We arrived at the Lisbon Santa Apolonia cruise terminal at 1.00pm on Monday, 3 June 2013 in preparation for boarding the Azamara Quest. Crystal’s Symphony was moored back-to-back. We were the only people registering at that time and so were ‘processed’ immediately and went to our cabin, 8022, in order to deposit our hand cases.
Cabin 8022 is a standard balcony and Azamara had replaced the soft furnishings since our last cruise in 2011. Unfortunately, the interior designer who chose the colour palette needs to look for a new job, because the colours in the curtains do no match and tone with the carpet, a wasted opportunity. We were told that the mattresses had also been replaced and we found this too hard for our preference, a common occurrence. We are used to an expensive bed at home that is sprung properly and does not need to be soft to be comfortable. Further, our bed at home was chosen based on our weight because heavier people need harder mattresses (we are told) so it is no surprise that all cruise ship beds feel like one is lying on a board after a few hours. Valentina (our cabin steward) and Russel (her assistant) provided a mattress topper which resolved matters slightly. However the main problem with shipboard beds is that they are all on a rigid base, so regardless of the depth of the mattress, it is still sitting on an inflexible foundation, unlike expensive beds which not only have a sprung mattress but also a sprung base.
We know these ex-Renaissance ships well and thus their strengths and weaknesses. The cabin wardrobes are a weakness. The right hand side door of the main wardrobe opens just in front of the first cabin ceiling light and this means that the wardrobe interior is dark unless the door is held right open. This means one hand is required just to keep the door open or you scrabble around in semi-darkness. One would have thought that this would have been addressed when refitting the cabins and maybe an interior light fitted to the inside of the wardrobe, if the cabin ceiling light could not have been repositioned. The drawers in the second wardrobe are also quite narrow. By way of compensation, there is a good amount of equally narrow drawer space under the dressing table. Whilst the bathroom is ‘compact’ it is satisfactory for our needs, but sailing on a long cruise could present problems with the amount of drawer space.
Our balcony had been re-floored with teak and sported two chairs with cushion pads and a table large and high enough on which to dine. However with the size of the new table and the larger chairs, manoeuvrability when on the balcony is difficult, even for slim people. A further problem here, was that, on two out of seven mornings around 7.00 am, the balcony and chairs received a soaking from presumably Deck 9 cleaning activity, making it unusable until the chair cushions had dried out, which given the weather on our cruise was virtually the whole day. Black mark to Azamara who ruined the amenity value of the balcony by a lack of care. We haven’t experienced this on other cruise lines with these ships.
The Quest was in very good shape and looked cared for. The deck loungers with white covers formerly round the pool have migrated to Deck 11 and been replaced by metal-framed loungers with very comfortable pads. We’d have preferred to sleep on these than the cabin bed!
We were told that there were only around 400 passengers on our sailing, out of a potential capacity of around 685, and that there were 405 crew. We therefore expected to receive above normal standards of service, a point actually made by Captain Smith. However this did not materialise during the course of the cruise, and there were times when stewards were thin on the ground.
Azamara had laid on a CC party at 6pm, a well-judged time. The safety drill had been at 4pm; we sailed at 5pm and were as far out as Estoril when we headed for the party. Whilst not quite ranking with Sydney, Cape Town or Rio, the sail down the Tagus at Lisbon is a not-to-be missed event as it offers superb views of the city and its riverside features, such as the monument to the discoverers and the Belem Tower. The CC party was well attended by passengers and hosted by Russ, the CD. Both Captain Smith and Ryszard (the Hotel Director) were present, both of whom we know from our last Azamara cruise and both of whom were highly visible and approachable during the voyage. Full marks to the staff for a well-executed CC party.
Rather than go to the dining room for dinner, past experience had taught us that the seafood buffet being served that night in the Windows Café would feature cooked-to-order items; it did and we enjoyed our meal.
As a rule, we do not like hot buffet food. It is either lukewarm or dried out, neither being acceptable to us. This is not a comment directed solely to the Quest but applies to all buffet food. Thus the cook-to-order of the seafood was good.
As we had expected, the crew were friendly and helpful. They generally work for eight or nine months straight, so keeping sociable is quite a feat for those nearing the end of a contract and probably tired. Our cabin team did a great job. We read over the review of our previous cruise on the Quest and noted a comment about a lack of finesse among dining venue staff. This has effectively been addressed, possibly by greater experience or training.
We had room-service breakfast once and the selection and presentation was good. We took breakfast in the dining room twice and were one of the few so to do. Service and menu options were also good. On the remaining days we breakfasted in Windows Café and were satisfied with food and service. The ginger-based energiser drink was a nice touch. The one area of criticism concerns the pastries and rolls. The muffins were dry whilst the Danish were chewy and lacked sufficient filling. One morning, I split a jam Danish open to reveal a minute smear of jam in a gaping interior and so I added more jam. There was also a general absence of bread or rolls made with wholemeal flour.
Except for one pool grill burger and fries, we ate little at lunch. Sadly, the burger was a disappointment, largely because the burger bar and stewards seemed unable to cope with the modest demand. We got our order ticket and found a seat and a steward to give our ticket to. After 20 minutes we went in search of our food which had been sitting around and dried out and gone cold. The best part of this meal were the olives, which we laced with extra-virgin olive oil, from the salad bar.
Of the five dinners we took in the Discoveries dining room, none were memorable for the right reasons. In fact, we agreed this was the ‘it just misses it’ cruise because so much of the food was slightly below par and the pastries have already been referred to. By far the worst instance was the night when five of the six diners at our table were dissatisfied or extremely dissatisfied with the chosen main course. Three halibuts were dry and overcooked; one steak was likewise, whilst the lady with lamb could not make any inroads into the meat with her knife! The waiter had disappeared to attend to other diners’ orders and failed to check whether all was well with us. By the time he reappeared it was too late to address our dissatisfaction. Food preparation and presentation across all courses was always very good, portions were plentiful but something seemed to go wrong somewhere because, night after night, the main course was not as good as it might have been. Maybe it had been overcooked, had dried out due to being kept hot waiting to be served, or perhaps it had gone cold waiting to be served. We have sailed on the Pacific Princess and found main courses at dinner to be served consistently perfectly, so why Azamara cannot manage this on an identical ship is a mystery.
Returning to two aspects covered already but combining both, on the first sea day breakfast and lunch were only available as buffets. Whilst the idea of a 10.0am to 1.30pm Jazz brunch in Discoveries was a good one for jet-lagged Americans (170 passengers coming from the USA), this meant neither meal had an option of waiter service. Azamara has aspirations to be a Premium brand but the lack of waiter service anywhere during breakfast and lunch marks it out as better aligned with Carnival than Oceania. Matters might have been helped if the surfeit of staff (400 passengers and 405 crew), if waiters had been on hand to carry lunch on the long trek from the central dais in the dining room, to wherever a table was free, but there were none. We looked around as the ship wiggled in a way typical of these ‘R’ Class ships and gave up. That evening the Restaurant Manager came to our table at dinner to canvass our views. Politely, we begged to differ with his assertion waiters had been around at lunch to help carry food. We were there; he was not. If Azamara want to be a Premium brand, there should always be waiter staff to assist passengers if a full service meal option is not available. Big black mark, not least because the Captain had said there would be no excuse for poor service by virtue of the high crew/passenger ratio.
Staying with dining, the Azamazing evening event was held at a Michelin 3* restaurant in the hills, a short drive outside Bilbao. It was a buffet but not in the usually-accepted sense. On arrival we were given a glass of wine and a local speciality of hot sausage in corn bread. Whilst this was tasty, there was nowhere to sit or put down one’s glass. Thereafter one walked around the venue, where a range of amuse-bouche items were offered at each serving station. Several different white and one red wines (produced by the restaurant) were proffered at each station. Again, there was nowhere to sit. A folkloric performance followed the food and chairs were now available. We enjoyed the food, less so the wine. The event was spoilt by the logistics or coping for upwards of 400 diners processing round the food stations. We canvassed opinions from fellow passengers after the event and failed to find anyone who enjoyed the food, or indeed the “event”. “We don’t like wine or cheese” was typical. Azamara spent two years planning the evening and would have spent quite a lot on this event and it is a shame it clearly didn’t work for most people. It would have been better if had been advertised correctly, as most passengers expected to sit down to a Michelin starred meal, and were not impressed with a morsel on a stick!
Azamara now provide a selection of complimentary wines, spirits and soft drinks. Starting in the cabin, the cans of soft drinks are free but you pay for the beer in the fridge, as well as “sparkling water” – which we found out to our cost when choosing a Perrier from the in cabin fridge on our last Azamara cruise. The house red or white wine served at lunch and dinner is also free and usually acceptable but certainly not exceptional. There is a list of spirits, beers and cocktails that are served in the bars without charge. ‘Premium’ water and room service liquor are chargeable.
On returning from the Azamazing event around 9.0pm and not wanting any food but being quite thirsty for a soda, we wandered the ship in search of an open bar. The one in the Looking Glass lounge (Deck 10) did not open until 10.0pm, the Cabaret Lounge was in the middle of a movie and the Casino bar was shut. This left the small bar/ante room outside Discoveries restaurant as the only place on the ship where we could get a soft drink; totally unacceptable! We raised this with the HD and he said the Casino bar should have been open. Leaving this to one side, bar service was very attentive.
As usual, the onboard entertainment was of variable standard. The pianist was very good but the performances of some of the singers were third rate. Lots of energy, noise and bright lights does not always mask singing out of tune!
Three of the four places visited were tender ports and the tendering operation was handled very well. In Bilbao, the only non-tender port, a free shuttle was provided from the pier to the city and much appreciated. In particular, on our last port of call, a tender in Guernsey where the weather was appalling, low temperatures and strong cold winds, a lone steward was waiting for returning passengers getting on the tenders to return to the ship, with a very welcome cup of hot chocolate and cookies, a very thoughtful and much appreciated service.
Azamara has basically and potentially a very good product. The line is far from alone in providing inconsistent food quality and service and this area needs to be addressed. There are some very nice touches and it was the ports of call – Bilbao, St Jean de Luz, St Malo and Guernsey – that attracted us to this voyage. A number of fellow passengers also chose the cruise for its ports and Azamara should try to visit places other lines fail to include. Dependent on the itinerary, we would sail with Azamara again and hope that at least some of the issues referred to above, which are easy to address, will have been remedied by then.