Aurora – the Dawning of A New Era in British Cruising
Her Maiden Voyage
April, 2000 Southampton, England
Amongst the splendour of the Tall Ships that leave the South Coast port en route to the start of the 2000 race, the latest cruise ship to grace the World's Oceans arrives in the Solent for the first time. Aurora, 76000 tons and 270 meters long, may not be the largest ship in the world, but it doesn't stop the superlatives for the new ship which joins the ranks of the highly acclaimed P&O Cruises, the leading UK cruise line. Over the following weeks prior to the naming by the Princess Royal, thousands of visitors came to see the ship.
The 1st day of May, a bank holiday in the UK, dawned warn and sunny, and all of us lucky enough to be boarding Aurora later that day for her maiden voyage were finishing off the final pieces of packing. The ship was proudly dressed at the Mayflower Cruise Terminal and waited patiently for the 1800 or so passengers that were due to embark later in the afternoon.
Although Aurora has the "Meyer Werft" family look like that of her elder sister ship Oriana, the two ships are very much individual, and whilst Oriana has a classic, traditional feel, Aurora is more contemporary, but very much in keeping with the tastes of the mostly British passengers who will travel on her. Presently, Aurora is the largest ship to sail from a UK port under the Red Ensign, followed by Cunard's QE2, then Oriana, Arcadia, Victoria, and Caronia (all have Southampton as their home port).
In fact, the Friday before, Oriana met Aurora for the first time
in the wee small hours of a rather gloomy April morning.
At the berth, Aurora towers above you, gleaming white, and is certainly an imposing sight. I think she has a more pleasing appearance than that of Oriana, not that Oriana is a bad looking ship I hasten to add! To those who have not seen both ships, the only notable differences are the funnel, the enclosed bridge, and perhaps most noticeably, the wonderful stern. Professional yacht designers finished the appearance of the ship, once designed, and this resulted in a sleeker appearance than that of her elder sister.
On embarking Aurora on "F" deck (Formosa Deck), you enter the heart of Aurora with the reception area in front of you, but the main attraction which dominates the four deck atrium is the John Mills-designed 35-feet-tall waterfall complete with two Lalique-style sculptures. I think this is a wonderful design, and gives a terrific first impression. I was always drawn back to this area, as it's a good place to meet up with friends.
Moving aft, the first bar you will come across is Anderson's. This bar can be likened to an old "Gentleman's Club" of the 19th century, and is complete with a full fireplace. This is a bar for quiet conversation for pre- or post-dinner drinks.
Charlie's is the champagne and caviar bar near the shopping area, Mayfair Court. This area around the atrium spans three decks, and many different shops have a wide range of goods for sale. Then for all you disco lovers, is Masquerades, the ship's high tech nightclub, complete with video wall, bar, dance floor and spectacular lighting effects.
If gambling is more your thing, there is Monte Carlo, the ship's casino. The sports bar, Champions, is where you can see many of the top sporting events screened live via a number of television screens. This is a very easygoing bar that will be very popular with passengers – sports lovers or not.
Then, moving to the aft end of the ship, you will come across the main show lounge, Carmen's. Here the main singers and acts will appear, and this room is reminiscent of Neptune's on dear old Canberra. In fact, its worth noting that the flow in the passenger areas on Aurora is very much like that on Canberra, in the sense that you go through each room to get to another. This is a very good way to meet fellow passengers, and is extremely sociable!
In the library, a rather good feature is the comfy audio chairs, where you can sit back and relax whilst listening to your favourite CD's, via headphones, but remember not to sing out loud as this is, after all, a library!! Then you will come across Raffles, the coffee and chocolate bar. Here various types of coffee can be purchased along with handmade Swiss and Belgian chocolates. I loved this bar, and would recommend it to anyone like myself who is addicted to coffee and chocolate!
Moving further aft is the card room Vanderbilt's, followed by the photo shop, the onboard cinema and recital room The Playhouse, and thence to the newest feature onboard a P&O, ship Café Bordeaux, which is a 24-hour dining area. As the name suggests, it is a Bistro-style environment. This also can be an alternative evening dining area if you want to eat somewhere other than the main restaurant.
Right aft is the main children's area, and all age groups are extremely well provided for: Toybox for the 2-5's; Jumping Jacks for the 6-9's; and Quarterdeck for the 10-13's. Teenagers are also catered for with their own disco, Decibels.
Moving outside to where the wonderfully tiered stern gradually extends from the top of the ship down to the Promenade deck, you will find the Terrace Pool and Terrace Bar. There is also a children's paddling pool, and Jacuzzis for the grownups.
The fantastic Crystal Pool has a retractable dome. This pool doubles up as the area for activities such as the Captain's cocktail party and the carnival night. It has to be said that this is a great area for these events to be situated in, as even when the dome is in place, it's very bright and airy. The elevated deck above, encircling the pool makes for good "people watching"!!
En route to the Riviera Pool there is a very convenient "on the run" eatery The Sidewalk Café, which serves quality fast food. The Riviera Pool is reminiscent of Canberra's Bonito Pool and has tiered decks around. By this pool is the Gym and other health and beauty areas. The jewel in the crown of the upper decks is the Crow's Nest bar which affords spectacular 180-degree ocean views. A great place to drink and watch the world go by.
The upper decks of Aurora have extensive sunbathing space and outdoor activities. Behind the funnel there is a full-sized tennis court and a golf simulator.
A Voyage Interrupted
The send-off from Southampton for the maiden voyage will remain a fond memory for many years to come. The Essex Caledonian band, complete with bagpipes, gave rousing renditions of many favourite songs, and to hear "Loch Lomond" sent a shiver down many a spine of those with Celtic ancestry (myself included!). There were thousands of people lining not only the dockside, but at the many shoreside vantage points along Southampton Water and the Solent, and also a flotilla of small boats, complete with the customary salute from the port's fire tugs Lyndhurst and Redbridge. Once the Pilot had disembarked, we headed down channel towards the Bay of Biscay, and for the warmth of the Mediterranean.
After pre-dinner glasses of champagne, it was off for the first evening meal onboard, which included such delights as pan fried entrecôte steak with sauce Diane, and for those vegetarians reading this, lentil, broad bean and mushroom cottage pie. The view from the restaurant was impressive: we sped along at 25 knots, and the wake was like watching a washing machine in full swing!
After dinner, we headed for a good look around, and as we got to the Lido deck, it was evident that the ship had stopped. Like omens, there were two red navigation lights on the mast, and the string of white lights that make a ship look so graceful were turned off. We searched in vain for an officer to find out what was going on, but by around 2:00AM we were on our way once more, albeit slower. We were making the same speed when we awoke in the morning, but an announcement at 11:00 by a sombre-sounding Captain Burgoine revealed what we had feared that previous night: the ship had a problem.
The ship had suffered damage from an overheated propeller shaft bearing and it was necessary to return to Southampton immediately. Had the offending bearings been inside the ship, repairs could have been carried out in our first port, Lisbon. The ship was silent, and in a state of shock; we all couldn't believe what was happening.
P&O then demonstrated what a professional, caring company it is, and we were soon notified that we would not only get a full refund, but a free cruise as well. Of course this doesn't make up for the curtailing of the Maiden Voyage, but once we had all realised that this was in no way the fault of the crew or P&O, everybody "took it on the chin." A "Dunkirk-style" spirit that only the British could muster then emerged, and we figured that we had roughly 18 hours to party and make the most of the remaining time we had onboard. Everyone was given the chance to call home, and all necessary arrangements were put in place to make the early arrival back in Southampton as smooth and trouble free as possible.
The captain still had his "Welcome Aboard" cocktail party, and he was given a standing ovation complete with cheers when he appeared to make a speech to us all. This must have eased his fears of a "dressing down" by the angry brigade!!
As if Southampton had realised what was happening, Wednesday dawned cold and grey. Those of us who stayed up all night watched our low key, subdued arrival back in the port that had given us such a rousing send off only a day and a half previous. The press were there in force, of course, and a helicopter circled us as we arrived. They tried to get us to run P&O into the ground to make that headline story that every company in this situation dreads, such as in the case of Cunard a few years previous.
For the most part though, they were to be disappointed, as the majority of us were more than satisfied with the way we were treated, and for this, P&O must be credited. There were some who just had to moan and complain, as if to try and get their 15 minutes of fame. The press had to concede defeat, however, and then proceeded to commend the actions of P&O, and to make other cruise lines and other companies sit up and look at their procedures in customer care.
I, therefore, will not hesitate to travel with P&O again, and can wholeheartedly recommend a cruise onboard Aurora. In fact, I am already booked on next year's cruise to Venice!
Photos courtesy of Andrew Walker & P & O Cruises.
Andrew Walker (not to be confused with our own ALAN Walker, lives in the UK and has created a mini website (www.aurora2000.f9.co.uk) dedicated to P & O's Aurora. Andrew may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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