Report on Azamara Quest: 12/22/07-1/5/08 Acapulco-Panama Canal-Miami
On board: Nice touches: great service, good food. Nice ambiance and very attractive smaller boat. Crew generally friendly and worked very hard to please. Stewards are called butlers and while their service is excellent, they do no more than a good steward on a Celebrity or other similar cruise line. We experienced none of the service problems noted on Cruise Critic. The food was a step up from Celebrities usually very good, although most of the menus were created around a very similar continental cuisine - no specialty buffets; virtually no "ethnic" style food on the dining menus (unless you count the occasionally appetizer) - not even Italian. On a 14 day cruise, there really needs to be much more variety in the cuisine. The maitre d was especially helpful and accommodating. The waiters were efficient and anxious to please.
The food in the buffet was generally better than average, although the hot dishes were allowed to dry in the serving trays, making them dry and less tasteful. The breakfast buffet was especially good with lots of choices. As with Celebrity, pastries are not this cruise line's strength.
The smaller passenger count makes it much more pleasant and easier to navigate the buffet. The carving table had pork for most lunches (one carving item per day-not exactly a robust choice, especially given the bias toward one type of meat). One oddity - all of the salad dressings at lunch were exotic originals (e.g., pomegranate lime vs. the usual standards such a ranch and blue cheese). While sometimes that was a pleasant surprise, it would be reasonable to expect them to have the standard choices too.
The specialty restaurants are very good - one a steak house, the other "American with a Mediterranean flavor." While their food is quite good, their menus largely mirror the cuisine in the main dining room so they really do not provide a break from every night faire. Wine list is adequate; some reasonably priced (but still higher and fewer than on Celebrity) but less selection than on larger ships.
Breakfast buffets offer a lot of choice - smoked fishes, all types of meats, omelets, eggs, and all of the other standard faire. Nice spread served for 4 hours.
Very limited room service menu. The brochure says you can order from the lunch and dinner menu, but there is no reference to that in the room service information provided. We did not inquirer. Our cruise agent was thoughtful enough to send us a bottle of wine and champagne (delivered 3 days before New Years). There was no identification of the sender (we confirmed it by email).
Entertainment varied. The three shows by the staff entertainers were very well performed - significantly better than the average cruise singing "Broadway hopefuls." And all of their singing was live - no piped in voice-overs as is the usual practice. While the shows did not have the sets and glitz of the larger ships' spectacles, they were very well staged and the performers were engaging. Beyond their 3 shows (3 shows on a 14 day cruise is not exactly upgraded entertainment), the balance was very spotty. One night the featured entertainment was a movie that had played for one week in first run theatres 8 months ago. There was a pianist who wanted to make sure we knew that the piano is a percussion instrument and a Russian singer who sang "Mack the Knife" in French in a voice that was just this side of falsetto. There was a second night in which the pianist and the singer combined forces - we decided that would be cruel and unusual punishment. There was an excellent magician/comedian on New Years Eve (much funnier than the comedian who followed) and the staff put on a pretty energetic New Years musical celebration on the pool deck (combating high winds to make the occasion "an occasion"). In short, aside from the excellent cruise line singers (and a good back up band), the entertainment was no better (and probably no worse) than lesser lines.
Very limited TV (but good reception). CNN, Discovery (with about 5-6 shows over the 14 days), ESPN. Very limited internal broadcasting - no repeats of lectures on TV, only the tape of New Year's eve and the disembarkation lecture were broadcast. Free guest movies appeared to have about 5 different films - no schedule is published so its hard to plan to see any of them.
The daily program did not come out until late at night (usually around 11 p.m.) making advanced planning difficult. It needs to be proof read before it's published (lots of errors).
Kids: The line suggests that it is not designed to be child friendly—and that was a factor in our choice of this cruise. But we had 147 kids on board (admittedly it was Christmas). Since the line is conceptualized as not being kid friendly, they had no designated facilities for children. They had hurriedly brought staff on to work with the kids, but since the pools and other facilities are already very limited, and no controls were placed on those facilities, children were dominating most of the facilities. Frankly, if I go on a children oriented line (e.g. RC), I expect some children-related disruption (families certainly deserve to be afforded access to cruise vacations). But on a 650 passenger ship with limited facilities, and on a line that has consciously marketed itself as adult oriented, this was a great disappointment.
Internet: Probably the best service we have had on a cruise line. Pretty fast (in cruise ship terms). WiFi worked in rooms and throughout the ship. It's still ridiculously expensive. And be warned: On Celebrity, when you bought a package that lowered your rate, that rate continued after your package is used up. Not on Azamara. After your package expires you go back to the highest rate. Since that generally happens toward the end of the trip, it does not pay you to buy another package (I guess Azamara figured that out too).
Amenities: While Azamara has been marketed as a step up from their Celebrity Concierge package, it's actually identical to the Concierge service (although the direct service staff - i.e., stewards -- seem to have more rooms to handle). There are robes and nice towels, 4 small hors devours at 4 p.m. Flowers changed once on the two weeks.
The Thalosotherapy Pool and steam room is a "for-charge" facility (vs. included on Celebrity- definitely a plus for me). On Azamara, they sell passes to only 22 passengers (that's 22 out of 650!). If you are lucky, they let you pay $20/day to use those facilities --only on port days. I think the full cruise pass is $90, but you have to board the ship early on the sailing day to be one of the lucky 22 (since they say they do not sell those in advance of the cruise). After three paid trips at which there were only two people on the Thalosotherapy Pool deck, I asked whether I could buy a pass and was refused.
The swimming pool is small and the two Jacuzzis have only 4 jets, making it more like a bath tub than a Jacuzzi (when you can get in with out 10 children).
Itinerary and related services: From the Azamara Brochure: "On a voyage with Azamara Cruises you take part in life, immersing yourself deep into detail that more cursory travelers never get a chance to experience. Your immersion begins long before your ship arrives in port. A team of experts on each destination's hidden treasures creates a context for what you're about to experience, sharing both their knowledge and passion for their chosen subjects. Once you step ashore, you'll do so not as a tourist but as an enlightened traveler, ready to absorb both the large-scale splendor and small subtleties that surround you."
Ports seemed to be picked with no reason and with little or no preplanning for guests. Crew, including Cruise Director and concierge had VERY limited knowledge of the "different" or untypical ports. E.g., at Puerto Chiapas, no knowledge of $5 r/t shuttle provided by port authority into Talachulpa. BTW - the locals are trying hard to attract tourists. They have a tour center at the docks and had live entertainment all day long. A very nice touch (again, the staff not aware of this).
No knowledge at all of Baco del Toro, which turned out to be a one-street impoverished would-be resort with stagnant water everywhere. The ship did not arrive until 3 p.m. (scheduled for 7 a.m.) due to repairs at Panama Canal port (left Panama at 5 a.m.; scheduled for 8 p.m.). But that was OK since it was not possible to spend more than an hour in the city anyway. We were on the first tender and listened while the tender pilot radioed back and forth to the ship trying figure out what pier he was to use for docking.
We signed up for a Panama excursion took us on 2 hr 40 min) ride each way back to bridge of Americas for a 30 minute ride through the canal and passages to see 5 monkeys. The ship had passed this point 1.5 hours prior to tendering in the Guton lake - the site of the tour (and two other scheduled tours) included tendering docks. Why they did not tender people at any of the docks in the area of the bridge is unknown - I thought this was the advantage of the smaller ship.
Puerto Limon: again, why here. A broken down port city with virtually no attractions. Tour to Sloth reserve was quite interesting, but no port services except a tourist flee market. Staff had no knowledge of the port.
San Andres. Very nice resort city. Lots of nice, pricey stores and other facilities that come with a resort. But to get there guests paid $20-25 each way. No shuttles offered by Cruise line and no information about the port available from the staff. Snorkeling tours sold out and staff could not guide guests to alternative activities.
Puerto Caldera. Why here? Very run down city. Some guests reported interesting excursions that did not live up to expectations - again, no information available from the ship staff.
These problems really made what might have been a great trip into a pleasant two weeks on-board a fairly well managed floating hotel with good (but fairly uniform) food.
The on-ship activities were exactly the same as on other mid-range cruise ships. Lots of group games, contests, dance events, etc. There were the usual pool side and lobby musicians. No entertainment in bars and lounges (except at night in the large lounge for the dance events).
From the Azamara Brochure: "Your voyage promises to be both enlightening and entertaining, with enrichment programs designed to complement our wide-ranging itineraries and your interests….you can expand your knowledge on a favorite topic, or explore something new. There are seminars and lectures where experts give you a glimpse into their encyclopedic knowledge, as well as intimate discussion groups and classes."
Lectures: A BIG disappointment. 4 lectures for the entire14 days. This is not acceptable given Azamara's marketing itself as an upscale, culture oriented line. The single lecturer was a retired high school science teacher (he grew up as an American "Zonie"). He put up a picture of Christopher Columbus and turned to the audience and said "So, who can tell me who this is?" (Teacher, can I get a hall pass to go the bathroom?). We traveled by or stopped at most of the culturally and historically rich countries of Central America. There was nothing on the history or cultures of these countries. Surely Azamara could have sprung for a college professor with expertise in central America. Since the staff had never visited these locales and the ports were less than enthralling, reasonable programming could have gone a long way to make the trip culturally engaging. Even the most commercial cruise lines provide regular lectures on the countries and ports at which they stop. This itinerary posed challenges since Azamara had picked some pretty unusual places to stop. But the cruise line did say their line "promises to be both enlightening and entertaining, with enrichment programs designed to complement our wide-ranging itineraries." That was the primary factor in my decision to take a risk, pay higher fee, and rely on Azamara's expertise.
The Quest provides a very nice on-board experience. Good service, good food (of limited variety). Much more reserved decoration of the ship - sort of like a boutique hotel. But, aside from the nice ambiance of a small ship and the less crowded atmosphere, it certainly offers nothing that cannot be gotten without its somewhat higher cost on Celebrity or even some of the other lines in Celebrity's class. The programming is a major disappointment. Before I booked on Azamara again, I would need to know a lot more about the ports and the services and programs available related to the ports. This is not a problem on a typical Mediterranean or other standard itinerary, but since Azamara is building its appeal on the access to lesser known ports, I would need to be assured (1) the port is worth visiting and (2) the cruise line is prepared to provide programs and service that make that port an engaging experience for the passengers.