Yes, our Azamara Journey cruise 30th January- 15th February has set a new benchmark for cruising and the whole team at Azamara should be proud of this achievement. Our reasons we hope come clear in this review.
Our previous cruise experience is 12+ on Celebrity and 2 previous trips on Azamara Quest, both before the launch of the Le Club Voyage concept. Our last cruise was on the Eclipse in August when we had a Royal Suite. We had enjoyed our previous Azamara trips and having read a lot of positive (and some negative) reviews on Cruise critic we had anticipation tempered with some reservations.
The most stressful part of the pre cruise process was driving from Los Angeles Airport to San Diego but remember we were having to drive on the right (aka wrong for us) side of the road. We had made our own arrangements and stayed at the Omni San Diego which was a very good find, very good customer service - just as we remembered it on a cruise ship we thought. Embarkation at San Diego was a breeze we were on board within 20 minutes and we loved the fact that we could check our carryons in once we boarded and these were taken direct to our room and we could enjoy lunch unencumbered.
Food and Drink
First day, as it was every lunch time, we enjoyed an excellent buffet, yes items did repeat over the 16 days but that was great because we could either enjoy a favourite again or could try the dish that lost out in our original decision. Question to those saying "they had that on last week" do you go 16 nights at home without repeating a dish? At every meal the drinks service was frequent and prompt - water, wine, cola, coffee, tea or cocktails you paid for, whatever you wanted was brought and regular refills offered. You never saw a line of guests at the tea/coffee machines as you do on Celebrity ships. And the coffee - we were told the brand was called Seven - was really drinkable, as black coffee drinkers, we are quite discerning in our coffee tastes and we enjoyed all our coffees on board.
Before the cruise, we wondered if the wine would be limited, quite the opposite, you had to watch to make sure you did not miscount how many times your wine had been topped up which could lead to some more wobbly walks back to your sunlounger/room than the sea conditions might justify. When wine is first served to you at each meal, the servers take the time to tell you its name and source and have a reasonable basic knowledge of the wine and were happy to let you look at the bottle and find out more. All waiters have to take part in a wine test each cruise to ensure their knowledge is up to date and this attention showed. All the wines were good bar one and that was a matter of personal taste, it just crossed the line of being too sweet for us.
We had a suite and as such we could eat in Prime C/Aqualina each night. Initially they lost the list we made planning out which nights we wanted but it was not a problem as we were able to recreate the list and get all the bookings we asked for. Towards the end of the cruise, when we had planned a night in Discoveries, we were able to switch to Prime C during the morning - we do eat at 2000 or later, I think it might have been harder to get an early table.
Each time we went, the food was extremely good, we enjoyed every single dish served and particularly loved the Valentines Menu that was created. On that night every lady on ship received a red rose - a nice touch, such a shame we all had to leave them behind as we disembarked next dat, but nicer that Azamara had not used this as a reason not to issue the roses.
We ate in Discoveries twice - both meals were good, food on a par with that on Celebrity, service was a little spotty. It was no big deal, I am sure if we had settled with a regular waiter we would have been fine and on both occasions the issue was the waiter was having to look after other larger tables who were perhaps being over demanding of the servers time, wanting to chat to the server and get extras brought and the server did not quite have the confidence to break off from them - a minor issue.
The biggest surprise on the food front was the evening buffets. We are not fans of buffets but were converted on this cruise and went 3 times. On one night, there was a shrimp buffet - cooked in garlic and wine to order the shrimps having been brought on board that day from the local market in Costa Rica. We went to the Chinese New Year buffet and also the deck party buffet (more on that later). We did not go to the lobster buffet night but heard it was excellent. My husband has a food allergy and for the first time ever, we found buffet staff who understood the importance of knowing what was in food and changing pans for the stir fries to be on the safe side. My husband was referred to as Mr No Nuts by one young server which does not translate overly well but was nice to show recognition of the issue!
Our room was in good nick - we have stayed in this standard of cabin (a club continental suite) before. The only bug that we had was a design feature specific to Journey- you can only access the power sockets by crawling under the desk. We gather this is being looked at during the refit. We had excellent service from Nicoletta (who was leaving at the end of the cruise) and her assistant Louis and our butler Pravin was first class. This was an area where we did see the impact of the new training, Pravin was much more attuned to spotting what we liked and did not like than previous Azamara butlers.
I will include in this section comments on the Spa deck. It did not work, there is less service there than on the ordinary pool deck (a jug of water is laid out periodically but no chilled towels, face mists and iced cucumbers brought round as happens on the main deck) and this was the only area of the ship where guests were never recognised. Rules were suddenly introduced such that we had to spend a silly time on the Panama day handing in our sea passes at the Spa reception when we walked through then lining up to get them back when we left which delayed us being able to quickly get photos at the back of the ship - I understand most passengers rebelled on this one by mid morning! We believe though some changes are going to be made regarding service on the deck and given the over crowding now, it may not be available as an additional purchase for others. This was the only area in the ship that we gave a lower rating to in our guest feedback.
This is a very personal matter but we enjoyed the entertainment overall. The shows in the evening were well timed for us - better than we found on our previous Azamara trips when we could not get to a show if we ate at 2000. There was only one show - a comedian - that did not work for us but again that is probably a taste thing. It was good to see Doug Cameron back on board and the Azamara Orchestra, who had perhaps not fully gelled in the earlier shows, really came into their own under his spell and were very good indeed thereafter.
One show was given by the Cruise Director Tony Markey and he also played a major part in the final show by the Azamara Singers and Dancers who were finishing their contract on that show. Tony is a very talented and personable individual and those around him seemed to respond well to the fact that he too was a skilled performer. The weak spot was, as we had highlighted in our ramblings, the duo Ray and Carla and unfortunately they did not improve. It was great though to see the responsiveness of the ever present and totally on the ball Hotel Director Heike when other cruise critics gave feedback that their wailings were really spoiling any attempts to have conversations at the Le Club events - she immediately changed these to background music only for the rest of the trip and conversation was so much easier.
There was a range of daily activities onboard and many, particularly the trivia, seemed well attended. The music trivia in the late afternoons in Mosaic were particularly well attended and would often involve some of the on board entertainers such as Carl Avalon (evening piano entertainer in the Mosaic) and Steve Dockery (guitarist most often found in Windows).
This spirit of sharing the entertainment was most evident on the night we enjoyed an on deck buffet and party whilst we were docked in Cartagena. We had had a timetable change, the Captain having brought forward our visit a day to avoid problems that had been identified with 4 ships in port, our berth being out of town and the local taxi union blocking the running of ships shuttles. Generally, though not universally, this was seen as a very good move.
What a brilliant happy night is was! We had a massive tuna fish bought in Costa Rica being barbecued on deck (we still salivate at the freshness of that fish and the perfect execution of the cooking), various food stations set up to prepare items a la minute - escargot in vermouth, stir fries, hot duck you name it!, wine flowed freely and the Journey Orchestra, augmented by Steve Dockery as an additional guitarist, the Singers, with Tony Markey came together to sing all the music that encourages those of us on the north side of 50 to get up and dance.
We had previously been at a disastrous pool party on Eclipse spoiled by alcohol excesses - here we had free wine flowing, with a group of passengers who were there to have a nice enjoyable night under the stars, dancing with officers and fellow guests. The memory will always be turning round and seeing the security team dancing to the music up on Deck 10 and some couples happily dancing way up on Deck 11. Yes, there were sore limbs next day as some realised their energetic activities had had an impact but, being directly below the pool deck, we had not had a sleepless night from noise and also no evidence of hangovers as happened on Eclipse. What we kept meeting all day were people saying, "Wasn't that a great night last night"
Two enrichment lecturers were on board and Bill Fall in particular, who did the onboard narrative during the canal transit was excellent
Le Club Voyage
Again, a new concept for us, but with our previous Azamara and Celebrity cruises we had reached Discoverer level and had the full range of perks available to us and these were very good. The internet time was very welcome and the events put on were very enjoyable. We had three no cost happy hours and three 50% cost happy hours, a senior officers event and the Club event for all passengers. All were well attended by officers and we were told by Nathalia the representative - a delightful young lady - that 25% of the passengers were repeat cruisers which is a high number for such a young line.
Nathalia is another delightful member of the team and we were delighted to be able to go and see her and make another reservation on board - a testament to how good the cruise was, she was a very busy lady the final few days and broke booking records. If you want to avoid waiting a la The Doctors Room to see her last few days, book as soon as you know what you want after you get on board
A couple of points, more to manage expectations than to split hairs on the benefits, firstly we were on a 16 night trip, however we only had 2 laundry vouchers between us whereas the website says per week so we were initially expecting 4. We checked with Natalia and she said she was told it was per cruise - she did offer us additional vouchers if we needed them, we actually did not so this was not an issue for us but if might be for others.
The Brunch with a Senior officer was a beautiful event, again magnificent catering, and we had a nice time with one of the officers but it is not a champagne brunch - if you order champagne or a mimosa you are charged. Again small point but perhaps the wording on the website should be changed.
So what made this cruise?
1. Undoubtedly the staff, from Captain Johannes down - all accessible and all wanting you to tell them if something is not right so they can address things. No we did not officially dine with the captain but we interacted with him on a personal level every day; yes, we did have to point some very minor things out to a Maitre D/maintenance and every time immediate adjustments were made. Everyone is looking for ways to enhance your enjoyment whilst not intrude - even the photographers are so low key you have to search them out if you want pictures
2. The itinerary - so happy we were able to stop in all the ports in Mexico and Huatulco in particular was a gem.
3. The fellow guests - This was a happy ship (I contrast this with Eclipse in August where there were some fellow countryfolk who had taken an overdose of moaning pills in Southampton). We only once in 16 days heard someone "having a moan", our visits to Guest Relations to pick up things and get smaller notes change did not involve lining up behind moaners (actually it never involved lining up even on the last morning) and on the last morning everyone at breakfast, in the lifts and in the disembarkation lounges were all saying the same thing - "Wasn't that a fantastic cruise"
We heartily agree - but now worry about making the adjustment back to Eclipse in August!!