We arrived by cab from JFK at the Manhattan Cruise Terminal and were on the ship within 10 minutes. It went very smoothly with the baggage handlers taking our luggage in front of the terminal, no line at security, and we were at the ship's entrance. The welcome by staff was less than what I had expected based on others' reviews, but perhaps they had had a long day. They seemed more interested in talking to one another than dealing with us.
She is a beautiful ship. The public spaces are tasteful and comfortable. The library is very attractive. The Looking Glass bar was one of our favorite spots on board. The chaises lounges by the pool and looking to the sea were covered with lots of padding and blankets. The cafe was also quite nice, although located in a busy spot between the shops and the main staircase to the purser's desk. We loved the ability to get lattes and espressos at any time for no charge.
The cabin was excellent, with more storage space than we actually used. Not having to pack formal clothes helped! A flat-screen TV was a welcome sight after the clunky old TV on Cunard's Queen Mary 2 in 2010. The balcony was lovely and there were enough electrical outlets for our gadgets. We found it well designed.
Azamara's practice of having the ship serve as the hotel the first night, with departure late on the following day is an excellent idea. We were able to enjoy company of friends in New York the evening we arrived and for most of the next day. Once arriving in Rouen, where once again the ship serves as a hotel the last night. It was nice to come home to after dinner and we had none of the usual horrible disembarkation experience we've had with other lines.
The passengers trended older, mostly American with a few Europeans and a few more Canadians, but it was a varied group politically, if not ethnically/racially as much. A good number of passengers had been to university. With a maximum of 695 passengers, on this trip the Journey carried 635.
Food and Wine
I live in the "foodie" San Francisco Bay Area and I'd say that the food was very good. The wines included with the fare were absolutely acceptable and well chosen. The main dining room is classic and comfortable. There was a problem getting a table one evening at 8 pm and the adjacent bar was packed, so it seemed a little disorganized, but it was only that one time. Otherwise, you almost never had to wait for a table. The buffet area was almost always a challenge for finding seating. Had the weather not been chilly, the open air tables would have been fine, but given the wind and the temperature, sitting outside wasn't very comfortable so everyone tried to squeeze inside. The food in the buffet was surprisingly good.
Due to Azamara's having raised the price for eating in Aqualina and Prime C, we didn't feel any incentive to dine outside the main dining room or at the buffet. We received a complimentary visit to Aqualina before the end of the crossing and we felt confirmed in our judgment about paying extra. There was nothing wrong with it, it just didn't justify the extra cost in our opinion. We aren't big steak eaters, so Prime C was less of a draw.
Challenges of a Small Ship
On such a small ship, the problems I observed were 1) finding places to sit in the informal buffet at lunch and 2) the problem posed to readers by the takeover of all (and I mean all) public spaces by amplified trivia contests. If you like reading books, which we do, especially on a crossing, we were often forced either to go to our room or to go to the Library; and frankly, some folks even mistook the library for a place to have loud conversations. That remains my biggest complaint. The fact that a bunch of mature adults can only entertain themselves with trivia for 11 days is mind-boggling to me. Can't Azamara encourage other types of less intrusive entertainment or at least not use microphones, and limit the use of public spaces for that purpose? It seems like one of those cheap choices for the company, probably dreamed up in the accounting department.
I did not have the experience others have reported of staff being especially welcoming and enthusiastic. We had one very good server in the restaurant from ?le Maurice. No one ever remembered our names or seemed particularly welcoming otherwise; not unfriendly at all, just not going out of their way to make us feel welcome in the way others have reported. I would make one exception: our cabin staff was very warm and friendly. It probably helps that both were Brazilian!
Apart from the issue I've already addressed regarding amplified trivia games, the entertainment staff were quite good. One evening there was a jazz concert in the cafe that I found extraordinarily good. The shows were fine--not fantastic--but fine. There was a passenger choir that I really enjoyed (and tried to become part of, but oh, my voice...).
The company had done no programming that was specific to Rouen, Paris, or France. A lot of passengers were taking their first--and perhaps only--trip to Paris (given their age) and had booked four-day package tours. Unfortunately, we were arriving on a holiday weekend when many things are closed and one of the four days was Monday when many museums are closed. On top of that, it had been raining quite a bit. We proposed to do a little session on the French language that turned into a 150-person class on pronunciation, phrases, customs, stereotypes, typical misunderstandings, practical considerations given the holiday and the weather, and a bit about the history of the city. We called it a "people's class" and we just asked what folks wanted and roped a couple of Francophone passengers into the mix to help. We did five classes in all.
A couple of kind travel agents on board told the cruise director that we should be compensated (and it was work). When asked what I would like, I asked for free Internet. That request was turned down a couple of days later. The CD reported that it wasn't in his authority and that the accountants in Miami had emailed a negative response. He was able to provide two $25 meals at Aqualina. In the end, he was also able to provide me with one days' worth of Internet after a bit of a hassle. I don't know the inside and outside of this issue with the Internet, but it was a modest request and I am still shocked at the company's unwillingness to do it.
Due to a rather large storm in the North Atlantic, the captain chose to navigate in a straight line from NYC to the NW tip of Spain, then make a sharp left turn at the Bay of Biscay up to the Channel and on to the Seine River. As he said when he told us, "Our first duty is the safety of our passengers, and frankly, the safety of the ship as well." I respect that kind of thinking! We hit a few large swells on the way and a couple of people fell, but no serious damage was done. The ship performed amazingly well I thought, for her size.
His decision was not popular with many people because it meant that instead of arriving in Rouen around 10 am, we arrived just after 6 pm, so tours people had planned to Giverny or around Rouen were cancelled. I felt it was a shame but it still allowed us an evening in Rouen. We went to a medieval inn for dinner with another couple of passengers where Julia Child ate her first sole meuniÃ¨re, so we were content.
Disembarkation (and embarkation) was much, much better than our last experience on Cunard's Queen Victoria at Los Angles during the 2011 Christmas holidays. Although we had to stand in line for a little while due to the narrow landing staircase, it wasn't too difficult. Captain and crew lined up to thank us and to say goodbye. Buses for those with packages were available. It was raining quite a bit. Luggage was inside a tent and cabs pulled up fairly regularly to pick up those headed for the train station. We noted that because many people didn't speak French and the cabbies didn't speak English, many folks remained standing in the rain in confusion. I would recommend to Azamara that they station a French- speaking staff person to handle instructions to the cabbies for the passengers, like any boutique hotel would do. It would have been a considerate touch. Since we speak French, we just popped on in the cab and went on our way but I felt bad for so many other passengers who weren't being helped.
The captain said this NYC to Rouen trip was a one-off due to the ship's having been chartered for a trip out of Rouen. That's a real shame. Currently, virtually everyone goes to Spain, Britain, or Holland. For those of us who travel often to France and would prefer to do so by ship, it's frustrating. I hope Azamara or someone will do a regular non-stop to France at some point. We'd be their most regular passengers!