Following Royal Caribbean's acquisition of the Spanish cruise line, Pullmantur, seemingly to get its hands on the former R6 and R7, the group launched Azamara Cruises (more recently, Azamara Club Cruises) as a new brand to rival Oceania Cruises, which operates the former R1, R2 and R5. By the start of 2011, we had spent 86 nights aboard one or other of the ex-Renaissance Cruise Line 'R' Class ships, operated by three cruise lines. We were therefore interested to see how Azamara ran its ships and whether this would represent another string to our bow of cruise lines on which we would consider sailing. The coincidence of a 7-day Adriatic cruise at a very attractive fare on Azamara Quest fitted the bill perfectly, with the hope that a sail date of 6 August would not mean hordes of children, for which these 'R' Class ships were not designed.
Unusually for us these days, the Azamara offer was a fly-cruise, incorporating a one-night stay in Venice pre-cruise and all transfers. Of course Azamara can piggy-back on the presence of Royal Caribbean Group's other brands in Venice - Royal Caribbean and Celebrity - which has become a major turnaround cruise port in recent years. The day we set sail, Royal Caribbean's Voyager Of The Seas and the ex-Celebrity's Zenith now under Pullmantur's banner, were also in port. Arriving at Venice airport on the 5th, there was a significant Royal Caribbean meet-and-greet team, shepherding passengers to coaches for their transit to one or other hotel. Ours was the Crowne Plaza and a review will be posted later on Trip Advisor.
In our experience, no one beats Princess Cruises for slick embarkation, whereby you can get on board at noon and go straight to your cabin. We embarked the Quest a little before 12.00 but the cabins were not available until 13.30, almost exactly the same time as Oceania. We had chosen cabin 6072, a standard balcony configuration. Azamara has re-carpeted the floor, replaced the bed mattresses and put a proper dining table and two chairs on the balcony, the latter facilitating in-cabin dining without stooping over a low table "indoors"!
Decent teak loungers are provided on both Deck 9 around the swimming pool and on Deck 11. These have cushion pads and there is a daily change of white covers, much more hygienic than the nylon fabric lounger provided by lesser cruise lines. A coffee and pastries bar called the Mosaic, has been added on Deck 5, whilst a new bar on the aft open deck dining area of the Deck 9 Windows cafe complete the main changes in the facilities which have been introduced by Azamara.
Azamara offers a Cruise Critics social, provided more than 24 passengers sign up pre-cruise. Ours was at 18.00 on the first evening, straight after the mandatory passenger safety briefing and so not an ideal time. The short, port-intensive itinerary did not really offer an alternative and Kirk, the Cruise Director, hosted the event, accompanied by officers from the hotel and catering departments. This is a nice touch, so well done Azamara!
For the first night, dining in the main restaurant was divided into four slots - 18.00, 18.30, 20.00 and 20.30, though there may have been a fifth at 21.00. We opted for 20.30 and were shown to a table for six, where we were joined by two other couples. Service was slow, very slow, so much so that a very straightforward dinner was not concluded until 22.50. Passengers on other tables fared as badly.
Next morning, we breakfasted in the Dining Room and, again, the service was poor. We were joined by another couple and three of us ordered smoked salmon with bagel, a stock menu item, plus scrambled eggs, a not unusual combination. The salmon came on one plate, the eggs on another, whilst the bagel was served with the toast! This meant our table was covered with twice as many plates as necessary,
At the conclusion of service, Roman, the newly-embarked Restaurant Manager, came to our table and sought our comments. We explained about the poor service at the two meals we had had so far, that staff seemed to rush around a lot but achieve little and he took on board what we said, not least because our several comments were made constructively. In fairness, matters did improve, though there remains a clear need for extra training. Citing just two examples, on several occasions, restaurant staff reached over a diner whilst the person was eating in order to perform some task or other. One night, a passenger was served her pasta course before her salad. When she queried why, the waitress said the pasta would go cold otherwise! Her husband, however, got his pasta after his soup!
Staying with the F & B Department, on every occasion when we had a pasta course, it was served lukewarm and was sent back to the galley for heating. Unlike on other cruise lines, this is exactly what the galley did, rather than provide a replacement dish. A dining room supervisor said that the food was leaving the galley hot but something was amiss between galley and dining table. Overall, the food was very good, certainly plentiful, but not up to Oceania Cruises standard, against whom Azamara sees itself as a rival. The menu choices were extensive but some of the main courses, in particular, overly fussy and elaborate. Whilst this is a personal view, we recall the many times that celebrity chef, Gordon Ramsey, has criticised chefs for over-complicating the ingredients of a dish. Azamara is an American line and this might reflect in the range and quality of the, so-called, cheese plate served in the dining room at dinner. Certainly, this item needs attention. One would also have thought that the bakery could produce brown rolls, yet a request for one regularly perplexed the staff. White rolls to feed the proverbial 5,000 or brown bread, but not brown rolls at dinner, except in Prime C, the charged-for (US $15) steak and fish restaurant on Deck 10.
We dined in Prime C and judged the meal to be comparable to that in the equivalent on Oceania's ships, although the latter does not levy any additional charge. One evening, the Windows cafe put on a seafood buffet. Your choice of fish and shellfish was cooked to order and served at your table, a highly memorable meal for all the right reasons. When we went to see whether this would be the case on the Indian-themed night, we found the food pre-cooked, sitting in the usual hot trays and opted for the dining room instead, a shame because we love good Indian cuisine.
Azamara offers a semi-inclusive drinks package. Bottled water (but not Perrier, as we found to our cost, having been misinformed by our cabin steward) soft drinks (all day) and house wine at lunch and dinner (but not with room service) are complimentary. There are several house red and white wines, so, if you find one you like, always ask for it, irrespective of what you are offered first.
This then leads nicely onto staff attitude. Universally, the staff were very friendly and helpful. There was none of the "if you want that, you will have to go to the dining room", rather food items requested would be brought from the galley. This was greatly appreciated, especially for fresh berries at breakfast, instead of the canned, syrup-coated selection available in the Windows cafe. Also a really nice touch, was the Food & Beverage officers' deck barbecue lunch, where they served the passengers,
We felt the beds were hard, and housekeeping were extremely helpful in resolving this.
We only saw entertainment on the final night, which was very good, and did not take part in any of the activities organised by the cruise staff, though those listed in the daily programme appeared to be what one would expect. Equally, we did not take any ship-organised tours. Azamara provided a free shuttle bus service into the centre of town were appropriate. An interesting activity, taken up by about 50 passengers, was a hike led by the Captain up to the top of the mountain which towers above Kotor.
The 7-night itinerary featured a port each day - Hvar, Split, Dubrovnik and Korcula (Croatia), Kotor (Montenegro) and Trieste (Italy). An Azamara brand feature offers longer stays in port, typically 23.00, to permit passengers to spend the evening ashore. By virtue of our itinerary comprising places along the Dalmatian coast, this facility was worthwhile, not least because the perspective on places such as Dubrovnik, which gets overwhelmed by cruise ships (six on the day of our visit) during the day, plus the evening is cooler than a hot August day in this sector.
Would we cruise with Azamara again? Probably. There are aspects about this "developing" (their words) brand that appeal. We like the ships, the staff attitude, most of the food, the inclusion of those detested "gratuities" (which they are not, rather the wages of cabin and dining room staff) within the cruise fare, the choice of ports on our itinerary, the full days in port, the free shuttle buses, the inclusion of wine with dinner, the service of complimentary soft drinks and cold towels for passengers sitting around the swimming pool. We do, though, consider that there is, at times, a lack of finesse in service standards, whilst the evening meals fell short of those we had on Pacific Princess (the old R3) in August 2010. Although we by no means always agree with the Berlitz Guide, the relative rating for Azamara is justified at present.