Having cruised on Oceanea's Regatta a year ago, we were keen to compare Azamara with them. We first sailed on one of the former Renaissance ships when flagged as Swan Hellenic's Minerva II. This ship is now with Princess lines and will shortly move to P&O I believe, as the Adonia. We love the size and layout of these ships.
Booking was easy through an online agency based in Texas. Their service was magnificent. I had praised their agent to her boss and, unexpectedly, was thanked with a bottle of wine in our cabin as a gift from the agency. We also managed to bring on, declared, the remains of a wine-box which we had bought in Heathrow's duty-free shop. We have few complaints about the cruise but the astonishing price of wine on board, especially after an additional 18% service charge, meant that we drank much less than we would have done. I suspect that the ship's profits would have increased if the price was lower.
Embarkation was a doddle, by far the best we have ever experienced. We arrived at Terminal J and strolled straight on at about 1.30 p.m. Azamara's paperwork says to get there for 2 p.m. but this is wrong. People were able to board from about 11 a.m. Lunch was available, as were all public facilities. We wish we had known this. Our luggage arrived reasonably quickly, too. Our Oceania embarkation, in the very same terminal a year before, had been long-winded in the extreme.
Standard balcony/veranda cabins are a bit on the small side on these ships but we are used to that and they are fine for us. Mind you, quite how some of the vast, unsightly, overweight passengers (mainly Americans) fit into the bathroom kept us guessing. We loved the flowers and daily replenished fruit bowl, both an improvement on Oceania. An easy-to-use safe was good. The flat-screen TV was fine but I should have liked a DVD player as well - which Oceania have. We sampled the free in-cabin canapEs one evening and very pleasant they were, too. Our 'Butler' and his assistant were excellent. The cabin was kept spotless and they were very friendly. We think the terms 'stateroom' for cabin and 'butler' for glorified steward are plain daft.
We found plenty of people to talk to and joined up most evenings for dinner with very pleasant folk we had met during the course of the cruise. On the last night 10 of us were given the Captain's table for a final meal together. The ship had it's fair share of loud-mouthed amateur politicians, gossips, rumour-mongers and complainers (nearly all Americans) but they were easy to avoid.
We visited 7 ports and they varied from excellent to awful (see below). As a former Port Lecturer on P&O, from the days (not so distant) that one gave lectures which encompassed many aspects of each port, such as history, architecture, places to get taxis and trains etc., rather than simply flogging the company's tours, I found the attempts by Azamara to cover this ground to be pathetic. Oceania, a year ago, were just as bad. Mind you, the port information sheets were better than Oceania's, although that is is not saying much. The TV presentations were so poor as to be an invitation to stay on board! We could have done without the ship's photographer (Oceania didn't have one) but he was not in any way overbearing and, let's face it, some people like posing!
Azamara tries to do too much in its daily programme. The list which arrives in the cabin each evening is crammed with things to do, but they were generally of a pretty poor standard, with very few attenders. The daily general-knowledge-cum-trivia quiz, which on Oceania had over 100 attenders, was a very poor affair. The evening 'shows' varied from good to dire, not that this concerned us much. We sat at the back on the occasions we went and slipped away if appropriate. Essentially, Azamara is trying to put on a big ship programme with a small ship crew and budget. It doesn't work. However, the enrichment lectures, one on each sea day, were excellent.
The food was tip-top throughout and, we would say, up to Oceania's superb standards. We met several people who also had experienced the rival brand and dining honours were declared about even. Each of the excellent special restaurants we had no difficulty booking into twice and the service and food was of a very high standard indeed. But we liked the main dining room just as much. The menu, service and food were all wonderful. The Windows buffet was tip-top too. Two grumbles in the food department. The main Discoveries dining room was not open for lunch on port days (it is with Oceania) and the 'Elegant Teas', served in the Aqualina Restaurant to the accompaniment of a harp, were a very long way from the wonderful offerings of Oceania, served in the forward lounge on deck 10, to the accompaniment of a string quartet.
We made no use of the spa. I had to visit the doctor and this was quick and easy. I also spent a little time at the slot machines, coming out quits! We managed to resist the temptation to attend any art auctions, not least because almost all the pictures on show were hideous.
One thing that the ship did fall down on was general maintenance in one or two areas. Where this showed was, particularly, in the tiling round the pool, which was shoddy, the pool-side whirlpools, which were clapped-out and in the care and presentation of some sun beds (wheels missing, clean but yellowing towelling covers).
Disembarkation was simple. We wanted to be the last to leave as we were going on to a hotel in Miami for a few days, and knew our room would not be ready there. Well, we were among the last but this still meant we were off by 8.50 a.m.
We chose Azamara over Oceania this year because, given virtually identical cruises, the price difference was huge. Quite what the effect of Azamara changing to 'Azamara Club' and putting up prices (to Oceania levels?) will be I do not know. Given the same cruise for the same price we would probably choose Oceania, but there's very little in it. However, since we have no intention of paying anything like the brochure price given in Azamara'a new dreadful 2010-2011 open-out 'brochure', it may mean we shan't be able to afford to travel with either again! This would be a great pity. The few petty grumbles above should not detract from an excellent cruise overall. We have no hesitation in recommending Azamara.