As Azura leaves Southampton behind and heads for Malaga, the first port of call on her maiden voyage, it’s time to take a considered view of what P&O’s newest ship has to offer, and how it compares with sister ship Ventura.
Designed to appeal more to P&O’s traditional customers, the 3,100-passenger Azura promises “classical touches with contemporary style,” whereas Ventura made a big thing about being a family-friendly ship, complete with circus skills classes and a rock school.
Structurally, the two ships are almost identical although Azura – which cost £380 million – has what is known as a ducktail stern to improve stability and fuel consumption. There are other differences: up top, the new ship has an open-air cinema screen above the midships swimming pool; on her older sister the pool can be covered by a sliding glass roof – perfect for chilly days in northern waters.
Also new to Azura is the Retreat, an adults-only haven connected to the spa, and accessible only to passengers who have paid for a half-day pass – £6 on port days and £10 on sea days. Book a spa stateroom package and the fare will include four passes on a two-week cruise, plus unlimited access to the thermal suite and Oasis pool, plus two facial treatments and body massages.
Five of the spa’s treatment rooms have balconies for outdoor pampering, which means that it is no longer possible to walk completely round Deck 16.
The Planet Bar, high up at the stern on Deck 18, has a video wall showing pictures from every continent, and to match the views, six themed cocktails devised by Olly Smith who has also chosen the wines for the Glass House, and even blended the ship’s house wines.
Fun-loving Olly (above with managing director Carol Marlow) is on board during four cruises between now and October and I’m looking forward to joining one of his tastings on a voyage to the Baltic next month.
Michelin-starred chef Atul Kochhar, who has devised the menus for the Sindhu Restaurant, will also be on board for five cruises between now and February. There will be additional charge of about £15 a head for Sindhu, where Goan-style lobster, chicken biriyani and lamb rogan josh are among the main course dishes.
Azura’s other premium restaurant is XVII (Seventeen) and although it does not boast a celebrity chef – as Ventura does with Marco Pierre White – the menu looks interesting and traditional; beef fillet Rossini, with foie gras; Dover sole meuniere; Welsh lamb; and Cornish sea bass.
Among the 12 bars on board, Brodie’s looks like it will be a popular hub. With its adjoining casino it is in the same position as the Exchange bar on Ventura, although the bar and the gaming area have been flipped left to right. There’s a pool table – hopefully on gimbals, but I wasn’t able to check – and some of the space has been pinched to allow for the creation of 18 single cabins tucked away down a corridor.
I hope the soundproofing is good, because Brodie’s will be the venue for karaoke sessions, as it was in the early hours of Sunday morning with Angela Griffin, Andrea McLean, and various stars of Strictly Come Dancing, Hollyoaks and Holby City.
Ventura’s Havana nightclub has become Manhattan on Azura, and Tamarind has transmogrified into Malabar, but apart from details of decor they are pretty much the same.
Smoking is not allowed anywhere inside the ship; it’s limited to starboard sections of the open decks, and to cabin balconies.
Standard cabins are adequate in size, though not exactly generous, but they have everything most passengers will need: flat-screen TV, mini-bar fridge, safe, dressing table(or desk) with English plug sockets, a spacious wardrobe area and – essential for Brits – a kettle, tea, coffee and biscuits.
Inexplicably, my cabin on Saturday night had neither coat hangers or teabags, but you expect teething problems like that when a ship has not officially entered service.
The naming ceremony was a spectacular event, with dancers from the Royal Ballet and the ship’s entertainment company preceding prima ballerina Darcey Bussell – resplendent in a red Jasper Conran dress – on the stage to celebrate Azura’s links to dance.
The champagne bottle smashed, ticker tape and confetti rained from the sky, and fireworks exploded over Southampton Water.
And as Azura makes her maiden voyage, P&O will be looking beyond the arrival of boutique ship Adonia next year to what will follow as the fleet is expanded further to satisfy growing demand for cruises with a British flavour.
Whatever design is chosen, Carnival UK chief executive David Dingle was certain it will be different from Ventura and Azura, thanks to changing building regulations, and likely to be smaller than the two superliners.
Carnival Corporation boss Micky Arison also indicated that Dingle and P&O managing director Carol Marlow will have to compete with other lines in the Carnival empire for the capital needed .