You can see photos from this cruise and our other sailings by following the link on our Cruise Critic profile page:
I had a “zero birthday” coming up and wanted to do ... Read More
You can see photos from this cruise and our other sailings by following the link on our Cruise Critic profile page:
I had a “zero birthday” coming up and wanted to do something special to celebrate – which provided a great excuse for another cruise. But it had to be something special – new ports and/or a new ship or, even better, a whole new (to us) cruise line. We also had the additional requirement that, because of health issues, the embarkation and disembarkation ports had to be within five hours travel time from our Northern Virginia home. I put together a list of options, which were mostly sailings from Miami or Fort Lauderdale that included the ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao). One option stood out because it also included two days in Havana, Cuba, and was on Azamara Club Cruises Journey. This was a 16-night repositioning sailing from Miami to Manhattan, with stops in Havana, Aruba, Curaçao, Bonaire, St. Barts, Sint Maarten, and Hamilton, Bermuda. With four new (to us) ports on a new (to us) ship and cruise line, this became the obvious choice. And we are very happy we made that choice.
Ship: The ship is lovely and very well maintained, despite its age – they were even refinishing the corridor handrails near our cabin. Like other ships under the RCCL umbrella, Journey was filled with artwork – paintings, prints, and sculptures (many by Salvador Dali) all over. The ship felt very bright all over – even the staircases and elevator lobbies, despite not having windows, felt very bright and open. The only times the ship felt crowded were when everyone tried to be in one venue at the same time – like White Night by the pool or the last two nights’ shows in the cabaret – and the staff brought in chairs for those events so everyone could sit.
Cabin: The cabin had plenty of room for all of our stuff – drawers in the desk and in the closet, lots of hangers. There was plenty of light in the cabin, including extra lights by the desk, the bed, and a working balcony light. The cabin thermostat even seemed to work properly! We discovered that the coffee table by the sofa had a lever that raised it from coffee table height to a height that worked for eating our room service breakfast when we couldn’t eat on the balcony.
Food: The food selections and quality were outstanding. With the exception of the AzAmazing Evening, when we ate in Windows (buffet restaurant) because of time constraints, we ate all our dinners in Discoveries (main dining room). We usually arrived around 7 PM and never had to wait for a table, which we usually shared with others, allowing us to meet many new people. Besides the menu selections, each night’s choices also included a chef’s selection and something more international, typically linked to the international themed dinner in Windows that evening. We could choose wines (at no extra charge) from each night’s selection of two whites, two reds, and a rosé – and they would pour wines offered on previous nights as well.
We ate most breakfasts on the balcony, which was a treat – the server would even spread the tablecloth for us! The food was hot and usually delivered on time. We could even add things to the menu if we wanted (like a smoked-salmon omelet!). I had a few breakfasts in Windows on mornings when we had an early excursion and the selection was excellent. As opposed to other cruises on which we’ve sailed, instead of placing the omelet order and waiting while it was cooked, I just took a table card with a number and the omelet was delivered when it was done. The servers also provided all of the beverages, including fresh-squeezed orange juice.
The ship had a few options for lunch. On days when our excursion returned in early afternoon, we went to the Living Room, where they had small sandwiches and desserts available. (That venue also had tapas in the early evening.) Other days, I would grab a burger (delicious) from the Patio or a salad from Windows and eat by the pool.
Service: Service on the ship was excellent. The staff and crew would always greet us – our cabin attendants would open our door for us if they were nearby when we were returning. The pool staff were constantly walking around to clear up towels from vacated chairs and to take drink orders and clear up empty glasses.
Entertainment: The entertainment was excellent. The ship’s cruise director and assistant cruise director each did a couple of shows and they were great performers. The ship also had an onboard troupe of six performers (four dancers and two singers/dancers) who did three different shows during our sailing. We were also entertained by a violinist, a magician/comic, and a pianist/singer, who joined the ship at different ports during the sailing. The violinist was a special treat for this voyage because of his work with Cuban musicians and students – and because he was joined for one piece by his young son, an incipient star. This was in addition to the pianist in the lounge and the ship orchestra and instrumental trio playing at different times throughout the ship. Our only complaint was about the volume – the cabaret shows would have been much nicer several dB lower.
Ports: With the exception of Sint Maarten, we used the ship excursions in all of the ports.
The tour guides both days were very knowledgeable and answered all of our questions. The bus was quite comfortable as well. Cuba is a very interesting place to visit for many obvious reasons. There are very few private cars and most people use buses or shared vans for transportation. The six-lane highway leading to Havana was almost empty and there was little traffic in Havana itself, something unimaginable in most other national capitals. Most of the urban-area buildings are in various stages of disrepair, which is a shame because they looked as if they had been beautiful before the revolution. Houses in the outlying areas looked better-maintained.
We did the Jewish Heritage tour our first day in Havana and visited a Jewish Cemetery, two synagogues, and a Jewish-owned boutique hotel. We got to meet with a community leader at one of the synagogues and he answered our questions about the Jewish community’s history and current life.
Our second day in Havana, we went to Ernest Hemingway’s house in San Francisco de Paula (about 9 miles from Havana), and were able to see how he lived and the tower next to the house in which he did his writing. We then went to one of his favorite bars in Cojimar, where we saw “his table” and enjoyed a daiquiri made the way he drank them. We then went into Havana to another of his favorite bars (how many did he have?) and braved the crowds to have a mojito. We then had time to walk around the cathedral and other historical sections before returning to the ship.
As we had never been to Aruba before, we took a ship excursion tour of the island. This tour included a visit to an aloe processing plant, a lighthouse, a natural bridge, and the fascinating Casibari Rock Formations, which I’d like to visit again to see the petroglyphs. The tour guide was very knowledgeable and the bus was fairly new and very comfortable.
Again, this was our first visit so we took the ship excursion for an island tour. We got to see a coastal national park to see the cliffs and rock formations along the coast and watch the strong surf. We also visited a lovely beach, the old salt flats in an unrealized hope to see the flamingos, and a former estate house most recently occupied by a famous local artist. As was the case in Aruba, the tour guide was quite knowledgeable and bus very comfortable.
After a quick lunch in the Living Room, I hiked from the port into town to see the old synagogue, which we couldn’t tour because it was closed on Sunday. This also gave me an opportunity to walk across the Queen Emma Bridge, a pontoon bridge that floats on the water and swings off to the side to let ships through. I also was able to get a closer view of the Queen Wilhelmina Bridge, the tallest bridge in the world, and two other small lift bridges in Willemstad.
Another new island and another ship excursion tour. The tour guide was knowledgeable, but the tour company used a smaller bus that was not as comfortable, especially for those stuck in the seats over the wheels. We got to see Bonaire’s lovely coastline, old salt flats with many flamingos raising their young, an old house showing how the early island residents lived, some slave huts right on the coast by the salt flats, and a modern salt processing operation. The tour guide was very good, but she had to keep telling the driver to slow down so we could take photographs.
Although we had been to St. Barts five years earlier, we had seen only the port area in the capital so we took another island tour. This tour was in a mini-van and the tour guide was not very effective at discussing much about the island characteristics. We did get to see several beaches and the beautiful island geography. The company arranging the tours should have done a better job preparing a guide for the driver to use.
We’ve been there several times and I decided to have a beach day. I had searched the web before the trip and found that two bars with beach chair/umbrella rental facilities had reopened at Orient Beach so I decided to go there for the day. There is a taxi rank right off the pier complex and the people there will assemble groups to various destinations. I was able to share a taxi with few other visitors (from another ship) and paid only $9 for the trip instead of the $25 the trip would have cost for just me. The taxi dropped us off mid-beach near the Bikini Beach bar, which looked nice. However, someone at the port had told me that Kon Tiki, a short walk down the beach, had better food. I paid $15 for an umbrella and comfortable chaise (including a cushion) for the day. There were attendants patrolling the beach to take food and drink orders, and the bar and restaurant looked great and had brand new facilities. So I had a lovely day on the beach watching people windsurfing and doing other watersports.
We’ve been to Bermuda twice before, but we were docked at the Royal Dockyards at the far end of the island. We took ferry trips to Hamilton and to St. Georges, but had never seen the Bermuda countryside. This itinerary had us docked right in downtown Hamilton so we were able to walk around to see the shops and restaurants. We also took a ship excursion that drove along the south coast of the island to the Royal Dockyards, giving us a chance to see the lovely beaches for which Bermuda is famous and some historical areas.
Embarkation was fairly smooth with priority processing only for suite guests. While we had completed the forms for the Cuban visas, we forgot to bring copies with us, so we had to take time to write out second copies, which the port people insisted we needed even though we had copies at home.
Disembarkation was slower than normal, probably because the immigration people had not planned on the high percentage of non-U.S. citizens, who took longer to process. Once through immigration, we located our luggage and found a porter quickly, who then took us out to the drop-off area. We were picking up a rental car and driving home, so I walked about 2 ½ blocks to the car rental office, picked up the car, drove back to the pier, picked up DW and our luggage, and headed through the Lincoln Tunnel. I think I spent more time in line at the car rental office than it took to get to the office and drive back and get to the tunnel.
Overall experience: This itinerary was an excellent balance of port and sea days, with 8 ½ days in port and 6 ½ days at sea. The majority of the passengers were from the United Kingdom, which was a new experience for us, and we got to chat with a lot of people from places we had only read about. With fewer than 700 passengers on a smaller ship, we were more likely to bump into the same people repeatedly and get to know them. Even with open seating at dinner, we wound up having the same tablemates a few times and would greet each other by name when we were walking around the ship or sitting in the cabaret. Another pleasurable aspect of the cruise was that we didn’t feel hassled to spend money. Drinks and wine were included if we didn’t request premium brands, as were coffees. And there was no constant sales pressure to eat in the specialty restaurants, as we’ve experienced on other lines.
The senior ship staff were always present and visible – the hotel director would frequently assist seating passengers in Discoveries and we saw the Captain walking around the tables at least once. The captain and hotel director were at the gangplank every morning when we left the ship for our excursions, wishing us a good visit. Captain Johannes and Cruise Director Eric had a constant repartee during the noon announcements, with the captain teasing the CD about his shirt every day and the CD finding something funny to say in response. They obviously have a great relationship and that enhanced the voyage. This was the best cruise we have ever taken, thanks to the ship staff and crew, ship size, passenger friendliness, food quality, and itinerary. We are looking forward to another. Read Less