Overview The cruise on Azamara Quest from Singapore to Hong Kong late January/early February 2010 was our best cruise yet. We had previously sailed on Star Cruises (which is based in Singapore), MSC, RCCL, NCL and Celebrity. This was our first cruise on a relatively small cruise ship and we enjoyed the smaller ship experience immensely.
The tone for the cruise was set by the Captain, the cheerful, friendly and very young to be master of a cruise ship, Captain Carl Smith. His example was emulated by all crew we came into contact with, officers, cabin attendants, stewards, cleaning staff etc who at all times demonstrated a commitment to service and a willingness to go the extra mile to make our cruise experience a memorable one.
Embarkation We arrived in Singapore after the long flight from Johannesburg at 06h00 to a virtually deserted air terminal. We accordingly decided to go directly to the cruise terminal in the hope we could at least check in our luggage before embarkation formalities were to start at 11h00. However, no such facility was provided and we just mulled around the terminal for the intervening hours. Fortunately (or unfortunately!) the terminal is linked to the Vivocity shopping plaza so we were not completely inactive until we joined the short queue to conclude the embarkation procedure, which, we must say, proceeded very smoothly and efficiently. We were welcomed on board with a welcoming drink before midday. Cabins of, course were not yet ready but a facility was provided where hand luggage could be left safely while we had a quick lunch in the Windows buffet style restaurant and briefly explored the ship before taking occupation of our cabin at about 13h30. The Ship As mentioned, this was our first experience of a smallish cruise ship. We were somewhat surprised to find that the general layout was almost identical to that of the larger ships we had previously sailed, everything just that little bit smaller. The Quest is a lovely vessel, well appointed and kept in impeccable condition throughout.
Our balcony cabin was what one would expect on a ship of this nature. We thought if anything, the cabin was just that little bit smaller than those we had on Celebrity, NCL and RCCL. A little cramped but with sufficient storage space and better than usual amenities i.e. up market Elemis toiletries, fluffy robes, complimentary binoculars, daily fresh fruit bowl etc. We were also surprised to find a basket of goodies - puzzle books, tin of peppermints and, interestingly, a Kama Sutra kit!!, that we thought were also complimentary until we read the fine print. Still, to be fair to Azamara, these were offered at normal retail prices and did not carry the typical exorbitant mark up one usually finds on cruise ships. As always we thoroughly enjoyed or balcony facility, especially on cruise days when one can really enjoy the relaxing ambience of a cool drink in the comfort of one's own cabin while watching the world pass leisurely by.
Dining We generally found the food on the Quest to be very good to excellent. Food and service at the main restaurant, Discoveries, where we dined on a number of evenings, was invariably very good. Windows buffet restaurant offered a varied and well prepared range of dishes on each occasion we ate there - most lunches and breakfasts. Snack meals at the Pool Grill were prepared to order, well presented and of good quality while the Mosaic Cafe on the 5th level offered a varied range of tasty tidbits at virtually all hours.
Each passenger is entitled to two visits to either or both of the two specialty restaurants for a small couvert of USD5 per person. Food at both, The Aqualina and Prime C the specialty steak house, was excellent although we found the service to be a bit too formal and far too rushed. Even though we complained (not too profusely) about the minimal time between serving courses, our subsequent course was presented in virtually the same movement as the plates of the previous course were removed!!
The biggest surprise for us was the regular specialty evening buffets served in the ambienece of the pool deck. On the first night in Bangkok a superb Thai style buffet was presented offering a range of authentic Thai dishes including a variety of stir-fries, seafoods and Thai deserts. Later in the cruise an absolutely fantastic sea food buffet was served. The range of top quality seafood including tiger shrimps fully 15 to 20 cm in length, was outstanding. All enjoyed while quaffing a cold beer of chilled glass of wine at a quiet table overlooking the pool deck. Could life get any better?
Other theme evenings included a curry buffet (interesting) and an English pub style evening (which we did not attend as it clashed with our Prime C booking), both served in the Windows restaurant.
Because of the very early departure times of some of the shore excursions, we had room service for breakfast on three occasions. Meals were delivered at precisely the requested time. Room service would actually 'phone our room first to check we were awake and then our meal would be delivered promptly less than a minute later!
Entertainment Quality of entertainment in the intimate show lounge was as good as one can expect on a cruise ship. Entertainers ranged from the laid back good humour of pianist Jim Badger, to diva Cheryl Sinclair (excellent), to a first rate comedian Jeff Stevenson who disappointingly only performed one show, to some distinctly forgettable performers. One showstopper performer was none other than Cuisse Director Sue Denning who brought back all the oldies in an energetic performance. She certainly knows how to work a crowd! A number of competent bands and ensembles provided pleasant background music at various venues throughout the ship. The ship's main show band provided some excellent jazz in the Mosaic cafe area on a couple of evenings.
Fitness and Recreation No climbing walls, ice rinks, golf simulators on the Quest! It caters to an entirely different market. However, the smallish fitness center was well equipped and well maintained and the tiny jogging track was kept in good use at all times. One area of minor concern was the lack of change room facilities at or near the fitness center. We found such to be welcome facility on other cruise lines as one could then proceed directly to breakfast after an early morning workout without necessitating a trip back to one's cabin for a shower and clean up.
Shore excursions South East Asia is a fascinating area to visit and the range of shore excursions offered by the highly capable and knowledgeable excursion team was interesting and varied and chosen to optimize the tourists limited time in each destination. We pre booked a package of tousr that gave us a ship's tour in each destination. Disappointingly, the pre booked tour of Singapore had to be cancelled as a consequence of a late schedule change necessitating the Quest departing Singapore three hours earlier than originally planned. However, this was not an issue as we had previously visited Singapore some five years ago and had the opportunity of experiencing most of the touristy highlights on that occasion.
The tours we did do were all offered by a very efficient tour operator, Destination Asia. All tour buses were limited to a maximum of 25 passengers so each group was relatively small and manageable. Buses were clean and interestingly, all provided free bottled water for the passengers.
As indicated, we had a pre booked tour in each destination we docked at. All tours bar the city tour of Saigon, which comprised mainly of trying to wend our way through the congested city streets and was quite boring with few highlights, were worth undertaking.
We enjoy touring new destinations on foot wherever possible, so when we overnighted in a city, we did our own thing on the days we were not on an official tour. Always a good way to get the feel of a city.
Destinations We chose this tour primarily for it's itinerary and were not disappointed. Places visited were:
Bangkok: Huge, sprawling, congested with a constant buzz. Extensive modernization taking place with vast high-rise buildings being erected everywhere. Despite being a bit run down, ageing, dirty buildings in need of repair, pot holes in the streets, uneven sidewalks etc, we found the city to be surprisingly clean considering the size and diversity of it's population. No littering! I had a sweet wrapper I wanted to dispose of and had to walk half a block to find a refuse container - yet the streets were virtually free of litter.
The first afternoon after docking, we caught a taxi into the city center and then toured the area on foot. Before returning to the ship we visited the famous night market, a massive area with a multitude of shops, restaurants and massage parlours (foot, full body, head and fish and I guess a few others as well!). We were a bit disappointed in the market as all shops seemed to be much of a muchness offering virtually the same range of merchandise - incredibly cheap if one is prepared to go through the sometimes tiresome bargaining ritual.
Our first organized tour was the "Grand Palace and Venice of the East" tour. This is a day long tour including a seafood lunch. Very interesting introduction into Thai culture with a visit to the Grand Palace and Emerald Buddha Temple, but the highlight for us was the cruise by riverboat into the canals and river tributaries that make up Bangkok - truly the Venice of the east!
Ho Chi Minh City: Next stop was Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). We had two organized tours. On the first afternoon we took the so-called "Highlights of Saigon" tour - a big disappointment. No real interesting highlights although the visit to the former Presidential Palace which doubled up as the Head Quarters of the US Military during the latter stages of the infamous Vietnam War, was probably of some historical interest to the American tourists. The most interesting part of the visit was to witness the chaotic congestion of the streets of this bustling city. It has no public transport to talk of (the public transport system was nationalized after the communist regime took control of Saigon at the end of the war and has, as is typical of most centrally controlled economic systems, been allowed to run down to the extent that it is virtually non existent). Cars are too expensive hence the primary mode of transport is the cycle. Initially the bicycle but now, as the population has become a little more affluent, the motorcycle reigns supreme. The sight of literally hundreds of motorcycles jockeying for position in the congested streets has to be witnessed to be believed. Absolutely amazing!
The following day we visited the Cu Chi Tunnels, typical of the maze of tunnels that the North Vietnamese fighters fashioned and used as a base during the war. Quite fascinating and well worth the two hour journey.
Onward to Danang where our "Imperial Hue" day tour included a visit to the Imperial Citadel, a vast structure similar to the Forbidden City in Beijing with some very impressive architecture and extensive ornate citadels and pergolas. An authentic buffet style Vietnamese luncheon was included as part of the tour.
Next stop was Halong Bay port city to Hanoi the capital of Vietman. Our "Halong bay by Boat" tour was one of the highlights of the trip, commencing with a visit to the impressive Thien Kung Caves with their majestic stalagmites and stalactites, and concluding with a slow cruise though the eerily beautiful limestone structures that comprise the breathtakingly beautiful Halong Bay. It is a world heritage site and has been short listed for consideration as one of the seven natural wonders of the world. One can easily see why.
We elected not to take the 3,5 hour each way bus trip to Hanoi the following day. Long rides in a bumpy bus are not all that good for my ageing bones so we decided instead just to tour the Halong bay area on our own. A mistake as there is very little to do or see in Halong bay other that the two tourist attractions we visited the day previously. We should have opted for the 11/12 hour trip to Hanoi, which although very long and tiring, by all accounts was enjoyed by all.
A sea day followed and then we docked early morning on the penultimate day of our cruise right in the center of Hong Kong at the harbour terminal on the Kowloon side which proved to be an excellent site to view the impressive laser lights show that is shown each night at 20h00. Our organized tour that morning was "Hong Kong Island" tour which included a sampan cruise through the fishing village of Aberdeen, a visit to the famous Stanley Market (too short to be meaningful), and then a visit to Victoria Peak inclusive of a spectacular tram ride back to the city. However, disappointingly, the day we visited was very misty so we caught only fleeting glimpses of the magnificent views over the beautiful city of Hong Kong and surrounding islands. Service We certainly had no complaints about the general standard of service, which at all times was friendly, courteous and efficient. Most operational staff were either East European, Indian, Philipino or West Indian but language was never a problem. Jouie. our butler (really a trumped up cabin attendant), was at all time attentive and engaging. We are not quite sure what we make of the Azamara policy of offering a butler service to all classes of cabin. We are, to be honest, a little uncomfortable with too much close attention. As long as our cabin is kept clean, well stocked and has a full ice bucket, we are happy campers!
Disembarkation Disembarkation proceeded smoothly. We had arranged to stay for three days in Hong Kong after the cruise and we were fortunate to be able to check into our hotel, the Nathan, as soon as we arrived shortly after 09h00. The hotel was OK, very well situated near the most popular markets and museums etc, but a bit run down. We would not choose it again. Day one was spent doing the obligatory shopping for bargains of which there were plenty if one felt so inclined to fill up a few more suitcases for the trip back home. In the event we did indeed have to purchase an additional carry on suitcase to house all the last minute gifts etc and other (unwanted!) stuff we had acquired along the way through SE Asia.
The next day, our last full day in Hong Kong before having to endure the long trip back to South Africa, we decided to do a full day tour of Lantau Island. Well worth the money, including a visit to the worlds second largest statue of Buddha (impressively over 80 metres in height) and a cable car ride through the hills of Lantau island including fantastic views of the new international airport, However, again as with our visit to Victoria Peak, the weather gods did not smile on us and we experienced rainy weather throughout the day which, unfortunately, significantly affected the views we should have seen during the vertigo inducing cable car ride.
Our final day in Hong Kong was also inclement with heavy rains most of the day. So we just chilled in preparation for the flight back home.
Rebranding to Azamara Club It will be interesting to see how the forthcoming rebranding to Azamara Club as a destination rich cruise line pans out. The Azamara experience is already a distinctive one and it is hoped the planned enhancements to really distinguish it from the upper end of the mass cruise market such as Celebrity and Holland America, do not prove to be too expensive. The plans to become a semi all inclusive line by offering inclusive house wines, bottled water, sodas, specialty coffees and inclusive gratuities are welcomed and obviously will come at a cost. But by how much?
A final, wistful complaint. If they are to offer inclusive wines, why not also offer inclusive beers and spirits as well? Alternatively, why can they not allow passengers to purchase liquor at their own duty free on board outlets for consumption in their own cabins? Their current policy of allowing passengers to purchase a liquor gift package at a highly inflated price USD 60 for a litre of standard scotch plus six cans of soda and a box of nuts for personal consumption in passengers staterooms is nickel and diming at its worst.
Concluding comments All in all a great trip that we consider to be our first premium cruise experience. Not quite the class of luxury lines such as Seabourn, Crystal or Regent whose pricing is way out of our league anyway, but getting there. It has an unique market niche catering for the passenger that wants a little more than the mass-market lines are by virtue of their size, able to offer yet still relatively affordable without some of the bells and whistles and, quite frankly, unnecessary extra ordinary pampering that seems to be demanded by passengers of the six star lines. We can only hope that Azamara's rebranding further enhances its uniqueness and that it's proposed repricing keeps the experience within relatively affordable limits.