Sunday, March 1, 2015

Goldring Travel Experiences Azamara Club Cruises in Asia - Is it Amazing? Part VI (Hualien, Taiwan and Okinawa - The Kindness of Strangers)

“I man walked into a bar…”  No, it is not the start of an old joke, it is part of my “traveling” while on my Azamara Club Cruise on the Azamara Quest. 

Taking things a bit out of order, yesterday I was in Okinawa, Japan; in island off the cost of the mainland.  We arrived at 2:00 PM and were departing at 8:00 PM, so time was quite limited (especially since a full immigration clearance for the entire ship was required).  Being in a suite I was able to jump the line and was one of the first through and onto the complimentary shuttle bus to the main shopping street.  But if you turn right at the Starbucks (aren’t they just everywhere?) you walk into the Makishi Public Market, which is sort of like stall after stall of candy, clothes and souvenirs.

Makishi Market, Naha City, Hualien, Taiwan
I had to walk down the side alleys and found some great stuff including a crusty Japanese man who actually had a heart of gold and fed me samples of all kinds of good stuff from baby octopus to spring onion.


I stop by a store to by Japanese candy for my kids.  I see green tea KitKat bars, which my son loves, and then I see pink KitKat bars.  The clerk offered me another candy with the same flavor (which I cannot identify, but think it is sweet potato).  I fill my backpack with who knows what, but I know the kids will be happy. 


But then the magic happened!  I walked by a sort of rundown bar that, for some reason, caught my eye.  The big bartender waived me in, up the tiny stairs, past what I was to learn were two sisters sitting to the left and a very drunk guy (who said he spoke English, but was so drunk nobody could understand his English or Japanese).  The bartender pours me a beer and I am just trying to take this friendly chaos in.

And then this beautiful, quiet, elegantly dressed young Japanese woman, whose name I later found out was Kinu, entered the bar and sat next to me (not that there were any other options in this tiny place).   


She orders a soft drink and I ask if she speaks English.  Yes!  It allows me to chat with everyone (all five people) in the bar and order some local food, including goya – a bitter cucumber-like fruit.  (The bartender was also the cook.)
Who knew my "tough guy" bartender was also a cook and a comedian?
What I get is goya, tofu, SPAM and mayonnaise combination that is unusual, but clearly hangover food, as well as fried chicken with a similar mayonnaise sauce.  (My son loves everything Japanese, so now I understand his huge intake of mayo!)

Okinawan Bar Food:  Goya, tofu, SPAM and mayonnaise sauce
and fried chicken with mayonnaise sauce
Kinu tells me she doesn’t speak English well, but she does. We talk about travel, the drunk guy, my girlfriend and my kids.  

Kinu recently visited Kyoto and
recommended I rent a kimono for the day, like she did.
I think I leave that to Kinu!
Kinu tells me she plays the shamisen (an ancient 3 string Japanese guitar) and was about to go to her lesson.  And then the bartender comes out from behind the bar and sort of/kind of tuned a guitar and started playing and singing…interrupted by the drunk who literally fell off his bar stool to the laughter of everyone, except the bartender who quickly surveyed all the sake bottles to be sure none were broken. 


Kinu asked me if I would like to go with her while she plays the shamisen. Absolutely!  So we wander through various alleys and halls and wind up at a tiny shop with a really nice man.  We sit outside at a table and the man starts to play (he is really good), then Kinu played and sang with her sweet voice.  And then they tried to teach me!



Growing a beard and playing a guitar (shamisen)

After sharing photos (including Kinu’s visit to my next stop, Kyoto) it was, unfortunately, time for me to say goodbye to my new friend and a truly great day.  (It reminded me, a bit of a passage at Page 46 of  “Eat My Globe” by Simon Majumbar who was wandering around Tokyo and he too make a friend in a bar…never to be seen again.  The Kindness of Strangers - Part I.)

But the kindness of the islands of Asia was not limited to Okinawa.  The day before Azamara Club Cruises’ Azamara Quest arrived in Hualien, Taiwan for a somewhat short day (arriving at 7:00 a.m. and departing at 2:00 p.m.).  I have to admit I was pretty excited to be in Taiwan at least for a little while because it gave me the opportunity to, for the first time, experience just a bit of a Chinese culture of some sort outside of the dozen or so Chinatowns I have seen from New York to Brisbane, from San Francisco to (just the other day) Manila.

The big tour offered was to Taroko Gorge with another one going to a couple of temples.  As you know I am not really a tour person and, until now, our ports really were “do the tour or don’t do much” ports.  So I have been really wanting to just wander out, meet some local people and eat some local food.

I took the complimentary shuttle bus at 8:50 a.m. into Hualien (only 10 minutes), but the shops do not really open until 10-11:00 a.m., so I had plenty of time to just wander the town which, since it was Saturday, was very quiet.  As I wandered up to a park I spotted a tiny shop where two old women were making some sort of soup and business was pretty brisk for 9:00 a.m.  I gave it a miss and continued on my way, wandering about the closed shops…and then back to this little soup place.

Soup Retaurant, Hualien, Taiwan
They make one thing...and they make it really good!
Not speaking any Chinese and them not speaking any English, a man shows me something sort of like a wanton, but much lighter and longer.  I nod my head and he directs me to the back of the shop to sit.  My soup arrives and I ponder which of the condiments are best added.  


As I do this a family of four sits down and I say hello and ask if any of them speak Chinese…and another bit of luck:  The 14 year old girl does. 


Her father tells her what I should add to my soup and we chat.  They tell me they are on a three day holiday from Taipei.  I show the girl a picture of my 15 year old daughter and she is shocked not only that my daughter is so beautiful (and, yes, I must say she is!), but that she is only 15.  Growing up in the New York area does cause little girls to grow up faster (much to my chagrin sometimes…and the little girl’s father chuckles at that comment.)

As we eat our soup we show each other pictures, talk about New York City, and then I finally ask  her name.  And that is when another bit of magic happened: The girl tells me in English her name is Z-I-N-N-I-A.  I tell her it is a type of flower.  She defiantly says it is not.  I Google the word and show her a picture of the flower.  Her whole face lit up.  She was so excited that her name meant she was a flower.  There is nothing like that little girl look of happiness to make your heart melt.

Well, her father abruptly said it was time for them to leave, I paid my approximately US$2.00 for my soup and I was off. The Kindness of Strangers - Part II. 

I wandered about, with the shops now opening (finding the “cookie district” a number of free samples!), two very different temples





and then the local market.  It was very busy with people and motorbikes in seemingly equal quantities passing through with everything from CDs to clothing to fresh fish and chickens to prepared foods being offered. 

I was just about at the end of the market (having, of course, walked down most every back alley I could) and with about eight stalls left thought about turning around.  Then I said to myself, “If I don’t go all the way to the end I am sure to miss something.”  And miss something I most certainly would have!

There was a small stall where this wonderfully rich beefy smell emanated. I looked into the pots, noticing small piles of different types of fresh noodles waiting to be cooked.  

Soup Restaurant No. 2, Hualien, Taiwan
A smiling woman came over and not knowing any English very nicely “instructed” me to sit down…so I did.  She then busily put some noodles into hot water, added beef and broth and lots of good veggies into a huge bowl…and then the noodles…and put it in front of me.  It was a bit of heaven in a bowl!

The Best Beef Noodle Soup Ever!
It was so hot that for the next 15 minutes every time I leaned forward my glasses would fog up.  The spicy soup and beef(ish) parts were fantastic, the noodles were awesome, the veggies added some zip and texture…and I was sweating up a storm.  I grabbed a bottle of water.  The woman started to laugh and turned a fan on just above my head and nodded as if to say, “There you go rookie!”  As I left she gave me a bit wave goodbye.  The Kindness of Strangers - Part III

When I returned to the ship I heard quite a number of people stating the $192 per person tour to the gorge was OK, but nothing special.  It was not the first time on this Azamara Club Cruise that I heard this.  In fact, I have heard such comments on pretty much every cruise I have been on.  While I appreciate most people are afraid of the ship leaving without them, of getting lost, of having a bit of a bad stomach from eating local foods, etc., I cannot help but be a bit frustrated.

On this Azamara Quest cruise the folks I have spoken with (i.e. the “travelers”) have been all over the world, but for many they don’t have the courage or perspective to just get out there and talk to the locals…even if you can’t speak their language.  As I mentioned, early on in this cruise the ship’s tours were sort of mandatory, but now they clearly are not.  And I shudder to think that nine hours on a bus tour has the ability to enrich the soul and mind as much as my hour in a bar or 20 minutes in each of the soup restaurants.

When you are on a cruise with a great itinerary, remember it is not all about the ship but what the cruise has to offer...and that is the ability to visit places you might otherwise never visit.  (Ever think about flying to Okinawa?  Didn't think so.)  Take a breathe and jump in!


Interested in an Azamara Club Cruise or any other holiday?  Drop me an email at eric@goldringtravel.com or call me at (877) 2GO-LUXURY.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Goldring Travel Experiences Azamara Club Cruises in Asia - Is it Amazing? Part V (Manila, Philippines - By Day and AzAmazing Evening)

After the Azamara Quest made port calls in the more exotic locations of Bali and Komodo Island, Indonesia then Sandakan, Borneo, Malaysia and then Puerto Princesa, Philippines our ship arrived in the city of Manila, Philippines for an overnight stay.  To be honest, I have never heard much of anything positive about Manila as a tourist destination and, to be sure, that a somewhat strong anti-American contingent existed. 

Intramuros, Manila, Philippines
The Azamara Quest provided a free shuttle to the Mall of Asia, a gigantic mall that I am sure was of interest to some and was near the large Ferris wheel I would never ride.  And I had no interest in an eight hour tour with over three hours on a bus traveling out of town to a farm to make pasta or to see some resort.  I say this especially since the cost of tours on Azamara Club Cruises are, to be honestly, ridiculously expensive.  (Not just in Manila, but everywhere.).  Yes, there was a tour to Intramuros and Chinatown, but at $128 per person for a 5 hour bus tour fighting the notorious traffic with a short horse and carriage ride I figured there had to be a better way.

Manila, Philippines
Not really being enthusiastic, and after recovering from the two hours of drumming that greeted us at 6:30 a.m. (just thinking about that again makes my head hurt), I did some work and then headed out in the early afternoon for a walk as the Old City (Intramuros) and Rizal Park was right across from the port. (With the overnight stay, I could take advantage of not having to rush out or rush back to the ship; a very nice touch.)

Being fairly well traveled, and being from New Jersey, I am pretty confident when I venture out alone.  But my antennae were up almost immediately and I was looking for something that made me feel like I was in a good place.  Rizal Park, at least the part near the port, didn’t look so good (and really wasn’t too impressive) and Intramuros is not like a quaint walled city like you find in many European cities but a sprawling area with some historical buildings and extreme poverty interspersed.

And then small horse and carriage came up to me.  He offered me a 30 minute ride for 50 pesos (about $1.25).  So let’s just stop here for a moment.  While Manila has a very poor population (there are very rich and very poor with little in between), there wasn’t any way I was hopping onto that carriage and getting off for 50 pesos.  He knew it and I knew it.  It was, to be sure, a “friendly” game of “tourist rip off…or not”. 


My Filipino driver’s first attempt was to guide me through the aquarium or the mall.  No thanks.  Then, after a series of questions about my marital status and love life, an inquiry if I would like to spend the afternoon with a 14 year old prostitute.  No thanks.  So then it was if I would like the big tour which was “very special” but I should understand he works on commission so he only gets 30% of what I pay.  OK, let’s do the special tour.
The Jeepney is the locals mode of transportation
So now, rather than sitting in traffic that doesn’t move, my driver starts driving down back alleys, on the wrong side of the road, running red lights.  He stops at every monument, statute, plaque, viewpoint, etc.  To be honest, through his broken English, I am getting to see just about everything there was to see.  (And also to be honest, I didn’t feel the need or desire to stop anywhere along the way, so it was just fine sitting in my little carriage.)

Having your horse and carriage go the wrong way down the road
takes care of the traffic issues and give a unique perspective
(The large No More Lice sign was "interesting")
After Intramuros it was on to Chinatown – supposedly the oldest outside of China.  Being from the New York area it wasn’t really that impressive, but it was the place where my view went from seen dozens of government paid workers lazily sweeping leaves and rubbish with old palm frond brooms to cesspool smelling waterways and abject poverty.  


As we passed Rizal Park on the other side, I saw what looked like a bit of a subterranean shanty village with dirty faced young children who smiled and then tried to climb onto my carriage to steal my wallet and camera.  My driver had to kick one especially aggressive girl who was probably no older than 10 off the carriage and told me to be careful because she bites people.  (She actually tried to climb on the rear of the carriage as he sped things up.)  No photos because everything was tucked well away!

As I knew my now two hour carriage ride was coming to an end, I checked my phone’s map app to see where I was relative to the port…just in case he tried to play games.  And games he did try!  He stopped the carriage next to some large trucks which hid the road to the port and said the price was US$50 for his horse and US$50 for him, but since he only gets 30%, that meant $150 for the guide, or $200 total.  So I said to him, knowing it was more than he probably makes in a week (but not wanting to be unfair as I legitimately am a tourist and a gold mine) that he told me 50 pesos for 30 minutes, but I would give him US$50 total.  He protested…a bit too strongly…figuring I was alone and, incorrectly, unfamiliar with where I was.   So I looked him straight in the eye and said, “I’m from New York.  Don’t F*** with me!”  He took the $50 and shook my hand.

And thus he won the game of “tourist rip off…or not”  because he got a nice fee for two hours of work and I won because I really got to see Manila (the good, the bad and the ugly) and some of its dark underbelly. 

I was also quite happy that I was able to return to the safe, comfortable and friendly confines of the Azamara Quest.  (Yes, when you go to some of the less pristine cities, having the security of an upscale cruise ship does make things better…a lot better than feeling trapped in your hotel room.)


And then, in stark contrast, Azamara Club Cruises held its Azmazing Evening in the Intramuros’ Fort Santiago.  The VIPs were taken to the event in a ubiquitous Jeepney, though this one was quite upscale with curtains, upholstered seats and video karaoke (which, fortunately, nobody took advantage of).  


We arrived after a 10 minute ride (that would have been at least 45 minutes in traffic just hours earlier) to a beautiful greeting with band with dancers (akin to a high school marching band) playing American songs with some very enthusiastic dancing, as well as snacks of fried bananas, ice cream and more and rum punch.


The setting was beautiful and there was an open bar with local beers, wine and soft drinks as well as buffets with light snacks.


After everyone arrived (most in regular buses) and were seated a rock band went on stage and played Beatles music and got quite a few couples up dancing.  Then more folkloric talent came on and then the evening ended with fireworks. 


It was a very nice two hours…and a reminder that the Philippines has a hugely multi-cultural heritage from indigenous to Spanish to American and more.  While you might think this could create confusion, exactly the opposite seems true:  Filipinos have a very secure and proud feeling about their culture no matter from where some aspect of it was derived.  Interesting.


Drop me an email at eric@goldringtravel.com or call me at (877) 2GO-LUXURY for more information on an Azamara Club Cruise or any other cruise or vacation.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Goldring Travel Experiences Azamara Club Cruises in Asia - Is it Amazing? Part V (Perspectives on Experiencing Developing Ports)

Two of the great attractions of an Azamara Club Cruises are its exotic itineraries and late departures/overnights in various ports which give you more time to explore…even if you are back onboard for dinner. 
Proboscis Monkey
Lubak Bay, Borneo, Malaysia 
But to me the more interesting thing is the interplay between guests visiting clearly underdeveloped ports and their expectations as to what the tours are going to be like. And this is where the concept of being a “traveler” (Azamara Club Cruises’ target market) and being a fare-centric “cruiser” less interested in the itinerary, but getting "value for money" really comes into play.   And while Azamara Club Cruises provides good value for a premium cruise experience I am finding the "travelers" who are generally paying more are extremely satisfied while, ironically, the "value for money" folks look for things to complain about...in part because they want to "cruise" rather than "travel".

Honestly, it does become tiresome when some folks learn who I am and believe I am the great repository for all of their complaints (legitimate and curious), which I politely listen to and then, subtly, try to give a different perspective to consider.  As you read this article I would ask you to look at the photographs and decide if sometimes the imperfect opportunities visiting remote areas are worthy of tolerance and forgiveness or not.

Sandakan, Borneo, Malaysia
Realty Check No. 1

The Azamara Quest is visiting some pretty remote ports and despite all the National Geographic shows you my watch, the fact is that you probably should be watching Globe Trekker or Anthony Bourdain to have a more realistic understanding of what you will encounter.  Additionally, you demand things to be developed to American/British standards and tastes and be sorely disappointed or you can feel honor and excitement to be on the cutting edge of newly developing tourist markets.

Our Honda Bay, Philippines boat was not up to Western standards...
and you literally had to walk the plank...but the "captain" was excellent
and made sure we were safe
For example, in Puerto Princesa, Philippines I chose the Honda Bay Island Hopping & Snorkeling tour.  It says, for example, “hop onto a boat”, well that was quite optimistic, though accurate.  Actually we hopped into the water and then up a rickety plank onto a wooden outrigger “boat” of dubious seaworthiness (life jackets mandatory!) and then headed out to our first island, Luli Island.  And then…the winds picked up, the seas got a bit rough and the currents were looking a bit difficult.  (That’s where the italics at the end of the ship’s description come in, “Note:  such water activities could be subject to adverse sea conditions such as high winds, waves and sea currents” though not mentioning the small bamboo outrigger with a put-put motor.)

Cowrie Island, Philippines
When we got to Luli island I found out this was the first time this tour was ever run and that, as was noted quite proudly I might add, last year five cruise ships had visited the port.  (That would be less than visit Cozumel, Mexico on any given day!) As such there just isn’t the money – yet -  for the fancy boats and posh accommodations (and the locals probably have never seen anything like what you might be expecting.)  Facilities included table-come-bar (warmish San Miguel Lite for 40…or is that 60…or is that 80 pesos?!), a rickety diving platform and an anti-jellyfish netted swim/snorkel area with a few shacks.  You could call it charming or a dump.  I go for charming.



Note:  Just like I say to many of my prospective clients, one thing that makes Goldring Travel different is that I have “been there and done that” because reading something out of brochure of a computer screen just isn’t the same.


Reality Check No. 2

Tourism is new to these remote areas and the locals are learning how to (a) determine what they have which is attractive to tourists; (b) market to the tourists; and (c) understand that tourists view things coming from a different culture.  As a result, there are sites which the locals may think are great that a tourist might consider a “misrepresentation”; marketing that makes something ordinary sound idyllic because that is how Marketing 101 is taught; and, things such as waiting in a queue for an hour go from day-to-day life to a huge irritation because they weren’t specifically disclosed and wasted time.

Viewing Platform at Orangutan Sanctuary

For example, in Sandakan, Borneo, Malaysia we visited the Sepilok Orangutan Reserve which consisted of a 45 minute drive, a 30 minute wait for the reserve to open, a 10 minute walk to a viewing area, a 45 minute wait for the feeding, a 15 minute viewing of the four orangutans, then a walk back to the bus, a 45 minute drive to Lubak Bay to view the Proboscis monkeys, an hour viewing them from a viewing house and then a drive back to the ship.  In other words it was not the trekking through the forest or holding baby orangutans (long forbidden) some expected, but it was a controlled, fairly comfortable, viewing experience that 200+ people could engage in at one time. 


Was it my best primate viewing experience?  No.  Monkey Jungle in Miami or the Bronx Zoo in New York do a good bit better; especially with education of visitors.  But does it inspire me to maybe return to Borneo for a land experience or possibly on a more immersive Silversea Expedition cruise. Absolutely.  This was just a tiny taste!

There is something about seeing a Proboscis Monkey
in its native Borneo that is special 

Pictures of baby monkeys are always a winner.
And increasing monkey populations in a reserve that would have
been part of a palm oil plantation is encouraging
But I also view my tour including me as part of a new culture of saving the forests and these primates by partnering with the local people to make the tourist economy more profitable than cutting down trees and slash and burn farming.  It was, to a degree, a donation of some of my time, some of my money and, hopefully, a bit of inspiration to carry on and expand their efforts and commitments.

(It was noteworthy to me that at Sepilok there was no souvenir shop so no t-shirts, no donation opportunity, no stuffed orangutans to bring home to the kids.  Imagine the sales that would have been generated in the 30 minutes we waited for the place to open and the time we waited to board the bus!  The local populace is learning, but it will take time.)   

Reality Check No. 3

There will be some “hits” and there will be some “misses” by the locals.

For example, in Puerto Princesa, Philippines the Azamara Quest was greeted by many of the locals, with huge, genuine smiles, and small gifts (straw hats) as we disembarked and the same when we returned.  As we sailed away the local youth band and dancers put on a high energy, big talent, show that actually brought a tear to my eye as they were so genuine, so happy (you could see the smiles never stopped), and so wanting things to be special.  (Some folks who were poolside actually asked the ship’s band to stop playing so they could enjoy the show on the dock.)

Tropical Reef Fish - Pandan Island, Philippines
The next port, Manila, Philippines was a bit different.  We were to arrive at 7:00 a.m., but arrived at 6:30 a.m.  And the drum corps started and kept going:  6:45 a.m.; 7:00 a.m., 7:30 a.m. (I’m about to lose it after an hour); 8:00 a.m., and finally, with the ship asking for mercy, it ended at 8:30 a.m.  Two hours of non-stop drumming.  It was like being trapped in an American high school football halftime show…as you tried to lie in bed with the pillow over your head pleading for some peace and quiet.

As I write this I am “enjoying” another 1.5 hours of a “Battle of the Bands” in Manila as we await our sail away.  It is much improved, though, over our greeting.  And it also has provided me with an interesting view of the tensions here as we depart:  There is a fairly strong anti-American tone in Manila, but things like marching bands, cheerleaders, dancers and baton twirlers performing to American tunes from the 60s to present (including Frozen) is about as American as one can get.

Reality No. 4

The shore excursion staff (Land Discovery staff on Azamara Club Cruises) have probably not been to these ports and have little, if any, additional information from what you have been able to gather from the pre-cruise documentation and the onboard port lectures/television shows.  Folks, you are not visiting Barcelona so there is not a pool of knowledge to be drawn from.

The fact is that most cruise lines do not do a great job of providing local information because they are focused on providing tours…and those things are focused on information and places that can handle 25 to 250 people at a time.  But even then, many times the cruise lines are dependent on the information the port agents and internal shore excursion departments provide them. 

A beautiful crab in Borneo
Sometimes you just have to take a moment rather than race back to the bus!
Yes, Azamara Club Cruises does have local information agents board the ship for a few hours after arrival, but for those wondering about such things as how far is the assigned port from X or where is a good place to Y, it can be frustrating.

Azamara Club Cruises is very good at having a ship's representative on all tours and usually more than one.  I have been particularly impressed with Beatriz who is not only charming and intelligent, but enthusiastic while making sure things are organized and everyone is taken care of.  (The fact that her husband is a sommelier onboard hasn't swayed my opinion at all.  I promise!)

Interested in learning more about some of the more exotic ports or Azamara Club Cruises, email me at eric@goldringtravel.com or call me at (877) 2GO-LUXURY.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Goldring Travel Experiences Azamara Club Cruises in Asia - Is it Amazing? Part IV (Upscale Meets ????)

This is an unusual article for me because I am usually focused on the pluses and minuses of a cruise line or ship; not the cruise guest.  However, I have now been onboard the Azamara Quest for a week and find myself both impressed and frustrated. 


 Why? 

Because I work hard to be sure my clients are on the right ship, no less right cruise line, for their lifestyle and desires.  But on this cruise there is clearly a mismatch. You see, although Azamara Club Cruises offers many upscale and luxury options, and you can tell the staff really enjoy their jobs and treat you well, and the ship is well maintained (though the Azamara Quest will be going through a major refit in September 2015)...a significant number of the passengers (I can’t call them guests) onboard have no interest in enjoying the upscale experience.  

Seriously!  And I don’t get it…other than they chose this cruise solely based upon price and, to be sure, were looking for a big ship experience on a smaller ship and brought that attitude with them!

Now don’t think that the Azamara Quest is not providing a very enjoyable upscale experience.  It most certainly is and, of course, it is not difficult to avoid the prototypical “Cruise Critic” crowd…because they don’t go where you will. 

As I anonymously wander this ship it is very clear that there are those who enjoy a more sophisticated experience, discuss their travels, have interest in your background, etc. while truly enjoying all that the Azamara Quest has to offer.  They speak of their experiences on Seabourn and Oceania (interestingly freely blasting Regent Seven Seas…again  - you can’t make this stuff up!) and their love of cruising. 

While there are a few onboard that cruise with Azamara Club Cruises for months at a time, and I can’t think of a single suite guest that is not content (while I hear the grumblings of some others), I do not hear the devout loyalty I hear while on other cruise lines…But at the same time the Upper Tier Past Guest Champagne Brunch this morning was extremely well attended.

Now, before I get into the “Why are they onboard?” analysis, I want to mention some of those upscale experiences that are being underutilized.

Azamara Quest's Thalasotherapy Pool Area Overlooking the Ship's Bow
(Note: The swinging chairs and comfortable lounges)
The Thalasotherapy pool area of the Spa is a great space available to all suite guests with a great view over the bow, creative seating from linen cabanas to swinging chairs…and bar service.  It is also available to all non-suite guests for a small charge…and well worth it.  But if you don’t ask about it (other than being told the use of this hidden gem is complimentary to all suite guests), you are never going to find it.  (Nor will you find the small, but good, sauna.)

By the way, a very cool evening, and one I would definitely do if my girlfriend was with me, is you can rent out the Thalassotherapy area for a very private Night Under The Stars, with a gourmet dinner prepared for you, with complimenting wines, candles everywhere and more.  It makes for an extremely romantic experience with views of the stars, the sound of the waves and… SeaDream Yacht Club offers the opportunity to spend the night on one of its Balinese beds, but this takes the concept to a whole ‘nuther – private, classier, amenity rich - level. 

Speaking of cool evenings, The Chef’s Table offers three gourmet wine-paired meals (French, Italian and Californian) once or twice a cruise (dependent on demand)  at a cost of $95 per person ($225 if you purchase all three) and, believe it or not, getting enough guests to sign up appears to be a challenge.  (I admit I did experience the same sort of resistance on a Crystal Cruise three years ago and that was for one dinner, but the cost was higher.)

Added to these options is the very exclusive “The Best of the Best” Evening with the Captain and Senior Management with a private dining experience in the Drawing Room. It is only offered to the very top ten suite guests and VIPs.  It is a wonderfully prepared special menu prepared by the chef and paired with some very nice wines.  And, ironically, a great way for those guests which are truly Azamara Club Cruises target market to meet each other.  (I was able to enjoy this evening sitting next to the hotel director, Philip Herbert, and across from Captain Carl Smith, both of whom are delightful men who are incredibly approachable to all of the guests and, of course, truly nice guys.)

The specialty restaurants, Prime C (steakhouse) and Aqualina (Mediterranean) are wonderful spaces with the former being a warm, cozy, wood venue and the latter being light and airy with static menus that offer a very good variety.  I have dined in Aqualina and Prime C twice and I can pretty much dine whenever I want because the demand for these restaurants, which are quite good, is so limited.  These dining experiences are included with your suite and is only $25 per person if you are not.  (The Main Dining Room is quite nice and the food, the one evening I dined there so far, was good, but not memorable. It was a nice change, but I will be dining in the specialty restaurants more often.)

Azamara Quest's Main Dining Room is beautiful,
but Prime C and Aqualina specialty restaurants are even nicer
Breakfast is offered in the main dining room every morning or in your suite (on proper linens) for those who wish a more upscale menu and/or do not wish to fight the buffet.  Lunch is also offered in the dining room on sea days.  While breakfast in the dining room eliminates a nice al fresco experience overlooking the stern of the ship, missing the chaos of the buffet is a more than fair trade off. (I will talk more about the buffet in a separate article.)
 
Azamara Quest provides a properly served al fresco breakfast
on my suite's balcony
And there is High Tea served every day from 3:30 p.m. - 5:00 p.m. in your suite (you can reserve your time if you wish) serving a variety of teas, finger sandwiches, sweets and, of course, scones with jam and clotted cream.  I enjoy as an afternoon ritual on my balcony.  (A full High Tea is also offered in Aqualina once a week.)

High Tea served by my Azamara Quest butler on my balcony
When these luxury options are added to some very pretty and intimate spaces, such as the Drawing Room, there is every possibility of having a wonderfully upscale cruise experience on Azamara Club Cruises.

Azamara Quest's Drawing Room
A quiet and beautiful space which converts into
The Best of The Best Dining Room for the Top Suites
But then, with all of the foregoing from the attentive staff to the upscale venues, there are quite a number of passengers that appear to have a more “Don’t talk to me.  Don’t invade my space. Don’t have impact upon my cruise. And get the heck out of my way when I am at the buffet!” approach to the cruise.  They specify the “included vodka” when ordering a drink; finding a helpful bartender’s request if they have a vodka preference as an attempted upsell rather than a courteous acknowledgement that many onboard prefer the higher quality spirits (and may well have a beverage package). 

Azamara Quest's Bartender Michael
makes a great rum punch
There are “Cruise Critic” type comments complaining about small items and focused on how to get more for less money (whether it be a tour or a dinner) rather than assuring themselves the best experience possible.  I mean there are dozens of couples - who spent $8,000+ for their stateroom plus airfare refusing to spend $50 for an excellent steak in Prime C or for access to a wonderful private area of the spa.  (Some are, troublingly pay far less than that on last minute deals and actually take offense that suite guests have free access so, they assert, why should they have to pay. Uhhh, they paid significantly more than what you did for their cruise, for a start.)

While I can appreciate that not everyone is going to smile or say hello when waiting for the elevator (as I do) there are examples of more mass market conduct that one might want to avoid.  For example, the other day at lunch, as I was strolling through the buffet (researching, of course!), I saw sushi and sashimi…and then a woman literally wiped the display clean, stacking her dish as high as possible…and then didn’t even know how to pour the soy sauce (fighting to remove the cap when you just tip the bottle).  When she saw the look on the faces of those waiting as she selfishly proceeded, and then she said, “Don’t worry.  They replenish it very quickly.” 

Are these the guests that Azamara intends to provide its product to?  I don’t think so!  And there is the conundrum that I am feeling is Azamara Club Cruises.  But, as with any cruise product that offers accommodations ranging from extraordinary suites to inside staterooms, there are going to be techniques needed to avoid your nirvana from being interrupted.  The obvious, and easiest ones, is to utilize what upscale amenities Azamara Club Cruises offers and avoid the Buffet and Pool Grill Buffet.  (The Pool Grill, however, is quite nice and I highly recommend the Cuban pork sandwich.)

So how does this happen?  To me it is obvious:  Azamara Club Cruises has its eye on the ball, to wit:  The Upscale Guest.  Its parent, Royal Caribbean, has its eye on short term profits thus making sure the ship is full and then generating onboard revenue.  Onboard revenue you say?  Yes, but not upscale onboard revenue as discussed above.  It is through tables of cheap jewelry being displayed in the common areas near the Mosaic coffee bar, tours that are overpriced, etc.   Fortunately, they are easy to avoid and have almost no impact on my upscale experience.

Personally, I think that since Azamara is such a strong product quality-wise in the premium market, it would ultimately increase its overall revenue by essentially eliminating the pricing structure that encourages the mass market crowd.  How do you do that when you have inside and oceanview staterooms for those clearly on more limited budgets?  You stay firm on the price and, if necessary, let them sail empty for a while.  Eventually with the proper marketing the budget conscious “traveler”  or, hopefully, first or second time Millennial cruisers, versus the cruisefare-centric mass market “cruiser”, will – I believe - fill the space.

In the meantime, I shall continue to enjoy writing my articles from my suite’s balcony after my champagne brunch, take a soak in the Thalossotherapy Pool overlooking the bow, enjoy a light lunch in the main dining room, have a bit of a read, do some work and then dine in Aqualina while I contemplate what I will do when we reach Manila, Philippines tomorrow afternoon after departing the complimentary shuttle into town before the included Azamazing Evening of Filipino music at Fort Santiago (which I will write about more later).


If you are interested in taking an Azamara Club Cruise or have any questions, please email me at eric@goldringtravel.com or call me at (877) 2GO-LUXURY.