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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:

 

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.)

No Responses to “Azura to the Baltic, 2014”

  1. Malcolm Oliver says:

    Tom said: “We’ve already booked our next two cruises with P&O”

    Was that wise Tom? I can’t help feeling that P&O are increasingly becoming ‘mass-market’ in the worst sense of the phrase, although I’ve not always seen this reflected in their fares.

    In fact I have found P&O to be more mass-market than RCI and NCL, who you would expect it from. maybe it’s time to try some other cruise lines, Tom?

    • Tom says:

      Well, because of the way we work we need to book early. But that might not be true in 2016, so we’re going to hang on for that year. Mind you, we said that 18 months ago and still booked early for 2015.

      Mass-market: well, I think the change to the dining arrangements may be a step too far for us. We found the MDR dinners disappointing, both for the food available and the service. Plates service just doesn’t feel as special, so in that sense it’s more mass-market. So yes we are thinking about other lines for 2016, though we may go away from mega-ships altogether: we’re wondering if we can afford something like Regent or Oceania, or (in a different direction again) something like Voyages to Antiquity. For us, the itinerary is the most important part of the cruise.

  2. Debbie says:

    We quite agree with you Malcom. We have done our last 3 cruises with P&O which we have enjoyed but have noticed the standards slipping a little and agree with Tom about the MDR food so we are trying RCI Explorer and Anthem of the Seas next year

  3. Malcolm Oliver says:

    Hi Tom, if you really want to try something different how about a river cruise. I have yet to try a European one. Unfortunately many of the fares scare me, but the boats often carry 180 passengers or less.

  4. Gary says:

    We had to cancel our Sept ’14 Baltic 🙁 but I’m glad you enjoyed the destinations and it was nice to read your blog (again), we’ll get there. We’re on Arcadia in 3 weeks and that’ll be our first experience of P&O plate service though I may not be so bothered. Although the feel of silver service is nice I very rarely have the veg so just end up waiting for everyone else before I can start eating therefore plated might suit me, I’ll reserve judgment. I have still enjoyed the MDR food though but I like pure food (that is very little spice) so I choose carefully and haven’t notice much difference in the quality. My wife likes spices and would prefer the food from Sindu etc. than the MDR but those restaurants do nothing I like so we don’t go. It is hard to please everyone I guess and the larger the ship the more difficult it becomes. As for gravy/custard ask the head waiter, for 26 nights of our last cruise the kitchen made a different clear soup for my son (he can’t eat solids) because we asked the head waiter if they could do something. Whatever the policy changes Re. MDR food the staff we’ve encountered have always been excellent.

    • Neil R says:

      I tend to agree with Gary, and having experienced “plated” a couple of times it wasn’t an issue for us. In fact it often worked out better as the veg and accompaniments matched the main course better than the same veg for all 5 or 6 options available. Like Gary, if you ask, you tend to get – and asking once is often all it takes to remember for the duration of the cruise 🙂 Mint sauce, mustard, etc were always offered when we were on Arcadia in April and on Ventura last November, and custard was always served from a boat so you could have as little, or as much, as you wanted.

      Overall I felt plated worked better than silver service, but of course everyone has there own level of expectation. Personally I haven’t noted any degradation of standards over the past 12 years we have been cruising with P&O. Service was also faster – everyone received and was able to start at the same time without waiting for veg, which always seems to run out half way through the table so half the people have their veg and the other half are waiting for the next tray to arrive.

      Mass market ? Yes, of course it is – serving 1000 people at the same time, twice a night, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year can’t be anything other than a mass catering operation. So if you’re expecting a fine dining experience along with 999 other people at the same time, it simply just can’t happen. That’s why people have the option of paying extra to be “non-mass” and having an individual(ish) meal prepared for them at the time they want.

  5. llennuf says:

    Enjoyed your recent informative blogs.
    We did a Christmas cruise on Oriana a few years ago and the Christmas diner etc. was fantastic!! of course this was with Silver Service!! The atmosphere on board was amazing.
    Will look forward to your posts at Christmas

    Peter and Joan

  6. Brian Bland says:

    We too like P&O but our 2 of our last 3 cruises have been with Cunard the other with HAL who also serve plated meals, personally I preferred it and consider the food standards slightly higher with Cunard & HAL. An experience that springs to mind on a previous cruise on Oriana was having ordered meatballs with spaghetti being offered vegetables in the bowl which included cabbage and mashed potato, rather weird I thought at the time. We also are on Azura in a little over 3 weeks time our first P&O for nearly 2 years I’ll be interested to note the changes.

  7. Hi Tom
    We’re just back from 12 days on Aurora and silver service was still in operation so perhaps plated service only applies to ships that offer freedom dining only? I’ve a feeling that all the P&O ships will move to freedom dining in future anyway so it may not last.
    We enjoyed the food on board as always but after 10 years of cruising with P&O the menu does feel a bit “samey” at times. On the plus side the Caribbean tier lunch menu changed (for the better in our opinion) as it has always been exactly the same for the last few times we’ve been invited (going back to 2011).
    Cheers
    Damian

  8. Brian Bland says:

    Back now from our cruise on Azura, would agree that the quality of food particularly in the MDR has slipped a bit since our last P&O cruise, also on Azura 2 years ago. We did notice other cutbacks as well in other areas but it didn’t spoil our cruise, there was plenty of food, good entertainment and we enjoyed ourselves can’t wait for the next one.

  9. Linda says:

    Enjoying reading your blogs with so much information, I wish we had found you sooner 😀

    Just returned from a Canaries cruise on Azura …. And yes our expectations were not met. It’s hard to pin point but certainly we are jaded with the shows and fed up of never getting a seat in the Manhattan lounge. Staff were at best indifferent and at worst begrudging and ignorant with just a few exceptions.
    We now predominantly eat in the speciality restaurants and think the recent deal was targeted to passengers like ourselves with the offer of a huge onboard credit. We had almost £900 but had to book a select fare price.
    It was a big bait and they hooked us … I doubt they will again.
    With so many berths to fill on all their ships P&O are now in a price war and with lowering prices comes lower standards. I suppose if you have never cruised then it still compares well to a cheap hotel package abroad but in all honesty its lost its sparkle and wow factor from our perspective.
    We tried Celebrity Equinox this year expecting it not to compare as well and were amazed at the quality of the food, cabin and entertainment. The staff were happy and the service top notch. Not surprised it got the top ship award from Cruise Critic. P&O got little mention in the remaining awards.

    Will be looking forward to your posts later this year.

    • Tom Burke says:

      Thanks for the comment, Linda.

      We’ve got mixed feelings about cruising. We’ve enjoyed to for 10 years now, but there is a bot of a feeling that we’ve pretty much done it to death now. We’ve got two booked – this years, and a shorter one next year – and then we’ll see. We’ve got plans for a 10 or 11-day visit to the USA in the autumn next year – I did a trip there myself in May and had a great time, and Val has said that she wants to do it as well. So it looks as next year, our main holiday won’t be a cruise; and that’ll be the first such year since 2004.

      Here’s a link to another blog where I’ve done an account of the USA trip.

  10. Linda says:

    Same here Tom … We have been cruising now for 15 years and taken over 40 cruises .. P&O, Princess, Cunard, Royal Caribbean and lastly Celebrity. Think we have probably had the best years … The latest mega huge ships hold no interest for us. We love travel and cruising has always been an easy option. We circumnavigated Australia last year after a trip out to the Far East both on Diamond Princess. Like you we have a car trip planned for USA in September … California …. and then who knows. Should never say never …. The lure of the waves will almost certainly get us back on a ship at some point but it will have to be an interesting itinerary. We will not be taking another med/canaries route just to take a break any time soon.
    Hope you enjoy the Baltic ports … We did that route on Queen Victoria and thoroughly enjoyed our time there. I am new to your blog so not sure if these are ports you have already visited.
    Happy travels … By land or sea.

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