Posted January 16th, 2014, 08:02 PM
Last edited by YOW; January 16th, 2014 at 08:04 PM
Azamara had been on our radar for quite some time. Having sailed with Oceania some years back, we were familiar with the R-class ships and the potential they bring for a premium experience. We’d also been on all the mainstream lines, as well as Disney. About half our cruises have been with Celebrity, and this sailing on Quest pushed us into Elite/Discoverer status going forward.
We’ve been quite content with Celebrity, overall; it’s not without its flaws, of course, and no line is. Like many others, we’ve experienced a gradual decline in food and service over the years, understandable given the cost constraints that the industry is in, combined with price points that simply can’t sustain the level of excellence we’d first experienced a decade ago. Having said that, we were also holding out for the right ‘deal’ on Azamara, and certainly found it this time. The only downside was that, in case we really liked the Azamara experience, we knew (and still know) that it would be tough to replicate the value of this cruise.
We booked an Inside Guaranty cabin in August, and within days were assigned a Category 7 obstructed ocean-view stateroom. There’s plenty online to advise of the ‘quaintness’ of these cabins, which was no problem for the two of us and our relatively modest amount of luggage. The mid-ship location works well (conveniently/dangerously close to the Mosaic Cafe), and the view from 6046 is the least obstructed in this category, so we were lucky in that regard as well. Yes, the bathrooms are small, something true pretty much across the board on these ships, and that’s one factor that prevents Azamara from entering the ‘luxury’ category. The shower curtain was replaced during our stay, but the new one still had the same knack for hugging the showerer in ways that would otherwise make me want to be treated to dinner first.
Like others have said, the R-class ships are lovely in their own right, but don’t exactly have a “wow” factor. It’s more about the crew and the superlative level of service they provide. This was apparent early and often, and repeatedly had us shaking our heads (in pleasure, mind you) as to how they’re able to pull this off. Dining is also unparalleled, at least in our experience – we weren’t around in the earlier years of Azamara, so I’m not in a position to say whether it truly was ‘better back when’ or what have you. For us, nearly everything was seemingly flawless, from Windows to Discoveries, to the pool grill and room service. Some of the best execution was done with fish and seafood, both in the buffet and in the main dining room. The halibut on the second evening was among the best fish we’ve ever had, cooked perfectly and accompanied by steamed asparagus and a butternut squash puree. The prime rib on that same night was also stellar, just right with the rich flavour that a superior cut of beef brings. Other entree highlights included: Chilean sea bass; grilled rib eye; scallops; and veal saltimbocca. Some fine appetizers came out as well: duet of panna cotta with cauliflower and crab; soft-shell crab salad; and the always-available shrimp cocktail, quite worthy, much better than what Celebrity have been putting out as of late and almost on the level of Polo Grill on Oceania. Soups and salads were imaginative and generally spot on. The pasta dishes were consistently a bit beyond al dente, which was unfortunate, but the flavours were right. And the barbecue at the aboard-ship AzAmazing Evening featured some surprisingly good proteins (lamb, jerk chicken, King Clip Fish) as well as an array of sides and fresh fruit. There was sushi available in Windows every day, for either lunch or dinner (and sometimes both) – far superior to what we normally see on cruises. The burgers served in Discoveries (and with Room Service) have got to be the best at sea. The buffet spreads at Windows – breakfast, lunch, and dinner – present quality as opposed to quality (much different than the mass-market lines). Of particular note were the theme buffets for lunch or dinner, e.g. seafood, French, Indian, Asian, etc. Our only real complaint was having to make choices.
The ports were great – and just kept getting better. We picked the itinerary knowing we’d get to spend some time in Miami and San Juan, a couple of our favourite places. In St. Thomas we took advantage of the relatively empty ship until the afternoon, when we visited nearby Water Island. We rented a Jeep on St. John, lucky to find an agency that would rent for only one day in high season (same luck in St Barts). At Virgin Gorda we were on the first tender ashore and saw The Baths before it got very crowded very quickly (three ships at Tortola accounted for much of this) – yes, it’s a worthwhile visit, and I’d love to be there as part of an extended stay, especially so I could shoot in the magnificent light that sunrise and sunset bring (a definite trade-off for photographers taking a cruise, at least much of the time). St. Barts was great, another place we’d like to spend more time (although at considerable cost, to be sure) – beautiful, and like being in the South of France. We took a taxi to the Sunset Bar in St. Maarten and watched the aircraft landing at Maho Beach (funny how the photos got a little out of focus after a few mojitos).
It was nice on the ship not having to present one’s card to order a drink every time. Of course, this feature is accounted for in the higher fare structure... as is the superior ratio of passengers to crew. It’s great that this ship is truly ‘home’ – or at least a second home – for the crew. Being a small line with only two ships, and not much rotation between ships, means that the execution and cooperation are on a level that we’d previously not seen. The attentiveness, the personable nature, the fist-bumps and the down-to-earth, genuine feeling – this is what we’ll remember most about the crew, so many of whom made us feel at home.
We would love to sail with Azamara again. We’ll keep an eye out for the ‘deals,’ relatively speaking of course. It will be interesting to follow this line – who knows what’s in store, whether they can sustain the model, or how people will perceive the product if fares remain high and the ships don’t get enough investment. The age and wear are showing here and there, and competitor Oceania seem to be investing more in keeping the R-class ships in line with expectations in the current era of cruising. So we would recommend Azamara to friends and family – with a few caveats. We would be reluctant to do a Transatlantic or comparable sailing, both for the ride (we had some active weather this time but then we’ve experienced higher winds and swells with better stability from bigger ships) as well as for the lack of goings-on for so many sea days. And depending on one’s budget, we may question the value of an Azamara cruise if one were paying full fare or closely thereto – it would be worth comparing to the likes of Oceania or Regent, etc, on one end; and to Celebrity, Holland America and Princess at the other.