Tuesday, 17 April 2012

I have been to ... the Adriatic

It does not seem very long since our last cruise, but my wife and I were looking forward to this cruise as it was going to several of our favourite destinations.

Friday 30th March: Southampton
We set off from home just before 9.00am, and by 10.00am we had made our way around the M25 and had joined the M3. We had plenty of time to stop at Winchester Services for a drink and something to eat, and by 11.30am we had joined the queue of cars outside the Ocean Terminal in Southampton. We got our luggage out of the car, and a porter took it away to be loaded aboard our cruise ship, the MV Azura. At the same time the valet parking service booked our car in and we made our way inside the terminal building ... and then things began to go wrong.

As we went up the escalator to the booking-in hall it was apparent that it was already quite full. As we were Gold Tier members of the P&O Portunus Club we were entitled to priority booking in ... and we were directed into an already crowded waiting area that was full of other Gold Tier members. We waited ... and waited ... and waited ... and eventually we were told that embarkation was going to be delayed due to a computer problem.

By 12.45pm the problem was apparently 'solved' ... but by them the booking-in hall was extremely crowded, and the Gold Tier area was standing room only. We were finally booked-in at 1.15pm ... but the booking-in staff could not find our cruise cards (which were our on-board identity documents as well as being our charge cards for anything we needed pay for whilst on board ship) so that we could get through the security checks and board the ship! Eventually two new cruise cards were printed for us to use, and we passed through the security checks. These checks were extremely thorough, and involved not only the removal of all metallic objects we might be carrying (e.g. belts with metal buckles) but also our shoes.

Having dressed ourselves after the security check we attempted to go aboard ... but the ship's computer system refused to recognise our 'new' cruise cards. One of the senior security staff took us to Reception, where we were issued with replacement cruise cards. We then went to the lounge that had been set aside for Gold Tier members wait in whilst our cabins were made ready.

One of the other perks of being a Gold Tier member was that you were supposed to be given free sandwiches and champagne or orange juice whilst waiting in the lounge. The sandwiches arrived very promptly ... but they were not followed by any drinks. Eventually my wife went to the bar and took a glass of champagne for herself and a 'Bucks Fizz' for me. When we had drunk those, we waited for a second drink ... but none came. I eventually tracked down a bar steward, who told me that there was orange juice left but no champagne. My wife was not at all pleased with this, and went off and found the Portunus Club representative, who assured us that more champagne would be forthcoming ... and it was ... within a matter of minutes!

By 2.30pm we were in our cabin, waiting for our luggage to arrive. We waited ... and waited ... and waited ... but no luggage arrived. We tracked down our cabin steward, who told us that he would specially look for it and bring it to our cabin as soon as possible. He was true to his word, and by 4.30pm five of our six bags had arrived. (It appeared that although our luggage was amongst the first into the delivery system, it was amongst the last to be brought aboard the ship!) He then went off and found the missing bag, and by 5.00pm we had our entire luggage ... just in time to go to the Safety Briefing at our Muster Station. (P&O have always insisted that Passenger Safety Briefings take place before the ship leaves the dockside, and in the light of the Costa Concordia disaster this has become even more important in the minds of everyone who travels on a cruise ship.)

By the time the Safety Briefing was over the ship had already moved away from the quayside, and was already making her way down Southampton Water towards the Solent. We returned to our cabin and finished unpacking our luggage before getting ready for a pre-dinner drink in the Blue Bar.

After a very good meal in the Peninsular Restaurant we went for a walk around the ship to get our bearings. Most of the public areas were deserted, and this made finding our way around much easier than it would have been during the day. We ended the evening with a final drink in the Blue Bar before going to bed.

Before going to sleep I began to read a new Sherlock Holmes book that I recently bought. It is one of a series entitled THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, published by Titan Books. This particular book was called THE STALWART COMPANIONS, and was written by H Paul Jeffers. It was set in New York during the early 1880s, and describes a case solved by Holmes and Theodore Roosevelt, the as-yet-to-come President of the Board of Commissioners of the New York Police Department, Colonel of Volunteers, and – most importantly – twenty-sixth President of the United States of America.

The opening chapters describe how H Paul Jeffers – assisted by the eminent Sherlockian B Alexander Wiggins – discovered a file in the New York Police Department's archives that linked the solution of a murder in the Gramercy Park area of New York to Detective Wilson Hargreave, a young Theodore Roosevelt, and an English stage-actor know as William Escott (Sherlock Holmes incognito).

Unlike many pastiches this book was well written, and what I read that night was very encouraging as well as being as believable as many of Conan Doyle's own stories. I looked forward to reading the rest of this book and the other two from the series that I had brought with me from home.

Saturday 31st March: At sea
After an excellent night's sleep we had breakfast in the Peninsular Restaurant, after which we spent some time sitting on the Promenade Deck. Although the ship has only reached the top of the Bay of Biscay, the weather was warm enough to sit on deck in shirtsleeves and the sea was very calm. Visibility was not very good, and the horizon was only a vague line in the haze.

At 11.00am my wife and I attended a lecture about the history of the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution). The lecturer was a retired lifeboat coxswain from Aldeburgh in Suffolk called Mick Testoni, and his lecture served as an introduction to a series of further lectures he gave about the RNLI.

At midday, after the Officer of the Watch had done the traditional noonday announcement, I attended a meeting of the international fraternal organisation of which I am a member. We hoped to organise a charitable fund-raising event at some point later in the cruise, and this meeting was the first of several that were needed to ensure its success.

We had lunch in The Glasshouse, which was a wine bar-style restaurant and bar that specialised in stocking a variety of fine wines. It was set up by the wine expert Olly Smith, who oversaw the selection of the wines that were on sale. My wife and I shared a selection of what were called 'little plates'. These were similar to the tapas that are sold in Spanish bars, and included meat, fish, and vegetable dishes.

After lunch – and another short spell on the Promenade Deck – we paid a visit to the onboard shops before returning to our cabin for a short doze. For a change we decided not to go to the Captain's 'Welcome Aboard' Cocktail Party that evening. Instead we drank a bottle of pink champagne that we had been given by P&O when we came aboard MV Azura and a plate of canapés that our cabin steward brought us during the afternoon.

The first formal dinner of the cruise was well up to the usual P&O standard, and we enjoyed the company of our eight table companions. We had hoped to go to see a Freddy Mercury tribute act in the Manhattan Bar after dinner, but by the time we got there it was very crowded and we could not find any seats. Instead we went for a drink in the Planet Bar, which is on Deck Eighteen at the stern of the ship.

Before going to sleep I read another couple of chapters of THE STALWART COMPANIONS. The story was evolving into one about an assassination plot to kill President Hayes, but I suspected that there would be a few twists and turns before the problem was solved.

Sunday 1st April: At sea
After another excellent night's sleep (despite the clocks having to be put forward an hour to bring them into line with Spanish time) we awoke to find that there was heavy cloud cover and very grey skies. By 9.30am the ship was off Porto on the northern coast of Portugal, having completed its passage across the Bay of Biscay during the night, and it looked as if the ship would be off Lisbon by the middle of the afternoon.

We noticed that the ship's newspaper had what looked like a couple of 'spoof' entries to mark the fact that it was April Fool's Day. We wondered how many people would be taken in by the 'Submarine Display Team' and 'Water Skiing off the back of the ship' sessions that were slated to take place during the day ... but also realised that by going along to see how many people were taken in, we were in danger of actually becoming subjects of the hoaxes as well!

As the morning progressed the sun began to emerge as the cloud cover lifted, but this proved to be only temporary, and the cloud soon returned. As a result it was too cold to sit in the open for very long, and at 11.30am we went to the second lecture given by Mick Testoni of the RNLI. This talk covered the history of Britain's lifeboats and lifeboatmen from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century.

After the lecture we went to the Promenade Deck for a breath of fresh air ... and saw numerous dolphins swimming near the ship. My wife attempted to photograph them as they broke the surface of the sea, but they were gone so quickly that all she ended up with was images of where they had been moments beforehand.

We then went for a drink in the Planet Bar, followed by a light lunch in the Venezia Restaurant (which was a self-service cafeteria-style restaurant). Having eaten, we went back to our cabin and sat on our balcony for a couple of hours. I read some draft wargames rules that had been sent to me on the day before we set sail whilst my wife read a magazine and book.

At 4.45pm we returned to the Venezia Restaurant for afternoon tea, and whilst there we struck up a conversation with a couple from South Africa who had flown to the UK to join MV Asura for the cruise to the Adriatic.

After tea we returned to our cabin to get ready for dinner, but before doing so we spent some time on the balcony as the sun had finally broken through the cloudy sky, and it was warm in the open air for the first time that day. I managed to finish reading THE STALWART COMPANIONS, and found that I was right to surmise that there would be some interesting twists and turns in the plot before the end of the book ... as well as an interesting afterword that tied up one or two of the loose ends.

Monday 2nd April: Cadiz
We arrived in Cadiz to find that the sky was overcast and the temperature was cool (15C) but not unpleasant. As we sailed into port we passed a replica of a Spanish galleon used for tourist trips ...

... and a Polish sailing ship, Dar Mlodziezy.

MV Azura was moored alongside by 9.00am, and after breakfast in our cabin we prepared to go ashore.

The ship was moored very close to the Plaza de Espana, and within minutes we were standing looking at the monument built to commemorate the 1812 'War of Liberation', during which Cadiz acted as the capital of 'liberated' Spain.

From there we walked through the narrow streets of the city ...

... towards the Parque Genoves where we sat and enjoyed a rest in the shade of the palm trees that seemed to fill the park. It was only a short walk from there to the beach area known as the Playa de la Caleta.

On the way we passed a statue of Simon Bolivar, after whom this part of the city appeared to have been named.

The Playa de la Caleta area was heavily fortified during the seventeenth century, and had a fortress at either end of the bay and another at the end of a causeway leading out into the sea.

The fortress at the end of the causeway was called the Castillo de San Sebastian and was open to the public ...

... as was the Castillo de Santa Catalina at the northern end of the bay. We chose to look around the latter, which was currently used to house a number of art exhibits.

After our visit to the fortress – and a break for a coffee in a nearby cafe – we made our way along the Playa de la Caleta to the southern end of the bay, where we had time to look at the fortified entrance to the causeway leading from the shore ...

... to the Castillo de San Sebastian

We then continued our walk along the seafront towards the back of the Cathedral ...

... but turned inland before we got there so that we could visit the local market, which was built in the Roman-style.

Heading once more towards the cathedral, we passed through the narrow streets of the 'Old Town' until we reached it.

We then found a restaurant, where we ate an excellent lunch overlooking the Plaza de Catedral.

As we had to be back aboard Azura by 3.30pm at the latest, we took a leisurely stroll back to the ship via the Town Hall, which occupies one side of a square that contains an interesting water feature.

Once back on board we had short rest in our cabin before the ship sailed from Cadiz at 3.45pm to make the 1,380 mile passage to our the next port-of-call, Kefalonia in Greece. I used the opportunity to test the new video camera my wife bought a few weeks ago, and discovered that the battery could cope with about an hour of filming before it needed to be replaced.

At about 6.00pm it was time to get ready for the evening meal, for which the dress-of-the-day was casual. Before going into dinner I managed to begin reading the next book in the series published by Titan Books under the title of THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. The book I started was entitled SEANCE FOR A VAMPIRE (written by Fred Saberhagen), and judging by the introduction – which purported to be written by Count Dracula – it was going to involve some good old Gothic-style horror and the supernatural. This was not normally the sort of story I would read, but I was determined to give it a try.

After dinner we had a quiet drink in the Planet Bar, and before going to sleep I read another couple of chapters of SEANCE FOR A VAMPIRE, which was actually quite an engaging and not at all predictable story.

Tuesday 3rd April: At sea
The weather was good during the night and we both slept well. When we awoke the cloud cover was about 50% and the temperature was warm enough to sit on deck in shirtsleeves. This was in part due to the ship's proximity to North Africa (Azura was off the coast of Algeria to the north west of Algiers at 9.00am), from which the prevailing wind was blowing.

After breakfast in the Peninsular Restaurant we went to hear the third of Mick Testoni's talks about the work of the RNLI. I then attended the second meeting of the international fraternal organisation of which I am a member, as a result of which I was given the job of organising a coffee morning that would act both as a social and a fund raising event.

After a late lunch in The Glasshouse wine bar and restaurant, my wife and I met with a Senior Bar Supervisor who acted as the representative of the Bar Services Manager. During our meeting we discussed the various options for the coffee morning I had been asked to organise, and we agreed a time and place for the event as well as finalising the costs.

My wife and I then had a refreshing drink at the Terrace Bar overlooking the stern of the ship, after which we returned to our cabin to prepare for the formal dinner that was being held that evening.

Whilst we were getting ready for dinner I noticed what looked like a warship passing MV Azura on a reciprocal course. I managed to take a rather grainy photograph of the ship ... and then realised that a second warship with a similar silhouette was also approaching Azura on a similar reciprocal course but somewhat closer. My wife was able to take a better quality photograph of the second warship, which appeared to be a minesweeper.

It was impossible to make out the national flags being flown by either ship, and as their pennant numbers were also unclear I was not able to identify either warship.

We chose to visit the Terrace Bar for a pre-dinner drink, and it was wonderful to sit in the open air – having a drink – at 8.00pm in early April! After dinner we had intended to see a film on the outdoor Seascreen, but the quality of the picture on the large screen – coupled with the poor sound quality – put us off and instead we went to the Planet Bar from a drink.

I was able to read several more chapters of SEANCE FOR A VAMPIRE, and although this was not the sort of book that I would usually choose to read, its supernatural aspects were so far fetched as to make the story uninteresting. Besides a story of revenge and vampirism, there was a subplot concerning revolutionary Russians based in London. The latter included Valdimir Ilyich Ulyanov, who was better known as Lenin.

Wednesday 4th April: At sea
When we awoke the ship was off the coast of Tunisia. The temperature was 15C and there was almost total cloud cover. As a result visibility was quite poor and the horizon was difficult to discern.

After breakfast in the Peninsular Restaurant we spent a short time on the Promenade Deck before going to hear Mick Testoni's fourth lecture about the RNLI. This ended at 11.45am, which gave us time to get back to our cabin and changed in time to go to the special Portunus Gold Tier lunch at midday.

The Portunus Club was about to be replaced by a new loyalty scheme – The Peninsular Club – and this was the last such lunch to be organised aboard MV Azura. We shared a table with six other Gold Tier members and our host was one of the ship's officers. He was part of the hospitality staff employed aboard the ship, and his exact role was financial control. He proved to be an excellent host, and was very informative about some of the changes that P&O had recently introduced.

The lunch lasted well over two hours, and when we left the restaurant we returned to our cabin for a rest. By then the weather had changed somewhat for the worse, and the cross-deck wind speed reached 60mph and higher at times. This meant that it was difficult to sit in the open – even on our balcony – because the wind speed made it feel so cold.

Just after 6.00pm we began getting ready for the evening. After showering and changing our clothes we had a pre-dinner in the Blue Bar. Some of our usual dinner companions had chosen to go to the Venezia Restaurant because a special Indian buffet dinner was being held there, but despite our numbers being depleted, the conversation around the dinner table was lively and interesting.

After dinner we went to the Planet Bar for a final drink before going to bed. I read several more chapters of SEANCE FOR A VAMPIRE before going to sleep, and thought that the book was much better than I had expected it would be.

Thursday 5th April: Kefalonia
During the night the sea was rather more 'lively' than it had been previously, and we were both woken up several times by the occasional juddering caused by the ship changing course against the prevailing wind and sea. When we finally got out of bed at 8.00am the sea and sky were totally grey ... not something that one normally associates with the Ionian Sea. The weather actually got worse before we went to breakfast, and the ship sailed through a rainstorm during its approach to the harbour of Argostoli on Kefalonia.

As had become our custom on most days, we had breakfast in the Peninsular Restaurant followed by a short spell on the Promenade Deck. We then made our way ashore and walked to the central square of Argostoli, looking in various souvenir shops along the way. By the time we reached the square the light rain shower that had started just after we got ashore had stopped, and the sun broke through. We had a drink in a very pleasant restaurant in the square before making our way back to the ship.

We bought some small souvenirs on our way back, as well as helping someone we had met aboard ship to retrieve their camera. This had fallen into the water right next to the walkway that followed the water's edge. It was visible from the walkway ... but in several feet of water. He stripped off his outer garments and climbed down into the water, and I helped to pull him out again.

As we were booked to have dinner at one of the specialist restaurants aboard Azura that evening, we decided to have a snack lunch. We went to eat lunch at 2.00pm, and found that the Pizzeria was not only open but also not very crowded. The pizzas were made and cooked to order, and tasted great. After eating our lunch we went out onto the open deck at the stern of the ship for a breath of fresh air before returning to our cabin. It began to rain again whilst we were sat outside, but luckily we were under cover and did not get wet.

The ship slipped its moorings and left Kefalonia at just after 5.00pm to sail towards our next destination, Dubrovnik. Our departure was assisted by a local tug ...

... and a training boat from the local merchant navy academy, which acted as both a mooring boat and pilot cutter.

Whilst the senior officers watched from the enclosed bridge wing ...

... the pilot disembarked and returned to the shore at high speed.

We sat on the cabin balcony until we were some distance away from Argostoli, after which we began to get ready for dinner. After a pre-dinner drink in the Planet Bar on Deck Eighteen Aft we had dinner in Seventeen (so named because it was on Deck Seventeen Aft), one of the ship's specialist restaurants. This was billed as a fine dining experience ... and certainly lived up to its reputation.

Friday 6th April: Dubrovnik
The ship had to travel at almost full speed from Kefalonia to Dubrovnik. Luckily the weather stayed reasonably fine and there were no storms, and as a result Azura was secured alongside in Dubrovnik by 8.00am.

We awoke just as the ship was mooring, and found that the sky was full of cloud and that there was a likelihood that we would experience rain showers at some time during the day. This did not deter us, and after breakfast in the Peninsular Restaurant we prepared to go ashore.

The ship was moored some way from the centre of Dubrovnik, near the bridge over the Rijeka Dubrovacka. A large ship was moored astern of us. It looked as if it was the size of a small cruise liner, but on closer inspection it looked more like a very large motor yacht. Interestingly it appeared to be accompanied by another ship that seemed to look like some sort of naval auxiliary.

We took the shuttle bus into the centre of Dubrovnik just as the rain began to fall quite heavily, and after a journey of about fifteen minutes we alighted near the Pile Gate into the Old City (Stari Grad).

We entered the city via the gate and walked down the main street (known as the Placa o
r Stradun) towards the square where the City Hall, Church of St Blaise, and Sponza Palace are situated.

After a much-needed cup of coffee – and a rest from the rain – we made our way out past the Dominican Church and Priory towards the Revelin Fortress. By this time the rain had stopped, and although the sun was not shining the temperature was not unpleasant and we soon dried out.

The view across the Old Harbour (Stara Luka) from just below the Fortress were very impressive, and gave some indication of the level of fortifications that encircle the Old City. (I intend to write a separate photograph-heavy blog entry about the fortifications of Dubrovnik in the near future.)

After our visit to the Revelin Fortress we walked back down into the Old Harbour, out past St John's Fortress, and then along the jetty that formed part of the outer harbour. We then returned along part of the city walls and made our way to the Maritime Museum. This turned out to be a small gem of a museum, with lots of exhibits spread over two floors of St John's Fortress. The museum covered the part played by the people of Dubrovnik and the surrounding area in the voyages of discovery and the expansion of European trade during the late Middle Ages. It also covered in detail the important role of Croatians in the merchant navies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Yugoslavia. Unfortunately visitors were not allowed to take photographs of the exhibits in the museum otherwise it would have had a future blog entry devoted to it! I was, however, able to photograph the cannons that were situated just outside the Museum's entrance.

By this time it was well past midday and we luckily found a small, quiet restaurant – the Storia – just under the city wall near the Maritime Museum. We ate a very nice lunch there ... and my wife 'discovered' grappa! (The grappa was 'on the house' and my wife had never tasted it before.)

After lunch we made our way back to the pick-up point for the shuttle bus, which took us back to the ship.

Whilst we had been in Dubrovnik another cruise liner – the MSC Magnifica – had moored behind Azura.

Azura unmoored and left its berth just after 5.00pm, and on our way out of harbour we passed the motor yacht that was moored ahead of us. It turned out to be the Omani Royal Yacht – the Al Said – and she was accompanied by a support ship from the Royal Omani Navy, the Fulk Al Salamah. The latter also serves as a troop carrier, but on this occasion her role was merely to provide support for the Royal Yacht.

Our departure from Dubrovnik was delayed by the late return of an excursion, and the Captain announced that this might affect the time we arrived in Venice.

Once the ship had cleared Dubrovnik's new harbour – the Luka Gruz – we had a short rest before we began to prepare for dinner. I managed to finish reading SEANCE FOR A VAMPIRE, and it turned out to be much better than I had hoped or expected. Although Prince Dracula appeared as one of the main characters and vampirism was an important aspect of the story, it remained very much a crime story full of derring-do by Holmes and Watson. The vampirism and the supernatural were not dealt with in a sensational way, and – in the context of the story – were quite believable. As a result I found that this made the book more interesting to read.

We had a pre-dinner drink in the Blue Bar before we ate dinner in the Peninsular Restaurant, and the evening's conversation was dominated by what everyone had done during the ship's stop in Dubrovnik and what they were going to do in Venice.

After dinner we had a drink in the Planet Bar, and then we went to bed, where I began to read the third in THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES series of books I had brought with me. It was entitled THE SEVENTH BULLET and was written by Daniel D Victor. The book dealt with an investigation by Holmes and Watson into the real-life murder of David Graham Philips, the original muckraking journalist - so called by none other than President Theodore Roosevelt.

Saturday 7th April: Venice
We were awake just after dawn in order to set up our video camera so that we could record the Azura's sail-in into Venice. It is likely that in the near future cruise ships will be banned from sailing through the main channel into Venice, and we wanted to have a video record of a sail-in.

Because the ship was sailing into Venice so early, there were only a few small boats, water buses, water taxis, and local ferries operating in the main channel through Venice, and as a result Azura was tied up alongside the cruise terminal by just after 8.00am.

I packed up our video camera, and then we went to breakfast in the Peninsular Restaurant. This took about half an hour, after which we went up to the Promenade Deck to have a look at the MSC Magnifica, which had followed us through Venice's main channel.

We then went ashore and took the water bus to the centre of Venice. The water bus dropped us off only a short way from Saint Mark's Square ...

... but instead of following most of the other people on the water bus we walked away from the Square towards Venice's Naval History Museum (Museo Storico Navale).

Before we went into the museum we went to a nearby cafe ...

... where we drank some of the best coffee we have ever tasted.

The entrance fee for the museum was €1.55 each, and we spent well over an hour inside. The museum was spread over four floors and covered both the history of maritime Venice up to the Unification of Italy, and the creation of and ships used by the Royal Italian Navy. There were so many excellent models and other exhibits in the museum that I decided to write a separate photograph-heavy blog entry about them.

We then made our way back along the waterfront via the entrance to the old Arsenal ...

... to Saint Mark's Square and thence to the Rialto Bridge. From there we went to our favourite retailer of Murano glassware, where we bought several items to add to our collection. By then it was time for lunch and we walked back to the Grand Canal where we managed to get a table in a restaurant we had eaten in before.

During lunch the clouds began to darken and it became obvious that rain was extremely likely to begin falling in the very near future. When we had finished our lunch we made our way back to the water bus pick-up point via St Mark's Square, and just got back to the ship before the rain started to fall.

After a short rest and a drink in the Terrace Bar, we began to prepare for the sail-out of Venice. As our cabin was on the starboard side of the ship, we intended to video the other side of the ship's route through Venice's main channel. I therefore had to set up the video camera on its tripod in time for the ship to leave at 6.00pm.

The departure from Venice was slow and safe, with a tug fore and aft to ensure that the ship was fully under control at all times should any onboard mechanical problems occur. The tugs stayed with Azura until she was well on her way out of Venice's main channel, and not long after they had slipped the cables between themselves and the ship, the pilot departed.

We watched (and videoed) the ship's passage to the sea, after which we began preparing for dinner. After our usual pre-dinner drink in the Blue Bar we had dinner in the Peninsular Restaurant, where most of the conversation revolved around what all of us had done in Venice. We then went up to the Promenade Deck for a breath of fresh air, thence to the Planet Bar for a drink before going to bed.

Sunday 8th April: Korcula
We arrived just off Korkula before 7.30am, and we were awake before the ship's tenders were lowered. At 8.40am the captain announced that everything was ready for passengers who wished to go ashore by tender to do so, but we decided to let the rush (and crush) to get off to pass before we went. Instead we went to breakfast in the Peninsular Restaurant and then up to the Promenade Deck to watch the tendering operation for a short while.

Because so many passengers were going ashore, we had to collect numbered embarkation tickets from members of the Reception staff who were located in the Malabar area of the ship, and then wait for our number to be called. We only had to wait about fifteen minutes, and then we were on our way down to Deck Four to embark onto one of the ship's tenders. The journey from the ship to the quayside in Korcula took about ten minutes, and we were ashore just after 11.00am.

The oldest part of Korcula was a walled town ...

... that occupied a small hill, and which was still mainly surrounded by its original defensive wall. This still had several large towers ...

... some of which had been converted into artist's studios, holiday flats, and small restaurants. The streets were traffic free and very narrow ...

... and the top of the hill was where several of the churches ...

... and larger civic buildings were situated.

The landward side of the town was protected by a towered gateway with an imposing set of steps leading down to the 'new' part of Korcula.

There were several old cannons on display near the bottom of the stairway, and they were placed facing out across the water leading to the 'new' harbour.

Whilst we were walking around the town the sky began to darken and it looked like it would rain quite heavily. We began to make our way back to the tender pick-up point, stopping on the way for a coffee and some mild retail therapy. The sky then cleared, and we decided to stay ashore and have some lunch ... which we ate on the terrace outside a small restaurant.

We had almost finished our meal when the rain finally began to fall ... quite heavily ... and we sheltered under the canopy that the restaurant's owners had erected until the rain had passed. We then walked down to the pick-up point and returned to the warmth (and dryness) of Azura.

After a short rest and a drink in the Terrace Bar, we began to get ready for dinner. As we had done on a previous occasion, we had booked a table in the fine dining restaurant, Seventeen. We went for a pre-dinner drink in the Planet Bar, which was situated on the deck above the restaurant, and at 7.30pm we made our way to the restaurant. On this occasion the food was even better than before ... and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

Before going to bed I read several more chapters of THE SEVENTH BULLET ... and interestingly several locations and at least one character that featured in THE STALWART COMPANIONS were also featured in this book.

Monday 9th April: Corfu
By the time we woke up at 8.00am, Azura was tied up alongside her berth in Corfu Harbour ... and the rain was already falling very heavily. In fact, it looked as if it had be raining for some considerable time and – judging by the 100% dark grey cloud cover – the weather situation looked unlikely to change in the near future.

As we had no plans as to what to do in Corfu, we decided to have breakfast as normal and then consider the options that were available to us. Neither of us wanted to stay aboard ship all day, and as the rain looked as it it was slackening off, we got our coats fro our cabin and went ashore ... just in time for us to get rather wet when the rain started to fall heavily again as we walked to the shuttle bus pick-up point near the dock gates.

On our way to the dock gates we passed a small cruise liner, the Artemis which operated out of Corfu and which is not to be confused with the former P& O ship of the same name!

The shuttle bus dropped us off near the Old Harbour of Corfu, and we walked from there, through narrow streets ...

... up to the open area near the entrance to the Old Fortress. We each drank a large cup of excellent hot chocolate in one of the restaurants ...

... that line the colonnaded area that runs along the edge of the open space.

From there we walked past the Museum of Asian Art ...

... and along the road that led away from the Old Fortress ...

... to the shuttle bus pick-up point near the New Fortress.

We visited on or two shops on the way back to the shuttle bus pick-up point, and both of us were able to buy things that we had wanted but did not need.

The shuttle bus returned us to the dock gate, and after we passed through the security checks and Duty Free shop we boarded another shuttle bus that took us back to the ship. This was a wise move as the rain began to fall heavily as we got on the shuttle bus, and we would have been soaked if we had had to walk all the way back to the ship.

After dropping our coats and bags off in our cabin, we went for lunch in The Glasshouse wine bar and restaurant. This was a leisurely affair, and we did not return to our cabin until just before the ship was due to leave Corfu.

In fact the Azura did not sail on time as she had to wait for two passengers to rejoin the ship ... and they had been delayed. Normally it is P&O's policy to leave late passengers behind, but as these had been hospitalised earlier during the cruise and were rejoining the ship after several days absence, the ship waited. The problem was that the ferry they were travelling on was delayed, and had the Azura sailed they would have been stranded in Corfu due to no fault of their own.

We finally left Corfu over an hour later than expected, and as we did so the Captain announced that the weather for the forthcoming night was predicted to be quite bad, with gale force winds and a 3m swell.

We decided to go to the Playhouse Theatre before dinner to listen to one of the guest speaker that P&O had invited aboard. The speaker was John Lyons, an actor who is most famous for playing the role of a Detective Sergeant alongside Sir David Jason in A TOUCH OF FROST. His character was in every episode of the seventeen year-long TV series, and whose death featured heavily in the last episode.

John Lyons turned out to be a very interesting speaker, and he described how he became an actor and how he had been involved in so many iconic – and some forgotten – TV series as well as theatre productions ... including the longest-running theatrical production of all time, Agatha Christie's THE MOUSE TRAP.

During dinner the weather began to get much worse, and the Captain made one of his rare mid-dinner announcements. It appeared that the wind and seas were so strong that passengers were banned from all open deck areas, except from a small section of Deck Fifteen Aft, until the weather had improved.

After dinner my wife and I returned to the Playhouse Theatre to watch the recently released film version of John Le Carre's TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY. It was only whilst I was watching the film that I realised that Gary Oldman, who was playing the lead role of George Smiley, actually spoke so little during the first thirty minutes of the film, and how well he conveyed so much with just by his body language and facial expressions.

Tuesday 10th April: At sea
By 8.00am, when we awoke, Azura was already off Cape Passero on the southern coast of Sicily. The weather had also improved, and although it was not very warm, the sun was shining and there were almost no clouds in the sky ... and it stayed fine for the rest of the day.

At 11.00am I attended the final meeting of the international fraternal organisation of which I am a member before the planned charitable fund-raising coffee morning took place. As I was the acting treasurer (and unofficial secretary) I ran most of the meeting, incuding collecting names, details, and payment from those present.

For a change we had lunch in the Meridian Restaurant. Unlike the Peninsular Restaurant (which served a traditional restaurant lunch) and the Venezia and Verona self-service restaurants, the Meridian Restaurant operated as a buffet and carvery on sea days. In some ways this was the best of both worlds, and we thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

Once lunch was over my wife and I did some of the administrative work involved in organising the forthcoming coffee morning, after which we had a short break for tea in the Verona Restaurant. We then returned to our cabin to get ready for the Portunus Party and formal dinner that was held that night.

The Portunus Party was the last ever to be held aboard Azura as the Portunus Club has been replaced by the Peninsular Club. In fact there were so many people who qualified to attend the party that it had to take place in two venues aboard the ship – the Malabar and the Manhattan Lounge.

The rest of the evening was uneventful, and although the weather began to change for the worse, we both had a good night's sleep.

Wednesday 11th April: At sea
Overnight the weather continued to deteriorate, and when we awoke the sky was grey, the sea had a very obvious swell, and the cross-deck wind was over 50mph. As the morning progressed the skies began to clear and the sun began to break through, but the wind remained strong.

After breakfast in the Peninsular Restaurant we tried sit on the Promenade Deck, but the wind and cold drove us back inside. We then went to listen to Mick Testoni talk about some of the rescues he took part in during his time in the RNLI.

We ate a leisurely lunch in The Glasshouse wine bar and restaurant, followed by a trip to the Emporium where we bought a birthday card. As the ship offered a concierge service for posting such items, my wife went to Reception to pay for the cost of postage ... and almost immediately regretted doing so. The simple operation of handing over the envelope and birthday card for posting and buying the necessary stamps was turned into a complex and drawn-out procedure. The cost of postage had to paid for with a cruise card, not cash as was the case on every other P&O ship we had been on. This required a form to be printed out and signed by my wife to allow the cost (which was 85p) to be deducted from our onboard account. The situation was made even more difficult when the clerk who was dealing with the situation discovered that he did not have a pen for my wife to use to sign the form! Eventually the payment was made and the birthday card was consigned to the care of the Reception staff ... but neither of us felt confident that it would be posted in Gibraltar.

We spent the rest of the afternoon in our cabin as the weather had deteriorated somewhat and it was too cold to sit outside on the open decks without the benefit of warm clothing or a coat.

I managed to write some preliminary notes for a simple naval wargame that I hope to run at COW2012 and to read another couple of chapters of THE SEVENTH BULLET. The latter was now coming to a conclusion and the perpetrator of the crime had been identified ... but proof of his guilt had yet to be obtained.

As has become our routine, we had a pre-dinner drink in the Blue Bar, followed by dinner in the Peninsular Restaurant, and then an after-dinner drink in the Planet Bar before going to bed.

Thursday 12th April: Gibraltar

Azura picked up the pilot just off Europa Point – the southernmost tip of Gibraltar – at 7.45am, and then began the twists and turns of the sail-in to the harbour. The latter was necessary so that the ship avoided getting too close to Spanish Territorial Waters and the numerous ships that are moored in Gibraltar Bay.

She tied up alongside the cruise terminal just before 8.30am ... and next to her sister-ship, MV Ventura.

As usual we ate breakfast in the Peninsular Restaurant before getting ready to go ashore. Rather than take one of the numerous taxis that were available, we walked into town, and arrived at the entrance to Casemate Square well before 11.30am.

Before entering the Square we paid a short visit to the indoor market that adjoined the short tunnels that passed through the wall of the casemates and into the Square.

We then entered Casemate Square ...

... and began to walk up Main Street (the main shopping street on Gibraltar) ...

... to the Governor's Residence.

Opposite the Residence was the Guardhouse ...

... outside which were two restored cannons.

Next door to the Governor's Residence was the King's Chapel ...

... which housed many regimental flags and monuments to members of the armed forces – and their families – who lived and died on Gibraltar.

We stopped for a drink in a local bar before making our way back down Main Street to Casemate Square. We indulged in some retail therapy as we made our way downhill, and once we had reach Casemate Square it was time for lunch, which we ate outside the Tunnel Bar and Restaurant.

Our walk back to the ship was uneventful, and after passing through the normal security checks, we went back aboard Azura ... and not Ventura which several people almost did by mistake.

After putting our shopping in our cabin we went to the Terrace Bar on Deck Fifteen Aft for a drink and to watch the ship leave Gibraltar Harbour ... which it did at 2.30pm. As we left the dockside, Azura's course took her past the end on the airport runway (which runs alongside the boundary between Spain and Gibraltar) ...

... and made it possible to see Ventura in her entirety.

The two sister-ships were very similar ... but were not exactly the same. For example, Ventura had a roof that could be closed over one of her larger swimming pools; Azura did not boast this feature.

We then went along the deck to the centre of the ship, where the Great British Sail-Away was taking place. This was a deck party that celebrated the fact that Azura had visited her last port-of-call of the cruise, and that she was on her way home to Southampton. The Sail-Away attracted a large number of attendees, and even the Captain joined in the fun!

After a short rest in our cabin, we prepared for dinner. I had time to finish reading THE SEVENTH BULLET ... and realised what a coincidence it had been that I chose to read that particular book during this cruise ... and to finish it on 12th April 2012. I had read as far as Holmes and Watson identifying the person responsible for ordering the murder of the journalist, David Graham Philips, and that the perpetrator had fled to England. Holmes and Watson set off in pursuit, and after a confrontation between Holmes – who had disguised himself as the dead man – and the perpetrator, the latter made a tacit confession and tried to flee back to the United States ... aboard the RMS Titanic! The coincidence is that Titanic's last landfall was Queenstown (now known as Cobh) in Ireland ... on 12th April 1912, one hundred years ago to the day! Needless to say, the perpetrator died when the Titanic sank.

Unusually the parade of the chefs and the galley brigade took place during dinner and not during dinner on the last-but-one night of the cruise ... which is also always the last formal night. They were received with considerable gusto by a very appreciative group of diners.

After dinner my wife and I had planned to go to the Planet Bar for a drink before turning in for the night, but a number of problems related to the following day's charity fund-raising coffee morning had arisen as a result of members of the ship's Reception staff not doing several things that had been requested of them. As a result my evening ended with a forty-minute-long meeting with one of the ship's officers, trying to make sure that the problems were solved. Despite their reassurances, I was not convinced, and this - coupled with increasingly poor sea conditions that had begun to cause the ship to experience considerable movement - led to a somewhat restless night's sleep.

Friday 13th April: At sea
Strong headwinds and a long rolling swell greeted us when we finally awoke, and it soon became evident that movement around the ship was going to be more difficult than usual, especially towards the bows ... which is where the charity fund-raising coffee morning that I helped to organise on behalf of the international fraternity of which I am a member was due to take place!

As usual we ate breakfast in the Peninsular Restaurant, followed by a short spell on the Promenade Deck. We then returned to our cabin to get ready for the charity fund-raising coffee morning, which started at 11.00am in the Karmala Room on Deck Six Forward. I knew that about thirty or more people had been invited, along with ship's senior officers and members of the ship's entertainments staff. In the end forty one people - including the ship's Captain and Cruise Director - attended and the sum of £195.00 was raised for both the Captain's charity (in this case the Royal National Lifeboat Institute) and Cystic Fibrosis (the President's chosen charity).

The coffee morning ended just before midday, and after a breath of fresh air on the terraced area at the stern of the ship, we went to the Meridian Restaurant for a light lunch. My wife and I then returned to our cabin and I tied up all the remaining administrative details associated with the morning's coffee morning.

We spent the afternoon in our cabin, on our cabin balcony, or on the open deck at the stern of the ship. For most of the time the weather was rather overcast and the seas were choppy, with the cross-deck wind reaching gales force at times.

During the late afternoon we began getting ready for the final formal dinner of the cruise. The menu included one of my favourite main courses – Beef Wellington – and desserts – Baked Alaska – and it was a very fitting last formal dinner for what had been a memorable cruise.

Saturday 14th April: At sea
Just after midnight the ship turned into the Bay of Biscay ... and the weather began to improve. By 8.00am the sun was just beginning to shine through the cloud cover, and although it remained cold on the open deck areas, it was far more pleasant than it had been for some time.

After breakfast in the Peninsular Restaurant we went to the Terrace Bar at the stern of the ship to see how warm it was. Out of the wind it was pleasant enough to sit in the sun ... if you were wearing a woollen jumper or light coat. From the Terrace Bar we could see P&O's MV Oceana coming up from astern of Azura, and showing every intention of overtaking her later in the day ... which she did.

At 11.00am we listened to Mick Testoni's final talk about the RNLI. This was a detailed description of the rescue of the Red House Lugger, which took twelve hours and resulted in the saving of six people who were aboard the Red House Lugger – two adults and four children – and the award of two Bronze Medals, the third highest bravery award given by the RNLI.

We ate lunch – for the last time on that voyage – in The Glasshouse wine bar and restaurant, after which we went back to our cabin to begin packing. This took us some time, but once the majority of it was done, we went for a short break - and some refreshment - in the Venezia Restaurant.

Fully rested, we returned to our cabin and by 5.30pm we had completed all the packing that we could, and I placed the luggage in the corridor outside our cabin so that it could be collected.

Little remained for us to do but to get ready for the last dinner of our cruise. We were ready by 8.00pm, and had time to have a pre-dinner drink in The Glasshouse wine bar and restaurant. Dinner was – as usual – superb, but it was saddening to take leave of the two waiters who had given us such excellent service throughout our cruise as well as our table companions. We ended the evening by having a drink in the Planet Bar – where we saw Ventura slowly but surely overtaking Azura – and then it was time for us to return to our cabin to finish the last few bits of packing and to go to sleep.

Sunday 15th April: Southampton
MV Azura moored alongside the dock in Southampton not long after 6.30am. The sun was shining and there were almost no clouds in the sky. Two other P&O cruise ships – Ventura and Oceana – were already tied up at their berths, and almost as soon as the ship came to rest, the process of unloading the luggage and preparing the ship for the next cruise began.

We finished packing our hand luggage before going for breakfast in the Peninsular Restaurant, after which we proceeded to the Playhouse Theatre to await disembarkation. This took a lot longer than we had expected, but just after 9.30am we were finally disembarked, and after collecting our luggage and passing through Customs, we were able to collect our car from the valet parking service. We drove out of the docks at about 10.00am ... and we were home indoors by 12.20pm.

Our Easter 2012 cruise was over!


  1. Great stuff Bob!

    Your vacations aboard ship seem so energetic compared to my planned 5 weeks by the poolside next month in Florida.

    Like you I have an extensive reading list which I would hope to blog at some point.

    I have also found a very good excuse to wear my kilt in Florida which I will be sure to mention on my blog.

    I will be keeping an eye out for items of military and wargaming interest.

  2. Jim Duncan,

    Energetic! About the most energetic thing that I did was walk from one bar and/or restaurant to another on the ship!

    Going at Easter meant that we were able to see many of the places we visited whilst they were not very full ... and it enabled us to see things that otherwise we would not have seen.

    Enjoy your five weeks by the poolside reading, relaxing, and sunbathing ... but make sure that you don't end up with kilt marks on your legs if you wear one to sunbath in.

    All the best,


  3. Hi Bob

    I will be doing what most Scotsmen do best when I'm wearing the kilt, cheering the boys on even though some of them were born south of the border, not Mexico way.

    I do hope to go and see 'White 1' again, she was a pile of junk when I first saw her.

    Kind regards


  4. Jim Duncan,

    I hope that your supportive efforts are not in vain! (My wife is - by ancestry - Scottish.)

    The 'White 1' project sounds interesting, and I hope that they do manage to get her flying again.

    All the best,


  5. I wish I had thought to bring a larger capacity camera to Italy with me. The naval museum in Venice was full of interesting exhibits and I took very few pictures. It also ate batteries like they were candy... stupid awkward camera.

  6. Arquinsiel,

    Luckily my wife and I both took our digital cameras and lots of spare memory cards, as well as extra batteries.

    As a result I have a large number of digital photographs that were taken in the Venice Maritime Museum and which I am currently sorting out. The results will begin to appear in blog entries later this week ... I hope!

    All the best,


  7. Did you happen to get one of the graffiti carved into the lefthand lion outside? Apparently it's of viking origin.

  8. Arquinsiel,

    I must admit that I did not see that particular piece of grafitti, but I will look out for it the next time I am there.

    All the best,



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