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P&O Cruises’ Azura
The Beautiful Baltic

by Emma Gray

The Azura is one of the newest and largest of P&O’s fleet and as such has many modern and contemporary design features. The main atrium of the ship stretches over three floors making it the smallest I have ever seen on any ship, yet despite it being far smaller in height than others it still has an open and spacious feel to it thanks to clever lighting and the use of a lot of glass.

The Glasshouse is just one of the bars on the ship which I enjoyed whilst onboard. It has a clever design plan which creates intimate corners and smaller areas whilst still being large and open plan. P&O have created The Glasshouse in partnership with Olly Smith, a television and newspaper wine specialist, and it functions as a fine wine bar and restaurant. The food here was delicious and the bar staff were very friendly and helpful at all times. I recommend that any future passengers who enjoy wine try out one of the fabulous wine flights!

The Playhouse theatre onboard is not big enough to seat the 3100 passengers that Azura can carry and the show times are staggered throughout the evening in order for everyone to be able to enjoy them. However, this was a problem for one off events such as the audience with the captain, Paul Brown, when there were not enough seats for all who wanted to attend and this resulted in passengers standing and sitting on stairs and in aisles.

The entertainment provided in The Playhouse Theatre from the Headliners theatre company was the best I have ever seen on any of the nine cruises I have been on. The shows were slick and well rehearsed with fabulous dancers and strong singers working together to put on great performances most nights.

Sindu is one of the select dining restaurants onboard and was created with celebrity Michelin starred chef Atul Kochhar. The food and ambience of this restaurant was simply divine and the relaxed atmosphere was a welcome relief from the bustling main dining room. The service was impeccable and the food was perfectly flavoured so that many different spices could be tasted without any single one being overpowering or too spicy.

Our main dining room was the Peninsular restaurant on the second seating of 8:30pm. Having previously cruised with P&O I was looking forward to excellent food and service in the main dining room but was sorely disappointed. Our main table waiter was less than friendly and gave the impression that we were little more than an inconvenience to him, however, the assistant waiter was pleasant and polite. P&O have recently changed their dinner menus and I found the changes to be less than satisfactory. On any given evening of our 14 night cruise there were at least three fish dishes on offer as main courses, which is fine if you are a fan of fish but if not you may struggle as I did. The vegetable accompaniments with the main courses were extremely repetitive with peas being offered every single night!

Our first port of call was this pretty Norwegian town. The sail up Oslofjord in the morning was simply spectacular. Rocky hills and trees seemed to rise out of the clear blue waters and the pastel coloured traditional Norwegian houses appeared to be perched precariously on the hills. Oslo itself was a little disappointing and beyond the Royal Palace and its gardens, Parliament buildings and the National Opera and Ballet House there was not a lot to do in terms of sightseeing however there are plenty of cafes and restaurants on the waters edge to spend a few relaxing hours.

From where the Azura docked we walked ten minutes along the shore to the famous statue of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid. It is far smaller than I was expecting and not to be confused with the larger statue of a topless mermaid which is just around the corner! From here we bought tickets for the open top bus sightseeing tour of Copenhagen but I would recommend that any future visitors opt for a boat tour instead because it allows you to see far more of Copenhagen in a shorter space of time and is far more relaxing, especially on a sunny day. The boat trip we took began on the Nyhavn next to the Kongens Nytorv Square and was very reasonably priced for the one hour cruise time.

After our boat trip we strolled along the main shopping street of Copenhagen which begins on the opposite side of the Kongens Nytorv Square and stumbled upon a stunning little café- The Royal Café. This is situated in a quiet and quirky courtyard next to the Georg Jensen Museum and offers a wide array of beautiful cakes and pastries that I can highly recommend!

Stockholm was my favourite port of the cruise after St. Petersburg for its beautiful canals and clean, open streets. Whilst in Stockholm we visited the city hall which is where the annual Nobel banquet is held. After dinner in Blå hallen, the Blue Hall, Nobel Prize recipients, royalty and special guests dance in Gyllene salen, the Golden Hall, which is decorated in over 18 million gold mosaic tiles and is a definite must see.

We also took a boat trip on the archipelago, which similarly to Copenhagen is a fabulous way to see the city. Most of the boat trips offer a hop-on, hop-off service stopping at places such as the wonderful Vasa Museum which houses the wreck of the Vasa warship which sunk on its maiden voyage and lay at the bottom of the sea for more than 300 years before being brought to the surface.

We visited the Russian Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral, the largest Orthodox Cathedral in Europe, and were treated to hearing a man singing in Russian inside. From here we walked just a few minutes to the Lutheran Cathedral, a stunning white building with five blue domes. The predominantly white interior of this Cathedral is very simple compared with that of the Uspenski and this reflects the different beliefs of the two religions.

There was a large market situated next to Norra Esplanden at the edge of the water (many boat trips also leave from this area) and there were many stalls selling fruit, vegetables, handmade souvenirs and jewellery. Near the market are many cafes and restaurants which are reasonably priced.

St. Petersburg
The two days we spent in St. Petersburg were undoubtedly the highlight of our first cruise in the Baltic seas. We researched and booked a two day tour with a Russian company, Alla Tours, and it was easy and hassle free from start to finish. Speaking to other passengers afterwards who had taken trips with P&O we realised we had been able to fit much more sightseeing into our short time there and had seen a lot more of the main attractions than they had done which was just one of the advantages. Part of the reason for this was that because of the tour we did not have to wait in a single queue for anything, our wonderful tour guide took us to the front of every queue and saved us hours of time by doing so.

On the first day we met our guide 30 minutes after the ship was docked and firstly went on a city highlights drive with the driver stopping frequently for us to get out and take photographs. We were given headsets in order to listen to our very knowledgeable guide talk us through the fascinating history of the city. We then took a boat trip to view the city from the water which was lovely. This was followed by a trip to the St. Peter and Paul Fortress and a trip inside the Cathedral where many of the Russian Tsars are buried. We then travelled to Peterhof via hydrofoil (which took just 30 minutes rather than an hour by coach) and were given a tour of the beautiful, ornate gardens and viewed the many fountains, all of which are powered by gravity! Catherine’s Palace was the afternoon section of tour. The strikingly beautiful blue and white exterior of the building did little to prepare us for the stunning interior with many rooms decorated in gold, ornate ceilings and dazzling chandeliers adorning the Palace.

The second day of our tour began in the Hermitage Museum, the third largest in the world. We spent more than two hours there admiring yet more stunning rooms decorated in gold and marble and saw original paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, Claude Monet and Titian to name but a few. This was followed by a visit to The Church of the Spilled Blood, one of the most awe inspiring buildings I have ever seen. The bright blues and greens of its exterior together with its shining gold domes are something not to be missed. The interior is just as striking with mosaic covered walls and ceilings painstakingly restored after the Bolsheviks went on an offensive against religion and destroyed churches all over the country in the 1930’s. Next stop was the Yusupov Palace and a walk through the room where Gregory Rasputin was allegedly poisoned and spent some of his last hours before escaping onto the streets of the city. Last on the tour was a visit inside Saint Isaac’s Cathedral- another stunning cathedral with gold domed exterior and intricate and beautiful mosaic works covering the interior.

Tallinn was by far the quaintest stop on our two week cruise and we were so taken with the old town of Tallinn than we never made it to the newer part. The winding, cobbled streets have many independent shops and little cafes and it is easy to spend a few happy hours exploring them. The main square of Tallin, Raekoja Plats, is a lovely place to sit with a coffee and people watch with the town hall as the backdrop. If you are feeling energetic you can climb the stairs to the top of the city hall tower and admire the view from the top for only a few euros.

This quiet German town provided a very pleasant and relaxing day ashore. The sun was shining and we took advantage of this and took a walk along the large white sandy beach which was so beautiful it looked like the type of beach you would expect to see in the Mediterranean. There are many cafes, restaurants and reasonably priced shops along the river’s edge just minutes walk from where the ships dock. We had a lovely evening sailaway from Wärnemunde as hundreds of people had gathered to watch the ship leave, there was music and a party onboard and two pleasure boats followed us out into the open waters which prompted much whistling of each of the ships whistles in happy acknowledgement of the turnout to watch the Azura sail.

The Azura docked into the port of Zeebruge and from there we took the complimentary shuttle bus to the train station in the seaside town of Blankenberge. The train journey from there to Bruges is just over 10 minutes and more than worth it to experience this picture postcard town with its small canals and abounding chocolate shops. I can highly recommend sampling Belgian waffles and stocking up on some of their wonderful chocolates which come in all shapes and sizes- ducks, dogs, cats, swans, dolphins- they almost look too good to eat!

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