This is the second review of our back to back cruise, we thought it was appropriate to do two reviews as they were two different cruises and we will focus particularly on the differences.
As back to back cruisers, our view of embarkation was a little different. Azamara handle back to back extremely well, we had been invited to early evening drinks a couple of days previously when our new room keys were given to us, all we had to do was go to the gangway, punch out the old cards and punch in the new cards on change over day. We did go into the terminal and could see that Azamara had asked for their land agents to put a lot of people on the ground to help guests, the issue was the English language skills of some, however the majority of guests we spoke to had had a fairly smooth embarkation.
We had the opportunity to see how the ship is stripped down on changeover day -- it is very impressive, every part of the ship seemed to be getting scrubbed, polished and cleaned.
Our dining experiences on this second cruise broadly reflected what had happened on the first trip. However, we spent much less time in the speciality restaurants. As there were only 320 guests on board the restaurants were opening on alternative nights. Our first visit to Aqualina was not their best, however our final evening there it had returned to the standard we know and love. The reaction to our feedback from the Hotel Director and Restaurant manager was absolutely first class and demonstrated beyond doubt this is a line that cares about customer service.
We did not get a chance to visit Prime C but spent the rest of our evenings dining in Discoveries where the food was absolutely excellent and on the evidence of this cruise, there is only a cigar paper now between the quality of food and service between the regular and speciality restaurants. Lunch time buffets are also excellent, this trip the choices were scaled back a little, again because of the reduced number of guests, but it was never an issue, in fact in some ways it was easier to make our choices this time!
Two evening buffets were planned but the weather gods had other ideas. On both occasions, the buffet still happened, on the first there was no outdoor dining and on the second there was some tables set up for dining outdoors but no entertainment, which was a shame because in the end the forecast rain did not come though it really threatened to and had been around earlier in the day. We went to the second buffet and it was absolutely superb, gorgeous steaks, escargot, fish, you name it, it was there .
One night, I casually asked if my much loved cinnamon icecream would be on the menu as it had not yet appeared on either cruise -- it was only a casual question whilst applauding a new found love, the apple honey icecream -- next evening as my desert was being served a lovely portion of cinnamon ice cream was brought to me -- really nice touch.
It is quite challenging for many people to get visas for Brazil -- and it is even more difficult for the entertainers who are on the move and cannot give their passports away for any length of time. Therefore, we had the same entertainers on as our previous cruise, Eliot Finkel ( pianist), Bob Trunell (magician) and Bruce Parker (singer). Each of these performers do two nights and as we had not seen both their shows on trip one it worked really well and we enjoyed all the shows. We also had to see Eric de Gray's show again and his input to the Broadway show -- amazing.
Staff and Service
What more can I say other than this is an excellent well run team. We had switched to Captain Johannes this cruise and he is exactly as a Captain should be -- he gives leadership to his team and encourages them to go the extra mile for the guest. What is also clear is that every member of staff we came across loved working for him. Heike as hotel director is so much in control of the hotel operations and has such high standards and yet is always looking for new ways to raise the bar even higher. Pravin, Hilda and Andrei continued to keep our room in tip top shape, when I read elsewhere about butlers not giving service, all I can say is they have not been trained by the same people or have the same mindset as Pravin.
We booked on several shore excursions for this trip taking advantage of the 50% off offer.
Parati was a repeat visit for us and this time we did a trip to beaches organised through the ship. The beaches were lovely and the guide was very enthusiastic, adding in an additional stop and hike to a further beach. Just be aware of this in South America, all our shore excursions overran by at least an hour, no issue the ship leaving without us, most were morning trips anyway, but it did impact on our afternoon plans each day. It would be as well to build in some flex to any plans you make just in case.
Ilhabella is a lovely little port, there is not a lot to do there and whilst the locals are clearly making efforts to cater for the tourists, the infrastructure is limited. We did hear of some guests who had set off on a taxi and then had trouble getting back from the beach and another couple who got on a bus only to find the return was not until the next day. Both were mighty relieved we had a 2300 sailaway! Our excursion was a cruise to a nearby beach where you then had to transfer to pontoons to get ashore, be careful if you choose this trip and have more limited mobility as it was not clear such a complex move was required. Trip was pleasant, mother nature did not however give her best display that day
Punta del Este -- another repeat for us and one we chose to do on our own. We walked around and found the beach visited more my locals than tourists (Playa El Emir) about 15 minutes gentle stroll from the ship. Enjoyed a very pleasant time sitting here before making our way back to the ship stopping off to view the sealions en route.
Montevideo -- our original choice of excursion to a winery was cancelled due to lack of participation which was disappointing so we opted instead for a morning city tour. This was actually very good and we had a few interesting photostops en route (more than were advertised in the excursion guide). We had planned to wander back to town in the afternoon (no idea why actually but it is close and there was a free shuttle running) however, when we returned from the trip the mercury was already well over 90 so we went for a lazy afternoon by the pool (actually is went over 100 that day so we were glad we did not try too much more)
Buenos Aires -- we were here two nights and as we had already done city tours prior to our first cruise we were able to go further afield on this trip. Both shore excursions were ones I think would have been tricky to try on our own. We did hear a lot of guests had problems with the local taxis with drivers not using meters, deliberately getting lost on the way back to the port and generally pulling out all the scams from the book. Speaking to a friend who lives in BA this, unfortunately, is par for the course there these days.
We actually ran into a scam on disembarkation (more on the other aspects of that later) -- we were pushing our trolley towards the taxi rank as our driver was waiting near there, no issue until we passed the end of the line of taxi drivers, one of them ran up and yanked our trolley from us and said 50 pesos ($9) pointing to the trolley. Other drivers surrounded us and the issue was they were trying to charge us for using the trolley as we were not taking a taxi from them. Our private driver saw what was happening, came over, used a few well chosen words, and the "scammers" all just walked away shrugging their shoulders trying to look innocent (not!). So you know, there are NO charges for using trolleys at Buenos Aires port.
Estancia -- This trip to Santa Susanah estancia was really good value, included (though not advertised) was a short ride on the horses, as well as the usual display of horsemanship by the gauchos, some entertainment and an absolutely excellent buffet/barbecue. All I would say is do not plan to eat much on the evening you do this trip, which is a pleasant one hour drive out of BA.
Tigre Delta is a fascinating area about 45 minutes from BA, think Venice but no pavements. The one hour cruise around was very pleasant on a lovely modern boat with a good commentary from our guide. The only issue with this trip was the bus driver got very lost on the way home (the guide tried to pretend they did not but we could here the conversations at the front of the coach!). We were so late back there were no lunch options available, even though the Shore Excursions rep who was on the trip with us assured us there would be and she would phone ahead. When we got back on board, it was clear she had not --minor black mark there but the excellent Martina (Chief housekeeper) looked after us so well on our return when she heard what had happened.
We arranged for disembarkation in the last group to go off as our driver was not coming until 0915. Again, all the arrangements by Azamara were excellent and as we were on bus shuttles within the port area, each bus was effectively a colour tag group. Standing waving off every bus was Heike, Liesl (Guest Relations Manager), Fred (F and B Manager) and Eric de Gray. Everyone on our bus commented how lovely, we do not want to go home and there were some teary eyes --that says it all
Thank you Azamara, we will be back!