Azamara Quest, Southeast Asia Cruise: 18 days Singapore to Hong Kong, 22 Dec. 2009-9 January 2010
Itinerary: Singapore (1 night), Bangkok (2 nights), Ho Chi Minh City (1 night), Da Nang (1 night), Halong Bay (1 night), Guangzhou (no overnight) and Hong Kong (1 night).
Pre-Cruise Travel: Since we had never been to Southeast Asia before, we decided to include some touring of our own prior to the cruise, in particular to Cambodia as that country was not included in the cruise itinerary. Because of the long flights involved, we elected to fly first to Singapore where we arrived at midnight on December 13th giving ourselves an extra day before our Cambodia flight to cover possible flight problems and to give ourselves some rest after the very long trip. We stayed two nights at the Intercontinental Hotel located right in the Changi Airport, which was very convenient; we got a good price through the website with their advance purchase rate. We had a very comfortable modern room with spacious glass-walled bathroom. Rather than eat in the hotel, we found food at convenience stores and assorted restaurants scattered throughout the airport. On our free day we also took advantage of the free shuttle offered by the Singapore Tourist Bureau for in-transit passengers. The shuttle took us to the Singapore Flyer location at the marina where you were offered one of two different one-hour bus tours of the city.
Since our Silk Air flight to Siem Reap had strict baggage limitations (one 20 kg checked bag each and one 7 kg carry-on), we utilized the airport's luggage storage facility to leave our larger bags there during our Cambodia tour. For our land arrangements in Cambodia, we selected Journeys Within, a highly rated (Trip Advisor) B and B and tour company run by two American expats. For $1550 we had 4 nights' accommodation with breakfast and 5 days of touring with a private car, driver and guide and some lunches included for both of us; our round trip air was $323. This was a significantly better deal than the cruise line was offering for their 2-night shore excursion between our ports of Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City for $1800+ per person. In addition to all the sights, we had a wonderful massage upon arrival and were able to tour some of the community projects sponsored by Journeys Within. If you do fly to Siem Reap, remember there is a $25 departure fee that must be paid in cash with U.S. dollars
Hotel: Upon arrival back in Singapore on Saturday evening, 19 December, we collected our left luggage and grabbed at taxi to our pre-cruise hotel in downtown Singapore. In selecting a hotel in Singapore we were looking for something close to public transportation and within walking distance of the historical areas and museums. I was able to get a very good price at the 5-star Fairmont Hotel through their website with their advance purchase rate. I also took advantage of signing up for their Presidents Club before making my reservation; this membership got me free internet access for our stay—a great benefit. We had a beautiful harbor view room in the South Tower. Again we did not use the hotel's restaurants; but since the hotel sits on top of a shopping mall with dozens of restaurants, bakeries, and a gourmet grocery store, we had a vast array of choices for food. The Raffles Hotel is directly across the street from the Fairmont and we enjoyed having a drink their famous Long Bar. With easy access to public transportation as well as special shuttles to sites such as the Jurong Bird Park, we were able to see a lot in our three days here. After checkout, we had an $8 plus tip cab ride to the Harbour Cruise Centre for embarkation.
Embarkation: As we discovered just about anywhere in Singapore is attached to a shopping mall and the Harbour Cruise Centre is no exception. There were porters at the taxi drop-off location to take our luggage and then we were directed into the Centre and up an escalator to the cruise check-in desk. The Centre has a small shopping area with a currency exchange and post office which is convenient. After boarding the ship we were directed to a table for checking in hand luggage and then to the Windows Cafe for lunch. Our staterooms were ready shortly after 1 pm. We returned to pick up our hand luggage only to discover they now deliver those bags directly to your stateroom while you are at lunch. During the afternoon we walked over to Vivo City the large shopping mall connected to Harbour Centre to pick up our embarkation day wine allowance of 2 bottles and some bottled water and snack food to use during trips ashore later. Harbour Centre/Vivo City also includes a metro stop and bus stop for easy transport back into the city or other locations. The one inconvenience about this port was the strict immigration/customs/security area you were required to go through every time you went on and off the ship which, since we overnighted the first night in Singapore, was several trips. You had to have your passport and landing card with you at all times.
Ship: We had sailed on the Azamara Quest before so there were no surprises with the ship itself. The Quest is a small ship which we like for the low passenger count (694 max.) and the ease of getting around; however, this does mean fewer recreational and entertainment facilities. The only thing I personally miss is having a decent size (i.e. swimmable) heated pool; there is only a very small unheated pool with two hot-tubs and for this cruise the entire pool area was very crowded on sea days. Our favorite hideaway is the Drawing Room (aka Library) where you can escape the canned music and sit in comfortable leather chair with a good book. We also found the lounge chairs on the Promenade deck were a nice quiet area in the evening.
Stateroom: We had booked stateroom 6051, a verandah stateroom that was close to midship and very quiet. We were on deck six before and really enjoy this location as it is a quick one or two flights down to the guest relations/shore ex desks, the shops, the Cabaret, Discoveries Dining Room and the Mosaic Cafe. Then it's just a few flights up to the other public and dining areas. On the two days we had rough seas we found our stateroom location quite stable as opposed to some higher forward and aft locations. All of the Quest's standard staterooms (I've never been in one of the suites) are very compact especially the bathrooms where the shower allows you to turn around, just, but drying off afterwards is a challenge without banging an elbow or two. The bathroom towels are luxurious and high quality soap, shampoo, conditioner and lotion are provided. There are some small shelves above the toilet and under the sink in addition to a small medicine cabinet above the sink. The shower had loads of hot water but it was difficult to adjust the water temperature in the sink; it mostly delivered luke-warm water. Closet and storage space is fairly good especially if you can talk your butler/cabin attendant into removing all the extras (the drinks in the fridge, the tray of snacks/extras, the bible, etc.). We almost had more hangers that we had hanging space plus there were two large hooks on the walls and more on the back of the bathroom door. The desk/vanity has a row of electrical outlets (110 and 220) which come in handy for powering your laptop or chargers. Wi-Fi is available in all the staterooms and is fairly fast. What I did not like was that the lamps are bolted to the beside tables taking up much of the room there—a real problem for me since I use a CPAP respiratory machine at night. There are also no plugs there so you have to run an extension cord over to the desk. Having a verandah is nice but I would much prefer to have a lounge chair there in place of the large table and two chairs provided. Our stateroom was spotlessly clean and remained so throughout the cruise; however, it was beginning to show some wear: the sink was chipped, the bathroom mirror corroded on one corner, and one ceiling light was missing a cover.
Dining: The Quest provides several dining venues. The main Discoveries Dining Room has open seating at all meals and does provide several tables for two. We rarely dined here because we find the service a bit slow. The menus are posted a few hours before and do offer a variety of dishes but most try to be a bit too gourmet for our tastes. I wish they would offer some simpler dishes at times. We tended to eat most of our meals in the Windows Cafe which is fast buffet-style dining. We like the idea we can see the food before selection, decide our own portions, and in some cases select our own ingredients. The breakfast buffet includes made-to-order omelets and smoothies; the lunch buffet has salad and sandwich bars, and, in addition to a salad bar, the dinner buffet has made-to-order stir fry, sushi, and pasta. And let's not forget the ice cream! From lunch time through the evening, there is an ice cream counter with a varying dozen different flavors including sorbets and sugar-free as well as assorted toppings. The Quest has two specialty restaurants—the Prime C which specializes in beef and the Aqualina which specializes in seafood. Under Azamara's present policy all guests in standard staterooms were permitted two free dinners in the specialty restaurants, with recommended tip of $5 per person, and guests in suites had unlimited access. Additional evenings were possible if space was available. This policy is changing as of April 1. The food and the service in both specialty restaurants are fantastic. Be wary of the wine steward, though, trying to direct you to overpriced wines. We got "taken" our first night and we did not appreciate the tactic. For more informal dining in the afternoons there is the Pool Grill which offers, in addition to the usual hot dogs and hamburgers, kebobs, soup, and other items. And one of my favorite hangouts is the Mosaic Cafe which has wonderful treats at all meals—baby quiches and sausage rolls at breakfast, pastries at lunch, and tapas in the evening—all in addition the best butter cookies on the high seas. The treats are all free, but they charge for the specialty coffees and teas and in the evening wine.
Activities and Entertainment: On our first Azamara cruise we had been wonderfully impressed with the kind of activities offered; they really appealed to our intellectual level and lacked the usual silliness and commercial emphasis you often find on cruises. However, this time we were disappointed, so much so I thought I had inadvertently walked on to a Carnival ship by mistake. Ours was a Christmas cruise so there were carols going over the speakers everywhere, all the time, and we are talking carols sung (screeched) by Alvin and the Chipmunks! There was a heavy emphasis on games, jewelry presentations, etc. We did have one good naturalist lecturer on board but his lectures were often scheduled at poor times, or in one case cancelled so other "entertainment" could be provided. The only other activities we found appealing were a wonderful harpist who often played before dinner in the Mosaic Cafe and two informative talks given by the photography staff on camera techniques. Most of the other performances were scheduled quite late in the evening and we are early-to-bed folk so we did not attend. The movie selection on the in-cabin television consisted of really old films (think "Miracle on 34th Street" and "It's a Wonderful Life") and teen flicks. Our daily newsletter had little usable information and often had grammatical errors. The Cruise Director on this cruise was not my idea of someone who should hold this position on a cruise line that considers itself to be above the norm. She dress appallingly, went around calling everyone "darling," and if there was a complaint she replied that it was not "her remit."
Service: One thing that Azamara is known for is its high level of service. However, when we boarded what we found was a very tired and overworked staff/crew. They had just come off a long repositioning cruise from the Mediterranean and in some areas of the ship it seemed like there were fewer crew members. This was particularly true in the Windows Cafe where one person was often left covering two different areas singlehandedly and table staff was in short supply. I had read on Cruise Critic earlier that in the economic downturn and falling prices that cruise lines had to cut back and I think that showed here. After I commented on this issue on our mid-cruise commentary form there was a sudden shift; there seemed to be more maintenance being performed and a few more staff in the buffet. There were some standouts among the crew, however, and we made a point of complimenting them in writing on our cruise survey forms and in a post cruise follow-up letter to the corporate office. In this time of restructuring with Azamara separating itself from Celebrity, I think some of the crew were worried about what was going to happen in the future. I know our butler and cabin attendant told us they far more valued the written recommendation than the extra tips we gave them; and they certainly deserved both as they were the best we've ever had on any cruise.
Ports and Excursions: Singapore is a wonderful modern port and I've already discussed the city previously. Bangkok is a large city with both traffic and pollution problems. Since the Quest is a smaller ship, we had the advantage of being able to dock close to the city even though it was a primarily commercial port. Most other cruise ships have to dock about 2 ½ hours away. Our dock was opposite a small port building with a single shop and our private tour vans could meet us right outside. Set fare taxis were also available nearby. With other passengers on our Cruise Critic roll call we had arranged two days of touring here with Bangkok Day Tours and I would highly recommend this company to others. Dennis, a Kiwi expat, runs this company mad is very hands-on; in fact, on our second day he accompanied the several vans of our group through most of the day. And boy, did we cram a lot into those two days; with the 2-night stay we were able to both leave early and arrive late on the second day so we could include visits to several locations outside the city including the Floating Market, an elephant camp, the famed Tiger Temple, and the Bridge over the River Kwai.
In Ho Chi Minh City (still Saigon to many), we were docked in a container port not too far from downtown. There was some confusion as to where the nearest gate was located, but on our first day we had a private tour car which was able to pick up ship side. The second day my husband had a private driver who was not allowed in and it was confusing figuring out where he was. Taxis were kept outside the gate and there were better directional signs on our second day. For our one-day city tour we used Smile Tours; our tour was O.K. but we felt we kept getting directed to stores too much and we had told them in advance we were not interested in shopping. On the second day my husband flew off to Hue to start a two-night bird watching tour at Bach Ma National Park arranged through Vietnam Birding; he later rejoined the ship in Da Nang.
The port of Da Nang does not offer a lot of attractions itself, but it lies between the ancient capital of Hue and the well-preserved town of Hoi An. We utilized my husband's birding guide for a private tour of Hue which worked out very well and we managed to stay just ahead of all the big groups as we moved throughout the historic buildings and temples. There is much to see here and I wish we had more time. Also it's a longish drive back to Da Nang but the countryside is very interesting along the way. Ho An is much closer to Da Nang and we used the ship's shore excursion for this port. Unfortunately, my bus had a terrible guide. He marched us through the town very quickly shouting at people to keep up but we had three individuals with some physical limitations. One older woman got left behind and was found by another tour guide; the ship did not have any of their staff on our tour bus so we lacked the usual "sweeper." When some folk complained to him about the speed and the fact he was going to cut our advertized tour time by an hour, he got frustrated and left us on our own ("O.K. free time now"). I'm glad this was a one-of occurrence. The town is quite marvelous and worth a visit but I would recommend doing it on your own with a guide book as many of the historical buildings are quite small and the groups do not all fit inside well.
Our last Vietnam port was Halong Bay, a scenic spot with wonderful karst islands projecting from the water. Our first day in port was only a half-day so we took the ship's bay tour excursion. There is one stop on an island to view some caves but the climb is steep and not recommended for those with walking difficulties. My husband went into the caves but I elected to remain on the boat. I would not have minded except we were subjected to various sales pitches by young women on the boat offering post cards, jewelry, table clothes, etc. On our second day we took the ship's very long tour to Hanoi, a 3+ hour drive each way. The scenery was interesting going but we were so tired coming back. We had one pit stop each way at a special roadside facility aimed at folks just like us.--immaculate large restrooms with western toilets attached to a building that housed a large shop of craft items, jewelry, and clothing made on sight by handicapped people and a snack shop. Apparently the company was founded by an American who saw a need to help these people who are often rejected by their communities by training them in a marketable skill; there are even dormitories on site for those who are not local. Anyway it was a convenient place to use up that last Vietnam Dong as you cannot exchange them back anywhere.
After a day at sea we had a one-day stop in Guangzhou, China. We had tried to find a private tour company for this port but I was never able to get a response back from neither the few websites I found nor any recommendation from anyone on the Cruise Critic board. Therefore, my husband and I each signed up for a shore excursion. His went off fine but my tour to Foshan was cancelled a few days before our arrival. I asked the shore excursion desk about private tours but they only thing they offered was too expensive for a single person and I had no time to organize a group as I had the all-day Hanoi trip that day. I was quite upset that they did not give me enough notice that bookings were very low so I could have made alternate arrangements. Nor did they do anything to really sell these tours other than show a continuously running slide show on the television throughout the cruise. The only other option was the shuttle the ship offered into the town center for $15 a day, but I was not interested in shopping. I ended up spending the day on the ship.
Normally the Azamara shore excursion department functions pretty well. I do like the fact they do not get upset about passengers organizing their own tours, something that happens on other ships, and they willingly provide assistance when needed. There were informative port talks on most of our ports but not for our last two and I have no idea why. They would do with handing out better port information brochures just before the talks so we could take notes. One thing Azamara tries to do is to bring on a local tourist information person when in port. These people are great for providing local know-how and maps.
Disembarkation and Post-Cruise Hotel: Our last port was Hong Kong and it felt good to be back in a modern, relatively clean city again. Hong Kong has two different cruise docking locations. We had originally been told (several times actually) by Azamara that we would be docking out on the far end of Hong Kong Island at Kennedy Town. Since we did not want to be stuck out there, we elected to request early disembarkation getting off the ship the first day in order to stay at a more centrally located spot. However, it turns out we were given the wrong information and wasted a night's hotel charge. The ship docked at the Ocean Terminal located at the tip of Kowloon close to hotels, shopping and public transportation. However, be advised that getting off the ship here when toting your own suitcases is not that straight forward. On the map our hotel was only two blocks from the terminal so we decided we would walk. However, we had to proceed down a ramp and into a shopping mall were you had to navigate down an escalator and some stairs and then through the long mall before you even got outside. There was an elevator that led to a driveway which would have been far more direct but we were forbidden to go that way. There is also some road construction going on in the area as well as busy roads so you often have to look for the pedestrian "subway" to get across some streets. Apparently there is another route that goes out back of the mall that led to a taxi stand and tour bus parking area. How regular disembarkation went the next day we cannot address; hopefully, there was something easier then.
For our post-cruise stay in Hong Kong we chose the Salisbury YMCA located right next door to the famed Peninsula Hotel, where for about $150 a night we enjoyed the same fabulous harbor view that they pay about 5 times more for. The Y may seem an unlikely choice but it was a wonderful large room on the 16th floor where we sat each night enjoying the 8 pm light show across the harbor. The hotel staff is fabulous, ready to serve in any way. There's a dining room and cafe on sight as well as all the usual Y fitness facilities. Kowloon is a busy, crowded place where every non-Asian looking person gets hustled by folk trying to sell "copy watches," purses, you name it. The public transportation system is excellent; we made use of the buses and metro for seeing the sights. It's best to buy a transit card which comes with a refundable deposit and can be topped off in several locations. And even can be used at 7-11s and McDonalds for purchases.
We asked the hotel concierge about getting the airport and he offered several suggestions. We settled on taking a taxi, about $10, to the Kowloon Airport Express train station. Here there's a long row of check-in counters for most airlines where you can check your suitcases and get your boarding pass before even getting on the train. It's about a 20 minute ride to the very modern airport but be aware most international airline counters here do not open for check-in until 3 hours before the flight. It can be tricky finding your way around once through security. We were traveling in early January when all the security rules kept changing so it was a nightmare trying to get accurate information out of our airline as to what we could and not could carry-on.
Summary: Our first Azamara cruise in 2008 was the best cruise we had ever experienced; however, we felt a little let down by this second cruise, especially in regards to the type and quality of the activities. Our other disappointment was with our fellow passengers. Perhaps because of the significant price drops over the past year there were different people attracted to this cruise than one would normally find on an Azamara cruise or who were completely new to cruising. The result was not always pleasant. On our first cruise most passengers were all adults, serious travelers and well educated. On this cruise we had a group of 3-4 American or Canadian children who ran loose throughout the ship; I never saw them with a parent or guardian. One evening, we saw them almost knock over an older couple in the hallway. There were a few other young children and several teens, but they were all well supervised and behaved. Azamara is really a cruise line for adults; there are no facilities or activities for children and Azamara should perhaps make potential passengers more clearly aware of this and of the requirement to supervise any children they bring on board. There were a wide array of countries and cultures represented among the passengers and unfortunately certain issues arose. Many times I saw people not use the hand sanitizers upon entering the buffet nor use the tongs for selecting food. I once observed someone wipe their nose then stick the same hand into a plate of cookies. And the crass (New York? New Jersey?) woman who would plunk herself down in the Windows Cafe buffet every morning and yell at the staff to be waited on sorely tempted me to dump a glass of water on her head. Perhaps there should be a special meeting on the ship for first-time cruisers to get them in-the-know on cruising rules and traditions. On tour buses we often had groups of Europeans chatting away in their own language while the rest of us strained to hear what the tour guide was trying to tell us; they would not be quiet even when asked. If Azamara wants to attract a more international crowd, they may need to offer tours in several languages.
We are also concerned about the proposed changes coming to Azamara. This was often a topic of conversation among us CC regulars on board. Although we are excited that they are going to offer more unique itineraries with more overnight stays, we are concerned about the potential of a two-class system on board where only those passengers in suites will have free access to the specialty restaurants and other privileges and about the significant increase in fares to cover the new plans to offer wine at every meal (personally I don't drink alcohol at all), free coffee (ditto), and port shuttles among other things. And don't even get me started on the silly French name for the past-passenger club. Many of us concluded that for now we are going to "wait and see" what happens before booking another Azamara cruise.