R217 on Aurora – the first seven (mostly sea) days

Okay, okay, okay. Yes, I’m  sorry the cruise started last Friday and I haven’t uploaded anything until now. In my defence, it’s been a little bumpy, which is lovely because it’s like being rocked like a baby, and even some of the crew are finding it hard to stay awake, but even my typing skills are limited when I’m asleep. Also the new wifi “system” on board is ridiculously convoluted to try and understand.  I’ve had to ask Reception twice so far, and I teach this stuff to others! If I tell you that the first thing you must do is put your device in Airplane Mode, you might get a hint of how counterintuitive it now is. Oh, and it’s ten quid a day, minimum. Ouch.

Anyway, here we are.  Dad and I sharing a cabin with a window but no balcony. Apparently, the first night, I slept so quietly, he had to check I was still breathing! So there, to all those who say I snore. The trick is to keep me sober, and make me so exhausted with your nightmarish checkin arrangements that my father threatens to turn around and go home, because I look so ill. What was the problem? We usually don’t have THAT much of an issue with checking in. The coach down was uneventful enough; we didn’t even have any delays caused by teenagers sitting in the middle of the M25, so that was nice. But when we got to Southampton, the smiles ended. Apparently, post-Covid, you don’t exist if the NHS app is not compatible with your phone model. Although in the pre-cruise instructions, they said don’t bring your vaccination cards, what this apparently meant was we want to see your vaccination record, but only on the app. So after we paid twenty quid a head for a “supervised” LFT 48 hours beforehand, we still had a nightmare at Southampton. The test was fine, even though we went to the wrong building to start with.  Fancy expecting it to be in the same place it was in May. Pfft! What a dullard I am.

Labyrinthine wifi aside, Aurora has had a refit, and despite spending three months living on here just a few years ago, we recognise virtually nothing. I even turned the wrong way coming out of a lift!  All a bit confusing.  She is VERY shiny indeed. They have also renamed everything! Cafe Bordeaux is now The Glass House, with Olly Smith wine choices. The Sidewalk Cafe is now the Lido Grill.  The Cyb@study is now the library. Room service is no longer free. The Orangery is now the Horizon, and, yes, that is still the name of the daily activity guide.

Aurora is now the smallest ship left in the P&O fleet. She is also the fastest. The former fact means that she appears to have taken over Oceana’s role as the Training Ship. Most staff have been on board less than a month – some only a week! They are very willing and smiling and obliging and helpful, and they have absolutely no clue what they’re doing.  We are happy to help them learn, of course, but it does mean spelling out the most simple things sometimes. Such as the fact that people who eat gluten free sometimes want something other than cake – however delicious the cakes may be. Marie Antoinette would have been right at home. Although, frankly, I’d give my eye teeth for a gf brioche on here.  That aside, the food is, unfortunately, excellent.

Our first port, Madeira, was just as lovely as always. The shuttle bus is now chargeable, but not if you have our kind of booking, apparently. Don’t ask for clarification, I have none to offer. The sun shone, the people smiled, and the salt and vinegar crisps were three quid a bag. Thankfully, we packed our own chocolate, I dread to think what that would have cost. On the plus side, the Happy Cola Haribo in the onboard shop are surprisingly reasonably priced.

Our dinner companions are Maureen and Geoff. They’re from Newcastle and lovely. On the first night, we had a painfully thin, appearance- and fitness-obsessed couple who barely opened their mouths except to put in food. I think his name was William, but no one knows what her name was. If you want to google retired election managers for northwest Derbyshire, do let me know what the answer is! They vanished without a trace almost immediately. We’ve seen them around the ship – him with his aggressively large gym bag (Maureen chose the adjective!), and her with her pinched, sulky scowl. Maureen says they now go to second sitting, which is fair enough, but a Hello on deck wouldn’t kill you!

Then a lady called Gillian joined us. She’s very sweet. She stayed two nights at our table before she vanished. The first she was forgiven, because she was having afternoon tea at Reid’s in Madeira, and she warned us that if she was too full of cake, she would skip dinner. But the second remains a puzzle. I guess we will find out tonight (second formal night) if she’s abandoned us for good or not.

The drinks system has also changed. Whereas in the past, we could purchase a little cardboard Pepsi card for twenty drinks, nicely discounted, this is no longer possible. Instead, there are two ‘packages’ which you book at Reception. The non-alcoholic one is twenty quid A DAY per person and the alcoholic one is forty quid a day per person. But in order to stop people gaming the system, if one person in the cabin has one, everyone else in the cabin must have one. It is therefore a minimum of forty quid a day for two people. Now, even with the best will in the world, and at three quid a pop, I can’t get dad to drink THAT much liquid every day. Luckily, the water is still free. We have, however, discovered sugar-free 7Up, so we can avoid at least some of the caffeine!

We’ve been up to the Syndicate Quiz a couple of times.  The first night we joined a table, but although we did quite well, those people stopped coming. The next night, we joined a different group and I scored all seven points. They never came again, either! The past two nights, dad and I have sat alone and come second both times! Of course, we don’t want to actually win. We’ve drunk P&O own-brand wine, and were lucky to survive, so we’d rather not have to do it again. Second is perfectly respectable and fun without risking our digestive sanity.

Clocks go back again tonight, which will put us 2 hours adrift of the UK (3 for Jerome – happy birthday for yesterday, mon cher).

Tl;dr: So, to summarise, so far: bumpy roads, lots of sleeping, and some rather tiring conversations.

UPDATE: Since typing the above:

Turns out Gillian went back to the Medina restaurant. We met her tablemate, Jan, today at lunch!

We have now joined a table at the quiz (which is now held in the Horizon cafeteria, btw). The four others are friends who booked together. Margaret and Barry and Linda and Geoff (I think). Good fun and happy not to win. Which is handy.

Dad and I sharing a cabin seems to be working out. Neither has killed the other yet!

The default GF pasta at lunch is no longer penne, it’s spaghetti, which is a darned sight messier. I am still trying to get them to stop serving it on a plate roughly the same temperature as the Sun.

Our evening waiters are Cline and Jhonas. They are lovely and, along with the Head Waiter, Aritra, take very good care of us. Our section of the Alexandria appears to have mislaid its drinks waiter, but they pick up the slack just fine. Our cabin steward, Rachelle, is new but very willing.

We are, however, compiling a list of Stuff That Has Disappeared from P&O Post-Covid. So far, we have, in no particular order:

Pillow Chocolates

Towel animals on the bed

Sweetie dish in the cabin

Flower in a vase in the cabin

Evening turn down

Toothpicks from the dinner table

All photographers and photos, even on formal nights

Waiters singing Happy Birthday

Balloons

Face flannels and robes

Beach towels in the bathroom

Free White Stuff lotions and potions in the bathroom

Officers joining the table for special lunches

Any and all drinks parties and receptions

Port Talks

Port Guides

Language lessons – on the last month-long cruise we did, I learned Spanish! Nothing now.

Computing lessons, help or guidance of any kind.

The only classes now are line dancing, ballroom dancing, art, crafting and, wait for it, ukelele. I kid you not.

Formal wear in the shop, or any menswear at all.

SHELVES in the cabin. None at all. Not in the wardrobe, not anywhere. You either fold it in a drawer or hang it on a hanger. Them’s your only choices.

The dressing table drawer now has a hairdryer screwed into it, making it useless for anything else.

The oddest is that you no longer get a receipt when you buy a drink – unless you ask. This is odd purely because THEY STILL PRINT TWO RECEIPTS (one for them and one for you), they just don’t give them to you! If you remind them, they go back and pick it up off the bar where it’s just sitting there. Most odd.

For those who read my blog from Artemis going into Madeira some years back, the flat screen tvs are now screwed to the wall.

The lifeboat davits are well-greased and now have a backup launch system involving compressed air.

There is also now a MOBILITY TEST you have to attend and pass before you are allowed to use a tender to go ashore. If you don’t do it, you don’t get to go. Of course, if we were boarding exactly the same vessels in use as lifeboats, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t refuse you entry because you were unable to cross an 18 inch gap unaided.

The refit has resulted in much more counter space in the cafeteria, with smaller tables as a result. However, in last night’s spectacular thunderstorm, we found that, during said refit, no one addressed the fact that there is a hole in the roof of the cafeteria. The water poured in, but the waiters were ready with buckets and towels. Shouldn’t really be necessary so soon after a full dry dock refurb!

Tl;dr: Summary: lots has changed; lots remains just the same.

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