We have previously cruised with RCI (Voyager of the Seas) and NCL (Dawn, Jewel and Gem). We like Freestyle Dining on NCL so we were looking forward to the open seating offered by Azamara and chose this cruise because of it and the excellent fjord itinerary. With a great offer of $800 on board credit, and warnings from this Board about small bathrooms in the regular cabins, we opted for a Sky Suite 8064.
We flew out the day before on a 90 minute flight from the north of England to Copenhagen and stayed overnight at the Marriott Copenhagen. The hotel was in an excellent location, a short walk from the Tivoli gardens and adjacent to a river boat stop which linked with the various canal cruises in Copenhagen.
The following day we were eager to get to the ship and arrived after a short taxi ride from the Hotel at around 11.30am, we were not the first to arrive but check-in didn't open until around an hour later. Having sat waiting we then joined a growing queue to check in. There was no sign of a priority check in line for suite guests, but, once open, check-in only took about 30 minutes. At check-in guests were being asked to state a preference time for eating on the first night and were given cards with their preferred time. This is to stagger arrivals at the main dining rooms and only applied to the first night, when I assume that otherwise most guests tend to arrive to eat at the same time. As passengers in a suite we were invited to make a reservation at one of the two speciality restaurants on the first night and we chose Prime C (more later). I don't know if this opportunity was open to all guests, but there was a restaurant Maitre'D taking reservations alongside check-in.
Once on board we were told that rooms would be available from 2pm (and they were) and we found a sheltered spot on deck and had lunch from the poolside grill.
Our Sky Suite was clean, spacious and very comfortable. There was more than enough drawer, cupboard and wardrobe storage in both the cabin and the bathroom. A bottle of Champagne was on ice, a small vase of fresh flowers and a bowl of fruit were on the table when we arrived
The mini-fridge was stocked with the usual soft drinks, half bottles of wine, water and miniature spirits. We were advised that the bottled still mineral water and soft drinks (coke, tonic water etc) were complimentary and our butler and room steward kept us well supplied with both. Ice and a vacuum pitcher of water were also supplied.
We had bath robes (XL size) an Azamara golf umbrella and a hair dryer in the room, together with a flat screen TV and DVD/CD player. We didn't see any binoculars, but as we had our own we didn't pursue this. Pay-per-view films were available ($12.99 I think)
The bathroom was a good size with a full bath with shower over, plenty of storage and shelving and Elementis toiletries (soap, shampoo, conditioner, bath/shower gel and body lotion). There was a second wall mounted hair dryer in the bathroom. On two occasions we had some trouble drawing hot water and could only get warm.
Overall the Suite was excellent - the best accommodation we have had on a cruise ship and a perfect place not just to sleep but to relax. The balcony was a generous size with plenty of room to stand and stare at the passing beauty of Norway, or sit and enjoy a drink, breakfast or dinner. The balcony had a small table - of a height suitable to dine from and two chairs. The air conditioning, on full, kept the room comfortably cool, but I imagine that it would be insufficient for those that like their rooms chilled.
We were looked after by a room steward (Michael) who kept the room clean and tidy, a butler (Parvin) who helped Michael, brought the daily "Pursuits" and other information and kept the mini-fridge stocked and a head butler (Arvin) who dealt with in-suite room service and made our speciality restaurant reservations. All three were very efficient, friendly and discrete.
We were looking forward to the difference of cruising on a smaller ship and, in the Fjords, the ship's size paid dividends. We were able to take more scenic inside passages, explore breathtakingly beautiful detours and pass under bridges that would have been impossible for larger vessels. Leaving Flam we were able to spend several hours on an unscheduled cruise down Naeroyfjord (with Geiranger one of the two UNESCO World Heritage sites) which was outstandingly picturesque.
Despite its size, or perhaps because of it, we never seemed to be in a crowd or in a long line/queue, if anything I wondered whether the ship was full because there was always room in every bar and lounge - only in the main restaurants did you get a feel of a busy ship.
In some areas this lack of people caused us some disappointments. We planned to join in a name-that-tune type quiz but found just four people huddled around a laptop computer with a member of the entertainment staff playing tunes from the PC software. On another occasion we hoped to join in the ballroom dancing but found no-one dancing in the looking glass lounge. Even the Cruise Director admitted that the on-board entertainment was being beaten hands-down by the passing scenery outside.
The ship is kept in first class condition. The show lounge is no match for the theatres on larger ships but was ideal for the lower key entertainment offered. The Looking Glass lounge was the focus for livelier evening entertainment and was busy with Bridge players and people just enjoying the views during the day. Cova Café was a pleasant spot to enjoy piano music and a drink, or speciality teas/coffees (all at a charge) or a cake or cookie (free).
The pool area was great and we were very lucky with the weather so we could make the most of it. There were hardly any children on board so the pool was used by adults taking a dip. There was always room to swim, sit in either of the two hot tubs, or find a lounger to sit on (though loungers in the sun were sometimes harder to come by). The wooden loungers are very heavy to move, but with thick cushions and toweling covers they were very comfortable.
Azamara offers open dining at the main restaurant - Discoveries. Guests turn up, without needing a reservation, when they choose to eat and can request a table just for their party or offer to join others and share. There were plenty of tables for two, but some were so close together you could converse easily with your neighbors if you chose to. We sometimes joined a short line when we arrived at around 8pm but were seated within minutes. Twice we were asked to take a seat in the adjoining Martini Bar until a table was ready for us and the wait was never more than ten minutes. Senior and Assistant waiters seemed to keep the same tables each night and there did seem to be an effort to match languages for non-english speakers, so that one evening we were served by a French speaking waiter and most of the people around us were French speakers, on another occasion our Ukrainian waiter was speaking Russian with many of his guests. Service was good and attentive.
Food in Discoveries was consistently good to excellent, served hot and with very attractive presentation. The Menu was varied and tempting and there was an accompanying alternative menu of standard items for those who wanted something simpler. The decent European wines were a little pricey - thank goodness for our on board credit!
We ate at Aqualina once and were put off the Tasting/Wine Pairing menu by the mediocre wine choices. Speed of service seemed to be a problem the night we ate there. We were asked to select our desert with the rest of our meal to help the kitchen avoid delays and we were sat for over an hour before we were served our soup. The whole meal took nearly three hours. Whilst we were in no hurry I couldn't see a reason for this, the restaurant was not full, there were plenty of empty tables. However, the food was good, when it arrived.
We enjoyed Prime C more and went there three times in total (including our first evening on board). The steaks, salmon and lamb were all first class, the wild mushroom soup was wonderful and the chocolate fondue was a real treat.
There is no cover charge for eating in the speciality restaurants but a reservation is required. We made our first reservation at check-in (see embarkation) and made our other three through our Butler. Suite guests are entitled to three reservations and other passengers to two but additional reservations can be made over and above these if the restaurants have capacity. Guests eating in the speciality restaurants are invited to pay a gratuity of $5 per person to cover service. Service was faultless and we were happy to pay the gratuity - which was added to our on-board account.
We ate one evening in the buffet; we are not big buffet fans but gave it a try. The meal was fine, with stations offering pasta, pizza and stir fry - but it was no match for the restaurants.
We also opted to eat on our balcony one evening, as the weather got better and the Captain promised beautiful scenery as we cruised away from Bergen.
We called the Butler who arrived within minutes with the full menu from Discoveries and the wine list. He left us to make our choices and came back 20 minutes later with a table cloth, wine and water glasses and cutlery, vase of flowers etc and set up the table on the balcony. He took our order and we said we wanted to eat at around 8pm after we had showered and changed. First and second courses, bread basket and wine arrived as requested and we dined in the evening sunshine watching Norway pass by. Half an hour later the table was cleared and the main course and desert arrived. The food matched the quality in the dining room, the service was excellent and the setting perfect. Everything was cleared away when the room was turned down for the night later that evening.
Lunches on board were mainly taken at the poolside grill where chicken, beef and vegetarian kebabs, grilled vegetables, salad, burgers, hotdogs and chips(fries) were all available to order. However, when it got busy the grill became a little chaotic and slow.
Teas, coffees, still lemonade, orange juice, other fruit mixes and water were all available at the buffet free of charge. Afternoon tea was available between 3.30pm and 4.30pm in the buffet and twice on sea days the Discoveries Dinning Room opened for Elegant Afternoon Tea service. We also opted once for afternoon tea in our suite - but I have a dislike for hot water served in flasks mainly used for coffee - it taints the taste of the water and makes tea taste of coffee - a big problem for me! So we usually opted for the teapots in the buffet.
Staff and Crew
We had read very good things about the staff and crew working for Azamara and our experience confirmed those reports. Cabin staff, waiters and Maitre'Ds, guest relations, shore excursion and security staff were all friendly, helpful and efficient. Ships officers were highly visible and approachable. Captain Carl Smith was clearly in his element sailing through the Fjords and his enthusiasm and excitement at the routes he was able to take with the help of the local Norwegian pilots was infectious. He openly admitted struggling with the temptation to wake us all up with an early morning announcement to tell us how beautiful Geirangerfjord looked bathed in an early morning mist. His detailed reports on the use of anchors, how many lines were securing us to the dockside and techniques for pulling away left most of us baffled and puzzling over the exact length of a shackle!
entertainment were led by Cruise Director Dottie Kalusa and a small team. Shows were usually performed at 8pm and 10pm, with just one show at 9.30pm a couple of times. There was a talented troupe of five singer/dancers who provided three energetic shows, an American comedian, a female singer from west-end musicals, a Scottish classical and popular music violinist, a Chinese Dulcimer player and a virtuoso pianist Tian Jiang who played two shows - one of popular piano pieces and one of classics. But all of the entertainers had to compete with Norway looking its best in excellent weather and daylight until 11.30pm and that's hard to beat.
Ports of Call and Excursions
We were drawn to this cruise because of the itinerary which offered the very best of scenic Norway and we weren't disappointed. After a drenching in the rain of Oslo the weather just got better and better until we were seeking out the shade towards the end in Alesund and Stavanger. Temperatures hit 300C and the blue skies made the snowcapped peaks, the jade green water and the ice blue glaciers even more staggering.
Comforted by our on board credit we booked ship's tours in most places - we couldn't decide whether the excursions were expensive because it was Azamara or because it was Scandinavia - either way we took the hit. The tours were well organized and the small ship size paid off again when it came to getting guests off the ship and onto tours.
Oslo was wet. Having been before we remembered our previous guide's advice that there is no such thing as bad weather in Norway, just bad clothing. We explored the city center on our own for a couple of hours dodging showers and then joined the ships tour "Viking Heritage" taking in the City center, the Vigeland Sculpture Park, HolmenKollen Ski Jump, Viking Ship Museum and the Norwegian Folk Museum. The whole coach got soaked and the sights were wonderful but they would have been better still in dry weather
Eidfjord was the next stop and the weather was improving. We toured the Hardangervidda Mountain Plateau and travelled by coach, ferry and train. We saw the Hardangerjokul glacier from the coach, the Vortingfossen waterfall and Sysen stone dam, had an excellent buffet lunch at the Geilo ski resort and travelled by train from Voss to Geilo seeing what we thought was wonderful scenery, but which would be bettered as the cruise went on.
In Bergen the ship docked a short walk from the Bryggen and near to the Fishmarket and City center. We visited Troldhougen (home of composer Edvard Grieg) which included a 30 minute recital before returning to Bergen and joining the queue for the funicular railway to the top of Mount Floyen (NRK70 return). The view from the top is well worth the wait and there is a café and toilets for those that need them. We enjoyed wonderful prawn/shrimp and smoked salmon open sandwiches bought in the fish market before returning to the ship. Weather that evening was glorious and we were able to cruise an unscheduled inside passage to Olden.
Olden was the highlight for us, despite been little mentioned in our guidebooks. The fjord valley was emerald green, the sky was clear blue and the waters were colored jade by mineral deposits from the ice-melt. The ship tendered and the small town with a few shops was a short 15 minute walk away. We took a tour to the Briksdal Glacier which drove through the stunningly beautiful valley to a lodge about 1 hours walk from the foot of the glacier. The walk included some steep inclines and uneven surfaces, but we were warned of such by the shore excursion information. What would have been helpful would have been to know that the hardest walking was in the first 15/20 minutes after which it flattened off. Electric carts were available at extra cost to take passengers most of the way - but everyone had to walk the last 10/15 minutes to the glacier itself. We were lucky to see a chunk of the ice-blue glacier dislodge and tumble towards the lake below. Every turn of the walk to and from the glacier offered a great spot for photographs - I took far too many.
At Geiranger we climbed Mount Dalsnibba (by coach!) with photo stops halfway up and at the very top. Both offered picture postcard views of the valley with our ship sitting alone, tendered in the fjord. On the way back we called at the Fjord Visitor center and saw a 10 minute slide presentation of life in the fjords over the four seasons (much more absorbing than it sounds) and wandered around a fascinating museum depicting life in Geirangerfjord. We left the tour there and walked back through Geiranger, past the church and to the ship, after stopping off for a beer - the weather was getting warmer.
Molde is famous for its roses and an annual jazz festival. In the morning our tour started with the now obligatory "photo stop from a mountaintop" overlooking the town, the fjord and the Romsdal Alps. We then drove along the Atlantic Road (Construction of the Century in Norway) and visited a former German WW2 fortification. We explored the very pretty town by ourselves, but by the middle of Saturday afternoon it was closing for the weekend.
We explored Alesund by ourselves and spent most of the time looking for shade to walk in. The town was rebuilt in the Art Nouveau style after a devastating fire in 1904 and is very attractive. A trolleybus train took us round the town and made sure we got another "photo stop from a mountaintop".
Flam we also did by ourselves. The Norwegian Tourist Board official who sailed with us on the cruise warned that it was best to get the early train as the larger HAL Eurodam was due to dock at 11am. We disembarked as soon as we could and bought tickets (NKR310 return) for the 8.35am train from Flam to Myrdal (a climb of 864m over 20km) with more stunning views at every turn. We stayed in Myrdal for 15 minutes before the return trip to Flam. There were options to walk or cycle some or all of the way back down. The train stops for photographs at the Kjosfossen waterfall (about halfway). Flam is another small pretty town and the railway museum (which tells the story of the railway's construction) is worth a wander around (entrance was free).
Stavanger was our last stop before returning to Copenhagen. We took the City sights and Iron Age Village tour and were more than satisfied. Again the "photo stop from a mountaintop" was included - this time from the base of a telecoms tower! as were visits to an iron age farm, the three swords monument at Hafrsfjord, Stavanger Cathedral and a walk over the cobbles of Old Stavanger back to the ship.
On every tour we were escorted by the official guide plus an Azamara crewmember who seemed not only to be helping but also assessing the quality of the tours. Whilst the tours were expensive, we were pleased with our choices and saw all that we wanted to see, and more.
With a flight at 13.35 we were off the ship, without a hitch, by 8.45am and at the airport within an hour. We left our luggage outside our suite at 11pm on the last night and were reunited with it at Copenhagen Airport. Unlike on NCL where you can stay in your suite until you disembark, we had to be out by 8am and we waited in the buffet - no real problem.
All in all we thoroughly enjoyed the ship, thought Norway was wonderful and that we saw it at its best, and were impressed by Azamara Cruises and her staff. We would definitely sail Azamara again.