Azamara Journey -- Stockholm to Copenhagen -- White Nights June 27 -- July 6, 2012
This was my first time on Azamara Club Cruises. The same company owns this unique brand as Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises but Azamara is operated totally separately and has a unique niche. Their tag line is "you'll love where we take you" and are known for longer stays and more overnights -- Destination Immersion! Love it!
Azamara has two virtually identical 694-passenger ships that fit into smaller ports and closer to the action. During this Baltic cruise we docked right in the heart of the city on the Neva River in the city of St. Petersburg Russia.
Guests receive personalized service on a ship that offers some big ship features like a great gym and large theatre. Overall this line is in a category above the mainstream lines like the sister companies but slightly below the five luxury lines. Azamara does offer two things that Oceania Cruises (it's competitor) does not. Gratuities are included in the cost of the cruise and boutique wines are offered with both lunch and dinner.
CABIN -- We were in a category 6, Ocean view Stateroom so did not have a veranda. The cabin size was fine although I did miss the fresh air. It was smartly decorated and there was plenty of storage space. We were in the front on Deck 4. (Deck 3 also has a few Ocean view cabins.) The ship is small enough that getting anywhere took only a few minutes even when using the stairs rather than the elevator. I tried to do that most of the time to wear off the excellent food!
The cabin was only 170 square feet but manageable -- There are only 18 interior cabins but many veranda cabins and some very nice suites onboard -- See Accommodations.
Two improvements I would like to cabins would be to refresh the bedding and also to provide a light for the closet. The closet was just on the left when you enter the cabin and when you open the closet door it blocks out the only light available. We literally set a flashlight there to use to find our clothes. My first wish is coming through shortly as both ships are going through refurbishment during dry dock including new mattresses, carpet, gym equipment, deck furniture and more!
FOOD --The food on Azamara is quite good and a major step up from mainstream lines. Windows is the cafe that served breakfast and lunch buffets, which were good, thought not exceptional. However the ship was designed so that even with the outdoor seating, there were often problems getting seats on this port intensive itinerary where everyone often got off at the same time. We were in the Baltic so it was often chilly in the outdoor seats but they provided blankets.
Azamara has open seating which is much to our liking. The main dining room (Discoveries) is comfortable and there are two Specialty Restaurants available for an extra charge of $25 per guest (free for Suites guests). Aqualina is a Mediterranean style and Prime C a Classic steakhouse. We loved them both and dined at each often during our 9 nights! They were so accommodating and even let us order the Grand Marnier Souffle from Aqualina when in Prime C. Views from the back tables by the water were very nice. During the dry dock a champagne and caviar bar is being added to Aqualina.
As mentioned earlier, Azamara offers complimentary boutique wines with meals even in Windows Cafe and they were generally quite good. My husband brought along wines from his cellar (in checked luggage of course) and they professionally served them for only a $10 corkage fee.
I have to also mention the Pool Grill outside Windows Cafe. This is a great place for burgers and such and is open later in the afternoon for those coming back late from port. Also very popular is the Mosaic Cafe midship on Deck 5 just up from reception. Its location outside the shops is nice and is a gathering place for coffee, cappuccino, tea and more along with morning pastries and afternoon tea sandwiches.
A nice Room Service menu is available however we only tried the morning coffee. The coffee was good and hot but our 7 to 7:30 order arrived at 6:30am!
STAFF/SERVICE -- The service was very good and personable on the Journey. Although we were never addressed by name, we felt welcomed and never had any issues.
SHIP -- The 30K ton ship carries 694 passengers and is laid out well with nice public spaces. We never felt crowded except for the mornings in the Windows Cafe. The entire ship is quite pleasant.
SPA/GYM -Because of the very port-intensive itinerary and my Host duties onboard, I never managed to use the gym but it was quite large and well equipped for the size of the ship. A full range of spa treatments is available and we both had treatments that were very good. It is especially nice that when you get a treatment you can use the Thalassotherapy pool and relaxation area on the front of the ship. Suite guests have unlimited access to that area. One unusual feature onboard is the Acupunture at Sea services.http://www.azamaraclubcruises.com/life-onboard/spa-fitness/acupuncture
CASINO -- I only entered to Casino to meet my group for the Shore Excursion but it was nicely designed and had a variety of tables and slots.
ENTERTAINMENT -- We were very lucky to have Eric de Grey as our Cruise Director. We had enjoyed his talents previously on Seabourn so knew we were in for a treat. Take a look at his website and book the Journey just to be entertained - http://www.ericdegray.com/EDG_Productions/Welcome_Offical_Website.html. There were nice musical offerings onboard and the White Nights party in St. Petersburg was lots of fun out on the deck.
INTERNET -- eConnections -- The center was large for the size of the ship with plenty of large screen computers to use and staffed with a knowledgeable staff member (who seemed to never sleep!). Charges for wireless and computer access in the center were within range of most of the cruise ships but Azamara is the only line I have ever experienced that gave all past guests at least a small Internet package. We were able to get wireless access in our cabin and the system was fairly consistent given our locations.
ENRICHMENT -- No one does Enrichment like Crystal but Azamara had a good speaker on board who was very knowledgeable about the Baltic.
SHOPS -- There were two shops located on Deck 5 by The Mosaic Cafe which although small were nicely stocked.
MISC -- Azamara Club has a unique Past Guest Program called Le Club with three levels that start after your first cruise (and that includes past Royal Caribbean and Celebrity sailings). Besides the typical past guest parties, first level guests are given 89 minutes of free Internet! Embarkation was very well done and all in all the ship was very well organized.
PORTS -- A Baltic cruise is a unique and interesting experience and I highly recommend it. Being on a small ship with longer stays and closer access made a big difference in accessing these amazing countries. Read on if you'd like to hear more about each one.
All in all, the Azamara experience is a great one and a wonderful value for the memories.
Ports of Call -- Day by Day
June 25 - Flight to Stockholm
We chose to fly out of Newark rather than Philadelphia, because SAS has great non-stop flights to Scandinavia. We have a good parking lot that we trust at the airport and the drive is fairly easy in 1 1/2 hours. We chose to upgrade to Premium Economy as my research had shown that the benefits for the price were good and I would recommend it. Our flight was about 8 hours and arrived right on time into Stockholm.
Tuesday June 26th - We took the Stockholm taxi into town, which took about 30 minutes, and for 520 SEK plus tip. We dropped our bags at the Sheraton and walked over to the Canal boats near the beautiful (expensive) Grand Hotel. We took the 10 am Canal sightseeing boat, which lasted about 2 hours and was relaxing after a night flight. We ran across the bridge hoping to catch the Changing of the Guard at the Royal Palace in Gamla Stan (Old Town) but discovered it's a popular attraction so seeing it was difficult with the crowd. If great viewing and photos is a must, then you have to get there by 11:30 am for the noon event.
The Main Square (Gustav Adolf's Square) was a 2-minute walk with quite a few restaurants to choose from. We wanted to eat outside so we ended up at De Svarta Faren. All the restaurants provide blankets. Nice!
After exploring Gamla Stan with the tiny streets and cute shops, it was time to check into the Sheraton. Our room was small and stark (typically Scandinavian) and we chose not to upgrade to a view since we were there just one night. If you like this prime location it offers great views of Gamla Stan or City Hall. Since we are Gold Starwood members we received free WIFI that had a good signal.
While my husband checked email I took a quick five minute walk over to see the unique City Hall but was delayed getting back from a fierce downpour. We soon discovered the weather in Scandinavia could quickly change!
For our one night on land, we indulged in a restaurant we found top rated online and conveniently located one block away - F12 was amazing and memorable but expensive.
Wednesday, June 27th - enjoyed sleeping late (for us) and then walked over to Gamla Stan for shopping and enjoyed the great sunshine. Being careful to get the right taxi company (critical in Stockholm) we went to the pier about 11:30 am. He had trouble finding the correct dock at the pier so the cost of 300 SEK. The line was a little long for small ship but it was sunny and the check in process was easy. It was nice to be able to sign up for specialty dining right there on the pier before boarding, so we opted to try Prime C (the steakhouse) the first night.
As mentioned in the review of the ship, Prime C is one of two specialty restaurants, which have a surcharge of $25 a person but we found well worth it.
We were greeted with champagne upon boarding and within 1/2 hour we were in our cabin. Such an easy embarkation and of course one of the advantages of a small ship.
After enjoyed Prime C (and the fabulous lobster salad), we went to the opening show staring Eric de Grey who was great!
Thursday, June 28th
Since the ship over-nighted in Stockholm, we were able to take one of the ship's excursions in the morning. It was not all that different from what we did on our own the day before except that the weather was gorgeous and sunny. All our days in the Baltic were in the high 60s or low 70s with low humidity, which was great. Our canal cruise and panoramic tour were quite enjoyable and were back on the ship for a burger lunch and sunny time by the pool. Our sail away was at 2 pm and quite interesting through the archipelago! Not to be missed.
Friday June 29th - Helsinki Finland
Unusual for us as we like to explore on our own, we again took a ship's excursions. We had a fun and unusual day outside the city at an indoor Winter land including the ice bar, kick sledding and even sledding. Unique Lapland
Being small our ship was docked just near the colorful outdoor market, which we enjoyed, but we loved the indoor Vanha Kaippahalli with the wonderful smoked fish and more. Even without buying anything it's a cultural experience to go in.
This evening we hosted a private cocktail party in the Looking Glass Lounge for our Vacation.com guests. This is one of the special parts of being on a Vignette Sailing. All the guests enjoyed the special event and socializing.
Dinner followed in Aqualina, which was very good!
Saturday, June 30th - St. Petersburg, Russia
Today was the start of two days of private touring with 4 other couples we found through a cruise bulletin board online. The local touring company was well vetted and priced. The day was quite full with touring of the major sites of St. Petersburg along with a hydrofoil ride over to Peteroff to see the amazing summer palace of Peter the Great. This site is well worth the time to get there (only 30 minutes). Catherine's Palace was also quite astounding and overwhelming.
Sunday, July 1 -- second day in St. Petersburg
This was our second day of touring with our small group and private guide. We managed to get in our touring despite the blocked streets for the marathon (not something we expected to see in Russia). It was fun to stop into the most famous gourmet store on Nevsky Prospeckt, which is the main avenue in St. Petersburg and the best-known street. The Church of Spilled Blood was one of the highlights of the day and one of the most photographed churches in the world. Alexander the 2nd built it on the site where his father was assassinated and it is so elaborate that it took 24 years to build. We enjoyed a great quick lunch of what the Russians call "pies" -- but really was sweet bread baked with fillings. It was quite good and inexpensive. Last but certainly not least was our visit to the State Hermitage museum with over 3 million works of art and unlike the famous Louvre in Paris, much of the collection is housed in a palace which is a work of art in itself.
It's difficult to summary a destination as special and interesting as St. Petersburg but it's worth a visit!
Monday July 2nd, Tallinn, Estonia
This was the day of our Vignette Exclusive Shore Excursion in this former Russian town that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Sight. We enjoyed a walking tour of the old city where one could easily spend the entire day. Our afternoon was a unique experience of lunch on a local farm and learning about life during the time of the Russian occupation. Everyone was pleased with the experience.
Tuesday July 3rd -- Visby, Sweden
This was also a unique port as it is on the island of Gotland and is a well-preserved medieval town and also a UNESCO site. There is a 2-mile stonewall surrounding the city and it's easily walkable with nice shops and restaurants. Because our ship did not sail until 11 pm, we came back to town at night for dinner on the outside patio of Donners Brunn watching the locals. Delicious and memorable.
Wednesday, July 4th -- our day at sea! Great day onboard.
Thursday July 5th -- Full day and overnight in Copenhagen, Denmark.
We took one of the ship's tours so we could get an overview of this bigger city. We enjoyed our good guide during the walking tour that began near the Winter Palace where the Queen and two sons and their families reside and you can see the changing of the guard at noon.
Our walk ended for lunch (Smushi!) at the Royal Cafe on the famous and long pedestrian street Stroget. Difficult to describe these beautiful open face sandwiches but they were delicious as was the beer. Our day ended with a Canal boat ride back to the ship where we passed the famous Little Mermaid statue (which really is little!)
We took the shuttle bus from the ship right back into town to stroll the Stroget and shop. We enjoyed Copenhagen more than we expected.
Friday, July 6th -- sadly it was time to fly home. Azamara's debarkation process was easy and well organized. We took their bus to the airport.
Would I go back on Azamara Club Cruises? Yes!