Celebrity promoted Azamara as an upscale experience, more opulent than the premium cruise lines of Princess, Holland-America, Royal Caribbean and competing for the same market as Oceania has targeted. After having sailed on the "maiden voyage" of the Azamara Quest, I can say that at this point in time Oceania really doesn't have to worry about this new source of competition. The experience is in some ways better than the regular experience on premium cruise lines, but it doesn't quite meet the standard of an upscale experience.
Azamara ships are identical in structure to the Oceania ships (Regatta, Insignia and Nautica) and two other Princess ships, however the Quest was not as well appointed as the Oceania ships. A beautiful piano bar was removed from the Quest to make room for the casino. The art consists mainly of photographic. The delightful sitting area, where the concierge on Oceania ships sits, has been converted to a retail area on Azamara. There is no concierge on board Azamara ships.
You'll meet some wonderful staff, people with great heart and who really care about the quality of service you get. Sometimes the systems get in the way of what the staff are supposed to do for you. First of all, the idea of a butler to provide for all of your needs isn't quite realistic. When we first boarded the ship (Saturday), we requested a dinner reservation for the following Thursday. The butler said he would take care of it. It finally took two visits to the Purser's Desk, two phone calls and finally a visit to Domenic, the manager of the specialty restaurants, before we finally managed to secure this reservation. For those that are counting it took five days to secure the reservation. While dining in the specialty restaurant, we noticed half the tables were empty and it was pretty obvious that they just weren't organized to handle their offer of one dinner in the specialty restaurant for every stateroom and two reservations for concierge level. Since we were "42" on a waitlist, it's evident that some people were disappointed Unlike Oceania, Azamara grants you one complimentary visit to one of their specialty restaurants. That's assuming you can even get a reservation into the restaurant. The cover charge for Prime C (the steakhouse) and Aqualina (Italian) ranges from $20 to $25, but for us, the food was not noticeably better than the dining experience in the Discoveries main dining room. The breakfasts in the Windows Café on Azamara are superb. They have a wide variety of fresh fruits, an extensive assortment of choices, excellent ham, assorted smoked fish, great waffles and a wonderful selection of cheeses. Lunch and Dinner in our view was comparable to most cruise lines, certainly not better, in fact the cut of meats tended to be inferior to what we have had on Oceania. The biggest disappointment for my coffee-holic wife was the lack of cream. Even in the specialty restaurants they only served milk with the coffee. Also be prepared to pay an $8 surcharge if you want Kobe beef. Caviar is available in the main dining room at a cost of $66 to $71, depending on whether you choose beluga or not. For an upscale experience, neither lobster nor king crab was ever served in any of the dining rooms. One request for a baked potato in the specialty restaurant was met with, "It comes with…." For the fit group they have an excellent smoothie bar along with freshly squeezed orange juice. For lunch and dinner Azamara has an open sitting policy rather than scheduled dining with regular tablemates. This hasn't worked effectively as yet, since the wait for a table during the hours of 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. ranged from 25 to 35 minutes.
The fitness centre is superb with the latest equipment available. Bring your own headphones, if you like to watch the individual screens on the machine. They didn't have any on board on the first voyage. Mathew, the fitness consultant was excellent. Another pleasant surprise, was an assistant waiter named, Inga, (pronounced in-gee) from Turkey. She was one of those special people you meet on board. A former teacher, it was evident from the start that she was extremely homesick and through the later part of the voyage seasick. Unfortunately, she left the ship in Tampa. It's too bad for Azamara. For those of you old enough to remember those great "Welcome Aboard" cocktail parties of many years ago, Azamara has taken these to a new low. It is now the "Captain's Toast." You are greeted, given a single glass of champagne, the Captain makes the quick obligatory speech introducing the staff and you're out of there in record time! On a positive note, Azamara did a superb job of handling a minor crisis. Tropical Storm Noel was heading towards Miami. The captain wisely decided to change our disembarkation port to Tampa, which left hundreds of people scrambling to change their flight plans since Tampa was a five hour bus ride from Miami and most everyone who flew would miss their return flights. Everyone lined up in an orderly fashion using the ships four phone lines to try to change their flights. The staff was excellent and helped with connections. All phone costs were covered, as well as a reimbursement for any change fees up to $100 per person. Our change fees totaled $379, so it will be interesting to see how Azamara reacts to this. If they react as they did on board the ship, there should be no problem. On this voyage, the flat screen televisions (a nice touch) didn't work properly. The sound and picture were not synchronized so there was a few seconds delay between the lip movement and the sound. Since most of the material they show on the room televisions are older TV shows, they are not converted to high definition so the picture could be quite blurry and misshapen, somewhat disconcerting, but not a big deal. The bedding on this ship is superb and the beds extremely comfortable. Our butler was a pleasant fellow, but his service was comparable to any other cruise line's room steward. We had no "privacy please" or "please make up the stateroom" cards, so on a few occasions he walked into the room on us. Again this was not his fault, but a system error. Smokers should be aware that there are only two areas on the ship where smoking is permitted. You can't smoke on your balcony. Ports of call on this voyage were Playa Del Carmen, Key West and Cozumel. Since the ships are relatively small, (approximately 30 000 tons and 700 passengers, you would expect them to visit more exotic ports of call. In Cozumel the ship docked five miles south of the main town, while the huge Carnival ship docked at the main pier in town. There were a number of berths available at the main town dock since the Carnival ship was the only ship in town at the same time. I assume that's it's cheaper to dock outside town. To summarize, the experience on Azamara is a pleasant one. It's a beautiful ship. The gym is superbly equipped with the latest equipment. It's laid back. The staff is good, and although they can't always take care of your requests (ie cream for coffee), you can excuse their inability to provide something that is not their fault. If you think the butler will take care of your every whim, think again. Entertainment on this ship was according to one passenger better than Oceania, but since we only went to one show, I can't comment on that. The food needs to be improved, especially in the specialty restaurants where even the menu doesn't appeal. Staff was always mannerly. You didn't get what you wanted (ie two days to repair a bedside lamp), but they were pleasant and apologetic, and you had a sense it wasn't their fault. It's difficult to describe the difference in level of service between Azamara and Oceania. On Oceania everything ran very smoothly, and a reasonable request would be taken care of immediately. One final example: We have a samsonite hard shelled suitcase that is too thick to fit under a bed. On numerous previous sailings, on different cruise lines, (we've had this thing for ten years) we always asked that it be stored for us. Not a problem. On Azamara the suitcase sat outside in the hallway after the request for 6 hours. While we were at dinner the first evening, it was placed back in the room, between the bedside table and the couch where it remained for the rest of the sailing.
We will be on the Azamara Journey in a few weeks and hope that since this ship has been in service for a longer period of time, they have worked out some of the bugs so that it turns out to be the experience promoted.