My wife and I have cruised both mainstream (Celebrity) and luxury (Regent, Silversea) lines, and we had been looking for something in between those, so Azamara had been on our minds for a while. We had also been looking for a cruise around the British Isles, so when we saw the Quest was going to do a "British Open (golf)" cruise, we decided to ignore the golf aspect and sign up. We are delighted that we did. Azamara proved to be exactly what we were looking for: a small ship experience, an all inclusive product, and a casual, relaxed atmosphere at a price well below the luxury lines.
We did not use Azamara for transportation. We flew into London 10 days prior to the start of the cruise and then took a short British Air flight from there to Dublin, where the cruise embarked. The actual embarkation process was easy and prompt. They were also quite forgiving. I showed my credit card authorization form to a security person and neglected to get it back, so when we got on the ship, I did not have it to give them. The woman at the desk said not to worry, that they would track it down, which they did. I volunteered to fill out another authorization form, but she insisted they would handle it. Nice touch, and an indication of how the cruise was to go.
The safety drill was a dream. We did not have to wear our life preservers, and there were plenty of seats for everyone. Thank goodness we did not have to repeat the bad memories from prior cruises of standing for 20 minutes on a crowded deck with my life preserver on.
The first enrichment lecture was at 6 that day, and my wife and I always like to hear the local history and get guidance on what we should try to see. We were unfortunately very disappointed in the lecturer. He did not appear to be well versed in the history, and the talk seemed disorganized. Ordinarily enrichment lectures are a very high priority for us, but we did not return for another one of his talks.
Dinner the first evening in Discoveries was good. If you are a real foodie, Azamara's mainstream restaurants may not be for you. I was generally more satisfied than my wife, who had a couple of disappointing meals. Overall, though, the dinners were fine, and the service is top notch. In addition, Azamara has recently gone to an all inclusive product with alcohol included throughout the cruise. The included selections have generated some controversy among a few critics, but we were quite satisfied. The few times we did not care for the wine of the day, we simply asked for something else and they always produced it. Near the end of the cruise, after the last disappointing meal my wife was to have, we decided to try one of the specialty restaurants, Aqualina. Food quality there was definitely a significant step up and should satisfy the most discerning guest, but unless you are in a suite, it costs an additional $25 pp. Well worth it once or maybe even twice, though. Blissfully, there are no formal nights on any Azamara cruise. I did not even take a tie or dress shirt.
We ate breakfast the next day in Windows, which has a wide buffet each morning. The food was quite good, with all of the usual items and stations (freshly cooked eggs, waffles, etc.) plus some more substantial brunch-type dishes. For those of us trying not to gain weight on the cruise, they also had lots of fruit, yoghurt, freshly squeezed juices, and smoked and pickled fish. Coffee in Windows, however, is disappointing. We learned from this first morning to go to the Mosaic Cafe first for wonderful lattes, and then proceed to Windows to eat. Later in the cruise we went to Discoveries once for breakfast, and we really liked the atmosphere there. They are only open from 8-9:30 (except on the last day of the cruise), and you order from a menu. But you can get anything you want, and the coffee is excellent. Further, apparently most people haven't discovered it, so it is very quiet. Thereafter, Discoveries became our breakfast of choice place unless we needed to eat before 8.
We ate lunch each day at Windows. Again it is a buffet. They always have 2 soups and a special entre that change daily. Sandwich and salad selections are very good.
We had a cabin with a veranda. The room is not as spacious as on the luxury lines, and the bath is especially small. But the accommodations are on a par with the mainstream lines, and we don't spend much time in our room on a cruise. So we were quite satisfied. The veranda was quite adequate for what we wanted: a place to sit, look at the ocean or the shore, and read our books that we had brought. The staff that were responsible for cleaning the room were exceptionally good and knew our names from day 1. We were on deck 7, which is where the free self-service laundry is. I had expected to use the laundry when were boarded given that we had been in London for 10 days, but we wound up using it later in the cruise as well because the weather was so unusual. Having kept up with the forecasts on weather.com, we thought we would see highs in the 60's in Scotland, but instead it was in the 80's. So we went through tee shirts very quickly. Because of the weather, the demand on the laundry was heavy. I found that putting a load in before breakfast was best.
I know we are unusual passengers, but we go to bed every evening after dinner, so we never saw any of the late night shows. We did go to a couple of bars before dinner. The Looking Glass is on deck 10 at the bow of the ship, so the views are really nice. A guitar player was there during our cruise, and he was OK. A better guitar player than singer, which I think he recognized, but he did take requests. It was our first choice for pre-dinner bars. We also went to the bar next to the casino, where there was a piano player. Unfortunately, because of the golf-oriented passenger profile, he was booted out during the golf tournament so people could watch the TV coverage of the Open. My wife made this a clear point of disappointment on the end-of-cruise evaluation.
The first port of call was Belfast, Northern Ireland. We took a morning tour to Hillsborough castle and then a bus tour of the city, including a trip into the area that suffered through "The Troubles." Our guide was very candid about the continuing tension, which is visible as you drive through the area. The castle was somewhat disappointing, but the bus tour of Belfast made up for it.
That afternoon we went to the spa for the first time. We each had a massage, which was very good. Azamara automatically includes an 18% tip in all spa treatments, which some might not like but I was quite satisfied with. I hate having to worry about tipping if the cruise is billed as all inclusive. We signed up for spa treatments as soon as we boarded the ship the first day so we could get our times of choice. (Otherwise we've found it is difficult to visit especially on sea days, although I did manage to add a facial for myself later in the cruise on a sea day.) We were generally satisfied with the spa personnel and facilities, although my wife did feel like she was shorted a bit on her last massage.
We used the exercise facilities a couple of times, and we never had problems getting a machine. There is a very good rowing machine that I liked, but it did not have a TV attached to it. My wife used the elliptical each time.
The Azamazing Evening for this cruise was at the Titanic Museum in Belfast. Transportation to and from the event was handled well. Overall we liked the event, but it did have a few glitches that need to be worked out. The museum is great, but we had to rush through it a bit to meet the dinner schedule. We were not provided with audio guides, probably because they could have slowed our progress through the museum, but it detracted somewhat from the presentation. Dinner was a buffet with a menu from the actual Titanic voyage. Unfortunately, the food quality at the museum was a good bit below Azamara standards. Further, the advertisements on the Quest were that we would be able to enjoy "champagne, Manhattans, and martinis" like the Titanic passengers would have, but in fact we only had very mediocre wine. One white and one red, neither of which was very good. After dinner the captain of the Quest and a couple of local people, including one politician, made brief remarks, followed by a Irish band and Irish dancers. The band was outstanding and very funny, and I am sure the dancers were also quite good, but the logistics of the building simply did not allow many passengers to enjoy them. The lighting in the area was abysmal, so the screen showing a video of the dancers simply appeared as a black screen. The room where we ate is not slanted like theatres are, so unless you were on the front row or in the small balcony, which apparently was reserved for a large golf group, you could not see anything but the tops of the dancers' heads. Hence they did not generate the crowd enthusiasm that Riverdance-type dance groups are accustomed to experiencing. They were as frustrated as we were, and they consequently refused to do their final dance.
The next port of call was Glasgow. We did an afternoon tour of the city, including a stop at the Kelvington art gallery. Our guide was a hoot; I told him afterwards he should be a stand-up comic.
After a much-needed sea day, our next port was Invergordon, where we did both morning and afternoon tours. First we went to LochNess, where the Urquhart Castle is absolutely spectacular. We did this tour simply because we felt like we had to try to find the Monster, and the area was beautiful. But the castle was an unexpected treat. Highly recommended, but lots of climbing if you really want to see the castle. We definitely did not need to go to the gym after this excursion! That afternoon we went to the Glenmorangie Distillery and the village of Dornoch. Again a pleasant surprise for us. Dornoch is quite lovely, and my wife made a significant contribution to the local economy at their quaint shops. I visited the castle; walked around the links golf course, which is very different from US courses; and visited a local pub for a Scottish ale. And of course we got to sample the Scotch at the distillery. Delightful excursion.
After such a busy day, thankfully we had the next morning free. The ship arrived at the next port, Edinburgh, around noon. We did this city completely on our own. The ship docked in Leith, so we could walk over to the former royal yacht, Brittania, which was nice. We also visited the Royal Botanical Garden, which was highly recommended, but we were both disappointed in it. Perhaps we were still tired from the previous day, and this day was especially hot. But after less than an hour, we returned to the ship. We put on our bathing suits and went to the pool, which was almost empty. It's a salt water pool, and is properly heated. What a nice, cooling break from the heat. My wife sprang for a bourbon not on the included drink list for her Manhattan. I stuck with the mojitos that I drank throughout the cruise. Because the British Open was in its final weekend, the ship remained at Leith for two and a half days. While others went to see the golf, we spent the next two days touring the Royal Mile, visiting both castles and numerous other tourist spots. We generally used Rick Steves guide, and we loved the city. But Edinburgh is a very hilly town, so again we did not need to go to the gym to get our exercise.
The next day was thankfully a sea day and our last day for spa treatments.
Our final port was Hamburg, Germany, where we arrived at 10 a.m. We took an all-day excursion to Lubeck, which is a wonderful city. The weather continued to be quite hot, and the included lunch was in an ancient restaurant that did not have air conditioning. Fortunately the beer was good and cold. Our tour guide was very knowledgeable. The ship remained in Hamburg for the evening.
I turned down Azamara's transportation package the next day because our flight left earlier than they recommended. We walked off the ship with our luggage at 7:15, and Azamara personnel were there to help us get our bags to the taxis that were lined up. We had plenty of time in the airport before our flight. For us to have any hope of arriving back home that same day, I had to book flights that gave us only 1 hour in the Paris airport. Say what you want about CDG, they do have a wonderful web site for telling you how to navigate their terminals. From that site, I knew what terminal we would arrive into, and I knew we would depart from one of three places. So I had very clear maps and narrative descriptions of how to go from the arrival gate to whatever gate we were ultimately assigned. We made the connection easily, and arrived home at a reasonable hour that evening. Here's the web page, if anyone has a Paris connection: http://www.aeroportsdeparis.fr/ADP/en-GB/Passagers/Access-maps-car-parks/guide-connection-flight/guide-connection-flight.htm
Overall, this was a great cruise. Despite the few flaws here and there, we were very happy with the cruise line and the ship. We will definitely be cruising with Azamara again.