The Azamara Quest Cruise Ship Review
By Ben Lyons
As the cruise industry has exploded over the last twenty years, so, too, has the size of an average cruise ship. What was considered a megaship a little more than a decade ago has now become a medium sized ship, with 70,000 ton floating hotels now the norm rather than exception. This dramatic growth has brought about numerous changes to the cruise experience, and for many, the newer, supposedly better ships seem to be nothing more than flashy floating resorts.
Happily, there are a few companies that have bucked the trend of the bigger is better rule. At 30,000 tons and carrying only 694 passengers, the Azamara Quest and Azamara Journey of Azamara Club Cruises blend the amenities and positives of a big ship experience, including multiple dining venues, numerous balcony cabins and a spa, with some of the spirit and personalized service found on smaller ships. There aren’t long, bustling lines at the buffet or the gangway, and forget an incessant string of announcements exhorting you to the belly flop contest by the pool. Instead, Azamara focuses on destination rich itineraries to many ports larger ships haven’t yet found or can’t reach. Straddling the line between luxury and mainstream companies, they also offer one of the best deals in the cruise industry.
Originally formed in 2007 as a division of Celebrity Cruises, Azamara was initially lost in the boardroom of the parent company. Sharing resources and executives with Celebrity, there seemed to be little that distinguished the company other than the ships themselves. In 2010, however, industry veteran (and former CEO of luxury companies Cunard Line and SeaDream Yacht Club) Larry Pimentel was brought in as Azamara’s first dedicated CEO, and the line was soon given the independence it needed.
Pimentel differentiated the company by focusing on destination immersion and the boutique hotel nature of the ships. Recognizing that most cruise ships sail at 5pm and offer passengers little chance to truly know a port or see its nightlife, Pimentel created new itineraries that maximized port time and introduced a tagline of “Longer Stays- More Overnights- Night Touring.” On just about any of their itineraries in Europe, Asia, South America or the Caribbean, you’ll find a higher concentration of late night departures and more frequent overnight stops than with their competitors. This is especially true in Europe, where neighboring cities allow for short sailing times between ports.
My weeklong sailing from Venice to Athens featured seven ports and four countries, but somewhat unusually for Azamara, had no overnights and only three ports where we stayed until 8pm or later. (The next sailing, for instance, stayed past 8pm on five of the seven nights.) With this extended port time, I assumed passengers would, in fact, stay ashore longer. In practice, however, Hotel Manager Philip Herbert said passengers use the extended time in port not necessarily to stay ashore the entire time, but to be more flexible in when they go ashore.
Rather than everyone rushing down the gangway the moment the ship docks, Azamara passengers can have a more leisurely start to the day and head ashore later, knowing they have ample time to see the sights. Others venture ashore early but choose to return to the ship during the hottest part of the day- a welcome option during the Mediterranean summer- and then head ashore again when it has cooled down to experience the city in the evening.
I was eager, however, to use the extra hours to explore further afield than I normally would. Having been to our first port call of Split, Croatia relatively recently, I felt no interest in revisiting the same sights. Instead, I boarded a local bus and rode almost an hour down the coast to the smaller town of Omis. There, I enjoyed an afternoon at this delightfully quiet and laid back town. I had ample time to climb a small hill overlooking the Mediterranean and wander around the city center before arriving back in Split shortly before sunset.
Perhaps my best use of time, however, was in Chania, Crete, where I rented a car and drove around western Crete. Adding many kilometers to the rental, I enjoyed the freedom to stop whenever I wanted to—and not whenever a tour guide on a predefined bus tour wanted. Noting a charming town on the way to a recommended beach, I thought it looked like the perfect spot for a late lunch. Following a swim, I was able to backtrack several miles to that town, where I had a delicious Greek meal with a spectacular view over valleys tumbling down to the sea. The delectable cheese pie drizzled with honey still stands out in my mind as one of my favorite desserts ever.
With departure set so late, I felt no nervousness when traffic slowed me down on the roads or my meal took a long time to arrive. I knew I wouldn’t miss the ship’s 11pm sailing. Even after returning the car past sunset, I had time to enjoy Chania’s lively waterfront at night before returning to the Azamara Quest. Certainly this relaxed day would not have been possible had the ship sailed earlier, and it ended up being the highlight of my week onboard.
If there is a downside, however, to the extensive port time it is not being able to enjoy the ship more! Azamara Quest gave me plenty of reasons to want to indulge in life onboard. Most welcome to me was the spirit and camaraderie shared by both crew and officers; rarely have I seen a happier ship’s company. Usually, such a strong personality comes through on the small, ultra luxury ships of 400 passengers or less, where more personalized service and crew interaction is expected.
On Azamara Quest, however, the Captain and officers were extremely visible, and played an active role in the passenger’s experience. I saw the Captain sit down with different passengers every morning in the Lido for breakfast, and he and other officers were present for an Officer’s Luncheon BBQ, a fabulous “White Party” held by the pool one night, and many other events. The Hotel Manager even stood at the gangway on the last day of the cruise to say goodbye to every passenger as they left.
In Kotor, Montenegro, they even lead a shore excursion! Perched over 1,300 steps above the city is an old fort that has commanding views over the beautiful fjord that we had just sailed through. The Captain, Hotel Manager and other senior officers had been actively encouraging passengers to join them on a hike to the top of the fort, and over 120 passengers ended up coming along.
Once at the top, the officers passed out water and fruit before posing for a group photograph. It was a refreshing way to encourage passengers and crew to interact, and was a welcome change from many cruise lines’ efforts to push organized, expensive shore excursions. This hike was free, and the Captain discreetly picked up the tab for all of our entrance fees to the fort.
Back onboard, I was all too happy to rest my weary feet and enjoy some of the comforts that elevated Azamara well above mainstream companies. Food and service scratched at the levels offered by luxury lines, evening attire was casual with no jackets required, and all meals were open seating, allowing you to choose when and with whom you wanted to dine. The two alternatives restaurants- Aqualina, a Mediterranean seafood restaurant and Prime C, a steakhouse- were both exceptional and well worth the $25 per person fee. There was a refined, quiet atmosphere onboard, with a harpist playing at the entrance to the dining room, and announcements limited to only the Captain’s daily broadcast just before the ship sailed each evening.
Boutique wines were complimentary at lunch and dinner (and glasses were constantly kept full—there was no effort at skimping here.) Bottled water, soda and tips were included in the cruise fare, and wherever the ship docked outside the immediate city center, the ship arranged a complimentary shuttle bus. Additional touches- including an extensive breakfast room service menu and being able to order dinner from the main restaurant’s menu in your cabin-- added a degree of luxury that went well beyond the company’s relatively modest fares. Combine the excellent service and food with all the included extras, and Azamara becomes one of cruising’s best kept secrets.
A few things keep Azamara from competing more closely with the smaller and more luxurious lines. Their biggest weakness is the relatively small size of their cabins, with standard staterooms only 170 square feet. (Balconies add only an additional 40 square feet, and suites are 326 square feet including balconies, and include butler service, bathtubs, and complimentary dining in the special restaurant.) Despite the longer time in port, I was somewhat surprised and disappointed to see that, at least during my week onboard, none of the organized shore excursions offered anything that took advantage of the extended time in port. They all seemed to be typical cruise ship tours. (Pre and post packages are often available, however, and some itineraries do feature expensive, multi-day tours.)
Still, Azamara represents a welcome break from the proliferation of megaships currently sailing, and offers an upscale product for a fraction of what the ultra-luxury lines offer. For many, Azamara may be the perfect sized ship, and for those who would normally shun big ship cruising, or those who simply yearn for a return to the basics of comfortable sea travel, your ship may finally have come in.