Azamara Quest Asia - Feb 14 - 28, 2009
Full Disclosure: This was the worst travel experience of my life. I've sailed with RCCL and Celebrity 11 times before this, my first trip on Azamara. I heard from many fellow passengers on the Quest that they'd had excellent experiences on the Azamara Journey. I have personally been on all four M-class Celebrity ships and several RCCL ships, and will continue to cruise with them, based on good to great experiences on all of them. I am soured on the ship, not on the brand.
Air-sea arrangements (roundtrip air and an included night in Beijing) were included in my cruise fare.
Things went wrong from the very beginning. My first flight was cancelled (mechanical failure before boarding), and I confirmed new arrangements with the emergency number provided in my cruise documents. Even though I would arrive a day late, I was assured by their staff that I would get there in time to join the ship and that I would be met and escorted in plenty of time.
When I arrived in Beijing, there was no one to meet me. I started to look through and call the emergency numbers in my cruise documents. Out of five "emergency" numbers provided in my cruise documents, I found that two were closed until the next business day (Monday - 48 hours away). Two didn't work at all. One worked, and (calling from the airport on my AmEx card) cost me $17 each.
For the one number that worked, the first call said they'd be there; the second call said that I was on my own. After the third call, they picked me up, put me up overnight at the Shangri-La hotel, and put me on the flight the next morning to the ship's next stop, Dalian.
The young lady handled ticketing, luggage and escorted me all the way to security to be sure I got to the next stop without incident. I felt well taken care of on my way out of Beijing.
However, on arrival in Dalian, there was, AGAIN, no one there to meet me. (Did I mention how inadequate shoreside support was?)
After getting some attention from Chinese security officers, and help from my Beijing contact, I arranged (and paid for) a taxi to a local hotel where the ship's local agent took care of getting me to the ship.
On arrival at the ship, I was told the key-making machine was down, and I'd need to wait in the lobby until they could let me in my room. So, after more than 3 days in transit, my welcome on the Quest was a young women at the guest services desk who offered no sympathy, no key, and made clear I was a hassle.
After a half hour, I insisted on being let into my room by whoever else on board might have a key.
While freshening up, the toilet seat split into two pieces. At that point I realized it was going to be a long couple of weeks.
There's nothing special about the cabin. It's attractive, but every M-class ship has a similar layout and a bigger bathroom. The dark wood is nice, there is lots of storage, and the bed is comfortable. But, really, nothing special.
On arrival I found that my stateroom hadn't been completely cleaned from the prior guest, even though the steward (oops = the butler) had an extra day. When unpacking I found small items from the previous occupant in three different places - bobby pins on the alarm clock, a map tucked in between the sofa cushions, and lotion on the shelf over the TV. If you have any illusions about a complete cleaning job, rid yourself of them now.
The balcony was nice for the extra daylight but this was a cold weather cruise. There was a table and chairs outside that I never used. The flooring looked like basic vinyl, with coloring to look like ship's decking, and glue colored footprints to remind you of the installation crew. It didn't extend under the small divider between balconies, so get used to the look of plain or painted concrete between your balconies. Not my idea of "attention to detail."
Temperature control is a problem. Reportedly, the ship got "chilled to the superstructure" from the luggage and provisions loading that happened in Beijing. It took three days for it to recover.
As for the shower, approach it cautiously. Sometimes it took more than a minute to get up to operating temperature. Then, it would vary tremendously, from hot spikes to cold freezes. The number on the dial is NOT related to the experience you'll have in the shower.
The towels are thick and thirsty, but about half of those delivered to my had obvious frayed edges, as though they had been around far too long and treated way too harshly Fraying towels are not my idea of luxury.
I really enjoyed the ship staff and officers.
The Captain is one of the most sociable, visible, and earnest officers I've met on any ship. This was my 24th cruise, and he's the first one I looked forward to hearing from at noon each day. He is so into ships, navigation and details of the ports. I found him charming and engaging.
He is also honest. At the debarkation talk, he said this was the "hardest cruise of" his entire life. That was true for many of the guests as well.
John, the cruise director, was great and really did everything he could to make sure we had a good time. There were lots of other folks - in the dining room, at the coffee shop, in the theater, who did everything they could to make the experience a good one.
The guest lecturers, especially Jon Fleming (the port lecturer), were excellent.
An exception to the "great staff" comment would be guest relations and whoever handles guest communications. There's a sense of sloppiness in the documents and timing that was a clear pattern on the ship. The daily program arrived - sometimes when the room was madeup for the night, sometimes later. Even on day two, some of the times were wrong, so I showed up at the spa for session that wasn't going on at the time, even though it was in writing.
Small forms - immigration papers for the next countries - arrived without clear instructions for what we should do with them, turn them in or hold onto them. Sometimes they arrived a day early, sometimes a day late.
The Guest Relations supervisor (Denise) and the International Host (Andre) were very nice and accommodating. But their commitments for compensation (i.e. an upgrade on my next cruise) were rejected by the home office. If you ever have someone offer you an upgrade or any compensation for a mess, be sure to get it in writing.
The quality of tour guides was uneven. We were running a couple hours behind in Seoul, so that felt rushed, and the guide in Kyoto didn't have sufficient mastery of English to do a really good job. However, the guides in Shanghai and Hong Kong were superb. Worth every penny.
This was my first Azamara trip, and I was concerned that such a small ship (30,000 tons) might not be as comfortable as the much-larger M-Class ships. (I've done 6 cruises on M-class ships, so they're familiar.)
The best surprise of the voyage was how stable the ship is. I don't know what the builders did, but in 8' seas and whitecaps, it was every bit as comfortable as 90,000 ton ships I've been on. Amazing.
The main dining room served terrific food. I think the quality of the food and service declined slightly over the two week trip, but it's far superior to almost every other ship I've been on.
It is a small ship, though. There aren't a lot of options for "where to go for drinks" or "where to meet before the show." To be honest, it's so small that each staircase holds one person at a time - no passing - and if you get four people standing in the elevator lobby chatting, you'll have to move them to get past.
It might be better for a warm weather itinerary, but for cold weather, there isn't enough space to feel uncrowded.
It's also the most "unfriendly to singles" ship I've been on. I signed up on the belief that it was "single seating." To me, that means single seating, like the grills on QM2, or Caronia class on the old QE2 - you have an assigned table and can show up whenever you like.
In fact, it's "open seating" - which is the same as Freestyle Dining. There are 370 seats in the dining room, and 700 guests. No seating assignments, so on days when tours run late, there is a line to get into the dining room. And, there is no arrangement for sharing tables with others, except the good will of the maitre d'.
Shortly after arrival, I heard the ship had an outbreak of G/I sickness (norovirus) on the prior trip, and that 70 passengers were affected. After getting home, I heard the numbers for our trip had gotten up to 170. I was one of them.
For the entire voyage, the smell of bleach was everywhere. To the point where we became cautious about letting our clothing touch handrails, door handles, etc.
Over the course of the two weeks, all the extras - that make a luxury trip a luxury - were removed from service. No Captain's club party, no flowers in the room, no canapEs, no afternoon tea in the cabins. Somehow, they managed to keep the casino open during the whole trip, in spite of the obvious infection risk.
High marks for food, high marks for comfort onboard, but lower marks for everything else I care about on a cruise. I was very glad that it wasn't my only cruise of the year.