Both cruises were excellent, and we would have no hesitation in recommending this line to anyone considering a keenly priced alternative to some of the 6 star ships, or for anyone on a higher cabin grade/cost on 3-5 star lines...
With all the inclusions offerred (wine, gratuities, port shuttles, coffee and soft drinks) plus the fact that cabins are well appointed, laid out for max use of space, plenty of storage and well soundproofed, that excursions were fairly priced around the $80-150 mark, its a VERY good deal.
Cuisine was well above average, with the finest ingredients, varied international menus and probably the best breakfasts we have seen at sea. A high standard of cuisine overall with some reservations as to SOME items - see details in section below.
Add to this the excellent and friendly staff, bridge, engine and galley tours, smart casual attire and you have a product that offers a lot more value for money than we have found anywhere else. On top of this, the pretty well intelligent, professional and laid back passenger profile (UK, US, Canada, Aussies with some Euro pax), with age of pax around 38-55 means mid-agers will love it also for the lack of kids, no overdone formality or familiarity for that matter - just a friendly mix. It's a goodie !
In a nutshell, for the rapid reader, here are our observations of the pros and cons, for more detail please read on after...!
PROS + CONS:
PROS: Company integrity and fair treatment after changes to itinerary; Overnight stays in port:
pricing spot-on and included generous offerings of good wine and sodas; Staff, top service;
well appointed cabins with quality toiletries and accessories, variety of entertainment, reasonably priced and well chosen excursions, shuttle buses. High degree of safety and security is a company priority. In the 'pirate-zone' special measures with costly diversions were made to protect the ship. Most of our small shipboard concerns and enquiries were acted upon and fixed almost immediately.
CONS: Website a bit flaky; Some matters required referal to head office and the subsequent delay in reply from Miami meant some issues that should have been handled on board could not; Food quality superb though expertise in preparation was at times below the high standards elewhere; No AV "in" available on the LCD TV in the cabin to reveiw fotos/videos, lack of movie playing times in the onboard daily news; deck cleaning often in very late evening which made them slippery at times.
We are a well travelled, 50's same-sex couple of 29 years, who have a enjoyed a good few cruises, hotels, itineraries , destinations and voyages on 5 continents under our well-travelled belts.
After 30 years in the travel industry and semi-retired, we now travel on FULL fares and costs are an important consideration. We chose our first trip on Azamara because prices were comparable to a one-way business class fare (very $$$ ex Australia to Europe). On reesearching, Azamara was also chosen because the cabin facilities and grade were above average, the published fares were almost all-inclusive - with fare inclusive of gratuities, complimenatry wine at meals, and soft drinks offered throughout on an itinerary with port overnights. In short - the Singapore-Dubai and Dubai Athens b2b cruises on AZAMARA ticked our boxes for a leisurely trip to Athens.
Many of the other current reviews on sectors of the Azamara 2011 Asia cruises reflect the current layout, facilities and staff/service on the Quest very well, so won't repeat here, rather would like to truly review the excellent, good and 'almost good' of our Azamara experience....
OUR CONCERNS BEFORE SAILING:
Firstly, it was to be a long trip - all in all over 3 1/2 weeks on board for the 2 cruises. Secondly we had sailed Crystal as a premium product before, as well as cruising on 'value' lines such as NCL, so were prepared to experience, something in the middle with Azamara. Thirdly, as a same-sex couple, one of us a smoker and with this length of time at sea plus Azamara's tight smoking policy, there were some reservations as to smoking and acceptance of our discreet but alternative lifestyle. We need not have worried on any account...
AZAMARA CRUISES THE COMPANY (PLEASE READ ALL !) :
Having been in Management with airline, hotel and group & Consular travel services companies for over 30 years, the first consideration for a traveller should always be the company with whom you are making a transaction.
Azamara was an unknown to us and when we first booked with our agent, we found the response from RCI agency in Sydney to be below par in coming back with some of the info we needed.
Assuming this to be the fault of our agent, I tried myself to call. In short, it took a lot of time, yielded poor responses, often lacking in knowledge , and most especially - in the all important matter of showing empathy with your client.
Turning to the website was not much better and the fact that the layout and user access to important matters was somtimes a bit "hit and miss" did not add to our initial impression.
**(IF the resident Cruise Critic blogger for Azamara Club Cruises happens to read this review, I would be most grateful for a private message so that I may discuss further this review on a professional level...)**
That said, our ACTUAL experience was that Azamara Cruises are an extremely fair and customer conscious corporation:-
We were advised in a timely manner, nearly 80 days before sailing that due to security concerns with the Mideast situation, our port call was being substituted from Alexandria to Santorini. The company not only advised early (unlike our upcoming Oceania cruise with about 17 days notice of changes), but Azamara also offered a very generous onboard credit to each guest as a goodwill gesture. Apologies were again given onboard. This is putting the customer first - well done Azamara !
The company also suffered misfortune with bad fuel being supplied in Mumbai, but prudent fuelling and navigation planning ensured we were not "running low" and despite having to dock elsewhere this did not affect schedule. In fact the planning was such that the poor fuel was carried on board all the way to Athens for eco-friendly defuelling there - I am sure at great cost, but with full respect for the environment.
The ship also faced the breakdown of our escort-ship from Dubai through the 'pirate-zone' off the horn of Africa. Consequently, Azamara went to great expense in loading our security team aboard in Dubai and then to dock again at Muscat to load their armaments. Again at great cost, but with schedule unaffected as the Captain kept full speed on for a week to meet schedules. The concern for safety. security and sticking to schedule could not receive high enough acclaim. Truly professional.
THE SHIP. PASSENGERS, CABIN :
The Quest was the first trip for us aboard any of the R Class ships. Quest was well apointed, nicely maintained and well laid out. She rode well and provided a feel of a good upscale hotel at sea with warm and traditional "club" decor. We prefer the more intimate and low key voyages offered on such ships. However if passengers, crew or services are 'off the mark'on such ships it can make for a stressed experience. Not so on board the Quest - it was a wonderful balance on all sides. Great fellow passengers, most of a semi-professional background, middle aged, well travelled and of a pleasant and entertaining nature. Passengers mingled well , without over-familiarity and the atmosphere was indeed that of the members at a friendly club. The cruise encompassed many "at sea" days - 9 in fact between Dubai and Suez but with a varied and diverse program on board, there was rarely any time that could not have been filled should you have wished. On board program covered everything from cuisine to dance - enrichment lectures - ships tours to galley, bridge and engine control room - games - spa, gym and excellent fitness instruction. A well rounded programmed indeed. even with nearly a month at sea, we did not grow weary of our journey and were sad to leave the vessel in Athens, (with still so much that we could have done !).
Our cabin - 1B Veranda - was about 10% smaller than that on Crystal but well planned in layout. It offered great space and storage and despite reading of the 'shower curtain' issue, this was NOT an issue, the curtain is well designed, locked at one end and does not "flap out and cling" from the well designed shower stall. Storage again is plentiful in the bathroom. cabin service was almost immediate with several fellow passwengers remarking on the fact that the magical 'clean-team' would literally tidy up as one left the room. Cleaning was done thoroughly, all valet services efficiently and with a smile, a professional team here.
SMOKING AND OUR 'ALTERNATIVE' LIFESTYLE :
As a smoker, I was initially upset on boarding to having been 'relegated' to one upstairs zone to smoke, and not being able to do so on my cabin veranda. I was pleasantly surprised by the outcome. As I and my (non-smoking) partner discovered the benefit of a single smoking area on the ship - In effect an outdoor, weather protected veranda on the pool deck. Here, we mingled with others (who were also, more often than not, one smoker with a non-smoking partner !). The result was a group on board that met socially as they stopped by "for a fix" whilst not inflicting their bad habits on other passenegrs. The area actually became a social venue and many friendships have developed as a result of the friendly gathering that eventuated. On the issue of our lifetyle, the ship provided a discreet meeting time each day for people of same-sex orientation and again, friends were made on board. Crew and all staff were most accepting and kind in their dealings with us. Well done Azamara ... Good policy = good outcome for all.
Excellent for a small ship. The shows were well chosen and varied each night. Many guest artists joined at each port giving refreshment to the evening programme. In paricular, we should mention :
Johnathan Johnston, an outstanding Flautist (and certainly a virtuoso on the flute) performed to standing ovations on the 12 day Dubai-Athens leg. Even the non-classical were blown away by this incredibly talented guy.
The resident Raconteur/Pianist Donald (Jim) Badger was witty, incisive and brilliant in this difficult position on any ship. Filling a lounge or cabaret with a polished and varied act nearly every day. With a lot of B2B cruisers this is not easy, but his repertoire and humour
in parrying with the audience in a playful manner made him a true gem of the offering.
Azamara's keen eye for the small touches such as ;
- CD of crickets chirping playing on pool deck area at night !
- A special memorial service for servicemen on Australia's ANZAC Day which was held on deck at dawn by the Captain and Senior Crew for Australian, New Zealand and other guests.
- A Special "Gala" day for the British Royal wedding, with live coverage and catering.
Kudos to all for a well selected and varied line up. 99 % well above average and very often just brilliant.
Serving staff were faultless, bordering on brilliant. Nothing but the highest praise for their efficient, friendly and courteous service. all done without familiarity or cheesiness. These guys were well chosen, love their work and it shows. In all venues and without individual exception they were superb.
The only SMALL downside for us was some small matters regarding cuisine. To set the scene - we are NOT "foodies" , nor do we eat out in 5 star restaurants weekly back home. We are of the old-school, 'eat what is provided for you' upbringing and certainly are not menu-snobs or wannabe Chefs... We also understand catering to 100's or 1000's of guests in varied restaurants over the course of a day and at sea is never easy.
What WAS provided on Quest was excellent choices. International meant just that, asian, indian, greek, itlaian, mexican, french, spanish etc. Three included dining areas and two speciality restaurants were available each day as was room service from the in-room or restaurant menu of the day. This, by the way was very well done, offering a fast and friendly delivery of hot food and most importantly, all the condiments - never had to ask for sauce or spices, they were on the tray along with generous cutlery settings. Important when you have had the experience of having to ring again for the missing items !! Azamara had room service completely and efficiently taken care of - bravo ! Service, Variety and choice were never an issue.
The ingredients, provisions meats and variety of fruits and vegetables was of the very best quality. The company has spent a lot of time and money here and it should show...
However, although all ingredients were of excellent quality, esp. the never-ending lobster and steaks, both well cooked and presented, the Executive Chef for the main restaurants on AZ QUEST was, to our mind, lacking in his supervision and preparation of SOME dishes. I honestly believe that the preparation is more under par than admitted to... leading to a few dishes and menu items going out to tables that shouldnt have - I will not nit-pick , but for example (soggy batter on prawns, steak 'surf and turf' served but lobster forgotten (!) in Specialty restaurant, in particular we disliked the soups, often they were over-salted or over-sweetened with poor stock bases, and some weird menu items like chocolate or strawberry soup in the savoury part of the menu, that really have no place on any menu. A good stock/soup chef and deletion of some over-fancy bizarre cuisine ideas on some of the main Discoveries restaurant menus. Buffet overall was well above average and on many occassions superior to the food received in main restaurants of other ships.
That said we ate and drank very well (The complimentary wines at lunch 11.30-2.30 and dinner from 18.00-21.30 , free flowing by the way, are all bottled vintages from around the world - very good too!). So please don't regard this as an indictment on the beautiful food and quality ingredients offered. We ate well - Azamara could just lift the supervision in preparation at times.
We have expressed this to Quest's Hotel Director, Ryszard onboard and understand that they will review.
IMPORTANT: To be fair, this is our only real issue, and on this voyage, there may have been some kitchen complications or absent staff. But, with the rest of the ship scoring near-perfect in our book, this, to US, if fixed, would put Azamara up close there with other 6 * ships on nearly every front.
THE SUM UP
As two value conscious travellers, in our early 50s, we are experienced of over 100 destinations over 30 years and look keenly at quality/price/value for our trips. We travel from 3-5 star on land/sea/air and can state that that this is a very, very good product which has come a long way since their initial poor start (we understand from early CC reviews in 2007).
We travelled on Azamara's regular published fares and while this review may seem too glowing it is not, it's exactly the way we saw things. We review through our other compared experiences for price quality and value.
All in all we would have no hesitation in recommending Azamara Quest, we will put this company on our preferred shopping list for future itineraries. ALL of our close shipmates concurred and are also very likely to choose Azamara again. So, go for it - its a good sail and these people delivered well !