Azamara Club Cruises - Unchartered Territory
Azamara Club Cruises – Uncharted Territory
Pictures Link (over 300 photos):
When I informed friends and family that my partner and I were taking a Mediterranean cruise, most often the next question would be on what cruise line or ship. I would answer “Azamara” and there would be a strange look or a pause, followed by “what is that” or “who are they”. Azamara Club Cruises was a bit of “Unchartered Territory” for me and I think for most people. They are relatively unknown in the cruise industry and I think brand awareness will be their biggest challenge moving forward.
For those that don't know or are curious, Azamara Club Cruises is a brand of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., who also owns Celebrity Cruises and a couple other brands based outside North America. Azamara is a boutique cruise line with just two 30,277 gt ships, small by today's standards. They are relatively young cruise line, having been formed just a few years ago in 2007. The two ships are called AZAMARA JOURNEY and AZAMARA QUEST, and for all intents and purposes they are identical although there are a few minor variations. It's sort of interesting how Azamara came to be. The two Azamara ships were operating under a Spanish cruise line called Pullmantur when Royal Caribbean purchased the line. These two boutique ships really didn't fit within the Pullmantur fleet, so Royal Caribbean decided to reallocate them to their more premium brand Celebrity Cruises. In all honesty the ships didn't quite fit within Celebrity either, so pretty much last minute Azamara Cruises was formed, later to become Azamara Club Cruises. Because of the last minute brand creation, Azamara got off to a rough start, with a rushed refurbishment of the first ship and an onboard product that was lacking. In addition those first passengers thought they were boarding a Celebrity ship and later found out they were actually cruising on Azamara. Strange to say the least! Fast forward a few years and today Azamara has it's own management team and brand identity, and some points of distinction that really set Azamara apart. Some of those distinctions include complimentary wine at lunch and dinner; sodas, water and specialty coffees at no additional charge; included gratuities; no formal dress nights; and complimentary shuttle service in many ports. Probably the main point of distinction is that Azamara is a destination oriented cruise line, offering longer stays in port and even overnights on many itineraries.
Now that you know a little bit about who and what Azamara Club Cruises is, allow me share details of my recent journey onboard AZAMARA QUEST sailing from Rome to Athens on October 8, 2011.
I'm an avid cruiser having sailed on some ninety cruises on lines ranging from Silversea to Carnival. I was a little skeptical about Azamara, mainly because I was never attracted to the class of ships they operate, even though I never sailed on one. This is the same reason I never sailed with Oceania Cruises, since they operate the same class of ship. This particular class of ship is often referred to as the “R-Class”, after their original owner Renaissance Cruises. Renaissance was very ambitious and ordered eight almost identical ships, and rather unceremoniously named them R1 through R8. These ships were designed right around the time the movie Titanic was being introduced, and Renaissance exploited that connection the best they could. The interiors were rather ornate, fussy, and perhaps overdone in an attempt to recreate that opulent feeling of Titanic. In any case Renaissance had some bizarre policies and eventually failed leaving eight almost identical ships up for sale. Today Oceania Cruises operates three, Princess Cruises has two, P&O has one, and Azamara has two. Oceania and Azamara have completely refurbished their ships, bringing them to an ultra-premium level with each line offering their own points of distinction. For my personal style, I prefer the Azamara refurbishment because they toned down that fussy style a bit, and made the ships a bit more contemporary looking. This was mainly accomplished through new carpets and upholstery, some new furniture, and contemporary art. I think the end result is quite pleasing, and to my surprise I have become quite a fan of this class of ship. The size at just under 700 passengers is perfect, as it's never crowded and there are no lines. The ship is big enough to offer many of the amenities found only on the mega-ships, such as an elaborate spa and fitness center, cabaret lounge for evening shows, and multiple dining options. Standard cabins tend to be a little on the small side, but they are very comfortable and Azamara has done an excellent job refurbishing them. Some of my concerns about the R-Class did end up being valid, and those would be somewhat limited deck space with a small pool, no open forward facing views, no way to walk the open decks from the front to the back of the ship. In addition there is no wrap around promenade deck. In the end these minor design faults certainly did not impact my enjoyment of the ship or cruise.
The itinerary for my cruise was as follows:
Rome (Civitavecchia), Italy
Chania, Crete, Greece
Some of the key onboard figures were:
Captain: Carl Smith
Hotel Director: Ryszard Gusmann
Cruise Director: Russ Grieve
Guest Relations Manager: Ngawhira Fleet
Executive Chef: Fabio D Agosta
We arrived in Rome a day early and stayed at the Sheraton Medici not too far from the airport. It was fine for one night and it enabled us to become acclimated to the time change. We used RomeCabs for our transfer from the airport and then again for the 45 minute ride to the ship at Civitavecchia. They provided excellent service and we have used them before.
Boarding the AZAMARA QUEST was a breeze, with no lines for check-in or to board the ship. We were greeted with a warm welcome, music, and a glass of champagne which was a nice touch. Cabins were not ready so we were able to check our hand luggage and head up to Windows (buffet) for lunch. I believe the cabins were ready right at 1:30pm.
We resided in what Azamara calls a Club Continent Suite. Our cabin was 8044 located directly midship, port side. Soon after arriving our Butler and Cabin Steward introduced themselves. We were shown all the features of the suite and advised of their services. Our Butler quickly stocked the refrigerator with our beverage preferences and pointed out the movie menu in case we wanted to watch any DVD's. Waiting for us was a bottle of sparkling wine and four ½ bottles of complimentary liquor for our personal use. The suite was nicely laid out with a very comfortable bed, sofa, and lounge chair with ottoman. I liked the small white pillows embroidered with the Azamara logo. Nice touch! There was a large flat-panel interactive TV, a DVD player, refrigerator, safe, and plenty of closet space. The bathroom was spacious by cruise ship standards and included large bottles of Elemis shampoo, soap, body wash, and lotion as well as cotton balls and q-tips. We had a full size bathtub as well. Water pressure was adequate but not what I would call great. We had a lovely private balcony with table and chairs along with a small lounge chair. The table and chairs were perfect for enjoying room service outdoors. Being in a suite we could order room service off the dining room menus, but we never did this. The only room service we took advantage of was breakfast. It was always delivered promptly by the Butler and nicely set up with linens and full place settings on the table.
AZAMARA QUEST offers a great selection of dining options for such a small ship. There is the main restaurant called Discoveries, a lido buffet called Windows, a Pool Grill which served made to order burgers and sandwiches, and two speciality restaurants. Aqualina specializes in seafood and Mediterranean fare, while Prime C is a steakhouse. Since we were residing in a suite, there was no charge to dine in either of the speciality restaurants. We ended up dining in each specialty restaurant twice, and three times in Discoveries, the main dining room. In each venue I would say the food and service were excellent. In fact I think it was some of the best food and service I've experienced on any ship. It was that good! So good in fact that I gained six pounds during the cruise, even with working out an hour each day. Probably my favorite item was the Chocolate Souffle offered in Aqualina. It was to die for!
Ship's Amenities and Tour:
I really enjoyed the AZAMARA QUEST. The facilities were much nicer than I expected as was the décor. The QUEST reminded me of a small, upscale, boutique hotel. I found the size to be just right, not too large and not too small. Starting topside, there is a nice open deck on Deck 11 for lounging. Azamara uses very expensive wood deck loungers with extra thick padding, then the padding is covered with a white terry Azamara fitted cover. These loungers were as comfortable as any bed I've slept in! On Deck 10 you will find the Looking Glass Lounge, which is essentially an observation lounge turned nightclub in the evening. In one corner is a nice area set up with various games and card tables. Aft on the same deck is The Drawing Room which is a pretty extensive library for a small ship, and farther aft are the two specialty dining restaurants. Down on Deck 9 is the pool located midship. It's salt water and surrounded by two jacuzzis. There were only two areas for improvement I found on the QUEST, and one was that the pool tiles need replacing. Hopefully this will happen during an upcoming refit. Aft of the pool is the Pool Grill and Windows buffet. All the way aft is a lovely open deck and the Sunset Bar. This was a perfect place to enjoy a cocktail while enjoying the sunset and listening to the solo guitarist. Forward on Deck 9 is the Astral Spa and Fitness Center as well as the Connections internet center. The Astral Spa is fairly extensive for a small ship, and like most shipboard spas is operated by Steiner. I enjoyed a 50 minute facial one afternoon that was quite good. The Astral Spa also includes a private sun deck forward complete with Thalassotherapy Pool. There are men's and women's changing rooms including lockers, showers, and a steam room. There are no saunas on the QUEST. The fitness Center is extensive and offers just about anything you might be looking for. It's manned by a very capable Fitness Instructor that offered a variety of daily classes including spinning. I loved the embroidered Azamara work out towels as well as the cold bottled water. Nice touch! I do wish there were more elliptical machines as there were only three and often there was a wait. This was my second area for improvement. Decks 8, 7, and 6 are all cabins except for a self-service laundry midship on Deck 7. I used the laundry one day and it's completely free, including the automated detergent. Deck 5 is the center of activity, and includes the Cabaret Lounge & Bar forward, followed aft by the Photo Shop and Casino Luxe and Bar. The casino was a bit large for a ship this size, and Azamara might want to consider making the bar a more intimate area like is done on Oceania Cruises. Moving aft are two shops, one mainly jewelry and other a variety of clothes, sundries, and souvenirs. Next is the Mosaic Cafe, which encompasses the top portion of the small atrium. This was one of my favorite areas on the ship, and it served the best hot chocolate I've ever tasted! Besides coffee, tea, and hot chocolate, the Mosaic Cafe had a nice selection of cookies, pastries, and even small sandwiches. At the very aft of Deck 5 is Discoveries Lounge, probably the most popular bar on the ship and the Discoveries Dining Room. Deck 4 includes cabins and the main lobby of the ship containing Guest Relations, Shore Excursions, the Concierge Desk, the Future Cruise Consultant, and La Boutique, an upscale jewelry boutique. The lowest passenger deck is Deck 3, which contains some outside cabins and most often the gangway when docked in port or tendering.
For a small ship I was surprised at the variety of entertainment. Although there were no large production shows, there was a group of singers called the Quest Singers and several headline acts. The first night the Quest Singers performed a show called “Thats Hollywood”. Some of the headliners included Chris Watkins, an excellent violinist whom I've seen perform on other cruises. Caroline Dennis a singer. Robyn Sears another singer. Cruise Director Russ Grieve also had a show one evening, and he is a pretty good singer. It was nice to see the Cruise Director perform, and it reminded me of the way cruising used to be way back when! The Quest Singers performed an additional show called “Sing It and Swing It”. In addition to to the shows, every night there was a DJ in the Looking Glass and some nights it got pretty packed. There was plenty of music as well, from the solo guitarist to the Quest Band, a Harpist and Jim Badger the piano player each night in the Mosaic Cafe. There were some theme nights as well, with the most elaborate being the White Night Deck Party. This took place the night we were docked in Mykonos. Besides a great buffet on deck, there was dancing to the band and singers, the DJ, and even a fun performance by one of the bartenders. It was a great night and the pool deck looked spectacular with the lights of Mykonos in the background. Magical!
Staff and Crew:
If there is one aspect of Azamara Club Cruises that stood out above and beyond all the rest, it's the Offices, Staff, and Crew. They were simply the best I've encountered on any cruise. They were universally friendly, sincere, and absolutely thrilled to be working for Azamara and on the QUEST. I did not encounter one rude or even indifferent crew member. I also detected this crew wasn't just putting on a good face, they were sincere in their interactions and often spoke about how well Azamara treats them and that it's the best line they have worked for. Many have worked on Celebrity and Royal Caribbean, or even other lines but they all universally praised Azamara. To me this speaks volumes as I know it's difficult keeping morale up and a staff motivated in the service industry. No doubt the overall tone of the work environment is set by the Captain, and Captain Carl was one of the most friendly, chatty, and visible Captain's I've ever encountered. The Officer's and Staff did not hide on the QUEST as they do on some ships. They were out and about day and night, even providing such personal touches as the Hotel & Cruise Director on the gangway wishing you a great day as you went off to explore the various ports. Even the security staff was friendly, which is a rarity on cruise ships these days. As you returned to the ship, they would say “welcome home” which was a nice touch. I don't think I've ever experienced such a high level of personal service even on luxury lines like Silversea. Azamara should truly be commended for the amazing group of people they have working for them. Bravo!
Leaving the ship was just as easy and organized as embarking. Again no lines and we simply walked off at our designated time. We arranged a private car transfer for the ride to the airport and our driver was waiting for us just outside the terminal. All in all effortless.
Just outside Naples, Sorrento is a beautiful seaside town. This is the only port where we booked an organized Azamara tour. We have always wanted to see Capri, so that is the tour we opted for. It was nicely organized and it was great not to have to think or plan anything. We took a ferry from Sorrento to Capri and toured the main town as well as Ana Capri, which is the highest village on the island. In Ana Capri we enjoyed the chair lift to an even higher vantage point and took in the amazing views. There was plenty of time to explore the main town of Capri, which is beautiful and quite scenic in it's own right. Plenty of shopping opportunities and a wonderful lunch at Villa Verde for authentic Napoli Pizza and the best Caprese Salad I've ever tasted! I wish I would have purchased their unique brand of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. It was awesome. A fun ending to the day was an E-Ticket ride on the ship's tender from Sorrento back to the QUEST. Talk about rock and roll!
Due to winds and high seas, Captain Carl opted to dock in Messina instead of tender to Taormina. This was unfortunate as it meant a 30-45 minute motorcoach ride into Taormina which Azamara provided at no cost. With the motorcoach ride in mind, we opted to stay onboard ship and enjoyed the pool and a leisurely lunch. I had been to Taormina years ago, and all that went mentioned how beautiful it was, similar to Capri.
After Messina we had a day at sea and encountered fairly rough seas on the way to Crete. During the day was not bad, but at night the ship was really moving. Items were falling off the dressers in the cabin, and our TV kept knocking into the wall (it's on a swivel bracket). It made sleeping a little difficult but I generally enjoy rough weather and this was no exception. My partner has a different opinion!
Chania, Crete, Greece
We docked in Chania instead of tendering, again because of the choppy seas. Azamara provided a complimentary motorcoach for the 20 minute ride into town. It's not the most scenic drive, and in fact while sitting on the bus we started wondering if we should have stayed on the ship again. I'm glad we didn't, because once we walked into the town and the waterfront area, it was quite charming and well worth the visit. Lots of shopping and eating opportunities.
For me Mykonos was the highlight port of the cruise. It's picture perfect and hasn't changed all that much from my last visit almost 20 years ago. We docked in the new port area which didn't even exist during my last visit. A short motorcoach ride into town was again offered by Azamara. From there it's easy to walk around the entire town, getting lost in the charming walkways loaded with shops and restaurants. It's only a short ride to the beaches like Paradise and Super Paradise. Most everything was open but it was the end of the season in Mykonos, so some restaurants and shops were closed, and the beaches were not crowded like they normally would be during the peak of Summer. We stayed docked in Mykonos until 11pm so it was easy to enjoy dinner in town and some drinks at one of the many waterfront bars and clubs.
We docked in Kusadasi, and most people headed over to Ephesus which is a must see. We had just been to Ephesus for a second time two years ago, so no need to return so soon. We just had a casual and relaxing day walking around the town and doing a little shopping. Kusadasi was a great opportunity to buy those last minute gifts we avoided earlier in the cruise.
As you can probably tell, my expectations were certainly exceeded on this cruise. In fact I would vote it as one of my best. The combination of some lovely ports, interesting and charming fellow passengers, a beautiful boutique-like ship, some special Azamara touches, great food and service, and most of all the fantastic staff and crew truly made this cruise one for the memory books. I highly recommend Azamara for anyone interested in a fantastic experience at an exceptional value. I'm looking forward to another Azamara cruise, hopefully in Southeast Asia if I'm lucky! If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to ask. I also hope you enjoy the pictures. I did my best to capture just about every area of the ship, and the link is located at the top of this review.
I have to agree with your assessment of the food, service and staff onboard Azamara. My wife and I sailed on them a few months after their inception. They had some growing pains but a new Hotel Director and Food and Beverage manager were brought on for our cruise and the passengers who had been on the previous cruise said it was a night and day difference.
Hopefully, I will sail Azamara again. We are sailing Southeast Asia in 12/12 and wanted to go with Azamara but their schedule conflicted with ours so we had to go with Celebrity Millennium. I was hoping for Azamara. When we sailed we were in a standard, deck 6, balcony cabin and still had great service from our combination butler/room steward.
Thanks for posting the review. I hope it entices others to sail Azamara and also to post their experiences.
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