I just boarded my first Azamara Cruise in San Diego this last Saturday. As many of you already know, this ship was one of the eight identical R-ships originally built for Renaissance cruise lines back in the mid-1990s. Now, I have sailed on Renaissance three time and its immediate predecessor, Oceania Cruises (with much of the same management as Renaissance) twice.
Azamara was the second cruise line to attain two of the R-ships (Oceania has three and Princess Cruises has three). When I walked onboard and saw the pool area, buffet court restaurant, pool area and the grand lobby with the grand staircase, I have to admit a distinct feeling of Déjà vu.
This stayed with me as I wandered around the ship to locate my stateroom, but when I walked in thew door that was where my memory evaporated like a wisp of smoke. I walked into a suite with a flat screen television, a huge ice bucket with a large bottle of Mumm Champagne chilling, with liters of both Dewar’s Scotch and Absolute Vodka, and a bottle of California Cabernet alongside.
Now, I soon figured out that only the champagne is complimentary with the suite, but it was nice to see that the other is readily available at a very reasonable fee.
But even better, as I looked around I realized how much this spacious room comes equipped with at no additional charge. There is the flat panel TV with DVD player, free bottled drinking water, binoculars and umbrella, plush robes, a bathtub, fruit basket and a spacious balcony with a dining table.
The room literature tells me my butler will serve ne breakfast or lunch in the cabin. I get complimentary daily pressing and shoeshine, daily news delivery, hors d’oeuvres served daily, and fresh flowers.
In the bathroom I found four large bottles of Elemis shampoo, crème rinse, shower gel and hand lotion. Alongside were too “scrubbies,” the things we use at home to distribute the shower gel over our bodies. Now, I had brought one with me because I have never seen them included with a stateroom before – but now I have. Impressive.
This cruise will take us down to Mazatlan and then back through the Sea of Cortes. I have wanted to sail on the Sea of Cortes for a very long time. I sailed the Mexican Riviera last year and we all know rthere are not many choices beyond that for Mexico cruising. But the Sea of Cortes in the other main Mexico alternative and I am hear to see how it stacks up in terms of Mexico offerings.
But mostly I am here to experience Azamara for the first time, and I hope you will stick with me as I update these reports daily.
Day 1: San Diego:
I arrived at the San Diego airport and saw an Azamara representative by baggage claim. She told me she could book me on her shuttle bus to the airport, “but a taxi is cheaper” she said candidly. Considering she works for the transportation company that was a pretty honest disclosure. I walked to the taxi stand and had a cab within minutes. The ride to the airport came to exactly $11 with tip, cheaper than even Ft. Lauderdale now that they have started “flat fees.”
For some reason, even though the much larger Oosterdam is here, we were given the brand new San Diego Cruise Terminal. It is nice, but small compared to what you see in Florida. I guess it is funny that they would build a terminal out on a dock (over the water, not on shore) so technically it could serve two ships at once, but the only other ship in port is docked at the old dock which has no covered building. Oh well, I guess it may take San Diego some more time catch on to the cruise industry. My cabby had never been here before.
Getting back to the ship; it isn’t good to rely on first impressions. I mistakenly chose to eat outside at the hamburger grill. The cook did not have a system for executing orders and was working alone. I ordered a plain burger with fries, and left to let it cook. When I came back people who had ordered after myself were being served. As a reporter I tested him, just to see what he would do, and he tossed another burger on the grill (they are pre-cooked but not hot) and gave it to me before it was really ready. Not too pleasant.
But lets not get ahead of ourselves. I should have walked into the deck nine open buffet with terrace seating. There I saw several delicious entrees, desserts, a salad bar and even a few self-service espresso machines. Yes, you can have espresso, cappuccino or other special coffee drinks on this ship at any time at no additional cost. That alone is a differentiator for many people.
But as I stated in my intro, the coup de grace is the stateroom itself. Ii am amazed not only at the roominess, but also the amount of storage and the number of amenities included. This is several rungs beyond what the old Renaissance used to offer. I have not personally been on Oceania since 2004, so I really cannot say, but I suspect it is close to what Oceania has become.
Here is the best part – with every suite comes:
· Complimentary coffee, soda and bottled water throughout the day
· Complimentary specialty dining for all suite guests (in the special restaurants onboard)
· Complimentary self-service laundry
· Complimentary wine by the glass in all dining rooms during lunch and dinner and by room service (let me repeat that incase it did not sink in – complimentary wine by room service).
This is a far more inclusive offering than I ever expected, and what is not included is very reasonably priced. I can easily see people migrating from these ships from the “all-inclusive” luxury lines, especially who enjoy wine with dinner but who do not want to drink all night long every night.
To say I am impressed so far is an understatement.
Last edited by Trip; January 24th, 2011 at 08:16 AM.
Paul, with all that you describe as coming with the suite I am surprised by them having the cheappy hair dryer in the bathroom. Those wall mounted hari dryers have to be the worst available. Even in the inside cabins on Carnival there have been normal style hair dryers in the vanity.
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My DW brings her own hairdryer on all of our cruises...even Seabourn.
It most certainly isn't a deal breaker. Besides, they already existed, so to take them out creates a cost of repairs that exceeds the benefit. (On a ship you cannot just tuck the wires in the wall and forget about them!).
I am in suite 8049, the large suites on deck 8 - it is very nice and roomy.
And there are actually 2 hair dryers, one on the desk I am typing at right now.
The butlers all went to a certified British butlering school - very efficient.
I am on starboard side, and I do have more pics coming soon. time for dinner TTYL... (thanks for tuning in).
Here is my latest update...
I just got a visit from my butler who told me there is even more included with this suite than I expected. In fact, the Large Bottle of Dewer’s and the Absolute Vodka are both complimentary for the suites guests. In addition, we get access to the thelassotherapy pool and indeed the whole thermal suite in the Spa area on a complimentary basis from 8:00 to 8:00 pm.
This ship has far more benefits for suite guests than I ever expected, including wine with meals, etc. I am finding it to be quite enjoyable. I did not know the wine was offered to everyone but that does make sense. Too bad it is not beer, though. Wine gives me a headache.
At 6:30 pm we will be meeting with the line’s Public Relation’s representatives and company executives. This will be after sail away which is about to commence. I do not think we will be sailing past the Carnival Splendor – she appears to be on the other side of the bridge that leads to Coronado Island. Not much to see anyway – it is just rather odd to think about why she is there.
We had a long dinner last night, as always happens on press trips. I was seated next to Edie Bornstein, the right hand to Larry Pimentel. Edie is a powerful, demonstrative woman where you realize immediately that she has tremendous strength of will and depth of knowledge. She knows cruising to a depth most of us only see in glimpses. Her perspective can take any possible cruise topic – such as why people choose certain cruise lines and the difference between marketing promises and delivery – and turn it into concrete answers and demonstrate the solutions Azamara has taken.
I have just come onboard, so I will have the next seven days to see if I feel Edie’s plan has been successful. Keep in mind that Larry Pimentel and Edie only got the reins of the cruise line about a year ago, and that it takes time for any new programs to become entrenched in the system. But one thing seems obvious, Pimentel and Bornstein have not just taken this job as another “gig” and when Edie speaks she doesn’t change the subject after a cursory answer. She is emphatic about Azamara and indeed you can’t stop her from talking about everything they have done and have planned for the future.
She is someone I would want to have on my team in any circumstance - the bottom line here is the amount of attention the line has put into making this a far more inclusive product but still at a premium price. As you can see, the following are all included for suite guests: gratuities, wine with lunch and dinner, bottled water and soda free all day, There is the Dewar’s and the Absolute.
Azamara features more ports per cruise, and one thing that really strands out is how they often stay overnight on the first port of call, such as Venice, allowing you to arrive by air, go to the ship and stat sightseeing. You can stay out late at night and experience the port by night (pretty unusual for a cruise ship) and then you remain the next day to see even more of the Venice. The ship will finally sail about 6:00 p.m., giving you a spectacular ride out of Venice at sundown.
Meanwhile – this is also important. Azamara has made arrangements with many cites when possible, to dock right in the city center. In Venice the dock just across the Bridge Academia – Not at the usual cruise ship dock by the train station. In London they dock downtown, and the Thames River – not in Southampton or Dover. In St Petersburg, RU, they dock not far from the Hermitage, or sometimes across the river from it so you are on the same side as the Peter the Great Cabin and the museum of Russian Political History.
During the early morning update from Edie for the entire press group, I realized that since I had been sitting next to her the night before as a “slightly less cruise experienced” reporter than myself asked her somewhat banal questions all night (“if you were going to start a cruise line to day – what would you do differently?”) I realized I had already heard everything the night before that she was prepared to report to us today – which I have already written here; the destination immersion and how their market research had shown them that people did not want to be nickel & dimed to death – especially with the new economy. It was refreshing to hear someone else as aware as I am of the date September 28, 2008, the date when Sec Paulsen told Congress we needed $780 Billion that day or else the world economy would collapse.
That afternoon we were treated to a private cooking demonstration by two chefs, and we learned that there are 54 cooks onboard this smaller vessel which only carries 680 people. They prepared a crab and lobster “haystack” and a special filet of beef, finishing with a chocolate dessert where they paint the plate with chocolate using a paintbrush. Pictures will come soon.
That night we ate in the Prime C Grill. I don’t even know where to start with this dinner, but I have to say it was the most delicious dinner I recall ever having on a cruise ship – or possibly anywhere.
I don’t actually remember the appetizer as I type in the middle of the night. But the filet mignon, a very generous 12 oz piece of prime Angus beef from America, was cooked to perfection. I ordered it medium-rare, to which my waiter replied “yes sir, mostly red with just a hint of red.” I stupidly corrected him and said “not too bloody, on the pink side,” to which he said “just a hint of red juice, sir.”
In other words, he was telling me how it was going to be prepared and that I should trust him, and he was right. When it arrive the first cut with knife required just three strokes and I was through it – like butter, almost literally. I out it in my mouth and it was not the least bit chewy. Instead it had that so rare texture you get in beef and even lobster at times where it sort of flakes and eviscerates in your mouth, the pieces getting infinitesimally smaller with each bite, so that with three bites it has completely melted and is filling your mouth with flavor.
Every single bite of that filet was that way, and it was delightful. I had no problem eating the entire filet bite after bite. Alongside it was spicy Israeli couscous and garlic mashed potatoes. For dessert I had a coconut crème Brule and also a chocolate fondue with pieces of banana, brownie and apple to dip in the not melted chocolate. I finished that as well.
I had no idea how stuffed I was until I got in bed and realized my stomach was pouching out. I cannot remember when I had food so good that I ate beyond the point of physical comfort. But it was not as if I did not realize at the time I was eating it how good the meal was. I said “that was the best meal I have ever had” to the entire table” before we left that night. But even now I am just amazed at how much I enjoyed it.
Even better, on these Azamara ships they tell us that there is never any problem getting into these specialty restaurants. You can eat in here anytime you want to. Suite guests are complimentary while regular passengers pay $15 per person (not much by modern standards). That was not the case on either Renaissance or Oceania when I cruised on those lines, where they were more courteous about not charging the cover charge, but it was much harder to get a reservation usually requiring at least two or three days in advance.
There is another alternative restaurant onboard we will try in a few days, and I will report on that one when we do. Look for my latest batch of pictures to come online sometime Monday afternoon.
Dang Paul, you have my mouth watering already. Great report, keep it coming!
Live life to the fullest because tomorrow may never come!
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Independence of the Seas Feb 14
Carnival Splendor Feb 15
Tonight we are doing a special dinner with seven courses - each paired with a special wine. Tey do this on EVERY CRUISE (not just a travel wroter perk).
They select the diners through thr first suite occupants to sign up, Yes, they are flexible by one person. I believe it is a free thing (on Silversea they charge $500 per person for this).
We just had a wine tasting - the boutique wine selection they have onboard is delicious. One thing I regret in life is that I am not more of a oenophile. But the sommeliers onboard are very knowledgable and will uide you through a great wine experience.
All of their wines are little-known - South Africa, Australia, Portugal, Italy, California and France.
Usually they pair a red & white from the same region each night.
This is certainly a "suite" deal. I now remember why I like these small, destination-oriented cruise lines (it has been awhle since I have been on one).
More pics later. I tried a few times but the gallery did not work.
Just completed a 16 day cruise on subject Azamara Journey. I concur with your post regarding this up-scale market ship. Food and service was exceptional.
However as a single inside cabin travel I have a few comments regarding this ship.
1. Azamara does not know how to handle the single suppliment traveler. Seating for the "prefer to share" dinning room is slow and cumbersome. Dinner time frequently took 2 1/2 to 3 hours to complete with long delays between courses.
2. Showers in the inside cabins are the smallest of any cruise ship that I have sailed on. (I have cruised 63 times in the past 8 years)
3. Bed matress was old and sagged.
Given the above problems, I would still happly sail on Azamara again. These are just items that need attention and improvement.
Respectifully submited, Ron Cameron
Unfortunately, I am having problems loading picture.
Last night we had the special “pairings” dinner. This seven course meal had every course paired with a special wine. The line does this one every cruise at no extra charge for a selection of suite guests. This was my first opportunity for a pairing dinner and I do have to say it can truly be magic – especially the way certain white wines pair with different appetizers.
Unfortunately, I do not yet have the menu from the dinner so I cannot tell you what was paired with what, but I can tell you that once again the food was exquisite. As soon as I receive the menu I will share it with you.
Of course, the last three days have been exhausting, with having the Azamara “brass” onboard and having two and a half fully scheduled days with demonstrations, dinners and shows.
Before the dinner we were given a demonstration by the company that trains not only the butlers but the food servers (waiters) onboard. Our demo was on “butterfly service” and we press were required to get up and follow the cues of the head waiter, moving in using placing and removing plates, and remembering to serve from the right, etc. I felt a little like Kevin Sheehan on “Undercover Boss.”
Today we docked in La Paz – a quiet genuine Mexican town deep in the Sea of Cortes. Unfortunately, I felt exhausted and could not stay long. It is time of r a long-needed nap, and I will talk to you more tomorrow. My butler has brought me dinner in my room, and I am just watching “The Ten Commandments” for my bedtime story, along with the service for Gabby Gibbons on television.
It is surprisingly rocky in the Sea of Cortes tonight - I am glad ny wife, Lou Ann, is not here as I think she would nto like it. I am going to bed now now and will talk to you tomorrow.
I fanally got more pictures online - the first three days (Including the night I arrived) were about nothing but food - then we hit Mazatlan on day four (little to write about plus I had to work, you can read my daily update here:
And once again I had to do my column for FoxBiz which will come online Friday night.
On Tuesday we were in La Paz and for some reason I get very nauseated on the free shuttle ride to the city, so I came back spent a lot of time sleeping. I asked my butler to serve me dinner in my cabin last night.
He brought me lentil soup, Caesar salad, lamb chops and a cheese plate for dessert - all one course at a time. It was delicious even if I was a little under the weather.
Today we hit Tompolobompo - the port for the Red Canyon Train. I would go but it is a 17-hour journey (cost $450) and I am from AZ, so I have seen the Sonora Desert. But they say it is on par with the Grand Canyon.
I will start outlining the ship more with tomorrow. But the thing is - if you have been on Renaissance or Oceania you already know these ships - they have changed in decor, but not in design. This is essentially my 6th time on these ships, although my first on Azamara.
The food and wine are really the story here now = plus the destinations,
It is getting close to my last night on board. We wrote that we dined in the Window’s Café for dinner a few nights ago. That night the wine was Chianti, and as I wrote earlier I had a day when I caught the bus to La Paz and just ended up not feeling well. It turns out I spoke to the friends I dined with that night and they said they also felt unwell the next day. “There was something horrid in that Chianti” one of them said. Of course, I do not know if that is correct, but the three of us did feel unwell.
It is perfectly plausible that it is the cumulative effect of too many days with wine at dinner in a row. Naturally, I have not had a drink since that night, and this is now the third following night.
I ate in my room that night, and last night they had a truly delicious Mexican buffet on the deck that was not to be missed. I am not a big fan of deck buffets on big ships, but on smaller ships they are executed far better.
This one featured freshly barbecued lamb chops, not the thick cut as they brought to my room (a bit too much on a tender stomach), but these were more the type that are just two or three bites apiece. Many of the dishes were being cooked a la minute, such as freshly made tacos, burritos, steaks, chicken breasts, etc. In any case, this buffet was expansive and everything I tasted was delicious.
I followed up that night with a visit to see the duo performing in the Looking Glass Lounge. This is the “windows on the world” room with a view over the bridge. I have the say the view was a lot more inviting than the music. This duo, Ray and Carla, are in their 50s and while she can sing a little it is very hard not to be thoroughly distracted by Ray’s most horrible fitting toupee in the world. It looks like a Mexican tarantula jumped on his head and is looking in every direction trying to figure out the best way to jump off. So, I checked in on them twice while they were supposed to be singing in the Looking Glass according to the program. Granted the room was empty except for the two of them, sitting at a table and drinking and laughing, but they saw me walk and they didn’t act like they were going to get up and start playing. They waited to see what I would do. I walked out and they didn’t start.
I then checked out the Russian pianist in the main showroom. She was a lovely in person and played piano very well. But I know cruise ship entertainment. She had a crowd of about 100 people. She told entertaining stories about her life in Russia, and her playing was exquisite.
So what was wrong? The band had not learned her charts (cruise ships bands typically get one run-through rehearsal, but if they aren’t cutting it then it is up to the artist – OR the music director or band leader to make sure they get it right. No one was in charge. It detracts from her show when she is playing “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story and she has to nod at the drummer to cue him when too start playing. And the drummer was the best player. The bassist couldn’t hit a note off of her chart to save his life, can he even read music? Doubtful. The horns only had to some in once, so they got their cue, barely.
The next song her introductory chatter included a reference to “an imaginary symphony orchestra” which gave the band a reason to sit in the dark with the lights off) – the “imaginary” orchestra was pre-recorded and played on tape. This sort of worked. To top it all off, the sound man didn’t even give her a separate vocal mic. She would talk into the piano mic, which was placed inside the piano, for her between song patter, and then when she was done she put it back in the piano. Maybe I am the only one who knows how wrong this is – but to get the best sound, you can’t move mics willy-nilly, plus a mic set up for a piano sounds bad when used on voice, and even more so the other way around.
Unfortunately, I can’t say much for the entertainment on Azamara. I am in my mid-50s and it is frankly too old for me. There was a tribute to Cole Porter, and another tribute to Irving Berlin. I’m sorry, but every entertainment director should know that people always identify with the music they learned in their early teens for the rest of their lives. Cole Porter’s heyday was in the 1930s, which generally means you have to be in your 80s to get the most out of those tribute shows.
You know me and entertainment, I don’t like average cruise shows, but at the same time I get too impatient to sit through what they have offered the last few nights; a classical violinist and a classical pianist. When I see a cruise line offering such artists it usually says to me “we aren’t really trying in this area.” I do enjoy the guitar playing/solo singer Steven Dockery. He looks to be in his early 60s but does mostly Beatles and other 50s/60s/70s songs that I know.
The performer the night I had to stay in bed was a younger lady from Nashville who I probably would have enjoyed more. But I can’t help wondering if the line ever thinks of getting any act other than musical – a comedian, for example.
Even the cruise director on this cruise, Eric De Gray, is a former figure skater and music major with bassoon as his chosen instrument from the University of Toronto. He is competent enough, but tends to speak as if he has marbles in his mouth and only remembers to vary the pitch in his voice at the ends of sentences. One gets the feeling he is not really engaged in what he is doing at any given time, especially when he is singing, which he does with the same amount of enthusiasm as his show direction.
The enrichment lecturer is very good, a facet of every cruise I appreciate a great deal. And I especially give kudos to Azamara for having the technical ability to replay every single enrichment lecture on the television every night. I also applaud the fact that this lecturer is an expert on our region – the Sea of Cortes.
Still, the over-riding picture I get from this cruise line is that there are two areas where they excel; cuisine and destinations. As I mentioned, the free shuttle buses in every port are a very nice touch. I took a bus into Los Mochis, a city of 400,000 inhabitants about 30 minutes from where the ship docked in Tompolobampo. Now, to give this shuttle for free, as the line does in every port, is a very nice touch. I personally enjoyed the city a great deal, although it is not distinguished by anything beyond having “the second most drinkable tap water in Mexico.
I could have gone to the Copper Canyon, but the price was bit much $450, which is reasonable for once in a lifetime 17-hour shore excursion. I would have gone except that I am from AZ already, and do not the same thrill from a saguaro cactus as and red rocks as the average person.
Tomorrow is my final night onboard, and I hope to try the last specialty restaurant left on my list; Aqualina. This room has a seafood theme, which means I will be getting the lobster.
I have to correct something I believe I wrote before – that all staterooms have butler service, It is only offered in the suites (which is as it should be).
Now – this kind of thing always irks the he** out of me. I was watching the television and there is an interview with the chef. He says “you can call for a reservation in the specialty restaurants any time of the day.”
So, I had to go to the front desk today anyway to get my passport for a minute, and I asked the person on duty to get me a reservation in Aqualina. He picks up the phone and tries to call and then says “they are not answering the phone right now.” Hmmm
So, I ask him to please make me a reservation for the next night as early as possible, preferably 6:00. He says fine. Then I did happen to see in the daily schedule that reservations TODAY could only be made from 9-noon and 4:00-6:00. I was at the front desk at 3:45. So, I was 15 minutes early.
But he didn’t make my reservation at all. I went back to the front desk at 6:30 pm (I took a needed nap) to ask what time my reservation was and I was told “you do not have a reservation.” They had not been made. So, the person on duty called (three hours after my request) and was told “All they have is 8:30.” Well, I wanted early and I had asked BEFORE that afternoon reservation session had started, but the person I asked did not follow up. So, now I am stuck with an 8:30 reservation the night before I am scheduled to leave the ship. I honestly do not know if it would have made a difference if he had called at 4:00, as he should have done, but I do know he did not do so, because no reservation was made for me until I checked back at 6:30. If a suite guest can’t trust the front desk to make a reservation, what can he trust them to do? I suppose I should have called myself, but I trusted them too take care of the request. This is just a typical disconnect that often happens on cruise ships.
There is always the something customer has to learn how to do for himself – in this case it is making restaurant reservations. I would have used my butler, but why bother him in the middle of the afternoon (we all know that is when they have their time off). That was why I asked at the front desk. My mistake?
I think Paul's most recent post shows three things:
1. Keep things in perspective. A long rant about entertainment that you really don't care about or dining that evening just a bit later shouldn't create such emotions that it overshadows all the outstanding things. (I made a short, but stinging, review of Seabourn's main act on the Seabourn Sojourn's Maiden Voyage and Seabourn's then president was furious for me saying so. I was baffled because of all the raves I had given...lots and lots of them...but... Paul's comments certainly add credibility to his positive comments, but hopefully don't overshadow them.
2. Bad entertainment seems to always get more detail than great food or service. This fascinates me, in part, because if you ever go on a smaller ship and expect solid entertainment you will probably be disappointed because it is just not what the cruise is focused on.
3. Expecting the Front Desk to make reservations hour from whenever you appear is a disappointment waiting to happen. Should it be? No. Will it be except on a few of the real luxury ships with half the number of guests? Probably (not definitely). Maybe using the butler for one of the few things you can actually use him/her for (if not yourself) might have been a better strategy. Being nice is one thing, but complaining about the consequence of being nice is another.
As for Eric De Gray, he is a very nice person...very nice. But I was glad to see him finally leave Seabourn. However, there are quite a number of people that really like him and his shtick. I don't get it, but it is what it is.
And just another example of why toupees are stupid!