Background: We took our first cruise last year on the Celebrity Zenith and thoroughly enjoyed the "Celebrity" experience and our time in Bermuda. So we rebooked for July '07, expecting yet another fine cruise on a mature ship with a seasoned crew. However. The Zenith was sold off and replaced with Celebrity's purchase of a former Renaissance ship: newer but about half the size, promising only 700 fellow passengers. For our trouble, we found we were upgraded from a standard ocean-view room, to a luxury veranda room (room with balcony) on the new ship. So bear in mind, our review is based on a relatively low price for our accommodations; those who pay top dollar may differ. There was a rushed $35-million refit in April, 2007 and then, just (barely) in time for the May sailings, Celebrity announced the smaller ships would be a split-off cruise line named "Azamara". Hm. We won't go into the unfortunate details of the ship's first sailings that are already reviewed here in grim detail. But long story short: by the July 14th sailing, the Azamara "Journey" appears to have turned the corner, and, as far as we are concerned, the view is beautiful! With several sailings under their belt, Azamara had time to get their act together. Although not quite as advertised, Journey was pretty much what we had come to expect with one big exception: it is not a pretty ship...it is knock you over gorgeous. Just our two cents of course. Boarding- We arrived at Cape Liberty at 11:45 am, our luggage was taken quickly (more about this later). For those that have left from Bayonne before, they have moved the long-term parking just up the pier from the check-in baggage area, so don't drive all the way back out again (Ahem, as I did). We were boarded right away, had the complementary bubbles and went up to lunch at the buffet. The buffet was tasty and the staff at all times was extremely friendly, and helpful beyond call. The pool area was closed when we came on as they were finally loading the new, long-awaited deck loungers. But walking around we found a beautiful ship with lots of dark wood, warm tones, artwork, etc. Lovely.
Cabin/Staff: We were able to go to our cabin right after lunch (6062 - a regular veranda room) and immediately met Godofredo our butler. Now: we have never had butler service, but despite previous postings about butler service, "G" showed every bit of the professional attitude, attention and service I would expect from one. As far as we can tell he worked our area with only one other steward who is equally pleasant and attentive. Our room was straightened several times a day, new towels, ice water, fruit refreshed, evening candies or cookies, flowers on the pillows etc. We did later speak with other passengers that were expecting more from their butler and received less...maybe we had good luck or we're just lower maintenance. It is what it is; we loved it. Cabin wise, if you are new to cruising, be prepared for compact. Unless you want to pay for a suite, even the "luxury" cabins are small. But they are beautiful w/ similar dark wood and warm tones. On Journey, they are about 175 sq ft, plus the outside balcony(~40sqft). As you walk in, a full-length closet, and then half-length closets and drawer spaces are on one side; short of Cher's wardrobe, it is more than adequate for a week's cruise. However, possibly due to our early arrival (first loaded = last unloaded), our last large piece of our luggage didn't arrive until 5:00 pm or so (with the camera inside-oops); so I missed some nice departure shots. I know: always carry your camera. D'oh! The bathroom is the other side of the hallway. The toilet and shower (w/curtain) are standard size but very close together, so if you are not "standard" size, you may have some issues. After much dancing, we figured out there are really few things two people can do here at the same time. If you want to change your mind or anything else, you have to stand outside. The bed sits cross-wise in the room; small tables/lamps on each side and your basic pillow-top queen with very plush, comfy bedding. Beyond this on one wall is a smallish couch (foldout?) and coffee table, and a desk/dresser on the other wall with phone, mirror and lots of sockets. Beyond are thick curtains, both sheers and blackout drapes, over the sliding glass door that lead to the balcony. Enough room out there for a table and two chairs and two people to relax and stare into the horizon. If you like your "horizons" flat, a flatscreen TV is on the wall facing the sitting area and bed, and has the ship info-channels, as well as CNN, TNT, CSPAN and a few 24 hr movies. In another controversy, despite the advertising, the rumor mill says there may or may not eventually be microfrigs in all rooms. I understand you can request a portable unit however.
Dining: The main restaurant for breakfasts and (most)lunches, and all dinners on Journey is Discoveries; we only had breakfast there once which was excellent, but their dinners were extraordinary. Rychard (?), the Maitre'd (from Poland), is beyond excellent. While having cocktails in the Martini Bar just outside, I watched him maintain an air of professionalism and calm patience in a couple of situations (read as unreasonable patrons with bad attitudes) that would have sent most folks screaming into the night. Outstanding. The open seating is a controversial point on this cruise, but we did enjoy being able to chat with various folks at adjacent tables without being locked into one time, one table. You may request a certain server or area if available. Now: being wave-motion challenged, I always asked for seating as far forward (the stern of the ship moves around quite a bit when at sea) so we ended up with Edwin (from the Philippines) three times which was a treat. (He even remembered my discomfort two nights later and asked how I was feeling!) We had reservations at "Prime C," (one of the specialty restaurants w/steak and seafood), and cancelled them because the experience was so beyond the par at Discoveries!
Specialty Restaurant - We did keep our reservations at the other "Mediterranean" specialty restaurant "Aqualina" our first night in St George. The menu is listed elsewhere on Cruise Critic and is even better than it appears. Yes, as other folks have posted, Dominique the M'd there is a joy to meet as well. We were seated with a beautiful view of the harbor. Extraordinary experience doesn't cover it. As just as we were basking in all this, the Captain and first officer (?) walked up and introduced themselves; they asked how we were enjoying our trip - no, not pleasantries either - they wanted to hear all we had to say. Feeling very royal at the moment, thank you. As an aside, Captain Lekkas makes regular announcements to welcome you to each phase of the trip, detail weather and location, etc. all of which end with a thank you, and "Bye for now..." a little expression everyone grew to love. Getting the impression we are enjoying this??
Ship size: With the size of the ship, you might expect to see all the passengers all the time. Actually we were surprised - we frequently commented, "It's busy, but where is everybody?" It is nice to greet familiar faces on board and on the islands, but oddly, it seldom appears there are even 700 people on board! The Ride: As advertised, this is a small ship and it does move around a good deal - especially up top and in the stern - nothing horrible in relatively calm seas, or for most folks. But. If you are susceptible to motion sickness as I am, prepare in whatever fashion suits you. Various people all espoused the ear patch, wrist band, ginger pills, ferret fur, or whatever works for you. I wore a Transcope patch (Rx) this cruise and on Zenith last year. Works fine except for side effects - sometimes the cure is as bad as the illness. Hm. I might try meclizine next time. Just my two cents.
Casino: After some comments here, we were expecting a micro-casino compared to Zenith. It's certainly no AC, and the layout is not as open as Zenith, but as I recall it's not that much smaller. There are four blackjack tables ($5,$10,$25 min), a large roulette table, a three card Poker table, as well as an electronic poker table and the ever-present rows of slots. I did enjoy the Zenith casino better: I won there...sigh.
The Crew: Put simply, one of the joys of cruising is experiencing the diversity offered by an international crew; most cruisers have stories of wonderful conversations with the crew about their background and their countries. There is a down side: communication. For all the efforts by cruise lines and the crew members themselves, with a new crew, sometimes there is still a language barrier. Usually you are understood and the service is great; sometimes it's more difficult. If you are patient, it is worth the effort. As an aside, we saw few Americans on staff; one casual consensus has it you won't find an American staff to be as patient and professional as the Journey crew (sorry - just sharing what we heard!).
Pool/Hot Tubs - As the ship's photos show, the pool area is smallish. Now perhaps I was there at all the right times, but I seldom saw the pool close to crowded and if you're patient, you can even have a hot tub to yourself. The new teak deck loungers are beautiful and comfy - wood w/ navy blue cushions and head rests. Hm - I wonder if they would have minded if I tried to fold one into my garment bag...
Entertainment - We didn't see all the entertainment, but here's a sampling: the Cabaret shows, while perhaps not as large as other ships, were very polished. With blackjack back up the hall, sorry, I didn't see the whole show, but I thought several of the performers were top notch; I spent 25 years as an audio engineer - I found the production excellent. My wife did see the whole show, and said the singers were fabulous. The comedian/magician Bob Brizendine performed two nights, and was very, very funny. If he is on your trip, don't miss him. The standard Newlywed/Not so Newlywed Game is fun enough to watch; however, as the only "20 Yearers" in the room, my bride volunteered us to participate - ah, sweet embarrassment. And I thought there weren't many people watching ... until afterward, when several folks smiled when they saw us and made it clear they were there. Nuff said. The Party Band: Okay, for comparison sake, the band on the Zenith was able to segue easily from reggae with a Jamaican patois' to a Jimmy Buffet impersonation - yes, frightening, but still relaxing to listen to either by the pool or late at night. I suspect the Journey's casual music trio, AKA Mirage, was a last minute addition to this cruise. The band were good musicians no doubt, but as a cruise band? Not so inspiring.
Shore Excursions: This year we purchased the three day bus/ferry pass for $28 per person, well worth it if you want to explore the island to any degree. Now. About the Island buses: the ride to your destination can be an event in itself: Bermuda roads are narrow - I mean narrow; the bus drivers are skilled - and fearless. Sit in front if you can - it is as close as you can get to an amusement park ride without rails. Weatherwise, we enjoyed two gorgeous "partly cloudy w/scattered showers" days (they don't seem to get the weather right here either). If you have the opportunity, take a good look at online reviews of the excursions before you get to the island - some are ho-hum, some are great. St George: Unfortunately, we had only one day in St George (my favorite town); it is much more quaint than Hamilton, and beyond the cute shops, there is more Bermuda history there, particularly if you dig under the "visitor" layer. This year, we did try the touristy route and went to the Caverns. At $16 per cave I thought tickets a little pricey, but the estate above the caves is gorgeous and well-maintained, and though brief, the cavern visit is quite something (stalagmites go up right?). A group of a gazillion nine-year olds were waiting to enter Crystal Cave, so the staff pointed us to Fantasy Cave instead. Just remember: for all the steps you walk down you have to climb back up... For those who are utterly exhausted after all this, the famous Swizzle Inn just happens to sit back at the intersection by the bus stop... Hamilton: We visited most of the shops and walked up to Fort Hamilton last year, so this time, we got out of Dodge and caught a bus to "The Flatts" (north center of the island); beyond the little town, the clear blue of the water where the ocean enters Harrington Bay is beyond words and just across the bridge is one of the pleasant surprises of the Island: the Bermuda Aquarium/Zoo. I was half-expecting bored fish, miserable animals, and jaded exhibits. Quite the opposite: the exhibits are well-interpreted for all ages; the fish are stunning, and the zoo appears very well cared-for: seals, birds, monkeys, snakes, the occasional bat, really quite something. Now the flamingo yard (swamp?) is a bit funky - but I understand that comes with the territory. Beautiful ocean overlooks to boot. We spent almost two hours on our visit there. Beaches: From St George, if you want amenities, Tobacco Bay is a good choice. This year we went to Alexandra Battery Beach on the northeast shore. A short taxi ride, or if you want some exercise, it is just over a mile to walk - a good part of it uphill, but a nice view of the town from the top. And worth it: a beautiful spot right next to the old fort with calm waters and lots of sea glass; sorry, no amenities, but the trade off? There were only four other people there. Shhh! Don't tell anyone... From Hamilton, you can go to Horseshoe Bay on the South Shore. It is larger and more crowded especially after mid-day, but if you're willing to walk a ways in either direction you can find your own spot with great waves and pink sand. BTW, last year we walked back up the hill to the bus stop; this year we took the $1 shuttle ride. We endorse the ride...
Disembarkation: Two nights before your return, the ship asks for your return plans, i.e., pick-up, flight-info, parked at port; your eventual disembarkation times are set-up accordingly. No surprisingly, on your return, if you don't need a flight or a pick-up, you will leave the ship later. All that said, our official time to end the party was 9:15 am and we left the ship at 9:45 am. Not too bad all things considered!
Summary: As stated at the beginning, despite the substantial problems reported with the early sailings, Azamara seems to have done a good job catching up with themselves. Many small problems still, largely in terms of how the line communicates with its customers, how this line is advertised, and as a result, cruisers' high expectations for the ship. In our view, take a cruise to Bermuda on this beautiful ship while you can; is worth that small leap of faith.