INTRODUCTIONI have cruised a total of 55 times on almost all lines save acouple of the ultra luxury ones. In 2007 the wife and I sailed on a 15day Oceania Insignia crossing. Later in 2007 RCL Ltd launched theAzamara line by acquiring and ... Read More
INTRODUCTIONI have cruised a total of 55 times on almost all lines save acouple of the ultra luxury ones. In 2007 the wife and I sailed on a 15day Oceania Insignia crossing. Later in 2007 RCL Ltd launched theAzamara line by acquiring and refitting two "R" class ships ostensiblyto compete with the three virtually identical ships currently operatedby Oceania. There has been enormous interest, particularly on the partof Oceania aficionados, in how the Azamara experience shapes usagainst Oceania. Having now sailed both I was able to draw somecomparisons.EMBARKATIONWife and I hopped on an overnight bus in Rio de Janeiro where wereside for the 6 hour ride to the embarkation port of Santos. Giventhe normally heavy traffic it can sometimes take more than 2 hoursjust to travel the 60 miles by bus from Sao Paulo's Guarulhos airportto the pier in Santos. We figured we could save time and hassle if wetook the bus to Santos directly and avoided airport check in, taxisand transfers, etc.At the Santos bus terminal we hailed a cab for the 15 minuteride to the pier. As we arrived at 7:00 a.m we opted to drop off ourluggage and continue in the taxi for a tour of the area, principallythe neighboring beach town of Guaruja. In contrast to Santos, Guarujais a charming, upscale resort popular with well to do Paulistas. Nexttime we arrive way early for a Santos embarkation we will spend timeon the beaches of nearby Guaruja. You may want to consider that too.After the usual hassle with the cab driver over the agreed fareit was back to the ship's terminal where we had to wait almost 2 hoursto board despite having been promised by Azamara reps that boardingwould start an hour sooner. Though I am normally impatient I havelived in Brazil long enough to know that getting things done here canoften take longer than anticipated, especially since this was thefirst time Azamara was embarking in Santos. We browsed the fewterminal shops until the embarkation desk opened. We were among thefirst to check in so there were no lines. William, manager of thePrime C specialty restaurant, had set up a separate desk where all paxwere required to make a dining room reservation for the first night, awell meaning effort to avoid an unmanageable crunch at any of thedining venues on night one. In point of fact, perhaps because we tendto dine after 8:30, we never had to wait more than a minute or two tobe seated in Discoveries, the main dining room, or either of thespecialty restaurants. That the ship was sailing with less than 500pax, (70% capacity) no doubt also facilitated seating.CABIN AND BUTLERWe made our way to our aft SSV cabin without benefit ofchampagne cocktail or assistance, neither of which matter to us thoughit might to some. This was our first time in an aft veranda which wechose because of the oversized balcony, its only distinguishingfeature. We weren't much concerned with excessive movement while atsea because on this itinerary the Journey would be hugging the shoreand sailing up river in Buenos Aires. After several hefty markdownsfrom the original price at which I booked, the cabin finally wound upcosting us $3240 which I consider a real bargain; however, I don'tthink the extra size of the SSV balcony justifies a significant pricepremium primarily because both adjoining verandas are completelypartitioned by metal walls which together with the prominent overhangtends to create a boxed-in sensation. The regular verandas on my deckappeared sufficiently spacious to comfortably accommodate a diningtable and two chairs for those who want to dine on their veranda.Shortly after freshening up we toured the ship. As expected thelayout is virtually identical to the Oceania Insignia and similarlywell appointed. We returned to our cabin to find our bags had arrived.While we were unpacking our butler, Natasha, neatly attired in atuxedo like uniform, entered to welcome us and explain her function.This was our first butlered cabin so I was eager to hear thedescription of her duties. Aside from shining shoes, makingreservations in the specialty restaurants and delivering afternoonsavories to the cabin, I could not distinguish her duties from thoseof the typical cabin steward. We are ordinarily low maintenancepassengers so any services supplementing the usual cabin stewardservices are superfluous for us. As it turned out I assigned Natashaseveral extra chores which she cheerfully undertook with only the mostfleeting of quizzical glances at me. Natasha (and her assistant)performed all routine and not so routine tasks well and always with anengaging sense of humor.The cabin itself held no surprises. The bed, e.g., firm paddedmattress, high thread count sheets, and feathered/down pillows wereall first rate and super comfy just like those on the Insignia. Thebathroom shower was a bit small and the water pressure a bit low, butneither to the point of inconvenience. The robes and towels wereplush. We appreciated the binoculars, umbrella and especially the handheld hairdryer in the vanity desk. The table and chairs on the verandawere more comfortable than expected. There was one significantproblem, a malfunctioning air conditioning unit. The wall thermostatdid not properly regulate the temperature and, worse yet, the ceilingunit occasionally made a loud noise that lasted several minutes. Idelegated oversight of the repair to Natasha. After the ElectricalDept failed to fix it in a couple of tries, at my urging I think shefinally invoked the aid of the Chief Engineer. Anyway, it got repairedafter a few days.SERVICEThe outstanding feature of the on board experience was thewonderful attitude of all staff and crew. While they may not havealways hit the mark, every single person I encountered sincerelyendeavored to please as much as possible. This excellent attitudefacilitated acceptance of the occasional shortcomings in food, tableor room service, guest relations service, etc. The eagerness to pleaseand to improve so permeates the ship that one can easily foresee theoverall Azamara cruise experience getting even better in thenear future.In fact, many managers were new arrivals. I was informed that theHotel Mgr had boarded less than a week before we sailed. He was anextremely affable and apparently very capable guy. The home officeExec Chef, Tomas Symanski, was also newly aboard to revise the menuswhich are, in deed, in need of revision particularly in the specialtyrestaurants. I think the Cruise Director, Andrea Oliveti, was alsorecently transferred from the Azamara Quest. They and the F&B andDining Room Mgrs were all very intent on upgrading the food andservice. All of these senior officers hosted a group of CCers at whichmany issues were discussed and considered. I think the opinion of themajority of those present was that our expectations were beingexceeded, perhaps because expectations had been tempered by widespreadnegative criticism at the inception of the company's operations.DININGUnlike Oceania, Azamara charged a $20 and $25 cover for extravisits to specialty restaurants, Aqualina and Prime C respectively(penthouse occupants got two freebies, all others got one). Azamarahas announced that this surcharge is soon to be eliminated and eachpax will be entitled to one additional specialty restaurant meal.With the exception of the Windows Cafe buffet on deck 9 (wow,what a breakfast!) I did not think the food was as good as what I hadexperienced on Oceania's Insignia, but certain dishes at each of thedining venues were very good, a few excellent. The roasted sea basswhich I ordered in Discoveries on the first night was up there withthe best fish dishes I have ever tasted and had me thinking the foodwas going to rival that of the Insignia, a notion which got dispelledas time wore on. In Aqualina a seafood bouillabaisse was to die for.On the negative side the lobster newburg was the only lobster dish oneither specialty restaurant menu (actually it's only on Aqualina's,but as they share the same kitchen you can order off either menu). Itwas tasty, but I would have preferred to have had a choice of asimpler lobster preparation. Large scallops were delicious onenight, but on another in a different venue their delicate flavor wastotally obscured when presented on a bed of bacon. The duck breast inDiscoveries was as bad as the stuffed quails were good.Having lived in Buenos Aires for a couple of years and writtenan article on steakhouses for the local English language daily Iconsider myself something of a steak connoisseur. I did not think thesteaks were of sufficiently high quality in Prime C though I didn'ttry the so-called Kobe beef available for an $8 surcharge. Roast primerib was not on the menu and should be in a good steakhouse.Desserts were generally uninspiring throughout except at theWindows buffet where early in the cruise I came across a fantastic,dark chocolate mousse which, alas, I was never to see again. I'm surethe kitchen would have accommodated a request for more, but my wifereminded me of my promise not to overindulge in desserts so I left itto chance and as fate would have it I never saw that mousse again.Next time I am requesting it.I expect the Exec Chef will be working to achieve greaterculinary excellence throughout the ship. Hopefully, the company canpurchase better steaks and add more lobster to the menus in thespecialty restaurants. Timing in the kitchens and table service needsto be ratcheted up as well. I had fabulous service 3 of the 4 timeswe dined in the specialty restaurants as well as most nights inDiscoveries, but suffered mediocre service once in each place.By way of example how hard the company is trying to please theywere quite generous in offering "comps.". For instance, when inresponse to a query by our waiter in Prime C, we mentioned our mildcriticism of a steak, William, the manager, soon appeared and compedus for a return visit. Another time when our Discoveries waiterneglected to advise us in advance of the $25 corkage fee, a publicizedfee that I knew existed, the exuberant Dining Room Manager, Chaika,came over at the end of the meal and removed the charge on the groundswe were not expressly advised in advance - I didn't have the heart toundermine his generosity by mentioning I knew about the fee. Finally,as a gesture of thanks for a small favor wife and I did, providingsome info on Rio, we were comped at Aqualina by the F&B Mgr. It'sdifficult not to enjoy yourself when those kinds of thingscontinuously occur.For breakfast we ordered light, continental style breakfasts viaroom service all but one day. In my experience room service is theweakest link in the food service chain on board, but the Journey roomservice crew did way better than most. They always arrived with almosteverything at the appointed time. Once late in the cruise they optedto come at 7:00 am instead of our customary 8:30 when I neglected tojot down the time we wanted our breakfast served. I assume the blamefor that although 7:00 was a bit curious in light of our known custom.Okay, I'm nitpicking.The weather forced us up to the deck 9 breakfast buffet once andI was amazed at the selection of nicely prepared items available, notthe least of which was a juice bar from which you could order almostany fruit/veggie concoction imaginable. Given that sumptuous breakfastbuffet I'm glad I avoided temptation by opting for the continentalbreakfast on our veranda.For lunch we either ate at the deck 9 buffet which was absolutelyfirst rate or indulged in a hamburger with fries or salad at thepoolside grill. I didn't like the franks, but the burgers were prettygood even though well done is mandatory. Cheese, bacon and sauteed mushroomscan compensate for the lack of rareness. I would also have preferrednot to have had to cope with those tiny plastic bags of ketchup,relish, mustard, etc. My dexterity isn't what it used to be and it'sdarn annoying trying to tear open a whole bunch of those bags to squeeze outtheir minuscule contents. I neglected to write that on my comment card.Maybe someone who agrees with me can do so in the near future. I wasdisappointed with the pizza, but I'm always disappointed with pizza atsea having grown up in New Jersey and NYC's little Italy. I think ithas to do with the lack of crispiness in the pre-baked dough and theblandness of the tomato "gravy." Lemonade, iced tea, fruit punch andcoffee were always available from dispensers located in the buffet andnear the poolside grill.ENTERTAINMENT AND SHIPBOARD ACTIVITIESThe Journey's showroom/ theater is, like the other R ships,without a raised stage. Consequently, it's more intimate than thetypical large ship showroom and well suited to the cabaret showsperformed by the Journey cast of five singers and dancers. Theypresented three very entertaining shows during the 12 night cruise. Iwas impressed with the quality of the talent although I thought theshows' production values (staging, lighting and costumes) could havebeen better. I didn't catch much of the other showroom entertainmentthough my Brazilian wife told me the young group of Brazilian dancersthat performed when we were ported in Itajai were very good. Theorchestra was one of the better ones I have heard on ships although Iwould have liked more pre-dinner dance opportunities. The talentedband that played poolside made a lot of music for a trio.Andrea Oliveti was a capable, good natured cruise director. Hisequally good natured staff conducted numerous activities throughouteach day maintaining a cheerful enthusiasm even whenattendance was less than SRO. I was taken back when only 4 peopleshowed up for a mid-morning trivia session. Boy, what a bunch of couchpotatoes. Unfortunately, there was little in the way of enrichmentlecture. Wife and I even briefly manned an orientation desk to providetips on Rio a day before we ported there.The library (aka Michael's Club) had an honor system checkout andwas open all hours. I would have liked to have seen a better stockedlibrary - I could not find a single travel book. I believe tea wasserved there in the afternoon ( I never ventured to events featuringmore food). There is a piano in the room and I understand it was usedduring tea. In any event I wonder why tea service and the piano cannot be relocated to the large forward Looking Glass lounge (like it ison the Insignia) so that the library can be maintained as an oasis ofquiet.In addition to the piano player, there was a guitar playerperforming in the evenings near the casino entrance on deck 5 as wellas a harpist who performed near the Cova Cafe on deck 5 (a spot wherespecialty coffees and drinks were available for a charge). I confess Idid not catch their acts except in passing, but the guitarist wasBrazilian and sounded pretty accomplished. Each of the musicians hadtheir own small group of devotees.The internet connection aboard ship was so notoriously slow thatthe computer room was hardly ever occupied except for the occasionalfree class offered by the host. Pay TV programming was available inthe cabin. I am not a fan of pay TV movie programming, but if it helpsto hold down the base cruise price I guess I can suffer through thealternative non-pay movie programming that existed. A few almost firstrun movies and selected classics were rebroadcast several times everycouple of days and, of course, there was ESPN and the annoyinglyrepetitious CNN. The TV had an interactive service enabling one to reviewhis shipboard account, purchase excursions and check restaurantreservations, etc.The gym in the spa contained more than an adequate number ofelliptical machines, treadmills and stationary bikes in addition to abrand new assortment of cable machines and free weights for usbodybuilder types. I never had to wait to use a piece of equipment andI worked out 1.5 times per day. There were spinning classes andperhaps other classes, but I' m not a "class" guy so I wasn't fullyaware of schedules or cost, if any. Wife and I got haircuts,manicures, pedicures, etc. before leaving on the cruise and did notuse the spa so I can not opine on the quality of those and the otherservices offered. There was a room designated for acupuncture whichmight be of interest to some.The casino was appropriately (Insignia-sized) small. It containeda bunch of slots, a roulette and a couple of blackjack tables and alarge, hi-tech, automated Texas hold'em poker table that will soon bereplaced in view of its failure to attract players.PORTS AND EXCURSIONS
The itinerary for this cruise consisted of Buenos Aires, Itajai,Paraty, Rio de Janeiro and the return to Santos. The ship departedSantos on Thursday, Nov 29 and made its first port of Buenos Aires onSunday, Dec 2. We sailed away from BA the same night. That was ascheduling error. Compounding that we also arrived in Rio de Janeiroon the following Sunday and departed Rio on Monday afternoon. Both BAand Rio are world class cities and arriving on a Sunday when so manyof the things to see and do are closed is unwise. Conversely, afterleaving Buenos Aires we overnighted in the small southern Braziliantown of Itajai apparently so that the ship could run an overnightexcursion to the falls of Iguazu for a small (30) group willing to payabout $1400 pp. This type of scheduling should be avoided on futureruns in these waters.I have not gone on a ship excursion for many years preferring tofend for myself. In Itajai, we paired up with another couple from theship and hired a taxi to take us to the German colonial town ofBlumenau located about an hour from port. Itajai has some prettybeaches close to the pier, but it rained the next day so we cancelledour outing to the beach. The Journey tendered passengers ashore inParaty, a picturesque colonial town located 140 miles from Rio. Tiedup at the pier where the passengers alighted were dozens of schoonerships of various capacity. For R$20 ($12) one could purchase a 5 hourschooner trip that included time for swimming and snorkeling among thenumerous islands that dot the Brazilian coast. Be sure to leave acouple of hours for shopping along the town's cobblestone streets.Paraty is an artsy, craftsy place.CONCLUSIONIn view of the spectacular effort by all staff and crew toplease, this cruise was delightful even if some things were notabsolutely perfect. The minor inconsistencies in service are sure tobe eliminated given the obvious concern by all senior officers toachieve excellence. It is hoped that the on board presenceof the line's Executive Chef portends a revision of the menus and animprovement in the quality of the food offerings particularly in thespecialty restaurants. When that happens the Journey will offer anoverall cruising experience very comparable to that which we enjoyedon the Oceania Insignia. Let's face it, because of a weak US dollar,the relative high cost of land travel throughout the world makescruising on a ship like the Journey a darn good value.