Onboard Azamara Club Cruises’ Azamara Quest in Bangkok, all it took was 15 minutes onboard to remind me why this – and seven nearly identical other vessels – is absolutely the world’s best cruise ship. You might think that’s a pretty bold statement, especially since over the past year or two I’ve traveled on splendid, ultra-contemporary ships like Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, Seabourn Sojourn, Norwegian Epic, Uniworld’s S.S. Antoinette and Celebrity Eclipse. And particularly when you consider that Quest’s design is almost 15 years old.
The back story: Quest (and fleet sibling Journey) was part of the now-defunct Renaissance Cruises, which began launching a series of eight ships – all at 30,277 tons and carrying 694 passengers. Renaissance was revolutionary for the era: It pioneered a more casual onboard ambience, did away with rigid dining restrictions and instituted a daring no-smoking policy. And at a time when cruise lines were prostrating themselves to attract families, this one said it doesn’t particularly care for kids (there are still no child-oriented facilities on any of them), and its ships continue to be unabashedly marketed to adults.
Even more significantly, this cruise line was the first to recognize that balconies were necessities, not luxuries, and outfitted a vast majority of its cabins with private, yet affordable verandahs.
Renaissance Cruises failed soon after 9/11, but its ships (unimaginatively dubbed R-1, R-2 and so forth) have lived on as other lines have scooped them up. Beyond Azamara’s pair, R-series ships are also cruising for Oceania (Nautica, Insignia and Regatta); P&O (Adonia); and Princess (Pacific Princess, Ocean Princess).
Over the years, I’ve spent more time onboard R-series ships than any other, and here’s my take on why they’re the best in the world (a huge tip of the hat to Oceania Cruises’ Frank del Rio, who was responsible for the invention of these ships when he was Renaissance president):
5. Their not-too-big-not-too-small size is just right, with enough space to offer variety onboard, along with key extras like a spa, fitness facility, Internet café and the like, along with four restaurants, the most gorgeous library at sea and a variety of convivial bars.
4. These are, for the most part, pathfinder ships; they cruise more exotic itineraries some of the time, but even when sailing in well-trafficked waters like the Mediterranean and Caribbean, they can maneuver into smaller ports that the big ships can’t manage. As I write, we’re docked at Bangkok’s Klong Toey, just a stone’s throw from the city center. Last time I cruised out of Bangkok, on Princess Cruises’ massive Sapphire Princess, we had to dock at Laem Chabang, an industrial port some two hours by car from town.
3. The crew has always been a cut above in terms of personal service and genuine warmth. Of course, you must also credit the cruise lines – particularly Oceania and Azamara, which excel in this area. But the ship’s size and casual ambience create a special harmony.
2. Dining is superb. Who really needs a separate establishment offering cuisines from the likes of Johnny Rockets, a pub, tapas bar, French boite or sushi joint? Onboard Azamara Quest, just one example, there are four restaurants (most lines operating R-series ships offer an Italian or Mediterranean specialty eatery along with a steakhouse in addition to the more formal dining room and more casual grill and buffet), and the range of choices is perfect. Here in Bangkok, those of us who came back onboard for lunch today could dine at the Windows buffet on Thai-influenced cuisine, enjoy a grilled burger or hot dog from the Grill, or sample sushi. There was also home food – freshly carved pork tenderloin and Lyonnais potatoes, and for the health-oriented, lots of soup and salad bar options. And that was just lunch! Tonight’s buffet theme: French (delicious escargot, coq au vin and beef stew).
And the top reason why I love these ships so much?
1. They still feel like ships. From the Titanic-inspired staircase that leads into the atrium to a promenade deck lined with deck chairs (alas, it does not wind all the way around), and from the delightful Sunset Bar (you half expect to bump into “An Affair to Remember’s” Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr sipping pink Champagne) to the aforementioned library and its fireplace, this is a ship-lovers ship. It’s the most beautiful blend of traditional and contemporary cruising that I’ve seen. And when you consider that the ships don’t feel remotely dated today … wow.
To be fair, there are some drawbacks. When I heard last night that Azamara Journey, Quest’s identical sister, was in South America preparing for a short venture into the oft-turbulent waters of Antarctica, I shuddered. These ships don’t have the more state-of-the-art stabilizing technology that newer vessels have (I’m rather prone to seasickness). And cabins, though updated and refurbished (again, I’m speaking particularly of Azamara and Oceania, which invest millions to modernize their R-series ships), are smaller than you’d find on newer vessels. At 160 to 170 square feet for insides, outsides and standard balcony staterooms, it’s a good idea to opt for more spacious mini-suites on up if your budget permits.
Mind you, I’m aware that my fondness for Renaissance’s R-series models may not be universally agreeable. In fact, in my own family it’s been a topic of debate. My husband — who’s now on his second R-series cruise — says he likes the ships well enough, but he’s a member of the fan club that deems Oasis and Allure of the Seas as the world’s best. He’s a bit incredulous over my choice.
Different strokes, I say.
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