Daytime activities include the usual gamut of cruise staff-organized trivia games, bingo and the like, conducted competently and enthusiastically. There are art auctions, but only on sea days; they are not over-hyped as they are on some ships. Enrichment offerings are excellent and varied.
As on many ships, every sailing has lectures by a "destination specialist," and there are other experts included in the mix to give more in-depth presentations on cultural, historical or natural aspects of the destinations. (For example, on our sailing to South America for Carnaval in Rio, the daily enrichment programs included lectures and Powerpoint presentations on the history and customs of Carnaval, and the history of the country and of its wildlife. One lecturer, along with his spouse, even gave samba lessons.) Another aspect of Azamara's enrichment program that we liked was how it made use of crew and staff members to conduct lectures, demonstrations or seminars in their areas of expertise -- such as the ship's chief photographer conducting a seminar in digital photography, or the Internet cafe manager teaching a class in tips and little-known tricks for Microsoft Windows.
The main venue for nightly entertainment is the Celebrity Cabaret, a lovely, intimate little show lounge. The room has excellent sightlines, because due to its small size, no support columns are required. Seating is in unanchored, comfortable chairs with small cocktail tables for drinks. Headliner offerings are typical, including solo vocalists, and instrumentalists -- both pop and classical, with a heavier emphasis on classical than on many ships we've reviewed. Azamara -- at least on our sailing -- has shied away from the more "Vaudevillian" entertainment acts (jugglers, comedians and magicians).
Of note was a resident "nameless" quintet of young, and very skilled, singers who performed three excellent reviews using little blocking (stage movement). One show paid homage to Hollywood film music; the second was a satirical skewering of television; and the third paid tribute to the age of "Swing." The writing was as good as the performance, especially "Twisted TV," which was written by one of the authors of the hugely successful Off-Broadway revue, "Forbidden Broadway." Other musical offerings in the lounges were largely unremarkable, and mainly created a background for conversation or the occasional ballroom dancers. We were disappointed by the absence of a piano bar, often one of the most successful lounge formats for stimulating passenger interaction.
The shore excursion department is a mixed bag. On one hand, the number of shorex personnel was huge relative to the number of passengers. In addition, they were, by and large, extremely knowledgeable and helpful, and fluent in the languages of the countries we visited. One member of the department, or designated crewmember, accompanied every tour that left the ship.
On the downside, the list of available excursions was thin and unremarkable. We were astounded that on a port call of four full days in Rio de Janeiro, there were only four daytime excursions offered, and all but one of those were standard bus tours. Though Azamara asserts that one attribute of "Deluxe Category" cruising is "personalized ... immersive" shore excursions, we noted that for the same port of call, big ship lines actually offered more options. Costa Cruises featured twice the number of choices, and Holland America offered 24 Rio shore excursion options.
Simply put, this is not a ship or cruise concept designed with families in mind. There is no kids' cruise staff; nor is there a designated area to entertain or watch over younger cruisers. Additionally, most itineraries slated for Azamara Journey are not likely to rate highly with children. However, for itineraries that do have family appeal -- such as sibling ship Azamara Quest's brief Caribbean season -- the line will bring onboard personnel to structure an ad hoc kids' cruise program.
This ship attracts an older (but active), well-traveled group who are looking for what are for them, hitherto unvisited ports of call. Different itineraries will attract a different demographic, but the line is marketed mostly to North Americans, who make up the lion's share of the guests.
Nighttime dress code is the increasingly popular "casual elegance." There are no formal nights, though some male passengers opted for jackets (with or without ties) for Captain's Welcome Aboard night and meals taken in the alternative dining venues. Daytime dress was dictated by whether it was a sea or port day, weather conditions and activity participation choices.
The only structural change in staterooms from the ship's days as the R6 is the creation of 32 Sky Suites on the top passenger accommodation deck (smaller cabins were removed in the process). Calling these cabins suites is a bit of a stretch. The area of these "suites" amounts to only 266 square ft. (with a 60-square-ft. verandah), with a sitting area rather than a second room, more like deluxe oceanview staterooms rather than true suites. Nevertheless, we found this category extremely comfortable, spacious and airy, with copious amounts of storage space.
Along with this new category, all the passenger accommodations have been upgraded in style and comfort from the Renaissance days. All the hanging artwork has been replaced, as has the carpeting, substituting bright warm yellows, reds and tans for the dark and dingy carpeting of the R-Series, while still keeping the turn-of-the-century filigrees and embellishments. The cabinetry, desks and dressers are crafted in rich teak and cherry tones -- in contrast to the Edwardian period paneling and wainscoting of dark mahogany -- injecting a brighter and more modern feel not yet effected in the public areas of the ship.
There are 10 true suites onboard: four Royal Suites, measuring 440 to 501 square ft. (with 105- to 156-square-ft. verandahs) and six Penthouse Suites, each measuring 560 square ft. (with 233- square-ft. verandahs). The smallest cabins onboard are the 24 158-square-ft. inside staterooms.
In total there are 321 oceanview cabins and suites, representing 92.5 percent of the total number of staterooms. Of the oceanview accommodations, 241 or 75 percent have verandahs. There are six staterooms deemed handicapped-accessible. Verandah furniture is contemporary metal frame and teak construction, with webbed seat and back for the chairs and frosted glass top for the table.
A unique amenity of accommodations on Azamara Journey is that each stateroom from the Penthouse Suites to the lowliest inside cabins has the services of a butler. In some ways the butler functions more as a senior cabin steward, but there are enough special services performed by the butler to make the moniker legit, including scheduling of spa and specialty dining reservations, booking shore excursions, delivering full in-suite tea service at 3:30 p.m. and hors d'oeuvres at 5:30 p.m. daily. Butlers will even assist with packing and unpacking. Service is so attentive that I began displaying the "Do Not Disturb" sign whenever I was in my cabin, so intent was my butler on checking on my well-being and satisfaction.
Bathrooms are comfortable but not exceptionally spacious, and I found the lighting to be a bit dim. Each stateroom's bath has a selection of Elemis toiletries -- the usual suspects including shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, shower gel, Frette cotton robes and slippers. All categories of suites have bathtub/shower combinations. The rest, all quite cozy, are shower-only.
Other cabin amenities include refrigerator with mini-bar (checked and filled by the butler), thermostat-controlled air conditioning, phone with voicemail, in-room safe and hand-held hair dryer. The flat-screen television carries the following channels: GPS Navigation, bridge cam, ship and weather statistics, port information, travel documentaries, closed-circuit feeds of onboard events and seven cable networks. The TV also functions in interactive mode, allowing guests to access messages, review their accounts, get general info, investigate and book shore excursions, order room service or wine, or purchase pay-per-view movies. Suites have DVD players as well.
The 18 Category Seven oceanview staterooms have panoramic windows with obstructed views; the six Category Eight oceanview staterooms have portholes rather than windows.
Azamara Journey began life as the Renaissance R6, and like all its siblings under the Renaissance banner, with its dark livery and subdued Edwardian style interior decor, it seemed like a diminutive version of an early 20th century trans-Atlantic steamship. Though the decor is evolving (and is dependent on its cruise line owners, which also include Oceania and Princess), the ship's interior architecture is still evocative of that bygone era. The main entry hall is straight out of the "golden age." There's no soaring multi-deck atrium here. Instead, there's simply a gracefully curving staircase under a two-deck-high ceiling, capped with a domed, simulated stained glass skylight, leading one flight up to the main public room.
As Azamara Journey, the ship wears the white livery of warm climes. With some contemporary elements that clash stylistically with the classic turn-of-the-century North Atlantic steamers, Azamara Journey comes off a bit neither fish nor fowl. The first noticeable mismatch is in the art on the walls. Its collection of 1950's and 60's photos of Cuban Revolution-era Havana, and some of the contemporary paintings and lithographs, don't match the vestiges of the ship's original design sense.
The feeling is that Journey is still a work in progress, and it remains to be seen how much will be changed to complete the transformation. I am certain that there are aficionados on both the "keep it classic" and "keep the shell but lose the antiquarian style" sides, and the choice is purely subjective. Personally -- and this is again purely subjective -- I was never fond of the R-Series style, not because I am rigidly modernistic, but because of the way the style was executed. Much of it is ersatz. There are faux fireplaces with phony logs, simulated cabinets with trompe l'oeil paintings of statues, plates and platters, and an unnecessary proliferation of objets d'art. Taken altogether, there were so many simulated or painted-on elements in the original incarnation of the ship that it felt less like sailing on a classic steamship and more like riding in a reproduction of one at a Disney theme park.
As for architecture, Azamara Journey inherited some of the best passenger flow I've ever experienced. There are no bottlenecks, and the only time a passenger needs to climb or descend a deck to get from one point to another is during the unavoidable situation when destinations of interest are on Deck 9 or Deck 10, on the opposite sides of the pool and sunning area. The design is simple and conventional, with the Celebrity Cabaret (show lounge) and Discoveries Restaurant at opposite ends of Deck 5, and most of the public rooms sandwiched in between. A second cluster of public rooms is situated on Decks 9 and 10, including the spa and fitness area, observation lounge, buffet, pool grill and alternative restaurants.
The other defining characteristic of Azamara as a "brand" is that it lays claim to ownership of a new category, or niche, of cruises, dubbed "Deluxe." "Deluxe," according to Azamara, is positioned squarely in the middle between "Premium" (e.g., Celebrity) and "Luxury" (Crystal, for example). In my opinion, Azamara gets mixed reviews at this early stage of its development: There are some successes, and some areas that still need fine tuning and tweaking.
Journey's public rooms are well situated, and the ambiance and decor of each was nicely tailored to the room's intended use. The Martini Bar is tucked into the niche between the central open area of the ship and the Discoveries Restaurant, making it a cozy and comfortable spot to gather for pre-dinner libations. Occupying the central area at the top of the grand staircase is the signature "Cova Cafe," which serves specialty coffees and teas. There is a charge for espresso-based drinks (lattes, cappuccinos, machiatos, etc.), but not for the accompanying snacks, which include cookies, biscotti, pastries, sandwiches and antipasti, depending on the time of day.
On the top deck (Deck 10), all the way forward, sits the Looking Glass Lounge, a perfectly outfitted and comfortable observation lounge. Glass is the theme, and it's carried out through colorful glass art counterpoints hanging on the rich, dark mahogany walls. Azamara has taken advantage of the R-Series signature large library space to combine library functions with the social functions of Celebrity's popular Michael's Club (and this Michael's club is a smoke-free environment). One deck down the "eConnections" Internet cafe has 16 guest-accessible PC's networked to a laser printer. Internet usage rates range from $0.65 per minute to $0.38 per minute, depending on Internet package purchased. Connections were fast and dependable. Guests with their own laptops can access the ship's Wi-Fi services from stem to stern.
As one might expect from a small, intimate ship, casino operations are limited; there is one roulette table, a few blackjack tables, one three-card poker table, a fair number of slot machines, and an automated Texas Hold 'Em table, which robotically deals virtual cards to individual terminals around the regulation size green felt table, while the common cards and betting info are displayed on a larger central screen in the middle of the table. The virtual chips won at the table can be traded for real money at the casino cashier's cage. Curiously, there is no dice table, which would have occupied about the same amount of space. Presumably, since a dice table requires four casino workers and the virtual Texas Hold 'Em table requires none, this is a more lucrative choice for Azamara.
Azamara Journey's main dining venue is the Discoveries Restaurant, located at the aft end of the ship. Dinner is served open seating at tables ranging in capacity from two to eight. A large number of the tables are rectangular two-tops, which significantly increases the flexibility of seating configuration; they can be pushed together or pulled apart to create seating for two to twelve (or more). Large windows frame the room, sides and back, and the ceiling, while low, is covered with acoustic tiles, so the noise level never seems excessive. Service is superb, often a bugaboo on ships where the makeup of the tables changes from night to night.
Typically there are six entree choices that change from night to night, including one pasta; one seafood; one fowl; one beef; one veal, lamb or pork; and one vegetarian. As well, there are usually four appetizer, three soup and two salad choices, with the addition of -- for an optional extra charge -- caviar service. A "classic dinner favorites" section of the menu offers comfort foods like shrimp cocktail, grilled salmon and Caesar Salad. Curiously, the vegetarian choice is not spelled out, listed only as "Please inquire with your server," and surprisingly there is no spa- or health-conscious menu. A selection of wines are included with dinner at no extra charge.
At dinner there are also two alternative dining venues, Prime C, a steak and chop house, and Aqualina, serving what it calls a "Mediterranean" menu, by and large typical Continental fare. Suite passengers can eat in these restaurants as often as they like, at no charge, while everybody else pays $15 a head. Reservations will be first come, first served.
PrimeC, the steak and chop house specialty restaurant, does a good job with a conventional beefeater's choice menu, though to my palate, the starters were more interesting and flavorful than the entrees. Main courses fall into two groups: "Entrees," which include choices from Fish and Chips to Mixed Grill (but no steaks), and "Steak and Cuts," which include steaks, lamb, veal and pork chops. The Steak and Cuts choices are supposed to be tailored to customer request -- i.e. cooked to order -- while the "Entrees" list offers less flexibility. However, I found it surprising that when I requested a temperature (medium rare) for the veal chop, I was told it was only available cooked medium.
Aqualina, which serves "Mediterranean fusion," is the second specialty restaurant. The food in Aqualina was quite good, but I saw little fusion. "Safe" is the adjective I would apply to the dishes taken from various coastal cultures around the Mediterranean: osso buco, rack of lamb, duck breast, etc. There was nothing challenging to the palate or unusual in any way, though my duck breast was probably the best meal I enjoyed onboard. For an extra $50, Aqualina also offers a multi-course tasting menu paired with wines. If you go for this option, be prepared to spend the better part of the evening over dinner.
Windows Cafe is the pool deck buffet operation, and, as this is a small ship by today's standards, is limited to one section. Nonetheless there are seldom lines at any of the stations. There is plenty of space between tables, and seating is available both inside and out, poolside and on the aft fantail. One caution is that the slate floor inside the cafe tends to get quite slippery during periods of rain or high humidity. The ship puts down mats, but when leaving the mat to take a seat, care still needs to be exercised. This floor is scheduled to be replaced at the next dry-dock at the end of 2009.
Breakfast in the Windows Cafe is one of the best buffet presentations I've experienced, regardless of ship size. Besides the self-serve buffet offerings, there were several "prepared to order" stations. Of course, there was the ubiquitous omelet/fried egg station, but, in addition there was a juice bar, which squeezed juice or blended smoothies from fresh fruit, a ham carving station, and a cooked-to-order pancake and waffle station.
In the self-serve section, there were at least seven varieties of smoked and marinated fish, a complete Japanese miso setup, a full spread of steamed vegetables, cheeses, unusual egg dishes (for example, little pastry cups filled with scrambled eggs and chorizo served atop buttery slices of toasted baguette), and there was always an interesting second sausage choice to go with the standard pork links. Two examples were merguez (a spicy, North African sausage) and cheddar cheese bratwurst. There was also a blintz station, and one serving various stuffed pastries: ham and cheese croissants and apple fritters on one particular day -- and all these in addition to standard buffet offerings!
Curiously enough, we found the lunch offerings to be very ordinary, though the Pool Grill did a bang-up job grilling burgers, hot dogs, kabobs, ribs and the like, not to mention frying what the grill chef modestly asserted were "the best French fries on the high seas."
At night Windows Cafe turns into "Breeza," the casual alternative buffet dining option, serving, among the standard buffet offerings, sushi and cooked-to-order stir fry.
There are extensive room service choices, including a very complete breakfast menu with seven combinations (eggs, omelets, salmon, Continental, etc.) and a la carte choices as well. A menu is delivered to staterooms each evening to be marked by the guest, and those choices are delivered at the requested time (between 6:30 and 10 a.m.). In addition there are typical 24-hour menu options, and during regular mealtimes guests may order from the Discoveries Restaurant menu.
I can say without equivocation that I never had a bad meal on Azamara Journey. In fact, I never had a meal that I would rate as less than very good. However, during the 12 days of my cruise I also failed to experience any meal after which I left the restaurant raving that I'd had one of the best meals in recent memory. I didn't see a substantial difference in food quality between Azamara Journey and the premium lines such as sister line Celebrity, and, in fact, I felt that the cuisine in Celebrity Constellation's alternative dining venue, "Ocean Liners," was superior.
|Fitness and Recreation|
You'll find an ample two-deck sunning area and plenty of comfortable, well-padded lounges on Azamara Journey, both around the pool and twin heated spas, and on the deck above (which also holds the jogging track -- 13 circuits to one nautical mile/or 11.5 to the statute mile).
Azamara, like parent Celebrity Cruises, features an Elemis-run spa, with full complex of massage, beauty and wellness programs, including acupuncture. The fitness facility is quite spacious for a ship of this size and includes a full complement of popular machines (steppers, cross-trainers, treadmills, bikes, etc.), and a dedicated aerobics area. There are organized classes/activities, but they are thinly advertised in the daily schedule.
Tips are included in the cruise fare, but additional tipping is at the passengers' discretion. Spa gratuities are not included in the voyage fare. And 18 percent gratuity will be added to passengers' onboard folio for spa services.
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