I have waited to write this review, hoping that time would give some perspective. Maybe with the passing of time this cruise would not seem so perfect. Not so! This was our first cruise and it far exceeded our expectations. My husband said it would be our last cruise, as he prefers independent travel. However we are booked on another cruise on Quest. That says it all.
Background: We are retired teachers in our early 60s. We have travelled a fair bit, always independently in the past. With the recession I knew there could be some travel deals, so we decided 2009 was the time to try an organized tour. Various commitments dictated a late fall tour. It did not take much research for me to narrow down the possible places to the Eastern Mediterranean, and then to see that a cruise, because of price and ease of logistics, was the way to go. It was the itinerary for this Ancient Empires cruise and the excellent reviews for Azamara that sealed the deal. I knew we wanted a small ship with good food and no fancy dressing up.
Quest: What a great little ship! Yes our room was small, but it functioned well. Next time I will have the crew remove many of the excess pillows. The bed was very comfortable, the towels were huge and thick. (Thank goodness they improved the bathroom door hooks during our cruise.) The fresh fruit, flowers and good night treat each day were welcome. The tote bag and bathrobe came in handy. There was more than enough cupboard and drawer space for our needs. One thing I wish they would improve is the bedside lighting. The lamps were too low. Wall lamps would be a huge improvement. We loved having the balcony. We did not eat there much as the weather was cool, but we sat out frequently and it was so great to be able to go out there when entering and leaving ports. The rest of the ship is tastefully appointed. There are lots of comfortable places to spend time. I enjoyed just walking around, and the ship is small enough that you can easily do that.
Eating: The food was excellent. The variety was staggering. I don't see how you could not find something to your liking in all the locations. We did not eat at the grill by the pool, but some to the things looked great. We loved the buffet (under whatever name it goes!). We ate most breakfasts there because of the variety and the time saved. We were off the ship early most days. Lunch and supper there were also good. For lunch, there was always a roast or fresh fish of some kind. There were lots of salads and vegetable, breads, and desserts. I had to avoid the gelato freezer! We took in two special suppers, the fish night and the final picnic feast hosted by the captain and crew. They were wonderful with lots of variety. For breakfast there were omelettes, pancakes and waffles done to your order, hot and cold cereals, breads, yogurt, etc. etc. I nearly forgot the fresh squeezed orange juice and the smoothies . We loved the self serve coffee machine, the one that lets you choose decaf or regular and a variety of brews. Several times we got coffee there and went up to the jogging track above the pool to take in scenery. We had room service bring breakfast twice and it was great. Every morning we had room service bring hot coffee, hot milk and fresh squeezed orange juice. They phone just before arriving and always were on time, becoming a great back up alarm. What a great way to start each day! The Discoveries Dining Room is beautifully appointed and does not seem as large as it is. The food is excellent, and there is no end to the variety. However we did find a few problems here. There seemed to be organizational or logistical problems. Some of the crew seemed inexperienced. Orders got confused. Twice our first course arrived before the wine. The coffee was poor. Of course that is a matter of taste. To my husband and I it tasted over processed, either from being on a burner too long or perhaps from being perked instead of dripped. We quickly learned to order espresso which the servers fetched from their own dining room. This was excellent. Prime C and Aqualina, the specialty dining rooms were top notch. We love fine dining and ate there six times. The dEcor is great. I especially love the blue in Aqualina. The attention and service were perfect. And the food was ever better than Discoveries. Highlights I can remember: the shellfish appetiser on ice at Aqualina, the incredible and very different mushroom soup in Prime C and the Grand Marnier Mousse with the hot sauce. However, everything was great and the presentations were beautiful. One of our meals was a special wine tasting Connoisseur Dinner. I was lucky enough to read about these here on CC. I believe they were offered to suite guests, but we asked about them and easily made a booking. We wanted to go again, but our schedule did not allow. For this we paid $60 each and it was well worth it. We started in the library with an introduction to the sommelier, Amir and the executive chef, Anthony. We had a lovely champagne style wine. We then were led to the Captain's table in Prime C. Other courses included an appetizer with lobster and caviar, a wonderful foie gras mousse, ceviche, filet mignon, cheeses and special chocolate dessert. With each of these were wonderful wines.
On board entertainment: We were too busy enjoying the great dining and getting up and out to the ports each day to take in any of the entertainment. Our friends who went with it enjoyed it very much.
Other recreation: We had read that the pool is not heated and had not expected to be able to enjoy it in November. However the water was very warm and we enjoyed it on our at sea days. We did not play table tennis or use the gym. The walking jogging track is great. My main on board exercise was using the stairs and walking the halls to deliver notes to people taking private tours I had arranged. Between that and the hectic port schedule, I managed to lose weight while enjoying great food including dessert every day! I would love to have gone to a yoga session but could not fit it in. Maybe next time! Similarly we did not partake in any of the daytime activities, including lectures and trivia games, etc. Nor did we venture into the Casino except when on our way to somewhere else.
The Crew: In a word - amazing. Here's a few more words: smiling, courteous, happy, helpful. We enjoyed talking with our butler, Edwin and his assistant Aaron. We had several chats with the cellar Master, Amir and several other workers. It was great to come back on the ship each day with the greeting: "Welcome Home," and that is what the Quest felt like in very little time. Embarking and
Disembarking: These were very well organized. We were greeted at the port when we arrived and signs showed us where to leave our luggage. We were directed inside a terminal building and quickly filled out a health form. Then we went up to the counter (no line) and quickly were given our pass card. We were on the ship in less than ten minutes and happily sipping champagne. When we got to our stateroom one suitcase was already there and the other soon followed. For disembarking we asked for the earliest possible and got it (7am). Our suitcases were tagged with colour coded labels and when we were called to leave (7 am!) we walked down the gangplank, said a sad farewell to all the crew gathered there and easily found our suitcases. It could not have been easier or smoother!
The ports: I spent seven months researching for this cruise. Because I had others coming with us, I arranged for all private or DIY tours. It was a lot of work, but it turned out to be well worth it. We got to go where we wanted and do it in more comfort and for less money. I will not go into too much detail here as I have posted information in answer to questions in the various Ports of Call threads on Cruise Critic.
Rome: eight of us came in on the same flight from Nova Scotia and were picked up at the airport by Driver in Rome . We stayed three nights at a small B&B La Casa di Amy near the Termini Station. We had been to Rome before so had the opportunity to do some special things. We hired Driver in Rome to take us to Tivoli and the nearby Hadrian's Villa and Villa D'Este. This was an interesting day. The highlight was Villa D'Este with its amazing fountains. Four of us spent a wonderful day going to the Borghese Galleries in the morning (amazing sculptures!) and then going to the Pantheon, Piazza Navonna, Trevi Fountain area. Our last evening, I arranged for 18 of us going on the cruise (We met on the Roll Call) to meet in a restaurant, and then take a tour of Rome at night with Driver in Rome. Our driver/host was the owner, Remo and he was wonderful. Six of us were driven to the port with Driver in Rome, but my husband and I and another couple took the train. This was easy and the 4.5 Euro price cannot be beat. Sorrento: There are so many choices here and not enough time. I am glad Azamara will be doing overnights here in the future. We opted to go on a private tour with Marcello of See Sorrento. We first went to Herculaneum and had a quick tour to see its amazing mosaic tile floors and frescoes. Then we took a drive along the Amalfi Coast. We were lucky that it was a beautiful sunny day. The highlight of the day for me, and the reason I chose to go with Marcello, was the lunch in a wonderful (not to be posted online) small hilltop village with a view down to the sea. We ate on an outdoor terrace at a table laden with treats, from fresh whole wheat bread, grilled vegetables, pizza, pasta, cold cuts, salads and cheeses. Pitchers of red and white wine were never empty. With the four special cakes for dessert came three kinds of liqueur including limoncello. It was a meal to remember.
Chios: What a great island and docking beside the main street in town was amazing. Two groups of us rented vans so see both the Nea Mona Monastery in the north and the Mastic villages in the south. We easily had time to see both areas and I would be hard pressed to choose between as the Azamara tours require you to do. We had time afterwards for the Intenet cafe, bars and souvenir shopping in the town.
Istanbul: This overnight stop was the main reason we chose this itinerary. Istanbul was all we had heard and more. Sailing in was a memorable experience. We toured on our own thanks to CC and Rick Steves. In the two half days we had time to see the major sites. It is a clean, safe, friendly city and we plan to go back on our own for a much longer stay. The evening in port, 28 of us were taken by bus to the Sultanas Night Club for dinner and a show (mainly belly dancing). The dinner was mediocre, but the show was great. Later the bus took us for a quick trip back to the old city to see Istanbul at night. Magical!
Kusadasi: A group of twelve of us took the deluxe tour to Ephesus and other places with Hello Ephesus. There is so much history there: We saw the Basilica of St. John, the House of the Virgin Mary, the Temple of Artemis, and the amazing Roman city of Ephesus with its library, two amphitheatres and the Terrace Houses. Their mosaics and frescoes were better than those in Herculaneum. We had a wonderful day capped by a late lunch in a garden and a demonstration of silk spinning and rug making at the government run school. There was no pressure to buy and no one did. We did some shopping later on in Kusadasi which has plenty of that in case you didn't get enough in Istanbul!
Bodrum: This is a scenic resort town with a crusader castle containing an excellent museum of underwater archaeology. In season, this would be a boater's paradise. We took the shuttle boat from where we were docked across the bay to the castle area. We had lunch on the waterfront. Later after visiting the ruins of the Mausoleum of Helicarnasus and peeking at the ancient amphitheatre, we walked back along the harbour to the ship. We did a bit of shopping here too.
Fethiye: Another beautiful resort town! We hired two vans to take us up into the hills to see the abandoned Greek town of Karakoy. This was very evocative. We had seen an abandoned Turkish village on the now Greek island of Chios. How quickly things deteriorate over time! Why can't people just get along with each other? On the way back we saw the 4th century BC Lycian Tombs carved into the rocks. How they were able to do this is beyond me. The waterfront in Fethiye is great for walking and there is lots of shopping here too. The number of boats for hire is amazing. Antalya: There is so much to see here that I had a difficult choice. I decided to forego the museum of antiquities and the shopping to continue with our exploration of ancient Roman ruins. We hired a bus for 15 of us to go to the ancient Roman ruins at Perge and the amazing theatre at Aspendos. The proscenium of this theatre is the best preserved Roman one anywhere. Perge reminded us of Ephesus, but the restoration is not so developed. Our tour included a wonderful lunch near Aspendos at a riverside restaurant. We enjoyed a buffet and fresh caught fish. Then we drove back to the city of Antalya and had time to do a bit of shopping or explore the old town, including Hadrian's Arch. We spent our last Turkish coins for two cups of tea and a great chat with our tour guide.
Cyprus: we had only half a day but managed to see a lot. We hired two vans with drivers to take us to Paphos. On the way we stopped at Aphrodite's rock. At Paphos we toured more wonderful Roman archaeological sites. The mosaics were even better than in the Terrace Houses. On the way back we went to Kourion to see another Roman amphitheatre and more amazing mosaics. We had a quick peek at the outside of Kolossi Castle and then it was back to the shop.
Alexandria: We hired Ramses Tours to take us for a long, full day to the Pyramids and the Museum in Cairo. The pyramids are amazing. So were the crowds and this was off season. We also toured the Solar boat Museum and had lunch in an Egyptian restaurant. Our guide took great care of us and was very knowledgeable. The Museum was amazing, but far too crowded to get the most from it. Each guide had to wear a mike and we had to wear earphones to hear him. We returned to the ship in plenty of time.
Athens: After our easy disembarking and sad farewell to Quest, we took a taxi into Athens. We stayed at the very inexpensive, but satisfactory Hotel Attalos, at Monasteriki Square, a very central location. We spent three nights there and walked all around the main part of Athens. We were very pleasantly surprised by how clean it is and pollution free. We also rented a car and spent two days (and one night in Naphlion) exploring more ancient wonders (Corinth, Mycenae, Epidaurus) in the Peloponnesian Peninsula.
Are we the kind of cruisers Azamara is hoping to attract with their new direction? We are older and retired and not at all wealthy. However we love port intensive tours and will enjoy the new house wine served with each meal. We are certainly looking forward to our cruise on Quest in Asia in 2011.