Azura is a ship that has been tailor-made for the British market. From the entertainment roster of former TV stars to the excellent range of ales and gins served in the ship's numerous bars. The prices on board are in pounds sterling, too.
The ship offers something for everyone: from Brodie's sports bar playing Premier League football around the clock (as well as evening bingo and pub quizzes) to ballroom dancing lessons in the impressive atrium and a posh curry in Sindhu. Azura is a versatile ship that is able to cater to a range of different passengers -- as long as they are Anglophiles.
In April 2015, Azura underwent its first refurbishment since coming in to service in 2010. The multimillion pound renovation saw improvements to many areas of the ship not visible to passengers (pipes carrying drinking water were replaced) as well as more obvious improvements to soft furnishings in the corridors, staircases and main restaurants. The buffet areas were also updated (although the questionable layout remains) while the restaurant Seventeen became The Epicurean, after sister ship Britannia's high-end for-fee eaterie.
The most obvious change to come from the refurbishment, however, was the giant Union Jack livery that was painted on the ship’s hull as part of a fleet-wide branding. A not-so-subtle reminder of P&O Cruises' uniquely British brand of cruising.
With 3,100 passengers onboard, the ship can feel crowded -- especially on sea days when the sun loungers are packed tightly on deck -- exposing a real lack of shaded areas. However, passengers wanting a more luxurious experience can book themselves in to the much quieter Retreat (Deck 17, forward) --a private VIP area with comfier loungers and waiter-service. The Retreat is the line's take on the popular ship-within-a-ship concept that has become popular on both MSC Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line. A two-week pass costs £350 for two passengers, which is pricey enough to mean that it never gets too busy.
The decor in the public areas feels fresh, with plenty of modern artwork lining the walls; however the cabins do feel slightly dated, given that the ship was only built in 2010. Life onboard revolves around the classy central atrium, from which Azura's many amenities -- including a lot of retail outlets -- can be reached.
Housekeeping and restaurant staff are friendly and work tirelessly, trying their best to cope with any number of queries. However, staff on reception were often harried and unhelpful.
Azura, along with sister-ship Ventura, represents a sea-change for P&O Cruises since it started to launch bigger and bigger ships packed full of bars, pubs, lounges and restaurants aimed at attracting first-time cruisers. While this has caused some friction within the company's traditional fanbase (who were also disappointed to see the line's smallest ship, Adonia, be sold off to Azamara in 2018), it has meant a far more relaxed style of cruising. Azura benefits from this with everything from an informal pizza bar to an extended kids' club -- plenty for the modern family to enjoy.
Formal nights (known as black tie nights) onboard Azura are pretty serious affairs with most men opting for tuxedos or dark lounge suits. Women typically opt for ball gowns, cocktail dresses or trouser suits. Those not wanting to dress up are welcome to do so but are restricted to buffets and certain bars, which operate as evening casual. On formal nights, black tie dress is required in the Blue Bar, Planet Bar, Sindhu and the three main dining rooms. On other nights (which are known as evening casual on board) it is advised that a dress or casual separates are fine for ladies while an open-necked shirt and tailored trousers or smart jeans are fine for men. Shorts are not allowed during the evening.
The Playhouse Theatre seats almost 900 people and typically offers two shows per night to give both early and late diners the chance to watch the ship's main entertainment. The productions can be anything from "Dusty"(a musical about Dusty Springfield) to "My Generation"(about the music of the sixties). The venue is also used by the changing roster of comedians, ventriloquists and musicians that are brought onboard by the line for a few nights at a time.
With thousands of guests to entertain during the day, Azura offers activities across the ship. There are art lectures (there was one on Lowry while we were onboard) for the culture vultures and pool parties, led by the entertainment team, for those wanting a bit of fun. The ship's daily planner Horizonis delivered to every cabin and outlines all of the events going on around the ship. There are films shown on the huge outdoor screen (SeaScreen) and plenty of games and competitions going on including quoits, shuffleboard or killer pool. The spa and gym team also host yoga classes, for a fee, as well as some introductory classes for free.
Evenings on board Azura typically revolve around the entertainment in one of the ship's bars. There is a small casino (offering blackjack, three card poker, roulette and slots) that shares a space with Brodie's sports bar (where you can find pub quizzes and bingo at night, as well as a legendary karaoke night) while musicians and entertainers grace the stages in Malabar and Manhattan. Ballroom dancers get the chance to waltz through the night in the main atrium, hosted by two professionals, while a late-night film is often shown on the outdoor screen.
There is an impressive amount of booze on offer across the bars on board Azura. From an amazing selection of wines in The Glass House to an almighty amount of regional ales in Brodie's. Gin lovers can rest easy too as a number of the drinking holes on board stock P&O's famous gin menu, which includes 18 specialist gins (plus five that are available around the ship).
Brodie's (Deck 6): Brodie's is one of the most popular bars on the entire ship. Serving tried-and-tested beers such as Marston's Pedigree and Stella Artois, as well as regional brews like the Tyne Bank Brewery's Silver Dollar, it is also packed full of TV screens playing sport around the clock. That heady concoction -- with Brodie's pub-like atmosphere -- means that Azura's karaoke nights are a night to behold.
Blue Bar (Deck 7): Located at the top of the atrium, with some tables giving a nice view of the entire area, the Blue Bar is one of the Azura's more sophisticated drinking spots. There's a grand piano in the corner and plenty of cocktails from an extensive menu packed with classics like Cosmopolitans and Singapore Slings. A nice touch is the tasty bowl of vegetable crisps you get served with your drinks.
Manhattan (Deck 7): The show lounge is Azura's second biggest venue and offers a more intimate setting to watch the evening's entertainment. With lots of neon lights, and a rather bizarre layout involving barriers between tables, it's a fun place to go to catch one of the cruise's after-dinner show, which was pretty varied while we were onboard -- anything from a ventriloquist to an Eric Clapton cover band. Always pretty popular.
Malabar (Deck 7): This north African inspired lounge, complete with palm trees, has live music on every night -- be it the house band or one of the singers brought on for the occasion.
Glass House (Deck 7): With wine selected by TV wine expert Olly Smith and some lovely small plates to choose from on the food menu, the Glass House is one of the nicest places to stop for a pre-dinner drink, especially on formal nights.
Coral Bar (Deck 15): One of Azura's four pool bars -- and one of two that are on Deck 15 midship -- the small Coral Bar sits next to the poolside grill and Coral pool, which is flanked by two whirlpools.
Aqua Bar (Deck 15): Located just under the SeaScreen, and next to the Aqua Pool and two more whirlpools, the Aqua Bar is the larger of the two Deck 15 midship bars.
Terrace Bar (Deck 15): This bar is the most secluded outdoor drinking hole on board -- tucked away beyond the Verona buffet at the aft of Deck 15. The small area surrounds three quarters of the Terrace Pool, providing great views of the ship's wake.
Breakers Bar (Deck 16): If there was a party bar onboard then Breakers would be it. Perched near the top of the ship, and offering plenty of tables for those wanting to sit outside on a sea day, the area overlooks the pools below. If you get a bit peckish it's just upstairs from the grill and poolside pizza too.
The Planet Bar (Deck 18): With large screens showing images of destinations, and the bar serving cocktails to match, the Planet Bar is a one of the quieter bars, probably because it's in a remote spot. However, given the bar's extensive gin menu (23 different types including the delicious Two Birds gin from Market Harborough and P&O's very own Anderson's Gin, named after the company's co-founder); it's worth the journey.
Azura has five swimming pools, including one within the kids' club (and only accessible through the kids' club) and one just outside the spa, the Oasis pool. The two main pools , Coral and Aqua, are on Deck 15 midship, with the latter being the much bigger of the two, and there is plenty of deck space around them. The Oasis, Coral and Aqua pools are all flanked by hot tubs. The Oasis and Terrace pools have less seating around them, with staggered benches being used to make the most of the space.
Recreation on Azura is more traditional than on some other ships -- there are no climbing walls or bumper cars here -- but there is still plenty to keep passengers occupied. There is a sports court, which can be used for basketball or small games of football, and golf nets up on Deck 19 as well as an area for shuffleboard on Deck 16. Not to mention a gigantic gym that includes all manner of machines and free weights.
Azura's three sun decks are located on Decks 15, 16 and 17. There are plenty of sun loungers, although on sea days they fill up quickly. Those who want a more peaceful experience might consider heading to The Retreat, a paid for area with better quality loungers than the standard type on deck. The Retreat also includes a healthy breakfast and lunch too, although many people nip down to the buffet and bring their own plates up. It'll cost you £350 for a couple's pass for two weeks.
There is an enormous amount of space dedicated to retail therapy onboard Azura. There is a jewellery store next to The Glass House; souvenir, clothes and perfume shops around the atrium on Deck7. Any passengers who needs to stock up on holiday essentials, from sunblock to a bestseller, are catered for too on Deck 6. They even sell washing machine capsules for £1 a piece.
The ship has a decent sized card room, Karmala, and a library located next to the shore excursion desk. The latter's staff are a good source of knowledge for every destination and are happy to answer questions even if they don't relate to shore excursions. The library has some computers but you'll need an internet package to use them. Wi-Fi is available throughout the ship. Prices start at £7.75 for 24 hours or 65p per minute for pay as you go.
The Oasis Spa on Deck 16 offers a range of treatments in a light, airy environment, with a number of single and couples rooms available. There are medi-spa treatments available (dermal filler and anti-ageing treatments) and a good selection of male grooming treatments using luxury Elemis products. A gent's Elemis deep cleanse grooming treatment with shave costs £51 for 45 minutes. The ship's spa staff includes a licenced acupuncturist, who charges £93 for a 50-minute session. It's worth noting that a 10 percent gratuity will be added to your bill and passengers have to be 18 to use the spa. Anyone wanting to get their nails or hair done for a formal night is also well catered for here.
The gym, also on Deck 16, is huge, with enough treadmills, bikes and rowing machines to keep everyone happy. The cardio and weight machines surround an area where exercise classes take place such as yoga (45 minutes for £7), Pilates (60 minutes for £7) and spinning (three 45-minute classes for £21). There are also personal training (60 minutes for £47) and nutritional consultations (60 minutes for £47) available to help stave off any excess cruise weight.
The included options on board Azura are fantastic. Meals in the main dining rooms offer a great amount of choice with the cuisine typically rooted in hearty British fare.
Meridian (Deck 5), Peninsular and Oriental (both Deck 6): Passengers are allocated one of three dining rooms upon arrival depending on whether they choose Club Dining (a fixed meal time of either 6:30 p.m. or 8:30 p.m.) or Freedom Dining (where guests can choose when they wish to eat between 6 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.). The Meridian restaurant is reserved for Freedom diners while the other two are for Club. If given the choice, we would plump for the beautiful Oriental, which feels far more like a luxury hotel restaurant than either the Peninsular or Mandarin, both of which feel a bit more casual in comparison. All, however, have the same menu, which has a choice of six to seven main courses with options such as steak, a roast and chicken breast always available. A British cheeseboard can be ordered every day for dessert.
The Peninsular and Oriental are open for breakfast (7:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 8 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. on sea days) if you prefer to order from the menu rather than head for the buffet. Options include a brilliant "full English" (with British-style bacon), Bircher muesli and pancakes -- there are also daily specials including eggs benedict. Toast is the one thing that the kitchen does not seem to have mastered and is always served cold.
Restaurant staff are friendly and work tirelessly, trying their best to cope with any number of queries (including those from my fussy vegetarian wife).
Verona and Venezia (Deck 15): Azura offers passengers two buffets in the form of neighbouring Verona and Venezia. The latter acts as the main buffet and is available virtually around the clock serving salads and cold cuts as well as an ever-changing roster of Italian, Chinese and Indian-inspired classics. Verona, which is decked out in reddish wood, serves up the same food during the day but becomes the Beach House in the evening, a fee restaurant. The food here is good -- although not quite as good as in the main dining rooms-- and there were plenty of grumbles from tray-laden passengers about how complicated the buffet area was in Venezia.
Poolside Pizzeria (Deck 15): Simple and fun, the Poolside Pizzeria is open most of the day (1 p.m. to 8 p.m.). The counter always had two pizzas, one margherita and one slightly more exotic flavour, available for guests to pick up and take away on one of the red plastic trays.
Poolside Grill (Deck 15): The grill serves up burgers, hot dogs and chicken strips, as well as small pots of fries for passengers who don’t want to stray too far from their sunbeds. There is a small salad bar too. The burgers were pretty lifeless and the hotdogs limp. However, on certain sea days the kitchen team puts on special buffets and barbeques around this area, weather permitting, which make for a much more exciting experience.
The fee dining on Azura (called Select Dining in P&O parlance) offers a solid variety of gourmet options rooted in British classics -- be it small plates in The Glass House or an upmarket curry in Sindhu.
Java (Deck 5): Azura's coffee station, located in the atrium serves up high street favourite Costa Coffee. A coffee card is available for £22 (getting you 10 coffees) and includes primo sized lattes mochas as well as iced drinks to cool you down on those summer days.
Sindhu (Deck 7); £20-£25 depending on length of cruise: Originally associated with Michelin-starred chef Atul Kochhar (but no longer), Sindhu is where guests on Azura go if they're looking for a posh curry. The deep red carpet and dark wooden walls conjure up a luxurious, almost colonial-feeling restaurant with exotic artwork on the walls and waiters in sophisticated, and tasteful, black uniforms to match.
While offering traditional sounding starters such as vegetable samosas or chicken tikka, they are a world apart from your local takeaway. The gourmet mini-poppadoms and onion bhajis went down a treat. My beef tenderloin main was one of the nicest curries I've ever had, although I was still jealous of my wife's Atul's Signature Plate (vegetarian option) which included something with aubergine and spinach-- although I didn't get a look in.
The wine list is also pretty exciting, with a Sauvignon Blanc from the holy city of Nashik in India. There's some great English fizz too -- including bottles of Wiston sparkling wine, a bottle of which was used to christen the P&O flagship Britannia. Open from 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Glass House (Deck 7); small plates individually priced: The Glass House (with wines chosen by TV wine expert Olly Smith) is a popular spot. Guests sit amongst cabinets full of various bottles and work their way through the menu. The food offering is fab too, with options like a trio of classic, broad bean and red pepper houmous or an 8oz sirloin steak. There is no booking available for the Glass House, but we always found a table. Open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Ice Cream (Deck 15); individually priced: Located next to Poolside Pizza, the ice cream parlour serves delicious Jude's Ice Cream by the cone or tub. You can buy an ice cream card for £28 for 20 ice creams.
Beach House (Deck 15); £7.50-£10 depending on length of cruise: The Beach House takes over Verona (a buffet during the day) from 6:30 p.m. and is the most relaxed of the onboard fee dining options. Serving American classics (fried chicken, mac 'n' cheese, beef brisket) it could benefit from having its own dedicated space. It should also be noted that while much of the menu is included in the price there are many items that are extra -- for instance the rib combo (£3.95) or beef brisket (£2.95). The slow cooked New Orleans suckling leg of lamb (for two) costs £7.95. No booking required. Open from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
The Epicurean (Deck 17); £28-£30 depending on length of cruise: The Epicurean (sometimes referred to as The Epicurean at 17) offers a molecular gourmet twist on classic British fare. The restaurant itself is the most sophisticated onboard and gives you a rare the opportunity to eat outside, with great views of the ship's wake.
The menu is packed with interesting combinations such as wild boar with black pudding or lamb rack with a mini shepherd's pie. If you like creative dining experiences with a bit of theatre (the salmon is carved at your table) then this is the restaurant for you. Booking is recommended but not always necessary. Open from 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Eric Lanlard's Afternoon Tea at the Epicurean costs £15. This is a real treat. Available only on sea days each mountainous cake stand comes packed with a range of savoury sandwiches such as beef brioches and cheese eclairs as well as sweet treats like pop cakes, meringues and, of course, beautiful scones. It's like being in Willy Wonka's chocolate factory with waiting staff even spraying edible perfume before you can tuck in. Booking is recommended as seats are limited. Open from 3:30 p.m. to 3:45 p.m.
There are 1,549 cabins: 439 insides, 198 outside, 882 balcony cabins and 30 suites, and 18 single cabins.
The accommodation does not feel as fresh as the decor that runs through the ship's public spaces. The rooms are a melange of brown, beige and light wood trimming. That being said, all cabins are well appointed with British three-point plug sockets, a fully stocked mini-bar, safe, kettle (with tea and coffee), writing desk and a hair dryer. There are also small TVs, which could do with being updated, although you can access your bill through them. Each cabin also includes plenty of drawer and wardrobe space. A large bottle of mineral water is provided upon arrival but only the suites will get this replenished.
The spotless bathrooms also have plenty of storage (including a rack of shelves to the right of the large mirror) and are supplied with cosmetics from the White Company, which is a nice touch. Shampoo, conditioner and body lotion, as well as a shower cap and soap are included. There is also a large bottle of White Company shower gel attached to the wall inside the decent power shower. However, the clingy curtain isn'’t sturdy enough to stop the bathroom flooding.
Interior: Inside cabins range from 137-181 square feet. They typically come with two single beds running flush to each wall, separated by two bedside tables. However, the beds can be joined up if requested. Above the bed on the wall is a large mirror, which helps make the rooms seem far bigger.
Oceanview: While also ranging from 137-181 square feet benefit from a picture window in place of the interior cabins' large mirrors. The beds can be joined up to create a king-sized bed.
Balcony: Space starts to become more abundant with Azura's balcony cabins (178-317 square feet, including balcony). They benefit from also having a sitting area with chair and table next to the floor-to-ceiling sliding doors. However, be warned that some of the ship's balconies are overlooked. All balconies have also been installed with an ugly green webbing to stop passengers slipping. It's safer but doesn't fit in with the idea of a glamourous cruise.
Suite: The best cabins onboard Azura range from 449 to 753 square feet including a large balcony. All of these cabins come with optional butler service as well as other benefits, such as magazines, a fruit bowl, mineral water, flowers, Champagne and chocolates on arrival as well as daily canapes. Bathrooms include a whirlpool bath as well as a shower with glass door while the bigger layout means that well-heeled passengers also benefit from having their own lounge with dining table.
The biggest cabins are the two penthouse suites, which include a sofa, armchairs and a dining table. The entrance to the bedroom is framed by heavy curtains too, which is a nice touch and gives the room a more luxurious feel.
Accessible: Azura has 31 adapted cabins for wheelchair users, which are usefully situated close to the lifts.
Family: There are also family suites available -- where a balcony cabin and an inside can be connected to sleep a maximum of six guests.
Single: Azura has six inside and 12 outside single cabins, which are located on Deck 6 by the casino.