Our first cruise was with HAL nearly 20 years ago. Our experience was so positive that we remained exclusively loyal to them for many years & many cruises. We only strayed to take specialty cruises on expedition ships or traditional river cruises.
About a year ago, we started to explore our cruising options beyond HAL. We were seeking an upper-premium product so we decided to try both Azamara & Oceania. We chose 14-nite transAtlantics on each - westbound Barcelona to Miami on Oceania Regatta (Nov/09) and eastbound Miami to Barcelona on Azamara Journey (April/10). This was our first experience with transAtlantics as we usually prefer port-intensive cruises. But our investment (or risk) would be minimal & we'd get an excellent impression with so many days at sea.
I previously reviewed our Oceania cruise at http://www.cruisecritic.com/memberreviews/memberreview.cfm?EntryID=61359 so these comments will focus on our Azamara experience, although direct comparisons are inevitable.
We made independent air (FF) and hotel arrangements & stayed 1-nite pre-cruise at Sofitel Miami. We took a taxi to the cruise port about 12:30 pm & were efficiently processed by shoreside staff. We traded our passports for our Azamara Seapass, swiped our credit card & proceeded to board Journey. Once across the gangway, we were welcomed with a glass of sparkling rosE. Since staterooms weren't ready yet, we went to Windows to check out the embarkation buffet. We grabbed a slice of pizza & were barely seated when a server appeared with complimentary wine. Off to a good start!
We soon learned that our sailing had only 491 pax (70% capacity) with 404 crew. Pretty similar to our reverse sailing last fall on Oceania Regatta which had 520 pax (76%) with 397 crew.
We intentionally booked an identical verandah room in the identical location (swapping port for starboard) as we had on Oceania Regatta a few months ago. It was conveniently located on the 7th floor near the forward elevator. Other than the sounds of crashing waves, our room was very quiet.
The room was configured much the same as Regatta with ample closet space, drawer storage and a large floor-to-ceiling mirror. Perhaps it was the dEcor, but the room was not as bright & airy as on Oceania. Our bed was in rather poor condition & nowhere near as comfy as those we've had on either Oceania or HAL. The mattress had obvious dips & depressions. Bed linens were luxurious & in excellent shape.
We knew to expect a tiny bathroom so there was no surprise. It was functional & clean although the shower curtain showed signs of mildew along the bottom edge & the shower drain was sluggish. Some towels & facecloths were frayed & in dire need of replacement. Elemis soap & toiletries were replenished as we used them.
The 40 sq ft verandah was noticeably smaller than on Regatta. Who knew what a difference 10 sq ft could make? Balcony furniture was 2 upright chairs & a glass table that seemed inappropriately large for the very tiny space. The privacy barrier between balconies was made of opaque glass that had gaps of about 6-8 inches at each edge. This was not sufficient for total privacy. It was impossible to sit outside & not be visible to our neighbors from some angle. But the weather on this crossing was so poor that we rarely had the opportunity to use the balcony. We had cool temps & overcast skies for most of the trip. The Captain did all he could to outrun back-to-back storms after leaving Miami but we still experienced angry seas with 15-22 ft swells for several consecutive days.
Food is an important aspect of cruising for us. While we don't cruise specifically for the food, we won't sail on a line that has mediocre food. After reading many reviews about food on Azamara, we set our expectations lower than Oceania but higher than HAL. This made sense since HAL caters more in the larger mass market while Oceania fancies itself as the cruise line for foodies. Even with lowered expectations, we were disappointed with the food on Azamara. Our dining experience on Journey ranks close to the bottom of our 27 cruises. Not only did Azamara fail to reach the level of Oceania, in our opinion they did not even come close to HAL.
We were disappointed in the main dining venues:
. ordinary menus with limited selections . obvious repetition of ingredients . indistinct flavors with many items tasting similar . heavy use of salt to enhance flavor . little evidence of fresh herbs, spices or seasonings . sauces & gravies (and some soups) had starchy consistency . poor execution of many items: overcooked or undercooked . hot food often served lukewarm . less choice cuts of meat & fish for principal entrees . no fresh berries, only soggy defrosted available . very limited cheese selections . homemade ice-creams & sherbets often contained ice chips.
But there were bright spots:
. Smoothie Bar in Windows . fresh squeezed OJ & mouth-puckering lemonade . tasty burgers & kabobs, albeit very greasy, at Pool Grill . special themed nites in Breeza (Spanish Tapas, Asian Stir-Fry & Indian Curry) . Cova Cafe is a little gem for specialty coffees & tasty tidbits . food presentation was consistently superb in MDR . complimentary wine with lunch & dinner.
Bottom line, dining on Journey was hit-or-miss for us. Over time, we learned how to increase our odds of a better meal. Apparently the trick was to make the right selections! We did manage to have a few good meals but they were the exception.
I realize that food is subjective & palates vary greatly. I also appreciate that food on any cruise line can vary from ship to ship & even from sailing to sailing on the same ship. Maybe the food we had on Journey was not representative of Azamara. Maybe there were provisioning problems on this transAtlantic. Maybe the food budget was reduced & lower quality items had to be substituted. Maybe the galley crew were exhausted or out-of-sync. And maybe it's unfair for us to make an assessment of Azamara food based on a single sailing, but we trust our own palates & instincts. YMMV.
We were entitled to 2 guaranteed reservations at each of the 2 specialty restaurants, Prime C and Aqualina, at a price of $15 pp per meal. Since we had no prior status with either Azamara or Celebrity, we were unable to make reservations on-line before the cruise. So we made it a priority upon boarding. We were surprised to learn that both restaurants were operating on a fixed schedule: early (6:00-6:30 pm) or late (8:00-8:30 pm). We tried several times to make a reservation at either restaurant for 7:30 pm. No can do. Nevertheless, we were eager to try them so we accepted the pre-set times. We enjoyed both specialty restaurants. Elegant atmosphere, attentive service, creative menus, flavorable food. We preferred Aqualina over Prime C.
Journey offered many games & activities for our 9 sea days. Golf putting, shuffleboard, ping pong, social bridge, bingo, team trivia, arts & crafts sessions, improv acting classes & ballroom dance lessons. Captain Theodorou even taught a jam-packed room of eager passengers to dance the Greek Korba. Opa!
There were culinary demos, afternoon tea, wine & martini tastings ($), food & wine pairings ($), photo & computer workshops ($), wellness seminars & fitness classes.
There were 3 enrichment lecturers on-board, making for diverse & interesting presentations. Recent movies were available on in-room TV but the rotation schedule made it virtually impossible to watch many during normal waking hours.
Azamara still has an Art Director on board. He gave a few presentations & staged several silent auctions. On Azamara, loyalty has its privileges. Members of Le Club Voyage were invited to participate in a range of published & unpublished activities, including galley tours, bridge tours, engine room tours, Happy Hour, cocktail parties, connoisseur dinners, wine & specialty coffee tastings. Since this was our first Azamara cruise & we had no prior history on Celebrity or RCCL, we were excluded from these events. However, because of our involvement with Cruise Critic, we did receive invitations to the galley, bridge and engine room tours.
Azamara arranged a couple of Meet & Mingle sessions for CC members. They trump both Oceania & HAL for hosting these events. Cruise Director Tony Markey announced that our group of 60+ was the largest they had on board this year. We enjoyed complimentary cocktails & hors d'oerves and met several senior officers. Hotel Manager Heike Berdos attended both CC parties. She's the real deal - very approachable & around the ship constantly. Everyone seemed genuinely interested in what CC members had to say.
Who said a small ship can't deliver top-quality entertainment? Kudos to Azamara for providing excellent after-dinner shows in the Cabaret Lounge on Journey. There was a featured vocalist, pianist, violinist, guitarist, comedian as well as several performances by an Azamara 5-member resident cast. All superb. Pre and post-dinner music was provided by a harpist, guitarist, cabaret singer & musical trio. There was also pre-show ballroom dancing as well as an after-hours disco.
We are independent travelers who tend to make our own shore arrangements. However, on this cruise we had a generous OBC so we chose to take a few ship excursions. Journey shorex team was among the best we have encountered on any ship. They were well informed, enthusiastic & helpful. And unlike many shorex staff who become harried on tour day & bark out orders to passengers, the Journey staff remained easy-going & helpful throughout. We took 2 shore excursions that were excellent. Interesting itineraries, informative tour guides, great value for money.
We thought Journey was clean, nicely appointed & well maintained. It has the underpinnings of a great ship. But it seemed to lack the warmth & vibrancy on either Oceania or HAL. Something intangible was missing. In our view, Journey needs a bit more love & careful attention to the little details.
Journey has the same footprint as Oceania R class ships, yet there are noticeable differences in how the space is used.
The casino on Azamara is larger & slot machines take up space that Oceania uses for its delightful Martinis Bar. Azamara does have a bar near the casino, but with a large screen TV & uncomfortable seating, it lacked the ambiance that Martinis exudes on Oceania.
Cova Cafe is a lovely addition on Azamara. It is the perfect hang-out where we enjoyed many a specialty coffee & light meal. There is nothing similar on Oceania. The on-board shops are virtually identical on both lines, although the nod goes to Oceania for better product selection & merchandising.
On Azamara, the Art Director had a desk on the 5th floor opposite the Cova Cafe. Art works were often displayed for sale around this area, as well as in the hallway outside the casino. The ship photographer & his photo gallery were also located here. This gave a slightly cluttered & commercial feel to the overall area.
The Library was our favorite room on Oceania. On Azamara, it was still lovely but something was missing. It's as if nobody really cared about this space. Furniture was often scattered haphazardly about the room, seating was mismatched & lighting was poor. The "take a book, leave a book" section was usually in disarray, permanent books were often misfiled & there were no subscription magazines. The Library felt more like a forgotten rec room than the elegant space it can be.
Looking Glass on Azamara is Horizons on Oceania. This is the spot where passengers gather to enjoy forward vistas thru the panoramic floor-to-ceiling windows. But on Journey, the centre views are somewhat obstructed by equipment for the on-board band. Nearly half of the windows were blocked by a grand piano, large speakers & synthesizers.
But to their credit, Azamara hasn't converted outside public space on the top deck into revenue-producing private cabanas as Oceania has done. So the best forward vantage points are still available for all to enjoy. But neither Azamara nor Oceania can come close to the wide-open public spaces on HAL, its gorgeous wrap-around teak promenades and unrestricted bow access for scenic cruising.
We experienced a well organized disembarkation off Journey. As on Oceania, breakfast hours & menus were limited. We were instructed to vacate our room by 8:30 am & wait in a public lounge for disembarkation. This was in marked contrast to HAL where breakfast is not restricted & all passengers can remain in their rooms until they disembark. We arrived in Barcelona at 6:00 am & disembarkation began about 7:30 am. As independent travelers, we had the option of several timeframes to leave the ship. We chose 8:15 am. The Hotel Manager & Cruise Director were waiting on the exit ramp to bid farewell to departing passengers. Nice touch. We retrieved our luggage inside the terminal & grabbed a taxi to our onward destination in Barcelona.
We have mixed feelings about whether we would sail Azamara again. We like many of their future itineraries as well as their focus on destination enrichment. We're thrilled with the included amenities & we're now members of Le Club Voyage with all its rights & privileges. We love the small ships & have rarely sailed with a friendlier crew than on Journey. There is much to like about Azamara. Yet we hesitate, primarily because they failed to deliver on an important aspect of cruising for us. We can't ignore our disappointment with the food in virtually all dining venues on Journey. Maybe it would be better on another Azamara ship. So we'll continue to watch the future roll-out of Azamara & maybe we'll hop aboard again. Either way, we wish them success going forward.