My wife and I just returned from what was one of the best cruises we've ever been on. We are Kevin and Sue, both 64, and this was our 18th cruise and our 4th to Bermuda.
The adventure began in early 2007, when we decided that we wanted another cruise to Bermuda. At the time there were no Azamara Cruises and no Journey cruise ship. Our original plan was to cruise on the NCL Crown. We soon had a small group of us, ready to sign up. Our group consisted of some cruise friends from the net and a couple who are long time friends of ours. For our long time friends, this would be the wife's first cruise in an electric wheelchair. Our cruise was to be the week before Labor Day. A few months later, Celebrity announced that they had acquired two Renaissance ships, to be named the Journey and Quest, and that the Journey would be doing the Bermuda run, replacing the Zenith. Sue and I had always wanted to do a Renaissance ship, so we talked it up in our group, and we agreed to switch. The decision was further prompted when our travel agent was able to get us some great fares. Our departure was pushed out a week to Sep 1 2007.
Finally, the day came. We packed up the car, and were off to Cape Liberty in Bayonne NJ. This was the first time we departed from this port, so we did not know what to expect. Well, the experience was the smoothest and easiest embarkation we've experienced. It took us about an hour and twenty minutes to get to the port, arriving at approximately 11:30 AM. We pulled directly up to the unloading zone, and a porter immediately took our bags. Sue stayed at the terminal, while I parked our car, in a lot adjacent to the terminal. . The parking is $105 plus tax for the week. They had shuttle buses to take one back to the terminal. We were guided to a check in counter, turned over our Express Passes, and were processed in under five minutes. On a side note, our experience is based on boarding the Journey, which has about 750 passengers. I would imagine that the process would be more hectic for the RCI Voyager class ship. This was corroborated by one of the porters in the terminal.
After we checked in we went to the passenger lounge, to wait for our fellow travelers. Within a half hour our merry band of 10 was all there. Some had boarded earlier than Sue and me, since we were waiting for our long term friends. We just wanted to be sure that all went well for her boarding in her wheelchair.
Once our friends arrived we boarded a bus that took us to the ship. The bus had a ramp that they lowered for Peg to use.
When we got to the ship we found that the gangway has steps and Peg had to board where they bring the luggage on board. Even for that she had to be transferred to a manual chair and the crew brought her aboard while her husband brought her electric wheelchair onto the ship. This was the first of many problems on the Journey for someone in an electric wheelchair.
From this point forward I will switch to a description of the Azamara experience. Also I will not provide much on Bermuda itself, since we've been there many times and written of our previous adventures. This review is more about the ship, itself.
As is traditional, we proceeded to the buffet lunch, after depositing our carryons in our cabin. The buffet lunch was quite excellent; in fact, probably the best we've had. We had all but one breakfasts and most of our lunches in the buffet. The breakfasts were superb, with a waffle/pancake/French toast station, omelet station, and a variety of typical, but well prepared choices. There is a juice/smoothie bar where they prepare drinks to order. One comment we all made was that this station is only used during breakfast. We felt it would make better sense if they utilized the space at other times also, maybe as a cookie bar, There are two sources for coffee: the typical ship's coffee, and a coffee machine that makes expresso, cafe Americano, etc. The latter machine makes much better coffee and was self service.
The buffet lunch is very similar to most ships, except that the quality is much better. The service is outstanding. The staff assists passengers, as needed, for example, with Peg. because she is in an electric wheel chair, they would help her get her food and carry it to the table. The crew also came around and served juice, coffee, ice tea etc.
After our initial buffet lunch, we went to our cabin, to check it out, and see if our bags had arrived. We had booked a balcony cabin on deck seven, concierge class. Not quite sure what concierge class gave you, since all cabins aboard provided butler service. The cabin was a reasonable size. The storage space was ample, if oddly set up. The verandah was very small compared to other ships we had been on; but it had a nice table with two comfortable chairs. The bathroom is tiny. The sink top space was barely large enough to place a few essentials. The shower was also small. There are bathrobes, slippers, and a pair of binoculars in each cabin. There are also two hair dryers, one wall mounted in. the bathroom and the other in a cabinet. The TV is a wall mounted flat screen, with a bizarre remote. The bed was comfortable (a bit hard), and the linens very comfortable. The duvet was rather heavy, so it was warm at night, even with the AC fully cranked.
Aqualina Specialty Restaurant:
Although we had originally booked our Aqualina reservation for later in the voyage, we rearranged for a seating on the first night out. We had a very early seating, at 6 PM. That was rather early for the first day on board, especially so soon after the required drill, and the sail away party on the pool deck, but that was the only time we could get which we could all agree upon. Despite the early hour, it was well worth the experience. The restaurant is relatively small, with primarily tables for four, with some for two or six. They were able to seat our party of 10 at adjacent tables of four and six. We were pleasantly surprised to find that our server was a woman we had met on the Celebrity Infinity in 2006. The service was excellent, if a bit slow. That did not detract from enjoying the meal, as we appreciated the time spent with good friends. The food was also excellent. The menu was limited, but the choices were all quite good, primarily of a Mediterranean variety.
Prime C Specialty Restaurant:
We had made arrangements for our Prime C reservation in advance through the Celebrity Captions Club. It was originally set for the 10 of us to dine together at 8:20 on Tue evening; however one family did not want to eat that late. When we got on board we changed ours to 6:30 PM. We agreed to arrive a little early, to enjoy a drink before dinner in the Prime C bar. We were soon seated at a nice table for seven in the corner, overlooking the stern. Prime C is mainly a steakhouse. Again the menu is relatively limited, but the choices are varied. All the various appetizers and entrees were very good, and the service was excellent. In a bizarre twist, our central NJ friends, who were seated about a half hour later, and who had the same servers, complained that the service was very slow. All in all, the experience was worth the $30 per person charge.
Main Dining Room:
The Journey features open seating in all their dining room. Personally, Sue and I prefer traditional seating, in order to enjoy sitting with the same people, and being served by the same wait staff; however, we wanted to sail the Journey. We made arrangements on our first meal in the main dining room to have a table for the entire group, every evening at approximately the same tome. We were lucky to get the only table for ten in the dining room. This way we were able to emulate traditional seating. This enabled us to enjoy the company of our fellow travelers and have a wait staff that got to know us.
The menus were quite good, with interesting variations on the typical cruise fare. The quality of the food and its presentation was the best we've experienced on any of our cruises. There was not a single dish that any of us had ordered that was not excellent.
Although we were able to emulate traditional dining, it must be pointed out that, in our view, open seating does not work well. The wait staff was serving different courses at different tables, and the traffic flow of the passengers constantly coming and going, made for a very chaotic atmosphere in the dining room. Further, the arrangement of the tables throughout the room was to cramped. They could have easily reduced the number of table by as much as a third, and greatly improved the overall experience, for both the diners and the wait staff.
It should be noted that one of the servers (our friend from the Aqualina) had indicated that when the Journey starts its longer runs in South America, that they most likely revert to traditional dining.
The Journey, being a small ship, had only a few lounges; however, the few that they had provided good gathering places, with very good bars and bar staff. The bars did not have a particularly good selection of single malt scotches, but did have top shelf vodkas.
This is a good point to mention that with the exception of two areas on the ship, there is no smoking allowed. This made for a much more enjoyable experience in the lounges and the casino. There was entertainment in each lounge, e.g. a very talented harpist near the Cova, and a pianist in another.
The casino was surprisingly large for a smaller ship. There were quite a few slots, craps, roulette, and several card tables. Being a Bermuda cruise, the casino was only open for the time when were not in Bermuda, which only amounted to the equivalent of less than three days. Sue spent more time in the casino than I did. I guess I'm getting a little tired of the slots; although this time I did finally walk away with a small profit overall.
We really didn't expect there to be much of the type of shows one sees on the mega ships. We were surprised to see that they did have production shows, albeit on a smaller scale. There were only 5 singer/dancers. They were good but not great. They also had a magician/comedian whose comedy was only marginally better than his magic, which was fairly transparent.
One night they had the Goombay dancers from the island up in the Looking Glass lounge. They were very good, but their performance was only about 15-20 minutes.
Another night, up on the pool deck, there was a local Bermudian steel pan player, who was very good. He performed both traditional Caribbean tunes as well as jazz. (We also ran into him at the Dockyard, and bought one of his CDs.)
There was also a lecture series, given by Dr. Joel Klass, a psychotherapist. His talks included "expert witnesses and hired guns", "stress management" and "dream interpretation". We only attended and thoroughly enjoyed the dream lecture; however other members of our group attended all three and said they were all good.
As a side note, our group met Dr. Klass on the Promenade deck one evening and during the conversation, the son of one of our group had indicated that he played chess. Joel suggested that they meet later to play. As a result, the two of them played a few times, and Joel was able to teach our friend's son some advanced pointers.
Again, being a small ship, there were only three shops. Two were the typical shops one expects, a general store and a jewelry shop. The third was a higher priced luxury jewelry shop. Not a very large selection, but that was to be expected on a small ship.
As with most cruises, Park West Galleries was on the ship. Their presentation was quite different than any other ship we had been on. There was only one actual auction session. The other sessions were lectures by the Park West rep, discussing various artists' styles, etc. When they did the auction itself, it was all originals, mostly in the mid to upper four figures, and several in the five figure range. Needless to say, there was not much artwork sold. Perhaps this strategy will work better when they do the longer South America itineraries.
As I said earlier, I will not report on the island itself, as we have done so in detail in previous reviews. However, I wish to say that we are very disturbed by what appears to be a move by the government to shut down the cruise piers in Hamilton (2008) and St George (2009). This will leave only Kings Wharf for the cruise ships. We personally believe this is a serious mistake. Although they are shifting to becoming a major Re-insurance company and banking center, much like Grand Cayman, the tourist business is still a major economic factor for the island. We spoke with many business people, particularly along Front Street, and they agree. Unfortunately, their concerns are being ignored, so far.
Here is the link to our pictures of the Azamara Journey: http://travel.webshots.com/album/560670104YluDWa