I have cruised a total of 55 times on almost all lines save a couple of the ultra luxury ones. In 2007 the wife and I sailed on a 15 day Oceania Insignia crossing. Later in 2007 RCL Ltd launched the Azamara line by acquiring and refitting two "R" class ships ostensibly to compete with the three virtually identical ships currently operated by Oceania. There has been enormous interest, particularly on the part of Oceania aficionados, in how the Azamara experience shapes us against Oceania. Having now sailed both I was able to draw some comparisons.
Wife and I hopped on an overnight bus in Rio de Janeiro where we reside for the 6 hour ride to the embarkation port of Santos. Given the normally heavy traffic it can sometimes take more than 2 hours just to travel the 60 miles by bus from Sao Paulo's Guarulhos airport to the pier in Santos. We figured we could save time and hassle if we took the bus to Santos directly and avoided airport check in, taxis and transfers, etc.
At the Santos bus terminal we hailed a cab for the 15 minute ride to the pier. As we arrived at we opted to drop off our luggage and continue in the taxi for a tour of the area, principally the neighboring beach town of Guaruja. In contrast to Santos, Guaruja is a charming, upscale resort popular with well to do Paulistas. Next time we arrive way early for a Santos embarkation we will spend time on the beaches of nearby Guaruja. You may want to consider that too.
After the usual hassle with the cab driver over the agreed fare it was back to the ship's terminal where we had to wait almost 2 hours to board despite having been promised by Azamara reps that boarding would start an hour sooner. Though I am normally impatient I have lived in Brazil long enough to know that getting things done here can often take longer than anticipated, especially since this was the first time Azamara was embarking in Santos. We browsed the few terminal shops until the embarkation desk opened. We were among the first to check in so there were no lines. William, manager of the Prime C specialty restaurant, had set up a separate desk where all pax were required to make a dining room reservation for the first night, a well meaning effort to avoid an unmanageable crunch at any of the dining venues on night one. In point of fact, perhaps because we tend to dine after , we never had to wait more than a minute or two to be seated in Discoveries, the main dining room, or either of the specialty restaurants. That the ship was sailing with less than 500 pax, (70% capacity) no doubt also facilitated seating.
CABIN AND BUTLER
We made our way to our aft SSV cabin without benefit of champagne cocktail or assistance, neither of which matter to us though it might to some. This was our first time in an aft veranda which we chose because of the oversized balcony, its only distinguishing feature. We weren't much concerned with excessive movement while at sea because on this itinerary the Journey would be hugging the shore and sailing up river in Buenos Aires. After several hefty markdowns from the original price at which I booked, the cabin finally wound up costing us $3240 which I consider a real bargain; however, I don't think the extra size of the SSV balcony justifies a significant price premium primarily because both adjoining verandas are completely partitioned by metal walls which together with the prominent overhang tends to create a boxed-in sensation. The regular verandas on my deck appeared sufficiently spacious to comfortably accommodate a dining table and two chairs for those who want to dine on their veranda.
Shortly after freshening up we toured the ship. As expected the layout is virtually identical to the Oceania Insignia and similarly well appointed. We returned to our cabin to find our bags had arrived. While we were unpacking our butler, Natasha, neatly attired in a tuxedo like uniform, entered to welcome us and explain her function. This was our first butlered cabin so I was eager to hear the description of her duties. Aside from shining shoes, making reservations in the specialty restaurants and delivering afternoon savories to the cabin, I could not distinguish her duties from those of the typical cabin steward. We are ordinarily low maintenance passengers so any services supplementing the usual cabin steward services are superfluous for us. As it turned out I assigned Natasha several extra chores which she cheerfully undertook with only the most fleeting of quizzical glances at me. Natasha (and her assistant) performed all routine and not so routine tasks well and always with an engaging sense of humor.
The cabin itself held no surprises. The bed, e.g., firm padded mattress, high thread count sheets, and feathered/down pillows were all first rate and super comfy just like those on the Insignia. The bathroom shower was a bit small and the water pressure a bit low, but neither to the point of inconvenience. The robes and towels were plush. We appreciated the binoculars, umbrella and especially the hand held hairdryer in the vanity desk. The table and chairs on the veranda were more comfortable than expected. There was one significant problem, a malfunctioning air conditioning unit. The wall thermostat did not properly regulate the temperature and, worse yet, the ceiling unit occasionally made a loud noise that lasted several minutes. I delegated oversight of the repair to Natasha. After the Electrical Dept failed to fix it in a couple of tries, at my urging I think she finally invoked the aid of the Chief Engineer. Anyway, it got repaired after a few days.
The outstanding feature of the on board experience was the wonderful attitude of all staff and crew. While they may not have always hit the mark, every single person I encountered sincerely endeavored to please as much as possible. This excellent attitude facilitated acceptance of the occasional shortcomings in food, table or room service, guest relations service, etc. The eagerness to please and to improve so permeates the ship that one can easily foresee the overall Azamara cruise experience getting even better in the near future.
In fact, many managers were new arrivals. I was informed that the Hotel Mgr had boarded less than a week before we sailed. He was an extremely affable and apparently very capable guy. The home office Exec Chef, Tomas Symanski, was also newly aboard to revise the menus which are, in deed, in need of revision particularly in the specialty restaurants. I think the Cruise Director, Andrea Oliveti, was also recently transferred from the Azamara Quest. They and the F&B and Dining Room Mgrs were all very intent on upgrading the food and service. All of these senior officers hosted a group of CCers at which many issues were discussed and considered. I think the opinion of the majority of those present was that our expectations were being exceeded, perhaps because expectations had been tempered by widespread negative criticism at the inception of the company's operations.
Unlike Oceania, Azamara charged a $20 and $25 cover for extra visits to specialty restaurants, Aqualina and Prime C respectively (penthouse occupants got two freebies, all others got one). Azamara has announced that this surcharge is soon to be eliminated and each pax will be entitled to one additional specialty restaurant meal.
With the exception of the Windows Cafe buffet on deck 9 (wow, what a breakfast!) I did not think the food was as good as what I had experienced on Oceania's Insignia, but certain dishes at each of the dining venues were very good, a few excellent. The roasted sea bass which I ordered in Discoveries on the first night was up there with the best fish dishes I have ever tasted and had me thinking the food was going to rival that of the Insignia, a notion which got dispelled as time wore on. In Aqualina a seafood bouillabaisse was to die for. On the negative side the lobster newburg was the only lobster dish on either specialty restaurant menu (actually it's only on Aqualina's, but as they share the same kitchen you can order off either menu). It was tasty, but I would have preferred to have had a choice of a simpler lobster preparation. Large scallops were delicious one night, but on another in a different venue their delicate flavor was totally obscured when presented on a bed of bacon. The duck breast in Discoveries was as bad as the stuffed quails were good.
Having lived in Buenos Aires for a couple of years and written an article on steakhouses for the local English language daily I consider myself something of a steak connoisseur. I did not think the steaks were of sufficiently high quality in Prime C though I didn't try the so-called Kobe beef available for an $8 surcharge. Roast prime rib was not on the menu and should be in a good steakhouse.
Desserts were generally uninspiring throughout except at the Windows buffet where early in the cruise I came across a fantastic, dark chocolate mousse which, alas, I was never to see again. I'm sure the kitchen would have accommodated a request for more, but my wife reminded me of my promise not to overindulge in desserts so I left it to chance and as fate would have it I never saw that mousse again. Next time I am requesting it.
I expect the Exec Chef will be working to achieve greater culinary excellence throughout the ship. Hopefully, the company can purchase better steaks and add more lobster to the menus in the specialty restaurants. Timing in the kitchens and table service needs to be ratcheted up as well. I had fabulous service 3 of the 4 times we dined in the specialty restaurants as well as most nights in Discoveries, but suffered mediocre service once in each place.
By way of example how hard the company is trying to please they were quite generous in offering "comps.". For instance, when in response to a query by our waiter in Prime C, we mentioned our mild criticism of a steak, William, the manager, soon appeared and comped us for a return visit. Another time when our Discoveries waiter neglected to advise us in advance of the $25 corkage fee, a publicized fee that I knew existed, the exuberant Dining Room Manager, Chaika, came over at the end of the meal and removed the charge on the grounds we were not expressly advised in advance - I didn't have the heart to undermine his generosity by mentioning I knew about the fee. Finally, as a gesture of thanks for a small favor wife and I did, providing some info on Rio, we were comped at Aqualina by the F&B Mgr. It's difficult not to enjoy yourself when those kinds of things continuously occur.
For breakfast we ordered light, continental style breakfasts via room service all but one day. In my experience room service is the weakest link in the food service chain on board, but the Journey room service crew did way better than most. They always arrived with almost everything at the appointed time. Once late in the cruise they opted to come at instead of our customary when I neglected to jot down the time we wanted our breakfast served. I assume the blame for that although was a bit curious in light of our known custom. Okay, I'm nitpicking.
The weather forced us up to the deck 9 breakfast buffet once and I was amazed at the selection of nicely prepared items available, not the least of which was a juice bar from which you could order almost any fruit/veggie concoction imaginable. Given that sumptuous breakfast buffet I'm glad I avoided temptation by opting for the continental breakfast on our veranda.
For lunch we either ate at the deck 9 buffet which was absolutely first rate or indulged in a hamburger with fries or salad at the poolside grill. I didn't like the franks, but the burgers were pretty good even though well done is mandatory. Cheese, bacon and sauteed mushrooms can compensate for the lack of rareness. I would also have preferred not to have had to cope with those tiny plastic bags of ketchup, relish, mustard, etc. My dexterity isn't what it used to be and it's darn annoying trying to tear open a whole bunch of those bags to squeeze out their minuscule contents. I neglected to write that on my comment card. Maybe someone who agrees with me can do so in the near future. I was disappointed with the pizza, but I'm always disappointed with pizza at sea having grown up in New Jersey and NYC's little Italy. I think it has to do with the lack of crispiness in the pre-baked dough and the blandness of the tomato "gravy." Lemonade, iced tea, fruit punch and coffee were always available from dispensers located in the buffet and near the poolside grill.
ENTERTAINMENT AND SHIPBOARD ACTIVITIES
The Journey's showroom/ theater is, like the other R ships, without a raised stage. Consequently, it's more intimate than the typical large ship showroom and well suited to the cabaret shows performed by the Journey cast of five singers and dancers. They presented three very entertaining shows during the 12 night cruise. I was impressed with the quality of the talent although I thought the shows' production values (staging, lighting and costumes) could have been better. I didn't catch much of the other showroom entertainment though my Brazilian wife told me the young group of Brazilian dancers that performed when we were ported in Itajai were very good. The orchestra was one of the better ones I have heard on ships although I would have liked more pre-dinner dance opportunities. The talented band that played poolside made a lot of music for a trio.
Andrea Oliveti was a capable, good natured cruise director. His equally good natured staff conducted numerous activities throughout each day maintaining a cheerful enthusiasm even when attendance was less than SRO. I was taken back when only 4 people showed up for a mid-morning trivia session. Boy, what a bunch of couch potatoes. Unfortunately, there was little in the way of enrichment lecture. Wife and I even briefly manned an orientation desk to provide tips on Rio a day before we ported there.
The library (aka Michael's Club) had an honor system checkout and was open all hours. I would have liked to have seen a better stocked library - I could not find a single travel book. I believe tea was served there in the afternoon ( I never ventured to events featuring more food). There is a piano in the room and I understand it was used during tea. In any event I wonder why tea service and the piano can not be relocated to the large forward Looking Glass lounge (like it is on the Insignia) so that the library can be maintained as an oasis of quiet.
In addition to the piano player, there was a guitar player performing in the evenings near the casino entrance on deck 5 as well as a harpist who performed near the Cova Cafe on deck 5 (a spot where specialty coffees and drinks were available for a charge). I confess I did not catch their acts except in passing, but the guitarist was Brazilian and sounded pretty accomplished. Each of the musicians had their own small group of devotees.
The internet connection aboard ship was so notoriously slow that the computer room was hardly ever occupied except for the occasional free class offered by the host. Pay TV programming was available in the cabin. I am not a fan of pay TV movie programming, but if it helps to hold down the base cruise price I guess I can suffer through the alternative non-pay movie programming that existed. A few almost first run movies and selected classics were rebroadcast several times every couple of days and, of course, there was ESPN and the annoyingly repetitious CNN. The TV had an interactive service enabling one to review his shipboard account, purchase excursions and check restaurant reservations, etc.
The gym in the spa contained more than an adequate number of elliptical machines, treadmills and stationary bikes in addition to a brand new assortment of cable machines and free weights for us bodybuilder types. I never had to wait to use a piece of equipment and I worked out 1.5 times per day. There were spinning classes and perhaps other classes, but I' m not a "class" guy so I wasn't fully aware of schedules or cost, if any. Wife and I got haircuts, manicures, pedicures, etc. before leaving on the cruise and did not use the spa so I can not opine on the quality of those and the other services offered. There was a room designated for acupuncture which might be of interest to some.
The casino was appropriately (Insignia-sized) small. It contained a bunch of slots, a roulette and a couple of blackjack tables and a large, hi-tech, automated Texas hold'em poker table that will soon be replaced in view of its failure to attract players.
PORTS AND EXCURSIONS
The itinerary for this cruise consisted of Buenos Aires, Itajai, Paraty, Rio de Janeiro and the return to Santos. The ship departed Santos on Thursday, Nov 29 and made its first port of Buenos Aires on Sunday, Dec 2. We sailed away from BA the same night. That was a scheduling error. Compounding that we also arrived in Rio de Janeiro on the following Sunday and departed Rio on Monday afternoon. Both BA and Rio are world class cities and arriving on a Sunday when so many of the things to see and do are closed is unwise. Conversely, after leaving Buenos Aires we overnighted in the small southern Brazilian town of Itajai apparently so that the ship could run an overnight excursion to the falls of Iguazu for a small (30) group willing to pay about $1400 pp. This type of scheduling should be avoided on future runs in these waters.
I have not gone on a ship excursion for many years preferring to fend for myself. In Itajai, we paired up with another couple from the ship and hired a taxi to take us to the German colonial town of Blumenau located about an hour from port. Itajai has some pretty beaches close to the pier, but it rained the next day so we cancelled our outing to the beach. The Journey tendered passengers ashore in Paraty, a picturesque colonial town located 140 miles from Rio. Tied up at the pier where the passengers alighted were dozens of schooner ships of various capacity. For R$20 ($12) one could purchase a 5 hour schooner trip that included time for swimming and snorkeling among the numerous islands that dot the Brazilian coast. Be sure to leave a couple of hours for shopping along the town's cobblestone streets. Paraty is an artsy, craftsy place.
In view of the spectacular effort by all staff and crew to please, this cruise was delightful even if some things were not absolutely perfect. The minor inconsistencies in service are sure to be eliminated given the obvious concern by all senior officers to achieve excellence. It is hoped that the on board presence of the line's Executive Chef portends a revision of the menus and an improvement in the quality of the food offerings particularly in the specialty restaurants. When that happens the Journey will offer an overall cruising experience very comparable to that which we enjoyed on the Oceania Insignia. Let's face it, because of a weak US dollar, the relative high cost of land travel throughout the world makes cruising on a ship like the Journey a darn good value.