Over the past decade my written ship reviews have become more positive and I had to ponder the cause before completing the present review. I mean if anything with age I have become more discerning, more likely to know what is good or bad about services or products. And therein lies the answer, I am, in short, more discerning about myself, knowing my own needs and preferences and this has allowed me to do a much better job of matching myself to the appropriate ship or cruise line. So as you read this review, you must ask yourself questions about yourself to determine if my remarks are relevant for you.
Furthermore, the primary purpose of my cruise determines what items are most important. If I am booking a cruise mostly to do sightseeing, as was the case here, then I know I want a small ship experience with a port intensive itinerary. Cruises with different purposes, such as a crossing or spa/leisure vacation might yield a different choice of ship or cruise line. With respect to my recent trip to Southeast Asia, which was heavily oriented to for sightseeing, Azamara Quest was the perfect ship for a sightseeing intensive journey and furthermore it was, bar none, the best value for the money among any of the other luxury and upper end deluxe lines cruising Southeast Asia this year.
THE PERFECT SHIP FOR EXPLORING THE WORLD:
Azamara's Quest's itinerary was port intensive and the cruise line worked hard and succeeded in most ports to arrange to dock at a convenient in town location, made possible by its small size (700 passengers). Also disembarking and embarking during the trip without long lines or ever the use of tenders that larger ships often require made the journey hassle free. And after a busy day of sightseeing, it was always wonderful to return to smiling officers (some senior officer seemed always be on hand upon returning). Once again on board there was:
• Excellent service provided in every venue that was both efficient and personal • Fine contemporary western cuisine or Asian food for westerners, which balanced the more exotic cuisine we sample on shore • Flexible open seating which so well accommodated ever changing ending times of our private shore excursions. • In depth relevant enrichment lectures about the places we will be visiting. Azamara provided an excellent program of lectures. • And on those precious few sea days between touring, the ship was both wonderfully relaxing and quiet yet succeeded in providing many scheduled activities to fill one's time.
In sum total, Azamara performed admirably well and it would be hard to imagine another line that does it as well as Azamara, providing an upscale atmosphere with deluxe service (details below) at such a very reasonable price.
SERVICE: The most important thing to me, above all else, on a cruise of any type, is service and that service needs to be genuine, attentive, flexible, friendly and personal. I found all of the Quest officers and crew as well as the hotel management personnel and staff, from the Captain Smith to the most junior deckhand, and from Hotel Director to cleaning staff to be extraordinarily attentive, kind, helpful, friendly and flexible, meaning willing to bend over backward in order to please. My Butler (Emmanuel) and Cabin Steward (Abdul, who should be promoted to a butler immediately) did an extraordinary job, every special request (mostly at the start of the cruise) was fulfilled with a smile, and my cabin was always spotless, with fresh towels, flowers, and fresh fruit supplied in abundance. Somehow between the hours of 8 am and noon and again from 5 to 9 they always seemed to be at hand, even if it were just to open my stateroom door because I was carrying a book or a beverage or to ask if I needed anything for the cabin. Even on the occasion I was running late for a dinner engagement and would leave my day clothes on the bed, I always returned to find them folded and sitting on the sofa. The Hotel Director (Henke), Guest Relations Manager, Deniece Seow, and the Maitre d' in each dining room took extraordinary care of not only me, but people traveling in my tour group and others each with their own special story. In fact other passengers confided in me that they were receiving VIP service for reasons they failed to fathom and some even wondered if they were being confused for someone important. Now when a cruise line can provide that level of service and friendliness onboard, they are "working magic", a level that is hard to achieve and certainly was not as present on my first cruise on Azamara in October 2007. If pressed and you asked me "come on, there must be some fault somewhere with service, I would have to say that the only fault I could find is that at peak times, the buffet restaurant on the pool deck was a bit understaffed when it came to clearing tables.
DINING: Beyond service, I expect that dining on a cruise be a consistent positive experience which is significantly above average from ones general day to day life. I don't ever anticipate it to be haute gourmet, for true gourmet cooking is hard to prepare for a crowd that is larger than 75 people. But I do expect the dining service to be of good quality, varied, somewhat creative and with good attentive service. Azamara in this respect more than met my expectations.
Also, because I never like dining rooms or restaurants that seat more than 100-125 at a time, I am not a big fan of the main dining room on any ship and I try to maneuver away from that choice when possible. On this cruise I succeeded and only ate two dinners in Discoveries (the main dining room on Quest). While the food was fine, the menu tried to be too many things for too many people. The unwieldy and overly fussy preparations made it almost impossible for the kitchen to be well-paced allowing for entrEes to arrive simultaneously about 5-10 minutes after the starter courses were over. The larger the table the more unwieldy it became. When I sat at a table for 2 we dined in 90 minutes. That is quite acceptable. When I dined at a table of 8 where almost everyone chose a different appetizer and different entrEe dinner took 2hr and 45 min and I skipped coffee after dessert.
The main dining room does however have something to very much recommend its use. On sea days it is open for lunch, and the menu is very creative yet simple, innovative without being weird with choices being adequate but not unwieldy. The service was excellent and the room far quieter and cooler than at night. In fact, I found it absolutely delightful to avoid the crowd and cafeteria like atmosphere up on the pool deck for lunch on sea days, and grab a friend or a good book and dine below. I really only have one true complaint about the main dining room and it has nothing to do with either the food or the service but rather I have a big issue with the Discovery dining room chairs. The chairs have long outlived their useful life and the support in 70-80% of the seat cushions have failed and one literally sinks into a hole at the table. For me it meant feeling uncomfortable after sitting more than an hour but for people shorter than me (I am 5'11") it made for an uncomfortable dining experience from the first appetizer onward. There is no excuse for such deferred maintenance on an otherwise immaculate ship.
The two specialty restaurants (which I dined in frequently as my group of 6-8 took turns making reservations with their 2 reservation allowance) were both wonderful although I ended up favoring Prime C just a tad more and this was a surprise to me because I am not a big steak eater. But the menu was wonderfully varied so choices were many and redundancy rare. The service in both specialty venues was 5 stars. In fact the last time I had such good service in a dining room at sea was the last time I traveled in Grill Class aboard the QE2 on the first segments of her 2004 world cruise. The buffet venue on the pool deck was great both for breakfast and lunch, with a great deal of variety, nicely presented and lunch offerings were constantly changed. And sometimes for dinner, after a long day of touring, eating casually and simply out on the open deck in the warm winter air of Southeast Asia was a great alternative which I took advantage of for 3 or 4 times. I also used room service for two breakfasts and one dinner. The service was very prompt and the quality above average.
THE SHIP AND ITS STATEROOMS: Quest is very logically laid out and easy to navigate. Yet there are enough venues and public rooms to meet one's fellow passengers or to squirrel away with a good book. Prime C, Aqualina and the main dining room are very attractive as is the reception area as are the ships and I would say that the informal dining venue on Deck 9 (pool deck) while well maintained needs to be freshened as the wall treatments and carpets are looking somewhat tired. The lounges, cabaret, spa, shop area, pool deck and reception areas are all very attractive and beautifully maintained. All public rooms are crisp, attractive and well lit without being too brightly lit. They are comfortable and well furnished like a University or Country Club, they are conservative not showy, somewhat old world and that's fine as I came to see the sites on land not be overwhelmed by innovative at sea architecture.
If there is to be any complaint, I would say I have some issues with the staterooms. Yes the bathrooms are small, it's been said many times before, but they are attractive and manageable. And a Veranda cabin is an average but adequate size. The bedding is wonderful and there are new drapes and new furniture on the balcony. The towels are plush and the room temperature is easily customizable to one's preference. But to me it looks like the cabins were not fully refurbished when the ship was acquired and this made for tired looking carpets, an unattractive sofa, bed lamp shades that were cracking and long overdue for replacement and a lack of good reading light either in bed or at the desk. I don't consider providing glaring high hat down lighting from the ceiling an adequate alternative. Also the bed lamps were fixed to the nightstands and so they sat smack in the middle of the table making impossible to put a book or anything bigger than a water glass next to one's bed. Some small changes could however make the cabins quite wonderful rather than nice and bland and I have shared those ideas with. I have detailed those suggested changes in a letter to Azamara Management. BUT DESPITE THIS CRITICISM, the "bones" of the ship are very good, and she is a pleasure to sail on.
SHORE EXCURSIONS: As I mentioned I pretty much had my own small group and made all our arrangements privately. However I took one tour with the ship on our second day in Hong Kong and found it to be as advertised and satisfactory. I just don't like herding in groups larger than 10 and ideally no more than 8. I will add that I asked both members of our small group how they found the ship tours as well as a great many other passengers who I chatted with (it is a very friendly atmosphere), and I heard comments range from OK to wonderful and I did not hear any negative complaints or rants so Azamara must be doing a good job.
ON & OFF: Both embarkation and disembarkation are handled better than ANY ship of I have sailed on. It is so smooth and so fast that I hardly remember these events at all.
PRE & POST: I booked directly all pre and post cruise arrangements, including my air so these had nothing to do with Azamara. But I will say that my air arrangements on Singapore Air were done with miles and were extremely easy to both use the miles and book flights in First Class. I transferred points from my American Express Account into their Kris Flyer awards program. Then I went on line and book my flights and by doing so without assistance received substantial discounts on the miles required. Getting upgraded into First Class was so easy compared to American carriers where you are not at one of their elite levels. The flights were outstanding. It's the first time in my life when I went to wash-up and change into sweat pants to sleep that the cabin attendant said "those won't be necessary" and while I looked on incredulously she handed me a pair of Givenchy pajamas to wear (and keep!). In Hong Kong and Singapore I stayed at the Intercontinental Hotel and the rooms were large, luxurious and beautifully furnished and the service impeccable. In Hong Kong I must add that the concierge desk was fabulous in arranging for some of my requests, such as a place to buy eyeglasses on New Year's Day. Three pair only set me back $220 US and the glasses were ready in four hours! In Singapore, I did not have occasion to need the service of the concierge but I will tell you that at $185 a night, it was a bargain given the level of services and amenities. The Hong Kong Intercontinental was almost 3 times the price.
THE FINAL WORD, "VALUE"—IT IS IN THIS AREA THAT I GIVE AZAMARA THE HIGHEST MARKS. Yes there are more luxurious ships with bigger cabins, fancier furnishings and more haute cuisine, BUT to get to that level one needs to pay 2 to 3 times as much on a per diem basis. In short an Azamara cruise is not only a great value for the money it is a great cruise experience!! It's the best line on which to luxe it up without spending a fortune. I suppose the only place I would take issue as to value is that I think standard cocktails at $11 or $12 dollars plus 18% gratuity a shade over priced as is the cost of Internet service is high. On the other hand when you save 30-60% on the overall booking compared to any ultra-premium or deluxe line quibbling over the price of a cocktail a bit petty.
WOULD I CRUISE AGAIN ON AZAMARA? The answer is definitely yes and I hope to do so before the year is out. Azamara was an excellent value that fully served to support my primary purpose of the current trip, to be exposed to as much as possible in SE Asia in a 2 week visit. I intend to book again when I am ready to explore Greece, Turkey and the eastern Mediterranean in depth [I have no comments about the ship's entertainment as I never went (and quite frankly rarely do because as a resident of Manhattan I attend theater, opera and ballet performances 6-8 times a month so I don't want to do that when traveling). Nor do I comment the casino, (because I never gamble unless you count bridge) nor children activities (I am not a child so I have no firsthand knowledge and always wonder how other adults do) nor the spa (every ship has bicycles and treadmills and masseurs and I can't rate "standard equipment" which are all indistinguishably the same but for quantity).]