Since I last wrote, we are both one year older but still (if you will allow us) wish to consider ourselves mid 50s, we are British so we do not cope with change too well so were stressing ourselves pre cruise - after ten trips with Celebrity why had we allowed a lovely future cruise consultant to convince us to try Azamara?
Pre cruise and embarkation
As always we did our own pre cruise arrangements so we flew out via Paris with Air France and enjoyed an excellent two days at The Fullerton in Singapore, right beside Merlion. Singapore is a very organized city, some might say antiseptic - it certainly was going to be our last port where we would see this type of environment for a while.
It was very easy embarking at Singapore (even if it did look like we were coming through a workman's hut to get there), our cases were immediately looked after by porters and the whole process was very straightforward. As we were in a suite it also included making arrangements for dining in Prime C on the first night. Non suite passengers were being given "timeslots" for the Main Dining Room.
Immediately on boarding it was clear that the smaller ship was going to have advantages - not sure if this was an advantage but I made a pledge to always use the stairs as it was only a maximum of 4 floors for us. Our Sky Suite was spotlessly clean, we did see our Butler aka Stateroom Attendant (whom we never saw again until the night he was hoping for an extra tip - we had prepaid our service charge in the holiday cost) and later the Senior Butler introduced himself. Two nice guys but both struggled to hit the standards we had enjoyed in Celebrity, but no big deal.
Nice touch on Azamara is the night time treats made by the pastry chefs left in the room for you and the afternoon canapEs had been replaced by lovely "tapas type" selections from Mosaic Cafe (Cova to those used to X!)
We quickly settled into a routine, we were sailing with friends - it was clear if we wanted to eat together and enjoy the Speciality Restaurant some planning was required so we made all our reservations (8 in total) for the whole trip. You need to make plans quickly if you want your chosen days so be warned, don't get into relaxed shipboard life until you get your plans made. Which restaurant was my favorite - that's an unfair question because they are both wonderful - excuse me drooling again I remember the Black Angus Steak in Prime C and the Sea Bass in Aqualina and the bad girls dessert - the Chocolate Fondue. Recommended service charge $5 per person is very fair. We did however notice when we ate as a group of 6 in Aqualina the service was slow, however when it was just two of us it was very slick.
The main dining room had a couple of bad days not in terms of food but very shamolic service, not in getting seated but after then. There were a lot of crew off sick and I think the others were just so stretched. The senior managers recognized the problems so no big issue - the bottle they sent over was very appreciated so I forget how long we waited each night but it was about 4 wine glasses long. Again we found eating as a 2 was handled far better than when we were a 6. That said, the quality of the food and presentation was very good indeed and we did feel it was lighter. The range of choices was very good with a whole page of staple choices available very night (steak; salmon; prawn cocktail; Caesar salad etc) as well as a menu that changed nightly
I am a sloth in the morning - sorry others say a Grouch, so we enjoyed breakfast in the room most days. We did venture to Windows Cafe a couple of times at breakfast, it was a bit crowded but there was a lovely lady making fab English muffins and I loved the granola yogurt and fresh fruit mmm
So overall I gorged my way round Asia and dreaded my home appointment with Mr Scales.
Activities and Entertainment
Shipboard activities were the usual, trivia, dance classes, bingo - what was a notch up was the enrichment series; it is an absolute must. Jonathon Fleming's introduction to each country - culture, history, key sights etc - was wonderful and as it was replayed on the stateroom tv you could fit in listening to him at a time to suit yourself.
Evening activities did not work for us as we tend to eat at around 8pm. With the slow service in the dining room (and our deliberate decision to enjoy the slower pace in the Speciality Restaurants) we never made the shows which tended to have 2130-2200 starts. There is everything of a large ship - just on a smaller scale, casino, bands in lounges, a disco and smaller revue shows.
Our ports of call
As we were overnighting in Singapore before an early afternoon sailaway we had the chance to do a trip on the morning of Day 2. The must do is take the Sentosa Skytrain (cablecar) the station is in the tower block beside the Cruise terminal. Sentosa Island is OK, but the big thing is you glide about 200 feet above your new home - and can get amazing aerial photos of the ship. Cost was about $30 (Singapore dollars) for the two of us and they took credit cards.
Anyway, the ever informative Captain Carl "I've doubled up and come down to two and one" Smith - that's the ropes he is talking about by the way, had us set sail and our adventure began. Immediately he was challenged by strong currents so it became a flat out run slightly bumpy at times to reach Laem Chabang (for Bangkok) in time.
So what of our excursions - on this trip when we had excursions we arranged them all through the cruiseline, we were not adventurous enough to go it alone as we usually do. Some of the guides were very good the others, particularly those in Hanoi and Hoi An were not well organized so time was wasted and we became self managing tours.
Bangkok - We did the Treasures of Bangkok trip. The journey into Bangkok took about 2 hours each way and the coach was very comfortable. We went to Happy Rooms - yes a new name for the holiday vocabulary - at very clean service stations. We had an excellent guide and were taken to Wat Trimit, the Temple of the Golden Buddha, known for its famous Golden Buddha which is 3m high and then on to Wat Po, the most extensive temple in Bangkok with its 15 meter long reclining Buddha. Thank goodness it was lunchtime, I had been exercising all morning take your left shoe off put your left shoe on take your other shoe off - you know the no shoe rule so do not wear lovely new white socks as dear husband did - no amount of power powder will clean them! Lunch was excellent, with a Thai buffet served on a converted rice barge as we cruised along the Chao Phraya River - this was a really good use of time. Later we visited King Rama V's favorite place, Vimanmek Palace. Unfortunately shopping was at a "jewelry store" - the cruise line had warned us about this in advance it seems it something they have no control of for this year but have made it known that this is not what is wanted.
Day 2 we went to the amazing Sanctuary of Truth, a wooded temple that has given employment for over 25 years to local crafts people but is still 15 years away from completion. It is hard to describe this place - but you can also leave your own bit of carving, so up top beam front building left you will find my scratch. On the way back out of Pattaya (seedy and not nice) we stopped at - you've guessed it - another branch of the jewelry store. If you want to shop in Thailand it is going to be tricky as the port is not near any shopping and the excursions do not give you any opportunity. Pattaya on your own does not really help as Pattaya is not a good place to find any shopping.
Sihanoukville - Many went on the long trip to Pnomh Penn and came back with good stories. We knew that we could not do too many long trips and decided to have a local day which gave us a good chance to explore locally. We took the ships shuttle (free) into town and then negotiated a Tuc Tuc for $5 to get to Sokhu Beach which has a good hotel. For $8 we were able to enjoy all the facilities including their private beach (no hawkers etc), nice loungers. It must be the best place to go as we met the Captain, Hotel Director and four other senior officers on the beach during our day there. Cambodia is a poor country, you will see sights that are not what westerners are used to and you probably will not want to eat much ashore. But it is worth every minute ashore
Ho Chi Minh City - We did the highlights tour and it was a really good value 5 hour trip with a good guide in which we saw all the main highlights. Although you will see lots of lovely buildings etc the fun of this place is the sights and sounds. Just count how many are on the motorbikes and see what is the most eccentric thing you see being carried on the back of the bikes - you will have dinner conversation material for the rest of the trip and beyond!!
Hoi An - Here it was Chinese New Years day. Again, the port in Da Nang has nothing near so we opted to see if we could find anything open further afield. We went on the Hoi An on your own trip. This is the best way to do Hoi An you have the advantage of the transport (local taxis are very scarce indeed) and a little input from the guide but then you are free to see all the sights on your own and all the places are well signed and have explanatory plaques. This is also an excellent shopping stop - mind you the lantern is going to be bigger than your case but that's another story and it is home ok honest!!
Hanoi - Again a 2 hour bus run from Halong Bay took us on the Hanoi Past and Present trip. This is another day when the shopping is not good - whilst it states shopping opportunities this is at the Service Station (overpriced) you stop at both ways for a rather long time. Good news - absolutely spotless Happy Rooms. Past and Present gives a really good overview of Hanoi including a visit to the "Hanoi Hilton" and a fun rickshaw/cyclo ride - individual seats and shut your eyes at the junction; remember red lights are only suggestions in Vietnam. Seriously though you really get the feel for the city in this half hour ride right at street level.
We had an overnight stop and the must do was the Day one trip we did to Halong Bay by boat. You can see why the Bay is being considered as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. It is a very pleasant cruise around though be prepared for traders who rope up and hop onto the boats. The first words the little children learn there is not Mum or Dad but "One dollar". Just remember to have plenty one dollar bills with you (Guest Relations have loads as they know everyone will need them all this cruise) and the traders do give up quite quickly and move on to another boat.
Hong Kong - We were berthed on Hong Kong Island away from the centre so a free shuttle was put on to the ICF which was ideal as that was right by the subway and bus station. It is also by the 3 mile elevated walkway where you walk through office buildings and malls above street level - very pleasant. We did our own thing, took a bus to Aberdeen Hong Kong - the Aberdeen Scotland graduate had to see the other Aberdeen - and then we went up on the Peak Tram as the weather was clear. In Hong Kong you need to have flexible plans as there is no point going up the Peak unless it is clear - then you just have to go for it!! Getting around is so easy HK$50 for a 24 hour subway pass, great value and it is so efficient, clean and easy to get around. Ending the trip
Disembarkation was so easy - you stay in the comfort of your room until your code is called - you can listen via the ship TV - you go down, the officers shake hands with you and off you go. For us, it was 7 minutes from the code being called until we were in our taxi with our luggage where we were off to the Peninsula Hotel, a grand dame, bit expensive but an experience.
Well we don't do change, but we did and we enjoyed it. Azamara Quest is a good product, its got glitches, its report card against Celebrity does have some areas where it can improve particularly around the dining room and butler service but it is a great experience. We ventured to countries we would never have gone to without the comfort of our ship and we had our eyes opened. It was fun and we will be back on Azamara Quest in August - decision has been confirmed!
Oh and PS - the use the stairs only rule was met and with the healthier food served onboard the weight gain after two weeks of the feeding frenzy was ZERO!!!