We are retired travelers in our 60s who have been seriously bitten by the cruise bug. We have been on 17 cruises over the past 10 years, on five cruise lines. We prefer Celebrity, where we have achieved Elite status. This is our second cruise on Azamara, the first having been last spring in the Caribbean. Both of these cruises were arranged by a travel agent who specializes in group cruises including airfare and pre-voyage hotel stays. We were very happy with our spring trip, and we eagerly signed on when this one was offered.
We flew from Atlanta, changing planes in Paris. A note to the unwary: Charles de Gaulle Airport is not for the faint of heart or the slow of foot. The signage is easy enough to follow, but it takes forever to go from one concourse to another (it is not so much a terminal as an interminable). Be sure to allow plenty of time between planes and wear your sturdiest walking shoes. When we arrived in Athens, we were met by Azamara personnel and shepherded onto our bus for transfer to the Athens Hilton, where we had a very nice room with a balcony. After a nap, we booked an Athens-by-Night tour through the hotel. This included a photo stop at the lit-up Acropolis, a visit to a surprisingly interesting museum of ancient instruments, and dinner and a folkloric show at a taverna, nothing memorable but a way to see a little of the city in our limited time there.
After a stupendous breakfast buffet (included), we were herded a bit roughly and rudely onto buses for transfer to the harbor in Piraeus. The weather had turned chilly with blustery winds, and we had to stand outside for some time while the buses got sorted out. The trip to the port took about an hour. Once we arrived, embarkation could not have gone more smoothly. One very great advantage of the smaller size of the Quest and the Journey is that there never seems to be a crowd anywhere or a long wait for anything. We were on board, champagne in hand, by 1 p.m., with only a few minutes to wait before our cabins were ready. We recognized a number of staff faces from our previous Azamara trip, and were greeted cordially.
We had a deluxe veranda cabin midships on deck 7. While significantly smaller than the cabins on other cruise lines, the closet and storage space was cleverly designed and adequate for our needs. Because we did not need to bring formal attire, we were able to pack more compactly and had no problem stashing everything away. While the veranda is a bit of a luxury, we love being able to step outside and check the weather, and to sit and watch the ship enter and leave the harbors. There was fresh fruit on our table, replenished as needed, and the Azamara policy of providing all soft drinks, specialty coffees, and bottled water made it easy to have the mini-fridge stocked exactly as we wished.
We love the dining policy on Azamara. Not only could we choose whether we wanted a sandwich, a buffet salad bar, or a sit-down meal, we could eat early if we chose or come back from a late excursion and still have a relaxed dinner. We could eat by ourselves or socialize with others as we wished. In addition to the buffet on deck 9 and the lovely Discoveries dining room on deck 5, there is a poolside grill during the day, two specialty restaurants, and the delightful Mosaic Cafe midships on deck 5 which serves tiny sandwiches, pastries, and cookies along with specialty coffees. Note also that the Mosaic staff will cheerfully pack a mini-quiche or two into a to-go cup with a lid, great for bringing along for snacking on a long shore excursion. The food is varied, plentiful, and fine. We didn't find many items that made us sit up and cheer, but we were always well satisfied. We did eat once in one of the specialty restaurants, Prime C, where we each had an excellent filet mignon, but surprisingly pedestrian soups, salads, and desserts. But we enjoyed many meals in the dining room and several interesting themed buffets (Asian, French, Greek, sea food, etc).
Because this was a very port-intensive itinerary with only one sea day, we did not take part in most of the activities provided. These included destination talks and other enrichment lectures, as well as the usual trivia, bingo, etc. The cozy Cabaret theater is much smaller and more intimate than the larger ships' entertainment venues, so the evening shows were either individual performers or small-scale production numbers with five talented singer/dancers. We especially enjoyed the concert by Cruise Director Tony Markey, who is a wonderful performer as well as an excellent CD. There is also a variety of music available around the ship, including a vocal duo, a DJ, and a terrific pianist/singer/raconteur, Jim Badger, who performed nightly at the piano in the Mosaic Cafe.
As has often been said, the best part of sailing on Azamara is the staff. From the dry wit and mischievous smile of Captain Johannes, who seemed to be everywhere all the time, to the nameless crew members scrubbing the banisters and carrying our breakfast trays, everyone we met on board seemed genuinely happy to be part of the Azamara team. We had only to hint at a need and it was instantly and cheerfully met. We did have one unpleasant encounter with a member of the restaurant staff. We both thought we recognized him as a server we had particularly liked on our previous trip. He told us that he was not that person, and added "Probably to you, everyone from my country looks the same." We were thoroughly taken aback, and we noticed that this man never made eye contact with us or came to our service for the rest of the voyage. With this exception, we received outstanding, gracious, and efficient service all the way around.
This was a very port-intensive itinerary, starting with Kusadasi, Turkey and the lovely Greek island of Santorini. On our way to Ashdod for a two-day visit to Jerusalem, the captain informed us (at 11 pm!) that the port of Ashdod had been closed to cruise ships due to an exchange of rocket fire between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza. We were rerouted to Haifa for the entire three days of our stay in Israel. We had made private arrangements for Days 1 (in Jerusalem) and 3 (in Haifa). We were able to take these tours anyway, albeit with major changes due to the extra driving time involved, and most of the ship tours were also reorganized on different days. We had planned to return to Jerusalem on Day 2 to visit friends, but this was not possible, so we just explored Haifa on our own. The Captain and the staff deserve great appreciation for the calm and efficient way in which they handled the many logistical challenges required by this unexpected situation. They also managed very well when a number of passengers later developed some form of the dreaded gastro-intestinal virus. The Captain ordered no self-service in the buffet line and urged frequent hand-washing. The ship had been spotless to begin with, but cleaning efforts were stepped up even more. By the end of the cruise, the situation seemed to have improved greatly.
After leaving Haifa, we visited Paphos, Cyprus (gorgeous); Antalya, Turkey (more gorgeous); Rhodes, Greece (super gorgeous), and the enchanting island of Kos, Greece (would you believe the prettiest of them all?). We made our own arrangements in Israel, and in Kos we took a local mini-train on our own. In the other ports, we relied on Shore Excursions provided by Azamara. We are not intrepid adventurers, preferring our excursions to be low-key and physically unchallenging introductions to ports that are new to us. We are not ones for zip lining, parasailing, river rafting, etc. Nonetheless, due to the terrain in these ancient cities, the vast majority of the excursions offered on this cruise were listed as strenuous, or as moderate with strong stipulations about walking difficulties. We generally chose half-day excursions and made our own accommodations as we went along, but we were pretty tired when we got back to the ship each day.
In Kusadasi, we chose KD20, Highlights of Ephesus. This half-day tour started with a visit to the House of Virgin Mary, which we could have done without, especially with the complimentary fake earthenware jugs for us to fill with water from the spring as a souvenir. We then took a guided walking tour of the excavated ruins of the ancient city of Ephesus. The terrain was indeed challenging, but we were able to walk mostly at our own pace. We then witnessed a fake pageant purporting to portray Cleopatra and members of her court including armed gladiators and dancing girls. (For both of these segments of the tour, guests were issued personal audio sets so that that tour guide could remain in contact with us all. Unfortunately, I am hearing impaired, and was unable to utilize the accompanying earphones.) The tour concluded with a carpet-making demonstration, where we were given refreshments and a relatively mild sales pitch.
In Santorini, we took SO14, Village of Oia and Santorini Island Wine Tasting. After walking through a picturesque village, we were taken to a winery to try the local vintages and snack on cheese and bread. We ended in the lovely town of Fira, which is what most people think of when they hear "Greek Island." This was a 3.5 hour excursion listed as strenuous due to the steep terrain. However, we were given free time to explore Fira at our own pace, so we were able to manage. This is such a lovely place, it would have been a pity to miss it.
In Cyprus, which was much more attractive than we had imagined, we took UP03, Paphos and Countryside. We started off at the House of Dionysus, where mosaics from 200 BC were on display. The building was very crowded and many tour guides were vying to out-shout one another, so we waited outside for a while. We then walked through the ruins of the ancient Tombs of the Kings and then drove to a small village to visit an old church. We ended at the spectacular Anassa Beach Hotel, a high-end resort we will probably never be able to afford to enter again, where we were treated to excellent coffee, indifferent pastries, and magnificent views. This was a 6 hour moderate tour with walking stipulations. We managed the walking but were tired for sure by the time we got back.
Back in Turkey, we chose TH07, Panoramic Antalya. We started at an excellent archaeological museum, where far too many interesting exhibits were crammed into a brief visit. We then drove past Hadrian's Gate and to the Lower Duden Waterfall, which empties picturesquely into the Mediterranean. There were some shopping stalls here, but we were rushed back to the bus so that we could endure over an hour at a jewelry store where we were all but strong-armed into listening to a heavy sales presentation. So many people complained about this segment of the tour that the ship generously decided to refund a portion of the cost of the excursion. If this excursion is offered as listed, it is definitely NOT recommended. A taxi to the museum would be a much better bet.
Finally, in scenic Rhodes we took RH11, Scenic Rhodes. We began with a guided walk through the Old Town followed by a panoramic drive through the more modern city, ending with a walking tour of the ancient city of Kamiros. This was a 5 hour, moderate tour with some rough walking. We did enjoy seeing this beautiful island.
Paphos, Antalya, and Kos are not included in the ports listed below.
We were sad to have to disembark, but the process went very smoothly. Because of the Norovirus situation, the ship was due to be completely fumigated, and all passengers were supposed to be off-board by 9 a.m. We had been reunited with our luggage, always a moment of relief, and were on our buses to the airport somewhat before that time. The trip to the airport took about an hour and was uneventful. Despite numerous attempts, we had been unable to print our boarding passes, so we waited in long lines to do so. That being eventually accomplished, we found the Athens airport quite accessible. We changed planes in Paris, which was a nightmare. Having learned from our earlier experience that we would have trouble making a tight connection there, we had asked for wheelchair assistance. Even though we are normally ambulatory, we knew we would need the extra speed. Three other couples also required assistance. Somehow, each pair was split up, and each group then waited for a special vehicle to get to the plane and then drive us to the terminal building. We then had to walk through the building and outside where we awaited a special van to transport us to the other concourse, where some of us were reunited with our spouses. With the heroic effort of several airport personnel, we somehow got through customs and all eight of us managed to get on the plane just as final boarding was called. If we never see Charles de Gaulle airport again, we will be quite thrilled.
On the whole, this was a terrific cruise. We love the ship, the staff, the service, and even the weather cooperated. We can't wait to book our next Azamara adventure.