This was my third curise with Azamara, all on this same ship. I enjoyed both of the cruises I had taken previously (as I have just about all of the nearly 30 cruises I’ve been on over the years) which is why I booked this cruise two years ago and a major reason for why I looked forward to it ever since booking. I must say that Azamara did not disappoint me and that I wholeheartedly recommend them to anyone who is looking for an ocean cruise. The realitively small size of the ship allows it to go to ports that larger ships can’t and allows them to stay in those ports for longer periods; for example, the Journey was able to sail all the way into Bangkok, which Princess and other lines with larger ships cannot, and this allowed us to have two half-days and one full day to explore the city and surrounding areas, as compared to having to bus for hours each way and then pay for a hotel if an overnight or two was available.
But that is not what makes an Azamara cruise special. It starts with the quality of the staff. From the wait staff to the stateroom attendants, the bar tenders to the casino staff, and all of the entertainment staff, the attention to detail, the respect, the friendliness, and the dedication to the cruisers’ comfort and enjoyment is always evident. These people are intelligent and demonstrate a sense of humor many cruise staffs do not. We only had a couple of bad experiences with the ship’s staff. The first involved the conceierge who was abrupt and rude when we tried to ask about transportation from the ship to our hotels when we hit Singapore; she cut us off before we finished the question and just said “Taxi”…no further information (cost, availability, do they take credit cards or American money, etc.). A dirth of information. The next bad experience is when my wife filled out an early survey and included a complaint about the movies on TV; the free movies were not being shown when scheduled and the “on-demand” movies were only available for a charge (unlike Princes and other cruise lines where on-demand movies are free in the staterooms). They called and, in a condescending voice, said that if we couldn’t work the movies we should ask a steward who could show us how. Really? How about getting someone who can actually read to review the surveys?
The final bad experiences both involved Geeta of the Guest Relations department. The first of those experiences came when we had an issue with a charge for a service that was supposed to be complimentary. We brought the proof down to her and she said that we didn’t need it and it would be taken care of. Three days later the charge was still there so we brought the proof down and spoke with another Guest Relations person…the charge was reversed within a few hours. The other Geeta experience involved getting our passports prior to going on a private tour in Bangkok. We went down to get them at the time they were supposed to be ready, but she didn’t have them and told us to come back in 3 hours…didn’t take our names down, didn’t ask for our room numbers, didn’t offer to call us when they would be available. We came back some 6 hours later and she still didn’t have them, but she did have passports for people who had given her peers their room numbers and names. Evidently the port people were taking a long time to process the passports, but those who had a need to retrieve them could be expedited if they knew of the need. Needless to say we had to insist she take down our name and room number and, lo and behold, they were available bright and early the next morning.
We had somehow lucked into an inexpensive room upgrade to one of their Continental Suites. The room is larger than the typical stateroom and the bathroom is comparatively luxurious. The suites come with an “English Butler” who brought sweets for tea, canapes for before meal munching, and a relative feast when we wanted a party for some friends. He helped with other items as well. The suite also provided for 235 minutes of free internet for each of us, as well as complimentary use of the specialty restaurants as much as we’d like to use them. I’m not sure the extras are necessarily worth the typical upcharge from a balcony stateroom, but it was worth much more than we paid for it.
The food was phenomenal, although there were small areas which could see improvement. Neither I nor my wife eat pork and there was a great deal of it incorporated into the menus. There were always other choices, although not always very many. The ship offered daily wines (2 white, 2 red, and a rose) which cruisers could have anytime for free (and I use the term “free” loosely…its built into the overall price), as well as a number of higher quality wines for additional charges. I have a very narrow taste in wines and found only a few of them compatible with my palette; my wife has a more a broader, yet more discerning taste and typically found the daily choices quite acceptable if not outstanding. There always seemed to be vegetarian, gluten free, and lactose free options at each meal.
We generally took dinner in the Discovery Restaurant (the main dining room). The food was exceptional and the staff friendly and efficient, if not always as quick as we’d like. More than once we had problems deciding what to eat there, but this wasn’t a good thing. As often as not I went with the Ceasar salad as none of the appetizer options seemed appetizing and the other salads and soups didn’t thrill, either. It was rarely difficult to choose which entre to have as typically only one or two appealed to me; too many pork dishes, vegetarian options, unknown sauces and ingredients and poor descriptions limited the choices substantially for me.
The Windows Cafe (the buffet meal option) generally provided an array of options. We typically took breakfast there and found that only a few items changed from day to day. There were several types of eggs and you could get omelets made to order (with a choice of whole eggs, egg whites, and egg beaters). The remaining egg options were mass produced and laid out in trays, which caused them to be either too runny or too dry (in the case of the scrambled eggs, too tasteless). Pancakes, french toast, and waffles were also pre made and they came at best warm and more often cold. The options also included several types of bacon and sausage, but only twice had sausage options that weren’t pork (the lamb sausage was excellent but they only offered it once). Still, there was always lox and bagels, fruit, cheeses, and bakery goods…all of which were wonderful. The lunch menu changed more from day to day, with different meats at the carving stations, a daily pizza (along with the standard ones), two different soup choices, varying other entrees and salads. The hours sometimes seemed too short for lunch, particularly when morning tours ran a bit late; on those occasions not all of the options would be available and you wouldn’t be able to get back for a second pass; this caused the planners to overload their plates and take deserts with the first pass, wasting food and creating further shortages of options for those who followed. Each night they had a different theme for the dinner buffet. We only went for the White Night program (it was excellent in terms of choices and quality), so I can’t say from personal experience what they were like, but I didn’t hear too many complaints.
The specialty restaurants were both elegant and worth the extra cost (if we had to pay it). We went to Aqualina one night and Prime C twice. Aqualina specialized in Italian food. The food was good but the options could have been more varied. Prime C is the steak house and it was awesome. They had steak, lamb, veal, and seafood selections all of which were mouth watering. There were also several themed “Chef Tables” where six-course fixed menu meals were prepared for the dozen or so patrons who signed up (at $95 per head…NOT included in the suite benefits), each with a special pairing of wine. The head chef and the somelier came out and explained each meal and the wine paired with it. We went to the California table and all who attended agreed that it was among the culinary experience of the cruise…by geometric measures.
The evenings’ entertainment was typically good. We had seen some of the performances before, but they still entertained; the newer ones were better only in that we hadn’t seen them before. Eric DeGray, the cruise director, is a real talent and performed a solo show and with the 6 person cruise troupe. The band was sharp as was the solo guitarist who played the different venues around the ship. The casino was proportionally small but that didn’t really matter as less than a dozen people (or so it seemed) used it through out the cruise. Wong crowd, I suspect.
We went on four of the cruise’s tours, the Azamazing Adventure, and two private tours. The private ones were MUCH better than the cruise tours, both in terms of the guides and the number of participants (a smaller crowd allowed for more flexibility in content and schedule, as well as interaction with the guide). The Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) highlight tours were both cruise tours and both horrid. They were too large, slowed by the least mobile participant, and included a shopping experience at a vendor who split profits with the tour operators. The Hanoi tour was burdened by a 3-4 hour bus ride each way from port to city, with a stop at a shopping location (presumably for a rest break) on each leg. The first real stop on the tour was at a hotel for lunch of mass produced “local” foods, followed by an extended walk around the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and government houses…all of which were closed because it was a Monday. Next came a trip to a Bhudist temple that was overrun with other tourist groups. The last stop was at the Old Quarter where there was a brisk walk among the crowded shops and stalls, an adventure crossing the street to view a couple of sights, and then waiting for the bus to return to the ship. Other than the Old Quarter visit, which was the most interesting stop AND the shortest, the wasn’t much to see and too much time taken seeing it at the stops…with more interesting sights and photo ops pointed out from the moving bus along the way. The Saigon tour was only slightly better, but only because the drive from the port to the city was hours shorter. The water puppet show was entertaining, but the Buhdist temple wasn’t partcularly impressive or important, the visit to the government museum was mostly a waste, I didn’t even both with the history museum, the “photo op” of Notre Dame was less than spectacular, and the shopping opportunity at the laquer shop was a waste of time. The last of the Azamara tours we did was on Ko Samui and it was a bit better…we got to ride elephants in the pouring rain.
The Azamara arranged cruises, like many of those arranged by the cruise ships, suffer from several problems that should be able to be overcome with a bit of effort and organization. The first is to reduce the size of the groups; its just not possible for one guide to properly service 30 or 40 people on a tour in any kind of efficient manner. Second, they should have special versions of the tours for those with physical disabilities. I think its great that there are people who don’t let their problems hold them back from living life to its fullest. At the same time, the need to move the group at a speed which they can manage lengthens each stop and prevents others from using their touring time to greatest advantage. Splitting the groups into this fashion would allow everyone to experience as much as possible. Third, they should not hire tour groups who add stops at overpriced “factories” just to try to relieve the tourists from their money. The goods are often inferior and always overpriced. Spending 45 minutes at such a place, and taking 15 minutes due to the need to get there and then back on the tour route robs the cruisers of an hour which could be used for experiencing the culture. Finally, find a way to incorporate more short photo-op stops at important sights rather then pointing them out on the fly. Those are the memories we cruise to make. We have never experienced any of those problems when we’ve been part of a private tour. Needless to say, we’ve decided to just go for private tours, organized with other guests, through Cruise Critic in the future.
The Azamazing Adventure was more “Aza” than “amazing”. We had another overly long bus ride, this time to The Ancient City in Bangkok, a park that has been built to show various historical and significant symbols of Bangkok and Thailand. We got there as it was getting dark and boarded trams which sped to the place where the program was to be held. Between the darkness and the speed of the trams there wasn’t much of an opportuniy to take in the sights, much less get pictures of them. When we got to the area where the program was to be held we were rushed to the seats and then had to wait for the rest of the group to be rushed to the seats. The program itself was okay, if somewhat drawn out, but the activity that followed was poorly organized and not really explained all that well. Then we were herded back to the buses for another overly long bus ride back to the ship. This was my third Azamazing Adventure and, since the first two were both stupendous maybe I expected too much, but in the future I’ll ask more questions about what the program is before committing to it.
We got upgraded to a suite and were very impressed. The room was comfortably large and the bathroom huge compared to what we've had on previous cruises (including the mini-suite on Princess). The ship had recently gone through an interior redo and it showed. The service was great and, with the suite, came with an English Butler. The service was even better than the cabin.