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Mervyn Hancock

Age: 58

Occupation:Travel Writer

Number of Cruises: 14

Cruise Line: P & O Cruises

Ship: Aurora

Sailing Date: March 29th, 2006

Itinerary: Canary Islands

Passengers on the Spanish ship, moored in front of us in Madeira, probably already knew that the British are patriotic - and quite mad! Or, at least, that is what it must have seemed to them when 1,500 or so, of us, suddenly appeared on the decks of our P&O cruiser, waving Union Jacks, and singing “Land of Hope and Glory” at the tops of our voices.

Emboldened by copious amounts of the local, fiery, wine, we urged the Spaniards to fetch more of their countrymen and women, from their cabins, to witness our departure from their island, to Southampton.

A Liverpool Magistrate, Yorkshire doctor, Scottish Laird and a pensioner from Bournemouth were among our group on Deck 12 of the enormous liner Aurora, which had spent the previous three days in the Canary Islands. A lady called Janet, who has walk-in parts in Casualty, had left her husband back in Bristol, and was intent on having a good time with her daughter - “Hang the cost, you only live once,” she declared, waving her new sailor’s hat aloft!

The smell of delicious food wafted from the nearby restaurant as more passengers turned out for the sail-away, reminding us all that our fifth meal of the day was imminent. Breakfast, morning coffee and biscuits, lunch and afternoon tea had already been disposed of - together with a special buffet for chocoholics - and 20 or so chefs were busy preparing the five course dinner.

“We always choose first sitting,” one lady passenger, with 22 previous cruises under her belt told me. “It gives us time to take in the late show, and then visit the midnight buffet. You can get food 24 hours a day on here you know.”

My wife and I had already reduced our P&O special breakfast - consisting of cereals or porridge, fruit, eggs, bacon, sausage, black pudding, liver, beans, bubble and squeak and mushrooms - to a slice of toast and marmalade, abandoned lunch on most days, and still struggled with the evening meal.

The food was simply too delicious for our rapidly expanding waistlines, although we did manage to visit the Indian Buffet, where excellent curries were served on a speciality evening. Maybe because the majority of crew members were Indian, a curry was served as an alternative at every onboard lunch, and were the best I have ever tasted.

Both of us had cruised before, with various companies, but P&O was in a class of its own when it came to feeding time. In addition to two main restaurants, The Aurora boasted The café Bordeaux, Orangery self-service area, Sidewalk café with a burger and fish and chip shop, and other intimate areas where you could book an even more special meal. All this backed up with round-the-clock cabin service.

We joined the ship in Southampton for a 12 night cruise which took in Vigo, Lisbon, Lanzarote, Tenerife, Grand Canaria and Madeira, and included six full days at sea. And from the moment we arrived at the Mayflower Quay, the service was awesome! Our bags were whisked away by helpful staff, who ushered us into a huge waiting area, and then onboard to the Crows’ Nest - the very top lounge on Aurora’s Deck 13, where Champagne and sandwiches were waiting. A second, and third glass, and then down two decks to our cabin - double bed, settee, dressing table, ample storage space, and a balcony with two chairs. I find the bathroom has a real bath in addition to a shower - but the tub was not built for someone of my height or stature!

Tables in one of the restaurants are allocated to suit your own requirements - First and Second sittings for dinner, with various sized groups sharing the arrangements. We were placed on a table for four with a very nice Scottish couple. If you don’t get on with your companions, staff will arrange for a discreet move. It did happen onboard, but not to us! Breakfast and lunch are open sittings, so you get to meet some of your fellow passengers, and discuss your experiences - moans and praise are dished out in equal quantities.

But quite frankly there is very little to complain about a holiday experience which offers five star accommodation, six star food, entertainment and excellent companionship - and all in a hotel which floats from country to country as you relax and watch the world go by.

Cruising used to be a rich man’s privilege - but these days there are ships offering bargain breaks to suit almost everyone’s pockets. It is the fastest growing part of the travel industry, and new vessels are being launched as fast as they can be built.

The price you pay depends very much on the type of ship, and cabin, you choose. Cunard still has the class system - the bigger the cabin, the more luxurious the food and facilities. But P&O, like many other companies, offers everything onboard to every passenger, whether you happen to be sharing an inside cabin near the waterline, or living it up in one of the lavish penthouse suites.

Generally, the rule is ,the higher the deck the greater the cost, and investing in a room with a view, or balcony, adds to the bill. Many new ships are built with balcony cabins, because most passengers now enjoy having their own bit of deck space - sitting in the sunshine, overlooking the ocean, as a port approaches, or the sun sets in the distance, is magical.

The great thing is that you don’t need money aboard the ship - just your credit card! You produce your cruise pass at bars and shops, and everything is added to your shipboard account, which you settle on the last day afloat. We bought drinks from the bars, drank wine with our meals, used the onboard dry-cleaning service, topped up with duty free items, and collected gifts from the shops, and ended up with a bill for £238 - less than £20 a day.

We did spend some cash onshore, but you don’t need to dine out because your ship usually docks within walking distance of the towns - or a free shuttle service is provided as an alternative.

With an average of eight hours in each port there is plenty of time to visit shops and attractions, or alternatively take part in the organised excursions, which have the advantage of a local guide, and sometimes include samples of local cuisine and wines.

We usually prefer to walk or take local taxis for our excursions, and there are always plenty of drivers waiting for your custom when the ship arrives.

For sea days there are plenty of things to do onboard - no British ship would sail without offering bingo, bridge, roulette, blackjack and slot machines. The Aurora had a magnificent gym, well stocked library, deck games, three swimming pools, sauna and hot-tubs - bars, lounges and even a pub! To our shame we watched two films on the television service in our cabin. Nightly, live shows, cinema, lectures and dance instruction are also available, together with a beauty salon and art gallery.

I must give a special mention to the facilities for children and disabled passengers provided on The Aurora. The youngsters have their own area of the ship, with trained and dedicated staff to look after them. I am told there were 200 of the little darlings on our cruise - we hardly saw anything of them, but could hear their whoops of delight as they enjoyed the entertainment.

Disabled passengers whizzed by in their wheelchairs and on electric scooters. Special cabins allow these vehicles to be taken onboard, and where needed, four hefty crew members are on hand to help passengers and their transport, on and off the ship.

Leaving the Aurora was sad - but also efficient. It took just three hours to unload 2,000 passengers and their luggage in Southampton, and within 10 hours of arriving she was back at sea, with new guests, heading for Gibraltar.

I talked to at least 200 of the people onboard, and couldn’t find a single person who had not been with P&O before - need I say more!

Mervyn Hancock and his wife Susan were guests of P&O Cruises. Their 12 night voyage from Southampton to the Canary islands on Aurora, in a twin bed, balcony cabin with shower and bath, cost £3,500 after a 45 per cent early booking discount. The price included all food. Drinks onboard were slightly cheaper than ashore, and you add around £4-50p, per passenger per night for gratuities - but these are at your discretion.

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