Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Goldring Travel Experiences Azamara Club Cruises in Asia - Is it Amazing? Part IX - Reflections



Azamara Quest
Having spent 16 nights on the Azamara Quest, I have some general impressions and some specific comment on the Azamara Club Cruises product.  My opinions are based upon the Azamara Club Cruises’ delivery of what it intends its product to be…at least from the perspective of staying in a Club Continent (Standard) Suite or better. (Note:  There is a significant difference in the product should you stay in a veranda stateroom or lower and I really do not discuss that in this article or the other eight related ones.)

Dolphins off the Coast of Japan
Short Answer:  Azamara Club Cruises provides a solid upscale experience with strong itineraries and good value (especially with standard wine, beer and spirits, Specialty Dining and Gratuities included throughout your cruise).  Staff, inclusiveness and itineraries are its strongest points. While I would not say it is "amazing" I can say it is well worth a look; especially for itineraries after the Azamara Quest's major refit in September 2015.  I plan on sailing on Azamara Club Cruises again!

Azamara Club Cruises is a premium cruise product that tries to focus more on premium experiential travel and does not market itself as luxury product, as I have noted on particular line does.  In that regard, Azamara Club Cruises is an "honest" product.  Azamara Club focuses on more overnights in port and excellent itineraries including some more of the exotic and/or lesser known ports. On my February 2015 cruise I visited various ports in Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan and Japan ranging from fairly primitive and undeveloped to those of modern cities.  It was, to my mind, the perfect cruise to understand the Azamara Club Cruises' product.



Again, please remember that Azamara Club Cruises does not attempt to compare itself to, say, Seabourn, and you should not either.  Throughout this article I will make some points of comparison with other cruise lines so that you can properly differentiate between the levels of cuisine and service.

The Software
The People

I always say that the software matters more than the hardware and on Azamara Club Cruises the staff portion of the software is, without question, some of the happiest, most engaged, you will find at sea.  From Captain Carl (no last name please!) to Hotel Director Phillip to the bartenders, waitstaff, butlers, tour and activities staff, they are out and about, approachable, friendly and genuinely care.  (“Fist bumps” abound should you wish to personally engage in the enthusiasm.) 

Azamara Club Cruises truly excels in this area and I saw some very specific instances where the officer's caring for the staff shined through.  I was impressed.

Do all staff have the polish or communication level to the same standard as Seabourn? No, but it is not a critical flaw and, in this day and age, with European/Australian/South African staffing being the exception, you probably would find the English language skills it akin to the staff and crew on Silversea, Crystal, Oceania and Regent Seven Seas.

As an example, while the wait staff in the specialty restaurants, Prime C and Aqualina, provide a high level of service, you will find that the wait staff in the main restaurant, Discoveries, are more deliverers of your meal than waiters who are familiar with, and can fluently explain, each dish.  In fact, unlike say Seabourn they do not have meetings where they taste the food prior to each service, so you are pretty much on your own with the menu.


The Cuisine


Dinners in Prime C and Aqualina were uniformly excellent…and if you are in a suite you may dine there every evening at no additional cost.  (Rumor has it an Asian restaurant will be added during the Azamara Quest's September refit.)  On Oceania– a more directly comparable cruise line – you are provided one or two nights of complimentary access rather than the entire voyage and while overall Oceania  has a higher quality of cuisine, it lacks the overall happiness of staff.  (That said, I would rather be surrounded by happy crew and cuisine with some misses than better cuisine and crew that is not as happy.)


While most people I spoke to (few of which were American) found the Main Dining Room’s food quite good, I found it to be “adequate” and portion control extremely obvious.  (To me this is a case of the quality meeting the expectations of the lower category passengers rather than the mission statement of the cruise line.)  That said, I did not have a bad meal in the main dining room; just not a single memorable one.

Azamara Quest Discoveries Main Restaurant
And, to be sure, I did everything necessary to avoid the Buffet, as it was a truly mass market experience with literally elbows out to get to their chosen food; most of which were just unappetizing to me.   There was a carving station with good quality meats and poultry and standard sushi and sashimi offerings as well.   Salads and cold cuts were uninspiring as were most hot dishes.  (That said, many of the passengers liked the buffet though none of those who I saw were to my knowledge suite guests.)  A simple solution:  No self-service.  Have the staff serve everything...as is done on many upscale and premium cruise ships; including sister line Celebrity.  

With a full breakfast being available for delivery to your suite and breakfast (and lunch on sea days) being served in the main restaurant, for suite guests there really is no reason to venture into the buffet.  One downside to this is that al fresco dining overlooking the stern of the ship is eliminated as a option if you do not brave the buffet; though dining on your veranda is a good alternative (though the room service menu other than for breakfast is quite limited).


Azamara Quest's Al Fresco Dining off the Buffet
On the other hand, the extra cost Chef’s Tables (held on various nights, dependent on demand, with French, Italian and Californian themes) did provide me with two nice dining experiences with paired wines.  Each course was well prepared, the wines were nice (none truly outstanding) and properly paired and the experience was good.  Again, Oceania does a better job as “the show” was not great and there was a very real Celebrity Cruise pitch for different shaped Riedel crystal glassware that seemed incongruous with the experience. 

Azamara Quest's Chef's Table
Food & Wine Parings with Italian, French and California Menus
A truly excellent evening is The Best of the Best Dinner where the top ten suites (and any VIPs) dine with the Captain and Officers in the Drawing Room.  Wonderful food, excellent wines and great conversation in a beautiful setting.  This evening really allows Azamara Club Cruises the opportunity to show off its officers and its appreciation for its top suite guests. 

The Pool Grill (which is scheduled for a major upgrade during the September refit) presently has both self-service and waiter service and is also used as a venue to have more interaction with the Officers and Staff.  While the food was acceptable (though the self-service chaffing dishes really were below par and should go) and the regular menu is limited, there were a number of special events that made the venue inviting and energized.  It was, to be sure, fun to have the Hotel Manager make you tacos, the Cruise Director a Caesar Salad and the Guest Relations Manager ribs.  Ice cream sundaes were also events.  (Note:  Hidden in the back of the area is a self-serve soft ice cream machine.  I am glad I didn't find it until later in my cruise!)

Finally, Room Service is available 24 hours a day, but it has a rather limited menu.  Afternoon tea service is also provided.  Served by your butler, it was top notch on my veranda and in my suite.


Interestingly, the hamburgers served at the Pool Grill are frozen, but those provided through room service are fresh…and there is a significant taste difference.  (Note:  The room service pizza should be avoided at all costs!)

Garnishes really need to be improved
in the Main Dining Room, Pool Grill and Room Service.
Tomato, lettuce and onions matter!
The Beverage Service

Azamara Club Cruises includes a limited selection of standard brands of beer, wine and spirits and has packages available if you wish to upgrade.  Clearly, Azamara Club Cruises provides a more upscale bar and beverage experience then say Oceania, which charges dearly for every beverage ($11.00 for a gin and tonic plus and 18.5% gratuity).  By way of comparison, just for having the option of beer and wine during lunches and dinners Oceania charges about $1,500 for couple for a similar length cruise.  (Note:  Frank Del Rio has just announced that Oceania will be increases its beverage prices.) 

The bar service was excellent throughout the ship. Thus, when the bartender sees me coming and begins to pour my Glenfiddich before I even sit down, and then provides me with a tray of snacks after I do without my asking, it is a bit of much appreciated intuitive service.

Azamara Quest's Mikey
He loves his job and it shows...as with all of the crew.

That said, there is a dizzying number of beverage packages: Premium, Top Shelf, Ultimate, Beer, Wine, Bottled Water (By the glass or the liter)…This is simply overly complicated and, to my mind, the confusion probably reduces rather than increases the sale of these packages.  For example, the Premium costs $12.95 per day, the Top Shelf costs $15.95 per day and the Ultimate costs $18.95 per day.  Why not just make it a single $15.95 upgrade and be done with it.  (Also, there is some curious pricing.  For example, Budweiser and Bud Light are included, but Miller Light is extra cost.) Regardless, even with these confused offerings it is far superior to what Oceania offers as its premium beverage package which would run almost $2,000 for couple on a similar cruise.

One area of disappointment was the complimentary pour of wines.  This was because (and it was obvious) a container did not meet the ship in Bali.  I fully understand “just in time” inventory, but there needs to be a reserve in case something like a missed container happens…especially when you are in a relatively remote area of the world.  (A missed container should not so significantly impact my cruise.)   As a result we were offered some "emergency" off-brand Balinese wine (red and white) that were marginally acceptable for a number of repetitive days. But the worst was near the end of the cruise when we were served Paul Masson wine, which was famous in the 1970's for coming in its own carafe (no cork), and to my shock it still is...for a little as $2.99 a bottle.  There was not a single complimentary pour that was better than OK.

The Shore Excursions


Azamara Club Cruises needs to significantly improve in the area of Shore Excursions.  especially since it focuses its marketing on immersive travel.  There needs to be more emphasis explaining that when experiencing emerging ports, rather than say Rome, things are not going to be perfect or polished; and that they need to appreciate/tolerate that they are on the "cutting edge".



Also, many of the tours were very expensive for what they were and some were not of a premium quality.  Getting information about upcoming ports (even local maps) was difficult and the head of the department was, many times, very difficult to understand.  

That said, there was one standout, Beatriz, who was a shining star with a can do attitude and a charming smile that made sure things happened and the passengers were happy.

Beatriz is as good as shore excursion staff gets.
Also, on each cruise there is an AzAmazing Evening, which is a rather difficult feat to put together when you are dealing with 600+ guests. (This is something Seabourn started years ago and clearly was "borrowed",though doing something for 200 guests is not quite as difficult as for 600.)  Our event in Manila was a really nice evening which I have already reported on.

Azamara Club Cruises' AzaMazing Evening in Manila, Phillipines
The Hardware

I have given a fairly detailed description of the ship and her spaces in some of my prior articles so I will not repeat them here.  Also, the ship is about to undergo a huge...and I mean huge...refit in September 2015 so many of my observations may well not be relevant to your cruise.



Overall, the  Azamara Quest was very well maintained…regardless of her age.  I was impressed and I don’t get impressed easily.  I found it interesting that of the many people I spoke to on the ship that had also been on Oceania’s R ships, they were emphatic how much better the Azamara Quest has been maintained…and that is right before she goes into that extended drydock in September!

Azamara Quest Club Continent Suite
What I will say from the Suite Perspective is that, as I detailed in an earlier article, my  suite was quite comfortable – though the soon to be announced improvements will be welcomed.  The bed and linens are quite good, the seating comfortable and the bathrooms (with the full tub) function well enough.  Some little issues: 

  • While standard wines, beer and spirits are included about the ship, and complimentary 375 ml bottles of liquor are provided in your suite, the wine splits, beer and Perrier provided in your suite are charged for. 
  • The bath amenities are merely acceptable (though they should be brand named in the suites) and the labels are frustratingly similar…especially if you wear glasses.
  • The video system needs a significant upgrade with only part-time non-news programming and even though there is a limited complimentary DVD library, pay-per-view movies are just inappropriate; especially in the suites where a number of the movies are on the DVD list.
Both of the specialty restaurants, Prime C (steakhouse) and Aqualina (Mediterranean), are beautiful venues and, as I mentioned, have excellent service and cuisine.  They are dine by reservation, but I found that on most nights there was no problem getting a table if you were a bit flexible.

The Thalasotherapy Pool area overlooking the bow is a wonderful escape and while available to non-suite guests for an extra charge and those with spa appointments for an hour or so after same, the space is really underutilized...which is wonderful!  

Overall Experience

My enjoyed my time on the Azamara Quest and as a premium product it is, to my mind, "almost there" and I can recommend it; especially knowing some of the things coming in the near future.

There are definitely some tweaks unrelated to the refit that would make significant improvement to the overall suite experience such as luxury bath amenities, no menu for beverages in your suite, a simplified beverage package menu, waiter service in the al fresco dining area and elimination of self-service in buffet.

There is a bit of a clash between the experience the Suite guest is expecting and those who in lower categories who are onboard because they got a good deal.  Those folks tend to compromise a number of aspects of one's upscale cruise experience because they tend to jeopardize more of the ship's services and staff, consume more alcohol, create more waste of food and complain more about things not really worth complaining about.

Honestly, I think Azamara Club Cruises needs to reevaluate its pricing strategy as the Royal Caribbean concept of "butts in beds generate onboard revenue" doesn't work on an inclusive product like Azamara and undercuts what it wants to be with bargain hunters adversely affecting the product. Ten dollar watch tables just shouldn't be onboard.

Overall, Azamara Club Cruises provides a very good value for a suite guest by combining a fairly inclusive product with top notch (and happy) staff, strong cuisine in the specialty restaurants and unique itineraries.

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