We have clocked up 22 previous cruises with P&O and Princess. Consequently, we are on the top (Gold) tier of P&O's Portunus Club and the top (Elite) tier of the Princess Captain's Circle. We also have 6 previous cruise credits with Royal Caribbean / Celebrity, so we are on the Platinum tier of the RCI Crown & Anchor Society and the middle (Select) tier of the Celebrity Cruises Captain's Club.
We love smaller ships, such as Ocean Princess, Pacific Princess, and Royal Princess, which were previously owned by Renaissance Cruises. These ships are small enough to visit unusual ports that are inaccessible to larger vessels. Consequently, our wish list has always included a voyage with Azamara Club Cruises (who operate two former Renaissance ships).
Azamara is often more expensive than many of its competitors, so we grasped the opportunity of a keenly priced deal on Azamara Quest, which sailed from Venice to Athens on 5th November 2010. The cruise exceeded our expectations and provided a truly 5-star experience. We shall definitely sail with Azamara again, provided the price is right.
We feared that weather in November might be variable and unfortunately, we did have more than our fair share of rainy days. However, we did not allow the rain to spoil our sightseeing and we enjoyed two days in Venice, followed by visits to Zadar (Croatia), Dubrovnik (two days) and Chania, Crete.
Quest was berthed at San Basilio in Venice, which is one of the best moorings - adjacent to a vaparetto stop and approximately 15-minutes' walk from St. Mark's Square. We had visited Venice on previous cruises - so this time, we took the opportunity for a leisurely walking tour of the immediate neighborhood.
We booked one of the ship's excursions from Zadar - and visited the Krka National Park. It transpired that the advertised boat trip in the National Park was unavailable (because the tourist season had ended) so after lunch in a local restaurant, our knowledgeable guide added a conducted tour through the ancient city of Zadar.
During our first day in Dubrovnik, we had intended to take a boat trip to the offshore islands. However, it was far too wet for a boat trip, so we traveled on the ship's shuttle bus to the walled city, where we withdrew local currency from an ATM. Following a brief stroll through the city, we rode the No. 6 public bus to the peninsula of Babin Kuk. The views would have been wonderful, if the weather had been better.
For our second day in Dubrovnik, we had reserved a rental car from the Sixt Rental Car Office in the Hilton Hotel (close to the ship's shuttle bus). We drove up the coast to Orebic on the Peljesac Peninsula. Our tour was very scenic and fortunately, the weather improved towards the afternoon. I would recommend a similar tour for future visits to Dubrovnik.
Our final port was Chania in Crete, where we had arranged a 7-hour tour through the local taxi driver, Lefteris Nikiforakis (a.k.a. Lefty) - firstname.lastname@example.org. Lefty charges €35 per hour for taxi tours. He drove one car and we traveled with another couple in a second taxi, driven by his colleague, Iannis. The total cost was €250 (or €62.50 per person), which compared favourably with the ship's excursions.
After our visit to the local market (interesting, so my rating is 3-star) and a brief walking tour of Chania, we traveled along the coast to Rethymnon and visited several villages on the way. Unfortunately, the weather was rather damp. Following lunch in a traditional taverna, the weather improved and we returned to Chania via the Allied War Cemetary at Souda, which was a moving experience. Then, we visited the secluded Monastery of Agia Triada, which was established in 1612 and is reputed to be one of the most beautiful in Greece.
This was our first cruise with Azamara, so I have taken the opportunity to provide some comparisons with other cruise lines.
Upon boarding, we were greeted with glasses of champagne. Unlike P&O Princess and Royal Caribbean, we didn't have to find our own way to the cabin. A porter escorted us and carried our hand baggage.
The cabin had fresh-cut flowers and a bowl of fruit, which were replenished daily. Our bathroom was stocked with high quality Elemis toiletries (superior to the stuff that P&O provide) and we discovered bathrobes, slippers, an umbrella and a set of binoculars. The cabin stewards work in pairs and upon request, they would even have unpacked our bags and cleaned our shoes.
Cabins on the former Renaissance ships are rather compact - and much smaller than cabins on the latest cruise ships. However, they are well appointed and we were perfectly happy with our choice. Suites and mini-suites are more spacious (if size is an issue).
Unlike the Princess small ships, Azamara operate anytime dining in the main restaurant. We never had to wait for a table and the choice and quality of food was outstanding. We also dined in the Aqualina and Prime C specialty restaurants, which were superb. Azamara serve complimentary, good quality house wines with lunch and dinner - and there is no charge at any time for specialty coffees, teas, sodas/soft drinks or bottled water.
At breakfast, Azamara offer freshly squeezed orange juice (which would cost $6 or $8 per glass on other lines). All food in the Windows Cafe buffet restaurant was served on proper china plates - no plastic plates or mugs on Azamara! And although there was no need, Azamara allow passengers to take their own drinks onto the ship.
Service was outstanding and the Captain and senior officers maintained a highly visible presence throughout the cruise. Management encourage feedback from passengers and are keen to host Cruise Critic get-together meetings. The Azamara website even invites Cruise Critic members to register for the Meet & Greet.
When I mentioned to the Hotel Director that breakfast in the Windows buffet restaurant on the first morning was not warm enough, he investigated and took immediate and effective steps to resolve the problem. On subsequent mornings, the food and the plates were piping hot.
During our one and only sea day, the ship served a superb luncheon barbeque on the pool deck. Dishes were carved and served by the Hotel Director and other senior officers.
Many Azamara itineraries include overnight stays in popular ports. Our cruise offered overnight stays in Venice and Dubrovnik. Azamara arrange free shuttle buses, whenever their ships cannot moor close to the city centre and at Dubrovnik, buses operated every 15 minutes.
There was no need to wait for disembarkation at tender ports. That is so different from Princess and P&O, who disembark shore-excursion passengers first - and require most other passengers to queue for tender tickets. (Princess offer priority tendering, but only to Elite members of their Captain's Circle and occupants of suites.)
Because we had earned previous cruise credits with RCI, we qualified for the second tier of the Azamara "Club Voyage" loyalty package. Benefits included a bottle of champagne in our cabin, free Internet, one bag of free laundry - plus invitations to many social events. Mid-tier benefits of the "Club Voyage" are superior to the top (Gold) tier of P&O's Portunus Club and comparable with the top (Elite) tier of the Princess Captain's Circle.
We particularly liked the exemplary service on the ship and the casual dress policy. Azamara's dress code specifies smart "resort wear" (no shorts or t-shirts in the restaurants). Everyone dressed smartly - and nobody abused the dress code. A few passengers preferred to wear jackets and ties - and were not out of place. There were no formal nights.
Although the weather was not suitable for sunbathing, there were plenty of sun-beds around the pool and on the decks. We were delighted to learn that Azamara does not play piped music on the decks, because many passengers prefer a quiet environment. (Passengers who require music should bring their own personal stereos.)
The price of an Azamara cruise includes all gratuities to cabin, bar and restaurant staff. There is a total absence of additional charges for items such as bottled water ($3 per bottle on other cruise lines), the 15% gratuity on drinks (which Princess add "for your convenience"!!) or shuttle buses ($5 or $6 each way on Princess). We particularly liked this inclusive aspect of the cruise.
So how did Azamara perform in comparison to other cruise lines? My review has highlighted some of the best features- and we saw nothing that was particularly bad. Under the "could do better" category, I identified a few aspects only:
Our travel agent had arranged on-board credit, which we intended to use for our shore excursion in Zadar. However, I was unable to pre-book the excursion in advance, because Azamara's web-site demands an up-front payment by credit card. (Other cruise lines are happy to charge pre-booked excursions to the passenger's cabin account). Consequently, there were very few advance bookings for this particular excursion, and there was a real possibility that it might be cancelled for lack of support. Fortunately, sufficient participants did sign up, before bookings closed at 6 p.m. on the first day of the cruise. However, it should have been possible to reserve places, without having to pay up front.
Communications between Azamara and passengers.
My daughter had contacted Azamara in the UK, to arrange $50 on-board credit as a birthday gift. The Passenger Relations desk credited my account, but did not tell me that my daughter had sent the money.
Confusing terms and conditions.
On the Azamara website, the Food and Beverage FAQ states, 'Guests wishing to bring their own favorite liquor, beer or wine may do so for private consumption in their suite or stateroom.' However, the detailed Guest Conduct Policy on the same website states, 'On Azamara Club Cruises, with the exception of embarkation day, when Guests are permitted to bring on board with them two (2) bottles of wine per stateroom ...,guests are not permitted to bring alcoholic beverages on board for consumption or any other purpose.' The Guest Conduct Policy also threatens dire consequences for any passenger who attempts to smuggle alcohol onto the ship. My cruise ticket made similar threats.
When I checked with Azamara, they confirmed that their current alcohol policy states, "Guests wishing to bring their own favorite liquor, beer or wine may do so for private consumption in their suite or stateroom. If guests wish to consume their liquor, beer, or wine in any shipboard restaurant, bar or dining venue, each bottle shall be subject to a corkage fee of $10.00. Azamara need to correct these contradictions.
Catering for Special Diets:
My wife needs to adhere to a gluten-free diet - and must avoid any food that contains wheat, rye or barley. P&O are very good and offer a wide range of gluten-free options. Some of the other cruise lines perform better than others. However, virtually every cruise line (including Azamara) provides gluten-free bread.
On all of our previous cruises, the head waiter invited my wife to view the next day's menus and pre-order her choices. That helps the kitchen to prepare modified versions of any dishes, which would usually contain gluten. The head waiter on Azamara was unable to show my wife the next day's menus and on occasions, there appeared to be some confusion about which ingredients are gluten-free. For instance, the head waiter told her she could not order one dish that contained rice. In fact, maize (corn), rice, potato and tapioca are not only gluten-free, they are useful alternatives to wheat flour.
On Azamara, some of my wife's meat dishes were served without any gravy or sauces - because the standard sauces had been thickened with wheat flour. P&O would have prepared gluten-free versions of the sauces.
However, these are minor "niggles" and overall, I would score our cruise at 4.5 out of 5 - because it was probably one of the best we have ever experienced.
Azamara's cruise prices are higher than you would expect to pay on other lines. However, the price you see is the price you pay. Service and quality are outstanding - and the absence of additional charges means that the overall cost might be little more than you would pay elsewhere.