Azamara Quest Jan 5-Jan 19, 2008
To start, I think some background will help give you our perspective. We are both in our mid-30's, no kids and have been on 4-5 cruises, all Celebrity to the Caribbean and were on this vacation to "do nothing." The ports were not particularly important to us as we were not coming to experience the culture, but to relax and be warm for two weeks (we are from very Northern Maine, where the temp was -16 the day before we left and -30 the morning after we returned and we've had over 6 feet of snow so far this season.) Our one hobby outside of traveling is eating and we have been known to fly somewhere for a weekend for the sole purpose of eating at a particular restaurant. So food is important to us. We have only sailed Celebrity because we really like the brand. Every time we go we consider the other lines, but end up staying with Celebrity as we are worried we will be disappointed with the service/food on the others. Since Azamara was an offshoot of Celebrity we figured we'd be ok, and we were.
So the Quest...
Our trip down was fine. We used frequent flyer miles to get free tickets (always a plus) to Miami, and thankfully there were no problems with weather. We left on Jan 4, 2008 and had booked one night pre-cruise at the Marriott Biscayne Bay through Azamara. We arrived at the hotel around 7 PM and everything was in order for us. This hotel seems not to be walking distance to much, so at the hotels recommendation we took a cab to Bayside Marketplace to get dinner and do some last minute pre-cruise shopping (not to many shopping options in Caribou, Maine). We took the cruise line shuttle at 11:00 AM from the hotel to the pier, where we got a little nervous as there were several families with small children, but it turns out that the shuttle picked up for Azamara, Celebrity and RCCL, so only us a few older couples got off at the Azamara terminal. Phew! (There was only one child about 2 years old on our sailing, very well watched and behaved the couple of times I encountered him.)
Embarkation was a breeze, sign-in, turn in express pass, get keys, set-up specialty dining for that night (apparently to take some heat off the main dining room for the first night all the suite passengers on our sailing were offered an extra specialty dining night the first night in addition to the other 3 you now get), sanitized our hands began walking on board, stopped for requisite photo and we were in. We were greeted as we arrived, handed champagne and told we could put our things in our stateroom, but that they wouldn't be really ready until 1:00-1:30 and to head to the lunch buffet that was ready and available in Windows Cafe, deck 9. We went to our room, a Sky Suite 8044, dropped off our bags and went straight to eat (we had skipped breakfast and were quite hungry.)
At this point rather than a blow by blow account I think I'll describe each area (ie, food, spa, entertainment et cetera) with pluses and minuses (very few in our mind.)
ATMOSPHERE The ship is beautiful. After having been only on Celebrity ships (and never Horizon or Zenith), this ship felt much smaller, but never crowded at just under 700 passengers. Our sailing was full. All the dEcor was very rich and tasteful, lots of nice little niche's to spend time in. During the day everyone was fairly casual, at night a whole range of dress was found, from shorts and polo's (up in the Breeza) to gowns and Tuxedo's. People seemed to enjoy being comfortable (whatever that meant to them). The staff were all so pleasant, greeting you in the halls, welcoming you back from shore, saying hi on deck. There was no waiting for anything really. Getting tenders was easy. I never felt herded anywhere (do have this feeling occasionally, especially on the M-Class Celebrity ships) and best of all, essentially no second hand smoke. The overall feel was quite quiet. Several evenings we went to the big Looking Glass lounge and found only a few people there. There was certainly not happening night life. The casino always seemed very busy.
STATEROOM We had a Sky Suite. They are all on Deck 8 I believe and under the pool deck. The room itself is was similar in size to a regular hotel room (obviously a little smaller, but with the undersized furniture it still felt roomy). You could occasionally hear chairs being moved around up on deck, but never did it interfere with anything, or did it go on more than several minutes. The TV was a nice swiveling flat screen and we did have a DVD player. The satellite very frequently got the sound and picture out of sync with one another, sometimes it was only a little out and not bothersome, other times it was very, very out of sync and hard to watch, and sometimes it was right on. I had my laptop and used the wireless, expensive and slower than cable, but faster than dial-up most of the time...that said it was nice to have the service in my room.
CRUISE CRITIC MEET AND GREET It was actually a very nice get together, and there was not just the usual social hostess there, but the entire senior staff including the captain came. Everyone at the meeting agreed that we didn't know which ship all the other Quest cruisers had been on before us (referring to all the bad reviews), but we felt like it was all going great, people were very pleased, and quite surprised at the turn out from the ship staff to this event. One person requested that the breakfast remain open a little later on sea days so that they could sleep in more, and the next sea day, breakfast hours were extended out at the pool grill for one more hour to accommodate the really late sleepers.
ENTERTAINMENT Our favorite thing was actually the Azamara Cabaret Singers, a group of five energetic performers who put on 3 shows during the 14 days. The Cabaret environment is much more personal and up close with the performers, but does limit the size of the productions. A pianist Naki Ataman was also excellent as was a Broadway singer Jordan Bennett. There was also a comedian, and a couple of other acts that we didn't go see so I can't comment. I heard from others that they were good too though.
There was a full slate of all the usual cruise activities each day, trivia, name that tune, wine tasting, culinary demonstrations, lectures, games, table tennis, shuffleboard et cetera.
THE SPA This was a very nice (and very expensive) place. The thalassotherapy deck up front is small, but very comfortable and great to get away from all the chair hogs on the main deck (yes, they were on here too, the species seems pervasive and irrepressible). I had two hot stone massages, that were awesome. The area is beautiful as the rest of the ship and kept up nicely. The fitness area is also here, and it had a few bikes, treadmills and elliptical sans well as several weight machines and a open floor for classes. There were also Spin bikes. All the classes )yoga, pilates, spin) were only able to take 5 -8 people and filled very quickly the first day. Again, as in the rest of the ship the staff is just great.
FOOD The Windows Cafe/Breeza - The buffet area is small (everything is smaller on this ship) but had a nice selection. The set-up is buffet style, there are waitstaff all over the place, you can sit inside or out on the back deck. Waiters will usually come by and get your beverages for you, but if the person in your area is off getting someone else's beverage when you sit down or otherwise involved you can also get your own ( big minus = people sitting at their table in a huff ticked that no one has come to get them coffee when there is a coffee urn 3 feet from them and they can serve themselves) The waitstaff are very helpful and friendly, and if someone knows you from the main dining room they tend to go out of their way to be extra helpful. It only occasionally felt "very" busy in there, and maybe three times we had to wait to get a table cleared to have somewhere to sit. We ate there everyday for breakfast and lunch and 4-6 times for dinner.
At breakfast there is a waffle/pancake station made to order, made to order omelette station, eggs, bacon, sausage, potatoes, corned beef hash, selection of fruits (pineapple, honeydew, cantaloupe, watermelon, grapefruit, oranges, apples, mixed fruit salad, berries) cold meats, cheeses, all kinds of pastries, yogurt, granola, oatmeal or cream of wheat and probably a couple of other things I am forgetting.
At lunch there are 3 cold salads, 3 main hot entrees plus sides, a carving station, make your own salad station, soup, make your own sandwich station, pizza, desserts and ice cream.
At dinner the place gets called Windows Breeza, but is same venue. There is pizza, made to order stir fry, 3 entrees plus sides, usually 2 soups, salad bar, pasta bar, sushi bar, and carving station.
To drink for free there is lemonade, cranberry juice, orange juice apple juice, ice tea, hot tea, coffee and milk. (Varies slightly depending on meal)
The major pluses for this venue, are that it is quick, easy and has the very nice back deck to eat on. In the evening we enjoyed sitting there to have a drink at the Sunset bar regardless of whether or not we were eating dinner there. The only minus (except for obnoxious lazy passengers who couldn't get their own drinks) was even though there was a nice selection of things that I thought were all pretty tasty it did get repetitive after 14 days (many of the cold salads repeated several times etc) particularly at lunch, when on Port days your only other option was the pool grill (main dining room was only open for lunch on sea days).
Pool Grill - Was open from 12-6 everyday, had lunch there one day, all the usual grill stuff, plus tacos, and a side station with the same salads available in Windows. Taco was good, enjoyed a plate of fries as a snack many afternoons, yummy! Also, noticed nachos some days.
Mosaics Cafe - This area sold high end teas and coffees to drink there or to go and had little bites available all day, pastry in the AM, little sandwiches from lunch through afternoon and "tapas" through dinner. This area was right in the center of everything and was frequently used during the day for various activities (trivia, games, name that tune, et cetera.)
Discoveries Dining Room - Generally open for breakfast and dinner on our sailing, open for lunch on sea days only. Open seating. In the 5 nights we ate there only one night did we have to wait for a table for two. There was always a small line when we arrived (two or three other groups.) The Maitre'd took your room number and table preference and then sat you, so this could take a minute or two to accomplish for each group, but the wait was brief. Because each table in a section could be at a different point in dining, things are a little more hectic feeling with open seating, than with assigned seating (I think the staff like assigned seating better), but the food is mostly cooked al 'minute and is significantly better than on Celebrity in our opinion. Had heard some comments about the beef, being badly cooked, ours was always cooked to our order (mine med rare and hubby's medium), but did talk to one couple who had a "charred" piece.
The major plus for this dining room is that it is open seating, you can go when you want, eat with who you want. The caviar service was excellent. The major minus is that it is open seating so if everyone wants to go at the same time and everyone wants a table for two someone is going to have to wait. The waiting was no problem for us (its that way at any chain restaurant in the US all the time, and most of that food is terrible to boot) but we heard many people complaining about this.
The two specialty restaurants worked the same - Reservations needed, you got to pick the time. Prime C is a steak house and Aqualina was American with a Mediterranean flair. The menus are posted on CC and on Azamara's website. The service was very good. Atmosphere quiet and relaxed in both. We got to go to each twice with no extra charge.
On the whole the food was excellent. We thought it was comparable to a nice restaurant (3 stars, certainly much better than say Olive Garden or that sort of thing). Particularly with 14 day itinerary it was very nice to have 4 dining selections each evening.
There are as usual, bars all over the ship, and people circulating too. The nicest improvement from the last time we were on Celebrity, was that we didn't ever get pestered by the circulating drink waiters. By the pool, they just walked by and only stopped if you approached them. In the Cabaret and at dinner, they came by once, and left you alone. The last 2 times on Celebrity the circulating waiters were very bothersome, pushing the drinks. This was an excellent improvement.
PORTS As I mentioned early in this overly long report, we didn't really care about the ports. In most of the places we got off the boat took a quick walk around and went back to chill out and read. The thing to know is that they were mostly "developing ports" so you definitely had to be a little more adventurous to get around and do things if you didn't take ships tours. It was refreshing to get off and NOT see a Diamonds International, Columbian Emeralds et cetera in every port. We did spend the whole day on St. John and on St. Barth's , both very nice islands with beautiful beaches and good food. St. John also has some nice shopping (and a Columbian Emeralds for anyone in withdrawal). St. Barth's has very, very nice shopping, like you are in Paris shopping, so unless you have lots of expendable cash (its all priced in Euros to add to the pain) its window shopping only. Even window shopping made my wallet catch on fire!
OVERALL We loved it! Would go again in a heartbeat. By the end of two weeks many of the staff (not just you Butler, but bartenders, activity staff, waiters, security) knew you. It was relaxing to an extreme degree for us, everything on our time, our schedule, our way and we got lucky with great weather too. A truly wonderful trip.