Fantastic food, lousy internet: What it’s like on the first Azamara cruise since it split with Royal Caribbean
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Editor’s note: TPG’s Ashley Kosciolek is sailing on Azamara Cruises’ Azamara Quest as a guest of the line. The opinions expressed below are entirely hers and weren’t subject to review by Azamara.
I’m currently onboard Azamara Quest for Azamara Cruises‘ first voyage — a Greek Isles itinerary — since the pandemic forced sailings to stop in March 2020. The brand is scrappy, having taken a back seat to former sister lines Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises since its creation in 2007, which forced it to operate with a limited amount of older hardware and a bit of an identity crisis. Now, under new ownership, it has resumed operations with a fresh perspective on where it’s headed.
I’ve sailed with just about every mainstream line, but Azamara was one that eluded me, until now. I was curious to know if anything had changed following Royal Caribbean Group’s sale of the line to a UK-based private equity firm in early 2021, but because I hadn’t experienced the brand prior to its changing hands, I can only tell you what the onboard vibe is like in the present.
Here, I’ll share some of my key takeaways so far, related to both my experience as a first-time Azamara cruiser and as someone on the first sailing back since early last year.
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The line is taking COVID-19 seriously
Azamara is following both U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Greek guidelines for passengers and crew. Anyone 12 or older is required to be vaccinated in order to sail, and anyone with children younger than 12 in their travel party must take ship-sponsored excursions in port.
The line tests all passengers at the Piraeus cruise terminal prior to boarding, and it has set up a comfortable area with chairs and large fans, where cruisers wait for their results, which are called by number. Crew members are on hand to offer water and cold towels. Passengers who test negative see their numbers appear on a TV screen. When I saw my number posted, I went to the desk and got an Azamara sticker that allowed me to enter the terminal for check-in.
The woman working the testing desk told me that if someone tests positive, they are tested a second time. If they test positive again, there is private transportation on standby to take them to a place where the cruise line’s team will assist with booking either accommodations or transportation home.
Masks are required onboard unless passengers are eating, drinking, swimming, sunbathing or in their cabins. There’s ample hand sanitizer around nearly every turn, and social distancing is firmly in place in all lounges and dining venues, with signage on the backs of seats that are blocked.
“I think we have the highest level of health and sanitation we could possibly have in any vacation option you could choose, so hopefully that’s made people … feel like this is a great option because we’re taking care of them,” Carol Cabezas, the president of Azamara Cruises, told TPG in a sit-down interview on the ship.
Although the industry is seeing vessels at as much as 75% occupancy right now, Azamara has committed to capping it at 50% for the time being. This voyage has just 220 passengers (about 30% capacity), including some first-time cruisers.
The lack of passengers is evident in onboard activities — trivia, nightly performances and entertainment in the lounge — which are sparsely attended. I’m told this is due to the lowered capacity. There are also lots of shore excursions available, but when I tried to book a pottery-related one that looked interesting, I was told it was canceled because there weren’t enough people signed up.
Some changes have been made
Adjustments have been made to account for COVID-19, the most major of which is the suspension of the line’s signature AzAmazing Evenings. These are exceptional local experiences, often at night, that aim to provide a truly authentic look at the places Azamara’s ships visit. Until at least January of next year, the line is replacing AzAmazing Evenings with what it’s calling Destination Celebrations — onboard parties that bring local entertainment onboard the ships for outdoor performances with port views as backdrops.
“With the current environment, some things we’ve had to adapt,” Cabezas said, referring to the temporary AzAmazing Evenings hiatus. “… [Destination Celebrations] will bring the culture to the guests onboard … Historically, we would take the guests out to a particular venue. Because of the [COVID-19] situation, we can’t do that anymore. I don’t know how long that will [last], but we remain committed to providing some of these signature types of product deliveries that allow us to really support the destination immersion promise that we make to our guests.”
Other necessary changes include a crew-served buffet instead of self-service for breakfast and lunch, as well as a sit-down waiter-served affair for dinner, and the temporary closure of extra-fee seafood restaurant Aqualina due to the vessel’s reduced capacity. Prime C, the ship’s steakhouse, is open, and cruisers who dine there can order from either the Prime C menu or the one normally found in Aqualina. To cut down on contact, fist bumps, which I’m told are a huge part of Azamara’s culture, have been largely abandoned in favor of nods or simply saying hello.
The brand has also refreshed its logo a bit to make it look more colorful and modern, and it entered into a partnership with a new retail partner. That means its small but well-stocked onboard shops now sell local crafts and boutique toiletry items, as well as fine jewelry, clothing and designer bags, including quirky and creative beaded statement purses by California-based Mary Frances.
The service is excellent
I have only sailed with a couple of other premium lines, but it’s clear the crew on Azamara Quest go the extra mile to make sure passengers are happy. On my first night onboard, I dined at Prime C with a group of other passengers. We were seated against a row of panoramic windows, and the sun was blinding as it prepared to set. One of our waiters tried to lower the curtains, but when that didn’t work, two more rushed over with a tablecloth that they pinned in place to fix the problem.
The next day, during lunch in the buffet, I asked if it was possible to get an iced coffee, and one appeared shortly afterward without a problem. At the Destination Celebration, I requested a fork with which to eat the baklava that was offered during the performance, and one of the crew quickly returned with one. At lunch in the buffet, I requested a single scoop from the gelato counter; instead, I was handed a cone with two scoops and a huge chocolate garnish.
My room stewards have also been fantastic. The cabin is spotless, and today, while I was rushing back from port, one of them went to my cabin door and unlocked it for me after he noticed I was approaching with my hands full.
The food is delicious
In addition to being beautifully prepared, the food is fantastic. It feels like there are just enough choices to cater to everyone for a ship of this size, with a main dining room, a buffet, a poolside dining venue, two specialty restaurants (one right now) and a cafe for small bites and specialty coffees.
My favorite so far is the cafe, as it lets me try several different options without overeating, and its hours of operation are quite a bit more flexible. The buffet’s sit-down dinner service has impressed me the most so far with its country-themed menus, which change each night. (So far, I’ve enjoyed Greek and Mexican.) Meals there can be as quick or as drawn out as you like. Conversely, the Patio, the poolside venue, was hit-and-miss, with one of my dishes delightful and the other overcooked and rubbery.
Technology is lacking
This is my fifth sailing since cruising has resumed, and what’s painfully apparent on this ship is its lack of cutting-edge technology. Azamara has its own app, but it only works on one of the line’s four ships, and it’s not this one. That means there was no mobile check-in, the muster drill was in person (albeit via video in a smaller group), and I’m not able to check the daily schedule when I’m out and about unless I carry a paper copy with me.
Additionally, the Wi-Fi was basically nonexistent the first two days of the sailing. It would connect for no more than 10 minutes each time I tried, and during that period, I was unable to upload photos, view social media or even load web pages in some cases. Several passengers who saw me writing this article at a table near the pool approached to ask if I was able to get on the Wi-Fi and seemed as annoyed as I was when I told them I wasn’t.
This is one area where Azamara falls short, and it’s taking steps to fix that. During our day in Cyprus, the system was shut down completely for several hours so it could be adjusted. Now it’s working significantly better.
In the longer term, Cabezas told me the line is working on fleetwide upgrades, including the app and the internet connection.
“These probably won’t be seen for a little bit of time yet, but we’re getting all new technology for the brand, and that’s one of the things that I think the team is most excited about,” she said, noting that improvements will also encompass new reservations and loyalty systems. “… We’ll be able to communicate so much better with our travel partners, with our customers, and I think that will be something that the guests will notice a lot more over the coming 18 to 24 months.”
“Our website will have to work differently with a whole brand-new, robust system that supports it, along with an app. But again, that will take a little bit of time because we’re starting from scratch. But the great thing is, it’ll be the newest and best technology there is.”
The ship looks great for its age
When we pulled up to the cruise port in Piraeus on embarkation day, the first thing I noticed was Azamara Quest’s shiny, new paint job. The vessel looks great, both inside and out, but there are some small things that remind passengers it’s definitely not new.
Azamara Quest — along with sister ships Azamara Journey, Azamara Pursuit and soon-to-be Azamara Onward, which the line purchased from Princess Cruises earlier this year — is one of eight R-class ships that were built for defunct cruise line Renaissance. When the line folded, the vessels changed hands before landing with Azamara and Oceania (which also operates four of them).
With the exception of some minor scuffs here and some peeling wallpaper there, Quest’s interior is elegant and upscale, featuring dark woods, neutral browns and creams, and pops of color sprinkled throughout.
However, there are two dead giveaways with regard to the ship’s age. One — the fact that the bathrooms in some of the lower-tiered cabins still have shower curtains — is minor, but it’s annoying. The second is more noticeable: Many of the entryways from public areas onto the outdoor decks have high thresholds. To comply with ADA accessibility, there are ramps in place to allow wheelchairs and scooters to move throughout the ship. I’m glad to see they’ve made the appropriate accommodations, but I wish they could simply remove the thresholds instead. (Several people, including me, have tripped.)
Cabins are comfortable
My first impression of my standard balcony cabin was that it’s a little on the small side. However, it’s well-appointed and has everything I need, including one of the most comfortable beds I’ve ever slept in at sea. Although there are some small niggles — touchy plumbing, a clingy shower curtain, a showerhead that only faces toward the curtain, a lack of movie selections on the in-room entertainment system and a balcony door that even Hercules himself would have trouble opening — there are good qualities, too.
There’s plenty of closet and drawer space, the furniture is functional, the color palette is relaxing, and I adore some of the modern touches, such as USB ports by the beds and a motion-activated closet light that turns on when I open the door and turns off again when I close it. There are also small touches, including fresh flowers and free soda and water, that you just won’t find on most larger ships.
The ship isn’t the destination
The trend in cruising the last few years has largely been toward bigger, more flashy vessels that offer so much to do onboard that there’s almost no need to go ashore. That’s not the case here. In fact, activities are pretty much limited to trivia, Sudoku, crossword puzzles, dance classes, darts and Ping Pong, enrichment lectures, golf putting, and spa and salon pitches. There’s so little to do on the ship that I was actually a little bored on our first day, which was a sea day. (But that’s by design, and I’m also not necessarily the line’s target demographic.)
This is a highly port-intensive itinerary, and Azamara’s goal is to better connect its passengers with the places its ships visit. By offering less to do onboard, it encourages cruisers to explore the cities on the itinerary. With Azamara’s focus on destination immersion, it’s understandable that the vessels aren’t intended to be in the spotlight.
Nightly entertainment is limited
Each night’s entertainment has been great so far. (I particularly liked an all-male vocal group called The Other Guys, which is what you get when you cross The Four Seasons with contemporary pop hits.) But it’s limited to one performance per night at 8:45, making it impossible for passengers to eat dinner late and still see the show. (I was told that, when the ship is full, there’s generally more than one show time offered.)
Other options are the same each night: live music in the lounge, followed by DJ-spun hits. The couple of times I stopped in, I was one of fewer than 10 people in attendance. I chalk this up to the ship’s limited capacity; it will likely be a lot more lively as sailings continue into the fall when capacity is expected to be closer to the line’s 50% threshold.
TPG’s Ashley Kosciolek is reporting live from the first Azamara Cruises sailing in 17 months. You can find all of her dispatches on her author’s page.
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Featured photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy.
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