This was the Journey's first proper cruise after spending the summer in ferry and floating hotel mode on the Bermuda run. The itinerary was the major attraction, Bermuda followed by repositioning to the Caribbean and ending in Miami. Having sailed six times before with Celebrity we felt very comfortable with the booking.
This cruise was booked as the Celebrity Journey but we were later advised that it had become Azamara. The major change was that it was now open seating with no set evening dress code and the cruise experience was to be at a much higher level than Celebrity. A week before sailing we received notice that we would no longer visit the Turks and Caicos, this was a complete loss because all that changed was departing Bermuda at 8:30am rather that 4:30pm the previous day. No kind of compensation was offered.
Boarding was trouble free and very fast.
The initial impression on boarding was that the ship had a gentleman's club atmosphere, it didn't last. Once a couple of days had been spent on board the rough edges became very apparent in most ship areas, including the staterooms. If Azamara spent $17.5 million on this ship they must have fitted gold propellers because there is not too much sign of it above the water line. During the cruise the window catches round the pool area were faulty so they riveted them permanently closed allowing no air to circulate, very uncomfortable when the temperature rises.
Maintenance crews were still on board doing renovation work after several months on the Bermuda run. There is still a great amount of work that should be done and it is not acceptable while passengers are on board.
We went to our cabin, reasonable condition but too small to be the foundation of a luxury cruise experience. Because we travel with friends and have never seen a balcony that seats more than two we only book an outside cabin. The lack of attention to detail was apparent with badly finished carpeting and some wood trim missing. We met our 'butler', if this farce is to continue they could at least get them tuxedos that fit. This addition has replaced the standard cabin attendant and an assistant to a butler and cabin attendant, absolutely no gain but a doubling of gratuities. Our cabin staff had been given cabins spread over both sides of the ship, this meant we could never find him. Why not give him a continuous block of cabins so he could be a more visible presence. Get rid of the butlers, we failed to find a single passenger who found any value whatsoever in this, so called, luxury feature.
When the first drink was served it was seen that, from the first day of this cruise, they increased the service charge from 15% to 18%. No notice had been given of this and many drinks price lists still showed the 15%. With the already very high drinks prices this did nothing to encourage bar and wine sales.
We had arranged to dine late each night with the same waiting staff, we always like to see the same waiters during a cruise. The main problem we found with the open seating was that service was slow, trying to serve all courses at the same time throughout the dining room, especially on port days when the early diners tended to go later. Our personal preference is for fixed sittings. We missed the evening dress code, it's rare to have an opportunity to dress up at home and it makes a cruise special. Even the more relaxed dress code was not enforced with jeans, tee-shirts and shorts being seen in the dining room in the evening, another failure if trying to create the 'luxury' image.
Dinner during the first week at Discoveries was very good and well presented. The first seven menus had been well tried and tested during the seven day Bermuda run. Once day eight came things changed. The menus were overcomplicated with some rather strange combinations being presented. We were approached each night by our assistant head waiter for comments, this passenger input must have done some good because the last two nights were back to the first week standard. These new menus should have been fully tested before being presented to guests.
Windows buffet was good quality with adequate choices but became very congested and great difficulty finding a table. The buffet layout could be modified to gain a more structured flow and help stop people wandering around aimlessly and making it difficult to move through the serving area. A couple of times we gave up and went to Discoveries for breakfast or lunch.
During the first week we went to Aqualina and had the first poorer quality meal of the cruise. It was very quiet and service slow. I ordered Osso Bucco, it bore no resemblance to what was expected with an over-rich collection of chopped vegetables in a very thick, sticky sauce and no rice. If you use a classic dish name it should use a classic recipe. Coincidentally, the next evening it was on the main dining menu, I had it again and it was very good. The experience of Aqualina meant that we did not try Prime C which we had intended to do before sailing. The speciality restaurants were very underused, their waiting staff showed up in Discoveries each night helping out because it was so busy. These venues must be filled every night to reduce the pressure on the Discoveries main dining, which does not have enough capacity, if the open seating policy is to continue. Very few passengers could see any value in paying a surcharge when the main dining is good, a no cost alternate restaurant may be the only way it can work. These restaurants should also be used to cut down the numbers in Windows at lunch time. In all dining locations the staff were excellent.
There is a severe lack of activities on board and only one lounge where there could be any dancing. This ship is destined for distant waters and long days at sea, this will be a problem.
Because there are no set time dining room sittings, if two shows were planned in the theatre it was common for both times to be unsuitable. The theatre is not tiered and therefor if you are not in the front row of seats your view will be obscured. The few organized late evening events seemed to have been designed more for the entertainment of cruise staff than the passengers.
In common with all previous Celebrity cruises the weakest link was guest relations. The job applicants who fail to make the grade in all other positions must be given guest relations. No attempt was made to give guests any port information. On Celebrity cruises a port information sheet was always provided with maps and details about taxis, buses, beach and shopping recommendations etc. On this cruise - nothing, maybe trying to encourage bookings on their own very expensive trips.
There is a lot of work needing to be done to bring Azamara up to Celebrity standards and I do not think it is possible to aim any higher with this ship. When we were in Santa Marta, Colombia we were berthed next to the Quest and were able to visit. This ship is identical to the Journey and, after talking to a few passengers, looking at similar problems. If Azamara was a passenger's first experience of Celebrity and they have been told, by Celebrity, this was the luxury end of the brand I doubt if they would risk the 'lower' standards of a Celebrity ship.
Would we cruise Azamara again, the right itinerary at a give-away price, maybe. Would we recommend them to anyone, definitely not, friends are hard to find!