I arrived home from my first cruise holiday three weeks ago and I still haven’t come to terms with having to trade my sea-legs for cramped-under-my-desk legs.
I can categorically say that it was one of the best travel experiences I’ve ever had. Yes, everything is done for you and your opportunity to discover a new port is between the window of 8am and 4pm BUT the luxury, the service, the comfort and the elegance of the journey make it an unmissable opportunity and an unforgettable experience.
I was travelling with my family, a party of eight people, aged between three and sixty. We boarded P&O cruise ship Azura in Southampton and the service began immediately. We drove to the departure bay and got out of the car, handing the car keys to an attendant to park and handing our luggage over to a porter to load onto the ship. Baggage and hassle free, we joined the queue relaxed and ready for an adventure. My parents have been regular P&O guests for many years but for the rest of us it was the first time.
There are no cash payments on the ship which makes life really easy. When you get your boarding pass you register a bank card from which all on board purchases are charged. It’s nice not to worry about cash; all you need is the money you want to spend in port and you have a safe in your cabin to store all your valuables.
Food is the first thing to mention – before we’d even left Southampton we headed straight to a restaurant. Food is served 24 hours a day with incredible choice and a big range of restaurants – from five-course fine dining to self-service buffets, BBQ, themed restaurants and bar food. You can even order room-service throughout the day and enjoy a meal in your cabin or on your balcony, at no extra cost. I would also highly recommend the table-service afternoon-tea at 4pm but, be warned, with sandwiches, teacakes, crumpets, scones and finally cakes being served, you will still be full by dinner!
We took the freedom dining option which means you can select any restaurant at any time of day. If you are not on ‘freedom’ you will be allocated your dinner time-slot which stays the same throughout the trip.
All food is included unless you choose to eat in one of the special Select Restaurants which need to be booked in advance. The three select dining options were – “Sindhu; the first restaurant at sea from Michelin starred chef Atul Kochhar, Seventeen; where a sense of occasion is always on the menu, and The Glass House, a wine bar and restaurant created in partnership with TVs Olly Smith.”
We were on board for seven evenings and mostly we chose to dine at the free restaurants but, between us, we tried all three of the select dining options and they were all worth the additional cost.
Drinks were also reasonably priced and similar to bar prices in the UK. The only big expense was the sail-away Champagne that we drank at the leaving port parties at around £7.50 for a 125ml glass.
The service is absolutely impeccable from start to finish. The staff was polite, friendly and approachable – I think it’s the fist time we’ve been called Sir and Madam in a very long time. Cruising with P&O comes with a great sense of occasion and tradition. Dressing for dinner is a stipulation that I particularly liked. After 6pm the dress code comes into play. We had two black tie evenings, two smart attire evenings and three smart/casual evenings. It was lovely to walk around the deck and see everyone in their suits and gowns.
Carrying more than 3000 passengers and 1000 staff over 19 decks, Azura is a floating community of entertainment. Sea days can be passed in one of the swimming pools, in the casino or watching a movie. There are public talks, live shows, music and performance, dance classes and sports competitions.
You can even spend your time getting fit in the gym if you want to – we didn’t. You can eat your body weight in ice cream or try every cocktail on the menu (we did) or you can just sit on deck or on your balcony and watch the sea go by.
When you dock at the ports your boarding and payment card becomes your ID to leave and re-enter the ship. The important thing to know is that the ship does not wait for anyone. If you’re late you will need to make your own way to the next port to re-join the cruise. Typically you can get off the ship from 8am and the Sail Away happens around 5pm, so be back on board by 4pm latest.
One of the great pleasures was the Great British Sail Away, held on leaving the final port before starting the homeward journey – watch the video below.
Staff hand out British flags and there’s music and dancing and plenty of Pimms. It’s a great sight to see the entire ship come together on deck to wave flags, sing national songs and celebrate all things great about Britain.
Three weeks after the cruise and I have my land-legs firmly back on. I’m battling the morning commute, I’m sitting still from 9-5 and there are a few things I can’t get off my mind. I want to be back on the open sea, I want the adventure of seeing a new city when I open my curtains. I want to look forward to dressing for dinner and exchanging pleasantries. I want to relax on my balcony and stare into space. I want to eat lobster and sit in a jacuzzi in the middle of the ocean. I want to drink champagne as the sun sets and watch for dolphins in the Bay of Biscay.
There’s only one thing for it. I’ll have to start saving for the Round the World Cruise – I like the sound of The Arcadia World Circumnavigation, 106 nights, 41 ports and 28 countries… starting price £9,999. Perhaps in 2024!