Azamara Cruises has come a long way since its hasty debut in 2007, and early reviews no longer reflect the current state of Azamara Quest. The specialty restaurants have changed fees and menus, Celebrity Cruises traditions like Michael's Club and the Cova Cafe have been transformed into uniquely Azamara venues, such as the Drawing Room and Mosaic Cafe, and the ship has really focused on creating a clear and distinct identity. (In Fact, the line, which was previously operated by Celebrity's management team, recently named former SeaDream president Larry Pimentel to helm it.) Azamara Quest has also greatly improved its food quality and evening entertainment options.
The ship is still working out some of its kinks -- such as the much-touted butlers that, in reality, are cabin stewards with extra assignments. Still, it now feels more like the hybrid it was meant to be. Azamara, like its near-competitor Oceania Cruises, is a "luxury lite" line, a term for cruise lines that offer luxe-oriented service and food and unusual itineraries at a value price point. On the luxury end, I appreciated the intimately sized ship with its tasteful decor, minimal queuing and across-the-board friendly and helpful staff. Prime C and the Windows Cafe were standouts -- a cut above typical cruise-ship fare.
The biggest draws for passengers are the fabulous itineraries, jam-packed with marquee ports and exotic destinations. Our 16-night exotic Mediterranean cruise, featuring Turkey, Israel and Egypt, had only 4.5 sea days, with sailaway scheduled as late as 9 or 11 p.m. on several days and an overnight call in Istanbul. The combination of enticing destinations, a comfortable home base and a price point slightly lower than its competitors is encouraging cruisers to check out this new line, and Azamara is already gathering quite a crowd of repeat passengers.
The ship does show its more mainstream pedigree, however. The photo gallery and art auction desk are prominently located along the main Deck 5 thoroughfare, and at every port, a costumed crewmember is waiting to pose with you for pictures (which you can then purchase at marked-up rates). Although the fee for specialty dining has come down, it's not free like on many luxury ships. Cabins run a bit small and have tiny bathrooms, unless you splurge on one of the suites.
Ultimately, the question is: How does Azamara compare with Oceania, its only true competitor? Having sailed on both lines, I'd say that Oceania runs slightly more toward the luxury side (no fees for dining, a smaller casino, no tacky photo ops). Oceania excels with food and its uber-comfy Tranquility Beds, but Azamara has it beat when it comes to friendly and engaging staff and entertainment. And, while both offer cheaper cruise fares than the true luxury lines, Azamara has been selling at rates lower than Oceania's for nearly the same experience.
Overall, Azamara Quest was a fabulous home base for a port-intensive itinerary. After over-stimulating days in port, the ship's calm and cozy atmosphere was the perfect place to unwind. It was lovely to be greeted with smiles and hellos, just as if you were returning home. And though I'd ideally wish to have every meal rate a delectable 10 and to be entertained until the wee hours of the morning, turning in at a reasonable hour without a stomachache from over-eating was probably a blessing in disguise -- especially when my alarm clock was set to wake me up in time for that early morning tour.
Azamara Quest's reception area has a cozy feel with the purser's desk, shore excursions desk and future cruise sails desk all located in the main atrium area of Deck 4, surrounded by comfy chairs and couches. On Deck 5, the Photo Shop is located across from the casino; there you can browse and purchase photos taken by the ship's photography staff. In the atrium area by the Mosaic Cafe are two boutiques -- the Quest Shop sells everything from logo wear and stuffed animals to rather expensive clothing, bags and sundries, while Indulgences offers more upscale purchases, such as designer sunglasses, fancy watches and liquor. The art auction desk sits prominently at the intersection of the Mosaic Cafe, entrance to Discoveries and the stairs down to the Purser's Desk.
The beautiful library is up on Deck 10 by Prime C and Aqualina. It has an extensive collection of books and a beautiful ceiling fresco of birds, giving the impression of a greenhouse. Although the library is called the Drawing Room, it's the Looking Glass lounge that offers card tables, board games and a Wii gaming system (featuring virtual golf and bowling).
The eConnections computer center is just outside the spa; if you want to use the ship's wireless, you must go there first to set up an account. You can purchase Internet packages for $40 (75 minutes), $60 (125 minutes), $80 (185 minutes) or $100 (265 minutes). Without a package, Internet use costs 65 cents a minute. There's no charge to use the printer hooked up to the eConnections computers; it's great for printing out boarding passes. The Internet connection was surprisingly good on my trip; it disappeared entirely for a few hours from time to time, but when it was up, the connection was always quite good -- no waiting for minutes for pages to load.
Azamara Quest has seven categories of staterooms. Inside cabins (158 square ft.), outside cabins (170 square ft.), verandah cabins (175 square ft. with 40-square-ft. balconies) and sunset verandah cabins (same size cabin with larger, 46- to 64-square-ft. balconies) have more or less the same layout, each featuring a bed, desk, closet and sitting area with a loveseat and small table. All are decorated in blue and white and feature dark wooden furnishings.
Beds are comfortable but are nothing special. Between the two regular pillows and two decorative pillows on each bed, as well as the loveseat's throw pillows, the small cabins can often feel overwhelmed with them. Outside and balcony cabins that sleep three will typically have pullout sofas, while inside cabins have beds that pull down from the ceiling. Balconies are each furnished with two chairs and a table -- great for eating, bad for lounging. Storage is adequate, but there are no extra cupboards under the beds or over the couches.
Bathrooms are smaller than average with toilets facing at odd angles into the rooms and tiny showers with the dreaded clingy curtains. Bathrooms come with bottles of Elemis spa brand shampoo, conditioner and body lotion (in larger-than-travel-size containers), and there's a hairdryer in one of the desk cabinets. Safes and mini-fridges can be found in the closets -- in addition to the typical sodas and alcoholic beverages for purchase, there's also a basket of pocket-sized games for sale. Flat-screen TV's offer interactive features that allow passengers to view their bills or order room service on screen.
At 266 square ft. with 60-square-ft. verandahs, Sky Suites are extra-spacious verandah cabins. The color scheme is red and beige. These staterooms have extra-large sitting areas with sofas and chairs, as well as larger closets. Bathrooms are huge, compared to those in regular cabins, and feature tubs and extra amenities like shower gel and a bath mitt.
For true luxury, Azamara Quest offers Royal and Penthouse Suites. The Royal Suites, ranging from 440 to 501 square ft., each feature a separate living/dining room and master bedroom, a master bath with whirlpool tub and shower, passenger bathroom and a 105- to 156-square-ft. verandah. The Penthouse Suite, at 560 square ft., has a separate living/dining room and master bedroom, walk-in closet, dressing room with vanity, master bathroom with marble features and a whirlpool tub, passenger bathroom and a 233-square-ft. verandah.
Suite passengers receive priority check-in, luggage delivery and priority debarkation; free garment-pressing of two items per person; in-suite spa services (for a fee); a private portrait sitting; priority tendering; a welcome bottle of Champagne; specialty in-suite coffee and complimentary sodas and bottled water.
All cabins on Azamara Quest receive fruit baskets, replenished daily; free bottles of water; fresh-cut flowers; turn-down sweets; afternoon canapes (you must request them); shoe-shine service; personal stationery; and complimentary use of bathrobes, binoculars and umbrellas. Passengers can choose from a selection of pillows: Swedish Isotonic, hypo-allergenic, a body pillow or a Conformance pillow. (Editor's note: I neither saw a pillow menu in my cabin nor heard about the choice from the butler, so apparently you have to know to ask for the menu.)
In addition, all cabins come with butler service. In reality, this means there's a staff member who you can ask to unpack and re-pack your luggage, make restaurant and spa reservations and bring you afternoon snacks -- but it's more like a cabin steward with extra responsibilities (when asked), rather than a personal butler who makes his presence felt and goes out of his way to enhance your cruise experience. Azamara claims to be working on improving the butler service, but it's not clear to me whether the butlers will ever be a real service or just a marketing ploy.
|Fitness and Recreation|
Deck 9 is the lido deck with one pool and two whirlpools surrounded by teak loungers with cloth-covered padding. Wicker tables and chairs are set up for al fresco dining by the Pool Grill; on the opposite side of the pool bar, a covered area offers comfy couches and lounges for reading or hanging out in a shadier spot. On the forward end of the pool deck, a Ping-Pong table is available for game play. One deck up, an oval track circles the pool area for walking or jogging. A half-deck on Deck 11 provides additional space for sunbathing and is a great place to stargaze on the one night the ship turns the upstairs lights off. The pool area was definitely packed on sea days; for a quieter outdoor respite, try the loungers on Deck 5.
Given the size of the ship, the Astral Spa (featuring Elemis products) has to be small, but it does offer full service. A salon offers typical hairstyling, manicure and pedicure services, while treatment rooms are available for everything from massages to facials and Ionithermie Algae Detox. An acupuncturist is also onboard. Wait for the in-port spa specials for the best deals, such as three treatments in an hour for $99 or a pedicure with skin treatment and foot massage for $48 (regularly $61). Passes to the thalassotherapy pool and spa sun deck can be purchased by the day or the cruise. A one-day pass is $19, a cruise pass is $99, and a couple's cruise pass is $175; Penthouse and Royal Suite passengers receive complimentary access, as do passengers who book a spa treatments (free all day for port-day treatments and free for one hour before and one hour after treatments on sea days).
The small fitness center packs a lot into minimal space. Elliptical trainers, treadmills and stationary bikes all have high-tech displays with TV capabilities. Behind them, a selection of free weights and a few weight machines are available for pumping iron. An aerobics area is kitted out with spinning bikes, conditioning balls and yoga mats, as well as a complicated-looking Pilates machine. Fitness classes -- including yoga, Pilates, aerobics, body conditioning, spinning and stretching -- are all free of charge. They're well run, but you'll reap the most benefits (and risk hurting yourself less) if you've done these activities before, as the instructor won't adjust your positioning. Personal training and body composition analysis are available for additional fees.
The best-kept secrets on the ship are the spa locker rooms. Use of the steamrooms is free (just swap your cruise card for a locker key), and so are the spa showers, each with multiple jets for a massaging wash. When you're tired of fighting with the curtain or banging your elbows in the tiny cabin showers, head on up to the spa for a more enjoyable cleansing. The anteroom between spa reception and the locker rooms also serves up fruit-infused waters for free, which are quite refreshing whether you've been to the spa, worked out or have simply been lounging in the sun.
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.
Azamara Quest has no children's areas or programming, though kids are allowed onboard. Infants must be 6 months to sail (or 12 months on all transoceanic voyages). Although the ship is not set up for kids, we saw more families than we expected, including an infant and several school-age kids, as well as a few teens.
The pool, Wii, some board games and in-cabin TV's are pretty much the only shipboard amenities that will entertain children. If you plan on bringing your brood onboard, make sure they're capable of finding their own fun while on the ship. Despite the lack of children's programs, the staff did seem to go out of their way to reach out to the youngsters; I noticed this especially in the Windows Cafe, where the servers would call to the children by name and engage them in conversation.
Passengers onboard were quite the international mix, though the largest nation represented was the U.S., followed closely by Canada and the U.K. Other Europeans made up the rest -- mostly French, Spanish, German and Dutch speakers. Azamara says a growing percentage of its passengers are Asian, but we did not encounter anyone from that part of the world on our cruise. Azamara Quest's daily program is printed up in one or two additional languages, depending on the passenger makeup, and an international hostess is onboard to meet with non-English speakers and translate the program if necessary.
Although a large fraction of passengers are seniors, there was a greater percentage of 20- to 40-somethings and families with children (including babies, kids and teens) onboard than I had anticipated. Azamara says the average age is 55 and older, and onboard entertainment -- from trivia topics to musical choices -- is clearly intended for Baby Boomers and their elders.
Azamara Quest's evening dress code is always resort casual, which means slacks and a nice shirt (button down or two-button) for men, and sundresses, dressy slacks or skirts for ladies. Dressing to the nines is the exception rather than the rule; we saw some stunning dresses in the specialty restaurants and Discoveries, as well as a handful of guys in suits, but mostly passengers dressed nicely but not necessarily fancily.
The main onboard entertainment venue is Deck 5. The Cabaret show lounge is an intimate performance space with a bar in the back. Instead of a Broadway-style theater with a big stage and stadium seating, it feels more like the secondary show lounge on larger ships with a small stage, dance floor and rows of free-standing chairs that are arranged in semi-circles around the dance floor. Sightlines aren't fabulous, so be sure to grab a seat early.
Continuing aft, the Casino Luxe features slot machines and gaming tables, as well as its own bar. Pretty quiet during the day, the casino is definitely hopping in the evenings. Past the shops, the Mosaic Cafe (formerly the Cova Cafe, a la Celebrity) is in an open, atrium-style space with scattered seating and a piano. This area is the hub of the ship; it's where you pause to grab a midday snack, hang out on a sea day with a deck of cards or a good book, play trivia or listen to musical performances. Outside Discoveries is the Discoveries Lounge (formerly the Martini Bar), which is the perfect spot to sip a before-dinner drink while listening to harp or guitar music. On Deck 10, the Looking Glass lounge has it all -- a dance floor, D.J. booth, bar, card tables and board games, and the Wii. Typically multiple activities are going on there at once.
Azamara Quest packs its sea days with plenty of daytime activities. (The spacing between event listings in the Pursuits daily newsletters is noticeably reduced to squeeze all the activities in.) But, for the most part, activities are limited to cliched onboard events. You'll find multiple trivia games each day in addition to line dancing classes, spa seminars on burning fat faster or eating more to weigh less, arts and crafts like origami or jewelry making, casino or sports (Ping-Pong, shuffleboard) tournaments, art auctions, bridge, bingo, culinary demonstrations and wine-tastings. Enrichment programming is limited to a handful of lectures about the history of some of the ports (on our sailing, these were a bit dry) and computer classes. Perhaps the activities are a tad lackluster because most Azamara passengers come onboard for the port-intensive itineraries and want to relax and take it easy on port days.
The best daytime event, by far, was the cook-off between the cruise director and the hotel director, which was more of a comedy sketch, even though one of the chefs did come out at the end to explain the right way to make crepes suzette. If harpist Mary Amanda is on your cruise, go to anything she leads (typically dance classes and a session on harp history and playing), as she's quite an engaging and humorous presenter.
In the evenings, you can find a variety of musical entertainment throughout the ship, including a guitarist or harpist at the Mosaic Cafe or Discoveries Lounge, the Azamara Trio playing soft rock in the Looking Glass, and a cabaret-style singer/pianist later in the evening at Mosaic. Pre-dinner in the Looking Glass is where the twinkle-toed ballroom dancers strut their stuff. (I'm talking passengers, not pros.) Passengers either loved or hated the musical stylings of Jim Badger, our cabaret entertainer. (Personally, I found him grating and overdone, but he always drew a big crowd.) The harpist and guitarist were top-notch.
Depending on how late we stayed in port, there would either be one or two performances in the Cabaret show lounge. The best acts were the solo passenger performers, including singers, pianists, fiddlers, magicians and other musicians who could command the intimate space without overwhelming it. A folkloric show in Turkey, complete with a belly dancer, was packed. The weakest acts were the song-and-dance shows put on by Azamara's own five-person ensemble; they were enjoyable but of lesser quality than the passenger acts.
Some nights featured additional evening entertainment, including a handful of well-attended karaoke nights in the Looking Glass, themed dance parties and an al fresco deck party, featuring a Dancing with the Stars competition that paired crewmembers with passengers for a dance-off. Dance music almost always consisted of bad 70's wedding classics like Kool & the Gang's "Celebration" and The Village People's "YMCA" -- old standards would have been better. We learned on the last night that if you want modern dance music, you can find it -- but only after midnight when a D.J. takes over the Looking Glass. In reality, the combination of Azamara's port-packed itineraries and jet lag meant that typical bedtimes ranged from 9 to 11 p.m., and often there wasn't enough going on in the earlier hours to convince people to stay up for the fun.
Azamara's shore excursions department offers the usual sightseeing opportunities. The offerings struck me as neither especially innovative nor active, but they did cover the basics (tours to Ephesus from Kusadasi, excursions to see the pyramids from both Egyptian ports). The tours got mixed reviews. It's hard to know if people had high expectations that weren't met because many of the tours were rushed, owing to long drives from the port to the attractions and the need to fit in everything in a short day. (The Israel tours suffered from this especially, but there's really no solution.) Our Cyprus tour had an excellent guide (well spoken and knowledgeable about many topics), but the five-hour tour left no room to grab lunch, creating a busload of somewhat grumpy, hungry cruisers.
Tour pricing seems rather arbitrary, with some being quite reasonably priced ($49 for our five-hour Cyprus tour, $79 for a 4.5-hour Pompeii tour from Sorrento) and others seeming overpriced ($165 for a full-day tour to Capri that didn't include lunch, $475 for an overnight excursion to Cairo -- we paid $225 for an independent tour).
I will, however, commend the shore excursions onboard staff for being quite helpful in explaining tour components, offering honest advice about whether we would be just fine doing a port on our own and even giving information about independent touring, such as where to find buses and ferries.
|Expert reviews are provided by CruiseCritic.com, an award-winning cruise community. This objective information can help you choose just the right ship for your next cruise vacation.|