I don't know about you, but when I see a review that says "5 star+" or uses words and phrases such as "Incomparable. Supreme. Best ever. Completely terrific in every way" I tend to ignore them because in my mind I have to doubt the critical faculties of the writer. Nothing is completely perfect.
If you share my mind-set then log-off now, because our recent Amazon cruise on Azamara Journey requires the use of all the above superlatives. It was, in fact, azamazing ©.
Not that it started well ashore. Azamara sent us from London to Puerto Rico via Miami on American Airlines whereas some other UK guests were given a direct flight with British Airways. I had asked about the direct Gatwick - San Juan flight but was told it would entail a substantial extra charge. Apparently not for the other guests who said they were given the flight gratis.
Then two of the four pieces of luggage we handed over to the ship's agent at the hotel we were accommodated in pre-cruise by Azamara in San Juan - luggage which, according to the document we were given, should next have appeared in our stateroom, didn't. Stolen? Lost? I suspect the former as they contained (legal) alcohol. I'm still waiting to hear what Azamara UK is going to do about this as under our laws they are responsible for property entrusted to them.
Pre-cruise problems seem to be the norm with all shipping lines. If I was a psychologist I would suspect they are down to shore-side people getting their own back on passengers and crew who are off to more exciting climes while they languish behind desks. But I'm not a psychologist.
In fact I think the people shore-side think they are doing a good job, and my answer to this misunderstanding would be to send the butler we enjoyed on Journey, Pravin, to explain to them what makes life on an Azamara ship azamazing. He was the epitome of good service.
Leaving the shore-side problems ashore, was anything on board annoying? Yes.
In our cabin the electrical sockets were underneath the dressing table. Whoever was responsible for that piece of ergonomic eccentricity should be made to walk the plank. Having to get down on your knees several times a day to search in the dark for power outlets was a pain in the patellas. And I can guarantee that if the appliance in need of connection had a European plug I would only be able to find the US sockets, and vice-versa.
Our cabin also boasted two hot water taps in the sink - the cold tap never ran cold, but fortunately Pravin kept us well supplied with ice and bottled water.
As suites go this was probably the smallest we have ever inhabited at sea with a balcony that was little more than one chair in depth. Bedside tables provided minimal space for books, wine glasses, watches, mobile phones ... all the usual paraphernalia of bedtime.
By now you are probably looking back at the introduction to this review and wondering why it seemed to promise praise aplenty when all I have done so far is carp and bitch? In case you haven't reprised my introduction let me remind you it said "Nothing is completely perfect". QED.
But, setting aside the above minor irritations, Azamara Journey came close to perfection.
Despite being quite small our cabin - N1 Club Continent 8039 - was well, if simply, appointed, the bed was very comfortable, it was quiet despite being below the pool deck and was kept impeccably clean by Wayan and Erlinda. We never ran out of refreshments and toiletries were regularly replenished, as were towels. Sadly the latter were never converted into the animals of the sort we have always previously enjoyed on other cruise lines. I know, simple things please simple minds.
The aircon worked quietly and well; important when you remember the temperature and humidity of rain forest country! To remain cool it was essential to ensure the balcony door was closed. That precaution also kept the numerous creepy-crawlies (and large, beautiful moths) outside. At night it was wise to turn the balcony light off and close the curtains so as not to attract the flying wildlife. Some of the unnecessary external lights on the ship were extinguished for the same reason, though each morning we would still find a scattering of large moths and grasshoppers on the deck, clinging to walls or in the scuppers. Jumping ahead, when we finally moored in Manaus just ahead was another R type ship, Regatta. At dusk it was lit from bow to stern and I have to say that it made Journey look the poor relation.
Mid afternoon Pravin would appear with tea and cakes. Two hours later he reappeared with savouries. As we both started to balloon my wife, Chris, banned his visits but he seemed to know when she was away from the cabin and would arrive and persuade me, against her better judgement, to partake of cake and cookies. Then I had to hide the empty plate and make sure no crumbs remained in evidence.
Surprisingly Journey was only two thirds full, so it was always possible to get a table in Windows or the MDR. While sailing down through the Caribbean we regularly took breakfast and lunch (and dinner one night) on the stern terrace and enjoyed sunshine with a cooling breeze. Once we approached the Equator the daytime sun proved too strong and people sought shady tables on deck or air conditioned seating inside.
Food selection in Windows was very good, though it became a little repetitive during the second week. However the staff maintained the maximum level of service at all times, never flagging and always smiling.
Chris and I thought the main dining room, Discoveries, had wonderful ambience, beaten only by the Olympic Grill on Celebrity Millennium. Again service was superb with nearly everybody remembering our names. The menu was good; the cooking and presentation great. Sadly the dress sense of many men was below par. The ladies without exception shone in their attire but perhaps 50% of partners in the MDR let their companions down. I can't imagine any country club having them as members. Put your foot (or should that be feet?) down next cruise girls and tell your menfolk that if they don't dress to a reasonable standard - and I'm not talking formal here - they can eat in the buffet with their mates.
As suite guests we could eat in Prime C or Aqualina without charge. We tried each once but never bothered going back. The food was OK but the rooms are L shaped corridors that lack atmosphere and we found the service slow.
I buy quite a lot of wine when at home (somehow "buy" sounds better than "drink"), and I found most of the freebie reds acceptable and provided in copious quantities. My wife was not quite as happy as she is no lover of Chardonnay, which dominated the available whites. So we invested in a few bottles of Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio for her. Also some French Chablis, which she refused to believe is made from the Chardonnay grape!
I had previously read that if you didn't like the free wine offerings then other choices were available at 50% off. Not on our cruise.
My top meal in the MDR was a simple one, the officers' lunch time buffet. Why? Because it featured my most favourite of all foods, roast suckling pig.
Entertainment is not the main reason why anybody would book a cruise on Journey. With the exception of Eric deGray, cruise director magnifique, it was ok. Just. To be completely fair the ship's band was more than competent. However Eric's one man show was better than first rate and later during the cruise his Broadway spectacular was ... azamazing.
If you like to entertain yourself quietly then Journey's library is top notch. Very comfortable and well stocked. Wonder which cruise ship library will be the first to offer Kindle (other e-readers are available) downloads?
Having talked about the ship I should move-on to our itinerary.
In St Barts (or is it St. Barths?) we made the mistake of hiring a convertible Smart car. Fun: except for the narrow, precipitous and poorly maintained roads which are inhabited by locals travelling at crazy speeds. Lovely island. At least the part we visited was. Unfortunately the map we had and the roads we spent hours trying to find did not compute, as somebody once said, so our wanderings were limited.
Dominica was very lush and very hilly. This time we played safe and had booked the "50% off" ship's excursion to swim in the gorge where Pirates of the Caribbean 453 was filmed and enjoy the hot pools that are fed from the numerous sulphur springs. After breakfast we discovered my swimming things had not been packed so we rushed off the ship and finally located some in a back street store. As I'm not a strong swimmer I decided to avoid the gorge, which turned out to be a mistake as everybody was supplied with life vests. Ah well, I enjoyed the thermal springs.
Mayreau is a tiny island, just one and a half miles in length and with 200 residents but no facilities for tourism. It's really a gorgeous stopping point for sailing boats and luxury yachties who want to get away from it all. And that's how my wife and I last visited Mayreau 29 years previously on a Camper and Nicholson 42 footer. The island hadn't changed much, but it did when 400 cruisers landed from Journey by tender and attacked an enormous b-b-q and bar that had been set-up by the ship's hotel staff. It was a major undertaking but I felt the crew enjoyed it as much as the guests despite the hard work because they all had time-off during the afternoon to go swimming in the very blue Grenadine sea.
Barbados, our final Caribbean call, was a shock after Meyreau. Big and full of hustle, bustle and traffic. Again we hired a car, this time a mini jeep, and toured much of the island. We were shocked to find that the famous Sam Lord's Castle resort - which we had also visited all those years previously - had been gutted by fire 12 months earlier. But every cloud has a silver lining as its beach was deserted!
A few sea days followed and then we noticed the ocean take-on a brownish hue even though we were still perhaps 100 miles from the mouth of the Amazon. It was around midnight when we actually entered the river and I have to admit to being in bed. It wouldn't have made any difference if I had been on deck as there was nothing to see on either side, the river being wider than the English Channel at this point.
Macapa. I can't tell you about Macapa. It should have been our first Amazon landfall. Unfortunately it wasn't. We anchored off-shore for six hours while officials came and "inspected" Journey. One of the groups - I think it was the one of lesser importance - certainly inspected Windows cafe offerings at some length. I think it was the week after the country's tourism minister resigned following allegations, from memory, of corruption. I doubt the two events were directly connected, but whoever was responsible in Azamara or Brazil for this debacle and denied us the unique opportunity of being able to straddle the Equator line with one foot in each hemisphere deserves a good telling-off! To add insult to injury the enrichment lecture showed us all the things we would not be able to enjoy ashore in Macapa.
We crossed the Equator near Macapa. Unfortunately King Neptune was busy but he and Queen what's-her-name accompanied by a bevy of scantily clad beauties made an appearance the following day, which was spent cruising up the river. Eric, of course, conducted the ceremony which revolved around the captain and a large number of passengers kissing a Dover sole. Wonder who later got it for dinner?
Alter Do Chao was our first landfall in Brazil. It was a pleasant but quiet sort of place. Apparently it wakes-up at weekends when the rich folk arrive from nearby SantarEm. Santarem is the larger and more usual port of call for cruise ships on the Amazon. It is bordered by the Amazon and the Tapajós rivers. Both run along for many miles in the front of the city, side by side, without mixing. The Amazon's milky coloured water carries sediment from the Andes in the East, while the Tapajós's water is somewhat warmer and has a deep-blue tone. This phenomenon is called "The meeting of the waters". More on that phenomenon later.
Boca de Valeria. I think this was perhaps the highlight of the cruise, though we went ashore with some trepidation. It is a typical Amazon village, stilted houses that are home for just 80 inhabitants. Should 400 outsiders be allowed to desecrate such an idyll? Well, before the tenders were even in the water three or four canoes carrying men, women, children, sloths and carved wooden fish were already circling Journey's anchorage. Ashore we were met at the tender station by an army of children who quickly but politely relieved passengers of the gifts we had been carrying - pens, crayons, notebooks and various knickknacks - and dolla' bills. Many had obviously arrived from nearby villages as it's a regular stop for cruise ships and they all knew the drill. Photo with sloth? One dolla' please. Photo with child in traditional dress? One dolla' please. And so on. There was a small church, lovely little school (with box for donations!) and to our great surprise a bar serving cold beer. River trips by canoe could be purchased for $5 per person and "local" handicrafts were available at reasonable prices. The village had rudimentary running water, electricity ... and satellite dishes. Otherwise it did appear to represent a different way of life and it left its mark on my psyche.
Parintins was to be our second stop that day, so at lunch time the anchor was raised and we left the residents of Boca da Valeria to return to whatever they do on the 360 days each year when cruise ships aren't helping with the local economy.
Journey made it to Parintins in just a few hours. This was a real town, but the reason we were there wasn't to simply explore the dusty streets but to attend a Boi Bumba. It's a sort of mini version of the Rio Carnival in which around 50 dancers don exotic costumes and fill a small stadium with colour, light and energy for an hour. Brilliant. Maybe this was the highlight of the cruise rather than Boca: so difficult to judge because the events were entirely different. Let's compromise and say this day was the highlight of the cruise.
If you want to know more about the Boi Bumba try Google. And I feel really sorry for those passengers on Journey who missed the event.
Manaus. After a much needed relaxing day "at sea" we finally arrived at the end of our Amazon odyssey. Journey was overnighting here and so on the first afternoon we took to a river boat to see - wait for it - another meeting (or not) of the waters. This time the inky black and well named Rio Negro and the light brown waters of the Rio Solimoes run side-by-side before joining the Amazon. We stopped on an island and wandered through the jungle seeing sloths and monkeys, large snails, giant water lillies and long columns of ants. Genuinely fascinating stuff. I asked our guide why there was a rope 30 feet up a tree? The answer: "if you were making this excursion during the rainy season that's where we would moor our boat!"
The following morning we took an excursion around Manaus which we thought would allow us to see the famous opera house. It did, briefly, from the roadside. Major disappointment. Then it was off to the quite pleasant but badly organised airport. While we could check our bags on arrival we couldn't clear security until 60 minutes prior to departure of our Boeing 767. The long queue for the Miami flight (200 people mainly from the ship) just made it through passport control in time and the plane left only five minutes behind schedule.
Miami. We stayed overnight at the Sheraton. Typical airport hotel, but the difference between hotel service levels and Azamara service levels came home to me in the bar. Having waited a while for service I finally caught the eye of a staff member. I got as far as "Could I have ...." before he responded "No. I'm not on duty here". Would never have happened on Journey.
Despite some of the niggles I mentioned at the beginning of this review our cruise deserved five stars plus. The ship was fine; the food good; the itinerary interesting. But it was the staff who earned the +. Not just the cabin and wait staff but credit must also go the senior deck and hotel people who were always around, ever ready to chat. We probably saw the Captain, Jason, every day and while I am not certain he is totally comfortable in the role of public figure and the butt of Eric's jokes, he takes it in good part and exudes a degree of gravitas I have found worryingly lacking in some other skippers we have cruised with.
Next spring we cruise with Seabourn again. They will have to pull-out all the stops to beat Azamara. We will certainly be back on Journey or Quest, by which time I hope they will have moved those damn electrical sockets.