I am a CRUISE SPECIALIST and terribly critical when I cruise because I am looking for the best for my passengers .... this cruise did not disappoint!
My biggest concern was actually getting to the cruise on time as a huge storm had moved through Arizona on Monday, we actually had blizzard conditions, and then moved into the mid-west causing all kinds of cancelled flights and travel delays that extended over the weekend I was traveling. My original flight from Phoenix was cancelled but I was rescheduled onto an earlier flight which actually worked out better for me and my flight to Sao Paulo, while leaving an hour late actually made it in at our scheduled time of 9:30am on the 22nd. I was amazed to fly over the forests of Brazil and even more amazed at the size of Sao Paulo. My trip through the airport was uneventful and the AZAMARA ambassadors were waiting for us just outside the customs gate with big smiles and within minutes we were on our bus for our 2 hour transfer to the pier. I would love to tell you that I saw a bit of Sao Paulo but I was exhausted and had no trouble falling asleep during the ride.
We arrived a the pier and within minutes I was checking onto the ship and was very pleasantly surprised to find that I had been upgraded from an ocean view to a balcony cabin. AZAMARA kept my passport and visa and provided me a receipt. I find this practice a little disconcerting but then when you realize that some of the immigration authorities board the ship at 4,5, 6 AM, I am happy not to have to participate in the passport checks.
Cruise card in hand and a short walk directly into a most beautiful, comfortable, friendly and intimate main lobby where I was presented with a glass of champagne and an apology for the fact that my cabin was not quite ready, but, if I wanted, someone would take me there so that I could leave my carryon. OK, I am already impressed with the service. I go to my cabin, my card key doesn't work, my escort takes it back to the front desk and returns within a couple of minutes with a working card and tells me that the cabin is ready after all. Fantastic! I promptly put out the do not disturb sign and jump in the shower to freshen up and change into those spare clothes I had packed. (Isn't my TA good?) Just as I reach out the door to change the do not disturb sign I meet my cabin steward, "WEEKLY" and of course we laugh about hoping the service is more like 2 x daily, a joke I am sure he has heard many times and my butler SOOKIMAN. Sookiman asks me if he can unpack for me when my bags arrive, but of course, the one chore I really hate and he WANTS to do it, my smile is getting wider all the time.
Up to deck 9 and the Windows Café for a quick luncheon ... what a great buffet, salads, carving station, breads galore, very comfortable padded chairs and beautiful tables with quite and gracious servers trying to meet your every need.
To the Pool Bar for my first umbrella drink and then it is off to explore. This is a "small" ship but very well designed and it seems to be larger than it really is. The beautiful mahogany and teak walls and floors and the subtle colors immediately made me feel comfortable and at home. Everywhere I encountered staff or crew there was a genuine smile and offer of assistance and whenever I encountered other guests they all seemed happy and excited to be there. The ship is quite easy to find your way around and all the public rooms easily lead from one to another. There is entertainment just about everywhere you look and due to the ship layout one "sound" does not overlay the other. For instance, there is a harpist at the Cova Café and less than 100ft. away there is a guitarist in the Martini bar playing at the same time and you only hear the one you are in close proximity of. Fantastic! This also holds true of the passenger noise, it is quite well buffered and makes the cruise even more relaxing.
While all the cabins were sold on this sailing there were only 600 passengers instead of the 700+ the ship is designed to hold. Some of the crew cabins have been turned into guest cabins but this may be changing as there were a couple of times that it did seem they were short staffed. This was most noticeable at the buffet area.
The pool area is beautiful with a small pool and two hot tubs surrounded by teak loungers covered in thick padding and toweled covers. The Pool Grill area has beautiful wicker tables and padded chairs, a fabulous grill with everything from hot dogs and hamburgers to lamb and ribs and fish and grilled veggies as well as a salad bar, soft serve and drink station that always had lemonade, fruit punch, ice tea and water available.
Smoking areas are extremely limited on this ship as AZAMARA promotes themselves as a non-smoking line and I don't believe that I saw anyone breaking the smoking rules.
The theatre on this ship is small and intimate but the acoustics are extremely good, to the point that some of the stronger voiced singers almost out sang the room. There were some very good shows and some really fine performers, vocalists from England and Russia, violinists, pianists and the members of the AZAMARA Cabaret group; funny show TWISTED TV mostly aimed at Americans so we had to explain to quite a few people who Martha Stewart is and why her ending up in jail was so funny ya would've had to be there. I took advantage of the small but well equipped spa for manicure, pedicure, hair cut and acupuncture. The gym is very well equipped and had classes of every description. There is a small Thelassotherapy pool with loungers on the bow of the ship and it appeared to be constantly in use.
Cruise Director Paul Grant is funny and subtle and quite at ease with all the passengers. His talks and introductions were never over the top and he was truly enjoyable to watch and seemed to remember everyone on the ship. There were fabulous enrichment programs available from art classes, beading, knitting and lectures on history and current events. There were great ballroom dance lessons and language lessons. The mix of passengers was wonderful and the ages were mostly from 40 - 80. I only met 4 children onboard and they were 13, 14, 15, 17 and from Canada. The educational mix was fantastic and the career cruisers made up most of the passengers. There were several couples that were on their 4th sailing of this ship which says a lot since it is so new. Many couples were also on the middle leg of a 3 or 4 leg cruise and were thinking of signing on for additional cruises. Almost every single person I spoke with had top ratings for this ship. Of course there are always people that will never be satisfied and you will find them everywhere. I tried to consider their complaints, which were usually about something that had nothing to do with the actual cruise line or staff, in an objective manner and never found them to have any basis that would make me change my mind. (Things like, why can't the captain out run the wind and rain to ... they should warn us that the ship will be running late when there was a problem that kept us from leaving Recife on time ... something to do with the pilot boat... and one woman complained when she could not get the bartender she wanted ... he had broken his leg while on shore that afternoon and she took it as a personal offense ... go figure people).
I will say that I was very disappointed in Brazil as a whole. It is extremely expensive, dirty and graffiti seems to cover every building from the ground to as high as can be reached, historic buildings included and there doesn't seem to be any effort to curtail it. I was traveling by myself and it cost $250 for a Rio by night dinner show (Brazilian bar-b-que and Samba historical dance show) and ½ day city tour (the best part being Corcovado with the misty clouds moving in and out over the Sainto de Christo) and another $108 for ½ day Ilheus (Il-hoos) rain forest tour. In the rest of the towns and cities, a bunch of us just got off the ship and hired taxis and small vans and had just as much fun. The most beautiful parts of Brazil are the forests and plantations; we went to a private native animal reserve that is open to the public and runs on donations there were more tortoise than I have ever seen and green monkeys and an animal that looks like a rabbit in the face but had the body of a large rodent that was really quite cute, lots of fabulous birds and a private Orchid plantation with flowers like I have never seen before. We were treated to a luncheon on one of our tours with amazing rum punch that had a base of passion fruit yum, I can still taste it. AZAMARA feels that the Brazilian government really makes it hard for cruise ships and I was told that they won't be going back there next year.
The weather was not as cooperative as I had hoped it would be but it was the end of the summer down there and the days were cloudy and misty and some had very heavy rain so you just made sure you had your umbrella and a cover up. Unfortunately from the 26th of March through the 3rd of April the seas were very high (12 - 15 ft) and it was very windy (28 - 40knots) so navigating the decks was a challenge. I swear there was one night that I became air born and another that I experienced weightlessness ... but as I don¿t ever get motion sick I took it as a challenge and still did as much as possible.
Dinner in the Discoveries restaurant was outstanding and I did not have a single meal that I didn't thoroughly enjoy. I also tried Aqualina and Prime-C. Aqualina was my absolute favorite (5 times) and I found the service in all the restaurants to be top notch in every way. By the way, anything special you want for dinner you can let the dining room know and they will accommodate you. You can order from the main dining menu in your cabin as well. The signature Celebrity bread sticks were in abundance and the crème brulee in the Discoveries is only outdone by the crème brulee in Aqualina ... different kitchens. The foie gras with candied oranges in Aqualina is sublime and their seafood platter appetizer is a great meal in itself. Seating in the main dining room is open after the first night and tables range from 2 - 12 or more if you wish. The Martini Bar is beautiful and a wonderful gathering place before dinner and they will accommodate your every whim when it comes to drinks. When I know how much the ship was heaving and moving about it is amazing that there were no guests with dinner or drinks in their laps ... one night we did see a stack of glasses come tumbling down but no one was injured.
I was invited to dinner with the Captain, Leif Karlsson, and I must say he is the most approachable, available and involved captain that I have ever had the pleasure of sailing with. The meal was in the main dining room where he dines every evening and the food was off the regular menu, the wines were outstanding and so was the company. I met a very lovely woman from Japan that is a free lance travel writer and she is doing a story on this ship and the Captain. He was really a good sport when we had the Crossing of the Equator ceremony and he was tossed in the pool ... he took 3 other officers along with him!
The ship was always clean and the staff was always accommodating. The announcements were few and far between but it was always easy to find information if you required it. There is interactive TV in each cabin that allows for everything from booking shore excursions to daily activities planning to room service and monitoring you expenses. There are first run movies with one being shown daily in the theatre. I also received the ship copy of the NY times in my cabin every evening along with the Daily AZAMARA Pursuits. Additionally there was a hospitality desk available as a courtesy in every port. AZAMARA makes it clear that it is a courtesy only and they are not responsible for the accuracy of the information and it is provided AS IS but it was nice to have someone familiar with each area to talk with. Whenever I needed to contact the customer service desk the phones were always answered quickly and politely. I LOST my glasses in Barbados (left them at a cafe/bar) and someone actually brought them to the ship and when I noticed them missing (10 minutes after having left the pier) they actually volunteered to bring the lost and found box to my cabin so I could see if they were there. I went down and there they were but .... what a nice gesture.
I would rate this a 11 out of 10 cruise and will tell my prospective clients that it is understated elegance. No formal nights is a definite plus but it didn't keep many from dressing for the evening I didn't see any tux clad men but lost of nice jackets and ties.
I will have no problem fully recommending this cruise line and this ship to anyone. AND I AM MOST DEFINITELY GOING ON THEM AGAIN!!!!