My husband and I have tried 7 ocean cruise lines thus far and have generally enjoyed Celebrity and Royal Caribbean a bit more than the others. So we had little hesitation in trying their sister line, Azamara Club Cruises, when a really good deal emerged on a Panama Canal Cruise. Eight friends agreed to join us for the January 5-15 cruise from Miami to Caldera, Costa Rica.
We all booked our air arrangements through Choice Air. One couple opted to travel to Miami the day of the cruise; the rest of us flew from Houston to Miami a day early to relax a bit. We'd booked rooms at the Hampton Inn & Suites Miami Airport Blue Lagoon, located about 3 miles from the airport. The hotel van picked us up within a minute of our departure from baggage claim and quickly deposited us at the hotel. Within a block of the hotel were a shopping center with grocery store and cafes, as well as CVS and Walgreen's, where we all made last-minute purchases. We had a nice dinner at a Cuban café and enjoyed the free breakfast at the hotel the next morning. The hotel called 2 taxi vans for us, and we were on our way to the port by 11:45 a.m. on Sunday morning. Quick and easy.
Upon our arrival, we dropped off the luggage and headed through security. We were whisked to the check-in counter so fast that I hadn't had time to pull out our boarding passes. This was truly the quickest check-in I've ever experienced. Within 5 minutes we boarded the ship, where we were warmly greeted by crew members and encouraged to enjoy one of the dining options. We figured the Windows buffet would be packed, but we were pleasantly surprised. Our delightful lunch signaled the start of a lovely cruise.
Our exploration of the ship reinforced that feeling. We checked out all the pubic spaces and found everything we'd expect on a much larger ship--just on a smaller scale. The gym and spa were nice, as were the small casino, tasteful shops and lounges. Looking Glass, located on Deck 10, was a great room for viewing the sights or reading during the day, enjoying lectures and entertainment, along with dancing in the evenings. At first sight we fell in love with the Drawing Room, Quest's lovely library. It was open 24 hours per day, with books to be taken on the honor system. I found that it had really good Internet reception, so I relaxed there in front of the fireplace with my iPad on sea days.
The main dining room, Discoveries Restaurant, had only a few tables for 10 people, but they managed to accommodate our whole group the first night. Service was prompt and efficient, and everyone appeared to enjoy their selections. Since Azamara has an open seating policy, we had to remember to request the large table for a particular time if we all wanted to eat together. Over the course of 10 days we ate once at each of the specialty restaurants (which have a $25 per person cover charge), a well as in the Windows Café (buffet) a couple of times. Each day complimentary red and white wines were offered with lunch and dinner; we liked all the selections well enough that we never ordered any of the specialty wines. Soft drinks, espresso and cappuccino were also included, so never experienced the "nickel and dime" irritants of other cruise lines.
Prime C is a classic steakhouse. There I tried the seafood sampler starter, salad and 8 ounce filet mignon; all were excellent. There were so many great desserts that we wound up sharing many. The hit turned out to be the warm mini-donuts with 3 great sauces. We celebrated a birthday at Aqualina, the Mediterranean restaurant. I tried the goat cheese soufflé, lobster bisque, and seafood platter--including grilled scallops, calamari, tiger shrimp and a half lobster. My husband had enjoyed the mini-donuts at Prime C so much that he asked whether they could be obtained at Prime C as well. Our waiter went next door and brought back donuts and sauces for the entire table--along with all the individual desserts we'd ordered.
We were pleasantly surprised by the entertainment onboard the Quest. In lieu of a theater, Quest has a more informal cabaret with movable chairs and tables. There is a small stage that's only a step up from the main floor, and a wooden floor extends out into the audience. We were able to get up-close views of the singers and dancers during performances, which we thoroughly enjoyed. During the cruise we delighted in several presentations by the ship's singers and dancers, who were every bit as talented as those on larger cruise ships. We also heard a cellist, a dynamic young vocalist, and a comedian. But we particularly enjoyed evenings when Russ Grieve, the cruise director, included a few songs in the program. We'd seen him perform in "Mamma Mia" in Las Vegas a few years ago, and he still has incredibly energy and a great voice. One evening he showed up for the ABBA Dance Party in one of his "Mamma Mia" costumes and danced with the ladies. Great fun! We also enjoyed the music in the lounges throughout the ship.
We'd signed up for this cruise hoping for at least a couple of entertaining and enlightening lectures. We definitely were not disappointed. We attended 3 standing room only enrichment talks on the Panama Canal by Richard Wainio, who was involved for several decades in canal administration and treaty implementation. His insights really added to our appreciation of our canal transit and of our subsequent excursions in Panama City. Dr. Jerry Kronefeld offered a series of interesting medical talks throughout the cruise. Near the end our final speaker joined us: Nigel Marven of Animal Planet. He talked about animals to see in Costa Rica and showed us a Costa Rica wildlife video being developed. His enthusiasm was definitely contagious.
One of our biggest surprises was the accessibility of the officers. Captain Vilarinho popped up all over the ship and seemed genuinely delighted to interact with the passengers. From the chief engineer to the hotel director to food and beverages director to the future cruise sales manager, we found the officers to be engaging, interesting people. Much the same could be said of the entire crew. If they didn't enjoy their jobs, they certainly did a good job of faking it!
Azamara's shore excursion offerings seemed a bit limited to us, but we did manage to find ship-sponsored activities in each port that satisfied us. I'd checked online for local tours but hadn't found better options. First port: Cartagena. On a previous visit we'd done a fairly extensive tour, so this time we opted for a walking tour of Old Cartagena. Our guide set an appropriate pace and kept us all engaged. In the next port, Panama City, my husband and I split up. He went with several members of our group to view the expansion of the Panama Canal, while I went with 2 ladies on a Panama City tour. We saw a bit of the former Canal Zone, the impressive high rises of downtown Panama City, ruins of the old town, and much of the historic area known as Casco Viejo. Based on the talk that evening over dinner, all in our group seemed pleased with their choices.
In Costa Rica we docked first at Golfito, a small town with a dock that formerly supported the area's banana trade. The Quest was apparently the largest cruise ship the town had seen in the last decade. Cars parked up and down the main road to watch as we docked. Later that evening when we enjoyed White Night food and entertainment out on the decks, the entire town must have heard the music. We walked around a bit before our tour the next morning, and there was very little to see. Passengers who didn't book excursions must have been quite disappointed. However, my husband and I loved the fact that we were docked rather than anchored out in the bay, and we enjoyed the solitude and wild beauty of the area.
Swiss Travel provided the guides for various excursions in Costa Rica. In Golfito my husband and I selected a small boat cruise to a botanical garden and on to a wildlife rescue center. Our knowledgeable guide, Percy, did an excellent job and kept us thoroughly entertained. That evening he and the other guides drove north and met the ship the next morning in Quepos for a new set of land excursions. This time we had to take the ship's tenders in to shore. We'd opted for a 7 hour excursion to the Sky Walk and Pura Vida Gardens. A mini-bus took us about 45 minutes north through palm oil plantations to our first stop. The guide pointed out many of the trees, flowers and wildlife as we traversed several swinging bridges and winding trails. Later we drove up to a private garden owned by a couple from the Dallas area. We enjoyed a home-cooked lunch there before touring the garden with our guide. The views of Costa Rica's largest waterfall and of the Pacific were spectacular. Great photos!
One excursion that we didn't have to pay for: the ship's "AzAmazing Evening" in Panama City. We had to register in advance, but the ship provided everything from start to finish. Following an early dinner, we boarded tenders that took us to Fuerte Amador where we boarded minibuses for the drive into Casco Viejo. A guide kept us entertained on the way--good thing because the heavy traffic made for a lengthy drive. Since several of our group were on one of the later buses, we missed much of the planned outdoor reception in a plaza. We had a quick drink and a couple of tapas before heading to the National Theater of Panama for a folkloric performance. The locals who'd arranged the seating weren't very organized, so we tromped up and down stairs several times before we were finally seated. The dancing and costumes were colorful, but the overall impression was of a fairly amateurish production. Still, we enjoyed seeing a bit of Panama City in the evening and felt we shouldn't complain about a free event. Imagine our surprise a couple of days later to find a letter from Captain Vilharino offering an apology, a $100 onboard spending credit and a future cruise credit. If we didn't manage to use our onboard credit, the remainder would be refunded to our credit card. All this for an event we hadn't paid for in the first place. I guarantee this made a VERY positive impression on us.
Long review, but our overall impressions: the Quest is a small ship that is elegant but still casual; food is quite good; entertainment and enrichment opportunities abound; the officers and crew are delightful; and passengers appear to be well-traveled but down-to-earth. We still love Celebrity and some of the large ships, but we are already considering another voyage with Azamara. This may well be the perfect cruise line for my husband and me!