Sunday, March 10, 2013

Azamara Quest-1

Ben and I have wanted to try Azamara Club Cruises ever since the line made her debut about five years ago. We finally got the chance during our agency's national conference last fall by placing the winning bid for an Azamara cruise donated for the Make-A-Wish Foundation auction. The next challenge was finding a date that worked for us and that Azamara would approve. So, here we are, back in the Caribbean, though hitting a couple of new ports for us and definitely sailing in a different style.

Azamara purchased two of the former Renaissance ("R") ships when that cruise line defaulted several years ago. Oceania and Princess bought some, too. These ships are popular because of their size: only about 690 passengers and small enough to enter ports the big ships cannot. For that reason, all of these ships under their current ownership are about the destination, not a multitude of onboard activities to keep passengers constantly entertained. Five years ago, Ben and I sailed on one of the two "R" ships Princess purchased, the Tahitian Princess (renamed Ocean Princess more recently), to French Polynesia--again, a destination cruise where small ships have a huge advantage.

Azamara sets itself apart from the others, however, including Oceania, by adding more value into the purchase price. On our itinerary, sodas and bottled water are always complimentary, and generous wine and beer are served with both lunch and dinner. At other times, passengers pay for wine and beer and always pay for liquor. That will change shortly when the European season begins and everything but the most premium brands come free of charge. I posted a blog recently with more details. Even the once for-pay specialty coffee bar is now complimentary, unless you want to spike up your coffee with liquor.

Back to our personal cruise now on the Azamara Quest. This itinerary, called the 12-Night Virgin Islands & Frenchmen Voyage, is sailing roundtrip from Miami, a drive-to port for many onboard, so the average age tracks a little older than usual. That said, there are only about 380 US passengers sailing, followed by about 100 each from Canada and the UK. The rest are an interesting mix from mostly European countries. This is not a young person's cruise line, though, because there really isn't much to do onboard. The small casino is busy enough each evening; there is the usual assortment of music trivia, bingo, port lectures, and enrichment classes (dance and fitness classes, bridge, wine tasting, etc.); and spa services are plentiful. But if rock-climbing walls, ice bars, ice skating rinks, and and nonstop activity attract you more than the desintations themselves, there are plenty other ships from which to choose.

I can say honestly already that the service we have received on this ship has been superb. Even with the huge crew change in Miami following the Quest's South America season, with some returning from vacations and others beginning theirs, any kinks usually associated with "team rebuilding" seem to have been worked out quickly. You don't see and hear a band playing incessant Caribbean melodies on the pool deck, nor do you hear bar staff weaving among the pool chairs pushing drinks. What you do see are those same wait staff circulating with glasses of chilled water and an afternoon sorbet to cool you off. Order a bar drink if you like, sure, but no pressure, mon. Nice touch.

We knew not to expect lavish production shows, but have been very pleasantly suprised at the calibre of entertainers. The ship's singers and dancers are topnotch, and visiting award-winning pianist and master magician Garin Bader dazzled us with his abilities in both genre: think Liberace meets magic. For his encore performance two nights later, he performed a concert of classical piano while telling us the stories behind the piece and his relationship with it--from Rachmaninoff and Dubussy to Chopin. No easy pieces among them. He said he'd be back in Vegas this May. Check him out if you're in town.

Also onboard are special guest singers and a harpist. The most fun night, though, was Azamara's signature White Night pool deck party featuring the ship's singers and dancers and a delicious buffet--and great dance music! Brings out the crazy in all of us. I also need to mention the beautiful library with an extensive collection of reading materials for a ship. No excuse for running out of a book to read here.

  I gotta tell you about the food, too, but you'll have to wait for my next blog! Cheers from St Maarten!

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