I am a newly minted fan of Azamara Club Cruises. Of course, we at Popular Cruising have become quite familiar with the rest of the Royal Caribbean family of cruise lines over the years, sailing many times onboard the excellent Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean International, but Azamara was entirely new to us just weeks ago. To us now, Azamara is clearly a gem of a cruise line.
Sailing aboard the Azamara Quest for 18 beautiful days from South America to North America was a revelation of contrasts. She is by no means an Oasis of the Seas nor does she pretend to be, and that is not a bad thing. As an aside, it truly is impressive how Royal Caribbean corporately can offer the best of all worlds to passengers from mega cruise ships to the intimate 30,000 ton Azamara twins.
Over the last few months, the Azamara Quest along with her sister ship, the Azamara Journey, have been refurbished with new deep blue exterior colors and polished interior venues. The resulting small ship experience is every bit as rewarding as the brochure would have you believe. Sure, Azamara’s ships don’t have onboard ziplines and ice rinks, but what they offer instead is extraordinary dedication to stellar itineraries, service, dining and entertainment wrapped in a nearly all-inclusive package.
Azamara emphasizes its itineraries more than anything and rightly so. The cruise line doesn’t just continuously serve up Caribbean roundtrips but rather focuses on breathtaking exotic locales with very little repetition. In fact, many passengers book multiple back-to-back segments to see even more. Our South American journey alone from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for instance, was perfectly sublime in its extraordinary nature.
What’s more, Azamara makes a point of staying in many ports longer than usual and even remaining in some overnight to facilitate what the line likes to refer to as “destination immersion.” And this does indeed make a difference. As an example, Rio was our port of embarkation, and most times these are transitive ports with no real time to see anything prior to the ship sailing away to port number two. However, our overnight stay allowed us to get some great touring in on the day following our check-in.
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from the ship itself knowing that Azamara’s fleet of two ships is composed entirely of vessels from the once beloved but failed Renaissance Cruises. Formerly R7, Azamara Quest is actually quite lovely. The Victorian design cues hearken back to the days of vintage ocean liners, and the virtual effect of taking you back in time is just marvelous.
For a smaller ship, she really does come equipped with several exceptional venues. Five restaurants – if you include the great pool grill – serve exquisite cuisine; The Cabaret hosts standout entertainment; the Astral Spa, Casino Luxe and onboard shops let you have some spending fun; and the fine comfort of the Looking Glass observation lounge, The Drawing Room library, Mosaic Cafe coffee house and pool deck round out the whole package.
Staterooms onboard are smaller than today’s average but do remain comfortable and functional for two guests. A third occupant might struggle with storage space. The only real achilles heal of the ship are the tiny cabin bathrooms and showers in particular. Another four inches here and there would have made a huge difference in one’s ability to successfully turn around without becoming engulfed by the curtain.
To be sure, this is an inherited design flaw from the Renaissance Cruises days and not a fault to be assigned to Azamara, but some solutions to this problem should really be considered. In fact, my father was onboard with me, and he’s a residential building contractor. We work together remodeling homes when we’re not cruising the high seas, and we think we have some ideas.
A simple solution would be to install a new hanging track for the shower curtain that draws it out a bit farther into the rest of the bathroom with a magnetic catch on the bottom shower dam. This would be akin to the arced shower bars sometimes seen in shoreside hotels to facilitate easier upper body movement. A more extensive approach would be to keep the existing shower pan but push out the perimeter walls a bit, having them funnel down to the drain. There does appear to be room for this since the headboard for the bed doesn’t even extend fully to the bathroom wall. And thus ends the musings of two remodelers. Thanks for bearing with us.
One of the greatest things experienced onboard Azamara is the line’s exemplary service. All the staff are attentive but not overly so, and each of them is friendly to the point of striking up conversations more freely than on other lines.
It was also a pleasant surprise to see the delightful cruise director and hotel director ever so present around the ship, serving food to passengers at officers’ deck barbecues and personally welcoming us back after days ashore.
And to top it all off, our captain was not only the master of the ship but also at holding our attention with his amusing quips and historical anecdotes. Quite simply, the Azamara crew is a top notch team and family that makes you feel like a part of them more than I ever have before.
There were a lot of “Wow!” moments onboard the Azamara Quest, and more often than not, they were in response to the incredible food we enjoyed. Now, usually a guest has to go to a specialty restaurant on a cruise ship to approach this kind of food quality, but on Azamara we found it everywhere. In fact, this may be one ship where the main dining room is just as excellent as the specialty restaurants.
On sea days to avoid crowds that usually gather at the lido buffet and pool grill, we like to enjoy lunches in the main dining room, and the selection and portions we found at the Discoveries Restaurant during this time were similar to those usually reserved for dinners. At any restaurant and at any time, there were always many menu items that struck our fancy when in some past shipboard experiences we have struggled to find even one.
As far as the specialty restaurants are concerned, Aqualina features a fantastic goat cheese souffle, lobster thermidor and chocolate souffle, and Prime C serves the best steak I have ever enjoyed on the ocean. Buffets at the Windows Cafe were also notable with fresh squeezed orange juice at breakfasts and fantastic ethnic dinners that varied each night.
All lunches and dinners come accompanied by a white and red wine of the day that is included in the cruise fare, and the selections were very fine. Plus, desserts were just too good to be avoided, especially the crumble pies and homemade gelatos. There is room for substantial improvement in the pizza department, however.
Another pleasant revelation was just how great the entertainment was onboard. The show lounge is not grandiose, and there is not a whole lot in the way of sets or props for the production shows. However, the magnificent cast of singers and dancers made up for it and then some by jazzing up the numbers with their sheer talent alone. The fantastic seven-piece orchestra also goes a long way to making the productions stand out as does the stellar cruise director who himself makes an appearance in the shows from time to time.
The stage arrangement also brings the shows closer to the audience with a main area raised up very little and the bulk of the working area being the dance floor in the center of the room. This works well for both revues and variety acts. In addition to the main productions; comedians, magicians and ventriloquists also take to the stage, and the excellent live orchestra wanders the ship for welcome jazz sets and deck parties. They even greeted us pier-side as we returned from a day of touring once.
Azamara Club Cruises already provides a fantastic product, namely formal luxuries without the need to dress formally, but additional improvements are soon on their way. Starting with the 2013 European runs for each of Azamara’s ships; certain beers, wines and spirits will be available free of charge at any time, and one signature evening shore excursion highlighting the benefits of extended stays in port will also be included per cruise.
There are also many rumblings about the possibility of Azamara acquiring a third and fourth R-ship (former Renaissance Cruises vessel), perhaps the two currently in operation at Princess Cruises, to expand its fleet. While this is very exciting news, I would personally be very interested in seeing what Azamara would do with a new-build customized to its well honed brand.
Even with its current two ship fleet, Azamara Club Cruises is clearly a force to be reckoned with, essentially offering a luxury product without the luxury expense. If you want to really see the world and do so casually without sacrificing quality, Azamara is definitely the way to go.