I am a 50 something and my wife of 25 years is not. We've done a cruise a year for the past 15 or so years - mostly on Celebrity ships. We have just returned from taking the Azamara Journey Baltic cruise and we would rate the itinerary and ship as probably our best cruise vacation yet. The small ship experience, the dining, and the extended stays in port were the plusses that put this cruise over the top.
We happened to be in our home in Europe when we decided to take this cruise. Instead of flying to Copenhagen (port of embarkation), we elected to make the seven hour drive over from Holland. For those who drive, the Copenhagen Port Authority offers long term valet parking at a reasonable price. With their office right at the cruise terminal, nothing could be more convenient. Embarkation was extremely smooth and relaxed.
The Journey is a well appointed ship with an advertised capacity of about 690. On our cruise she was mostly full. Yet despite this, the ship never felt crowded nor did we ever wait in line for anything. We had a club veranda stateroom and were quite pleased with the size and layout especially in the context of it being a small ship. The fruit bowl was refreshed everyday, the sodas in the mini-bar complimentary, and a flat screen TV was available with a nice selection cable channels and free movies, none of which we saw simply because we never had time.
The staff on the ship was personable and professional in every aspect. No cruise is absolutely flawless. How the staff handles issue resolution is a fair mark of the class of service they provide. The Journey staff was wholly engaged in making the cruise experience the absolute best for all their passengers and we never heard one passenger complaint about them. As a result, the atmosphere on the ship was stress free and friendly. Two nice touches are worth mentioning. First, the senior staff, including the captain, greeted us at the gangway in every port and they were also frequently seen in the public areas. If there was ever a complaint, most assuredly the guests had the opportunity to take it right to the top. Second, the staff treated the guests as sophisticated and discerning individuals. We never heard a condescending remark nor entertainment joke about cruise passenger naiveties or habits. Announcements over the public address system were minimal. And, pleasantly surprising, the mandatory lifeboat drill was done in an adult manner that did not include walking about in a life vest.
Azamara has an "all inclusive" policy that adds to the overall cruise experience. Including gratuities in the cruise fare made the whole tipping issue stress free and in no way appeared to adversely impact the service provided by the cabin and wait staffs. Quite the contrary. Additionally, having complimentary shuttle service when the ship in not docked in the city center is another small thing that adds to Azamara establishing a deluxe standard.
The "resort casual" dress code also contributed to the relaxing vacation atmosphere. Not having dressier attire, happily, did not translate into passengers dressing in inappropriately casual attire. Everyone on the ship maintained a nice personal decorum that complimented the rather elegant decor of the dining and public areas.
The main dining room's open seating arrangement worked very well. On most nights we elected for a table for two and never waited before being shown to a table. Other nights we arranged to dine with other guests and, similarly, never waited for a table. On our 12 nights aboard we had only three different wait staffs. Each remembered us if they had serve us before and each did a superb job in making the dining experience immensely enjoyable. The meals were exceptional and the complimentary house wine was nice and generously provided.
Particular mention has to be made of the buffet available at the Windows Cafe. The selections were of high quality, presented in a pleasing manner, and offered in an area complete with linen napkins and an attentive wait staff. There was no crowding along the buffet or in the seating areas even when the cafe was busy. Additionally, there was an emphasis on providing healthy choice alternatives that were as delicious as the higher calorie choices. Even the poolside grill offered such alternatives as made to order hamburgers or grilled salmon.
The evening entertainment on the ship was frequently a one show only performance by a guest entertainer or by the ship entertainment staff. You can't have a big show on a small ship. As a matter of course, entertainment tended to be vocalists or musicians. The quality of the shows varied. One innovation that seems to work well is having a cruise director - entertainer. The two shows done by the cruise director Eric de Grey (a notable vocalist in his own right) were both enjoyable. Since he was also someone with whom the guests had a rapport based on his "other job", there was an added feeling of connection in his shows that contributed to the entertainment value. But this innovation has two edges. Some passengers groused that a cruise director - entertainer has to be second rate at one or the other and felt that when the director performed they were deprived of having a "real" performer. This was not our feeling, however, and we welcome the concept.
Our cruise included the major Baltic ports, including St Petersburg. We took no shore excursions offered by the ship or by independent tour companies - choosing instead to do self-tours. The fact that the Journey tied up walking distance from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and did so for 3 days, was a major reason why we chose this cruise. I'll post a "Doing St Petersburg On Your Own" port review separately. It was our first time visiting the Baltic ports and the experience exceeded our already high expectations. We took a ferry to see Somalina Island in Helsinki, saw all the major sights of St Petersburg (excepting Catherine's Palace), walked the old city of Tallin, and saw the changing of the guard and the restored ship Vasa in Stockholm. Since we had already visited Berlin, we elected to remain in Warnemunde and had a wonderful time on the beach and seeing the town. Having near perfect weather was an added bonus.
Disembarking in Copenhagen was well organized and uneventful. The only regret we have about the cruise is that it ended. We look forward to again taking a vacation with Azamara.