321. I tried a cruise ship for the first time! (P&O Azura, Canary Islands, solo cabin)
Hello, since buying Twiggy I've had a few people say in the comments, "Oh, that boat really is too small for you, you need something bigger." So I've decided to try something fractionally bigger. This is the P&O cruise ship Azura, capacity just over 3,000 passengers and about 1500 crew. And before I get further comments from people saying, "Oh, you're not going to start turning this into a cruise ship channel, are you?" No, fear not. I'm just doing a week's holiday and before I came out I asked my patrons if they would be interested in a cruise ship vlog and of those people who answered they were overwhelmingly positive.
So here it is. If you don't like it, there'll be normal content resuming fairly soon. Built in 2010, Azura measures 290 metres long, weighs 115,000 tons and has 14 guest decks comprising over 1,500 cabins. It's got four swimming pools, 6 whirlpool spas, a theatre, an open-air cinema, and nine restaurants. To my mind somewhat unbelievably, this is classed as a small cruise ship.
Having never been on a cruise before, but having watched many, many cruise videos on YouTube, I had a general idea of what to expect but at the same time, no idea if I was going to enjoy it. Would I be seasick? Would everyone on board be carrying norovirus? Was it going to be like the Poseidon Adventure, a film that's traumatised me about ocean going since I saw it as a child. There was only one way to find out. This particular cruise is organised as a fly cruise, in other words, you fly out to Tenerife on an airplane chartered for the purpose by P&O. I do like that they offer a variety of regional airports to go from so for fifty quid extra, I was able to choose Birmingham instead of having to trek down to Gatwick or Heathrow, which would have ended up costing me more than this.
I booked car parking for the week through the airport website, that cost sixty quid, which was lucky because when I first looked at the prices, it was around 100. I don't know what happened but I thought sixty was decent, in car park 5 which meant a short walk to the terminal. After de-icing the plane's wings, twice, which delayed us, we took off on the four hour flight, during which time the airline, Jet 2, tried to persuade us at every turn, to part with our money on food, alcohol and perfumes. Whilst the seat legroom was OK, the seat itself was rock solid. I have never been so uncomfortable but managed to mostly sleep, though I did get chatting at the start to two lovely women, friends travelling together, who'd cruised many times before and were very happy to give me advice and tips - and this was actually a theme throughout the holiday, as I will talk about later. Anyway, the flight landed and with the help of numerous P&O reps holding placards, we were shuffled towards waiting coaches, which then took us 45 minutes across the island to the port of Santa Cruz, where the ship was docked.
We had our luggage security scanned, our boarding passes checked and then were required to go to our muster station really just so that we would know where it was; there wasn't a safety briefing there, you just check in at the muster point then go on to watch a safety video in your room. Speaking of my room, I was travelling solo and had booked a solo inside cabin for reasons of economy. Even so, as a solo traveller, I paid about 50% more than someone would have when going as a couple. My basic holiday fare was 799 pounds for the week including the standard airfare but plus the extra 50 quid to go from Birmingham.
That fee covers the cabin on the boat, the basic dining options for breakfast, lunch and dinner plus snacks and a nearly all-day buffet as well as tea and coffee at meals. You also get access to the pools, the entertainments, the bars and so on. It's actually good value but it still grates to pay extra going solo when you're in a solo room. Other fees I paid were that parking at the airport, an upgrade to include cruise cover on my annual holiday insurance, and I paid for any drinks as I went because I rarely drink alcohol and for me it wasn't even worth buying P&O's soft drinks package at ten pounds a day. i just don't drink that much Pepsi. I worked out when I got back that the entire holiday including a small amount of spending money , seasickness pills, food at the airport and so on, came to a grand total of just over a thousand pounds (£1,029) Back to my room, which was surprisingly spacious.
I'd genuinely imagined a solo cabin would be something like a Japanese capsule hotel but it was great. The bed was about 4 feet wide - which is a standard narrowboat bed width - so that was very familiar. There was a ridiculous amount of storage in the room, I've never seen so many cupboards and shelves and nooks and crannies.
You could not possibly bring enough suitcases to fill all the space. A large table was across the back, with two UK power sockets and, crucially, a kettle with teabags and milk sachets. A large hanging area was to the right of that and more cupboards again, with the shower room to the side of that. That area was decent sized too, with a toilet and sink, towels, it was all very clean and tidy and maintained as such every day by the cabin steward although I travel very light really so there's not much to be tidied. The shower was great in terms of water pressure and temperature - I couldn't stop myself having a navy shower to save water though, just habit from the narrowboat. I still do that at home too.
And yes it was a shower curtain rather than a solid screen which I believe some folk don't like but it didn't try to grab me as I showered so I had no issues with that, apart from the one time I didn't pull it into the shower tray properly and turned the rest of the room into a swimming pool. So all in all, I was very impressed with the solo cabin. Yes, there was no window, again because I'd paid the most basic fare, but I didn't feel at all that it was necessary, I only used the room for sleeping or napping. As with most cruises, as I understand it, the fare included main meals at the so-called MDRs, the Main Dining Rooms. These were rather handily on the same floor as my cabin and just a few steps away. The other option was the buffet but that was at the other end of the ship and several floors up so mostly I went to the MDR, not least because I like being waited on when I'm on holiday.
Most of the tables were set for six or eight people with a scattering of two-person tables. If I'd insisted on having my own table, I'd generally have had to wait a while as these were relatively scarce at peak times. But if I was willing to share, which I had decided in advance that I was going to make myself, then I got in almost immediately every time and had very pleasant chats with all kinds of people on the ship, mostly about how we were enjoying the cruise and what we hoping to do and so on. The food, I thought was very good but bear in mind, I'm not someone who likes posh food. I'm a plain and simple fella and that's mostly what we got, which suited me down to the ground.
And yes, I did occasionally make up cheese sandwiches in the buffet. Breakfast was things like toast, cereal, pancakes, fruit, you could have cooked traditional English breakfast too, things like sausages, beans, eggs and so on. All that came with tea and coffee and fruit juice although my first criticism was that the juice was clearly very well watered down, not particularly nice. The lunch menus had a range of options from sandwiches to cooked meals, always with dessert and, I must say, some very nice ice cream. I don't know what brand it was but it was tasty.
It did sometimes arrive a bit melted, unfortunately. The evening meal was again three courses, generally a bit of soup to start which I always found delicious, then some meat or fish. They were incredibly stingy with the vegetables, I would usually have about five times as much but luckily, the soup and then dessert filled the hole, and the desserts were mostly lovely, including - as this is P&O, a British-themed cruise line, even if it's owned by an American company - a traditional British pudding each day like steamed sponge or spotted dick and custard. Yes, overseas viewers, you did hear that name right. Google it.
The only issue I had was the custard, like the fruit juice, was thin as water, not good custard at all, which slightly spoiled the pudding experience. The waiters were excellent - I've never seen so many people buzzing around a room like ants in a colony, carrying trays of food, it was truly the definition of organised chaos. Hats off to all of them. Elsewhere, the buffet had loads of food nearly all day long, and I did end up eating there for two evening meals because you had to be dressed up in black tie for those two particular days and I don't even own a suit, let alone a tux, and I wasn't going to buy or rent one just for two days of a holiday. That said, I agree with what other reviewers have said about Azura's buffet - it's rather cramped and oddly laid out so you're always bumping into people. And some of the items were a bit rubbery or tasteless but there was enough choice to keep you going, so no real complaints from me here.
I thought there was going to be a formal afternoon tea served on the sea days but either I missed it or it didn't happen. However, there were always scones and tea to be had in the afternoon in the buffet. Outside at the pool you could get pizza slices which were included in your holiday fare, with ice cream an optional extra, and there was another food area where you could get burgers and chips for free although I only tried this once and the fries were so thin as to have no discernible potato in them whatsoever. It suffices to say I did not starve and did not feel the need to pay extra for the speciality dining, especially since, as already mentioned, I don't tend to like posh food, and loathe anything even mildly spicy so the well-regarded Sindhu Indian restaurant wasn't on my to-do list. This is supposedly a small ship so I was hoping to get my bearings after just a day or so but by the end of the week I was still turning the wrong way out of the lifts and trying to work out which way I was facing on the pool decks.
I still can't quite work out why it was so hard to get to grips with. There were plenty of deck plans around and I was never in any doubt about which deck I was on ... just which way I was facing and which deck each of the bars and events venues were on. My cabin was on deck six, alongside a casino and Brodie's bar where there were quizzes and karaoke nights. I was pleasantly surprised that I couldn't hear any noise from the bar in my room.
Also on that deck were the reception desk ... stairs to the atrium ... and one of the main dining rooms where I had my main meals. You could also get into the rather splendid Playhouse theatre at the front of the ship.
This was quite substantial and an excellent venue. I'll describe the entertainments here in a moment. One floor down was another dining room, and an art gallery plus a small library which I rather liked and made use of on a couple of occasions, and some shops with very overpriced P&O merchandise. I'd have bought some if it hadn't been such a ripoff.
Plus a coffee bar which cost extra. Go one flight up from my deck and there was another entrance to the theatre, a speciality restaurant called the Glass House which featured a lot of wine. This was also the deck with most of the bars on it, one next to the atrium, then Malabar where there was often live music as well as some talks during the day - I went to a couple by the art gallery manager one about great art thefts throughout history which was very interesting. They had quizzes in this bar as well.
Keep walking along and you go past the Sindu restaurant and then at the back get to the Manhattan bar which again had live music, comedy and other events. The next six decks up were guest cabins and then you emerge onto the open decks at the top which had various small swimming pools, surrounded by sun loungers, a cinema screen, plus some poolside bars and grills as already mentioned. It was here on deck 15 that you find the buffet as well.
I never had a problem finding somewhere to sit and maybe because we didn't have great sunshine, no problems finding a sun lounger either, on occasions when I fancied a nap or a bit of reading. The pool right at the back of the ship was being refurbished for the first couple of days so it was out of use but they did finish painting and it was open again later on. Apart from this, the only other maintenance I noticed was this bucket underneath presumably a leak in the roof as I stepped aboard on day 1. I read a lot of comments and critiques from regular cruisers before I went, saying that Azura was outdated and tired but if you'd never been on a cruise before, you probably wouldn't notice - and lo and behold, I didn't notice. It all looked fine to me but I have nothing to compare it with. It certainly wasn't all bling and diamonds and gold but I prefer a more muted, less ostentatious decor anyway.
If it had been Las Vegas on sea, as I see some cruise ships appear to be, it would have hurt my brain. As I was travelling in December, the ship had been decorated with tinsel and lights and trees and so on which was nice. I am a terrible holidaymaker on my own.
I wander round a bit and then never know what to do with myself so a cruise was a revelation as there were things planned for every second of the day, albeit that I didn't necessarily want to do them all. Each night, a printed programme for the next day would be left by the cabin door. Terrible waste of paper but I'm old school and preferred it over looking at it online. Incidentally, they don't do anything on an app on this ship, other than check your bar tab, so you really don't need a phone or tablet or anything. Activities included early morning gym sessions, which I certainly did not attend, deck games, cinema showings, various singers dotted around the venues plus the main evening's entertainment in the theatre.
We were firmly instructed not to film any of the shows, which is a shame as I'd have liked to have shown some clips because they were really very good indeed, much better than I'd imagined, although also a bit shorter than I'd expected, at about 45 minutes long, presumably so that they could get two showings in per night, with a break between. Mostly song and dance numbers, the Headliners Theatre Company, who seemed to be the in-house group, did a phenomenal job with presumably not a huge amount of backstage space. Costumes were changed in seconds and each number had a different dance routine and then they did a whole different show the next night.
It was just good fun stuff. There was also a lovely Welsh singer who'd appeared on The Voice, and the final act before I left the ship was a really good folk and sea shanty group called the Privateers. I nearly didn't go into this one because I thought "am I really going to enjoy folk and sea shanties" and I'm so pleased I did see them because they were full of energy, fun and at the same time entirely comfortable and relaxed on stage.
They were excellent. Other than that, I went along to various quizzes in Brodie's and the Malabar, usually scoring on the mediocre level but it was always fun. I didn't sing on the karaoke night, though I'm usually a shameless show off at that kind of thing. Some of the people doing it clearly had aspirations of showbusiness though and I felt a bit put off, it wasn't shoddy enough for me to join in. So it's a ten out of ten from me for the onboard entertainments though I suspect if you've been on bigger ships, you might have wanted more.
We started in Tenerife having landed on the Friday lunchtime and also spent Saturday there so I went for a wander around the port town. There was a small market on and I pottered around generally, seeing lots of colourful murals on the buildings. There was a boat sculpture outside another market which was too busy for me, I felt squashed so left pretty sharpish. Although it was warm, about 22 Celsius, the days were largely overcast and on the Saturday afternoon in Tenerife I had my first of several soakings as I walked back to the ship.
Drenched, I was. This was ostensibly a tour of three Canary Islands but the ship also went to Madeira, 300 miles north, which meant day 2 on the boat was a sea day. I'd been rather concerned about this as I wondered if I'd get seasick but thankfully the sea was about as calm as you could hope for both going and coming back, and although you knew the boat was moving, I was fine. Madeira started off well when I met a random cat, though in typical cat form it did not wish to say hello. Walking along the front, there were statues, artworks, parks, boats, and a view of the hills which were shrouded in mist.
I didn't take a trip on the famous cable cars as the queue was rather long but I heard that those who did couldn't see anything from the top because of the low clouds anyway. In town, Christmas was being marked with a market and a brass band played. I wandered through a park, back to the boat and for the second time, got absolutely soaked by a downpour. After another day at sea, we reached Gran Canaria which I rather liked. I can't explain why, maybe it was just that it had a long stretch of beach.
I had a lovely slow stroll along this before getting - you guessed it - drenched in another deluge of rain, which thankfully was short-lived. It's clearly a hotspot for surfing here, grand waves and loads of people falling off their boards. The final destination was Lanzarote but I've been here before and I heard that it was a very long walk to the town from the port, and the cruise ship's shuttle bus apparently only took people half way for reasons that I never discovered. So I stayed aboard that day which at least had the benefit of me not getting rained on.
It was this day, as I sat on a sunlounger by the ship's pool, that a film was played on the open air screen, which included the f-word blaring out from one of the characters followed closely what would be a blasphemy if you are of Christian beliefs. Now, I'm totally blase about everything, very open-minded and generally, have my mind in the gutter anyway, so it didn't offend me as such. But I was very surprised that P&O would play a film with that language at 2:30 in the afternoon around the pool. I even checked the programme schedule later and the film was marked as "R-rated for language". So they knew what they were showing.
This I found a bit bizarre. I keep meaning to write to them about it. As I have mentioned many times before, I am really rather introverted despite my aforementioned and somewhat paradoxical love of karaoke.
Striking up conversation with unknown people socially makes me squirm. Imagine my delight then to discover that everyone I sat next to whether for meals or in the theatre or wherever were absolutely lovely and friendly and happy to engage me in conversation, which once the ice is broken, I have no trouble enjoying. Admittedly every conversation began with cruising because that was our common denominator, but it just made chatting with strangers much more straightforward. I didn't have that many interactions with the crew other than a brief hello to my cabin steward, or to order my food in the dining rooms but they too were friendly and seemingly unruffled by having to deal with so many people.
So, it was a good experience on the socialising front too although I would say I was at the younger end of the age spectrum. Apart from a couple of twenty-somethings who seemed to be there with bigger family groups, most of the guests aboard were late fifties or more at least, including a hilarious pair of sisters in their mid-eighties who had riotous tales to tell about their previous cruises. And a quick hello again and thank you to the five people aboard who came up to say they watch my videos and were very kind about them, that was so very, very nice. I was dubious about going on a cruise for the reasons mentioned at the start. But apart from YouTubers who rave about cruising, I also have a handful of friends who've recently begun holidaying aboard and they've talked in glowing terms about their experience.
A lot of people said it would be Butlins on Sea, although having never been to Butlins that may be accurate and not a bad thing, I don't know. I'm sure a cruise is not for everyone but I can say I'm now a convert to the cause and am already looking to go to the Norwegian Fjords. And quickly, before the Norwegians ban the cruise ships in 2025. So, apologies to Norway for my visit. And I want to go around bits of the Med that I've never done before as well.
And some river cruises too. I just need to find the finance; cruising can be very costly, especially solo... Time to get on Tinder again.