In January, 2012, on our Azamara Cruise to Antarctica, we booked back to back cruises on Quest for Summer, 2013; specifically, the July 24th Norway Fjords and August 7th Hamburg to London cruises. We booked these two cruises because we enjoyed the onboard Azamara experience, interesting itinerary and excellent price point. Also, people we met on the Antarctica cruise highly recommended the Norwegian Fjords cruise and raved about doing it with the Norwegian captain, Johannes Tysse, who we thought did a great job in Antarctica. We love the R ship size and have now sailed about 150 days between Oceania and Azamara cruises. After booking Azamara management implemented several changes, reduced discount on excursions, more inclusive, etc., which caused us to consider cancelling.
Pre-Cruise Experience (or the basis for my skepticism)
Having booked the cruise, we found almost everything pre-cruise disappointing. First, and most significantly, at booking Azamara promoted its 50% off excursions, if pre-booked. However, in October, 2013, Azamara unilaterally changed that policy. Normally, we are unaffected by shore excursion pricing because we prefer to organize our own excursions or participate with other CC members. In the case of the Norwegian Fjords cruise, most of the ports did not have a significant tourist infrastructure which made planning private or shared private excursions impossible, and we were forced to book ship's excursions. (more about the quality later). While the math is somewhat subjective, I estimate that Azamara's changing an announced policy cost us about $1,200.
Second, the more inclusive policy. My wife is a non-drinker and I am a very moderate drinker - maybe a glass or two of wine on occasion (not every day) and/or a beer on a hot day. I disliked the liquor aspect of the new Azamara because I felt a) the complimentary liquor policy would have a negative affect on the overall ambiance, and b) I thought I would be subsidizing heavy drinkers. When the list of complimentary drinks came out, I thought the scotch and beer selections (what I would drink) were poor quality. Finally, we didn't think the Azamazing Evening was a great trade-off for the increased excursion pricing and we were somewhat skeptical that Azamara could effectively pull off an outing involving this many people.
Boarding & Back to Back Procedures. Excellent. Quick and seamless. We arrived at the ship around noon and were in our room by 1:30PM. The change over to the second cruise couldn't have been handled better. The day before we docked in Hamburg, we had a meeting in the Looking Glass, which Philip, the Hotel Director ran. There were about 39 passengers who were staying for the next cruise. After explaining the process, Philip surprised us by saying we could book a complimentary dinner at the specialty restaurant the first night of the second cruise. A nice way to say thank you considering that everyone had already gotten back to back booking discounts. On the transition day, we had a leisurely breakfast in the Discoveries Restaurant, and left the ship at 9AM for a Hamburg Greeter tour. As we departed, the crew took our picture and gave us new boarding cards.
Senior Staff. One of Azamara's big pluses. Both cruises had Captain Stig Neilson, Philip Herbert, Hotel Director, and Russ Grieve, Cruise Director, as senior officers. Philip & Russ seemed omnipresent on both cruises. Both immediately learned our names, which to my wife is a big plus. They were both friendly, helpful and outgoing in a low key way, i.e., not in your face happy all the time. Captain Stig, a Norwegian, in addition to his captain duties, in my opinion acted as host for the Norwegian Fjord Cruise. He greatly enhanced the experience. In addition to constant and informative announcements, he managed to convince the port authorities to allow him to dock the ship in a couple of ports previously listed as tender ports and got us an extra day and a half of scenic cruising by taking the inner passage south rather than the scheduled sea route. At the Arctic Circle, a flotilla of his friends came out to greet us. On the Hamburg to London Cruise, Captain Stig mentioned that he was leaving Azamara and returning to a bigger RCL ship. While he was still a presence, he seemed less engaged and actually blew off the Azamazing Evening to have dinner with a mentor.
Presenters. A little background to explain why the presenters are important to us. We don't participate in trivia, bridge, bingo, casinos, etc. Our main reason for traveling is our interest in history, culture and scenic viewing. Therefore, we choose our cruises and travel in general based on itinerary. So, the presenters are an important aspect of our cruise experience. Chuck Richardson did several relevant culture and history presentations which ranged from good to excellent. Nigel Marven, a naturalist and BBC presenter (think the BBC's version of the late Steve Irwin) provided entertaining highlights from his career using film clips. We considered Nigel's presentations one of the highlights of the cruise; however, Nigel does several Azamara cruises and perhaps he could make his presentations even better if he added elements specific to the cruise destinations which would avoid some repetition.
Cabin Steward. Our cabin steward, Raymon, and his assistant were friendly, unobtrusive and did an excellent job. We had him clear the refrigerator of items we don't use or want to pay for and he kept it filled with Diet Coke, Club Soda, bottled water and a couple of cans of Ginger Ale (unneeded).
Staterooms. This is one of Azamara's negatives. We love the R Ships for their coziness, but the staterooms just don't measure up to the luxury lines or the newer mass market lines. We did think the staterooms themselves made good use of the space available, leaving aside the shower which would make a small child feel cramped. We thought the bedding was fine.
Food - Overall very good to excellent. See specific discussion that follows.
Discoveries Restaurant (a/k/a the Main Dining Room) - We thought the food was excellent and the service surprisingly good. I am very fussy about food being served hot (not luke warm), but I never sent anything back. We are somewhat fussy -my wife doesn't eat pork and there are a few random items I don't eat - but the waitstaff always accommodated us. Similarly, if I didn't particularly like the day's wine selection, they found a prior day's wine for me. Also, we preferred club soda to water at meals and virtually the entire waitstaff knew that by the second or third day. Overall, we were surprisingly happy with the Discoveries Restaurant.
Prime C & Aqualina. We ate twice at each specialty restaurant. We found Prime C disappointing. We thought the steaks served at Prime C compared poorly to steaks served at chain steakhouses (Morton's, Ruth Christ's, etc.). We thought Aqualina did a good job (not excellent) with food preparation. We enjoyed the Dover Sole. Both restaurants had excellent service and views when cruising.
Windows Cafe. My wife hates buffets, I love buffets. Having said that we both thought Azamara did a good job with breakfasts with very good service. My wife enjoyed the oatmeal which I think was worked out to her specifications (think, not watery) and we both liked the freshly made waffles. My only breakfast disappointment was the English Bacon which I thought could have been better. For lunch and dinner, our views diverge. My wife correctly found too many of the buffet entrees cold, I would just get something else. I found the salad portion of the buffet excellent, although it could be improved with a little more variety. Unfortunately for us, we both thought Azamara had really good gelato and other desserts. Unfortunate, because we don't need multiple desserts at lunch and dinner. We had the same view of the 3 or 4 dinners we had at Windows, although to me the stir fry made up for the sometimes luke warm entrees.
Pool Grill - Good hamburgers and fries with an efficient ordering process and effectively delivered hot even if we were sitting in Windows Cafe.
Mosaic Cafe - A gem - we loved the specialty coffees, treats, and seating arrangements. A small thing but a big plus. Additionally, the Mosaics staff did a great job preparing and delivering drinks.
Room service - Not surprisingly, my wife loves room service, while I don't like room service. However, I admit Azamara did a great job serving breakfast on time. Selections were extensive and included hot items which actually arrived hot.
Maitre d's - Another plus. They mingled well, unobtrusive, helping out and seemingly interested.
Shore Excursions - Typically, we do independent excursions either alone, with another couple or with a small group put together using Cruise Critic's Roll Call. We have learned to avoid ship's excursions because we dislike big groups, crowded buses and despise shopping stops. We find independent excursions have much better content and value. On the Norwegian Fjords cruise, many of the ports had little or no tourist infrastructure so we felt forced to use the ship's excursions. Surprisingly, we thought Azamara did a good job with their shore excursions. Generally, we booked the longer, more extensive excursions. We found the guides knowledgeable, with excellent English. The tours themselves encompassed meaningful sights with little wasted time, i.e., shopping stops. We Liezl and her staff were knowledgeable and tried to be helpful about ports even if we were not booking one of their excursions. For the Norwegian Fjords cruise, Azamara had a local representative on board and generally available for the entire cruise. This meant that before we arrived in a port, for example, Bergen where we had an independent 2 hour tour, we could get detailed and accurate help on how to spend the rest of the day. One criticism - Azamara added two special tours with Nigel Marven which weren't announced until the ship had departed. It would have been nice for planning and the 25% discount, if these were announced beforehand.
Azamazing Evenings. Major disappointments. Alesund, Norway. A fiasco. The tour of this picturesque town with local entertainment and demonstration started out ok. Azamara planned the evening to conclude with food, drink and a comedy performance at what it described as a "Theater Factory." Unfortunately, we arrived in one of the last groups and found the venue inadequate. Specifically, the venue did not have enough seats for the number of participants. From what we could tell from the video, the comedy routine seemed childish. Oslo, Norway. This Evening went to an open air museum followed by what Azamara described as "finger food and entertainment." Azamara did a good job busing the passengers both to and from the event. Also, Azamara picked a good sight and we enjoyed the open air museum; however, the guides had no prior briefing and Azamara had not assigned specific routes for each group. As a results, groups were constantly bumping into each other, wasting time sorting through the confusion, waiting etc. Having missed seats at the Alesund evening, we made sure we got seats for the Oslo performance. Again, the venue lacked sufficient seating and required some elderly passengers to climb several uneven, stone steps. Unfortunately, the facility was challenging for some of the passengers, and there were at least two falls. The "finger food" was literally that as many of the servers allowed the guests to hand pick their own food. In conversation the next day, we learned that several people became ill after the event. The entertainment consisted of high school performers, not real local entertainment.
Azamara seems to be using the Azamazing Evenings to differentiate its product from its competitors. As I understand it, Azamara did not send an advance person to supervise these events before the ship arrived relying instead on a local contractor. It is surprising that for something with such apparent brand significance, Azamara corporate could not demonstrate even a basic planning competency, leaving its excellent crew to try their best to straighten out the mess created by not having an advance person on site. I recognize that other reviews have found some evenings excellent, but for us these two evenings were not a question of subjective preference. Our two evenings lacked basics with venues too small for the crowds, mediocre entertainment, etc.
Le Club Voyage & Representative
Perks - For us, Azamara offers excellent perks even though there is no possibility of earning a free cruise like some other programs. When you get to the Discover level - 10 credits, including Celebrity cruises, you get 235 internet minutes each and a free laundry bag. Azamara did an outstanding Discover member brunch. On our cruises, we seemed to have conflicts with some scheduled Le Club Voyage events.
Futures Cruises - We thought Dina did an excellent job presenting the future cruises and the Le Club Voyage benefits.
Entertainment - Considering the venue (it is a cabaret facility not a Broadway stage), we thought Azamara did a surprisingly good job. As background, Russ Grieve and Kenny Williams had significant roles on Broadway. Russ, for example, played a dad in Mama Mia on Broadway for 7 years. Russ's show is special. Jenna and the other Azamara singers also performed well. Azamara did two things with its entertainment that impressed us. First, they added 4 talented dancers to the ship's cast. This enhanced the singers and dancers performances. Second, both Kenny & Jenna did excellent solo performances in the Looking Glass before dinner. The contracted entertainers were all good and typical of this size cruise ship
Sadly, we missed the harpist. Symbolically, tone deaf, Azamara displays a permanently affixed harp in the seating area on Deck 5 adjacent to the Mosaic Cafe and the shops.
How do you grade an excellent cruise occurring after several pre-cruise, corporate missteps? To me, this is like the restaurant which seats someone with a 7:30PM reservation at 9PM, but then serves an excellent dinner. The cruise would be a 5 on a scale of 1 to 5, except that at least corporate deserves a 1 point ding. Therefore, I grade this cruise as a 4 out of 5.
During the Norwegian Fjords cruise, Azamara announced its veranda for inside room sale. We worked with Dina and booked back to back cruises. Los Angeles to Costa Rica and Costa Rica to Miami beginning February 18th. Obviously, we are looking forward to our 2014 cruise experience again on Quest. Bottom line, we dislike the Azamara changes to more inclusive, the Azamazing Evening, etc. However, the price point, resulting from the sale, seemed good and the actual cruise experience proved excellent. Maybe in 2014 Azamara will get its evenings to live up to its billing.