Azamara Quest Norway Cruise – July 18 to August 1, 2015.
Why this cruise?
I had been told by a friend that the Norway cruise was a good one. This particular trip started with the chance to see the last day of the Open at St. Andrews Old Course, an event to be seized with all haste. In addition, we have heard good things about Azamara, and we very much like the small Renaissance ships. The idea of being in the cool North while getting away from July in Phoenix also had its appeal.
Azamara uses the “no formal nights – ‘smart-casual’ attire” rule used by Oceania, but we had some weather concerns. The forecasts were for days in the 60’s and nights a few degrees lower. We had booked several tours, including an all day trip to the North Cape, so warmth and rain protection was important. I therefore packed no shorts, and Edith included a good selection of pants suitable for both evening wear and providing warmth. We think we did pretty well. I brought my favorite blue blazer and one tie in addition to my favorite Zuni bolo tie. I also brought my Aran Island wool fisherman’s sweater, and a marvelous cashmere sweater purchased many years ago in Inverness, a nice Scots town at the north end of Loch Ness. They know how to keep you warm in Ireland and Scotland.
We flew non-stop to Heathrow and then to Edinburgh, staying in a hotel there for one night. So we showed up at the pier in Leith (about a $30.00 cab ride) at 11:30. Check-in was fast for us because we had booked a Continental Suite and had a priority line, but it seemed to move smoothly for everybody. Once on board we had to wait until 1:30 to get into our cabin, but used the time to get books from the lovely Deck 10 library, (called “The Drawing Room” on Azamara ships); and to have lunch in the Waves Café (buffet).
We chose a Continental suite because our prior experiences on these ships showed us that the standard veranda cabin is rather small, and the Continental Suite on Azamara, or Penthouse Suite on Oceania provided enough room.
When we walked into our stateroom, No. 8061, our reaction was – Wow! We soon found out why we had this response. It seems that Azamara is planning on upgrades of at least its Continental Suites, and ours was the prototype, the only one on this ship. The first impression was the “light”. Everything seemed white and bright, in contrast to the browns used in most cabins. The closets to the left as one entered were actually light brown, but the most striking feature was the “bureau-desk” arrangement stretching from the mini bar next to the closets to the veranda. The bureau portion was about six feet long, 18 inches high and about the same depth or slightly more. It was all white with some form of composition material on top. There were three deep drawers. About two-thirds of the way to the veranda, the desk portion started. It therefore was above the last drawer of the bureau portion so there was a covered, but open storage area. The desk was only about six inches deep until the final two feet or so. It had two wide, shallow desk drawers. It was also white, but the top had a glass surface. At the very end there were some light switches and electrical sockets at the front. There was a very modern desk lamp. There we a high backed desk chair, a small side chair, a round coffee table and a comfortable wing back chair against the back wall. The bed had a round small side table on one side and a larger square table on the other side. The bed had panels above as headboards, covered with a leather-like material with a raised pattern. More on this will follow. Every surface in this living area was white and the veranda went almost the entire width of the cabin, so the “light” effect was remarkable and delightful.
The bathroom was completely redone. Instead of the tub/shower of the regular Continental Suite there was a very roomy six foot long stall shower with beautiful marble walls, a well-directed main shower head plus a hand held shower. We were told that there had been a design error in that the shower floor was virtually flush with the bathroom floor with no lip to prevent water getting out, but we found that with a floor mat there was no real problem. We thought this to be the best shower ever on a ship. The single sink was a large square porcelain “vessel” sitting on a darker composition table, with a shelf underneath. There was a handy magnifying mirror on the wall and three long shelves to the side which had all the room needed for toiletries. The walls were marble, and the floor some kind of composition looking like grey wood.
The same grey floor was present in the entrance to the cabin up to the “living” area, where there was a nice carpet with an attractive abstract design. The veranda had three wicker arm chairs and a table high enough to serve as a dining table, although a Norwegian cruise does not invite al fresco dining, even if we were room service types.
The lighting system was excellent, and relatively easy to master. For example, there was an overhead light which was perfect for reading in the large arm chair. At the bedside there was a general area light, which actually emitted a small glow at night; and small “bullet” lamps that could be focused easily on a book for reading in bed at night, something we both do. The thermostat was adjustable, but the cabin never was very warm, and Edith’s feet were cold until she got back to the 110º of Phoenix.
As usual, we had no problem storing all our clothing and other belongings. We had a few conversations with senior staff concerning this stateroom, especially since we were asked to vacate it for a short period of time on Sunday afternoon, while still docked in Leith, so that the President and CEO of Azamara could lead a tour of our cabin for the benefit of some cruise tour providers! I was at the Open, so Edith was the subject of this request. Afterwards, when we were visited by the Hotel Director to thank us, we mentioned that we thought the cabin should have had a mirror over the desk for the benefit of Madame putting on her makeup. He agreed and said this would probably be corrected along with the shower issue. What we did not mention was the fact that the coffee table in the cabin was much too small for any true room service usage. Since we never use room service this did not occur to us at that time. This may not be easy to cure given the three chairs in that area. Oh well, not our problem.
What became our problem.
The fifth night out I was snoozing away when, at 2:30 A.M. I was awakened suddenly with something falling on my head with a crash! I struggled up with this object in my hands and managed to turn on the light. I discovered that a quarter panel of our “headboard” had fallen off the wall. Examination showed that this headboard was in four sections, each about three feet wide and two plus feet high, made of pressed wood about a ½ inch thick and cover on one side with a leather like material with some raised pattern portions. This was a substantial object which came down, and I was very fortunate not to have been hit with an edge, which would have been extremely damaging. There were four of these panels, and this was the upper panel. When we looked at the upper panel over Edith’s side of the bed, and touched it, it seemed loose. We thought we should take it down and it required very little effort to pull it off the wall. The panels clearly had been attached with glue only, and obviously not enough.
Since this was at 2:30 A.M., and we were safe and unharmed, and could not expect or need any help, we went back to bed. We called Guest Relations first thing in the morning, and they obviously did not understand what happened, probably because our stateroom was unique, and they sent up a carpenter with a hand drill to “fix” it. He took one look and sent for higher staff. The chief housekeeper showed up and was properly appalled. It was quickly determined that no attempt to reinstall would be made, so we spent the rest of the trip with missing upper panels, not something that interfered with our use or enjoyment of the room. I do have a picture of it however.
The Hotel Manager, Philip, showed up again with profound apologies and the assurances that the home office had been fully informed. Guest relations offered to provide a tour, but we had made our own private tour arrangements as usual, so this was of no value. Later I asked for and received additional computer usage minutes, but, as I noted when asking for them, this did not cost Azamara anything. We have been off the ship more than a week now, and still have had nothing in writing from Azamara by way of compensation for this near disaster. This is not good public relations, and a poor reflection on their stated desire to make everything a joy for their “guests”.
As we noted, we love these Renaissance ships. This was number 8, so the newest of all. Their design is, food aft – entertainment forward, very handy. From the top aft, on Deck 10 there are the two specialty restaurants and the Drawing Room. Forward is the Looking Glass Lounge providing a marvelous viewing room, with a dance floor and bar for activities. Deck 9 holds the Waves Buffet aft, the pool area and the Spa and Gym area, along with the computer room forward. Decks 8, 7 and 6 are all staterooms except for the complimentary self-service laundry on 7. Deck 5 has the main dining room with adjacent cocktail lounge aft. Proceeding forward there is the Mosaic Café; the two stores; the piano bar/lounge and the photo gallery; the Casino and the Cabaret, which is the main entertainment venue. Deck 4 has the Guest Relations area amidships, with the shore excursion desk, future cruise sales and concierge. There are also additional cabins and the medical center. Deck 3 has only access to the tenders or gangway as needed, although there is also gangway access on Deck 4 from the Guest Relations area. Altogether it is a compact and efficient design, although the passageway along the photo gallery could get crowded when the audience from the Cabaret shows exited.
The shipboard New York Times was delivered to our cabin as a suite perk, and we had 235 free internet minutes. The Times and international editions were available around the ship. The internet service was slow of course, but always available. Some TV stations were out of range at time, and generally the room television offerings were not much to entice long viewing. There were movies shown every day.
This is where Azamara Quest really shines. We have always felt that Crystal Cruises offers the best overall dining experience, and we still do. We also have greatly enjoyed Oceania’s Marina with its four imaginative and wonderful complimentary specialty restaurants. But if Crystal rates a 98, and Marina a 96, then Quest gets a 95. It may seem strange, but two very ordinary, homely menu items reflect this – potatoes and soups. Potatoes were served in the buffet for breakfast and lunch (and probably dinner also) and always were fresh and flavorful. I am of Irish ancestry and care about my potatoes. These were really something to look forward to. When they showed up on the dining room menus for diner, they were just as fine. The same can be said of the soups. There were always two at the lunch buffet and three, including one cold soup, in the dining room at night. They were always rich, flavorful and hot. We talked to the buffet maître’d about this and he described how they were made with a long cooking process from rich stock to extract all the possible flavors and rich variety of taste. This is how soup should be crafted.
Edith, a vegetarian, was generally delighted with the offerings in this category, especially the wide choice available for lunch at the buffet. The only mild disappointment I felt was, oddly, with the filet mignon served with the “turf and surf” choice in the main dining room. It was comparatively tasteless compared to the lobster accompanying it, and the other entrees experienced on the balance of the trip. The breakfasts were up to the high level of the better cruises with a good selection of fruits for me and a number of hot items like mushrooms, beans, and potatoes which Edith loved. The coffee unfortunately was not that good, but we have seldom found good coffee in the buffets on any ship.
The evening dinners at the Waves Buffet usually had an ethnic food theme; everything from Vietnamese to Middle Eastern to French to Tex-Mex. We went to this last, and found it very good, with a decent selection of offerings.
The officers and crew
It should first be noted that the passenger to crew ratio is 1.9 to 1. Anything below 2 is very good and shows a commitment to serving the passengers. This was apparent in the very quick room makeup and the generally excellent service in all the dining areas. In addition, the overwhelming majority of the crew was very friendly and helpful. The Hotel Manager, Philip, set the tone with his presence all over the ship, friendliness and generally pleasant attitude. The ship’s master, Captain Jose, also put in frequent appearances, and was very approachable and willing to enter into conversations. When I expressed one concern to the Cruise Director, Russ, he dealt with it quickly. The ship’s overall appearance was excellent, with cleaning and maintenance an obvious priority.
We would cast ourselves as a tough audience when it comes to shipboard entertain-ment, but we felt that Azamara did a pretty fair job, given the space limitations of the Cabaret Lounge. The usual “singers and dancers” were six in number, with two being only dancers, and the other four largely confined to singing. Their skill level was fairly high, and we enjoyed the fact that they kept the sound level to barely tolerable as contrasted to intolerable on some cruise lines. The choice of songs was decent. They performed four shows on a fourteen night cruise, which is a lot. We did walk out of one of the early shows, a male pianist who seemed to believe pianist skill was best demonstrated by pounding the instrument into complete submission. A female solo singer was good, as were a song and dance team. A second pianist doing mostly Broadway show tunes was quite good. We had a magician for two nights, and since I am a sucker for a magician, I enjoyed him thoroughly.
The Azamazing Evening was Sunday night in the port of Leith before sailaway. I did not attend as I was tired from attending the Open at St. Andrews. But Edith and all we talked to who attended it were delighted with a tour of a castle providing lots to see, plenty of bagpipe music and spectacular fireworks.
I should note that Russ, the cruise director, had been a stage production singer for many years, and he joined the regular singers and dancers for two of their shows, with very pleasing results.
On board activities
With one exception, this was quite dismal. The destination lecturer, Charles Richardson, was very good, with informative presentations about Norway and geology. We did feel that scheduling two of his talks at 9:00 in the morning was not a good idea, since it meant getting up very early for breakfast on a sea day when that would not normally be required. He did mention needing the Cabaret Lounge for rehearsals, but some forethought could have come up with better timing.
The rest of the activities were a waste of time as far as we were concerned. They consisted of mainly of trivia games, bingo and pitches for the spa and art auction. Azamara need serious work in this facet of shipboard offerings.
Ports of Call and shore excursions
Bergen. We had arranged for a local tour beginning with a boat trip to another town with a museum. Unfortunately, we were a little late in docking and could see no transportation available to get us to our debarkation point by 8:50, so this was a loss.
My ability to walk any distance is limited, so Edith went ashore herself and walked around the area near the ship. She reported it as a pleasant town.
Flåm. The main attraction in this town is the railway journey into the mountains. The tour offered by the ship filled quickly, as did one other tour run by a local company, and I thought we might be out of luck. But the Norwegian Railway reserves some tickets and they are not available until 90 days prior to the use date. So I went on the railroad’s web site 90 days prior and purchased 2 tickets with no problem. The on-line cost per person was $81.50, while the Azamara price was $169.75 per person, more than twice as much. It was a very pleasant trip providing a great introduction to Norwegian mountain scenery. The grade is very steep, and you go up over 2400 feet in a comparatively short distance. After our return we visited the small museum attached to the souvenir store and were impressed by how much work and time went into the construction.
The reason for this destination is the very spectacular fjord, quite deep and comparatively narrow, with the Seven Sisters waterfall along the way. We had bought very reasonable tickets on a local tour in a boat that holds about 200 people. It provided frequent stops which gave us a great many fine photo opportunities in a 90 minute circuit. This was a tender port, with a number of other ships visiting, but the tender trips were fast and easy since the fjords are very calm.
Svolvaer-Lofoten Islands – Troll Fjord
This is a small town, but we had rented a car and with another couple drove about 50-60 miles south on this island which has a fjord on one side and the North Sea on the other. The car rental, with gas, cost about $120.00 for two couples, so we got to see a lot for very little, since the trip down and back took about 5 hours. There were a number of spots providing wonderful views, and at the south end there was a small harbor with a Norwegian Coast Guard cutter docked. We managed to find a spot with coffee and pastry, and generally enjoyed being on land all day and seeing real Norwegian living.
After departing Svolvaer the Captain took us into the Troll Fjord, about 2 hours away. This is a very narrow passage, and while we were not quite able to touch the sides of the mountain as hinted by the Cruise Director, we were within a few feet. This was quite entertaining. When we reached the end of the fjord the Captain did a 360º turn, within the ships length, by using the bow thrusters and stern thrusters in opposite directions. Since Quest is only 593 feet long, it could do this but I doubt that many other cruise ships would be able to accomplish such a maneuver. In fact, while we saw a number of other ships in several ports, they all seemed less than 75,000 gross tons – none of your massive floating hotels. It is not the depth of the fjords that limits ships, they are all quite deep; it is the narrow quarters.
Tromsø is a good sized city of more than 70,000 people, partly on an island and partly on the mainland with a bridge connection. It has a number of attractive buildings. I stayed on board, but Edith walked through the town up a hill to a pleasant lake surrounded by nice homes. The weather was very mild, and she said that this was one town she would like to visit for a few days. It has an airport capable of handling jet flights to Bergen and Oslo.
This is the gateway to the North Cape, the northernmost mainland point in Europe at 70º10” North. Six of us rented a car and first proceeded to the Bird Safari located on the west side of the peninsula. This provided a 90 minute sea tour through neighboring islands, in a boat holding about 60 people, for the purpose of seeing the nesting places of a wide variety of sea birds, and photographing them. They included cormorants, gannets, puffins and Norwegian eagles which is about the size of the bald eagle, with grey markings, and the classic raptor flight. We also saw seals, but they were difficult to photograph against the rock backgrounds. The boat provided complete waterproof coveralls, which kept us totally warm and dry, although the weather was basically good. This was a good trip, which cost us $80.00 per person on line; but $264.75 on a ship’s tour. We then drove up to the North Cape itself, about another 30 miles. There is a 225 NOK ($28.00) per person entrance fee which lets you into a modern building with a cinema room featuring a 20 minute film about the Cape, a small Thai museum commemorating the 1907 visit of the King of Siam to the cape, a small chapel, a large souvenir store and a buffet restaurant featuring reindeer stew. There was an outside area leading up the Cape itself. It was extremely windy, with some rain, and we felt that the high fence was necessary, but we could see the neighboring capes and get a sense that we really were at the top of Europe. We then drove back to the ship. The cape area has no trees, and is quite barren, but we passed several reindeer herds, and were thrilled when one herd, stags, does and fawns decided to cross immediately in front of us while we stopped to let them by and had a good look at these very attractive creatures. The fawns are dark brown, which makes them highly visible, while the adults are a soft dun color.
Our stop in Honningsvåg was from 10:00 A.M. to 10:00 P.M, and we would have had a midnight sun if it had not been cloudy, but it still was light out at midnight. Our car rental was $26.00 apiece, so the total day was $132.00 per person. The ship’s tour of the North Cape was $179.75. per person. This meant a total of $444.50 compared to our cost, and we had the freedom to take as much time as we wanted, and travel in a nice small van while saving over $300.00 apiece - $600.00 per couple! Altogether, we were delighted with this adventure.
This did not work out well. I had booked a tour of one of the few attractions at this stop, the Briksdalen Glacier, for a five hour van tour. I was a little concerned when I received no response to my request for an e-mail telling us where we would make contact. The firm I dealt with was called “Porttrips International” which still has a website. I had paid for 8 people by credit card, and received checks from the three couples joining us. When we walked off the ship, there was no Porttrips vehicle in sight in the very small dock area. We walked into the small town (about four stores) and back, and contact with the locals told us no one had heard of this company. We had little choice but to take either a local bus up to the glacier for a quick round trip tour, or take a small ”train” trolley with two small open cars around a local lake for 150 NOK, about $18.00. We chose this option which took about 80 minutes and was quite pleasant. The good news is that my credit card company has issued me a full credit, and my fellow passengers have all been reimbursed.
The passengers taking a ship provided bus directly to the airport seemed to do quite well; while those of us taking taxis had a wait, mostly spent on board with trips outside to check the line for cabs. There were seven cruise ships docked in Copenhagen, but Azamara seemed to have the pier closest to town, which was nice. When we got our taxi the fare to our hotel in central Copenhagen, near the Tivoli Gardens and main railroad station, was less than $10.00.
Reflections and Miscellaneous
Norway is a pleasant, very scenic country, with a population that by and large speaks excellent English. While it has the fourth highest standard of living in the world, there is no great display of wealth and little of poverty. There is a lot of graffiti, which surprised Edith. We were surprised by the fact that homes were scattered all along the fjords, seemingly far from anything. While some remote farms were abandoned, most of these homes were served by roads with regular auto and truck traffic. All the homes appeared to be in excellent condition, and the neighborhoods well cared for. Everyone we spoke to or dealt with was very pleasant and helpful. If one can deal with the dark, cold winters, it is a fine country to live in.
Our fellow passengers were mostly American, with the usual leavening of our northern neighbors from Canada, and a fair representation of New Zealanders and Australians. There were few Germans, perhaps because it is easier for them to cruise on ships based on the continent. And the English travel on Fred Olsen and P&O cruise lines. Most passengers were in the retired age bracket, but there were others and three or four teen-agers.
Was this a worthwhile trip? I felt so although Edith was perhaps not as enthusiastic. There were times when it was a bit boring, and the fjords have a lot of similarity. But I felt it was so unique and beautiful that a bit of repetition was acceptable. I would recommend this cruise, and Azamara has a lot to offer; a neat small ship, really excellent food, great service and friendliness. If the activities are weak, and the standard veranda cabins on the small side, these defects can be tolerated. So my overall rating would be 4+.
Bon Voyage! Read Less