my cross stitch while my husband looked for whales and dolphins.
I did join the Azura Vocalists as I’d enjoyed the choir on Ventura but I opted out after four rehearsals as I didn’t like the music much.
It’s fair to say that the cruise, in May / June when there were few children onboard, was really aimed at older people and certainly the Vocalists’ music was in that category. I don’t know that My Fair Lady appeals to anyone under 60.
The music theme continued throughout the cruise with Strictly Come Dancing’s Russell Grant on board, joined by Azura godmother Darcey Bussell after Gibraltar. We aren’t Strictly fans at all and due to my mother’s death a month before we sailed we hadn’t had time to investigate any special activities.
However, lots of people on board did speak highly of it and I enjoyed Russell in the buffet where his theatrical personality preceded him. We also liked Blue Bar pianist Frankie Glicksman who was remarkable, highly recommended for his varied repertoire. Another highlight for us was the New Zealand / Samoan tenor Ben Makisi, we saw him twice, his shows were packed, he was very popular.
We’d been to most of the destinations before, Venice was a delight and we took the ship’s transport there and back. Unfortunately we only had a day, rather than the overnight we’d had on Ventura in 2011 but we thoroughly enjoyed it, especially the sail in and out.
Cartagena was nice, we enjoyed a walk there but Messina isn’t somewhere I’d rush back to, although the clock with moving figures is a marvel in itself, if only for the number of renditions of Ave Maria.
At Corfu we walked slowly up to the top of the fort and enjoyed spectacular views as well as a meander round the old town although as this was our second visit we were wise to the fake ‘designer’ handbags. The old town has some interesting churches.
Later in the cruise we met an elderly couple who had stayed on the ship at Dubrovnik because they’d been to a talk onboard and hadn’t thought there was anything interesting to see at this World Heritage Site. We didn’t get that really, how can anyone think Dubrovnik is dull? With its little harbour, market, interesting churches and quaint streets, it has something for everyone.
Malta with its spectacular entrance in the early morning sunshine was interesting, especially the 1950s air of dilapidation although we didn’t find the half finished concrete apartments very attractive.
We took a HOHO bus along with a number of other Azura passengers and for about 20 euros had a full morning tour of the north of the island.
Unfortunately, some of the roads were just potholed lanes and my husband suffered with a bad back for about a week afterwards. However, he was luckier than someone else we heard about on a different bus who was hit in the face with some foliage.
The bus, which was very old, and came from somewhere in the UK like Scunthorpe, broke down on the return trip on a busy junction. We all got on to another bus about half an hour later which I suppose is a good reason for taking a ship’s organised trip.
We’ve been to Gibraltar on nearly every cruise but last time our stay was only half a day and we were disappointed it was as short this time too. We dashed off the ship as soon as we docked and got tickets for about 8 euro for the mini bus up to the Casemate Gate.
From there it was an easy walk up to the botanical garden (free) next to the cable car and we spent an hour or so wandering around followed by a really interesting visit to the Trafalgar graves which have always been closed off on previous visits. The renovations have been done to a high standard and it’s free so well worth a visit.
We met some lovely people and that made our cruise even more enjoyable. Probably the only gripe we have is that P&O are sailing the whole fleet much more slowly, around 17 or 18 knots instead of 22 knots and that impacts on the time in port quite considerably.
As I said, our previous 17-day cruise with Ventura in 2011 had an overnight in Venice and we certainly had longer in nearly every port in 2011. There were a lot of comments along the lines of…. we come cruising for the ports not the sea days… and there is something in that.