Executive summary: We enjoyed our introduction to the Azamara product. I can't honestly say that I was blown away by the overall experience, and I don't think that the premium pricing (not to mention the higher gratuities and 18% service charge added on to just about everything but air onboard) is warranted. I will definitely sail on the line again - we are sailing on Quest in May - but will do so based on some of the interesting itineraries that are being offered, not based on the ship itself. It was very nice, just not the 5-6 stars that they strive to be.
Background: DH and I are experienced cruisers, having taken over 50 cruises between Royal Caribbean and Princess (his Navy cruises don't count). Because we are Diamond Plus members of the RCI Crown & Anchor Society, we have Elite status with Celebrity/Azamara. We had originally planned to sail on the Rhapsody of the Seas in Australia/New Zealand for the holidays, but couldn't use our miles for airfare, so we decided to look about closer to home and found this cruise instead.
The itinerary was Miami to Los Angeles via the Panama Canal, with port calls in Oranjestad, Aruba; Puntarenas, Costa Rica; San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua; and Huatulco, Acapulco and Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. There were 9 sea days, counting the Panama Canal transit.
We flew into Miami from LA the day before the cruise. Because of bad weather nationwide, we were an hour late, but we still made it to the Hyatt Regency before the bar food service shut down, and had a great couple of cheeseburgers with fries and beer before turning in. There is a CVS drugstore within sight of the hotel, along with a wine and liquor shop and Bank of America branch, so it was easy for us to pick up lotions and other items that would have put us over the 50lb airline weight allowance (there's also a Ross if you've forgotten any clothing items).
We arrived at the port about noon and went through security along with our 4 bottles of wine in our carryon. Instead of one long line where the first in line went to the next available check-in person, each window had a separate line. One poor overmatched man tried to control the flow, with little success. There was a separate line for suites that moved somewhat slowly There was no priority check in for Select or Elite Captain's Club members that we could see. But we were still through the process in about 15 minutes and headed for the ship!
We passed on the boarding photo, had our Seapass photo taken and stepped onboard. We were greeted on the way in with a glass of champagne, a nice start to the cruise.
The cabins were not ready until after 2:00, later than the usual 1:30 because there was a full crew immigration check and Coast Guard and US Public Health inspections. So we dragged our carryons around the ship (they will check them and deliver them to your cabin, but we wanted to keep our valuables with us), took lots of pictures and had a light bite in the Windows Cafe, which was extremely crowded. I don't see why the RCCL family cannot have the cabins ready earlier the way Princess and Holland America, to name two, do.
Cabin and Service:
Cabin choice is important to us - we spend a lot of time in ours, especially on sea days, because we don't like crowds. Even on this small ship, there were some very crowded venues, particularly on sea days.
We were in a Sky Suite, #8044, which is portside, almost dead midships. It was a very convenient location, with the aft stairway two cabins away. I would book a little further aft next time, however, because we were directly under the "living room" area of the Pool Deck (where they have some very heavy chairs and tables) and we could hear furniture being rearranged periodically. In addition, a pair of late night joggers on Deck 10 sent the vibrations down to the cabin as they passed directly over. We could hear the music, too, but it was good music, so we didn't really mind.
The balcony was quite nice. We usually book cabins on the stern of the ship for their larger size and lounge chairs, but the only options were the Sunset Verandah cabins (a little small) or the penthouse suites (a lot expensive). So we "settled" for a midships location, which on this class of ship was a good choice for us.
The cabin layout is a little odd to me -there is a large entryway, which gives you lots of space between the closet and the bathroom, but gives you less actual living space. I would have preferred to have a little less grand of an entry way and slightly smaller bathroom and more room for a full sized sofa instead of a loveseat.
Our cabin service staff consisted of a head butler, Pras, a butler, Ravin, and a bathroom guy whose name we never learned. Even being triple-teamed in this way, we didn't find the service to be as good as we have received on RCI. Most of the problem was in the bathroom, where attention to detail was lacking. Ravin did a good job. We seldom saw him - he was in and out while we were at breakfast, cleaned our wine glasses and made everything look pretty. And he decorated the cabin for Don's birthday even though I had forgotten to mention it until we were on our way to dinner that night. We saw Pras most of all, and he was responsive to our requests, although we didn't have many.
Suite cabins come with a flat screen TV (all cabins have them) and DVD player. We tried without success to hook our iPod up to the TV to play music through its speakers because they have disabled that function. So bring your travel speakers if you want to hear your own music in the cabin.
We sampled every dining facility onboard. ?
Windows Cafe/Breeza (and the Pool Grill immediately outside) was terrific for breakfast and lunch, and had a fair dinner offering, with sushi every night (a little bland for my tastes), stir fry and a different theme each night, whether Indian, Cajun, Mexican, Italian, etc. Their ice cream was great, and the service at breakfast and lunch was very good. They were a little thinly staffed at dinnertime. They also ran out of a quite a few food items. There were plenty of reprovisioning opportunities, and none of the stuff was so exotic that it couldn't be found for a reasonable price (peanut butter, oranges, olives, to name a few). In the final day of the cruise all four of the hot water dispensers were broken, to the great consternation of the tea drinkers (I'm not one of them, but I certainly heard about it).
We used room service for breakfast - the food arrived promptly, the coffee was good and they usually got the order right (except for giving me milk instead of cream for my coffee, just a little indulgence but important to me). Their custom is to call to let you know it's coming.
Discoveries (the main dining room) was a disappointment to us. After three meals there we did not return, preferring Aqualina or Prime C. The service was uneven, the food often didn't match the menu (it's a standardized menu, but they didn't always have the ingredients and the waiter didn't tell us) and we wrote it off after one meal where the service was slower than molasses in January. Other passengers had wonderful meals there, so perhaps it was just our karma, but I wasn't impressed. We did talk to a couple who had stuck it out after an initial disappointment, and they said that the food and service did improve over the course of the cruise.
Aqualina was very good, with an imaginative menu. They had fish, poultry and meat offerings, all of which arrived cooked as ordered, and the service was good.
Prime C was sublime. They also offer fish, poultry and meat, and we found nothing to complain about, only nits to pick, none worth mentioning here. The wine service in both restaurants was wonderful - Emina and Laurentzia recommended several wines we had not tried before but will definitely try again.
I had read on Cruise Critic that it was easy to get reservations all cruise long, but we still went on the first day to book our 3 guaranteed reservations. Then on the fourth day we booked for the rest of the cruise. They ended up being full every night for the last 7 nights or so. To us, the $5 recommended gratuity was nothing compared to the food and service we experienced there. The wine list, was also better than the Discoveries one (find it the same way), at least in our opinion. You can find them on Webshots, user critterchick1953.
The ship is very well kept. Our cabin was brand new in 2007, so everything was in good shape. You could see a few signs of wear & tear in the public areas, but nothing significant. We did talk to people in other cabin classes who thought that their cabins were a bit worn out. There were always a couple of housekeepers cleaning and polishing regularly.
The common area dEcor was beautiful. The ship was decorated for the holidays and it made for a very festive atmosphere.
We purchased a cruise-long pass for the Thalassotherapy spa. It was $175 plus an 18% gratuity, and it was worth it to us. We tended to go in the late afternoon after the chair hogs (and there were quite a few, sad to say) had dispersed, so we could read for a bit in the fresh air and have a nice long soak. They did sell too many passes for the area, and with entrances from both locker rooms, the gym and the beauty salon, there was no way to really monitor who went in and out.
There are lots of nooks and crannies to hang out in - the library/Michael's Club, which had a big collection of books by authors I've never heard of (that may say more about me than the collection), the Looking Glass lounge during the day, the Martini Bar, Deck 5 around Cova Cafe (which we didn't patronize, but nonalcoholic specialty coffees were included in the suite cruise fare, so we took advantage in our cabin).
The casino is a good size, about 50% larger than the one I saw on the Oceania Regatta. It alternated between giving me fair payouts and being mean to me.
The fitness center was full of modern, well-kept equipment. Several machines were "tuned up" during the cruise. We tended to go just before the late afternoon crowd arrived, and never had a problem using our preferred equipment. I am happy to report that I only gained one pound in 16 nights.
There is a fair bit of space that isn't well utilized IMHO. The Martini Bar was usually the venue for spa seminars. Just what I wanted - somebody yammering about fat loss while I'm on my way to gorge, LOL. It was a beautiful space and wasted on that drivel, which invariably ended in a sales pitch. There is a jewelry display near Guest Relations that could easily be converted into a little meeting facility.
This ship moves - even in light seas, any swell is noticeable. So if you are prone to motion sickness, bring your preferred remedy. You can get some fresh grated ginger from room service or get the pickled sushi ginger from Windows - both work well for me, thankfully! Entertainment/Onboard Activities:
I was very impressed with the array of offerings, even though we didn't attend many of them. On sea days, one could usually find a cooking demonstration, trivia several times a day, enrichment lectures, dance lessons, spa sales pitches, bingo, games, bridge, etc. The evening entertainment offerings included a violinist, pianist, banjo player, mini-production shows with 5 very good singers, a show by CD Sue Denning (we only caught part of that because dinner ran late). There was one final singer, a woman in her 70s, who by all accounts was simply ghastly in one of those "she should have retired ages ago" ways. Sue doesn't get to screen the talent before it gets onboard, I'm afraid.
There were quite a few dancers in the passenger mix, and several of them complained about the lack of ballroom dancing opportunities. Sue responded by scheduling nightly recorded music sessions in the Cabaret. She is a terrific CD.
We liked the music of the Mirage Trio, but after 16 days, I think I could be their lead singer and not need a score, LOL. We also enjoyed the Journey Orchestra, which accompanied many of the acts and had a few of their own sets as well.
Something just wasn't quite right with the crew. It could be that they were exhausted from the 7 straight sea days on the transatlantic crossing, but we have never witnessed the bickering that often erupted between crewmembers. We also watched the head of housekeeping scold one of her staff for holding up the elevator we were waiting for. Reprimands are private affairs, IMHO. We frequently encountered a particular waiter who, when I asked how he was, invariably had a complaint - hot, tired, whatever.
We also found that several venues were simply understaffed. One reason we didn't care for Discoveries was that it was every bit as chaotic as a larger Royal Caribbean dining room. The bars were also short-staffed - the Looking Glass often had a single waiter for the entire venue, and he or she couldn't possibly keep up with demand. The bartender in the Casino (an absolute gem named Alin) was also the only server much of the time, so he had to leave the bar to bring drinks to gamblers or to go in search of ingredients in the other bars.
One of the things about Cruise Critic is that you can compare notes with your fellow CCers. I think we all found a few things lacking on the cruise. I don't think any of us let them ruin the experience for us, and we in fact got some laughs out of it.
Passengers came from all over the world, with large groups from Germany and the UK. Most were over 60, but there were quite a few of us in the 30-50 range, and even a few with children. As I said earlier, there are no children's programs onboard, so I don't really know what they did all day long. Ports of Call/Shore Excursions:
We normally book independently of the ship, but we couldn't dig up a lot of information on our ports of call (we weren't resourceful enough), and our CC group didn't gel to the point of getting together for many of them. We were very disappointed in the ship's offerings. Almost all of the excursions offered by AZ were geared toward the sedentary - day long bus rides to go sightseeing. Snorkeling was offered in Aruba, Huatulco and Cabo. ATV was offered in Aruba. Sailing (America's Cup) was offered in Cabo. That was pretty much it for anything active.
In addition, there were few late morning or afternoon excursions, even in ports where we stayed until 6:00 pm. With few exceptions, they all left by 8:30 am. I realize that we were the only ship in every port except Aruba, and they were aiming for their primary demographic, but it left a lot of us out in the cold. Well, humid heat, anyway.
The ship did hook up with local tourism people who manned a hospitality desk in most of the ports. They could tell bus where to find nice restaurants, Internet cafes, drugstores, etc. Except for the two ports below, we mainly walked around the port areas and did some sightseeing on our own.
Huatulco was our favorite port, it qualifies as charming to me. We took the ship's snorkeling excursion, which was great fun. The first stop had great fish. The second stop had a gorgeous coral reef, great fish and sea nettles, which look exactly like jellyfish and sting like crazy, although they aren't poisonous and it was annoying rather than truly painful. So we didn't last too long there, which was a shame. The port area is also very nice, so we wandered it, bought a souvenir, and headed "home".
We have been to Cabo San Lucas many times, and do the same excursion every time, the America's Cup Yacht Race. We didn't have quite as good a time as usual, since we lost both races, though. The cruise ships apparently insist that all of the passengers be on one boat if there aren't enough of us to split up. So we had a group of older, overweight people who had been stuffing their faces with food for 14 days vs. a group of resort holidayers, most of whom were young and fit. And we got the older boat as well. ? It was still a great way to spend a few hours. We had lunch (and drowned our sorrows in a couple of beers) at Baja Cantina on the harbor (recommended by one of the America's Cup crew) before heading back to the ship to get ready for New Year's Eve.
We brought lots of books and I brought a long-neglected needlepoint project to keep us occupied on sea days. We read a lot, and I got two rows of stitches done on the pillow.
Unlike RCI, which allows you to change your assigned disembarkation time freely, Journey made a BIG DEAL about changes. We were allowed to move from Orange (last off) to Red (about 30 minutes earlier), but they guard the tags as if they were the gold of Fort Knox and actually record who changes to which time. I guess they're serious about queue management.
The process itself was fairly painless - express departure people reported to immigration onboard at 6:45 am (about half an hour ahead of schedule), and off they went. Then the color tags were called, one at a time. The white (first) tags were allowed to disembark the ship around 8:30, so they had about an hour's wait after clearing immigration. We were in the middle of the pack and had good luck - we went through immigration, headed back to our cabin (they never actually ask you to vacate them, just sort of hint at it) and were called to disembark as soon as we got there. With relatively few passengers, it was easy to find even the black bag. The longest wait was in the taxi queue - with 3 ships in port there was bound to be a wait, but even that was only about 20 minutes.
There were several people who brought joy to our onboard experience - Philip Herbert, the Hotel Director, was friendly, responsive and patient. Sue Denning is a terrific cruise director. She brings a much-appreciated spark to the festivities. Bashki (sp?), the bar manager always came over to say hello and chat with us, and was a good problem solver as well.
All in all, we had a very nice time. I concluded that 9 sea days on a ship that size were too many for me, although I cheerfully concede that others would find that to be a slice of heaven. Azamara still has work to do on being the 5 or 6 star line to which they aspire, and I think that they are not yet worth the premium price (and gratuities) that they charge over Royal Caribbean. We are greatly looking forward to our next cruise on Azamara, the Best of Italy on Quest. I think that the smaller ship will be ideal for the port-intensive itineraries offered.