We have cruised many times with Celebrity, Princess and P & O but this was the first time we had sailed with Azamara and in such a small ship. First and foremost, we had no problems with size. The Quest has all the facilities we enjoy on larger ships, but with the advantage of everything being within a short walk of our stateroom - four dining venues, two cabaret lounges, a well equipped gym, spa and library, a self-service laundry, shops, and a range of bars located on each of the main decks. If, however, you are looking for abseiling frames, mini golf, tennis courts, big musical productions, movies "under the stars", etc, etc, then this is not the ship for you!
Here are the plus points we felt Azamara offered over other ships:
* Faultless service with over 400 staff to 694 passengers. Not sure how our stateroom butler's job differed from that of the attendant, but we will not complain about having two people looking after us! We worried that paying our gratuities up front might mean service would not be as good, but without exception staff were helpful, smiling, and unfailingly courteous. The in-room dining service was extensive and exemplary with breakfast arriving punctually every day at the time requested. And it was refreshing not to have staff hanging about on the last morning clearly angling for tips. It was also unusual to see the officers turn out in force to greet us at the two cocktail parties we attended where, incidentally, proper full-strength drinks were served!
*Fabulous itinerary from Singapore to Hongkong via Bangkok and three ports of call in Vietnam with the bonus of an overnight stay in all but one. Because of her size, the Quest was able to dock near the city centres everywhere and this was especially a feature of Hong Kong where our berth in the Ocean Terminal was right in the heart of the city. Also great to be small enough to negotiate the rivers leading to Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City and see the spectacle of everyday life unfolding before you on the banks as you watch it from the comfort of your balcony.
*Little extra touches which make a difference, e.g. fresh flowers and fruit in stateroom, e.g. thick soft towels, robes and slippers and quality toiletries in bathroom e.g. cold towels, iced drinks and even champagne (on one occasion) to greet you after an excursion.
*Superior dining experience in relation to all meals. Of special note, the freshly squeezed orange juice and made to order smoothies at breakfast, espressos and cappuccinos on tap 24/7, and the 2 speciality restaurants with truly gourmet menus for which only a small additional gratuity was requested.
*Free yoga and pilates classes daily.
*Superior hotel accommodation provided in Singapore (Conrad Centennial)and Hongkong (day room in the Regal Airport Hotel)
Here are some (for us) minor points which disappointed:
* Patchy entertainment - a couple of excellent vocalists, a wonderful harpist, a first class trio, but two "iffy" comedians and uninspiring movies on offer. Ditto for "enrichment" programme.
*No formal dress code which meant that many of the men, in particular, did not make any effort to dress up for dinner. Do not take a tux or dinner jacket - you will feel out of place!
*Big mark up on drinks, especially bottles of wine - almost nothing under 30 dollars, plus a whopping 18.5% service charge on top of that. However, we understand that complimentary wine will be served at lunch and dinner from April onward and that would suit us just fine!
We took only Azamara organised excursions in our 3 ports of call in Vietnam and found them to be excellent. We are cautious travellers when we visit places for the first time and are happy to pay for the peace of mind that a tried and tested experience offers, especially in less developed parts of the world. We were pleased with the five tours we took and thought they represented reasonable value for money. We felt that our five different guides (who had different political viewpoints and different war experiences) helped us to get a feel for what life is really like in this communist country.
Ho Chi Minh City Highlights on our first day included the Thien Hau Pagoda in Chinatown, the History Museum where we saw a water puppet show, and the city centre with Notre Dame Cathedral and Reunification Hall, the former Presidential Palace and scene of surrender of power to the Vietcong in 1975. More importantly our trip through the streets gave us fascinating glimpses into city life which our guide was able to explain and expand on. You could easily do these sights on your own, but you would be very lucky to find a taxi driver able to speak English well enough to enrich the experience for you.
Cu Chi Tunnels on our second day was well worth doing. Do not reject it on the basis that you could not go into the tunnels yourself. There is only one short tunnel that visitors can enter and it is only a very small part of the overall experience. We started with a film and short talk which gives basic information about the construction of the tunnels and their use. Then we were guided through a forested area where we saw some of the original camauflaged entry points, so small it is amazing anyone could have squeezed through. We were also shown examples of the lethal traps set for the GIs, craters made by bombs from B2 bombers, and burnt out tanks. At various intervals there were mock ups of Vietcong camps and bunkers with models of soldiers engaged in the various activities of daily life at that time. We were finally invited to enter a tunnel which one of us did (quite an experience!) and one of us declined!
From Da Nang we took the Cycle Ride and Hoi An Visit Tour. Brilliant! The Cycle Ride lasted for about 2 hours and took us into the heart of the countryside passing tranquil paddy fields and entering tiny villages where we were able to see ordinary people going quietly about their daily lives in very much the old traditional ways. Such a welcome contrast to the big cities! We then went on to Hoi An, an absolutely stunning World Heritage town with a maze of little streets containing ancient merchants' houses now dedicated to making and selling a range of beautiful handicrafts as well as the usual tourist tat! At No 41 Le Loi I was measured up for a reversible red/black silk jacket with matching red camisole and it was delivered to the ship four hours later in perfect order. Others from our group ordered items there and were delighted with the results. This is the best opportunity to do some serious shopping, if you are not intending to go to Hanoi. On the way back we stopped at China Beach and had a chance to dip our feet in the south china sea. People who took the tour to the Imperial City of Hue said they wished they had gone to Hoi An instead.
Sailing into the Halong Bay has to be one of the highlights of the entire cruise. Some people thought it was enough to see the bay from the ship, but we decided to take a cruise in a small junk to get a close up view and were rewarded with an hour or two of tranquillity when the boat cut its engines and drifted around the mist shrouded limestone islands. The mist, which you get at this time of the year, only added to the mysterious beauty of this World Heritage site for us. The tour included a visit to one of the island caves which we would not particularly recommend - far too crowded and long lines to get in and out. However, the pushing and shoving which goes on between the junks trying to access the mooring jetty is an experience in itself!
The following day we took the Hanoi in a Day Tour - 11 hours!! You can take a 2 day tour with an overnight stay in a hotel but it is very expensive and there would not be enough time to do the Halong Bay cruise as well. The 3 hour journey to and from Hanoi was actually not as tedious as it sounds. We saw such a fascinating range of town and country life going past us with an excellent commentary from our guide that we were never bored. On the way there and back we stopped for 45 minutes each time in a very upmarket complex with some of the most luxurious facilities I have ever used! Plus a very large retail outlet for Vietnamese handicrafts - a good place to shop for lacquer ware, marble, silk garments and accessories if you missed out in Ho Chi Minh City or Hoi An. Once in Hanoi we were whisked through the Presidential Palace complex to see the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the two houses where he lived for the last 12 years of his life. We were then driven through the French quarter to the very beautiful Temple of Literature site before having a very up-market buffet at the Intercontinental Hotel on the West Lake. After that there was just enough time to take a walk through the old city and experience some of the teeming street life. Tiring but worthwhile, we thought.