We recently completed a 10 day cruise around Cuba on the Azamara Journey. This was our 4th cruise in total and our first on Azamara. We chose Azamara mostly because of the itinerary and that it's a small ship experience marketed as ... Read More
We recently completed a 10 day cruise around Cuba on the Azamara Journey. This was our 4th cruise in total and our first on Azamara. We chose Azamara mostly because of the itinerary and that it's a small ship experience marketed as being more upscale and luxurious than the typical mega-ships. We have been wanting to visit Cuba since they opened it up to Americans and thought a cruise would be a great way to see more than just Havana.
After some initial snafus with our reservation that was graciously resolved by Bonnie over on the CruiseCritic discussion boards, we boarded in Miami for our 10 circle trip around the Cuban island with stops in Santiago de Cuba, Grand Cayman, Cienfuegos and Havana. The most appealing part of the itinerary was the promise of multi-day stays in port rather than the usual arrive-at-8am-leave-at-5pm schedules of other cruise lines.
Which leads me to our first big gripe with Azamara: it was only after plotting the arrival/departure times on the calendar that we realized that the "extended" time in port was very misleading. On the itinerary, it listed only 1 day at sea but in actuality we ended up with almost 4 full sea days. For example, days 3 & 4 were listed as in port in Santiago, however, we arrived at 8am on Tuesday and left at 6am Wednesday. That's not 2 days - that's one day + one night. Wednesday turned out to be really a sea day but that's not how it was shown on the schedule.
Same for Cienfuegos on Friday/Saturday. We arrived Friday morning but left the dock 8am on Sat and didn't arrive Havana until Sunday evening. That's almost a day and half at sea. We really only got 1 full day at each of these ports and just 2 days in Havana instead of 3. We talked to several others who felt that Azamara was very misleading in the marketing about the time in port. I know that ships can't magically teleport from one location to the next but it would have been less confusing if the itinerary matched reality so we knew what to expect and plan our excursions accordingly. Azamara highlights that they have more immersive itineraries by allowing more time in port but I don't think it counts when that time is spent sleeping.
Second major disappointment was the overall lack of service throughout the ship. While the crew and waitstaff were generally good and always very courteous, it was decidedly less than what you'd expect from a "luxury" cruise line. Water glasses frequently went unfilled and you had to hunt around for someone to take your order or answer a question. The exception to that was for some reason the waitstaff was always there in a flash to whisk away your empty plate or glass - like there was a reprimand waiting for them if they left dirty dishes about but initial orders or refills were often slow to arrive. Other couples we met onboard talked about their past cruises on Regent or SilverSea and how the staff fell over themselves trying to serve you and worked hard to anticipate your needs rather than wait to be called upon. While service was not bad, per se...it just wasn't on par with other luxury brands or even some mainstream brands like Celebrity.
This brings me to the third major criticism and that was the food. The buffet was really disappointing as was the grill out by the pool. The food looked very nice and there was always good selection but it was also exceptionally bland and lacking flavor. Almost like salt and spices are forbidden in the kitchen. Several times we were let down by something that looked amazing only to be utterly tasteless. For example, the prime rib was very drab. How a kitchen can make a staple dish like prime rib boring and totally lacking in flavor is beyond me.
The main dining room was a bit better and we ate there most nights. Eventually we learned what things to avoid and how to ask for specific items we had had before. Most nights the menu followed a theme chosen by the chef. There were some rather odd choices some nights that really wasn't all that exciting, however you could always order a selection from the a la cart menu.
The daily wine selections were usually pretty good and we never felt the need to buy the special bottles listed at considerable upsell prices. We had the Premium beverage package which was adequate for our needs but you could see there are some shennanigans going on with the way liquor selections are structured. It's all intended to get you to go with the Ultimate package instead at $22/day. For us it wasn't worth it and we just paid for the few top shelf drinks individually. The premium package includes all beers and most lower tier "well" spirits and mixed drinks which is fine for most people unless you have a specific liquor preference. Many specialty drinks like caipirinas, desert wines and top shelf liquors are excluded and require separate purchase at full price. It's a little confusing as to what drinks are part of which package and I believe this is intentional.
We only got to try the specialty restaurant once and we really liked it in spite of the $30 per person cover. Had we known before that the buffet and main dining would be so lacking we would have made reservations at Prime C or Agualina every night. Reservations filled up quickly however - especially for the last night at sea. Another intentional method to get you to upsell over and above what's included.
I booked a massage at the spa for the first sea day and it was very good. I was not expecting the sales pitch for their high priced lotions so just be aware that they'll try to sell you at the end. Also, spa services automatically include an 18% gratuity so don't feel pressured to add extra tip. Otherwise the spa is rather underwhelming and not worth the high prices. There's a special sun deck and hot tub just for spa patrons but I don't see how it's worth the extra price. The exercise room is just off the spa and while adequate for getting a workout in, there isn't much in the way of equipment. The usual treadmills, stationary bikes and nautilus-type weights.
We booked a guaranteed outside cabin and the room was fine. A little small of course but perfectly adequate. I should have splurged for a veranda instead but ultimately it was fine for our needs. With the extra time at sea and most of our time in port dedicated to excursions, we didn't spend a huge amount of time in the cabin anyway. Our stewards were fantastic and were like ninjas - always slipping in to replace towels and straighten up while we were out. They greeted us by name each morning.
We were assigned cabin 6004 which is an oversized outside stateroom at the very front of the ship on deck 6 port side. It is extra long which allows it much more space than usual - about the size of a typical hotel room. This is due to the space where the balcony is in the veranda staterooms is replaced with a large round picture window approx 4 feet in diameter. It creates a bit of a "fishbowl" experience but it was perfectly fine as we spent most of our time outside anyway. There is a small loveseat and coffee table in addition to the desk & chair. Plenty of room to move around and we were not bumping into each other except for in/out of the bathroom and around the bottom of the bed (which is the same layout for all other non-suite cabins).
Being at the front of the ship you definitely feet the movement - both up & down and side to side rocking. Might be worse on really rough seas. We could hear/feel rumblings down below when the boat pitched upward that I suspect were the stabilizers kicking in. It's a smaller ship so this was very common throughout the boat even in the aft dining room. My wife is prone to seasickness and was initially worried about the location, however she did not have any problems.
Other issue with the location was the noise from the anchor chains and vibration from the front thrusters when entering and leaving port. This was temporary however and we did not find it too bothersome except for it waking us up at 5am on the last day.
As our cabin was directly above the Cabaret Lounge on deck 5, we could hear the bass and drums during band practice and evening performances. This might annoy some people but we didn't really have any problem with it as the shows are rather short anyway.
There is a connecting door to the suite next door and we occasionally heard muffled voices thru the walls and from the hallway but somebody suggested putting a towel or bathrobe against the floor and this worked to block out both noise and light. Otherwise the cabin is very quiet, secluded and dark.
Bathroom is tiny and takes some getting used to with regards to maneuvering - especially the shower. The shower curtain clings to you but we found if you put the bottom edge of the curtain outside the stall (there is a groove in the floor leading to a drain outside the shower) then it helps to create some additional space. Not a lot of space to spread out so you have to be creative with storage. This is true on any cruise ship however.
Bed was super comfortable with nice linens and comforter. A/C was great and kept the temperature perfect. Closet organizer was efficient and adequate with plenty of storage. Mirrors and lighting was terrific.
Note to others...do NOT attempt to bring onboard any kind of travel iron or clothes steamer. Ours was confiscated from my wife's luggage upon embarkation. There was no mention of portable steamers being prohibited in the boarding documentation but they said they can set off the fire detectors. The self service laundry on deck 7 has ironing boards and irons as well as laundry supplies. The machines are free but limited so you have to be diligent and strategic about timing in order to get a load or two done ahead of others.
One other gripe...the onboard Internet was so slow it was almost completely useless. Thankfully we did not pay extra for this otherwise we would have been really upset.
Eric, our cruise director was fabulous and very funny. His "grandpa" jokes were groaners but perfectly pitched for the audience. He and the captain even formed a bit of a comedic duo on the daily announcements. You can tell Eric has a definite flair for Broadway showtunes as the music was decidedly tilted towards that genre. Overall the performances by the singers and dancers were very good and entertaining with a good mix of contemporary and traditional music. I'm sure some of the older crowds didn't fully appreciate the ABBA night show. The lounge pianist was charming and the trio band was pleasant. They played upstairs in the Living Room at night and by the pool during the day and at sail aways. It added to the overall pleasantness of the cruise. Nothing was offensive or too wild - nor was it just Perry Como elevator music either. It was a good balance of entertainment for the crowd which definitely skewed a little higher on the age scale than the brochures allude to.
The White Night party was held in port at Cienfuegos and it was the highlight of our trip. The food buffets were over the top and truly gluttonous. Lines were long - especially for the lobster tails but there was something for everyone. The music was fantastic and everyone's spirits were very high. Eric led an actual conga line around the pool area and had a very memorable duet with one of the passengers. It was really a great party and something to look forward to.
We ended up booking a couple of Azamara sponsored excursions and a couple independent trips on our own. In Santiago, we found a local taxi driver who took us to a couple of places like Castro's grave and the memorial to Jose Marti. We saw the changing of the guard at the national cemetery and had lunch in a local paladar with our taxi driver. We got to sit down and chat with him about the country and his life which was very interesting since his English was as limited as our Spanish.
In Cienfuegos, we opted for the excursion to the El Nicho waterfalls about an hour away. This involved a hike in the mountains over some pretty steep terrain although the views at the end were worth it. We also got to visit an artist commune and watched some interpretive dances which was strange to say the least.
Grand Cayman - we had been there before on a different cruise and there's really nothing else to do but go to the beach. We decided to walk which was a mistake in 90+ degree heat and humidity. We caught a bus back to the dock for $5 bucks.
We arrived in Havana Saturday night. We booked the show at the Cabaret Parisian rather than the Tropicana. From what we heard the Tropicana was probably a better choice but the shows are essentially the same. It was a late night however as the show didn't start until 10pm and we didn't get back to the ship until midnight.
Sunday we had arranged for a private tour guide through HavanaTourCompany.com. Our guide was awesome and even managed to deal with including a couple we met onboard at the last minute. We had a fabulous lunch in Old Havana then took a walking tour and convertible ride through the city and to Fusterlandia outside of the city where we bought some original artwork. We saw all the main sights and learned about the history, finishing up that night with dinner and a show at La Taberna. It's definitely worth it to use an independent tour guide in Havana and not go with the overpriced tours offered by the cruise line. You get better pricing, a customized itinerary and the guides are little more open to talking about their lives than the "official" government approved Havanatur.
Monday morning we did the coffee, rum and cigar factory tour. We visited the Partaga cigar factory (which makes 25 other brands like Cohiba and Montecristo). It was a literal sweat shop with 4 floors of un-air conditioned rooms and workers hand rolling cigars for pennies a day. We were then bussed around the city to several government shops to buy cigars and rum getting a bit of a guided tour along the way. Rum and cigars are the same price everywhere (state controlled) so don't feel pressured to buy them on the tours. We were warned not to buy cigars on the street however as there are no guarantees as to quality. It helps to know in advance what you're looking for in terms of brand, sizes and shape. Expect to pay approx 50% less than you can find authentic Cuban cigars elsewhere (Canada for example).
Originally the AzAmazing Evening was scheduled for our evening in Santiago but was changed at the last minute to our arrival night in Havana. Since we had already booked a show we ended up passing on this event. We heard it was rather interesting - a special ballet performance at the Grand Theater.
Overall, we were pleased with our first Azamara cruise and we even booked a second one to Alaska next July - this time with a balcony. We enjoyed our trip and would recommend it to others with the caveat that it all depends on your expectations going in. Some things were great compared to a typical cruise - most standard drinks are included as are tips. There are some areas where you still get nickle & dimed but it's not nearly as bad as the major lines. The smaller ship is a double edged sword - it's more intimate with much fewer passengers but it's also a rather boring ship with not a whole lot to do if you're the type that requires constant excitement. The demographics skew older with not a single child onboard. Most were in their 60's, 70's or 80's although there were a few younger gay couples as well.
The marketing material would have you believe that Azamara is a luxury cruise line - on par with other luxury brands like Regent, SilverSea or Paul Gaugin. In the end, it's a bit like first class on Delta or United Airlines...yes, it is a much better experience than flying coach but it's also no comparison to foreign carriers like Singapore or Emirates. Go in with the proper expectations and you'll have a great time. Read Less