A Passage from India: Azamara Journey Cruise Review by BobTroll

Azamara Journey 4
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A Passage from India

Sail Date: April 2014
Destination: Middle East
Embarkation: Mumbai (Bombay)
We booked this cruise from Mumbai to Athens as a complete package, which included a pre-cruise land tour of the “Golden Triangle” of India - with visits to New Delhi to Agra (for the Red Fort and the Taj Mahal) and Jaipur. More than 120 passengers from the United Kingdom and Australia chose this tour - and we travelled in five, air-conditioned coaches.

There was so much to see, so this review is very lengthy. Consequently, I have divided it into the following sections. Please skip any parts you find uninteresting.

Section 1 - The itinerary (brief outline)

Section 2 - Our accommodation in India

Section 3 - Aboard Azamara Journey

Section 4 - Our land tour in India

Section 5 - Our itinerary and ports of call

Section 1. The itinerary (brief outline):

April 9th Overnight flight from London to New Delhi.

April 10th & 11th Two nights at the Taj Palace Hotel in New Delhi, with guided tours of New More and Old Delhi.

April 12th Transfer by road to Agra. Overnight at the Radisson Blu Hotel. In Agra. Guided tours included the Red Fort and the Taj Mahal.

April 13th & 14th Transfer by road to Jaipur. Two nights at the Radisson Blu Hotel, Jaipur. Guided tours included Amber Fort and the “Pink City”

April 15th Flight from Jaipur to Mumbai, where we boarded Azamara Journey.

April 16th & 17th Two days at sea

April 18th Fujairah, United Arab Emirates

April 19th to 24th Six days at sea

April 25th & 26th (am) Eilat, Israel

April 26th (pm) & 27th Aqaba, Jordan

April 28th At sea

April 29th Transit Suez Canal

April 30th Paphos, Cyprus

May 1st At sea

May 2nd Disembarked Azamara Journey at Piraeus. Transfer by road to Athens Airport. Flight from Athens to London.

Section 2. Hotel accommodation in India:

All of our hotels were advertised as 5-star establishments.

Our guide met us at New Delhi International Airport and we transferred to the Taj Palace Hotel at New Delhi, which really is a luxury hotel. Facilities included beautiful landscaped gardens, a nine-hole putting green, an outdoor swimming pool and a well-equipped fitness center. The hotel offered an excellent range of snacks and meals from four different restaurants, which were not outrageously expensive by Western standards (with the possible exception of the “Orient Express” cordon bleu restaurant).

We were tired and jet-lagged after our overnight flight from London, so we opted for light meals on our first evening in the hotel. Both dishes were beautifully cooked. The extensive buffet breakfasts were also excellent.

On our second evening, we travelled by taxi to the nearby Moti Mahal restaurant, which was recommended by the hotel concierge and is listed in the DK Eyewitness Top 10 guide book. Our meal of soup and a house specialty (butter chicken) was first class. The total cost for two people including water, G&Ts and beers and was only 3,600 rupees (approximately 36 GBP or US$58). We paid an additional 300 rupees (approximately 3 GBP or US$5) for the round trip by taxi, including waiting time and a tip.

Facilities, food, comfort and attentive service at the Taj Palace were faultless - and we would happily return to this lovely hotel.

It might be difficult for other establishments to match the standards of the Taj Palace but even so, the Radisson Blu hotels at Agra and Jaipur were unacceptable. Although our rooms were comfortable and well equipped, the meals and service were sub-standard.

Our buffet dinner in the Radisson Blu at Agra, which included various local dishes, cost 800 rupees. Unfortunately, most of the food was tepid and my serving of mutton rogan josh was mainly bones with very little meat. Coffee, which had been stewing for ages, was undrinkable. Some of the “waiters” were inexperienced trainees and appeared to be unsupervised. The buffet breakfast was unexceptional.

The Radisson Blu hotel at Jaipur is close to the airport, so it is a long way from the city center. Our bedroom overlooked a shanty town, occupied by roaming beggars and feral urchins. The occupants of the shanty town were burning garbage and the resulting smoke was most unpleasant.

Following our arrival at the Radisson Blu, we learned that the hotel restaurant had been reserved for another group. So if we wanted to eat at the hotel, we would have to order from room service. That was unacceptable, so eight of us walked to a nearby restaurant, Barbeque Nation. Each table had built-in charcoal grills, where we cooked meat, fish and vegetable kebabs. Barbeque Nation was spotlessly clean and the restaurant was very busy. We were able to grill our own kebabs, so we had no concerns about hygiene and were able to ensure everything was thoroughly cooked.

For our second evening in Jaipur, our tour guide took the entire group to the Spice Court, which displays a Trip Advisor certificate of excellence. Our Times of India guidebook described the restaurant as “a supreme multi-cuisine restaurant which offers the best in hospitality, ambience and entertainment”.

Elaine must adhere to a gluten-free diet, so we opted for a buffet meal. However, our tables were situated on a terrace in the open-air, with no sign of any self-service buffet. Waiters emerged sporadically from the kitchen to deliver tepid bits and pieces - including pasta, which is not gluten-free. Other passengers, who ordered from the a la carte menu were happier with their meals. However, there was a brief thunderstorm, so we had to move indoors. After our meal, we returned to the terrace to watch an Indian dancer. However, our evening at Spice Court was not a great success.

The following morning, the Radisson Blu hotel provided a cold buffet breakfast. Then, we transferred to the airport for an early morning flight to Mumbai, where we boarded Azamara Journey.

Shortly after boarding the ship, some passengers from our group succumbed to gastro-intestinal illnesses. The ship’s medical team collated details of their previous movements, which suggested that all of the victims had consumed contaminated food or drink in India. However, it was impossible to identify the precise source of the infection - and not everyone had dined at Spice Court.

Section 3. Aboard Azamara Journey

Eight “R Class” ships, which were commissioned by the former Renaissance cruise line, are still in service. Azamara Journey and Azamara Quest (Azamara Club Cruises), Pacific Princess and Ocean Princess (Princess Cruises), Adonia (P&O Cruises), Insignia, Nautica and Regatta (Oceania Cruises) are virtually identical - and can accommodate around 700 passengers.

We love these little ships and this was our third Azamara cruise. We have also cruised many times on Pacific and Ocean Princess and on P&O’s Adonia. .

Azamara occupies a niche market and advertises cruises as “More Inclusive”. Principal differences from the major cruise lines include:

Superior service

The officers adopt a very high profile.

Unusual itineraries, with late departures or overnight stays at many ports

Complimentary wines from boutique wineries in all restaurants and bars

Complimentary alcoholic drinks from a selected range

Bottled water and most non-alcoholic drinks are complimentary

Relaxed dress code with no formal or black tie evenings.

Shuttle buses between ship and town are usually free of charge

Gratuities are included in the cruise fare

Less “hard sell” than other cruise lines

“R Class” ships do not have a conventional theatre, so most of the entertainment is delivered in the Cabaret Lounge.

Production shows relied upon a small cast of singers and dancers, accompanied by live music from the orchestra. Some cruise lines rely upon pre-recorded music and have reduced the numbers of live musicians. Azamara Journey employed a seven-piece orchestra.

The shows included dazzling displays by the professional dance instructors, Sasha Antonova and Dima Levita. We were impressed by the standard of their dancing, which was as good as anything we have seen on TV (“Strictly Come Dancing” or “Dancing with the Stars”).

Guest performers included:

Ricki Jay - an English comedian with a brash style and a quick wit, which seemed to appeal to many of the Australian and British passengers.

Paul Fredericks - a “big man with voice and personality to match”

Ryan Rubek - a singer from New York

A belly dance show at Fujairah (on the ship’s pool deck)

Naomi Edemariam - a concert pianist who delivered two superb piano recitals from her wide repertoire, ranging from Gershwin to Chopin, Liszt and Mozart

Kaitlyn Carr - a talented Scottish musician. Kaitlyn sang and played a selection of haunting “Celtic Sounds” on penny whistle, flute and Celtic fiddle.

Mel Mellers - an English magician and illusionist, who combined his “magic” with very funny dialogue.

And last but not least, Cruise Director Eric de Gray, who is a human dynamo and arguably, one of Azamara’s greatest assets. His one-man show ran for over one hour, and earned a standing ovation. Eric is a modest gentleman, but he describes himself as a singing sensation. You can view extracts from a typical performance at www.youtube.com/watch?v=YtWtPssjlfs.

Guest speakers included thought provoking presentations by Dr. Richard Farkas (Professor of Political Science at DePaul University, Chicago) and a series of excellent enrichment lectures by Destination Lecturer, Michael Hick. However, Michael’s commentary, as we transited through the Suez Canal was monotonous and less inspiring.

Other activities included the usual trivia quizzes etc., which were too numerous to mention.

So what were the best aspects of our cruise on Azamara Journey?

Azamara Journey emerged from dry dock in January 2013, following a comprehensive re-fit. Although most cabins on R Class ships are smaller than on major cruise lines, everything is furnished to a very high standard. The new beds in the cabins - and sun-loungers around the pool are exceptionally comfortable. We particularly liked the delicately perfumed “About Rose” range of toiletries on Azamara (top quality products, which have replaced the previous Elemis range).

Captain Johannes Tysse (Norway) and his senior officers, Heike Berdos (Hotel Director), Tomasz Jadczyk (Food and Beverage Manager) and Eric De Gray (Cruise Director) adopted a very high profile and walked around the ship frequently, talking and listening to passengers.

Service standards were outstanding. Our cabin attendants worked in pairs and nothing was too much trouble. The complimentary shoe shine service was very useful, after dusty days ashore. And unlike on our recent cruise with P&O, the attendants replenished our fruit bowl every day and replaced the flowers, when they began to wilt.

After the first evening, the bartenders in the Discoveries Lounge remembered our preferences. So every time we visited the bar, two gins and tonics (without a lot of ice and not too strong) appeared as if by magic. Waiters in the restaurants greeted us by name.

The Fitness Centre was well equipped and Simon, the instructor, was excellent. The ship offered a good program of fitness classes and the absence of “nominal” charges (as imposed by many other cruise lines) was a welcome feature.

Meals and snacks in the Windows Cafe were excellent. Cooked and continental breakfasts were outstanding and the buffet menu always included English back bacon, two other types of bacon and two types of sausage. The omelet station cooked omelets and other egg dishes to order. Every morning, the juice bar offered a wide range of fruit smoothies (prepared to order) and the orange juice was always freshly pressed. Lunch and dinner options in the Windows Cafe were equally good.

Unlike many cruise lines, Azamara makes no charge for specialty teas and coffees in the restaurants and in the Mosaic coffee bar. We were very impressed by the quality of the wide range of complimentary wines. Our particular favorite was the 2012 Clifford Bay Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand.

There are no fixed sittings or table allocations on Azamara ships, and we never had to wait for a table in the Discoveries Restaurant (the main dining room). Azamara handle this aspect so efficiently that we do not understand why Princess Cruises and P&O Cruises can only offer conventional fixed sittings on their small ships.

Many passengers who toured India prior to boarding the ship at Mumbai suffered gastro-intestinal illnesses. Azamara implemented stringent hygiene precautions and the medical team worked tirelessly to provided treatment and medication. Victims were instructed to remain in their cabins and to telephone the Medical Centre immediately, irrespective of the time of day or night. Patients were invited to order meals from room service and Azamara waived the usual charges for in-room videos.

Medical Centers on some cruise lines charge fees for diagnosis and treatment of gastrointestinal problems. That policy deters passengers from seeking assistance and can conceal the extent of a norovirus or food poisoning outbreak. Treatment was free of charge on Azamara - and you could not fault the prompt and efficient way the Medical Centre handled the problem. Even so, it took almost two weeks to bring the outbreak under control.

Azamara’s loyalty program, Le Club Voyage, has the same structure as the Captain’s Club on Celebrity Cruises - so a voyage on Azamara qualifies for points with Celebrity and vice versa. However, rewards on Azamara are more generous than on Celebrity. For instance, the second (Explorer) tier offers a bottle of sparkling wine per cabin, two cocktail parties, 150 minutes of free Internet per person, and one bag of free laundry (wash and press) per cabin per week. Free laundry is a very useful benefit.

So what was not so good on Azamara?

Elaine must adhere to a gluten-free diet because as a coeliac, she must avoid anything that contains wheat, rye and barley. She was disappointed to discover that although the restaurants could provide pre-packed gluten-free sliced bread, there were no special pizzas, biscuits or cakes, etc. (items that are always available on Holland America, Princess and P&O).

On the rare occasions that a standard sauce or gravy contains wheat flour, other cruise lines always offer a gluten-free alternative. Azamara attempted to serve meat dishes without any sauce or gravy, until my wife protested. Fried potatoes from the pool grill were pre-packed and had a crisp coating, which was unsuitable for a gluten-free diet. Azamara Journey did not cater for medical diets as well as other “R Class” ships, operated by Princess Cruises and P&O Cruises.

The choice of desserts in the MDR was far too limited, with very few gluten-free options. Princess Cruises are happy to prepare special desserts to order. For instance, Elaine has enjoyed some lovely GF souffles on Princess ships. That option was not available on Azamara.

On many evenings, the only suitable dessert options were creme brulee (from the always available list), or sorbets and ice cream. Dessert choices in the Windows Cafe, which usually included several clearly labelled gluten-free options, were more comprehensive.

Some of the dinner menus in the Discoveries Restaurant (the main dining room) were disappointing. Menu planning lacked balance and flair and although we did enjoy some wonderful meals, choices on other days were far too rich and intricate. Two main courses went back to the kitchen virtually untouched, including pan fried lemon sole - which was billed as the “healthy option”, but was greasy and inedible. Very often, vegetable accompaniments were sauteed or stir-fried. Steamed vegetables would have been more attractive. One main course was accompanied by “stewed savoy cabbage with bacon”, which was revolting.

We always prefer waiter service at dinner time but on two evenings, we chose to dine in the Windows Cafe, because we did not fancy anything from the main restaurant menu. We had heard mixed reports about the quality of the food in the specialty restaurants so on this cruise, we decided not to pay extra to dine in Aqualina or Prime C.

Meals and menu choices in the MDR were not as good as on our two previous Azamara cruises. Furthermore (and I never thought I would say this), dinner menus and food quality during recent voyages on P&O Ventura and on Pacific Princess were better than on Azamara Journey.

We were also surprised that unlike Princess Cruises, Azamara Journey did not set aside a separate lounge with refreshments on disembarkation day, for members of their loyalty program.

However, those were our only disappointments and overall, this was still an excellent cruise.

Section 4 - The land tour in India

Our land tour involved an exhausting itinerary, with visits to countless tourist destinations. Consequently, this is an abbreviated description of the main highlights. Otherwise, this review would be even longer.

Day 1. - Following our arrival in New Delhi, we paid an afternoon visit to the Qutub Minar, which is an early Islamic monument. The 100 meter tower was built between 1192 and 1368 AD, using red sandstone and marble. The complex includes the Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque.

Day 2. - Our tour started with a visit to an area of New Delhi, India, which is named after the leading British architect Edwin Lutyens. We viewed the exterior of the President’s Residence and Parliament House and our bus passed the India Gate War Memorial. Then, we continued to Old Delhi, where we visited the Jama Masjid Mosque, which was commissioned by Shah Jahan (the Mughal emperor who built the Taj Mahal) and is the largest mosque in India. The Mosque also offered views over the Chandni Chowk market.

This was followed by one of the highlights of our tour, a ride by cycle rickshaw through streets of Old Delhi. The bustling streets, lined with shops, were too narrow for motor vehicles. The entire area was fascinating and the overhead electrical wiring defies description.

Following the rickshaw ride, we were taken to a carpet showroom. The sales pitch was interesting and the showroom served a snack lunch, washed down with cups of tea. Then we drove out of the city to Raj Ghat, the memorial and cremation site of Mahatma Gandhi.

Our final stop on this exhausting day was a visit to the magnificent mausoleum and tomb of the Mughal Emperor Humayun, set in gardens which included several other tombs and the Isa Khan Mosque.

We passed the Lodhi Gardens, on our way back to the hotel. However, our tour did not include the Red Fort in Delhi, because our guide told us that the Red Fort at Agra was more impressive.

Day 3. - After an early start, we drove to Agra, a dilapidated city with chaotic traffic, crumbling buildings, cattle roaming the streets and monkeys climbing the ruins.

Our first stop in Agra was the Red Fort, a 16th-century Mughal monument and UNESCO World Heritage Site. The vast sandstone city, which was founded in 1565 by Emperor Akbar the Great, was the imperial walled city of the Mughal rulers. It includes audience halls, two beautiful mosques and several palaces, built by Shah Jahan.

With time to spare, our guide arranged an extra visit to the Tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah, also known as the “Baby Taj”. The complex comprises a small mausoleum, set in gardens on the bank of river Yamuna. More monkeys were playing in the grounds.

As dusk approached, we visited the Mehtab Bagh gardens for a long distance view of the Taj Mahal (from the opposite bank of the river). We arrived eventually at the Radisson Blu hotel, after the sun had set.

Day 4. - This involved a very early start from the hotel. We travelled by bus to the nearby Taj Mahal Visitor Centre and transferred to electric vehicles for the final 2 km to the Fatehbad Gate of the Taj Mahal. We waited in line until the security checkpoint opened at around 6:30 am - and walked through the grounds to the Taj Mahal. Then, we covered our shoes with fabric covers and entered the interior of the mausoleum and its surrounding terraces. The colors of the white marble building changed, as the sun rose. I have not attempted to describe the Taj Mahal, because so much detailed information is readily available in guidebooks and on the Internet. However, early morning is probably one of the best times to arrange a visit.

We returned to our hotel for breakfast. Then, we were driven to Jaipur in Rajasthan, stopping en route at the ancient fortified city of Fatehpur Sikri - capital of the Mughal Empire between 1571 and 1585. As we approached Jaipur, our guide, who originated from Rajasthan, proudly advised us that his province is mainly mountains and desert. As if to emphasize this aspect, we passed herds of camels.

We arrived at the Radisson Blu hotel in Jaipur at around 6:00 pm

Day 5. - After a buffet breakfast at the hotel, we travelled through the Pink City of Jaipur. Our driver attempted to avoid road closures and political rallies (for the impending Indian general election). Bands and other performers in colorful uniforms were waiting to greet the visiting politicians.

We continued to Amber and upon arrival, we queued to ride up the hill on elephants. The Palace and Fort dates from the 16th century and is part of a magnificent hilltop area with a series of gates and cobbled paths within massive ramparts. It is far too extensive to describe in detail. Suffice to say, the Amber Palace and Fort is a vast complex with many gates, courtyards and elegant palaces - and lovely views over the Maota Lake.

Our visit was marred to some extent by armies of hawkers selling “tourist tat”, who refused to take no for an answer. Teams of photographers also lined the route, taking photographs of us on the elephants. Having explored the fort, we descended in a jeep with bald tires, chased by a photographer, who had failed to persuade us to purchase photographs at a reduced price.

Following our return to the Pink City, we were taken to a jewelry factory and showroom. From a personal viewpoint, this was a waste of time (although several members of our party seemed to enjoy the complimentary drinks). Then, we visited the former Palace of the Maharaja, which includes the City Museum. The museum displays handcrafted products, uniforms of the rulers and other historical relics relating to the heritage of the Royal Palace.

Our tour continued to the open-air Observatory, which was constructed in the 18th Century and comprises fourteen devices for measuring time, predicting eclipses, tracking planet locations, etc. The instruments, which were constructed from stone with bronze tablets, are said to be remarkably accurate.

Finally, we walked through nearby streets, with local shops and markets. Indian drivers sounded their horns, whenever traffic came to a halt. The incessant noise and fumes were unbearable, so we were pleased to escape to our bus and return to the hotel.

We enjoyed our visits to Delhi and the Golden Triangle but with hindsight, the intensive tour was far too brief and exhausting. If we return to India, we will arrange a longer tailor-made tour, interspersed by rest days.

India is not a suitable country for a DIY tour - so unless you are super-confident, the services of a professional guide are essential. Our guide, Mahendra Singh Johal (from SITA Tours) was excellent. He also protected us from the worst aspects of the beggars and hawkers - and attended to tipping and gratuities on our behalf. He also negotiated the prices of evening meals with the hotels and restaurants.

It is sensible for foreign visitors to India to stay in the very best luxury hotels they can afford. Even that precaution does not guarantee a trouble-free visit, because up to 60% of visitors from the West suffer from travelers’ diarrhea, usually within the first week of arrival. Consequently, visitors should adopt the following guidelines:

Avoid street food or places that appear dirty

Drink bottled or boiled drinks only

Use bottled water, even when you clean your teeth

Only eat fruit you can peel yourself

Avoid shellfish and salads

Ice cream and ice cubes may be contaminated

Be careful about hand washing

It is prudent to pack medication, just in case you suffer traveler’s diarrhea. Suitable drugs might include an anti-diarrheal (Loperamide); anti-sickness tablets (such as Avomine); rehydration salts and an antibiotic (such as Azithromycin or Ciprofloxacin).

Seek professional advice and make sure your vaccinations are up to date. And if your itinerary includes areas where Malaria is endemic, take appropriate precautions and anti-malarial medication.

Section 5 - Our itinerary and ports of call

The published itinerary included a visit to Safaga, Egypt. In view of safety concerns in Egypt, Azamara decided to divert to Eilat, Israel. Consequently, our revised itinerary became:

Mumbai, India (embarkation)

Fujairah, United Arab Emirates

Eilat, Israel (overnight stay)

Aqaba, Jordan (overnight stay)

Paphos, Cyprus

Piraeus, Greece (disembarkation)

Prior to our arrival in Fujairah, Azamara Journey sailed across the Indian Ocean and around the Horn of Africa, passing the coasts of Somalia, Eritrea and the Yemen. There is still a threat of piracy in this area, so Captain Johannes provided special safety briefings to all passengers. Specialist security personnel boarded Azamara Journey in the Indian Ocean. All curtains remained closed every evening and the ship’s exterior lights were extinguished during the hours of darkness. The outside decks remained out of bounds to passengers at night, until we had passed the danger area. The security personnel disembarked, somewhere in the Red Sea.

In port, we usually arrange private shore excursions or explore independently. However, Azamara had advertised a 25% discount on excursions purchased prior to the first week of January 2014. In view of the nature of the itinerary, we felt it would be safer to book ship’s tours at Fujairah and Aqaba.

Fujairah - The ship offered three different shore excursions, which included a morning at a beach resort, a full-day visit to Dubai (9.5 hours), or a 5-hour tour of the East Coast. We had previously stayed in Dubai and in any case, we did not relish the two-hour drive.

Consequently, we opted for the East Coast tour with views of the mountains, a photo stop at a desert oasis and a visit to the “Friday Market” (which operates every day). We also stopped at the tiny Bidya Mosque, which was built with clay and is the oldest mosque in the UAE. The cost of this enjoyable excursion was not excessive. Incidentally, most inhabitants of the UAE are expatriates, who travel there to work. Our Australian tour guide had moved to Dubai to accompany her husband.

Eilat, Israel. - Eilat is strategically important, because the port provides the only access from Israel to the Red Sea and ultimately, to the Indian Ocean. Eilat is also a seaside resort, with plush hotels and beaches.

Azamara offered full-day tours to Jerusalem or to Bethlehem. Both excursions would have involved a road journey of 4:30 hours each way. Other options included a trip to Masada and the Dead Sea (a 3 hour drive each way), or a bus tour to the Timna Valley or a 4x4 Desert Tour. Having visited Jerusalem, Bethlehem and the Dead Sea previously, we decided to make our own arrangements locally.

Azamara offered a free shuttle bus to the center, so we spent the morning in the downtown area. The local Tourist Office offered free, high-speed Wi-Fi Internet access. The Tourist Office also advised us that in addition to the beaches, there are several snorkeling and diving schools.

Having travelled thousands of miles, we did not intend to spend too much of our valuable time in a fairly ordinary beach resort. Consequently, we returned to the ship for lunch and made two purchases from the duty-free shop in the cruise terminal.

Then, we joined a four hour sunset tour to the Timna Valley and Eilat Mountains, arranged by another passenger from our ship. Our party travelled in a convoy of three canvas-topped 4x4 vehicles, each of which carried eight to ten passengers. The area was described by the operators (Desert Eco Tours) as “the last untouched wilderness”.

The jeeps drove up the Israeli side of the frontier with Jordan, passing salt lakes with flocks of pink flamingos and other wildlife. Then, our journey to Timna Valley took us over dirt tracks through the Arava Valley and the canyons of the Southern Negev desert. Timna Valley is a UNESCO site of historical importance and its former copper mines date back 6,000 years. The tour paused briefly at an artificial oasis, where we filled glass bottles with colored sand from the desert - followed by a visit to Solomon’s Pillars, where many of us clambered through the rocks. Then, we returned at high speed along the main highway to Eilat and the ship.

Desert Eco Tours, who also provided Azamara’s morning excursion, have received excellent reviews on Trip Advisor. We had a superb tour, even though the jeeps were rather cramped and not particularly comfortable. Suffice to say, the evening tour, which we booked direct with the operator, visited the same places in the same vehicles and cost much less than the ship’s shore excursion.

Aqaba, Jordan - Aqaba, on the opposite side of the Gulf from Eilat, was only a few miles away. It is a duty-free port, which provides the only access from Jordan to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. It is also a beach resort. I cannot comment upon the city or the resort, because we booked ship’s excursions for both of our days in Aqaba. However, the tour buses passed through the city, which appeared to be fairly smart.

On Day 1, our afternoon tour took us to Wadi Rum, a desolate area of rocks and desert, which formed the backdrop to the “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Red Planet” movies. We travelled by motor coach to the Visitor Centre, with a brief stop at Wadi Rum Railway Station, where saw a replica steam locomotive and wagons, based upon rolling stock from the Lawrence of Arabia era.

At the Visitor Centre, we transferred to 4x4 vehicles for a drive through the desert, stopping at several Bedouin encampments for hot tea, dates and other refreshments. During our second stop, the weather changed and we experienced a short heavy shower of rain, followed by a sandstorm. We returned to the ship by coach. The scenery was magnificent and although the Bedouin visits were stage-managed, this was an enjoyable excursion.

For our second day at Aqaba, Azamara offered two excursions - visits to the Dead Sea or Petra. We opted for Petra. Readers should consult guide books and the Internet for detailed information about this ancient city.

Our bus did not depart from the port until 09:00 am and we made a compulsory stop en route at a souvenir shop with restrooms. Consequently, our group did not reach Petra until midday. Then, we had to undertake the 2 mile walk down the “Siq”, a deep and narrow gorge that leads from the modern city to the Treasury (which features in all of the guidebooks).

Anyone unable to complete the walk could hire a horse-drawn carriage for 20 dinars each way (approximately GBP 20 or US$30). That seemed very expensive. Furthermore, the carriages travel up and down the Siq at breakneck speed and looked rather comfortable. We decided that it would be better to walk, despite the heat. Mad dogs and Englishmen !!

Following our visit to the ancient city, our tour operator had arranged a buffet lunch in a local hotel. Then, we returned to Aqaba (with yet another stop at the souvenir shop).

This was a long and exhausting excursion and the climb back to modern Petra was a real slog. With hindsight, our buses should have departed from the ship at the crack of dawn and proceeded directly to Petra, to avoid the heat of the midday sun. An even better option would have been an overnight stay in one of the first-class hotels in the modern part of Petra, followed by a morning visit to the ancient city.

Even so, an excursion to Petra is an absolute “must”, if you are on a ship that calls at Aqaba.

The Suez Canal. Although we did not call at any Egyptian ports, Azamara Journey transited the Suez Canal from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean.

There are no locks on the Suez Canal and the terrain is mostly desert on both sides of the canal (unlike the Panama). There are several passing places, so ships must travel in convoy. The transit was interesting - but there was not a great deal to see.

Paphos, Cyprus. Azamara Journey did not reach Paphos until 10:00 am - and the ship offered several shore excursions to the city and its surrounding area. They also offered one shore excursion to Limassol.

We had previously enjoyed two land-based holidays in Paphos so this time, we wanted to visit Limassol. Consequently, we decided to travel on a local bus to the main bus station, to catch the Inter-City bus to Limassol. Timetables are available at www.intercity-buses.com. The Tourist Information Office in Limassol provided maps and a lot of useful information and we really enjoyed exploring the old city, including its back streets, the medieval castle and museum, and the former Carob Mill, which includes the Evagoras Lanitis Center.

Tip: In Cyprus, senior citizens aged 65+ can request reduced price admission tickets to museums, etc. Furthermore citizens of other EU countries aged 65+ are entitled to a 50% discount on intercity buses, upon production of evidence of age and citizenship.

Azamara advertise that every cruise itinerary includes a complimentary “Azamazing Evening”. The special evening for our cruise should have occurred at Safaga, Egypt.

However, the ship’s visit to Safaga was cancelled, so Azamara arranged a replacement event at Paphos, comprising “an enchanting medley of music and poetry, performed by a musical quartet, baritone and soprano - with pretty music set to the poetry of Sappho and others with a climactic contest between the lyre, kiniri and flute”.

The timetable for this event included 15 minutes for a welcome speech, followed by 30 minutes for the actual performance.

Paphos was a tender port, so Azamara arranged an early buffet dinner from 5:00 pm, to enable passengers to go ashore from 6:45 pm. Tenders would return to the ship between 8:00 pm and 8:30 pm. The early start clashed with our visit to Limassol and we were not attracted by the description of the Azamazing Evening. Consequently, we opted out of this complimentary event and enjoyed a leisurely dinner in the virtually deserted Discoveries Restaurant.

Athens - Following the ship’s arrival at Piraeus, we disembarked at 09:00 am and transferred to Athens Airport for our flight to London. Less

Published 05/27/14
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8 Night Amalfi, Sicily & Greece Voyage
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