This was the 32nd cruise for these two Seniors, whose home port is Miami. We booked through an internet agency and quickly learned that this 12 day Southern Caribbean was to be the last cruise of the Azamara Journey, sister ship to Azamara Quest, under the "old plan" which basically was: buy your own wine, sodas, pay for specific shuttle buses, and perhaps a few more oft encountered items. Prices are to be raised accordingly, a small percentsge, according to what staff announced at one of two CruiseCritic meetings. According to management, this is to bring fares in line with prevailing "luxury" companion lines and ships.
We quickly learned what sets Azamara apart from other ships of a less Luxe Category which we have sailed on. Having checked our two large bags, and both having carryons after a flawless and rapid embarkation, up the stairway to the boarding area, we found a welcome desk where we inquired where we might get lunch. We mentioned we would like to go to our cabin first and rid ourselves of carryons and were told we could leave them at the desk and they would be taken to the cabin for us. This extra touch, followed by the usual complimentary glass of champagne, began to set the them of exemplary service. But, you ask, and properly so, "Doesn't everyone now offer a glass of champagne?" Well, yes, but this was PINK champagne.
We found our (now lighter) way to the Windows buffet style dining area on Deck 9, and though both remarking that it was an area of small seating capacity, in nearly all instances were able to find a seat, the rare exception being times when scheduling or events combined with a closed sit down dining room (titled Discoveries) threw more people into Windows than usual capacity permitted. There is a large outdoor area of seating, which is proportionately larger than usual.
While we're "in" Windows, why not comment on food quality? Usually much much better than we have encountered on other lines (We have never done the UltraLuxe brands, i.e., Silversea, Seabourne, Crystal or Regent) At times, it was exceptional, especially for buffet service. Usual breakfast fare is outstanding for a smaller ship, with the usual omelet and pancake/waffle stations, but more frequently than not, with sides or "originals" not seen before to us. Ex.: For bagel toppings, six selections of cream cheese, one original, five with additions such as chives, et al. Oatmeal, two kettles, one with plain Oatmeal, another with milk and sugar already added for your convenience.
There is usually a special side, such as peaches or pears poached with spices, and a selection of fresh fruit better by far than we have ever experienced, anywhere, anytime, anyplace. Spot on ripe papaya, kiwi, pineapple and orange slices, the papaya and kiwi being the sweetest the BW (For the uninitiated or single, Beautiful Wife) Carol and I agreed to be the best we have ever tasted. Also of note: A coffee machine making fresh coffee of your selection, from conventional to DeCaf espresso and latte. The decaf espresso, a favorite of mine, is served with attractively trimmed, color wise, demi cups and saucers and, I quote: "This is the best espresso I have ever tasted...mild, nutty tasting and outstanding." I deeply regret this did not last, nor did the regular coffee offerings, seemingly deteriorating a bit each day until nearly undrinkable. Why? I have no idea. Could it be lack of daily cleaning? A shame.
Perhaps most notable was a complimentary smoothie bar, open during breakfast only, staffed by two amazingly efficient and speedy young men, with an extensive array of various blendable fruits, juices and milks. (Regular, soy, yogurt and the like) You name it, it will quickly appear, literally. Accompanying the whimsical coffee machine an hilarious (though we have serious doubts the manufacturer meant it to be so) water and ice dispenser, which holds a secret of its own, fathomable to few on first, second or even subsequent attempts. Count me admittedly among the group termed "subsequent". You must hold the glass under the outlet and place the other hand in a certain specific position which entails a sensor plate, though this was unclear until near the end of our particular voyage, when an explanatory instruction plate appeared and solved the problem of the adjacent floor having continually been an unwitting ice receptacle, as a result of failed attempts by the desperate and thirsty among us. This area and machine quickly became the object of a great deal of colorful language and hands thrust into the air in full and complete surrender.
Lunch was usually a fish selection, a chicken dish, both with vegetables, and sides, with the usual carvery station, and an extensive salad selection, as well as stir fry to order. One lunch was so outstanding that I wrote a personal note both to the Captain and to the Executive Chef, Lisa. Apparently no one had ever bothered in the past to do anything but enjoy, as the first time BW Carol and I dined in one of the two (absolutely outstanding) alternative restaurants (more later) we were greeted with three separate tableside visits to thank us for our kind remarks, the first by someone we took to be the Ass't head chef, the second by the Chef of the restaurant itself, and, to our amazement and near overwhelment (yes, we made that word up, so there) when I said to BW, "Well, what's next, the Head Chef herself"?, she, Lisa, did indeed appear expressing gracious thanks. Her assistant had even offered his personal extension" "If there's anything I can do for you, do please call me..." We did share the not so obvious question: "You have to wonder what the other diners must think of this impromptu parade of the chefs!"
The main dining room, Discoveries, is single story, spacious and well thought out. Food was generally excellent and at times, truly outstanding. Chef Lisa and staff truly do themselves proud and are caring and extremely inventive and creative, and do an outstanding job. A dairy allergy was always well allowed for and taken care of by staff; we regret not having his name as he most assuredly deserves mention. Dining by reservation and not assignment, we nevertheless had the same waiter (Slobodan) and Ass't (Dogan) who were outstanding and quickly took care of our personal foibles.
While we are on the subject, quick comment: The two alternative restaurants, termed "Aqualina" and "Prime C" are available to all passengers on a reservation basis, one each per voyage so that no one is denied the opportunity. To say more than that the food and service are exemplary and perhaps the best we have ever experienced may be an all too quick summary. BW applauded the hot mini Cinnamon donuts, served with three dipping sauces, and hot chocolate lava cake with ice cream. Another special touch...Baked Alaska desserts in Discoveries were individually made and served, and pronounced as, and I quote; "Out of this world..." by BW. Several poolside buffets displayed highly creative and appealing food, unfortunately not receiving the attendance it was absolutely worthy of. In Windows, meat loaf, served as individual portions in small dishes, rather than the "loaf" and tasting of only pure beef, not the usual adulteration of bread crumbs or the like.
The requisite Lifeboat drill was quick and easy, as on our last voyage we were not required to don lifejackets, only to assemble in a comfortable public room, hear a safety address, and then for familiarization proceed to the designated lifeboat station. *The safety talk consisted of the usual: Please do not throw overboard cigars, cigarettes or disagreeable companions. If you are, during a drill or actual emergency, separated from your children they will be brought to you. If you receive the wrong children and like them better, you may keep them for the duration of the voyage, but no longer, as we have received complaints from both the authorities and disturbed grandparents. We ask that, in extreme cases, you refrain from the old trick of placing a paper with the name of another ship in your children's belongings or pockets as this seldom works out well in the end to mutual satisfaction and tends to upset responsible staff."
In the same vein, our cabin (4035) had two different peepholes, one at eye level as well as a second at knee (crouching) level.*Inquiries having eliminated the possibility that the cabin had been previously occupied by the road cast of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, we learned from staff that it is placed so that wily parents may ascertain that the children are attempting to get back into the room and quickly extinguish the lights and lock themselves in the bathroom. A clever ploy indeed. *
More on cabin, this was configured as a cabin for the disabled; we aren't but welcomed the extra bathroom spsce, even though it was an inside. Another luxe touch, each cabin has both a steward and butler (seldom used by us) available for a multitude of functions including a daily fruit tray of your choice, and fresh flowers as well. Butler will also serve afternoon treats if ordered and desired. Both Butler and Steward were exemplary and unobtrusive. Storage space was ample and well thought out and would be ample for the duration of any length voyage.
Staff in general...outstanding and near impossible to get by without a smile and greeting. Even the Customer Relations desk, adjacent to our 4th floor cabin. NO one, and we mean No one, gets by without a cheery "Hello" being called out. Newspapers in several languages are posted here, as well as in the entrance to the Windows cafe. Another luxe touch, daily bulletins are printed in color, not the usual B&W. More staff comments? When a specific room situation was noted, during a CruiseCritic meeting, to Hotel Director Heike Berdos and manager Ngawhira Fleet, quickly stepped in and solved it to our more than complete satisfaction. A thank you note was written to both, and each responded personally. Surprise...another luxe touch, a daily sheet of all upcoming movies is delivered to your cabin. These may be shown either in your room, on a flat screen TV, or on a larger screen in an appropriate area of the 5th floor Cova Cafe. Cova also contains ongoing snacks of a high order, complimentary, though specialty coffee and teas are not. BW, a sweets devotee of the highest order, quickly pronounced the chocolate biscotti the best ever experienced, as well as another favorite, chocolate croissants.
Cova was one of three venues, depending on scheduling and presentation requirements, for the veritable plethora of Trivia contests offered. Well and cheerfully presented by CD Assistants Katherine, Chris and Oleg, these were not heavily attended, even on sea days, but admittedly made for easier chances to win. Prizes are thankfully not given out each time, small trinkets as key chains, luggage tags and the like, but are distributed by total number of winnings as stamped on an appropriate individual "score" sheet. This is given after the last contest of the day prior to docking and makes for a more worthwhile and useful selection of keepsakes.
Gym and Spa? The gym is well equipped for the ship's size, with most machines available and well thought out. Oddly, the gym seemed very lightly attended compared to what might be expected. BW had a facial, won at one of several promotional drawings, and pronounced it a pleasing and professional experience. She noted that she had to actually inquire how to tip her young lady, a ready example of the lack of pressure for "ancillary" costs. There were never photographers making the rounds at dinner or other times. In fact, when we wanted a photograph other than at the staged settings, we spoke to the Photo Department head and were assigned a very able young man to meet us in a mutually chosen location. We were far more than pleased with his work. (In fact, the manager was also, apparently, as he asked if they might use the spread for display, and we willingly signed a release to that effect...look for us, ha) Never at any time was there continual and annoying pressure for extra paid services; very welcome and first class. Well done, Azamara.
Entertainment? Azamara has, we understand, not having space for full production shows, adopted as policy having high class solo artists. This being true ( on one occasion we were so pleased we attended a (billed as: "High Energy Pianist") second show and bought a CD). We were surprised at the usually sparse attendance. We generally sat in a particular bench style row, for a combination of comfort, sight line and lighting) and on two occasions there was only one other couple (another joined later) in the entire row. This often occurred when, due to port scheduling, there was only one show, where logic dictates the presence of double the audience number at two shows...
Our ports were, in order, after two sea days from Miami, St.Johns, U.S.V.I.,Gustavia,St.Barts, Fort de France, Martinique, Bequia, the Grenadines, Roseau, Dominica,Basseterre, St.Kitts,Virgin Gorda, B.V.I. In Martinique we did not ashore as it was raining; in Dominica as it was hotter than we wanted to deal with. We took no tours, having been to most ports before, and usually just debarked to walk around the adjacent shopping or to visit the Post Office to mail cards, a the ship did not provided mailings from all ports. FYI, we had previously taken the St.Kitts Train Tour and found it enjoyable snd worthwhile. --
Debarkation was, as embarkation, smooth and unruffled, though we were in the last off group and there could have been ample opportunity for any line bsckup. Final luxe touch? BW Carol and I were both encumbered with now multiple handsful we had not boarded with and found the exit very difficult. There were three courteous staff members at the stairway who offered to help us and each took a share of our burden and helped us to the baggage claim area. Again, well done and extremely impressive.
BW and I, Dean, agree that Azamara has done an outstanding job with this line, and this ship. We would not hesitate to sail again on it and to recommend it whole-heartedly to our friends. Despite the (and they are few) limitations of a smaller ship (31K+ tons)the pluses far outweigh the negatives; the pluses are easy to find and the minuses near non-existent. Once again, Azamara, staff, Captain, and management, a hearty well done. (Note: the * = "Just kidding, they didn't really say that...) Best wishes, Dean and BW Carol 30