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P&O Goes Back to the Future with Azura - A Move Back to Single Cabins - The New Cruise Port of Portsmouth

by Mark Tre' - "The Cruise Examiner"

As P&O's new £380 million Azura leaves Southampton today on her maiden voyage, we have a look at some of the things that mark her out in the P&O fleet, which is now up to seven ships. Meanwhile, we look at how single cabins are starting to appear again after the decade since the introduction of the Queen Mary 2 saw nothing but double cabins, and how another new British cruise port, Portsmouth, is introducing a new cruise terminal and has signed a new contract with All Leisure.


Back to the Future with P&O's Azura

P&O Cruises' 3,096-passenger Azura departs Southampton today on her maiden voyage, a 16-night Mediterranean cruise, after her christening on Saturday night by prima ballerina Darcey Bussell in a tribute to dance followed by fireworks in the presence of 1,200 guests. The new ship brings to seven the number of P&O vessels based at Southampton, compared to three when Carnival first acquired P&O.

According to P&O Cruises managing director Carol Marlow, Darcey was chosen because "She epitomises glamour, sophistication and elegance, all qualities we have strived to achieve in Azura."
Dance will play a key role in the ship's entertainment, with three venues for dancing, including a ballroom in the ship's atrium.

In port to greet her new sister on the event of her christening was her near sister ship Ventura. The main differences between the two are a different stern configuration, with more of a ducktail on the Azura, and the lack of a swimming pool with a retractable roof on Azura, which instead features P&O's first movie screen up on deck.

P&O has called Azura its "back-to-the-future" ship - although her classic P&O style has been built onto a "Grand Princess" platform acquired from sister company (once subsidiary) Princess Cruises, she features contemporary British design with traditional style in an effort to capture what is timeless about cruising and being at sea. Princess has always claimed that the Grand Princess class, although large, have a smaller ship feel to them, with many smaller lounges and pool areas, so the basic platform has apparently adapted well for the P&O fleet. One of the interesting things about Azura, however, is that she carries 500 more passengers than the Grand Princess.

Meanwhile, a mystery has popped up in the last week. Like the rest of the P&O fleet the Azura had Hamilton (Bermuda) painted on her stern while in the shipyard, but by the time she arrived at her new home port last week she carried the registry port of Southampton on her stern. If she is the only P&O Cruises ship under UK flag, then at 115,055 tons she will be the third largest passenger-carrying ship on the UK register, after the 148,528-ton Queen Mary 2, which carries 2,620, and the 131,332-ton CMA CGM Christophe Colomb, which carries just ten.

As well as her three main dining rooms, the Azura features Michelin-starred Atul Kochhar's alternative Indian restaurant Sindhu, plus the Glass House, a kind of gastro pub and wine bar put together by wine expert Olly Smith, with wine-tasting flights available for £9.95 or £13.95. As well, where the White Room is on Ventura, Azura features an alternate restaurant called 17 (on deck 17), which also offers al fresco dining. Extra levies for a typical cruise are £20 per person for Sindhu or £25 for 17. Meanwhile, while two of the main dining rooms are for classic dining with sittings, the third offers "Freedom" dining, or open seating, and if there is no room when one appears, pagers are given to call you when there is.

Contrary to what was said on March 30, Azura is not an adults only ship, but she will have P&O's first adults only area, called The Retreat, with its own Oasis swimming pool and nearby Elemis spa. In the Retreat, cabanas are also available, somewhat like those on Holland America's Eurodam, for £10 a day at sea an d £6 a day in port. And one of aspect of the spa is that treatment rooms have windows with a view and some have balconies.
And the Azura is pitched as a ship for couples rather than children. Although she has the usual excellent children's areas, she also has lots of tables for two for dining, as well as sun loungers for two on deck and spa treatment rooms for couples.

The 19-deck Azura boasts five swimming pools and spa, eleven restaurants, an 800-seat theatre, the Playhouse, shops, bars and a library that hosts internet, as well as a rather well-stocked book shop. One of the bars, Brodies, is a mixture of pub and sports bar named after Brodie Wilcox, who along with Arthur Anderson, established P&O back in 1837, three years before Samuel Cunard sent his first packet across the Atlantic to Halifax and Boston. Off Brodie's are a small casino to suit British tastes, while on tap throughout the ship's bars are Boddington's Ale and Stella Artois lager.

Finally, of her 1,557 staterooms, fully 910 have balconies. And she has 18 single cabins, both inside and outside, a first for a P&O ship in some time. And as with any P&O ship, each cabin is equipped with tea-making facilities. As well, many are equipped with the full bath that British travellers prefer.

At the same time the Adonia will be sailing from Southampton. It is worth comparing the two new P&O fleet members as they will be at opposite extremes in terms of size:


A Move Back to Single Cabins

While Fred Olsen Cruise Lines have included a number of single cabins in all of their ships for some time, P&O and NCL are now joining them with the new Azura and Norwegian Epic, and others such as Voyages to Antiquity are joining as well, while several lines continue to offer no single supplements on certain departures.

P&O's Azura enters service today with 18 single cabins, 6 inside and 12 outside, These singles are so popular that they are sold out for all of 2010. But Norwegian Epic will far outstrip this, with 128 single cabins out of a total of 2,100. These so-called "studio" cabins are all inside and measure about 100 square feet each, smaller than the 120 square feet of first generation cruise ships but big enough for one person, and certainly a good way of using less desirable inside space to generate additional revenue from a singles market that has been clamouring for such accommodation for decades. The cost of a single cabin is usually more than the per person charge in a double, although on Norwegian Epic there will be no surcharge and studio customers will also get their own exclusive singles lounge.

Until the Norwegian Epic, the Saga Ruby claimed the largest number of single cabins, with 70 (Saga Rose, now retired, had 60). Fred Olsen's Balmoral was next with 63, while the Black Watch and Boudicca have 42 each and the Braemar 27, for 174 single cabins in a single fleet. In 2009, Fred Olsen booked 7,700 single passengers, almost two-thirds of which were female, and they accounted for 8% of their passenger carryings. This compares to about 3.5% for P&O.

Voyages to Antiquity has also joined the movement with 16 cabins on board their new Aegean Odyssey out of a total of 198. The little Hebridean Spirit, however, has the highest ratio of all, with 11 single cabins out of 30, or more than a third.

Until now, many lines have been charging single supplements of 75% or even 100%, which has just pushed away the business in favour of couples. The feeling that a single might spend only half as much as two in a cabin now seems to be giving way slowly to an attitude that catering to the singles market might indeed bring them some revenue that they did not have before. After all, although each cabin must be serviced, a studio cabin occupies only about 55% of the space of a more standard 180-square foot cabin, which has been the norm on some lines for many years now.

This is far different from the attitude that prevailed ten years ago, when the Queen Mary 2 was designed with nothing but double cabins despite the fact that her predecessor Queen Elizabeth 2 had offered 125 single cabins. The reason given at the time was shipbuilding methods and prefabricated cabins but singles now seem to be gaining some favour again in the cruise market.

The New Cruise Port of Portsmouth

Portmouth has always been an extremely poor cousin of nearby Southampton, with its four busy cruise terminals, but that will soon change. On Friday, it was announced that All Leisure Group, parent company of Hebridean Island Cruises, Swan Hellenic and Voyages of Discovery, had decided to us Portsmouth as its UK south coast cruise base when the port opens its new cruise terminal.

Portsmouth has seen only the occasional cruise call in recent years, notably by lines such as Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, and one departure a year by Silversea's Prince Albert II on a half-way-round-Britain cruise to Leith, but 2011 will see the Discovery, Hebridean Princess and Minerva using Portsmouth as en embarkation port. Alexander von Humboldt, which is now on charter to Phoenix Reisen, may also come into All Leisure's UK cruise operations in 2011 when her charter expires.

This development could not come at a better time for Portsmouth, as P&O Ferries confirmed earlier this month that it will end its longstanding Portsmouth to Bilbao overnight ferry service, with the Pride of Bilbao, in September 2010, after seventeen years.
The port's other main customer is Brittany Ferries, operating "cruise ferries" to Caen, St Malo, Cherbourg and Santander. Portsmouth will now be putting an emphasis on promoting UK "no fly" cruises from its new terminal, due to open in the spring of 2011.

Miscellaneous callers at Portsmouth this year include Quark Expeditions' Ocean Nova, later this month, the Fram and Vistamar in May, and Delphin Voyager, Delphin and Princess Daphne over the summer. This will be capped off by a visit by Hapag-Lloyd Cruises' top-rated Europa in September. Last year, Fred Olsen's Boudicca also made a number of cruises from Portsmouth.

Local attractions include Portsmouth's historic Royal Navy Dockyard, with Henry the Eighth's HMS Mary Rose, Nelson's HMS Victory and Queen Victoria's HMS Warrior and the 558-foot (170-metre) Spinnaker Tower, with public viewing platforms on three levels. The new cruise terminal will be shared with ferry traffic and is served by Portsmouth Harbour railway station.

This is not good news for Dover, however, who have lost NCL this year and will lose MSC in 2011, as losing Swan Hellenic as well means it will have lost three cruise lines in a period of less than a year.

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