Cruise line products are divided into numerous categories, so I was told at an Azamara Journey onboard seminar about the "behind the scenes" ship operations. The categories were described as: Budget/Economy, Standard, Deluxe, Luxury, and Super Luxury. Based on the impressive and beautiful Azamara brochure, my prior sailing experience with Crystal Cruises (my yardstick as a REAL luxury cruise line) and my travel agent's encouragement (she had just returned from an Azamara fam in Europe), I chose the Azamara Journey's Norwegian Fjords cruise. This cruise was my first cruise on a Celebrity/Royal Caribbean product and my impressions are from that viewpoint.
Our decision to take a cruise was last minute; we reserved the cruise about a month before departure and we chose to use Celebrity's flight package with transfers. My husband and I are seniors, in good health, and prior "cruisers" on several different lines. The total package price, including onboard credit, was appealing (though not cheap) for a "luxury" cruise. The promotion offered a reasonable base price with the possibility of an upgrade. We did receive an upgrade to a cabin with a large window on the same level as Guest Relations. The more expensive cabins are located on upper decks.
First impressions are signals and can be reliable predictors and our first exposure to Celebrity/Azamara was our first warning signal. We requested to leave at least one day early in order to sight see in Copenhagen and to adjust to the time change. We were told that option was sold out because of the last minute booking. Odd, because our flights departed on Friday, a premium day of travel, rather than the midweek travel we requested. The extension at the end of the cruise was also sold out. Our flight details were not advised until almost the departure date and we had no opportunity for modification. We did not like the return reservations, which had two plane changes. The transfers from the airport to the ship and vice versa proceeded smoothly and were essential to weary travelers.
However, the first impression as we boarded the ship signaled: This is not the "luxury" of Crystal; the feeling is "Celebrity". The level of polish and training of the Azamara Journey crew did not match that of a luxury cruise line. The "lobby" area was small compared to Crystal and the staircase overpowered the area. A designer jewelry concession was located in that area with the Guest Relations, Shore Excursions and Cruise Sales desks. Although tastefully appointed, it just didn't belong there.
Our cabin met our expectations for the price. The bed was the best feature with pillow-top mattress cover, fluffy comforter, and two big, fluffy pillows each. Additional decorative pillows added to the ambiance and comfort. However, the bathroom was tiny; the shower was extremely tiny, not what one expects of a "luxury" product. The closet and storage space was good and nice wooden hangars were sufficient. The room safe was broken from a prior occupant, and getting it fixed and ultimately replaced took a couple of days of contacting multiple sources. The small table that should have been beside the one chair, was missing. Again, the safe and missing table should have been part of the cabin review before we boarded, and any deficits corrected. The TV was a newer flat screen model with remote, but probably had never been adjusted for color and sharpness. TV programming choices were mediocre and I missed having a DVD player, available only in the suites.
Our main reason for choosing this tour was the ports. We wanted to see as much of Norway as possible, so we signed up for numerous tours. The first one, an "all day" tour in Eidfjord was the most expensive at $228 each. What a waste of money! The packed bus drove from Eidfjord to Voss where we boarded a train to a lovely historic hotel in the mountains. We arrived after 2:00 P.M. and had to hike about a quarter of a mile from the train station to the hotel. By then, we were quite hungry and although the buffet was sumptuous, the room where we ate was hot and cramped and we were given less than an hour to select our food and eat it. Back on the bus by 3:00 P.M., we rushed down to the cruise ship, stopping twice for five minutes each stop to take photos of waterfalls.
Had this tour operated in reverse as described in the brochure, we would have eaten at the proper meal time. The train ride, advertised as featuring scenic views, had brief encounters with daylight; most of the ride was in the dark as we went through many tunnels and the lighting in the coaches did not work. Our guide spoke English with great difficulty and consequently, did not provide much information about the sights.
Our second tour, in Olden, featured a visit to a glacier. The tour description mentioned a hike of two miles total from the lodge where the bus left us to the glacier and return. The reality was a climb of about a mile and a half one way from the lodge to the glacier, up steep inclines with rough, difficult paths to navigate. This climb was assigned 45 minutes total, including viewing the glacier. The guide never mentioned that small carts were available for transport for one mile of the steepest climb. We had read about the "trolls" and paid dearly for our rides, but we were able to see the glacier. Most of the tour participants never reached the glacier.
The third tour, in Geiranger, was terrific. The guide was knowledgeable, fluent in English, and very personable. She and the bus driver enjoyed sharing their love of the country and added extra stops. It was a marked contrast to all the other tours, including the Flam railway tour. We were glad we canceled the rest of the tours and explored the remaining towns and cities on our own.
I expressed my displeasure about the first two tours and was told that Celebrity's main office selects which tours will be offered on each cruise. The onboard shore excursion team just sells the tickets and helps facilitate the operation of the tours. In my opinion, the tours are a primary way for Celebrity to make money and because the onboard staff has nothing to do with the actual tours, they lack the incentive to try to improve the product. The one tour they chose to take (of the ones we took) was the one in Geiranger, the best product. They really need to take the others, so they can share the same experience as the guests and can accurately advise guests about the tours.
Dining is always an important part of a cruise and I found excellence in one place: Aqualina, a specialized restaurant featuring gourmet Mediterranean dishes with a French accent. The food and service attained the "luxury" standard. However as first time travelers, we were offered the earliest reservation times or the latest, and we made our reservations before our staterooms were available on the first day. The most popular slots for reservations were reserved for guests in the suites and Captain's Club members.
Unfortunately, service in the Main dining room was mediocre at best, except for a waiter we discovered halfway through the cruise. The food was attractively presented, but the flavor relied heavily on fat and salt. The beef I ate was the cheaper cuts: tough and filled with gristle. The fish was consistently overcooked and dry. The dessert menu was uninspired, limited and repetitive. Why didn't the chef in Aqualina train the staff in the Main dining room? Why such a well defined difference in quality?
The buffet offered similar standards in choices of foods. For example, premium fruits such as mangos and blueberries were never available except as garnishes and when those fruits were offered, they disappeared quickly. The food choices were more varied than in the dining room, but the preparation was similar.
Other observations that shouted "Celebrity" brand, not "luxury" were the charges for bottled water and the mandatory gratuity of $12.25 per person per day. The gratuity was excessive, in my opinion, and the charge for bottled water on a "luxury" cruise is tacky.
That the entertainment lacked variety or compelling interest reflected Celebrity's way of cutting financial corners. Games, hosted by members of the activities staff, took the place of guest lecturers and only a couple of "enrichment" program options or lessons were offered.
One very important service that Azamara needs to make available to all guests is to reconfirm their return flight reservations for them (when requested) and have trained staff dedicated to this task. A number of us were not able to access our reservations in the internet center's computers because, although the flights showed one airline, the international portion was operated by another airline. The Guest Relations staff turned away assisting most people with this problem; I insisted on their help. One of the officers in charge of Guest Relations disconnected the computer being used to help me because she felt that the procedure was time consuming (which it was because of the slow internet connection). After trying again unsuccessfully in the computer center, I returned to Guest Relations where I complained loudly and was ultimately assisted to my satisfaction. My experience with luxury cruises is that they offer to perform this service, in advance,
Despite what I consider to be shortcomings of Celebrity/Azamara, the best parts of this cruise were the pristine, scenic beauty of Norway's fjords and the ship's Captain, Karl Smith. His sense of humor and daily announcements were unexpected bonuses. He and his navigational crew accomplished several cruising "firsts", one of which made the news (so I was told).
Compared to a true luxury cruise company such as Crystal, Azamara cruise line has not achieved the rating of "luxury". The company can claim to be in the "luxury" category, but just making the claim does not make the claim valid; the cruise still has the "Celebrity" feel. Azamara impressed me as a brand in search of an identity. Good luck with your "quest".