We just returned from the October 15th sailing from Athens to Athens on Azamara Journey with port calls at Haifa, Ashdod, Paphos, Antalya, Marmaras, Rhodes, Kusadasi ( Ephesus), Mikanos, and back to Athens. This was our fourth Azamara Cruise and the third on the Journey. We had done a similar itinerary on the Journey in 2008. We are also Elites on Celebrity with over 30 cruise credits.
Pre-cruise: We flew into Athens via ChoiceAir and had no problems with the flights. We had independently booked a two night pre-cruise stay at the Athens Gate Hotel. The hotel is centrally located with modern comfortable rooms and excellent service.
Embarkation: We had done our On-Board Check in and printed our Express Passes before leaving home; dockside check in was quick and easy and we were on-board and having lunch in Windows in a snap.
Stateroom and luggage: Our room was ready about 1:00 and our luggage was delivered promptly. We met our Stateroom Attendant, Lyric, who was simply outstanding as was his assistant. Our room was familiar, very compact, but with excellent storage compared to other ships. The change to a flat screen monitor freed up some addition shelf space and added a welcome 3rd 110 vAC outlet to the room.
Crew Interaction with Guests: I would submit that this remains Azamara's strongest point, this has been the most consistent feature of the Azamara Experience and this remains simply outstanding. Guests are always greeted with a genuine smile and truly made to feel welcomed. Any request is met with the best effort on the part of the crew member to accommodate the request. You name it and they will try their best, from assistant waiter to the Captain himself, all are easily approached and enjoy trying to enhance the experience.
Cuisine: We ate all of our meals in either Windows cafe or Discoverys, the main dining room. At an additional $25 per person, the specialty restaurants really did not tempt us. We found the food in Windows to be surprisingly good, particularly considering that it is a buffet venue. Food was generally well prepared, served hot, and generally tasty. Sushi was particularly good as were the fresh salads. Breakfast and lunch were eaten in Windows or with room service and were quite good.
Discoverys, the MDR, showed good solid food, but I thought that it was not quite on a par with previous cruises. Steaks tended to be thin and tough and in general food did not seem to be as hot as before. While on board, the thought occurred to me that the emphasis seemed to have changed more towards the presentation of the various dishes as opposed to the actual taste and texture. Good, perhaps even better than Celebrity's recent offerings, but not outstanding.
Ports of Call: For us, the highlight of our cruise were the two ports in Israel. We had hired a private guide who we had used previously and spent two nights off of the ship at The Montifore Hotel in Jerusalem. Joel did an outstanding job for us and the days were gone far too soon.
For the rest of the ports, we did take advantage of the 50% off ships tours and by and large were pleased. There were two problems with shore excursions: one of which was a tour to the Lydian Tombs in Marmaras which should have been canceled due to a horrendous thunderstorm: we were in an open boat in a marshland area and there was torrential rain and serious lightning flashing all around. The other problem was that our Kusadasi tour ended at a rug outlet. I don't object to the sales pitch at the outlet, it's interesting and almost part of Turkish Culture. However we had to walk approximately a half a mile back to the ship in another thunderstorm-- no alternative transportation was provided. I do not consider that this was consistent with a first class experience.
One other problem was noted. The scheduling of Le Club Voyage events seemed to always conflict with some other event. A major conflict for us was Shabbat Services which conflicted with the Le Club Discoverer event. For me this is insensitive and unacceptable. Several other passengers were likewise offended.
Disembarkation: Was easy and efficient.
Conclusion: In comparing my previous Azamara Experiences ( 2008, 2009) I have to say that there were changes that I liked and some that I didn't. The included wines were nice, the included bottled watter was much more so and much more appreciated. Finding that the crew/guest interaction had remained so exceptional was a big plus and probably the best part of the cruise. Journey is beginning to show her age; Internet access is a joke with some pages taking 2-5 minutes (@ $0.65 per minute) on most days. This should be included as it is almost robbery to charge for this poor a service. Our veranda door needed a new gasket, the in room TV didn't work for 3 days. The latter was really not a problem as the available TV programming is pretty poor anyway.
In short, we had a very nice time and enjoyed ourselves very much. Do I consider Azamara a luxury cruise line, no. Is it competitive with Crystal, no. Will we sail Azamara again? That will depend on both itinerary and pricing. We will certainly consider Azamara when planning a cruise, but at its current pricing level, I would have to say we probably will not be on board. And that's kind of sad.