This was our 6th cruise -- the details of the others are:
We decided it was time to try a cruise on a British ship sailing from Southampton, England. As P & O's new ship Aurora was in her maiden season, we went ahead and booked in March for the "Canaries Caper" Cruise departing 18 June 2000.
Aurora was built at the Meyer Werft shipyard in Papenburg, Germany and arrived off the Isle of Wight on 16th April, where she was escorted by the "Tall Ships" into her home port of Southampton. This was a spectacle I was not able to witness, as we live in Scotland which is more than 500 miles from the port, but it was televised and was quite a sight to behold.
She was named on 27th April, 2000 by the Princess Royal [Editor: That's Princess Anne, daughter of Queen Elizabeth 2, sister of Prince Charles, Aunt of Princes William & Harry - for all you non Brits!] and commenced her maiden voyage on May 1st, 2000. Unfortunately, she developed a bearing fault and had to abandon the maiden cruise and return to Southampton. However, P & O handled the situation admirably, by giving a full refund and a future cruise to the disappointed passengers; they also threw open the bars with free drinks during the return to Southampton. Whilst devastating for the passengers, I was in contact with some on the maiden voyage who said that the crew were marvellous and that the atmosphere on board had taken on a true "Dunkirk" spirit.
We drove down to Southampton three days before the cruise and stayed in the 5-Star De Vere Grand Harbour Hotel. This turned out to be an excellent choice of hotel, as it was extremely comfortable, in an ideal situation for both the port and exploring the sights of Southampton, and it had a view right over Southampton Water.
Having driven down overnight to Southampton, we arrived at the Grand Harbour at 8 am where they immediately made our room available when normal check in time was 2 pm; they also accommodated a later-than-normal departure as well, so top marks to De Vere. Every member of staff we encountered during our stay went out of their way to please.
The sea has played a key role in Southampton's history; one of the most famous ships to sail from there was Titanic, and its poignant story is told in detail at the Maritime museum. This museum certainly does Southampton proud -- we found it so interesting that we visited it several times over the few days that we were there. One of my favourite exhibits was the 30-foot builder's model of the Queen Mary. A little smaller but still considerable were scale models of Capetown Castle, Oranje, QE2, Andes, Normandie, and Britannic. We also followed the "Titanic Trail" throughout the city and for anyone who is interested in ships, these two attractions should not be missed.
Southampton is steeped in history and anyone cruising from there should consider arriving a few days before the cruise to spend some time exploring the city.
This was the most organised embarkation that I have experienced to date. We arrived at the Mayflower Terminal at around 12:55 pm. Our car was checked in with Andrew's Shipside services, so we drove right into a covered terminal by the ship, the car was taken away by Andrews staff, the luggage was immediately picked up by a porter, and we were directed to the check-in desks, where we were issued a number which would be called when the embarkation process would begin: this took all of 5 minutes. The lounge area we were directed to was very comfortable; there were food and beverages as well as a Newsagents available. Upstairs there was a viewing terrace where you could stand in awe looking at your home for the next few days. They started embarkation promptly at 2:30 pm and we were on board by 2:40 pm. Cabin Attendants were lined up waiting to direct passengers to their cabins if required, but as we seemed to know where we were going, we were directed to the nearest elevators.
Our itinerary was to be:
The ship slipped its moorings at 1800 hours and it was a pretty spectacular send off, and to leave from the United Kingdom was extra special. With the Central Band of the Royal British Legion playing "Land of Hope and Glory," the streamers were being thrown from all decks of the ship, the ship's horn was sounding, and friends on the terminal building terrace were waving us off . . . yes I can say it was very special. It certainly brought a lump to the throat. The fire tug also accompanied us out of the port, and all the way down Southampton Water there were small craft accompanying us, some with balloons and "Bon Voyage" banners strung along the sides. With a perfect 78° sunny afternoon, I can say a very nice send off, indeed. We dropped our pilot off at 20:08 hours and took a SW heading down the English Channel towards Vigo, 675 nautical miles away at an average cruising speed of 20.3 knots.
We were in Cabin A279, a Category IB on A Deck 11. It was a standard outside cabin with balcony. It was tastefully decorated in blonde woods and pastel shades. It had two single beds made up into a king size, and a small 2-seater sofa, a nice reasonable size wooden coffee table, (not one of those silly glass tables that are so small that they are more a nuisance than anything else). There was ample drawer and wardrobe space, with approximately 11 drawers of various sizes, and a double wardrobe with two shelves above, one which housed the life jackets and spare blankets, and another for miscellaneous items.
By the dressing table there were more shelves and mirrors with approximately five small shelves behind each mirror, and a hairdryer housed in the top drawer. There were tea- and coffee-making facilities, and small packets of biscuits were replenished daily. A Mini Fridge was empty so you could put your own items in if you so wished. The artwork toned in nicely with the colour scheme in the cabin.
Something I had never noticed on previous ships was in the lifejacket stowage in the wardrobe: when the lights were out there was a small lifejacket sign that gently glowed in the dark (a great safety feature). And as each day went by, I began to notice just how much detail there was around the ship.
The balcony was about 9 ft. x 4 ft. in this cabin, and was big enough for two lounge chairs with padded covers and a small table. It was completely private with only a ½" space around the adjoining doors, so your neighbour could see very little, but if they were smokers the smoke did tend to drift through. The toilet was compact but very functional; it did have a bath, but you would have to be a pretty small person to stretch out in it. But it was suitable for a Sitz bath if required, and certainly there was more than enough space in the shower: no soaping the walls and doing a twirl in this shower. The shower was over the bath, had plenty of hot water and pressure, and I found it easy enough to step into and out of the bath with no problems; if you are 85 years of age, however, you may think differently.
Sports Wash was provided in a dispenser, and there was a small P&O cloth toilet bag filled with amenities, like cotton balls and buds, sewing kit, emery boards, and shower cap. There were two mirrored cabinets with four shelves in each.
When we arrived at the cabin, our luggage was already there and our cabin steward Manuel introduced himself immediately and ran through what was available and how everything worked. He fulfilled everything we could have wished for in a cabin steward. He was completely unobtrusive. On the dressing table were two wallets with our cruise cards, cabin door keys, our table seating and table number; also, there was a form to fill in with our credit card details which could be left at the Purser's Desk whenever we wished, so there would be no need to stand in a long line to have our cruise cards validated. In a leather wallet were postcards, port guides, envelopes, paper, and every kind of information about the ship that any person would ever need.
The Ship's Character
I have to say that the ship had already developed a character and atmosphere that I have found on no other ship that I have been on to date. They say the best ship is always the one you are on at present -- with Aurora, all I can say is I cannot wait to get back on her again. I would like to point out that there was very little problem with smoking in the public areas on this ship; everyone kept to the rules and only smoked in the areas designated as smoking areas. Each bar or deck area was divided up and there were No Smoking signs placed on the tables in certain areas, and these signs were observed. There were a few areas where the segregation did not occur, and one was in Champions Bar (Sports Bar); there were four non-smoking tables, but these were not actually in the bar -- they were in the walkway from/to the bar. This was one bar that we did not frequent a lot, although the décor was pleasant enough, even down to the wooden tables with sports themes like baseballs carved on them.
There was also a good mix of passengers, and many families were on board, but there were no problems whatsoever with the children of all ages: every child I saw behaved impeccably. The facilities on board for children are extensive, the pool areas are divided up with the Riviera Pool (Open Air) for adults only, the Crystal Pool (Covered Pool) for both, and on the beautiful tiered stern, a large family pool and smaller children's pool. This segregation meant that everyone was happy, but you were perfectly free to go wherever you wished. On Deck 8, all the children's facilities for each age group were kept in one area, so in the evening I very rarely saw children of any age. Also any child age 10-16 was to be accompanied by an adult after midnight, and I am sure that these rules were enforced by the staff. There were 130 children on board and in the first three days of the cruise, the weather was a bit dull and grey and I sometimes wondered where the children disappeared to, because they never seemed to be around, so I guess that P&O runs a very good children's programme on this ship.
On formal nights, the dress code followed was formal, which for the men meant 99% compliance: about 45% white dinner jackets, 50% tuxedos or black dinner suits, 4% dark suits, and all were wearing bow ties. The ladies were suitably attired, and the dress code was adhered to throughout the evening. This created a very nice ambience throughout the evening, because let's face it: how many times other than on a cruise do we get the chance to dress up like this? There was a great camaraderie, too, with the theme evenings, such as the Black and White Ball, where approximately 85% dressed in formal black and white, women included. They held classes where the ladies made the black and white paper roses from crêpe paper; I went along to try my hand at making the roses, and it was a lot of fun with all the women trying their best. There were even a couple of men who sat in on the class and everyone generally had a good laugh. I must say I took to it like a duck to water (pardon the pun), and several people stopped me during the evening to admire my handiwork.
I always find it difficult to describe a ship in great detail moving from deck to deck, so the best I can do is try and describe some of the rooms and areas that were favourites of mine. There is LOTS of open deck space on Aurora and she has numerous areas covered with teak decking. There is a full teak promenade deck -- I think there is nothing quite like it for striding along on a blustery, breezy morning when no one else is around, or for taking a very late evening stroll with the stars shining in the sky above.
The tiered aft areas are quite spectacular, also decked out with teak, and are much larger than they are ever portrayed in photographs. It is quite something to stand on the end of one of these tiers looking aft at the wake as Aurora plies through the sea at approximately 25 knots.
Every little detail has been taken into account on the ship. It takes several days to notice all this detail, like marble edgings around the carpets, the great amount of WOOD detail in every area, and the general finish to each and every room in this ship, which is exquisite. There are three banks of elevators and the carpet is the same design and colour on each deck and elevator, so if you are aft, the carpet is all the same pattern and colour, and it's different for midships etc. But when you look closely, you begin to notice that not only does the carpet have the same design, the marble that adorns the elevators and the landings where the art is hung is toned in; if it's a black pattern on the carpet, the marble is black . . . if it is a peach pattern, the marble is peach. The wooden handrails also tone in: if they are blonde wood in the landings, then they are blonde wood inside the elevators. Mid-ship elevators and landings are all in teak wood. The carpets throughout the ship are in rich colours and patterns, and everywhere they tone in nicely with the décor of each room. Once again great detail abounds, even down to the corridors where the cabins are located: the way the carpet is designed it looks like there are square loose rugs in front of each set of two cabin doors. In my opinion, the designers of this ship have produced a gem and it is probably one of the most beautiful new ships around.
The artwork itself is worthy of a tour from the beginning to end of the ship. A lot of it is modern and very bright, but I liked it. I particularly liked the bronzes; there are also some really fine paintings of previous P & O ships like Orontes, Stratheden, Morea, and the first Arcadia.
Crows Nest Bar
(There are small forward viewing areas on A and B decks, but you would need some really calm seas to fully appreciate them. We did go out and it took two of us to open the door back up again, the wind was so strong.)
When we booked this cruise we did so because we had been to all but one of the ports of call and had seen everything there was to see on those islands, which meant that we could have a more relaxing time -- we would not have to rush off in the morning on tours, and we had more time to spend on the ship itself. All our previous cruises had been very port-intensive and whilst very interesting, we felt that we did not have any time to fully appreciate our time on board, so I am afraid I cannot go into any great detail of tours etc. Anyone who is interested to know more about each island can feel free to contact me and I can give information that we have gleaned from land-based holidays on those islands.
That said, I am afraid that I can only tell you what we did when we arrived at each port, which I am sure is not what most people would do. Also, as I am firstly a ship lover and the cruising part comes second, the things that I find interesting may seem strange to a normal cruiser, so please bear with me.
Vigo, Spain - Dull (weather)
We were due to arrive in Vigo Bay at approximately 06:30, so I was up there for the arrival. Unfortunately, it was to be our second day of dull, overcast and drizzly weather, so it marred the arrival somewhat. However, I was able to get a real good view of the "Practicos" (Pilot) at 0706 hours hopping on to Aurora like he was just stepping over a kerb. At this time there were only myself and two other lonely souls on Promenade Deck . . . just what I like.
The city is within easy walking distance from where the ship docks. However, before you get to the main shopping areas there is some quite steep climbing to do, so good walking shoes are advisable. It is like many other cities, but if you take the time to look, there are some old balconied buildings to be seen. Vigo is a great seaport built on and around the slopes of Monte de Castro; it overlooks Vigo Bay, one of the worlds great natural harbours. At 32 km long by 5 km wide, with very deep water, it has been said that it is large enough to hold the combined fleets of all the world! At the mouth of the estuary, the rocky and picturesque Cies Islands shelter the bay from Atlantic gales.
During our stop at Vigo, the ship's bridge was open to visitors from 2 pm until 3.30 pm. It was also to be open when we were in Tenerife, and Madeira. It was very interesting to see the modern technology, and it gave us a chance to view along the ship from the bridge wings. On the floor of each of these wings was a glass panel to give the officers a view directly below as well; it's quite a feeling, standing on that glass looking 12 stories below.
We slipped our moorings and sailed out of Vigo at 1700 hours, dropping our pilot off at 1714, and took a heading SSW towards Lanzarote in the Canary Islands 860 nautical miles away, at an average cruising speed of 22.3 knots.
Lanzarote - Sunny - 85 degrees
Once again I was up bright and early to watch Aurora cruise the full length of the island of Lanzarote, but as it was only 6:15 am, it was still dark. However, you could see the twinkling lights of the capital, Arrecife, in the distance, and by the time we reached Playa Blanca on the southern end of the island, it was almost dawn and the shape of the mountains in the distance began to take form. Playa Blanca was a small fishing port at one time, but now hotels and apartments dot the coastline. At about 7 am we were held in position by the use of the ship's thrusters -- it hardly moved an inch, and as this was a tender port, it was a little time before the tenders were organised. We went ashore at approximately 9:15 am and as we were taking no tours, we strolled around the shopping area. Although there was a bit of a swell coming in, the tenders were pretty smooth: maybe this had something to do with the fact that they are twin-hulled.
We took a WSW heading north of Fuertaventura at 1814 hours to Santa Cruz, Tenerife, 126 nautical miles away at an average cruising speed of 10.1 knots.
Tenerife - Sunny - 82 degrees
We picked up our pilot at 07:13 am and once again the promenade deck was empty except for crew members (who, by the way, always greet you with a "Hello" or "Good Morning"). The ship tied up at 0748 and was cleared by 0830. Tenerife is the largest and most important of the Canary Islands off the West Coast of Africa in the Atlantic Ocean. The dominant feature of the island is El Teide, at a height of 12,198 ft above sea level. There was quite a variety of tours to pick from, but once again we chose to take the free shuttle bus to town and from there it was a short stroll to the shopping area. Whilst lying at the pool, a newly-delivered piece of equipment was being tested: a winch-type cradle which would allow wheelchair passengers access to the pool. A sturdy girl crew member was the test, and when the manoeuvre was complete, the crowd gave a round of applause. I think this is a very thoughtful consideration by P&O.
We slipped our moorings and sailed out of Santa Cruz at 1805, on a NNW heading towards Madeira, 257 nautical miles away at an average cruising speed of 22.5 knots.
Madeira - 75 degrees
Madeira is a Portuguese island lying west of Morocco in the Atlantic. We docked at 0748 in Funchal, the capital, and the ship offered a free water launch to take you into the centre of town. Madeira is world famous for its profusion of plants and flowers, and these can be seen best in the Botanical Gardens, approximately 2 miles away.
The suburb of Monte is 3 miles from the centre of Funchal, and apart from the 18th Century church, the village is important as the starting place of the famous toboggan ride, which is controlled by two carreiros and although not cheap, is certainly a different way to travel. You can expect to pay about £10 per person for the thrill. The ship's tour that covered this ride cost £26.00 per person.
Another worthwhile visit is Cabo Girao, which is 7 miles westward. This boasts the world's second highest sea cliffs, plunging 1,932 feet into the Atlantic. We had covered all there was to see on this beautiful island on a previous two-week land trip, so we took a walk around town, visiting the cathedral built between 1485 and 1515, and the Market. This fascinating municipal market is in a two-storey, open-roofed building which is bustling with traders selling meat, cheese, fruit, flowers, vegetables and fish. A word of warning: if you do not like strong smells, then I would advise against a visit here.
We slipped our moorings and sailed out of Funchal at 1600, dropping our pilot off at 1615. However, there was some excitement as one man was left on the quayside staring at the stern of Aurora as she left port; the ship stopped and the pilot boat sped out to let him join the ship -- he was geared up with a lifejacket and helped on board. He should think himself extremely lucky, as the next port of call was Southampton, three days away.
Food and Dining
The food was excellent throughout the cruise, and I had no complaints at all. It was, of course, geared towards the British palate. Some particular dishes that spring to mind were the Beef Wellington, Chocolate Soufflé, Baked Alaska, Parsnip & Apple Soup, and Orange Soufflé with Brandy.
There were differences in the way the meals were presented, compared with other lines we had been on. During dinner your entrée, such as nicely-presented steak or fish, was placed in front of you, and then the waiters proceeded to serve the vegetables/accompaniments (like silver service). This was very nicely done, and different from getting the whole dish placed in front of you already plated up.
There are a wide variety of restaurants that you can eat in. The two main dining rooms, the Alexandria and Medina, are both very nice; I think the Alexandria has the edge, as it has windows on all three sides. On our sailing, the Alexandria restaurant was open for breakfast and lunch as well as dinner, except on two days out of the nine, when only the Medina was open.
The Café Bordeaux is the 24-hour restaurant. It has a nice menu selection, and is very nicely decorated, and whilst quite suitable for 24-hour dining, it does have a walkway along one side of it with a constant stream of people walking past, which is not conducive to fine dining as an alternative restaurant in the evening. There is a very small cover charge of £2.25, however, it would be very suitable for some people who would probably think nothing of this small imperfection.
The Orangery is the casual dining venue on Lido Deck 12. It is decorated with bright colours, but still there are great amounts of wood in this room as well, such as wood-lined walkways still edged with the little marble detail. The choice and quality of food in this lido is also the best we have had. It was always hot, and the way it was set out with many staggered stations meant very seldom were there any queues. Nearly every lunchtime menu included one of those favourite P&O curries; I do not eat curry, but my husband said they could be recommended. On three days there were barbecues on deck, but this did not mean that all other eating venues were not operational -- you could still eat in every other place if the barbecue was not to your liking.
Another first for us was seeing a waiter at poolside offering passengers small tubs of ice cream (free): now, that is what I call service -- you did not even need to get up from where you were lying on a nice big padded sun lounger. Later on in the week, we did visit the ice cream bar and there was a charge here of 85 p. per cone, so I would stick with the tubs delivered right to your lounger if I were you.
There was a great variety of entertainment. In the Curzon Theatre, which was styled on the Theatres of the West End of London, there were the review shows performed by The Stadium Theatre Company; they were highly polished performers. Also included were classical concerts, if you like that kind of thing, performed in the Cinema Playhouse Theatre. An example was a piano recital entitled "Nocturne" -- Chopin's finest piano melodies, including Nocturne in B and Berceuse Polonaise in A. Each evening The Armadillo String Quartet played classical music in Charlie's Bar. Other headliners were Carlo Paul Santanna, who was lead singer of a 70's pop group -- he sang the group hits, but also did a fine selection of Mario Lanza arias which were terrific, so it was a nice all 'round selection.
The comedian was John Martin from Liverpool and we found him to be very funny. Mercury and Ken in the Crows Nest Bar were excellent, but the best show for me was the "Tribute to Freddie Mercury and Queen" performed in Carmens show lounge at midnight on the second last night. It was also the night of the Black and White Ball, and this lounge was packed, standing room only. The Stadium Theatre Company were absolutely outstanding with costumes, dancing and the tributes sung. Towards the end when they sang "Barcelona," the crowds were so enthusiastic, whistling and cheering and bursting the black and white balloons that had been adorning the room -- but what I found funny was (try and imagine the scene) the room was darkened down for the show, and all the people who were standing quite closely together in the entrance of the lounge decked out in their black and white regalia, were swaying in unison as we were going through the Bay of Biscay at 1 am in a Force 9 [wind], so they looked like penguins ready to jump into the sea. This scene appealed to my sense of humour; some may not find it funny.
There was the usual variety of activities to do during the day, including two Trivia Quizzes daily; one we sat in on had a bottle of champagne as the prize. Also a good selection of films were shown in the Playhouse Cinema.
The Cruise Director, Phil Raymond, presented "Good Morning Aurora" on in-cabin television, which featured competitions, quizzes, and special guests. Another chance to win prizes was on Radio Aurora, which featured special requests and phone-in quizzes.
We sailed past The Grand Harbour Hotel, Southampton at 06:12 hours, and it was then that I experienced that sinking feeling in my stomach and knew it was over and I would finally have to leave this wonderful ship. The disembarkation process was painless. After breakfast, we were allowed to stay in our cabin until the ship cleared, around 9:00am, and we were in the first batch of passengers called. The luggage was set out by deck order in the terminal; our car was parked right inside the building, and we picked up the keys and were on the motor way out of Southampton by 9:30.
This cruise fulfilled all my expectations. It may not be for everyone, bearing in mind the passenger breakdown above, and the food definitely suits the British palate, but I for one cannot wait until I cruise again with P&O on Aurora or maybe Oriana.
Photos courtesy of Mary G. Kerr, Andrew Walker, and P & O Cruises.
To read Andrew Walker's review of the doomed Inaugural Cruise and to view more photos CLICK HERE.
Mary and her husband Tom live in the Central Region of Scotland, and are now firmly hooked on cruising. She works for a major oil company as a Safety Administrator but will soon be retiring which will hopefully leave more time for cruising, and other leisure interests. Mary may be reached at: Scottylass@hotbot.com.
If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please