"Bravo. Bravo. Bravo. APR. Emergency Deck 1". A nervous voice echoed through Azamara Quest shortly before 8:00 pm on Friday March 30. We were just finishing our appetizers at Windows Cafe on Deck 9. Initially we paid no heed, until we saw thin wisps of white smoke wafting from the galley door. We assumed it was a kitchen fire, but the smoke quickly billowed into a dark cloud and began filling the room. So we, along with other passengers, began our exit. As we crossed the threshold from Windows Cafe to the Pool Deck, the ship shuddered and went completely dark for a brief few seconds until the generator kicked in and emergency power came on. It was surreal seeing those little green track lights guiding our way along the corridors and into the stairwell. People were calm, but fair to say, concerned. We headed outside onto Deck 5 to be near the lifeboats, just in case. When we arrived, I glanced over the railings to the calm ocean below. Quest was dead in the water.
But let's start at the beginning ...
When Azamara released its 2012 itineraries, we immediately spotted this 17-night Asia voyage as a winner. After all, it had Borneo orangutans, Komodo dragons, gorgeous Bali and other exotic islands of Indonesia in a single trip! Soon after we booked, it was announced that this cruise would be a President's Voyage, with special events, cocktail parties and surprise gifts. Could it get any better?
We booked early and, in a departure from our typical practice of using our preferred travel agent, we booked directly with Azamara. Contrary to the image often portrayed of shoreside staff, we dealt with excellent customer service agents who were knowledgeable and responsive. Later we added Choice Air to our booking and were able to select excellent flights on legacy carriers at a price less than we could purchase directly with the airlines. We were thrilled with the exceptional service provided by our savvy Choice Air reservation agent. And in yet another departure, we booked a pre-cruise hotel stay at The Langham Hong Kong through Azamara. We paid ever so slightly more than if we had booked direct, but we also got breakfasts and all transfers. No regrets.
On cruise day, we were transferred to Ocean Terminal at 11:00 am and after pier-side processing, were aboard Quest by 11:30 am. We were welcomed with sparkling rosE and lots of smiles. The mood was light and festive and it was obvious that Quest is a happy ship. We settled into Mosiac Cafe for a snack before checking into our stateroom about 2:00 pm.
We had a 7th floor veranda, slightly forward of mid-ships. We are part of the minority who actually prefer forward rooms, finding them convenient and comfortable. This was our 3rd time on an R class ship in a similar room, so no surprises. We were even prepared for the dinky bathroom! Our room was bright and clean, the closets were well stocked with wooden hangers, our mattress and linens were in excellent condition and the air conditioner worked perfectly. We didn't care for the Rose amenities in the bathroom, finding them lacking in packaging and quality. Not a biggie. The only real disappointment was the hair dryer, which was a throw-back to the '70s with its clunky weight, long skinny nozzle and poor air-flow.
Our luggage arrived in short order and we were unpacked and all settled before our scheduled muster drill at 4:00 pm. It proceeded smoothly with passengers assembling at their assigned stations, either in the Cabaret Lounge or Discoveries Restaurant. Muster drill was uneventful until Captain Leif Karlsson announced at the end that we were heading into a monsoon. Rough seas, heavy rain and high winds were in the forecast for the next 48 hours. He cautioned us to take any seasick remedies now. For those who were unprepared, he advised them to visit the Medical Office for some pills. I liked this guy already. No pussy-footing around, no sugar-coating, no spinning. Just the facts - monsoon ahead, be prepared. His straight-forward and open manner would prove invaluable in the days to come.
CC MEET AND MINGLE
Azamara truly values the CC community. They hosted a party on the 1st full day of the cruise that was attended by about 40+ members of CC. Some folks who planned to attend didn't make it as they were reportedly ill from the miserable sea conditions. The monsoon had arrived! There was also a very impressive showing of key personnel on Quest. Captain Karlsson, Hotel Director Philip, Cruise Director Russ, F&B Manager Ryzsard, Guest Relations Manager Juliana, Le Club Voyage Hostess Nathalia as well as Miami-based VP, Hotel Operations, Bert Von Middendorp were all there. They expressed gratitude for the many positive comments written about Azamara on CC, but also noted that they pay attention to negative posts to see how they can do better. Ya gotta love a cruise line that listens to its customers.
We eagerly anticipated our meals on Quest, thanks in large measure to the recent positive reports here on CC. We were not disappointed. Executive Chef Fabio clearly loves his job and his cooks love working with him. Their passion and dedication shows up in their food.
We ate most breakfasts in Windows Cafe. It had the usual offerings of fruit, yoghurt, breads and rolls, smoked fish, eggs, bacon, hash browns as well as made to order omelets, waffles and pancakes. There were a variety of fresh juices and a smoothies bar that featured a daily energizer concoction. My only gripe was the limited fruit selection, which was typically melons and pineapple. There were no fresh berries, only defrosted strawberries and blueberries. But to their credit, I was thrilled to see fresh mangoes appear after our port call in Manila. Keep it up Azamara!
We ate most lunches at Windows Cafe where there was a selection of salads, deli, soup, hot and cold entrees, a carving station and pizza. Everything was tasty and at the proper temperature. There were interesting cheeses and ample dessert choices with baked goods, custards and ice cream. The nearby Pool Grill had superb burgers as well as various panini and kebabs.
We only ate dinner in Discoveries Restaurant twice and it was excellent both times. Menus were interesting with great choices for appetizers, soups, salads and mains. Items were well executed with distinct flavors and textures. Food presentation was creative and artful. Complimentary wines were quite acceptable and poured freely. Our other dinners were at themed buffets in Windows Cafe or at poolside BBQs. All were equally good.
In between meals, we often went to Mosiac Cafe for specialty coffees with sweet or savory treats. It was here that you had a very good chance to see Captain Karlsson or his officers mingling with passengers. It was our favorite spot on the ship.
We had reservations at both specialty restaurants, Aqualina and Prime C, but didn't make it to either before the cruise was cancelled. We had also reserved for the Connoisseur Dinner to be held later in the cruise. We'll always wonder what goodies we missed.
Azamara has chosen to differentiate itself as destination specialists, so it's a reasonable expectation that they would have an excellent line-up of expert lecturers.
Lisa Didier was the only destination lecturer for the areas we visited. She delivered several presentations on local cultures, history and crafts of Philippines, Borneo and Indonesia. Her content knowledge was excellent, her visual aids were interesting and she did a good job of condensing the highlights. But her presentation style was very off-putting. She was loud, brash and overly familiar. It was as if she was addressing a bunch of unruly college kids who didn't want to listen as opposed to a seasoned audience who actively chose to attend.
Harvey Mann was an engaging fellow whose specialty was paleontology and archaeology of Africa. He delivered a couple of sessions on the mountain gorillas of Rwanda. Not exactly on topic for our destination, but interesting nonetheless.
Fred Saxon was the go-to guy for the inside scoop about Hollywood. He presented a couple of sessions about famous film stars but we didn't attend. Word was that he was very entertaining.
ENTERTAINMENT AND ACTIVITIES
Quest had an interesting line-up of entertainers and we got a sneak peek at many of them during the Welcome Aboard Variety Show. There were vocalists, pianists and a multi-instrumentalist, as well as an Azamara production cast. This was a talented and energetic group of singers and dancers who were to stage several theme shows. CD Russ seemed very proud to have them as part of the entertainment team and promised exciting performances. Unfortunately, we only got to see the cast once and they were indeed excellent.
We enjoyed going to Mosiac Cafe after dinner to hear the Cabaret Entertainer. It was always a fun time. There was live music throughout the ship in several venues, as well as late night action in the Looking Glass with a resident DJ.
There were the usual shipboard activities, including trivia, arts & crafts, ping pong, bridge and golf putting. There was a cooking demo with Executive Chef Fabio, afternoon tea and wine-tasting sessions. There was also a full range of complimentary fitness classes and wellness seminars.
This cruise was a President's Voyage, although Larry Pimentel was unable to be aboard for personal reasons. Miami-based VP, Hotel Operations Bert Von Middendorp and Destination Specialist, Emilio Freeman, were there as Azamara representatives. All the special events and parties that were planned for the President's Voyage were still scheduled to occur.
The 1st event was a shoreside cocktail party at Fort Santiago in Manila. Following an on-deck BBQ featuring a terrific selection of Filipino and Asian specialties, we were driven to the grounds of this old fort and greeted by local dancers and street performers. An open-air theatre had been set up with lantern-lit trees, performance stage, guest seating and various food and drink tents. Roving bartenders made sure our glasses were always full, while waiters tried to tempt us with Filipino street food. It was a real shame that most of us had eaten such a bountiful BBQ on the ship and we really couldn't partake of the local offerings.
We were invited to explore the historic fort at our leisure and then return for a special performance of song and dance by volunteer tourism staff. They were fantastic! This was followed by some thank-you speeches by Azamara officers and presentations by the Philippine Tourism Board. It was obvious that the tourism staff were very happy to have Quest make this maiden call on Manila. The evening ended with a superb fireworks display over Fort Santiago. Truly magical.
There was another special event planned for our overnight stay in Bali. It was to be a Balinese Deck Party and Marketplace Celebration. I'm sure it would have been equally well done.
Another tangible benefit of this being a President's Voyage was an offer of double savings on any future cruise booked on-board. We fully intended to purchase an open passage certificate for a future cruise but, in all the commotion, we missed our opportunity.
We are independent travelers who usually arrange our own tours, but Azamara was very competitive in this part of the world. We pre-booked shore excursions in every port and benefited from the advance 50% discount. When we arrived in our stateroom, there was an envelope with all our shorex tickets. Some tour times had changed since we booked on-line, but everything else was in order.
With the cruise being canceled so early in the voyage, we only got to take an excursion in Philippines. We selected Flavors and Treasures of Manila, which was a general overview of principal sites, followed by a culinary demo and lunch at a well-known Manila restaurant. It was OK but nothing special. It was typical of what you'd expect on any cruise line, albeit with a slightly smaller group size.
Azamara generously offered a complimentary excursion to all passengers during our unexpected stay in Sandakan, Malaysia. We had previously booked Primates of Borneo and were very happy that we'd get the opportunity to see these rare creatures. Traveling in small groups with an expert guide, we visited an orangutan sanctuary and were rewarded with a sighting of a mother orangutan with an infant. We also visited a rehab centre for proboscis monkeys that are endemic to Borneo. Overall a great excursion.
It's difficult to pass judgment on Azamara on the basis of such a limited sample of their Land Discoveries. We enjoyed them but I must say that tour choices in each port were fairly limited and quite predictable. I think Azamara can develop many more unique excursions that give passengers a more personal and up-market experience. They need to differentiate their offerings and move them to a different level if they truly want to be recognized as destination specialists.
MUSTER - NOT A DRILL
Now back to "Bravo. Bravo. Bravo" ...
After smoke began filling Windows Cafe on Deck 9, we made our way down the dimly-lit staircase to Deck 5. I noticed that the doors leading to corridors on Deck 7 and Deck 8 were closed, presumably a safety precaution. There was no panic and people moved silently and quickly. When we arrived outside on Deck 5, other passengers had already gathered. Everybody wondered what was happening.
At about 8:20 pm, Captain Karlsson made an announcement that there was a fire in the engine room. It was under control but there was still considerable smoke that crews were battling. He said we were in no danger, but asked us to report to our muster stations as a precaution. He also announced that he would soon be sounding the general emergency alarm. I really appreciated his announcement. By giving us advance warning, he reduced the fear and anxiety that may have occurred had we heard the 7-short and 1-long blast of the ship's horn without any context.
We quickly made our way to Muster Station A located in Cabaret Lounge forward. Crew were stationed at the entrance and took roll call of passengers as we entered. Most passengers had been in public rooms when the emergency call went out, so few had life-vests and there was no opportunity to go to our staterooms and retrieve them. While we were in muster, stewards went door-to-door to each passenger room and collected life-vests. I saw an enormous pile of them outside on Deck 5, but I'm not sure if these came from the staterooms or were the extras that are always available.
We were in muster for almost 3 hours, during which time Captain Karlsson made announcements about every 30-40 minutes, giving us updates on the status of the fire and efforts to contain it. Sometimes he had no news to report but made an announcement anyway. This was very much appreciated and helped instill confidence that we were in good hands. Our time in muster was as comfortable as it could be, thanks to hard working crew and well behaved passengers. Staff and crew circulated through the room, offering water and soft drinks. They guided passengers to public toilets, until they became unusable. They answered questions and offered assurances. They were upbeat and well prepared. Their training showed and it helped passengers remain calm.
At about 11:15 pm, Captain Karlsson announced that things were sufficiently under control that he was stepping down measures and we could return to our staterooms. Crew organized our exit in an orderly fashion and guided us to our floors using glow sticks and flashlights. Our room was pitch dark, so we propped open the door to avail of emergency corridor lighting until we could retrieve our own flashlight. Of course, it was still in the suitcase under the bed!
Captain Karlsson made a final announcement at about 11:45 pm, noting that things were under control and it was safe for us to sleep. Yet again, he said just what we needed to hear. But before we went to bed, I gathered clothes and put them nearby, just in case we had to evacuate quickly. We slept with our balcony door open but the night air was very still and the room was very hot.
We were awakened at 6:45 am the next day by lights and sounds from our TV. Power was back! At 8:00 am, Captain Karlsson confirmed that crews had restored power to engine #1 which gave basic essentials, but still no propulsion, no A/C, no hot water and no food preparation facilities.
ADRIFT AT SEA
Quest was adrift in the Sulu Sea off the coast of Philippines for much of Saturday, March 31 while crew worked to restore propulsion to the engines. Captain Karlsson made numerous announcements, be it to update us on progress, to thank us for our continued patience or to tell us not to be alarmed by the military plane that was circling overhead, who were there for our protection. Who knew that these waters weren't friendly? Once propulsion was restored about 7:30 pm, we began to make our way to the nearest port in Sandakan, Malaysia. We traveled at 3-6 knots per hour for the next 24+ hours, under the watchful eye of the Philippines Coast Guard.
We received a letter from Captain Karlsson advising that damage caused by the fire meant that the rest of our voyage would be cancelled. Azamara offered a generous compensation package to all passengers, including a full refund, a future cruise certificate for the value of the cancelled cruise as well as various options for continuing our vacations in Asia.
Meanwhile, life on-board was an adventure. There was no hot water and no food preparation facilities, so meals were basic. Breakfast was fruits, cereal, breads and yoghurt while lunches were sandwiches and salads. Dinners were poolside BBQs of chicken, pork and seafood with cold salads. Meals were served on paper plates or aluminum pie tins with plastic utensils. Wine was poured freely into paper cups. It reminded me of camp or college, only with better wine!
During the days, most passengers sought relief from the unrelenting heat by staying on outside decks or in breezeways on the ship. Some also slept outside overnight since the staterooms were so hot. Most shipboard activities were curtailed or cancelled.
The team on Quest were brilliant through all this. To a person, they demonstrated service, compassion, and good humor. They were fun, cheerful and ever so helpful. We were in this together and we all made the best of it. We couldn't have asked to be stranded with a finer bunch.
Quest arrived into Sandakan Malaysia, escorted by tugs, about 9:30 pm on Sunday, April 1 and passengers began disembarkation about 11:30 pm. There were many officers and staff at the gangway to bid us farewell as we exited. I will never forget passing that line and saying good-bye to those who stepped up and delivered when we needed them most.
We were accommodated in the best available local hotels for 2 nights and then flown by charter to Brunei and onward to Singapore, which was to be the final destination of our ill-fated cruise. When we arrived at the airport in Sandakan, we were surprised to see President Larry Pimentel, who had traveled to Borneo to meet all the displaced passengers. He boarded our bus, and in a voice tinged with emotion, expressed his regrets at our canceled voyage. Now that's customer commitment!
We didn't get to see Komodo dragons or the Borobodur temple or the beaches of Bali. Hopefully there will be another time. But we had an equally valuable experience. We got the rare opportunity to witness first-hand how Azamara handled an emergency at sea. It was a case study in how to do things right. We are so very grateful to Captain Karlsson, his officers, staff and crew for everything they did, individually and collectively, to keep us safe and as comfortable as possible. We are also thankful to President Larry Pimentel and the corporate team at Azamara/RCCL, who stepped up to address passenger needs in a timely fashion.
We have full confidence in Azamara and look forward to sailing with them again. Wherever it may be, I'm sure we'll love where they take us!