Itinerary: Miami, At Sea, At Sea, Cartagena, At Sea, Panama Canal Transit, Fuerte Amador, Golfito, Golfito, Quepos, Puntarenas, Caldera read cruise blog
Some cruise lines defy conventional logic. Azamara Club Cruises is one such company. They only have two ships, and have not publicly announced any new builds. The two ships they do operate, Quest and Journey, some would suggest are getting 'long in-the-tooth' at 17 years. And, by today's standards, these ships are small, each holding only 686 guests. Smaller is better for those of us who prefer a less crowded experience, but it makes it tougher for a cruise line to be profitable. You know, economies of scale, and all that. Yet, Azamara has found a niche, and have a passionate and loyal following. More than 50% of the passengers on our recent cruise were Le Club Voyage members (past guests). Impressive.
When we learned that Azamara's ships had emerged from dry dock last summer, we could not resist the opportunity to see the changes for ourselves. We are already fans of Azamara, having previously sailed on both Journey (2014) and Quest (2011). Our chance to see the updates came with an 11-Night Panama Canal and Costa Rica sailing aboard Azamara Quest in January.
We embarked Azamara Quest in Miami after a brief mixup over ground transportation at the Miami airport. Apparently, our names did not make it on the list to receive the Azamara transfer to the ship. Fortunately, there was Uber to the rescue. Mr. Uber showed up within five minutes and whisked us off to PortMiami. We arrived at the pier around 3pm, a great time to embark if you want to avoid crowds. We were through security, checked in at the terminal and walking on board Quest within ten minutes of being dropped off! As soon as we boarded on Deck 5 midship, we were greeted with a warm "welcome home" and a glass of sparkling wine. We would come to learn that "welcome home" is a theme that now runs throughout the entire Azamara onboard experience.
Getting to our stateroom was easy as we had only to walk up one flight of stairs (or use the elevator) and a few steps forward port side. Our Club Veranda Stateroom (6016) was open and waiting for us when we arrived. Dry dock refurbishments were immediately apparent. New bedding, new wall coverings, fresh carpeting and new furnishings give the stateroom a more modern, up-to-date appearance.
Azamara stopped short of replacing the built-in furnishings (desk, mini-bar, closet); perhaps the cost and time required would be prohibitive. Nevertheless, that which has been upgraded makes a big impression. The bathroom also got new flooring, wall coverings, and new shower fixtures. Eco-Boutique amenities have replaced the Aveda provided on our last Azamara cruise.
Now, let's be honest. The stateroom is no larger than it was before the dry dock, and the bathroom is still pretty cramped. But, appearance-wise, it looks much nicer than before, and the new bed is a huge improvement. I can still remember the neck and back pain from my first Azamara cruise thanks to the rock-hard mattress. The new mattresses are very comfortable. Pillows are soft, but I always travel with my own pillow. Firmer pillows are available upon request.
More importantly, everything in the stateroom works well. The HVAC will freeze you out if you set it to the max, there is always plenty of hot water in the shower, the cabin door hinges do an admirable job of preventing the dreaded "wall shake" when the doors slam shut. In fact, the stateroom is very quiet and peaceful. I don't think we ever heard our neighbors during the cruise. We could hear the band playing in The Cabaret Lounge during the shows (our stateroom was right above the lounge), but the music did not last long enough to be bothersome. We much preferred the Deck 6 stateroom location to our 2014 Deck 8 stateroom location. On Deck 8 you will get noise from the pool deck above.
The small refrigerator below the safe is a nice touch, but ours barely cooled the cans of soft drinks to above room temperature. I mentioned this to Edwin, our stateroom attendant, but the issue remained unresolved throughout the cruise. Perhaps that's as cold as it gets? The electronic safe is large and easy to operate. The wall-mounted, flat-screen television is very nice and Azamara has excellent interactive programming. You can check your account balance from the television, a nice feature. The bridge cam channel came in handy when we were transiting the Panama Canal as we could see the lock gates opening ahead! There were movies on demand available for a fee and two different free movies were repeated throughout the day.
We appreciated the addition of the little, almost hidden, USB charging ports located under the bedside lamps. A digital alarm clock on the nightstand is also an often overlooked necessity on most cruise ships, but not on Azamara.
A veranda is a must on a Panama Canal cruise and we were able to enjoy most of the transit from our veranda! It did not look as if any changes had been made to the veranda during dry dock. In fact, the decking on our veranda was bubbling up in a few places. The furnishings are almost too large for the small space, but the large table makes having room service breakfast al fresco a pleasure.
Within minutes of our arrival at our stateroom, we were greeted by Edwin, our stateroom attendant. After a brief introduction, Edwin took Rickee's request for more hangers and promptly delivered them. We mentioned to Edwin that we often go for drinks around 6pm and may even skip dinner and come back to the stateroom earlier than normal. We asked if he could make up our room early in his rotation, and he agreed. Our stateroom was always made up when we returned in the early evening.
Food and Dining
We barely had time to unpack before we were required to attend the mandatory muster drill. Our muster station was The Cabaret Lounge on Deck 5. Fortunately, Azamara has dropped the requirement for guests to bring their life vests to the drill. After the drill, we decided to celebrate the first night on board with a drink at what was formerly The Looking Glass on Deck 10. We were pleasantly surprised to see that this observation lounge has been completely refitted. Now designated as The Living Room, this lounge's new name reflects that "welcome home" theme we mentioned earlier.
This lounge has undergone a major upgrade, not the least of which is the addition of a tapas bar. Each evening, The Living Room offers a nice selection of hot (and delicious) tapas. We found ourselves having completely spoiled our appetite for dinner on more than one evening after enjoying the tapas. During the day, light snacks are available here.
Azamara is on to something with the evening tapas at The Living Room, and it started a few years ago with Mosaic Cafe offering light snacks throughout the day (which they still do). This is actually how we prefer to dine in the evening. Rather than a large, elaborate dinner, we like to "snack" on small-plate dishes. We are seeing this "small plates" concept appear on several cruise lines, and it is something that we really enjoy.
While we are on the subject of food and dining, this is one area where we noticed quite a bit of improvement over our last Azamara cruise. For breakfast, most guests opt for the extensive buffet served at Windows Cafe on Deck 9 aft. The cooked-to-order eggs/omelets complement the buffet items, but the real star is tucked away behind a little window on the port side of Windows Cafe. Fresh waffles and pancakes are available at this special window along with some of the best donuts, cinnamon rolls and sticky buns you will find anywhere. If you want a smoothie, there is a Smoothie Bar in Windows Cafe. Pastries, coffee and tea are served at Mosaic Cafe on Deck 5. Breakfast is also available in Discoveries Restaurant on Deck 5 and, of course, room service is a popular choice for many guests.
There are several options for lunch. On sea days, Discoveries Restaurant offers a menu-service lunch. The nice thing about lunch in Discoveries is that it tends to be less crowded than Windows Cafe.
Of course, Windows Cafe (Lido buffet) is always a popular lunch spot, offering a variety of salads, soup, breads, sandwiches, hot dishes, desserts and a carving station each day. Another popular spot, and one of our favorites for lunch, is The Patio (formerly the Pool Grill) on Deck 9. The Patio opens a little earlier for lunch than the other restaurants and offers burgers, hot dogs, sandwiches, brochettes (skewers), and more. There is also a self-serve salad bar. My favorite thing on the menu was the cheeseburger while Rickee always ordered a hot dog. They also have nachos here (tortilla "chips" with chili, cheese, jalapenos, etc.). Since they have salsa and guacamole on the salad bar, Rickee and I just wanted some "chips and salsa" on one visit here. We ordered some "chips", telling the waiter that we did not want the nachos, only the chips. We forgot that cruise ships use European lingo and we ended up with a basket of French fries (what the Brits call "chips"). Maybe we should have ordered "crisps"!
There are also two soft-serve frozen yogurt machines at one end of The Patio, dubbed "Swirl & Top" where guests can help themselves to a bowl or a cone throughout the day. A full bar of toppings and sauces allows you to pile on as many calories as you wish!
For dinner, Discoveries Restaurant is always a popular place, with a menu that changes daily. We were very impressed with the quality and presentation of the food in this main restaurant. Discoveries is one area of the ship that looks exactly as it did the last time we were on Quest. We remembered from our last voyage on Quest that the restaurant can get a bit noisy when the place fills up with guests. That has not changed. One thing we noticed in all of the dining venues is the number of two-top tables. If you enjoy dining as a couple, you are in luck! Of course, the tables can easily be pushed together to form four-top, or six-top tables.
Windows Cafe is open for dinner with a different theme (Asian, Indian, Italian, etc.) each evening and is very popular with guests. On "Asian night", there is a large stir-fry station set up outside in the Sunset Bar. Indian night features a variety of fragrant and spicy dishes from Northern and Southern India.
One of the more interesting new evening dining venues is The Patio on Deck 9. This space is transformed into a casual bistro each evening and is a big hit with guests. The menu is quite interesting, sort of like that of a mini-steakhouse. I had the lamb medallions with sauteed mushrooms and they were very good.
In addition to all of the dining previously mentioned, Azamara also offers guests a variety of specialty dining opportunities (at additional cost). There are two specialty restaurants, Prime C and Aqualina, each of which requires reservations in advance and carry a $30 per person service charge. Prime C is the Azamara's signature steakhouse serving massive cuts of beef and lamb. We dined at Prime C on the last night of the cruise. They have brought back the delicious Chicken Lollipop appetizer, which is a must-have. Both of our steaks were cooked to perfection, fork-tender and delicious.
Even if you choose to order the souffle for dessert, don't forget to order the signature mini-donuts. These cinnamon sugar-coated donut holes are served fresh, warm and are addictive. The three dipping sauces served with them are delicious!
Aqualina is Azamara's other specialty restaurant that, in my opinion, has previously suffered from an identity crisis. On our first Azamara cruise, it was billed as a seafood restaurant, which sort of fits with the name "Aqualina". In 2014, it was described as offering "Contemporary American Cuisine with a Mediterranean flair," whatever that means. At the time, we felt the concept was so confusing that we did not dine there. Now, Aqualina is an Italian restaurant, which makes much more sense (even though the name "Aqualina" is no longer relevant). Regardless of whether the name fits the theme or not, the menu and the food were spot on. In fact, our dinner at Aqualina was perhaps our best meal of the cruise.
We both ordered the Crispy Duck Confit with Mushroom Risotto. Delicious. My Proscuitto-wrapped Scallops with Cauliflower-garlic Puree, and Rickee's Watermelon and Tomato salad with Balsamic Glaze antipasti were both near perfect. Service in both Aqualina and Prime C was a step above what we experienced in other dining venues. Both restaurants delivered an exceptional dining experience, and both are a bargain at only $30 per person. However, you should definitely book reservations before the cruise, or as soon as you get on board, as both restaurants tend to fill up quickly.
There were two other specialty dining opportunities offered on our cruise: a Chef's Table dinner ($95 per person) and a Rijsttafl Indonesian Rice Table feast ($25 per person). The Chef's Table is offered in three different themes: French, Italian and Californian with each theme featuring food and wines from those areas. Each of the five courses of food is paired with a different wine that best complements the dish.
At our Chef's Table dinner, Executive Chef, Monica Ortiz, greeted us and explained the elaborate and complex menu. Sommelier, Jackson, introduced each wine before it was poured. This is a unique and special dining experience. There were 14 guests seated at one long table (set up in the Prime C bar area). The menu is a five-course tasting menu, with your only choice being meat or fish for a main course. Each dish was expertly prepared and presented.
The Rijsttafle (pronounced "riss toffel"), or Indonesian Rice Table, defies description. A large table was set for 20 guests at The Patio. After a brief introduction on what we were about to experience, we soon had waiters bringing huge platters and bowls filled with a variety of Indonesian specialties. There were rice dishes, there were noodle dishes, there was fish, there was chicken, there was lamb, there was beef, there were veggies. Must I continue? All dishes were served family style, so we spent the entire evening passing dishes around the table. There was enough food for at least 40 people!
Entertainment and Activities
When it comes to entertainment, Azamara punches above its weight for a ship with only 686 guests. Each evening, there is something going on in The Cabaret Lounge. Immensely talented Cruise Director, Russ Thomas Grieve, is featured in a fantastic "Mama Mia" show, which we remembered from our 2014 sailing with him. The Azamara Quest Singers and Dancers are backed up by a live band and presented some very good production shows. On our voyage, we were also entertained by a comedian, a magician and a Broadway-style singer. Simon played the guitar for our listening pleasure in The Living Room and by the pool, and Ed played piano in various venues around the ship. There was also a DJ for all the late-night partying in the disco!
One of the entertainment highlights of any Azamara cruise is the signature "White Night" party. Guests are asked to wear something white and join together on the Pool Deck for a Deck BBQ followed by a rousing folkloric show put on by local performers.
When the local performers complete their show, Russ Grieve wastes no time in getting the Azamara Quest Singers and Dancers, along with the band, on stage to start a lively dance party. Virtually everyone hits the dance floor to boogie the night away. White Night is always a big hit with guests.
Another signature entertainment event is the Azamazing Evening. This complimentary event will vary depending on the destination. On our sailing, we enjoyed an incredible piano concert in Cartagena, Colombia. Guests are invited to board motor coaches for a drive to an historic theater in Old Cartagena where Ivan Dario Arias, artistically known as IVANN, a Colombian piano sensation, put on a Vegas-esque performance just for Azamara Quest guests.
The Azamazing Evening is an expensive and complex undertaking for a cruise line. A lot of pre-planning and coordination must go into securing these venues and the performances, not to mention transporting 600+ guests from the ship to the venue and back. Azamara pulls this off seamlessly and everyone who attends seems to love it. As an additional treat, when the coaches returned to the ship after the concert, we were greeted with glasses of sparkling wine as we got off the coach. As if this was all not enough, we were then invited to enjoy a late-night buffet in the Living Room! Azamara knows how to put on an event.
On sea days, Azamara offers a wide range of activities, all listed in the daily Pursuits which is delivered to your cabin each evening. We attended two cooking demonstrations, both conducted by Chef Joao, and both were quite interesting.
Bridge lovers, and there are quite a few of them, were treated to a series of Bridge lessons conducted by Jim and Millie Gavin.
And of course, our favorite sea day activity is the Progressive Team Trivia, conducted by Russ and Activity Manager, Lee, in The Cabaret Lounge. If trivia is not your cup of tea, there were many other things to do including: watercolor art lessons, origami demonstrations, fitness lectures, health and wellness lectures, dance lessons, gaming lessons and slot tournaments in the casino, and bingo, just to name a few. There was a destination lecturer who talked about the countries we were visiting and about the Panama Canal, its history and operation. We also were enlightened by a representative from the World Wildlife Federation who talked about whales, sea turtles and being environmental stewards of the oceans.
One of the most popular ways to enjoy the beautiful weather is lounging by the pool, or up on the Sun Deck (11). Our "layin' in the sun" days are behind us, so we now tend to look for indoor activities. A visit to the onboard spa, The Sanctum, is a popular choice. They offer massages, facials, salon services, steam rooms, acupuncture, a medi-spa, and a fitness center. A "popcorn movie" was shown each afternoon in the Cabaret Lounge featuring some fairly recent releases.
While not necessarily a form of entertainment, Azamara does offer guests Internet access through the ship's new "full-signal WiFi" throughout the ship. I was able to access the Internet, with respectable performance (for a cruise ship) from our stateroom, at Windows Cafe (my morning blog hangout), and Mosaic Cafe. WiFi signals were strong from every location and the Internet connection was one of the most reliable I have experienced on any cruise ship to date. I was even able to live stream the NFL Division Playoff game on my phone using the ship's WiFi! There were only a couple of brief periods, during the transit of the Panama Canal, where Internet service was interrupted. Guests have 24 hours access to the "in touch" Internet cafe located in the Card Room on Deck 10 forward.
Rates for Internet access are competitive with other cruise lines, and have not changed significantly since our last Azamara sailing (2014). However, there are two new package options now available. A One-Day Pass (unlimited access) for $69.95, or a Full Voyage Unlimited package for $30 per day. If you own a business and need to stay in touch throughout the cruise, the Full Voyage is the way to go, and is a decent value compared to other cruise lines.
Azamara is really focused on destination experiences. Their itineraries allow them to remain in port longer than most cruise lines and they offer an wide variety of excursions through their Land Discoveries shore excursion desk. We booked two tours through Land Discoveries and found them to be a good value and very well operated. The local guides spoke excellent English and were very approachable.
For those (like us) who enjoy exploring on their own, Azamara provides complimentary shuttle service into town at most ports. This is a huge value, saving guests the hassle and cost of arranging local transportation to get from the port into a city. In Cartagena, Rickee and I wanted to explore the old walled city on our own. The Azamara shuttle dropped us off right at the gates to the Old City! Printed shuttle schedules are provided as are maps of the town you are visiting.
Whether you choose to explore on your own, or participate in one of the ship's excellent shore excursions, Azamara goes the extra mile by providing complimentary chilled bottles of water to keep you hydrated on your journey, a very nice touch.
Bars and Lounges
After spending the day exploring exotic ports-of-call, nothing is more relaxing than enjoying your favorite beverage in comfortable surroundings. Our favorite onboard watering hole is The Living Room (observation lounge) on Deck 10 forward. Spirits (formerly, Casino Bar) on Deck 5 is smaller, but also very comfortable with big, cushy leather sofas and wall-mounted televisions. Sun worshipers will no doubt pay a visit to the Pool Bar (Deck 9 midship), or the Sundowner's Bar (Deck 9 aft). Azamara guests now enjoy a variety of complimentary beverages including Budweiser and Beck's beer, a selection of wines, and spirits refer to list here. My favorite, Crown Royal, is not on the list of included spirits, but I found Seagram's to be a satisfactory alternative. And, even though we could find no reference to it, a complimentary sparkling wine is available for the asking. There is also a red and white wine offered with lunch and dinner each day.
Azamara does offer a variety of optional beverage packages featuring top-shelf brands for an additional per day/per person cost depending on the package. You can see details about Azamara's beverage packages here. We found bar service throughout the ship to be inconsistent. The wait staff are very polite and responsive, but there were a few times when I had to walk up to the bar to request another drink. During peak periods, having more wait staff available would probably alleviate this issue.
If you are wondering to whom Azamara Club Cruises appeals, on our 11-night sailing it was a mostly older clientele. Children were almost non-existent. I think we saw one teenager, one toddler and one infant, and that was it. Families with small children will probably find larger ships with kids' programs and activities more appealing. The guests we met and spoke with were mostly seasoned travelers, many of whom have sailed with Azamara several times. The company has a very loyal following and we heard several people say they had already booked their next Azamara cruise while still on this one. Le Club Voyage is Azamara's loyalty program and guests are automatically enrolled after their first cruise.
Le Club Voyage members receive points for every cruise aboard Azamara, and there is reciprocity with Celebrity Cruises' Captain's Club and Royal Caribbean's Crown & Anchor Society. Points and benefits are interchangeable between the cruise lines. Nice. Members can receive discounts, shipboard credit, free Internet minutes, complimentary laundry service, even complimentary cruise nights! The complimentary bag of laundry is a nice perk and kept us from having to visit the onboard launderette on Deck 7.
Of course, Azamara recognizes Le Club Voyage members each cruise with a special "repeater's party" held in The Cabaret Lounge. On our sailing, there were 322 guests at the Le Club Voyage party! That is nearly 50% of the people on board. One couple was recognized for having sailed on 22 cruises with Azamara.
It has been three years, almost to the day, that we sailed aboard Azamara Quest the last time. We sailed on this Quest cruise to see what changes were made as a result of the dry dock last summer. We discovered a lot more than just new carpeting and furnishings. Azamara continues to evolve and improve, while retaining those things that loyal guests love. How much better can Azamara get? We don't know the answer to that, but we look forward to finding out.