Introduction I have cruised a total of about 55 times on almost all lines save a couple of the ultra luxury ones. Earlier this year the wife and I sailed on a 15 day Oceania Insignia Atlantic crossing. RCL Ltd has newly created the Azamara line by acquiring and refitting two "R" class ships ostensibly to compete with the three virtually identical ships currently operated by Oceania. There has been enormous interest by Oceania aficionados how the Azamara experience compares to Oceania. Having now sailed both I was able to draw some comparisons.
Embarkation The wife and I hopped on an overnight bus in Rio de Janeiro where we reside for the 6 hour ride to the embarkation port of Santos. Given the normally heavy traffic it can sometimes take more than 2 hours to travel the 60 miles by bus from Sao Paulo's Guarulhos airport to the pier in Santos. We figured we could save time and hassle if we just took the bus to Santos directly and avoided airport check in, taxis and transfers, etc.
At the Santos bus terminal we hailed a cab for the 15 minute ride to the pier. As we arrived at 7:00 a.m we opted to drop our luggage off with the pier ground crew and continue in the taxi for a 4 hour tour of the area, principally the neighboring beach town of Guaruja. In contrast to Santos it is a charming, upscale resort popular with well to do Paulistas. Next time we arrive way early for a Santos embarkation we will spend time on the beaches of nearby Guaruja. You may want to consider that too.
After the usual dispute with the cab driver over the agreed fare it was back to the ship's terminal where we had to wait almost 2 hours to board despite having been promised by Azamara reps that boarding would start an hour sooner. Though I am normally impatient I have lived in Brasil long enough to know that getting things done here can often take longer than anticipated, especially as this was the first time Azamara was embarking in Santos. We browsed the few terminal shops, had a coffee, and played gin rummy until the embarkation desk opened. We were among the first to check in so there were no lines. The Mgr. of Prime C had set up a separate desk where all pax were required to make a dining room reservation for the first night, a well meaning effort to avoid an unmanageable crunch at any of the dining venues on night one. In point of fact, perhaps because we tend to dine after 8:30, we never had to wait more than a minute or 2 to be seated in the main dining room or either of the specialty restaurants. That the ship was sailing with less than 500 pax,(70% capacity) no doubt also facilitated seating.
Cabin and Butler We made our way to our aft SSV cabin without benefit of champagne cocktail or assistance, neither of which matter to us though it might to some. This was the first time for either of us in an aft veranda which we chose because of the over sized balcony space, its only distinguishing feature. We weren't much concerned with excessive movement while at sea because on this itinerary the Journey hugged the shore and sailed up river in Buenos Aires. After several hefty markdowns from the original price at which I booked, the cabin finally wound up costing us $3240 which I consider a real bargain; however, I don't think the extra size of the SSV balcony justifies a significant price premium. The adjoining cabin verandas are separated by metal walls running the entire depth of the veranda which together with the prominent overhang tend to create a boxed in sensation. The regular verandas on my deck appeared sufficiently spacious to comfortably accommodate a dining table and two chairs for those who want to dine on their veranda.
Shortly after freshening up we toured the ship. As expected the layout is virtually identical to the Oceania Insignia. We returned to our cabin to find our bags had arrived. While we were unpacking our butler, Natasha, entered to welcome us and explain her function. This was our first butlered cabin so I was curious to hear her description of her duties. Aside from shining shoes, making reservations in the specialty restaurants and delivering afternoon savories/tea to the cabin, all the while dressed in a smart tuxedo-like uniform, I could not distinguish her duties from those of the typical cabin steward. We are ordinarily low maintenance passengers so any services supplementing the usual cabin steward/guest relations service is fine by us. As it turned out I assigned Natasha several extra chores which she cheerfully undertook with only the most fleeting quizzical glance at me. Frankly, I can't comprehend the ballyhoo that some make about how pretentious it is to advertise these employees as butlers. What matters to us is the level of service, not the title assigned to a crew or staff member. Natasha (and her assistant) performed well and always with an engaging sense of humor.
The cabin itself held no surprises. The bed, e.g., mattress, high thread count sheets, and feathered/down pillows were all first rate and super comfy just like those on the Insignia. The bathroom shower was a bit small and the water pressure a bit low, but neither to the point of inconvenience. The robes and towels were fairly plush. We appreciated the binoculars, umbrella and especially the handheld hairdryer in the vanity desk. The table and chairs on the veranda were more comfortable than expected. There was only one significant problem, a malfunctioning air conditioning unit. The wall thermostat was not properly regulating the temperature and worse yet the ceiling unit occasionally made a horrendously loud noise that lasted a few minutes. I delegated oversight of the repairs to Natasha, and after the Electrical Dept failed to fix it in a couple of tries I think she finally invoked the aid of the Chief Engineer. Anyway, it got repaired after a few days.
Service The outstanding feature of the on board experience was the excellent attitude of all staff and crew. While they may not have always hit the mark, every single person I encountered sincerely endeavored to please as much as possible. This excellent attitude made for easy acceptance of the occasional shortcomings in food, table or room service, guest relations service, etc. The effort to provide excellent service is so palpable that one feels comfortable offering constructive criticism to managers at every level when a crew member demonstrates the need for some further help/training or the food disappoints. The eagerness to please and to improve so permeates the ship that one can foresee that in the near future the overall Azamara cruise experience is sure to get even better.
In fact, many Mgrs seemed to be recent arrivals. I was informed that the Hotel Mgr had boarded less than a week before we sailed. He was an extremely affable and apparently very capable guy. The home office Exec Chef, Tomas Symanski, was also newly aboard to tweak the menus which are, indeed, in need of revision especially in Prime C and Aqualina, the specialty restaurants. I think the Cruise Director, Andrea Oliveti, was also recently transferred from the Azamara Quest. They and the F&B and Dining Room Managers were all first rate. All of these senior officers hosted a group of concerned cruisers at which many issues were discussed and considered. I think the opinion of the majority of those present was that our expectations were being exceeded, perhaps because expectations had been tempered by widespread negative criticism at the inception of the company.
Dining I did not think the food at any of the venues except the Waves buffet on deck 9 (wow, what a breakfast!) was as good as what I experienced on Oceania, but certain dishes at each of the various venues were very good, a few excellent. The roasted sea bass which I ordered in the main dining room, Discoveries, the first night was up there with the best fish dishes I have ever tasted and had me thinking the food was going to rival that of Oceania, a notion which got dispelled as time wore on. In Aqualina a seafood bouillabaisse was to die for. The lobster newburg was the only lobster dish on either Prime C or Aqualina's menu (actually it's only on Aqualina's, but as they share the same kitchen you can order off either menu). It was quite tasty, but I would have preferred to have had a choice of a simpler lobster preparation. I did not think the steaks were of sufficiently high quality in Prime C or elsewhere. Roast prime rib was not on the menu and should be in a steakhouse such as Prime C. Large diver scallops were delicious one night, but when presented on a bed of bacon another lost all their delicate flavor. The duck breast in Discoveries was as bad as the stuffed quails were good. Desserts were generally uninspiring throughout except at the Waves buffet where early in the cruise I came across a fantastic dark chocolate mousse which, alas, I was never to see again. I'm sure the kitchen would have accommodated a request for more, but my wife reminded me of my promise not to overindulge in desserts so I left it to chance and as fate would have it I never saw it again. Next time I am requesting it.
I think the Exec Chef will be working to achieve greater excellence throughout the ship. Hopefully, the company can purchase better steaks and add more lobster to the menus in the specialty restaurants. Timing in the kitchens and table service needs to be ratcheted up as well. When it was good, it was very good, but it wasn't totally consistent. I had fabulous service 3 of the 4 times we dined in the specialty restaurants as well as some nights in the Discoveries dining room, but experienced mediocre service once in each place.
Unlike Oceania, Azamara charges a $20 and $25 cover for extra visits to Aqualina and Prime C respectively (penthouse occupants get two freebies, all others get one). By way of example how hard the company is trying to please they were quite generous in offering comped additional nights. For instance, when in response to a query by our waiter in Prime C, we mentioned our mild criticism of a steak, the Mgr soon appeared and comped us for a return visit. Another time when our Discoveries waiter neglected to advise us in advance of the $25 corkage fee, an advertised fee that I knew existed, the exuberant Dining Room Mgr, Chaika, came over and removed the charge -- I didn't have the heart to undermine his generosity by mentioning I knew about the fee. Finally, as a gesture of thanks for a small favor wife and I did by providing some info on Rio, we were comped at Aqualina by the F&B Mgr. It's difficult not to enjoy yourself when those kinds of things continuously occur.
Wife and I ordered light continental breakfast via room service all but one day. In my experience room service is usually the weakest link in the food service chain on board, but the Journey room service crew did better than most. They almost always arrived with almost everything at the appointed time. Once late in the cruise they opted to come at 7:00 am instead of our customary 8:30 just because I neglected to jot down on the room service form the time we wanted our breakfast served. I assume the blame for that although 7:00 was a bit curious in light of our known custom. Okay, I'm nitpicking.
The weather forced us up to the deck 9 breakfast buffet once and I was amazed at the selection of nicely prepared items available, not the least of which was a juice bar from which you could order almost any concoction of fruit/veggie drinks imaginable. Given that sumptuous breakfast buffet I'm glad I managed to avoid temptation by opting for the continental breakfast on our veranda.
For lunch we either ate at the deck 9 buffet which was absolutely first rate or indulged in a hamburger with fries or salad at the poolside grill. I didn't like the franks, but the burgers were pretty good even though my preference is not for the mandatory well done. I would also prefer not to have to deal with those tiny plastic bags of ketchup, relish, mustard, etc. My dexterity isn't what it used to be and it's generally an annoyance trying to tear open those bags to squeeze out the minuscule contents. I neglected to write that on my comment card. Maybe someone who agrees with me can do so in the near future.
I was disappointed with the pizza, but I'm always disappointed with pizza at sea -- my standards are pretty high having grown up in New Jersey and little Italy in NYC. I'm not exactly sure why I find it unauthentic, but perhaps it has to do with a pre-prepared crust or the lack of zestiness of the tomato gravy. Anyway, there are so many other options and pizza isn't too good for me so it's just as well.
Lemonade, iced tea and fruit punch and coffee was constantly available from dispensers located in Waves and near the poolside grill.
Entertainment and Shipboard Activities The Journey's showroom/theater is, like the other R ships, without a raised stage and is consequently more intimate than the usual ship showroom. It's well suited to the cabaret shows performed by the Journey cast of 5 singers and dancers who presented three shows during the 12 night cruise. I was impressed with the quality of the talent although I thought the shows' production values (staging, lighting and costumes) could have been better. I didn't catch much of the other shows though my Brasilian wife told me the young group of Brasilian dancers that performed when we were ported in Itajai were very good.
The orchestra was one of the better ones I have heard on ships although I would have liked more pre-dinner dance opportunities. The talented band that played poolside made a lot of music for a trio.
Andrea Oliveti was a capable, good humored cruise director. His equally good natured staff conducted numerous activities throughout each day even when attendance was less than SRO. I was taken back when only 4 people showed up for a mid-morning trivia session. Boy, what a bunch of couch potatoes. Unfortunately, there was little in the way of enrichment lectures. Wife and I even briefly manned an orientation desk to provide tips on Rio a day before we ported there.
The library (aka Michael's Club) had an honor system self checkout and was open all hours. I believe tea was served there in the afternoon -- I never ventured to events featuring more food, but I did observe tea service being set up one day. I would have liked to have seen a better stocked library -- I could not find a single travel book. There is a piano in the room and I understand it was used at various times. I never was there when it was played. In any event I wonder why tea service and the piano cannot be relocated to the large forward lounge (like it is on the Insignia).
In addition to the piano player, there was a guitar player performing in the evenings near the casino entrance on deck 5 as well as a harpist who performed near the Cova Cafe on deck 5 (a spot where specialty coffees and drinks were available for a charge). I confess I did not catch their acts except in passing. The guitarist was Brasilian and sounded pretty accomplished.
The internet connection aboard ship was so notoriously slow that the computer room was hardly ever occupied except for the occasional free class offered by the host. Pay TV programming was available in the cabin. I am not a fan of pay TV movie programming, but if it helps to hold down the base cruise price I guess I can suffer through the alternative non-pay movie programming that existed. A few almost first run movies and selected classics were rebroadcast several times every couple of days and, of course, there was the annoyingly repetitious CNN. The TV was also programmed to enable you to review your shipboard account, check excursions and restaurant reservations, etc.
Ports and Excursions The itinerary for this cruise consisted of Buenos Aires, Itajai, Paraty, Rio de Janeiro and return to Santos. The ship departed Santos on Thursday, Nov 29 and made its first port of Buenos Aires on Sunday, Dec 2. We sailed away the same night. That was a scheduling error. Compounding that we also arrived in Rio de Janeiro on the following Sunday and departed Rio on Monday afternoon. Both are world class cities and arriving on a Sunday when so many of the things to see and do are closed is unwise. Conversely, after leaving Buenos Aires we overnighted in the small southern Brasilian town of Itajai apparently so that the ship could run an overnight excursion to the falls of Iguazu for a small (30) group willing to pay about $1400 pp. This type of scheduling should be avoided on future runs in these waters.
I have not gone on a ship excursion for many years preferring to fend for myself. In Itajai, we paired up with another couple from the ship and hired a taxi to take us to the German colonial town of Blumenau located about an hour from port. The Journey tendered passengers ashore in Paraty, a picturesque colonial town located 140 miles from Rio. Tied up at the pier where the tenders put passengers ashore were dozens of schooner ships of various capacity, where for R$20 ($12) one could purchase a 5 hour trip for swimming and snorkeling among the numerous islands that dot the Brasilian coast. Be sure to leave a couple of hours for shopping along the town's cobblestone streets. Paraty is an artsy, craftsy place.
Conclusion In view of the spectacular effort by all staff and crew to please, this cruise was delightful even if some things were not absolutely perfect. The minor inconsistencies in service are sure to be eliminated given the obvious concern by all senior officers to render excellent service. It is hoped that the on board presence of the line's Executive Chef portends a revision of the menus and an improvement in the quality of the food offerings particularly in the specialty restaurants. When that happens the Journey will offer an experience very comparable to that which we enjoyed on the Oceania Insignia. Let's face it, the relative high cost of land travel throughout the world because of a weak US dollar, makes cruising on a ship like the Journey a darn good value.