This was a celebration of our 30th Anniversary and our 1st cruise in 9 years. We last sailed on Celebrity's Millennium, before that we were on RCCL's Enchantment of the Seas and before that NCL's Dreamward - before she was stretched. The Dreamward was only slightly larger than the Journey and we looked forward to returning to the intimacy of a smaller ship. We've always booked a veranda cabin in the past around mid-ships, but opted to splurge a bit and we went with the Penthouse Suite on deck 6 aft. I have to admit, I scoured the Cruise Critic site for months before this trip - and this truly is a fantastic resource!
Pre-Cruise: We flew from NC to San Diego a day prior and booked a room in the Holiday Inn by the Bay - directly across from the pier. We'd asked for a bay-facing room up high so we could view the bay and we weren't disappointed. The Oosterdam was in port when we arrived and it was a nice treat to watch her depart with the setting sun in the background.
Embarkation: The hotel was so close to the pier that were able to easily tote all our bags to the pier with no trouble. As others have alluded to - Azamara makes it so simple to get all your pre-boarding paperwork taken care of ahead of time -so embarkation was a breeze and we were on the ship in no time. Since it had been a while since we'd been on a cruise, we were impressed with the level of attention to sanitization. I'm sure the news reports of norovirus outbreaks over the last few years have prompted it - but there were sanitation gel stations in all the public rooms throughout the entire cruise - and from what I could see, they were well-used. We were greeted with a glass of sparkling wine, and in our cabin in no time at all. We met our butler, Marlon - who was an absolute gem. He made dinner arrangements for us, brought us 'savories' every afternoon and infected us with his contagious smile every time he came into the room. Our cabin stewards "Alvin" and "Russell" kept our room spotless and always had a surprise 'critter' for us - made from folded towels. And on our first night Marlon and the Asst Chief Housekeeper 'Xavier' surprised us with balloons all over the cabin and a 'Happy Anniversary' placard we kept up the entire cruise. It was a special welcoming and a prelude to the special level of service and attention we experienced the entire 16 days.
Cabin: We booked the Penthouse Suite on deck 6 - and it was everything we envisioned. I will say - I've seen examples of high-end suites that struck me as 'gaudy' - with more room than you could use, or amenities that you would never make use of --- this cabin was perfect - it was spacious enough to be comfortable, yet not so big as to feel you could get lost. It included a spacious 'living area' with a sofa and several formal chairs as well as a small dining table with chairs, and a bar area with a wide-screen TV mounted on the wall. There was a small powder room adjacent to the living area as well. The bedroom had a 'large' queen bed ( we swore it was actually a king-sized bed), a small writing table, and a bank of floor-to ceiling closets - with a smaller flat screen TV in the wall. There was also a dressing area adjacent to the master bath - that had a full vanity and Jacuzzi-bath-shower. But the hallmark of the cabin was the veranda - large enough for two chaise lounge chairs as well as a small table with 4 chairs for dining. The living area and the bedroom each had floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors - so the view from anywhere in the cabin was spectacular. Much has been written about a problem with 'soot' in the morning in the aft cabins - it was never a problem. Occasionally there would be some soot on the deck in the morning if the wind blew the exhaust directly off the stern, but there were floor mats present to wipe your feet. We even took a few naps out there at night and never noticed any issues with the exhaust. Another issue discussed on the boards is engine vibration in the aft cabins. "Vibration" is somewhat of a personal definition. When we were on the Enchantment of the Seas, our cabin was directly above the starboard stabilizer - and when it deployed, there was a constant, loud 'rattle' that would literally keep us awake. On the Journey, the engines create a 'rumble' - that is not bothersome at all - in fact we found it helped put us to sleep at night. You will experience the 'clanging' of the wenches below deck when the ship prepares to dock - but that's a good signal that it's time to get up anyway!
Ship: I won't reiterate what others on this cruise have posted in their reviews - suffice it to say that the Journey is the perfect sized ship for those who enjoy being on a ship. You learn your way around in less than a day. There were never any lines for anything - even tendering - and she was as clean a ship as we can remember. And there was always a quiet place to sit - be it around the pool, the sundeck or in the public areas. We used the Spa deck (Thallasotherapy Pool) the first day at sea as it was a bit chilly, but didn't go back after that. We used the gym regularly and found the staff to be very friendly and the mix of cardio equipment, weight machines and free weights a great way to build credit for the day's meals! I have to say there is something special about using a cross-trainer while watching dolphins frolic all around the ship - through the floor-to-ceiling windows that line the gym wall.
Food: Again - food tastes are a matter of preference - and we thoroughly enjoyed every meal we had on the Journey - be it the breakfast or lunch buffets in the Windows Cafe, the main Dining Room Discoveries or the two Specialty dining rooms - Prime C and Aqualina. We ate three times in each of the two specialty dining rooms - because the atmosphere in each is quieter, slower-paced and more intimate than in Discoveries - but the food is outstanding in all three and the service was impeccable in all three as well.
Crew and Staff: We've read the other reviews about this cruise and we have to say it again --- We have never experienced a level of attention, friendliness and sincerity as was shown by the crew and staff of the Journey. It starts with Capt Tysee - who is the most affable ship's captain you will ever meet. He makes it a point to travel around the ship and converse with the passengers - and his approachability, calm demeanor, quiet confidence and wry sense of humor filters down to every other crew member on the ship - from the security personnel who learned our names on the first day - to the bartenders and deckhands. Our Cruise Director - Tony Markey was a true gem as well. For those looking for a cruise director who emcees belly flop contests or decktop horse races, you will be disappointed. Tony is a true entertainer who has a perpetual 'on' switch. He can go from singing a rendition of 'Danny Boy' that will bring tears to your eyes and then sit down with you and converse about his experience as Cruise Director on the Seabourn Spirit that was attacked by Pirates in 2005. The on-screen antics between Tony and Activity Director Chris on their daily televised 'highlights' review showed the great chemistry they have - especially when you realize it was mainly ad-libbed. And what can be added about Heike that hasn't been said many times before. This crew is truly a great combination of talent, chemistry and shared vision. Azamara found the right equation - and other cruise lines would be wise to take notice.
Ports of Call: I don't want to spend too much time on the ports. We had some reservations about Mazatlan and Acapulco due to the recent violence reported - but we never felt uneasy in either place. We booked a tour with Mazatlan Frank - who we would recommend to anyone without reservation. He is a true gentleman and his love for Mazatlan is apparent with the enthusiasm he conveys. In Acapulco we took the ship-sponsored excursion to the Fairmont Pierre Marquis hotel - which was a nice relaxing day away from the 'touristy' areas. Huatulco was a highlight - one of the most memorable days for its quiet little beach adjacent to the pier. It's unfortunate that Azamara will not be visiting Mexico next year - hopefully that's a temporary decision. We took a sailing tour through Pelican Eyes resort in San Juan del Sur - and we highly recommend that to anyone visiting that port. And in Puntarenas we had a tour with Charlie Soto's 'OkeyDokey Tours' --- and our tour guide Ricardo was outstanding. He took us to the La Suenas Canopy tour zip lines - an experience we won't soon forget and he had an uncanny way of avoiding the crowds while still visiting all the attractions. The highlight of the trip was the transit through the Panama Canal - an engineering feat of such magnitude that it's hard to fathom it was built 100 years ago and operates today exactly as they envisioned it then. Having Bill Fall describe the nuances of the Canal over the ship's intercom as we traversed it provided the most interactive learning experience you could ever have! Cartagena, Columbia was a disappointment. We booked the Horse-drawn carriage tour through the ship and would not do it again. We envisioned a quaint carriage ride through the old town - in reality we were in a caravan of horse-drawn carriages traversing a gauntlet of peddlers with police guiding the way (one fellow dressed up like a mime even hopped on the carriage to charge for taking his picture and there was no effort to prevent it...) . While peddlers are part of the deal in the Mexican ports, 'No Gracias' didn't seem to work in Cartagena - as eventually they would stop trying to sell you something and just flat out ask if they could have a dollar. If we were to ever visit this port again - we'd book a private tour as they do a good job of avoiding the 'gauntlets'.
Fellow Passengers: As others have said in other reviews of this cruise --- this was a very friendly passenger population. We even commented that we never heard anyone complain about anything for the entire two weeks. I have to be honest - there was nothing to complain about. Someone asked about the age range of the passengers on the Journey. We are in our mid-50s and were on the younger side for this trip - and we loved it. We met the friendliest, most outgoing, unpretentious people on this trip - and tried as we did to stay up and hit the dance floor for the midnight hour, the days were so full and we were so tired that we just couldn't do it!
Debarkation: Getting off the ship was as easy as getting on. Capt Tysee and all the 1st officers were on deck to say goodbye and within 15 mins we had our luggage, had gotten through customs and waited in our shuttle to the airport. If I have one criticism - and it's not a criticism of the cruise - and not even of Azamara - it's for RCI, the parent company. When we disembarked from the Enchantment of the Seas, we were shuttled to the airport on a bus driven by a fellow who made it very clear he expected a tip when we got to the airport. The same thing happened with the RCI-sponsored shuttle we took after this cruise. We've just come off a 2 week cruise where people went out of their way to be helpful and attentive --- in many cases without any expectation of a gratuity - and the last impression you get before going home is a bus driver with his hand out. It's a small thing, but it stays with you and seeing how the same thing happened to us a decade ago, I think it's something Royal Caribbean should think about.
Overall: We've been spoiled. From now on - any other vacation we take - no matter what it is - will always be compared to this one. At his 'disembarkation' presentation, Capt Tysee encouraged all of us to tell our friends about Azamara - and someone in the audience said "..NO!" --- and I know what she meant --- it's like uncovering a hidden gem that you don't want the rest of the world to find out about and ruin. Our expectations were met and far exceeded - in ways we hadn't even considered. Azamara has the right formula going - the size of the ship, the personality of the staff and the value you get for the dollars you spend. We can't wait to come back get spoiled all over again! Good Job Azamara!