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Azura brings several ‘firsts’ to P&O UK. Words: Sue Bryant.

P&O Cruises UK’s latest ship, the 115,000-ton Azura, is an unusual combination of cruising tradition and contemporary chic. Alongside afternoon tea, ballroom dancing and dressing for dinner, you’ll find a gorgeous, adults-only outdoor lounge on deck and a top-notch Indian fusion restaurant. Azura is elegant and relatively formal – but innovative and fun at the same time.

The ship, which was named in April by former prima ballerina and Sydney resident Darcey Bussell, features a number of ‘firsts’ for
P&O Cruises UK. For starters, there are 18 single cabins, a mixture of inside and outside. They’re undeniably compact but come with decent storage space and have been warmly welcomed by single travellers, to the extent that the whole of the 2010 season sold out almost immediately. Book early if you have your sights on one for 2011.

Another addition is The Retreat, an adults-only, lavender-scented space on Deck 16 with squashy single and double sun-loungers, massage cabanas, healthy snacks, waiter service and access to the kid-free Oasis pool, which belongs to the spa. There’s a fee of £6 (AU$10) per half-day for access to The Retreat in port – or £10 (AU$17) on days at sea. The area is likely to be hugely popular.

For the first time, P&O Cruises UK is also experimenting with spa packages, available in certain cabin grades from £249 (AU$416) to £399 (AU$667) per person, depending on the length of cruise. For this, you get a couple of passes to The Retreat, some treatments, free fitness classes and use of the spa’s Oasis pool.

Sindhu, the new Indian-fusion restaurant on Deck 7 and the first seagoing venture of Michelin-starred chef Atul Kochhar, has been much hyped. If it’s anything like as good as Benares, Kochhar’s London restaurant and bar, it’ll be worth trying. The cover charge varies from £15 (AU$25) to £25 (AU$42) depending on the length of the cruise but regardless, it is a bargain for cuisine of this standard. Dishes fuse Indian and British flavours. There are Indian snacks, too, and cocktails matched to the spicy dishes.

Also new is The Glass House, a bar/restaurant overseen by the exuberant Olly Smith, a well-known wine expert and TV presenter in the UK. There are 32 wines available by the glass, many from boutique vineyards. Guests can eat à la carte here, where steak, seafood and lighter bar snacks are available for reasonable prices, or just come for the wine. I was impressed by the knowledgeable bar staff in situ.

A third alternative restaurant, Seventeen, has been overshadowed by the marketing hype surrounding Sindhu but is in a fantastic location on the aft end of Deck 17, serving modern British/French cuisine – Welsh lamb, Dover sole, Cornish sea bass, south coast diver scallops and foie gras are all on the menu. It has indoor and outdoor seating, perfect for a summer night in the Mediterranean. The cover charge varies between £20 (AU$33) and £30 (AU$50), depending on the cruise length: it’s comparatively high but again, reflective of the setting and premium ingredients.

If you don’t want to pay extra to eat, Azura has three main dining rooms, Peninsular, Oriental and Meridian, offering open-seating dining and pre-assigned tables and times. Up on Deck 15 there are two buffets, Verona and Venezia, both serving food throughout the day and evening. Both are set in a rather functional area, although it appears more romantic at night.

Azura is not short of bars. My favourite is The Planet Bar, based on a concept similar to that of Metropolis on sister ship Ventura: high up on Deck 18, it has dreamy views over the ship’s wake. An impressively large plasma screen covering one wall shows larger-than-life images of the world’s natural and man-made wonders, with the footage specially shot for the cruise line. There’s a different country, continent or region and a themed cocktail to go with it, every day of the week.

In addition, you’ll find The Blue Bar, a small but elegant cocktail bar; and Malabar, a lounge done out in hot colours and an Indian theme. Then there’s Brodie’s, a traditional British-style pub with pool tables, dartboards and beer on tap. Brodie’s segues into the casino, which is small compared to the space typically assigned to gaming on US-run ships. It’s a reminder that Azura is built for Brits, most of whom prefer boozing to gambling.

New to P&O Cruises UK is a concept borrowed from Princess Cruises: a giant day-and-night movie screen overlooking the Aqua pool. The benefits of SeaScreen, according to the cruise line, outweigh those of having a retractable roof over that pool (it had to be one or the other). So Azura will have no covered pool: something to bear in mind if you are booking a cruise at the beginning or end of the season.

What’s missing on the entertainment front is a decent-sized library; there’s a small reading area with a few books and a couple of internet terminals off the lobby, but it’s clear that rather than borrowing, passengers are expected to buy reading material from the onboard bookshop and bring their own laptops to use the ship’s wi-fi.

But this is a minor gripe: overall, Azura is a beautiful ship and is likely to have broad appeal to families and couples, traditionalists and first-time cruisers alike.

FACT FILE

Cruise line: P&O Cruises UK

Vessel: Azura

Star rating: N/A

Maximum passenger capacity: 3,597

Total crew: 1,200 approx

Passenger decks: 14

GRT: 115,000 tons

Entered service: April 2010

Facilities: Gym; Oasis Spa; 3 outdoor pools; 11 restaurants; 12 bars; casino; movie screen on deck; children’s clubs for 5 age groups; hospital; library/bookshop; laundrette; 25 wheelchair-accessible cabins; 18 single cabins

Have you sailed aboard Azura? What are your opinions of the ship?