My husband and I sailed on the Azamara Quest 25 October to 7 November 2008 for their Ancient Empires14-day eastern Mediterranean cruise. We booked the cruise through our travel agent who brought this new cruise line to our attention when we mentioned we wanted something special to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. We debated between this cruise, which offered stops in several Turkish ports, or a Mediterranean/Black Sea cruise on Holland America's Prinsendam, a ship on which we had sailed before and loved. When I read Azamara's brochure and discovered their very strict smoking policy (smoking is only permitted in two small areas of the ship) and their dress policy (no formal nights; dinners were all resort casual), I decided the new guys were worth the try. We were very pleased with our cruise; so much so, we booked another cruise for 2009 while still on board (something I've never done before).
We elected to book our own air transportation and to arrange our own pre and post cruise stays. The cruise was scheduled to begin in Athens, Greece and to end in Rome (actually Civitavecchia). Since we had already visited Rome in the past but not the Amalfi coast, we had our travel agent arrange for us to disembark at the previous port of Sorrento. We had pre-arranged airport to hotel transport through Grayline Tours and I am really glad we did. Workers at the Athens airport called a strike the day we were to arrive and we were held at Frankfurt for several hours. Finally the strike ended at 3 pm and we were given the go-ahead to fly. When we landed around 5 pm, the line for public taxis was over the length of a football field; our driver, however, was waiting for us at the customs exit and we were taken straight into town. I had thought the taxi line an anomaly, but heard from other passengers later that they encountered a similar situation on other days. We arrived in Athens four days before the cruise and stayed at the wonderful small Hotel Adrian right in the heart of the Plaka district. The hotel's rooftop terrace, where we ate breakfast, gave us beautiful views of the Acropolis; our room was comfortable and quiet. We were able to walk to most attractions and were close to a metro stop for travel elsewhere.
On embarkation day we elected to take a pre-arranged taxi to the port. Although we had considered using the metro to Piraeus, I'm glad we didn't as the stop was a considerable walk from the cruise terminal and it turned out several cruise ships were all boarding the same day. The cruise information we received said not to arrive before 3 pm even though sailing was scheduled for 5pm. Since we needed to check out of our hotel, however, we ordered our taxi for 11 am. Our driver arrived early and we ended up at the cruise terminal at 11:05 am so I expected a long wait. Boy was I wrong! An Azamara agent met us at the door of our taxi and had a porter instantly take our checked bags. She then walked us into the terminal, which was crowded with other ships' passengers, directly to the check-in desk. Once we had our papers, she accompanied us to a separate passport control desk. Once through immigration, another agent walked us through security and then we were offered the option of waiting a few minutes for a shuttle bus or walking "about 5 minutes" to the ship. We elected to walk. Immediately upon boarding we were greeted with the usual champagne, taken to a desk were we could check our carry-on bags, and then directed to the buffet for lunch. By 11:30 we were sitting down to eat—25 minutes from taxi to lunch—amazing! Around 1:15 pm we were allowed to go to our staterooms.
The Azamara Quest is a small ship, one originally owned by Renaissance Cruises, designed to hold about 690 passengers; we sailed with about 650 passengers. All of the furnishings on the ship were redone and the Quest has been sailing since October 2007. They have found the perfect balance between elegant décor and comfort, not always achieved by other cruise lines. For passengers used to the newer and larger ships, the smaller staterooms and public areas may present a let-down. Since we had sailed on the Holland America's small ship the Prinsendam before, we were used to the smaller public areas and fewer facilities. Not having to struggle through long lines for everything is worth the lack of a few facilities or square footage for us. I must admit, though, I did miss the larger staterooms you find on the Holland America ship. Unlike other ships, however, I loved the fact that I was not faced walking through hallways or public areas trying to hold my breath as I am very allergic to smoke. Smoking is only allowed in one corner of the pool deck area and one corner of the Looking Glass Lounge; no smoking is permitted in any other area including the staterooms or on the verandahs. The dress code for the ship is "resort casual" with only the limitation that no jeans, shorts, tank tops, etc. are allowed in the main dining room or specialty restaurants. Some people did elect to dress up a bit at dinner, but we never felt any pressure to do so. Indeed we really liked the elegant but relaxed atmosphere that prevailed throughout the ship—somehow they've got it just right.
We booked a category 2A ocean view stateroom with verandah on deck 6 (#6065) between aft and mid-ship; this was as close as we could get to mid-ship with what was available at the time of our booking. I had read that these small ships did not have good stability and I'm prone to seasickness. We did have a little choppiness on two days, but our stateroom was fine. I found that the forward part of the ship felt movement more than aft on this particular cruise. The Future Cruise Sales Director later told me she recommends deck 4, mid-ship for the best stability. Our location was away from the elevators and any work area so it was very quiet. There was a bit of engine rumble and vibration at times in our location but we did not find it bothersome. Our location was quite nice in that we were easily able to get down two flights to mid-ship guest relations/shore excursions, one flight down to the mid-ship coffee bar, or up a few flights to the library or the restaurants which are all aft.
Our stateroom was comfortable but a bit snug at 175 sq. ft. We had a comfortable queen- sized bed and we were presented with a menu of pillows to choose from. I really appreciated being able to have the Swedish foam pillows like I use at home; my husband opted for old-fashioned feathers. There was a very small love seat (really only big enough for one person), a very small table, and a nice desk/vanity with drawers, but with small stool not a chair. Along the back of the desk were electrical outlets in both 110 and 220, which is nice if you are a computer user. A built-in cabinet contained the television, a mini-bar, safe, and a couple of extra shelves. The verandah had a table (big enough for eating) and two chairs. The closet had lots of hangers, which was nice, and adequate space for our clothes; a side section had several small drawers and a shelf. We were supplied with two plush robes, slippers, and a large umbrella for our use during the cruise. The bathroom was very tight and reminded me of the small bathroom we had on our first Princess Dawn cruise in a cheaper inside stateroom. I did manage to function, however, and I am not a small person. The small shower left little room for hanging hand wash, but the ship does have a guest laundry with 3 washers and 3 dryers on deck 7. The towels were very luxurious; however, we did have a significant problem with hot water on our sailing. There was no hot water before 6 am, ever, and then after that it was intermittent until later in the day. I finally just had to plan my showers for late afternoons as the problem persisted throughout our cruise. I heard from folks on the next sailing who came through Sorrento that the cruise line had brought a plumber on board in Rome and he was working on it. Hopefully this is now solved. My only other comment is on the cruise line's referral to cabin attendants as butlers; it seems a silly conceit as they provided no additional service than any cabin attendants have done for us on other cruise lines.
The Quest provides several dining options, all of which we tried at least once. On our cruise all passengers were given two free nights at the specialty dinner restaurants with no cover charge (I believe passengers in the suites get additional nights); I know of no other cruise line that does this for all passengers. We celebrated our anniversary in the Prime C which specializes in steak. Service was impeccable, the filet mignon which was cooked perfectly to my well-done request was the best I had ever had, and they made us a special anniversary cake for delivery to our room as they insisted we are order a regular dessert from their menu. Later in the cruise we ate at the Aqualina which bills itself as a Mediterranean restaurant with a menu focused on seafood. I found I preferred the warmer atmosphere of the Prime C, but service in both restaurants was excellent. On our first night on board we ate at the Discoveries main dining room and I had one lunch there. We found the service to be a bit slow (although it may have been because it was the first night) and the menu a bit too "fussy" for our tastes. The lunch and dinner menus consisted of two parts: one section was of set dishes available every day and the other half consisted of the dishes created for that day only.
Because we like early meals and simpler food we opted to eat most of our meals in the buffet-styled Windows Café. Breakfast here was served in two segments; Early Riser breakfast provided hot drinks, pastries, fruit, and cereal while the later regular breakfast added the hot dishes including made-to-order omelets and a fruit juice/smoothie bar. My only complaints about the Quest's dining were at breakfast. For cereals, we started the cruise with mostly Fruit Loops, Frosted Flakes, and Rice Crispies. Since there were only two children that I know of on board I found this surprising. Eventually we got some more adult cereals like Raisin Bran, but they really need to provide some good granola and/or dried muesli (Swiss-styled, drowned in milk muesli was offered but I'm not a fan). My other complaint was the lack of any decent hot chocolate (the only hot drink I consume) even at the Mosaic Coffee Bar. We were given packets of Nestle instant cocoa and hot water—yuck. Can you imagine a ship offering coffee drinkers hot water and packets of instant Nescafe? No, the coffee drinkers had access to a machine at the buffet that made individual cups of espresso, cappuccino, or regular coffee, and the tea drinkers had their choice of several types of tea. I eventually found a tin of drinking chocolate at a market on shore and the coffee bar gave me a cup of hot milk on request. As I said these were the only complaints I had about the buffet; otherwise the food was varied and excellent. A small salad bar was available at lunch and dinner as was a carvery counter with delicious meat, poultry or fish, and an ice cream counter with 10 different flavors (usually 2 of which were sugar-free). At lunch there was a pizza bar and at dinner stations for made-to-order pasta and stir-fry. Other hot and cold entries and appetizers as well as desserts varied with each day and meal. The Windows Café provided both indoor seating on both sides and two outdoor seating areas, one on the aft deck and also in a covered area by the pool. At the times we ate we never had a trouble finding a table somewhere.
We also occasionally ate at the two other casual dining options: the Pool Grill and the Mosaic Cafe. The Pool Grill was open for lunch and late afternoon dining. In addition to the usual hamburgers, hot dogs, and fries, they also offered bowls of pea soup, kebabs, barbecued ribs, and a small salad bar. Again service was wonderful and the food good. This was a great place to eat if your shore excursion got you back to the ship after the regular dining venues stopped serving lunch. The Mosaic Café is primarily a coffee bar, but in the evenings they offer wine as well. They charge for their drinks, but they offer for free pastries, small sandwiches, and/or tapas depending on the time of day. This Café is located mid-ship deck 5 above the Guest Relations desk area; they provide small tables and chairs as well as a couple of sofas and arm chairs. Many evenings a wonderful harpist was playing and we enjoyed sitting here before dinner.
The ship did provide entertainment although we did not really avail ourselves of many of these opportunities. The Cabaret Theatre is rather small and simple when compared to some of the glitzy, large theatres on the newer, larger ships; therefore, the ship provides smaller shows with vocalists and/or instrumentalists as the focus. The Looking Glass Lounge has a small area for dancing with either live or recorded music. There was a small casino on board. Listed in the daily program were listed the oft-found bingo sessions, lessons, etc. but again we never attended. What we did attend, though, were the lectures offered for each port. We had on board our sailing a young British lecturer who provided talks that very nicely combined history and a travelogue for each port. I wished we had had more of these lectures although our time was pretty full-up as it was. The Shore Excursion Director offered a separate port talk with basic information on transportation, currency, and other essentials but without (believe or not) once mentioning where you could buy your diamonds, tanzanite, watches, or perfume. Wow, what a wonderful change! In addition, for part of our cruise a special port expert from Turkey was on board and available with advice and maps for all our Turkish ports. There were no silly contests, no big sales pitches (only one very low-key art auction), none of that ridiculous rah-rah stuff from the Activities Director you find on other ships. We thought this was a wonderful relief and one of the reasons we will sail with the company again.
The physical activities were limited as you find on any smaller ship, but I was quite pleased with the fitness center on board. The fitness center had an open area and available yoga mats for those who wanted to do their own program; they also offered a few classes. The main portion of the center contained 2 recumbent bikes, 3 treadmills, and a variety of weight machines as well as free weights. They provided plenty of towels, antiseptic wipes and a drinking fountain as well as a nice view. The aerobic machines had hook-ups for headsets and provided personal television screens in the control panels. The pool deck offered a small, but unheated, swimming pool and two small hot tubs. I tried the pool once but it was freezing cold; they really should find a way to heat the water at least a little. The only other thing I did not like about the pool area was the constant piped-in music especially in the early morning. Why is that necessary? Many of us were up early on the morning we sailed into Istanbul; it would have been wonderful to hear the call to prayer from shore as the sun rose—instead we heard loud American jazz from the speakers. There was a jogging/walking track on the elevated deck above the pool and also a few games areas (shuffle board, ping pong, etc.) scattered around the ship. The Spa, run by the same British company that seems to run all cruise ship spas, offered a private spa area (daily or cruise-length passes available for sale) that has a Thalassotherapy pool (basically a large salt-water Jacuzzi tub with built in lounge rack and assorted jets) with a private relaxation deck, changing room, etc. We did not try any of the other Spa services on this cruise.
Two other areas of the ship deserve mention and they are the Library/Drawing Room and the eConnection internet room. The Library/Drawing was a beautiful oasis. Wood paneled walls with cabinets of books with check-out on the honor system. Around the room are very comfortable sofas and armchairs for reading. There are also some tables and chairs with assorted chess sets and other games available. For those interested in card games there was a separate area located in the Looking Glass Lounge. The Library is used on occasion for meetings and receptions including our Cruise Critic social. The eConnection offers several laptop computers with internet connection and a printer for use for a fee beginning at 65 cents per minute. Since this was a 2-week cruise and I had brought my own laptop, I opted for the 260-minute package ($100) which brought the price down to 38 cents per minute. Wi-fi is available throughout the ship; I found the connection in my stateroom on my own laptop faster than in the internet room using the ship's computers. I received very clear instructions on how to access the connection on my own computer and had no difficulty using it. eConnections also offered a few computer classes during our cruise but we did not take any of them. The center is quiet and comfortable. eConnections became very popular the morning (for us) after the election when the ship's CNN satellite television connection temporarily failed and we all huddled around a computer to follows the results.
Whereas we did not utilize many activities on board, we did greatly use and enjoy the shore excursions provided by the ship. I do not know if it was just this particular itinerary or not, but the shore excursions on this cruise were some of the most affordable and enjoyable of any we have taken before. At least one of us took a ship-provided shore excursion in every port except Istanbul, which we did on our own (with Rick Steves' wonderful book in hand), and Sorrento where we disembarked. We had pre-booked all of our excursions online; the process was quite easy but it did require pre-payment at time of booking. After arriving on board, my husband decided he wanted to switch his choice of excursion for our first port of Canakkale and I thought sure this would be awful. No, it wasn't. The Shore Excursion desk staff was wonderful and the change was easily made. This was a very well-run department. All of our excursions went out on time, even early if everyone was already checked-in and we had port clearance. Anytime there was even the smallest change in excursion itinerary we received written notification. We did hear of a few cancelled excursions, but we heard that people were immediately notified and advised as to alternate bookings. That was a very pleasant improvement over our time on Celebrity when we encountered more than one last-minute cancellation notice shoved under our stateroom door always conveniently after the Shore Excursion desk closed for the day leaving us stranded. The buses used on our excursions were all clean and comfortable and never crowded. I noticed the ship often used more buses rather than completely fill the seats one bus. For the most part the guides were excellent and the excursions exactly as described with two exceptions. Our group in Alexandria did get a less than competent guide, but our driver was nice and the guide at the library excellent. Our tour in Bodrum to Heraklia and Bafa Lake did not completely follow the description as we never stopped at the lake nor did we get to interact with the village residents (to "join the locals for a coffee in the men's canteen or try the knitting with Turkish ladies" as per the brochure). Many passengers elected to do their own thing in ports and the staff provided sufficient information, and cautions where needed. In some of our ports we were docked away from town, but in those instances the ship arranged for shuttle service (except where forbidden by local taxi unions) which passengers could use for a small fee.
The Guest Relations Desk was staffed by very competent personnel and took pains to find answers or resolve problems as best as possible. They provide the usual daily bulletin with events and meal times as well as some information on an interactive service on your stateroom television. I do wish they would add the daily menus and the television movie schedule to this interactive service as their current inclusion on the information channel sometimes means waiting up to 15 minutes before it rolls around to what you want to know. On the negative side, I want to note that I was told by the Azamara head office that the currency exchange services on board would provide currency for all our ports. They did not; they only provided dollars and euros. I do not know what currencies may be available for other itineraries, but Azamara should specify these details more clearly to passengers in advance.
And finally, before disembarkation, I want to talk about overall service on the Azamara Quest. On every cruise I've been on we've always been given those comment forms to fill out and deposit on the box in the lobby and I've always dutifully done so while remaining doubtful anyone will really read them or care. I can honestly say that for the first time ever I have encountered a staff and a cruise line I truly believe does care. I don't know—maybe because they are a relatively new enterprise (although just an offshoot of Celebrity)—but I do know they care. Those of us from the Cruise Connections roll call met many of the staff at our reception on the second evening of our cruise and we were encouraged to let the staff know of any concerns immediately. I wrote one short note about a concern and quickly received personal phone calls from two staff members. Mid-way through our cruise, passengers were given a blank comment form to communicate any positive and/or negative feedback that they had to date. These were read by staff immediately and then sent forward to the central office. Upon return home we received emailed requests to fill out an additional survey form that allowed for written comment in addition to just rating services/facilities by numbers. This does not mean that all problems were instantly solved, but you knew they were trying. The other comment I wanted to make about the service on the Quest that I had not sensed on other cruise ships: that was the feeling that all of the staff were really very happy about where they were; you did not feel they were going through the motions or counting the days till their next leave.
As I mentioned before, we elected to disembark in Sorrento a day before the cruise ended at Civitavecchia (Rome). We volunteered to handle our own luggage but the stateroom staff would have helped if asked. Since this was a tendered port, we did have a few stairs to haul our suitcases down but the tender crew helped us into and out of the boat. From the Marina Piccolo we took a taxi to our accommodation as the town of Sorrento sits on a cliff overlooking the sea. We selected a B and B, the Casa Dominova, for our accommodation for four nights because of the good price and its location right in the heart of the old part of the town; it turned out we were the only guests as November begins the off-season. Our room was quite large with one queen and two single beds, an armoire, a sofa, a table with four chairs, and a refrigerator. Our private bathroom was outside our room a few steps down the hall. Breakfast was served in the courtyard. This is a family owned establishment located on the ground floor of an apartment building on a quiet street just a block from a park overlooking the bay. The place is not fancy but quite comfortable and very clean, although there was a bit of a damp smell. The location was fantastic; we could walk everywhere and felt completely safe at night. The family also owns and runs a nearby restaurant da Gigino where we ate several delicious meals. Because we had a very early flight home from Naples, we spent our last night at the Holiday Inn there. The Holiday Inn is located in a business/convention park area not too far from the train station; although, upon advice of the tourist office in Sorrento, we took the hydrofoil to Naples instead. The Holiday Inn has a limited shuttle service to the airport and another that stops at the train station and in the town center near the pier. Our room as the usual Holiday Inn comfort/style and while the hotel's restaurant had poor hours and high prices, there was a McDonald's and other cafes within the business complex area.
We are looking forward to our Southeast Asia cruise with them next year and have begun recommending them to other travelers. My hope for Azamara is that they realize they have the opportunity to attract serious travelers with more unique itineraries and enhanced enrichment programs—to build on how they can be different from all those other cruise ships. For example, I would really like to see them skip the Caribbean and go into Africa, for example, and to expand in Asia. What especially attracted us to the upcoming Southeast Asia cruise were the number of ports in which they will overnight giving passengers more opportunities for in-depth or further-a-field visits—another uniqueness they should keep. In summary, Azamara's Quest is not perfect, but it was a wonderful cruise and the staff and service were great. We will be back for more.