Apologies in advance for the length of this report but it was difficult to summarise my experiences without losing some useful facts.
Getting There - On the 14th July I embarked the ship at Dublin for the 10 day British Open at Muirfield voyage, this included return flights from/to Heathrow. British Airways were the chosen airline and both flights (my return being from Hamburg in Germany) were on time and efficient.
It was a special last minute deal which appealed not only because of the price but because it had no single supplement charges, was all inclusive and had a great itinerary which included a chance to visit the British Open 2013 at Muirfield.
Ports Visited - Dublin > Belfast > Glasgow > Invergordon > Edinburgh (stopover 2 nights) > Hamburg (stopover 1 night)
Embarkation day The cruise literature actually stated that embarkation should take place from 13:00 to 17:00 but as my flight arrived at 08:30 I decided to find a local hotel in Dublin where I could rest in between time.
The Gibson Hotel is a recently opened establishment next to Dublin Port and so I chose to go there. They provide free secure luggage storage and wi-fi access so I was able to deposit my suitcase and Skype my family whilst I waited. At just after 11:00 I decided to chance whether I could get onboard so I got a taxi for the five minute journey to the ship and sure enough when I arrived I signed a few forms and was onboard within 10 minutes which was a record for me.
Accommodation I chose an interior stateroom for this journey as I was not expecting to see great views at the ports we were visiting and the extra cost would not have been worth it. The amount of space I got was reasonable and the furnishings are classic traditional and the bed was very comfortable. The bathroom was small but you soon get used to it and there was always plenty of light and a good water supply to basin and shower. I did however have to call for a plumber twice when the WC vacuum system failed.
The safe provided is a good size but won't take a laptop but my netbook computer fitted snugly. You'll need an EU power plug adaptor and I'd recommend a trailer socket if you have lots of gadgets to charge like me. The shaver point in the bathroom is UK standard size thankfully.
Health & Wellbeing The ship is kept spotlessly clean and hand gel dispensers are everywhere to keep any possible germs at bay and they ensure you use them upon arrival back onboard the ship after going ashore.
Restaurants There is only one main dining room (MDR) on the ship called Discoveries and it operates an anytime dining policy. I used this for most of my meals and my overall impression of the food was good with the occasional excellent dish. Service in the MDR was mostly good although I feel they could be more attentive when glasses needed re-filling and plates needed clearing away.
I wasn't impressed by the attitude shown by the Assistant Maitre D who seemed very matter of fact and bordering on arrogant at times.
A self-service restaurant called the Windows Cafe is also available but I seldom used this, when I did I found the choice to be rather limited and of poor quality. The Pool Grill offered basic burgers and hot snacks for those in a hurry and there are two other Themed restaurants Prime C (steak restaurant) and Aqualina but I thought the $25 surcharge was too high, reports from other guests who had tried them were favourable though .
Entertainment I personally just saw two shows onboard as I tend to nod off when the lights go down but fellow passengers commented that they thought the shows were good and those I did manage to stay awake through were.
One irritating fact I discovered is when the theatre show is running the entertainers in the rest of the ship bars do not play music so it can be quite boring at those times if you don't fancy the show and I've no idea why they have this arbitrary rule.
The other entertainers consisted of a guitarist and a piano/organ player the first I never saw as I was at dinner and the latter was rather amateurish. At 10:30pm most nights there is a Disco in the Looking Glass bar which was the liveliest part of the ship and became well attended and of course the Casino was a favourite haunt of mine although on this trip it was closed on four of the ten nights because we remained docked, still it saved me money I guess.
Excursions I booked three excursions in Belfast, Edinburgh and Hamburg through Azamara and one privately in Glasgow through the internet. They were all very good apart from the Edinburgh trip to St.Andrews which took a long time to get to and we were only given 1.5 hours to explore when we got there.
On every voyage Azamara have a unique offering called the Azamazing Experience where they take passengers to a special place or event. In our case we were taken to the newly opened Titanic Museum in Belfast where we had private access to the exhibits followed by a gala dinner with entertainment from an Irish folk group and an Irish dance troupe. It really was a magical night and a very memorable experience.
The Open Golf tournament at Muirfield (near Edinburgh) was very exciting and I'd recommend going to the 1st tee and sitting in the stands to see all the players up close. Azamara did a tournament package which included access to a hospitality tent with all drinks and meals but that was extremely expensive. I just went on the coach and that cost me $60 + 75 entrance ticket for the final day.
Tip:- Book your excursions online close to the sail date on the Azamara website as they appear to reduce the cost quite significantly then, for example the book price for my Hamburg excursion was 33 but by booking late it went down to 24.75
Note:- You won't see this discount until you get to the final pay screen.
Ask your cabin steward to arrange for a packed lunch box for the excursion days and tell them the time you want it delivered. They obliged me this way and it worked out well.
When boarding the coach remind the driver/guide to turn ON the air conditioning as the coaches can get stifling hot and they don't feel this at all so the passengers suffer in silence.
Smoking There is only one designated smoking area on the ship on one side of the pool deck. The casino is also off-limits which was merciful for me.
Drinks package options Azamara fares now include a more inclusive drinks package which means most non-premium brands are free of charge as is the daily house selected wines which were generally very good. You can upgrade to an all brands package anytime during the cruise but I wasn't fussy as the regular brands seemed fine to me.
Improvement Areas -
- The quality of the bar entertainers and better onboard activities for sea days
- Make more effort to welcome solo passengers
- Fix the technical issues which make internet access difficult to access most days
- Overhaul the Windows Cafe buffet completely as the food lacks quality and imagination and the server decor resembles an office canteen
Overall impression This was my first voyage with Azamara and I was impressed by the little extras they throw in like free shuttle buses, welcome back drinks, local sail off music, lunch boxes, Azamazing events, etc. and if you have Captains Club membership with Celebrity or are a repeat cruiser they also throw in some free Internet Access minutes which proved very useful and an invite to a party (less so).
This particular voyage had brought together several golf groups so it was probably not a true representation of normal passenger mix as they tended to stick together which made it difficult for solos to meet others although I did meet some great people from Canada (Sarah & Greg thanks!) and the USA (Henrietta) amongst them.
I would certainly cruise with them again as they have some good itineraries but only for trips with few sea days (for the reasons I've specified). I'd like to see them invest in some larger ships to provide a more diverse experience and better entertainment options.