In June/July 2014 we did a 14-night Baltic cruise from Southampton on Azura. The ports of call were Stockholm; Saint-Petersburg for two days; Helsinki; Warnemunde; Copenhagen; and Kristiansand. In addition there were six full days at sea – the first three days, and the individual days after Stockholm, Helsinki and Kristiansand. As usual I blogged during the cruise. This page serves both as a link to the individual blog posts and also as a summary and review of the cruise as a whole.
First, the links to the blog entries:
- A first post about starting the cruise;
- Some posts about the early part of the cruise during the three sea days before we reached the first port. These were
- Then we were into the ports of call:
- First was Stockholm. There are four posts here, the first two (here and here) about some immigration issues; then a description of the visit itself; and finally a description of the sail out, which for me was one of the highlights of the cruise;
- Then Saint-Petersburg. Several posts for this: first was some preparation for it, the first day, and the second day;
- Next came Helsinki;
- Then (after a sea day) was Warnemunde;
- Then Copenhagen;
- And finally Kristiansand.
- We ate out a few times: twice at Sindhu (here and here) and once at XVII.
- I also did a few general posts about various things on Azura:
Now for the review:
We had a good cruise, with some reservations. I’ve said before that for us the itinerary is the most important point, and on this cruise that was more the case than ever before. There were a lot of things about Azura that we really liked – it has all the strong points of Ventura that we like, e.g. the cabin layout with the walk-in wardrobe area, the big C-deck balconies, the (almost) wrap-round promenade deck (which we walked round on most days), the Planet Bar, and The Glasshouse. Take all of those plus a good itinerary and a good cruise will result, and that’s what we had. But not an excellent cruise.
When we did our first few P&O cruises I commented to the effect that the main dining room meals were better that they had any right to be, given the numbers being catered for. The meals were tasty, the menu choices were varied, and the silver service gave a real sense of occasion. In the last couple of years – certainly on Ventura in 2013 – we felt that the ‘tastiness’ of the MDR meals was missing – so many of the meals were bland at best, and sometimes just not very nice. These trends seem to have continued over the last year. In general, we found the MDR meals inoffensive at best, and sometimes just unpleasant. I had a some beef one night that was just overcooked. I suppose I should have asked for another portion, or a different choice, but I couldn’t help feeling that given that it’s all cooked together, the chances of another plate being better are small. Val took to eating the fish most nights – these seemed to be less hit and miss than the meat dishes. One or two of the ‘regional specialities’ were better – I had Lancashire Hotpot on the first night and that was in fact the best meal I had in the the MDR. Another night Spaghetti Bolognese was offered as a regional speciality, and that looked good. Our conclusion is that the use of lower-cost ingredients has now become general; they taste bland at best and don’t respond well to being mis-cooked.
Then we come to the question of plate service vs. silver service. Just to recap, service in the MDR is now plate service – that is, the meals including vegetables are now laid on the plate in the galley, sent to the dining room complete, and the table waiters just place the meal in front of the diners. There’s no longer any serving of vegetables at the table. Indeed, there’s not a lot of service at all, really: the junior waiter still serves water and offers bread rolls, and the senior waiter takes orders. Both waiters then serve the meals when they’re ready, but as I say this now means just putting the plate on the table. In addition to there being no vegetables to serve, there are also no sauces or gravies to offer – what’s already on the plate is what you get. If, like Val, you’re a gravy/sauce/custard fan, well, tough luck – what’s already on the plate (or in the dish) is your lot.
I’m sorry to bang on about this so much but to us, this is important. We stopped looking forward to dinners on this cruise in the way that we used to: they were generally pretty tasteless, and they no longer felt special. There were some extra choices for the first and last formal nights (both now described as ‘Gala Dinners’) with a whole extra menu created by Marco, and those choices seemed to be back to the old standard – Val had a Marco Beef Wellington on the last Gala evening, and she reports that it was very good. But in general dinners were disappointing. The gulf between the meals in the MDR and the speciality restaurants is now huge. We ate well in Sindhu, XVII and The Glasshouse, but not in the MDR.
So we think this is a real issue. We’ve already booked our next two cruises with P&O; we’re back on Azura in September 2015 but before that we’re on Arcadia for a Christmas cruise. We were thinking that Christmas Dinner on Arcadia would be really special, but now we’re worrying that it will be anything but. Thereafter – well, we’ve been saying that we’ll wait until after the 2015 cruise before making any further bookings with P&O.
(Update: see here for a slight rethink of some of the comments above.)