Summary -Having cruised with Azamara Quest 5 times previously,we didn't need much convincing when the opportunity to cruise the Baltic on the Azamara Journey came up. The theme of the cruise was the white nights in the Baltic in June/July, and the Journey had a jazz themed cruise to the Norwegian fjords a little over a week after the Baltic cruise so we booked that also, and filled in the the intervening time with a river cruise down the Rhine.
This review will focus on the 9 night Baltic cruise but the comments apply equally to the later Norwegian fjords jazz cruise.
Azamara Journey, like its sister the Quest ( and 5 other R class ships) has a 694 passenger capacity so that socialising with new friends is very easy, as you continually see faces you recognise, unlike on some mega liners where you don't see an acquaintance you met on the first day for the rest of the cruise.
Many features distinguish the Azamara product from other lines, but by far the most exceptional is the genuine friendliness of the officers, staff and crew.The crew(mostly from Philippines) didn't just look and appear happy, when you got to talk to them they WERE happy. On the Journey they take service to new levels of excellence, led from the top by the most visible and friendly captain we have ever experienced, Capt Johannes Tysse. Together with a fantastic cruise director, Eric De Gray and the always superb Hotel Director, Heike Berdos, this trio set the tone of high visibility and easy going chatter. We'd been advised that Eric De Gray had a couple of not-to-be-missed quite superb stage shows and we were not disappointed. Eric adds a professional flavour to the entertainment on board which is lacking on many smaller and mid-size ships, including the Quest.
Embarkation- After a harrowing 30 plus hours to get from Sydney, Australia to Stockholm, it's hard to put into words how grateful we were that Azamara handled the embarkation so pleasantly and efficiently- we were greeted as if we were old friends returning home. It's little wonder that Azamara enjoys a very hard core loyalty following with its returning passengers.
Ports- Of course, all fabulous. Stockholm, Helsinki, St Petersburg, Tallinn, Visby, Copenhagen. The standout?- probably St Petersburg, we were there 2 nights and Capt Tysse got us docked at the absolute closest point to the town, the Lt Schmidt embankment, as he did also at other ports. We won't give a ports review as places can be subjective for many, suffice to say we pre-booked a Russian travel guide before leaving home and consider that essential for St Petersburg. We did take a couple of Azamara excursions at their half price discount if pre-booked and they were quite good value for money without being spectacular
Staterooms- Always a topic of discussion, we took an Oceanview without a balcony because of the port-intensive nature of the cruise,which meant that you sailed during the evening and were parked when you woke, which made a balcony somewhat superfluous. The dimensions of the staterooms are limited, not spacious like, say, Seabourn but very functional - we were able to put away all our luggage for a 37 day European trip easily.
Dining- The food was generally up to the constantly high quality we had come to expect,the MDR being usually quite good, the Specialty Restaurants ( $25 pp cover charge)were superb, and the Windows cafe just fine for breakfast, lunch (burgers and dogs at the Pool Grill were superb)and especially a casual dinner of stir-fry,pasta, themed cuisine etc prepared by the happiest group you'll meet on the high seas. We must also pay tribute to the overall quality of the complimentary wines at lunch and dinner, and to the eagerness of the staff to keep your glass full.
Entertainment- As stated before, the Cruise Director's singing and performing talents lifted all the other entertainers to a very high level for a smallish/mid-size ship. Entertainment is usually something we don't expect to be spectacular on our cruises - Eric De Gray changed that view.
Activities - As we were visiting virtually one port per day, there wasn't much call for activities.
Disembarkation - We left independently for an early flight ex Copenhagen so can't really comment on this.
Final thoughts - In the areas of service, food quality, friendliness, entertainment ,cleanliness, port selection and access,Azamara ticked every box on this and the subsequent cruise. Sure, you could make a few quibbles if you were a really hard marker, like the onboard shops merchandise wasn't much good and some of the support pianists/jazz group around the ship were only barely adequate, but our only real regret is that Azamara is not scheduled to come to Australia any time soon, so that we'll have to chase this cruise line around the world and suffer the hell of long flights because any other cruise line would, in all probability from our past experiences with some of the supposed best, leave us seriously disappointed.