IMPROVEMENTS OVER CELEBRITY
Lounge chairs - The thickly-cushioned lounge chairs by the pool - especially the double-size ones. What luxury! Many times we went out to lie in the sun to "read" and ended up snoring instead. We also got two of the 30 coveted spa passes, which allowed us to use the private area at the front of the ship. Many times, we were the only ones out there enjoying the comfy seating and quiet (although the seats were just as comfy at the main pool). One day, they had free champagne and chocolate covered strawberries in the area. Let's just say I didn't let that go to waste. Of course, chair hogs were out in full force at the main pool, but we seldom had trouble finding four chairs together. One day, after an hour had gone by with someone's shoes split on two chairs beside our friends' chairs for over an hour, we moved the shoes to the floor behind the chairs, and sat. Even an hour after that, that person had not retrieved his shoes. There was always a blurb in the daily stating a 20 minute time limit for chair saving. At our Cruise Critic meeting, someone complained about the chair hog situation, but I think most cruise lines have this problem, and it is hard for them to solve without alienating certain passengers. I think we have to deal with this problem ourselves and feel free to move items. Even if it hasn't been 20 minutes, if it looks to me like a chair is being arbitrarily saved by a book or shoe or whatever, I'd have no problem moving it, and if the person came back in less than 20 minutes, I'd apologize and find myself another chair. I think this is a safe way to deal with this annoyance, even though we really seldom had a problem finding chairs when we wanted them.
Food - oh boy! I wish it hadn't been quite so good. I just couldn't say no. Even the salads at dinner, which on Celebrity I've found a little dull, were very good, with little treats like seeds and fruit on top of greens, which I love. We dined in Prime C twice and Aqualina once, but the food in Discoveries was just as good. We also dined at Breeza once and loved it, but we just couldn't find another night to go, since there was always something on the Discoveries menu we wanted to have. A few nights, they had special sampler desserts which were very nice. At breakfast, the waffles were as good as Celebrity, with the added bonus of never having to wait for them. They were entirely too convenient. The made-to-order omelets were also very tasty, and made with particular flair.
Coffee - I just love the coffee machines at the main buffet which grind the beans and make your choice of espresso, decaf or regular coffee. And the larger cups and drinking glasses are wonderful. I am a fan of very strong coffee and I used the grinding machines to have two shots of espresso and one shot of regular coffee, which fit in the new big mugs wonderfully, and definitely got me moving in the morning (the flavor of this concoction was similar to Starbucks extra bold-type coffee). They also had regular coffee urns which most people used. The coffee in the dining room was okay, but lacked the intensity of my custom morning mixture. On Celebrity, we often felt the need to visit the Cova for a decent cup of coffee, but the only time we had anything from Mosaic on the Quest, it was the cold mochaccino's, which were calorie-laden heaven in a cup.
Lines - I really haven't noticed a lot of lines on Celebrity, but on Azamara, it became apparent by comparison that Celebrity does sometimes have line ups at buffets and other venues, which we seldom encountered on Azamara. The only line I really remember was the immigration line, and you can't do much about that. At least we were waiting in a comfortable lounge with coffee available. And I never saw a line-up for Discoveries, except just before it opened at 6 and then everyone was always quickly seated. Granted, we eat early, and maybe there were lines later, but when we left the dining room around 7:30, I never saw a line either, except perhaps on last Thursday's lobster night, when it seemed that everyone chose Discoveries over the specialty restaurants. I think making Prime C and Aqualina free, in addition to the yummy choices in Breeza, has eliminated any problems in the main dining room. Our service was very quick most nights, and we never felt we waited too long nor did we feel rushed to leave. We did perhaps miss connecting with assigned seating wait staff, but really, all the staff were so great, we never felt we were missing out on much. The maitre d's and head waiters were all charming and funny and we really enjoyed joking with all of them.
Little treats - I loved the little bedside treats - the chocolates were much better than the regular Celebrity ones and I happily went back to the cabin every night to snarf back the daily offering. One day, instead of a treat, a rose was left on the bed. I believe the general reaction all over the ship that night was "Nice rose, but where's my chocolate?" We were also given a letter apologizing for the fuel surcharge, along with a nice flannel type travel blanket to bring home. Since our fuel surcharge was refunded, this was an added bonus for us. The daily canapEs are pretty much like Celebrity's - I like them but I guess I'm one of the few who does. They had afternoon tea in Aqualina, but we never went so I can't comment. I'm sure it was good. Mosaic Cafe had nice baked treats in the daytime, and starting late afternoon, they had Tapas, which looked great but we never had room for any, since we ate dinner early and that did us in for the night.
Norovirus - I'm sure you're wondering how norovirus can be a good thing. We've never been on any of the Celebrity dreaded "bleach" cruises, but, although there was norovirus on our ship, the staff made sure our inconveniences were kept to a bare minimum. Whatever cleaning solution they used did not smell strong (and I have a very sensitive sniffer), and other than hand sanitizers (both liquid and wipes) being prevalent and the daily update from the bridge, you would never had known there was a problem at all. Staff did the serving at the buffet instead of it being self-serve, but we really barely noticed it - it certainly didn't slow us down in getting plates full of lobster ravioli and other delights. The precautions were in effect pretty much the second day of the cruise till two days before the end, but, although I'm sure the staff was very overworked sanitizing all the menus, soft and hard surfaces (and even the pens we signed our slips with), we barely noticed we were on a cruise affected with the virus. Kudos to the staff for making the best of a tough situation. I do feel bad for anyone that was quarantined, although, with the selection of books in the library (they filled the library full of new books a few days into the cruise), I probably could have kept myself busy in the cabin for a few days without too much boredom. The TV selections seemed okay - I didn't watch much but they had movies on TNT and another station that I would have liked to have time to watch. I did watch most of the movie "Basic Instinct 2" but, somehow, they switched to another movie or something just before the end so I don't know how it ended. Not sure what happened there.
Small ship - This is the biggest difference between Celebrity and Azamara. These small ships ensured that you saw the same staff and passengers over and over and you really got to know them over two weeks. We had a great Cruise Critic group and it was nice to see these new friends all over the ship. As mentioned before, line-ups were virtually non-existent - I certainly never had more than three people in front of me waiting for anything and even that was rare.
Service above and beyond - Too many instances to mention, but I will mention one. I went to Guest Relations and asked if they had some tape, as I had broken a strap on my sandal and just wanted to hold it together temporarily. Marion at the desk suggested I leave the shoe with my butler with a note requesting that he bring it to her, as she knew people on the ship who might be able to fix it. I left the shoe on the bed with the note before dinner, and when we got back from dinner, the shoe was back, fixed perfectly. Staff were always asking if there was anything they could do for us, and if they could make our experience better in any way. Truly, we could not have asked for better service. Our cabin staff serviced our cabin very efficiently - they always seemed to drop by during a few minutes we were away from the cabin, and have it spotless when we returned. They recycled our towels as we wanted (as the card to "Save the Oceans" suggests) which I liked. I've been places where you hang your towel to use it another day, instead of putting it on the floor, and staff gives you new towels anyways, which seems wasteful to me. Embarkation and debarkation were seamless.
Dress code - This ship was perfect, in that you could be country club casual every day, yet some people dressed up and were not out of place. You could still bring nice gowns and wear them if you wanted, but it was not necessary. I did notice a few couples where the woman was dressed to the nines with a lovely cocktail dress and heels, while her spouse was wearing khaki's and a golf shirt. It's nice that everyone can wear what they like. We didn't notice anyone dressed sloppily, although we really didn't pay much attention.
Free Microsoft Office classes - On Celebrity you have to pay for them. Not sure how many people showed up but it was nice to see it was free. I teach Office product classes myself and was considering going to the Excel class just to yank the instructor's chain by asking him some ridiculously tough questions, but he seemed like such a nice guy, I didn't have the heart. However, when I asked him whether they use Office 2003 or 2007, he told me they use Office 2000! Hello! Time to upgrade, Azamara. They could really shake things up by showing people the wonders and horrors of Office 2007. By the way, these computers are really locked down - no way to open NotePad or Word in order to compose an e-mail before sending it. Only e-mail and internet seemed accessible. I did want to print out some contact information from Word one day and the instructor was kind enough to log into the computer to allow me to open Word to print my page, but I enjoy the personal network profiles on Celebrity's computers that allow you to save documents and open them on any of the PC's without having to bother anyone.
Smoke-free air - No smoking (other than two designated areas) - Heaven! Enough said.
Cruise director - We love Becky Field - too bad she's heading to the Mercury after she takes a few months off. She's a doll and we had dinner with her a couple of nights. She's bubbly and diplomatic and just a very nice person. I think she had a tough job getting people to participate in events; many were cancelled due to lack of participation. The crowd on this ship just seemed to want to do their own thing, and wasn't much into participating in dance lessons or going on stage for the "Love and Marriage game" - they nearly had to cancel that because she couldn't convince anyone to go on stage, even though the prize was a couples spa treatment, and the other participants also got a prize. Trivia was very popular (we love it) and we got every prize the cruise line offers up, mainly just by playing trivia so often (and because we clearly watch too many movies and TV shows and know it all!)
Entertainment - The "party band", Cruise Control, really didn't' seem suited to a Caribbean itinerary. Although talented musicians, they were very low key and seemed to play mellow, jazz-like music more than anything tropical or peppy, particularly the lead singer who looked less than enthused to be there. However, as always, the orchestra was excellent, and the five "production show" singers were incredibly talented. We didn't go to see many of individual musician shows, but what we saw was good, and the comedian made us laugh as he made jokes about our ports of call. The rest of his act seemed recycled from other cruises, as he joked about line ups and other large ship woes that were non-existent on the Quest. I'm sure some people who are used to the big ships were disappointed in the low key entertainment, but I think that Azamara is concentrating on offering unique itineraries and many passengers (like us) will amuse themselves by chatting in the bars with other passengers, or making donations in the casino before turning in early to prepare for an early morning of sightseeing. Perhaps a few more games other than Scrabble, chess and backgammon could be made available in the library (ie. Trivial Pursuit, Scattergories, Catchphrase, etc. - games that adults could have some fun with in the evenings if the shows aren't their thing.) People looking for big-ship entertainment will likely not be amused. Personally, I found there were more than enough things to do during the day. The naturalist who spoke on board about wildlife was very good, but I only got to see him once, as other things, like our Cruise Critic meetings, seemed to be scheduled when he was on.
Buffet layout - It took me a few days to get the hang of how the buffet worked. I'm still not sure if you're meant to start at the middle and work your way down, or start at the prepared salads and work your way in. The hot food had two sides that were mostly the same, but the odd item would be on one side and not the other, and quite often I never saw a particular entree until I noticed someone had something on their plate. I think the salad bar, which was popular, could be more spread out - perhaps it could be expanded to where the desserts are, and the deserts could be moved to the side, mirror image spot to where the pizza is, in a cubby hole that didn't seem to be used for anything. Also, the juice and smoothie bar area, popular in the morning, didn't seem to be in use the rest of the day - perhaps desserts or ice cream could be moved there to make room for an expanded salad bar. Although really, the salad bar was fine, and other than having to get the greens served because they were too far back, it wasn't a problem. I just like a nice, roomy salad bar. Some people complained about the lack of trays at the buffet. In my opinion, the lack of trays was great, as I find them really awkward, and on Celebrity, as soon as I get to my table, I'm looking for somewhere to dump the unwieldy thing. They also remind me of a high school cafeteria. There were loads of staff around, and although they didn't seem to offer people help carrying their food, I'm sure any one of the staff in the buffet area would be happy to help someone who requested assistance. Really, we were constantly being asked if we wanted juice or a smoothie or more coffee; they would fetch anything you would ask for.
Bar bill - Drinks were pricey, although they were definitely generous with the pours, and the bartenders are a great bunch. We especially enjoyed Michael Alvez who kept us amused with magic tricks. Beljania (sp?) and Gabriel in the casino bar were a lot of fun too.
Tiny shower - Our friend remarked that the shower was the size and shape of a coffin. I found the shower extremely small and it was a challenge to find room to shave my legs. I finally found the best way was to open the curtain and prop my leg on the sink (probably something not everyone wants to try). The shower curtain always seemed to hang inward even though the bathroom door was closed. I can't imagine how larger people managed in that little shower (not that I'm particularly petite myself). The comic one night suggested larger folks soap down the walls and spin - not a bad idea. :-) Also, it was hard to maneuver around front of the cabin, between the bathroom door and the closet doors - and with the closet doors open, it was very hard to see into the closet because the light was blocked by the door. Also, the pegs on the bathroom door should be shaped more like hooks, so that the towels don't keep falling off. Small stuff, but on a very long itinerary, these things would grate. I guess that's why they make suites. A cruise cabin sure makes your house seem huge when you get home. By the way, we were in a standard verandah cabin.
Ship motion - I'm not one to get seasick and generally like to feel the motion of a ship, but I must say, I really felt the motion on this one. Although I never felt sick, I did have trouble sleeping a few nights, although that may have been more due to the waiter refilling my water glass too often at dinner than anything else. I think perhaps the sea was a little rougher than normal most days, since there were two or three nights when I didn't feel the motion of the ship at all - either we were going much slower, or the sea had calmed down a bit. We had perfect weather on this cruise - sunny every day but one, but there was a bit of wind and choppiness a lot of the time. My husband said, as much as he loved this cruise, he would never take one of these ships on a transatlantic cruise. Anyone who is prone to seasickness might be wise to avoid these ships in favor of larger ships, like Celebrity's Millie class.
Whiners - I guess you just can't get away from them. Although most people we spoke to loved this cruise, there are always a few just looking for something to complain about. We ran into a particularly unpleasant old buzzard at one of the ports, complaining that he couldn't remove his gratuities from his account, he couldn't bring hard liquor on board, and that this cruise was just awful in every way. He raged that he was on Crystal last year, for the same price, and they included so many more things and it was so much better. I don't doubt Crystal is more inclusive, but show me a Crystal cruise that isn't more than double what Azamara is charging. At our Cruise Critic meetings, there was also a bit of negativity - some about chair hogs which I think is a tough one to solve, and, of all things, about the quality of the paper towels in the restrooms. A few people at the Cruise Critic meeting were not message board members but just came in thinking it was a chance to complain. I guess you can't please everyone. I must say that the passengers all seemed to be very well traveled; I don't think we met anyone who had never sailed Celebrity before, and many people were very particular and expected absolute perfection, which may be a bit unrealistic - that's what the luxury lines are for, I guess.
The main draw of Azamara, in my opinion, is the interesting, out of the ordinary itineraries. We chose this cruise because of the ports, and because we wanted to travel with Sue and Darren again, after we met them on the Galaxy last year and had such a nice time together. We were very happy to visit ports that we had not visited on other cruises, and for the most part, they all offered something interesting to see and do. Other than at Grand Turk, ours was the only ship at any of the ports on the day we were there. Miami - We stayed one night pre-cruise at the Sofitel in Miami, near the airport. We got a great rate by booking many months in advance (prices more than doubled by the time the cruise came along). The hotel was very nice and the meals we had at the hotel were quite good. Their shuttle from the airport to the hotel was quick and check in was fine. We booked our own transportation to the ship, figuring that cabs might be hard to come by on a Saturday morning in Miami, especially as the boat show and a big art show were also on that weekend.
St. John - This was one of the few ports we had been to previously. This time, we took a cab from Cruz Bay to Cinnamon Bay, where we spent a very nice morning on the beach. Note to self: just because you have a snorkel doesn't mean you can swim, especially with no flippers. Let's just say I swam about halfway to the reef with Darren before it occurred to me I had nothing but a snorkel and a bathing suit, and I'm not a strong swimmer. I made it back to shore after a bit of hyperventilating, and decided to confine myself to the reef closer to the beach.
Cabrits, Dominica - We went on a whale watching excursion. We saw a couple a spouts from a distance, and two tails, but in general, did not see much compared to Cayo Levantado last week.
St. Vincent - Here we took a cab after deciding we'd like to see the Fort and the Botanical Gardens. The taxi prices are reasonable enough and our driver was knowledgeable. At both stops, as we got out of the cab, guides took us on a tour, pretty much without asking if we wanted one. We went along, and although the tours went a little longer than expected, particularly at the gardens where I think our guide would have personally introduced us to every plant in the place, they were nice and we were happy with the experience. If you go the private cab route and don't want guides at your stops, I would suggest telling your driver you'd just like to explore on your own, if possible.
Tobago - This was an unexpected favorite. One of our Cruise Critic friends organized a tour with Hew's Tours, which included a glass bottom boat ride, snorkeling, and some general sightseeing. The beach at Pigeon Point is lovely, the forts were picturesque and Tobago seemed a little more affluent than some of the other islands. Our tour was to end at 2pm, but we didn't get back to the ship till after 3. They certainly gave us our money's worth; however, at one point I felt like saying to the driver "Hey! We're spoiled cruise passengers! We're not used to going 2 hours without food, let alone 6! We're dying here!" :-)
St. Bart's - Now here's another place I could see myself spending a week. Very nice port. Unfortunately, as Sue said, it was the perfect storm of bad luck for a day in St. Bart's. It was a Sunday so most of the stores were closed, and the Oscars were on in Hollywood, so there were no Celebrities for us to stalk. Had a nice time anyways just walking around town.
Virgin Gorda - Probably the most picturesque place I've been in the Caribbean. We took the ship's excursion to The Baths and Spring Bay, both of which were gorgeous. I took about a million photos.
Cayo Levantado (Samana, Dominican Republic) - Here we did the ship's whale watching excursion and had way better luck than in Cabrits. We got very close to the whales and I got some great photos of the humpbacks, mostly of them slapping their giant fins on the water. Clearly, the same rules in place in Maui restricting how close you can get to a whale are not enforced here.
Ponce, Puerto Rico - Other than Arica, Chile, I can't remember a port where we were made to feel more welcome. On exiting the ship, they gave away nylon drawstring bags with tourist literature; in town, they had a troupe of boys and girls dancing, and other entertainers, and everywhere in town, people would say "Welcome to Ponce" as we passed. Back after a few hours of walking around the city, they had a band at the dock, and a local lady leading a conga line. They had a string of tables set up at the pier selling locally made jewelry very cheaply. They also gave out free rum drinks - once again, we did not let that opportunity go to waste. We certainly found the best bargains of the cruise there. The people of Ponce did everything they could to make their port appealing for tourists, like going to the trouble of surrounding the band at the pier with potted plants and prettying up the port area for us. Cruise lines could definitely take the heat off San Juan by sending a few ships in this direction.
Grand Turk - Ours was the only ship in any of the ports until we got to Grand Turk. We spent the morning on the Personal Miniboat excursion and when we came back, the Carnival Triumph was unleashing its hordes onto the pier. The Carnivalites invaded Margaritaville and before we knew it, the beach was covered with people, and they were having drinking contests at the pool. We bought some duty-free and headed back onto the ship. The mini boat excursion was a lot of fun - it would have been a bit more fun if it hadn't been quite so choppy (I did not attempt to snorkel). Our boat seemed to have some type of propulsion problem that prevented us from keeping up with the rest of the boaters. Not that I felt my hubby wasn't driving fast enough. It seemed plenty fast in those waves. My knees were feeling it when we got off the boat, and I've got bruises in all kinds of places. Fun stuff, though and I'd do it again.
This cruise was similar to Celebrity, except that everything just seemed a little bit better. The small ship and low key entertainment suited us just fine, and I would not hesitate to book with Azamara again. The lack of crowds, the smoke-free rooms and fabulous service have convinced me that small ship sailing is my new favorite way to travel. If my husband weren't so bound and bent to sail the Solstice next year, I'd have us booked on another Azamara cruise already. We did notice that every passenger we met had sailed Celebrity previously, and that's where their customer base seems to be coming from. I was most interested to hear what previous Oceania customers had to say about their Azamara experience, and those I spoke to said that there was virtually no difference between the two. A few people said that they were the same, except that Azamara's food was a bit better.
Most people I know have never heard of Azamara, and I hope Celebrity/RCI gets the word out about this gem of a cruise line. Perhaps they should advertise Azamara on the back of Celebrity brochures (not that I personally see many paper brochures these days, but I assume some people still book their travel old-school). This is definitely not a cruise line for children - I only saw two children on this cruise, and that was very briefly. I'm not sure how their parents kept them entertained but there really were no facilities at all for them. However, for experienced travelers who are interested in unusual ports, fine dining, and don't need poolside contests and loud entertainment to keep them busy, this cruise line should more than satisfy.
This was a great cruise and we'd book Azamara again in a heartbeat. We loved chatting with our Cruise Critic friends, and hope to see many of them again on board another cruise.