‘Very British’ is a phrase that can conjure up many images – from pomp and ceremony to afternoon tea to apologising when someone bumps into you.
P&O Cruises – although owned by Americans, using Italian-made ships and staffed by a United Nations of crew – prides itself on its more than 175 years of British heritage.
So there are tea-making facilities in the rooms, Old Speckled Hen and John Smith’s ale in the bars and the captain announces as passengers head ashore: ‘If you could be back on board by the time the ship sails, that would be superb.’
If you are used to American cruise ships, the attitude of the staff can seem quiet, discreet – sometimes even a little indifferent. But on board four-year-old Azura, on a trip to the Norwegian fjords in June, the service, food and drink in the specialty restaurants was superb.
On a short trip like our seven-day voyage, on a round trip from Southampton, you can dine somewhere different every night, from a taster menu with different wines for every course in Olly Smith’s Glass House to Indian food in Atul Kochhar’s Sindhu and fine dining worthy of a top London restaurant (or Cunard’s Princess Grill) in Seventeen. For extra choice, there is the freedom dining Meridian restaurant, a trattoria, buffet and poolside grill.
There is no room service aside from continental breakfast but plenty of places to drink, as Azura boasts 12 bars. And after a hard day’s sightseeing there’s no better way to relax than in the Oasis spa, where you can pick up bargains such as a 75-minute full-body massage and facial for just £69, or splash out, as I did, on an invigorating bamboo treatment (they roll it over you, not beat you with it, in case you’re worried).
In fact, value for money is the key message that runs through this trip. A can of Speckled Hen costs £3.50, a pint of John Smith’s £3.85, a large diet Pepsi £2.50 and many bottles of wine are around £20.
If you can tear yourself away from the food and drink, the four pools, the wide variety of entertainment and the open-air cinema, it’s certainly worth looking outside. Gliding serenely through the fjords offers stunning views of snow-capped mountains, cascading waterfalls, deep gorges and dotted islands. We visited four ports – Bergen, Geiranger, Flåm and Stavangar – each with its own amazing scenery and excursions, from cable cars to boat trips, and coach tours up hairpin bends to breath-taking summits.
Like Alaska, Norway offers an incredible natural spectacle – but much closer to home.
Spectacular: The waterfall at Tvinde, one of the great sights on a shore excursion
For me, there is no better start to a cruise than leaving from Southampton. All the luggage your car can hold is busied away by porters as you park and enter the Ocean Terminal. Soon you are through security, on board, and settled into your cabin, sitting on the balcony and sipping champagne. No airports, plastic bags and miniature containers, long walks to departure gates – and, best of all, no cramped flights. Once you are unpacked, you are ready to explore, find your favourite spot and allow the captain to take you to your destination.
Our cruise was the perfect length. In just a week off work, we saw beautiful scenery, had memorable experiences but also enjoyed two relaxing sea days and the convenience of sailing from our home port. All without breaking the bank.
P&O is a little under-exciting for some, lacking the watersides, surf machines and bowling alleys of rival lines. For others, it has modernised too much, losing some of the grandeur and tradition of fixed dining times and stricter dress codes. But spending a few days on one of its ships demonstrates there are many, very loyal fans who book again and again to experience that special British touch.
On an Azura trip to Norway, there is definitely a corner of a foreign fjord that is forever England.
Here’s what I thought of the ports and shore excursions:
Bergen – Heights and Highlights
Bergen – once Norway’s capital and now its second city – is famous for its rain, but we were greeted by sunshine for a trip by cable car to the 2,106ft high Mount Ulriken, the highest of seven hills surrounding the city, and its spectacular views.
Gerainger – Mount Dalsnibba
Make sure you are on your balcony or on deck for the early morning sail past the Seven Sisters (port side) or Suitor (starboard) waterfalls on the way in (the sides are switched later when the ship leaves). A coach took us round hairpin bends up Mount Dalsnibba, first stopping at frozen Lake Djupvatn before reaching the 4,800ft summit and glorious views. There is another awe-inspiring stop on the way down, then there’s time to explore the settlement of 300 permanent residents who welcome 600,000 tourists every year.
Flåm – Norway in a Nutshell
Having sailed 115 miles inland, we arrived at Flåm for our longest shore excursion – six-and-a-half hours of travelling by coach and railway through beautiful, dramatic scenery, seeing breath-taking waterfalls and experiencing the feat of engineering that is the Flåm railway. Built in 1940, the track rises from sea level to 2,845ft in 12 miles, with a highest gradient of one in 18. One of the stops is to admire the roaring Kjosfossen waterfall. There is also a coach stop at the even more impressive Tvinde waterfall.
Stavanger – Lysefjord and the Pulpit Rock
Stavanger, in the southwest of Norway, was known for its fishing before becoming the centre of oil and gas exploration – which is why there are two museums dedicated to canning and petroleum. Leaving from beside the ship, this boat excursion starts off tame but soon reaches Lysefjord, with bridges, ferries and isolated homes adding to the picture postcard views. After a stop to admire the Pulpit Rock hanging precariously 1,982ft above us, we returned with still plenty of time to explore the port.
Restaurants and bars on board Azura
Seventeen (£28-a-person supplement)
Seventeen, based on deck – you guessed it – 17, is a fine-dining restaurant you’d expect to find in a top London restaurant and is reminiscent of the Princess Grill on Cunard’s Queen Mary 2. It offers the full experience, with chateaubriand sliced at your table or pineapples flambeed, seemingly under fire sprinklers. There are fine views of the stern of the ship from the windows. Service, as you might expect, is outstanding.
Sindhu (£20-a-person supplement)
Atul Kochhar is one of P&O Cruises’ ‘food heroes’ and his restaurant on Azura doesn’t disappoint. Though it took half an hour to get a drinks order, the food was delicious, including the best korma I think I’ve ever had. A good night out, especially if you’re lucky enough to land a window seat which, although we booked online a week ahead, we sadly didn’t.
Olly Smith’s wine bar became our most popular haunt on Azura. Sparkling clean, without a mark on any of the many glass display cabinets and mirrors, it offers a wide range of reasonably priced wines. Most nights offer only a snack menu – beforehand, Olly advised us to order Crasto with the popular beefburgers although the menu had switched to lamb patties the night we chose to do that. We also paid £30 a head for a taster menu evening with a different wine for every course. Though a meat lover, I went for the vegetarian option with its separate selection of wines, and the whole combination was delicious.
Meridian is the main restaurant for ‘freedom diners’ – those that don’t want to stick to set sittings. We ate there only on the night that a menu devised by Marco Pierre White was on offer – although we decided instead to eat a la carte. As with many big dining rooms, staff don’t have the time to give you the same level of attention as in the specialty restaurants
The trattoria at Verona is a real find – good food and service without the expense or formality of a specialty restaurant and avoiding the hassle of self-service. A good choice for an evening where you just want to take it easy and eat comfort food.
The main buffet restaurant can become chaotic at its busiest times but serves a good selection of breakfast, lunch and dinner items throughout the day. You may have to venture into Venezia, or outside, to find a table but even the salads are good here.
We chose a D-deck balcony cabin which, although overlooked because it juts out from the ship, also gave us clear views directly above – important when you want to experience the full majesty of the fjords from your own room. The open-fronted wardrobe took all of our clothes easily, with plenty of hangers, and the bathroom had a tub and shower. The separate sitting area had a large sofa and its own TV and temperature control. Plenty of storage, well-lit and with room for a couple of chairs and side-tables on the balcony, it was kept tidy and clean by our discreet stewardess.
P&O Cruises quote prices starting from £679 a person for an inside cabin on Azura for a seven-day round-trip Norwegian fjords cruise from Southampton leaving on July 26, 2014. Balcony cabins start from £849 a person. This link will take you to the P&O website.
All photos and video by author. Prices and fares correct at June 10, 2014.
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