I Try A Cruise Line Everyone Says Is Going Downhill Fast!
I Try A Cruise Line Everyone Says Is Going Downhill Fast!
Royal Caribbean sold Azamara to Sycamore Partners during the pandemic shutdown and cruisers who’d tried it contacted me saying the line was nothing like it had had been, and it was rapidly going downhill.
That intrigued me. So, I booked myself on. This is what I discovered as I try a cruise line everyone says is going downhill fast!
Should you try a cruise with Azamara? Keep reading to find out…
The biggest change I came across was the fleet. It’s bigger, as the new owners bought Pacific Princess and refitted it to become Azamara Onward.
It entered service in May 2022, joining Journey, Quest, and Pursuit.
But they’re all still 690-passenger R-class ships. Built between 1998 and 2001, they still have the same layout, facilities, and cabin grades as before.
The Discoveries Main Dining Room, two specialty dining restaurants (Prime C Steakhouse and Aqualina Italian), Windows Cafe buffet, The Den with Future Cruise and Shore Excursion Desks, Mosaic Cafe, Drawing Room library, Living Room, pool deck with The Patio informal dining, Cabaret Lounge, fitness centre, spa – and no casino.
They still have inside, ocean view, balcony, suites, and no solo cabins.
One other change I did notice was crew.
Azamara regulars were not being recognised and greeted as long-lost friends, as much as they were used to.
The line was known for having loyal long-serving crew that recognised returning passengers. It was a big draw.
I came across many new to Azamara crew, even within the senior team.
The Captain and Head Chef had been with Azamara just weeks, some of the others only joining since new ownership.
A new Cruise Director, Darren Lynton, was on board to learn the Azamara way from our well-established one, Amanda Poulson.
This could be an effect of restaffing challenges many lines are having post shutdown, not due to the ownership change.
But it did show up in service, with new crew still learning the ways and culture of the line.
Azamara crew are friendly and eager to please. But, I found less attention to detail than on competing lines like Oceania and Windstar.
Trivial but unexpected
These examples may sound trivial, but I think that’s what makes the difference when rating service.
In the café, unlike on other small ships I’ve been on, they didn’t learn my regular drink or my name.
When eating breakfast in the dining room, I would order bacon, sausage and two poached eggs every morning. Every morning the order was wrong. Some days I’d get two sausages and no bacon, one day I got neither, and on another, just bacon.
I asked for Sprite Zero, but would often be given regular Sprite.
A lamp in my cabin did not work and needed a new bulb. This was not picked up by my steward and I had to ask.
I know these are small things, but this sort of attention to detail makes the difference between good service and the excellent service I found on other smaller ship lines recently.
Test of service
However, the real test of service is how problems and issues are handled. I want to give two examples.
My cabin was on Deck 8, below the restaurant. On my first night, I was disturbed at all hours by scraping and noise from above. I went to Guest Services before breakfast to ask if there was anything they could do, even offering to take a lower grade cabin. They sent me to breakfast.
On my return, they had found an alternative cabin not below a noisy area for me to move into and arranged for help packing and moving.
On day three, the Hotel Director sent out a part-through cruise survey, asking for any issues, problems, and concerns people wanted resolved.
I spoke to a couple who had an issue with some dining and menu issues that was resolved using this.
I heard others talking about how the Hotel Director had been helpful in addressing concerns. So, that is a positive on this trip as I don’t recall the survey on past trips.
I didn’t notice changes to the activities, which is not necessarily a positive.
They still had multiple trivia quizzes every day, enrichment talks, live pianist, and song and dance shows in the evening.
Those shows, despite the enthusiastic and talented cast, were still underwhelming and in stale fare. The shows haven’t gone downhill, but they haven’t gone uphill, either.
The Cruise and Assistant Cruise Directors still help fill the evening programme with one-person shows, rather than bringing on guest entertainers.
Regulars on the line before the change said to me, “You don’t go on Azamara for the entertainment and shows”. And that is still the case.
The enrichment talks on trips have not changed either, with what seems the same pool of speakers.
They were fine, but are not as comprehensive nor strong, in my view, as on other small ship lines. Viking has a resident historian and guest speakers on every cruise.
Has the change impacted itineraries and the way they structure them?
Before Azamara claimed to offer three unique things. First, more intensive country itineraries, with cruises focusing on one or two countries or a smaller region.
Second, more late nights and overnights than other lines.
And thirdly, calling on smaller ports or docking in better locations. They have smaller ships than even some of the other smaller ship lines they compete with, like Viking, Saga and even three of the Oceania fleet.
There is no change here.
On my Western Mediterranean cruise, in Marseilles we docked right in the old town. While other lines were miles out in a commercial port.
In Monte Carlo, we docked in the yacht basin, and we stayed there late into the night, same as Saint-Tropez. There was no to tender or dock in Nice.
We had an overnight in Livorno allowing tours of Pisa, Florence and Tuscany.
The infrequently visited Calvi in Corsica was also fab, but that port could not have coped with large ship numbers.
What about cutbacks? There were a few things missing on my cruise versus past cruises.
The White Night still took place. The same format on the pool deck with food stations served by various officers, the band playing and dancing.
Some said to me that many popular items like lobster and crab were missing from before.
I went back and looked at the pictures of the food I had taken on past Azamara White Nights. It looked pretty much the same to me.
The off-ship AzAmazing evening was gone.
It was replaced by a Destination Immersion, which on our trip was an Italian classical quartet of singers and a small gift of olive oil. Honestly, it wasn’t really that immersive.
However, this is temporary, AzAmazing evenings are back from 2023, when organising big off-ship events is viable again.
The fabulous Chocolate Buffet didn’t happen. But crew told me that will be back, too.
I didn’t see any permanent big cuts in big features.
But, what about in fare inclusions? Are there cuts there?
Fares are creeping up versus past trips.
However, they remain consistent with the increases across cruising and are comparable with the other small ship lines, on a per night basis.
One thing I don’t know if they did before, but they do now, is fare match.
I noticed the fare for my cruise had reduced significantly. My agent contacted them, and they matched the new lower fare. I got around $1,500 back.
There’s no change to the inclusions. They include gratuities, most drinks (standard spirits, beers, and wines), bottled water, soft drinks, specialty coffees and teas, on-demand movies, the self-service laundry, and shuttle service to and from ports when not within walking.
Speciality dining and premium drinks are extra. Wi-Fi is too. The latter has not got better with the new owners, unfortunately.
Suites still get perks like in-room drinks, some Wi-fi and speciality dining.
The Food Is Worse
The biggest issue people told me about before the trip was the decline in food. This is what I found.
In the main dining room, there is a smaller main dining room menu, but I found ample choice.
Dinner had items unique to that day, some specials usually themed to a region of the world and a set of always available items, like salmon, chicken breast and steak.
I found the quality still matched that on premium lines like Princess, Holland America, and Celebrity, but it still probably was not as good as Oceania, which has cuisine as their big point of difference.
It was no worse or better than I remember it being previously.
Speciality dining and more
Specialty dining was good in both Prime C Steakhouse and Aqualina Italian. They matched my experiences in Oceania’s equivalents.
There may be some cutbacks or changes that I missed, as some regulars told me things like the Dover Sole – which was on the specials the night I went – used to be on every night.
The Windows Café buffet quality and choice was the same as I remembered. They still have special focus tables at some lunch times, like the sushi station.
In the evening, they still have the al la carte themed table service menus and not a buffet.
I tried the French and Italian, and found them more hit and miss, with some strong courses and some less so.
Azamara was very much as I remember it: big ship premium line service and food, but on a small ship.
Entertainment is still a weak point, but their itineraries, overnights, late stays, and smaller out-of-the way ports are very much still a strength. That’s the reason I would choose them.
If the itinerary though was 100% the same and I had a choice between Oceania and Azamara, for example, I’d choose Oceania.
Not because I didn’t like Azamara, but I think they have an edge when it comes to personal attention, attention to detail and food.
So, should you try a cruise with Azamara? I’d still say YES!
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