An Independent Traveler's Dream—the Azamara Journey: Azamara Journey Cruise Review by Tom Barnes
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An Independent Traveler's Dream—the Azamara Journey
Destination: Europe - Western Mediterranean
Embarkation: Rome (Civitavecchia)
We took the 12-day cruise from Rome (Cittivecchia) to Barcelona starting on November 19, 2008. We flew British Air from LAX to Heathrow (Premium Economy class) and British Air economy to Rome. It was our first use of Premium Economy as an alternative to "cattle class" at double the price of coach but will probably do it again as it is an almost affordable alternative to business class. From Da Vinci airport we joined two Canadian girls and hired a van to take us to our hotel. Normally we would have taken the bus but it was late and we splurged on the 40E to get us to the Montecitorio. Hotel was a great location; clean, but quite small, with a flat screen TV that did not work and a broken shower door. Every shower flooded the bathroom and it was the smallest shower we have ever seen, smaller than the bathrooms on any of the 27 cruises we have been on and we have been on some small cruise ships. Of course of the three clerks we dealt with could not fix More the shower or get the TV to work. Also, the advertised computer and wifi was in Italian and almost unusable. Do not stay at the Montecitorio, it is poorly run and not worth the stress. In the end we got them to knock 10E off of the 80E price but it took a lot of badgering to even get that concession. We came into Rome a day and a half early and did a few sites in the day we had: Spanish Steps, Trevi, Colleseum, and took the Free Tour to the Vatican along with 3 Polish students and 2 Canadian young women. I tipped Paulo our guide 20E because I knew she would not get much from the students and young women.
We rolled our bags to Silvestre Square, a short-walk from our hotel and caught the bus to the central train station for 1 Euro each. At Stanzia Termini we bought 2nd class seats to Cittivecchia for 9E for the both of us and took the one hour train ride in relative comfort. We joined a German couple and hired a taxi to take us to the ship from the train station for 5E each. Total transportation cost from our hotel in Rome to the ship was 20E for both of us.
The Azamara Journey is a great ship. We chose it because of its itinerary, its relatively small size, and its no coat and tie policy. It had 650 passengers on one of the old Renaissance (VI) line ships that we have traveled on before. Arriving around 2:00 PM embarkation was flawless-A 5 minute line and a non-bureaucratic approach had us on the ship in 10 minutes. At check- in we were able to book a dinner at Prime C (the alternative steakhouse) that night, which did not count against our two -dinner limit at the two alternative restaurants. We carry our own luggage on—one bag and one backpack each-and had everything put away in the spacious basic outside cabin that had lots of storage space and was generally well laid out but with some flaws (see, "the Bad" and "the Ugly). The cabin was #4020 and in a great location, across from the medical office and right around the corner from the stairs and elevator. The dark woods and large mirrors made it seem larger than it was. It was more than big enough for us and the outside window was huge. Storage space was excellent and we did not use all that we had. Our two roller bags fit easily under the bed.
Food—The buffet (Windows) was ready and was usually good but as with all buffets you have to be careful what you choose. The no-tray available policy is a hard to get used to but more cruise lines are going to it and the lines do move faster without the trays. One bonus was that the grill around the pool had in addition to the usual hot dogs, hamburgers, and tacos, beef, lamb, and pork shish kebob that was cooked to order. The lamb was great but the beef a bit disappointing.
Specialty Restaurants—The specialty restaurants were worth the extra gratuity of $5 each. My wife's cowboy steak (bone-in rib eye) was excellent in Prime C (the steakhouse) and I had Colorado lamb chops that were delicious and cooked to perfection. The wild mushroom soup was an outstanding dish on the cruise. The crab cakes were also excellent as and appetizer as were the donut holes (called mini-donuts) as a desert. At Aqualina (seafood restaurant) we shared Chilean sea bass and lobster. Both were excellent although some of the guests felt that the lobster was tough. I like some chewyness to my lobster so I was fine with it. A special note, Aqualina offers a Mediterranean platter as a cold appetizer that is 2 clams, 2 mussels, 2 crab, 2 shrimp, and a lobster. It is an excellent meal in itself. Their lobster bisque is very good but it is a full -bodied soup that would be too strong for the palette of many Americans.
Discoveries—The food in the main restaurant Discoveries was usually good and sometimes great. One caveat about the food— the chief does a great job on the veal and lamb dishes, but has trouble with the beef. My wife does not eat veal or lamb and is particular about her beef dishes. She struggled to find beef dishes she liked in the main dining room but she loved the cowboy steak (rib eye on the bone) in Prime C the first time we ate there—the second time was a different story. I ate beef once in the dining room and it was the hanger steak (skirt steak) and was quite good. The one good beef dinner my wife had was the prime rib which was excellent the second to the last night.
We ate lunch twice in Discoveries and a Cobb salad we had for one of the meals was one of the finest dishes we had on the cruise. I also had a very good Red Snapper for one of the lunches.
We also ate breakfast in Discovery twice and it was nice to have our eggs not overcooked. We had poached eggs on corned beef hash and it was excellent.
For all our meals we found no crowds in Discovery and they would give you a private table or you could join a group. We sat with others for dinner and sat by ourselves for breakfast and lunch. The only exception was Thanksgiving when Discoveries was crowded and we had a wait. We decided to eat at the buffet at Windows which is curiously renamed Breezes for dinner. We had an excellent Turkey dinner but no stuffing or mashed potatoes, which seemed odd as they had mashed potatoes on other days for lunch.
Windows—The breakfast buffet in Windows was excellent and had a nice variety of dishes. The carved ham every other day was a real plus. On the days they did not have the ham it would have been nice if they had corned beef hash on those days. We only had corned beef hash twice and it was on a ham days. The fresh rolls were good but the pastries were uneven. The exception was the cinnamon role bun that was excellent but hard to find and we only found it one day. The donuts were also excellent.
Best dishes on the cruise: In Discoveries it was the Veal chop, Prime Rib, Duck Ravioli starter, and the Lamb shank. In Aquilina, the Chilean Sea Bass and the Medetteranean Medley starter. In Prime C the Colorado Lamb chops and the Wild Mushroom soup. In Windows for me it was the anchovies that I put on my real Caesar salad that I would make for lunch. Great quality and ample quanity. For the outside grill it was the lamb shish ke bob that was cooked to order.
The waiters in the buffet did an excellent job of clearing tables and bringing you drinks at both breakfast and lunch. They did it with a smile and an excellent attitude and were offended when you made your own coffee or tea as they were more than willing to do it for you.
Service—The staff on the Journey on the whole is a very happy staff and they go out of their way to make you feel comfortable. Hi, good morning, good day are the norm as they greet you when they see you. The cabin steward (called butler) and his assistant do a fine job and they learn your rhytums to provide service. The dinner serving staff did a reasonably good job but the festival seating (freestyle) policy makes it difficult to get consistency.
One night our table of 8 waited 28 minutes for our order to be taken. At around the 23 minute mark I said something to the waiter and he apologized but blamed the wine. Two of the four couples were drinking wine. Maybe the wine steward was not working that night. At the end of the meal he again apologized and really meant it. We allow 2 ½ hours for a dinner meal so if we are trying to make a 10:30 show we will dine at 8:00. With the start we had I was concerned the meal would go three hours, which is too long.
The dining staff slips up a little more than they should but most of that comes from the automatic tipping policy that the cruise lines introduced about a decade ago. The Journey does a better job that most at combating this "slipshodness" that has crept into the service part of the cruising industry. Those of us who cruised before the automatic tipping was introduced know the difference and miss the "old days." The entire crew and service staff is very international with 50 nationalities represented and a strong presence from the Balkan states.
Entertainment —It was surprising on the Journey that it was very good to excellent. Newlyweds Justine and Robin and the three other singers knock themselves out with their shows based on old time 40s music. Their song selection could be better as they tend to rely on too much Sinatra and some esoteric songs that the audience was not familiar with. But there enthusiasm cannot be beat. Dan and the Journey orchestra were excellent and an added bonus was the show put on by him on the piano and Kristen Lee doing the vocals of torch songs, old standards, and ballads one late night. A concert pianist and a pop singer who had sung the old Love Boat theme song were both performers we enjoyed. We missed some of the other shows but the entertainment we saw was impressive.
Shore Excursions—We usually travel independently and seldom use a ships shore excursions as we find them restrictive, expensive, and artificial. Their only asset is that they are convenient. We made an exception on this cruise as we took the ship's excursion in Tunis for $36 each and the one in Sicily for $34 each to Mt. Etna. Both were decent values. Other than that we went on our own. Many of the excursions ranged from $200 to $300 per person and often included lunch, which we do not need. One positive note is that the Journey does not attempt to discriminate against independent travelers as other cruise lines do. When you want to get off the ship you walk down to the gangplank and walk off to the dock or to the tenders. We have other lines attempt to restrict us from leaving their ships until the ship's tours have left or use a cumbersome numbering system to get off the ship. Thankfully, the Journey does none of that nonsense and recognizes that independent travelers should not be treated as second class citizens.
Independent Travel—We rented a car in Sorrento for our two -day stop and drove to Pompeii to see the ruins and then on to Vesuvius which we climbed. They said it was a 20 minute climb to the top but it took us 40. We are 66 and 59. The second day we drove the Amalfi coast to Ravello and stopped in Amalfi and Positano as well as other scenic spots along the way. We felt that this was great value for the cost and it had been a lifetime dream of mine to drive the Amalfi coast and match my skill with the aggressive Italian drivers. Total cost for the two day rental car from Avis was car $192, parking 15E, and gas 10E. None of the ships tours went to Vesuvius or Ravello and if we would have done the ships tours it would have been more than $400 and we would not have seen as much. To the best of my knowledge we were the only ones to rent a car and drive the Amalfi coast. Most of the passengers were experienced and well traveled and in terms of age we were right in the middle.
On Malta we hired a cab to take us around for 45E for 2 hours. Our stops were the Presidential gardens, a glass blowing operation, a gold and silver store and the Medieval town of Mdina. Our tour took 2 ½ hours and afterwards we walked around Valleta and enjoyed seeing the graduating college students in nursing, notaries, and lawyers celebrate. We took public busses and trains to Pisa and Florence from Livorno. The train station in Livorno told us we could take the 4:27 back to Livorno. When we got to the train station to return from Florence they told us there was no 4:27 because it was cancelled on Sunday. We could take the 5:25 but it would not arrive until 6:58 and the ship was leaving at 7:00. It looked like we might miss a ship for the first time in 27 cruises. Eventually we found a train to Pisa that would leave at 4:58 and get into Pisa at 6:10. We took that train and it arrived in Pisa 5 minutes early; we raced through the train station and found a cab to take us to the ship in Livorno for 45E. An extra expense we had not counted on but we got to the ship at 6:40 and were not late. This is one of the pitfalls of independent travel—it is not as secure as the ships tours. If we missed the ship we would have taken the train to Portofino—our scheduled next stop.
The ship could not land in Portofino because of the weather so we diverted to Genoa. We had to scuttle our planned train trip to the five villages of Cinque Terre and Genoa became a rest day with one quick trip on the free shuttle around the city during the heavy rains.
We rented a car from Sixt in Monaco to do the French Riviera to Cannes, Nice, Villefrance, and Cap Ferrat. It was a new Peugeot for 50E + 14E in gas, a good deal booked on the Internet before we left. Compared to the Amalfi coast this drive was a breeze. It is something to see the fashionable European women walking the promenades of Cannes and Nice all dressed up and many had their little dogs. We ate lunch on the promenade in Cannes with sandwiches we had packed that morning at the breakfast buffet. In fact, when we are trekking for the day we always pack sandwiches with the French rolls and deli meats and cheeses from the buffet. We are almost always gone for the whole day so we do not have the opportunity to eat lunch on the ship. We bring baggies and ties from home to pack the sandwiches. We had a great day with the many stops on the French Riviera and the only drawback was finding the rental car place to return the car. It was in a Marriot Hotel in Cap d Ai a town adjacent to Monoco. We could see the Marriott sign from the highway but because of all the construction it was difficult to figure out the route to hotel. We finally made it but it was after 6:00 and they were closed so we dropped the keys off at the Mariott front desk and made our way back to the ship by public bus.
We took a public busses and trains to Bandol and St. Cyr out of our Toulon stop as it proved to be too difficult to get to San Tropez where we wanted to go. These are picturesque towns but were nearly deserted as it is the off season. After partial day at sea we arrived in Barcelona at 3:00 PM. We stayed on the ship as we had visited Barcelona before.
The room design has three major flaws: the bathroom was big enough but needed two more inches in width in the shower; in sitting on the toilet my right knee had to curve a bit as I sat as the wall so close; the third flaw "reading lighting" fits into the "Ugly" category. There is a strange door situation between the open bathroom door and the closet as they seem to open the wrong way and run into each other. The bathroom door swings into the hall area and bangs against the closet when it is open. This is a choke point in the room that could have been avoided by having the door open to the room rather than the hall.
The server cutting the ham in the morning (excellent quality and offered every other day) had trouble slicing it thin even when asked to. He tended to chunk it. Maybe the cutlery he was using was not sharp enough. He was also in charge of making the eggs and omelettes which were good but he could not cook them soft or over easy partly because he did not have the skill and his pan was too hot. Most Americans like their eggs over-cooked so it is not a problem but I like mine soft in the French style. Actually the knives left something to be desired in all the restaurants. My wife and I usually resorted to using our Swiss army knives that we always carry to cut the meat. It was a better choice than having the meat end up in our lap because of a dull knife.
Inexplicably, the second time we ate in Prime C my wife's Ribeye Cowboy steak was served well done after she ordered it medium rare. The brought her a new steak which took some time to prepare. They were very apologetic about it and the Executive chief even came to our table to apologize—a nice gesture. My wife commented on how much we enjoyed the Wild Mushroom soup and the Executive Chief brought her the recipe. That is class. Sadly the replacement ribeye was rather tough but we did not say anything as they already felt bad enough about the mistake on the first ribeye.
The one espresso machine that made decent espresso was located on the fantail outside of the buffet (Windows) restaurant. Of course after three days the "out of order" sign went up. I asked them to fix it but they either did not understand or did not have anyone on board that could do it. This is a problem on other cruise lines as well (Holland American's Amsterdam VI) and I don't understand why they do not have either a spare machine or they do not train someone to fix it. Eventually they did fix it and they admitted they had trouble figuring it out because it was a new and different machine than the others in Windows.
Some comments we heard from other guests but we did not experience directly were that the casino when we were at sea closed at midnight, even the slots. We are non- gamblers but in my former life as a gambler that would have made me angry. Also, the $200—$325 price tag on some of the tours in Italy were thought to be excessive.
The lighting for reading in bed is atrocious. The two night stands each have a table light on them (they are too low and are really mood lights rather than reading lights) but these are anchored to the table so they cannot be move closer to your body to be used. This problem could have been avoided if canned lights would have been placed in the ceiling to act as reading lights over each person's bed. They did put three canned lights in the room but one is in the hall, one over the desk, and one is at the foot of the bed. There is also no canned light to illuminate the largest closet—it is very dark and hard to see your clothes. The put canned lights in the room but there placement is not good and they need more of them. Surprisingly the carpet needed a good shampooing or needed to be replaced as it was worn and looked tired.
Departure— We had a 9:00 flight out of Barcelona on British Air so we were up at 5:30, went to Windows for breakfast at 6:15 and it was jammed. After breakfast we carried our luggage off the ship—we were the first ones off—and went outside the terminal and hired a taxi to take us to the airport for 35 E. When we got there we had a one hour line at BA to check in and check our bags and we were in the fast bag drop. You have to wonder what the slow bag drop would be like. We made our flight got to Heathrow and then did the Heathrow shuffle to get on our flight back to the U.S. The 10 ½ hour flight back to LAX was uneventful and it was nice to have some breathing room in a not full cabin in premium economy.
Final Assessment—Would we take an Azamara cruise again. Absolutely. A perfect sized ship with interesting itineraries. The service staff was exceptional; they really made an effort to please. This is the first time since the automatic tipping went into effect about 10 years ago that approached the old fashioned service that we used to get before the automatic tipping. I still miss handing out those brown envelopes. The automatic of $12.25 a day is on the high end of the spectrum but it is deserved. Our Butler Ivan did a generally good job and his assistant Husan was outstanding. He even took our bags down the runway on departure day. Other things we really liked were no blaring announcements in the rooms. We did the trivia a few times but with so many port days not as much as we usually do. It was well run and we won 4 book reading lights and a bookmark. Some of the events give instant gratification to the winners while other you earn points that can be redeemed for prizes at the end. We prefer the former system but prizes and point system allowed non -winners who also participated to get something.
We will be studying Azamara's itineraries and look forward to booking them in the future. Let me know what you think of this review. If you want to contact me by E-mail for any other information, especially about independent travel on cruise ships, I am firstname.lastname@example.org Less
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