We wanted to see the Penguins and cruise through Antarctica and around Cape Horn. We did all that on this 6,000 mile, 18 day, Azamara Journey voyage.
Cruise Value We've been watching the Internet prices on Antarctic cruises for the past couple of years. We don't want to cruise anymore on the megaships that carry around 3000 passengers.
We like Celebrity, enough to have reached the Elite level of their Captain's Club. We've had excellent food and service, and we decided to try their new, premium cruise brand, "Azamara." The emails of this company, which often referred to itself as "a premium cruise line," ended with "Smaller ships. Out-of-the-ordinary destinations. Unmatched amenities -- this is Azamara."
The Azamara Journey cruise looked like the small ship cruise experience we were looking for. 18 days of South American cruising, including 5 days cruising Antarctica beginning and ending in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
We spotted an offer from Crucon on the 'net that included air travel from Miami, gratuities, and a two hundred dollar shipboard credit. With the added air to Miami from Vancouver BC, and factoring in the cost of drinks and extra gratuities to those who earned it, the price for two cruisers in a category 2A balcony cabin was ten thousand dollars. We decided to splurge and spend most of our yearly vacation budget on this 18 day cruise. The flying to and from Miami added two more days and a hotel day to the trip. Twenty days for ten thousand dollars works out to $500. per day for the two of us. That's one to two hundred dollars more per day than we've been averaging for the 2 or 3 balcony cruises per year that we like to take.
The prices were around 35% higher than the internet offerings on Celebrity M class or the Princess megaships doing this itinerary, or about 20% more on Holland America, to be able to cruise on this small ship. The Journey would be able to cruise into areas of Antarctica inaccessible to the big ships.
Getting There When the cruise was offered, it was with round trip air travel from Miami to Buenos Aires/Buenos Aires to Miami.
We carry Alaska Air credit cards and get a mile for every dollar we spend, so we used a combination of mileage and cash to fly Alaska to Miami so we could avoid the midwestern or eastern part of the US in the winter.
The bad news was that the only flight offered from Seattle to Miami is a red eye. We took a puddle jumper from Vancouver early enough to dine at Anthony's Fish House, which is a real restaurant, not an airport fast food place, inside the secured area at the Seattle airport. We can't say enough about Anthony's food, service and prices, and we had delicious chowder and Cobb salads with shrimp. Yummy. The perfect thing to soften the blow of a five hour red eye to Miami crammed into the back of a 737 with poor seat pitch.
Miami We arrived in Miami around 7AM, got our luggage and booked a day occupancy room (checkout by 6PM) at the Miami Airport Hotel, which is located right in the terminal. We had breakfast at their Top of the Port restaurant and went to bed.
Lan Argentina Airlines This was to be our carrier to Buenos Aires, and they recommended that we start checking in 3 hours ahead of time. We checked out of the hotel at 6PM and Joseph the bellman took our bags to the Lan Argentina counter in Terminal J, which is a brand new concourse, for our 9PM flight. It's a lengthy walk everywhere at the Miami airport and once through check in and security it's another long walk. Whew!
The lines were long to check in as well as to pass through security, and the extra time kept us in a relaxed mood in the middle of the organized chaos of the airport.
The problem of noise pollution in public areas is everywhere now, and the gate area where we waited had brand new flat screen tv's blasting CNN while airport background music also played on different speakers, regularly interrupted by loud PA announcements. We couldn't wait to get on the plane and get going.
The plane was a 767 that had been totally refurbished. Very spiffy. Very clean. The food service was good, harkening back to the airline service of yore including a blue room (restroom) that a person over six feet tall can stand up in.
We had a nice dinner; chicken or beef was offered along with complementary wine service and a variety of soft drinks. There was a high quality entertainment system with an individual screen for each passenger, with free movies, games, etc., and a free headset.
We were also provided with sleep masks and ear plugs.
In the morning, coffee, juice and omelets were served. We were well taken care of by Lan Argentina in the person of Lucia, who was the cabin attendant in our section. Thank you, Lucia.
Buenos Aires We filled out our customs and immigration forms on the plane and passed quickly through the modern terminal. Cruisers need to be aware that the stamped portion of the paperwork returned to you needs to be kept and turned in when you depart Argentina. You will also need to pay the departure tax when you leave.
We easily found the Azamara reps, who guided us to the airport transfer vehicle included in our cruise price. Our luggage went directly from the plane to the ship.
It was a pleasant, sunny day with the temperature in the mid 70's. We rode through the central part of Buenos Aires, which looks a lot like cities in Europe, on the way to the terminal where the ship was docked. We got to the terminal about a half hour before the ship could be boarded and had strong, perfectly made lattes and pastry for two at a small cafe in the terminal. The price was about five dollars US including the tip. The exchange rate is around 3.20 pesos for every US or Canadian dollar.
Embarkation This was very smooth. We turned in our boarding passes, which we had printed at home after filling out the necessary forms using the Internet. Staff scanned our boarding pass, checked our passports, and gave us our cruise cards. The whole process took less than 5 minutes.
When we boarded the Journey, we were greeted with complementary champagne (or cranberry juice), and we saw Hotel Director Niyazi Korkmas, who was in the entrance lobby watching over the boarding process and greeting passengers. We like to see Hotel Directors out and about and talking with the passengers.
We were fried from 2 nights of red eye flights and we stopped by the poolside grill for a quick sandwich before we crashed for an afternoon nap. They were offering the usual hamburgers and hot dogs, plus lovely kebabs and many other grilled delights. Chips, salsa and guacamole were always available.
Food Quality and Dining Service Excellent, everywhere on the ship, under the direction of Executive Chef Milos Pales and Restaurant Manager Ryszard Guzman. From Discoveries dining room to the grill at the pool to the specialty restaurants Aqualina and Prime C, the Windows buffet and room service, the food is good. Well prepared and presented in sometimes dazzling ways, particularly in the specialty restaurants. The array of pastries and desserts is unending, and the croissants are properly crisp and buttery. The beef is excellent on this ship, too. We have been served lesser cuts of meat on many cruises lately, and the beef on this ship was of high quality. Food and Beverage manager Desiderio Cavaco is to be commended for the quality provisioning of these dining venues under the supply chain difficulties of a cruise all the way through south South America and Antarctica. Restaurant Manager Ryszard is always in one dining area or another quietly yet visibly managing.
Specialty Restaurants Chef Anthony Mauboussin presides over the kitchens for both Aqualina and Prime C, the Journey's specialty restaurants located aft on deck 10. Azamara has eliminated the previous surcharge for this restaurant. The only cost is the suggested tip to the servers of five dollars each for our two servers. Ten dollars US buys a truly fine dining experience.
Prime C: This is the specialty dining steak house. We made a reservation through the Captain's Club before we left for the cruise, because main dining rooms can be a zoo on the first night of a cruise. We were still exhausted from our back to back red eye flights, but we knew we had to get up from our nap and eat dinner to keep up our energy and to turn our body clocks back toward normal.
We were greeted and seated by Maitre'd Gokhan, who runs Prime C. We had thought we would just pick at our food and go back to bed, but we ended up having delicious soup, a popcorn shrimp appetizer and buttery filet mignon which was cooked perfectly. We added creamed spinach, onion rings perfectly fried and chocolate lava cake for dessert. A gold star for the Prime C steak house -- and all for just the previously mentioned five dollar gratuity for each of our two servers.
Dinner at Aqualina: Maitre'd Marius Borchila welcomes us to this lovely, light filled room that he manages with a watchful eye. We cruised with Marius previously on the Mercury. This is the most pleasant dining room on Journey. Aqualina specializes in seafood; Prime C is more meat oriented. Some previous reviews I read in November '07 were not happy with the specialty restaurants on the Journey, but things have changed for the very much better. The food is good on the Journey, and there is way too much of it. Seriously, we would prefer smaller portions, because we know they'd bring us seconds if we asked.
Couple this with the fact that at dinner at Aqualina we were treated to a magnificent sight. Our table was in the window at the very back of the ship, and as twilight lingered, we were mesmerized by a long, slow display of icy, Antarctic beauty. It went on for miles and miles as we moved through waters "littered" with small chunks of ice, surrounded by rocky mountains which were themselves surrounded by glaciers along their shorelines, and pressed upon from above by clouds. This was a nice, leisurely dinner, absolutely delicious from the arugula/bacon/goat cheese salad, brie in baked in phyllo dough through the broiled lobster tail, down to the chocolate souffle. All the food we've been served aboard has been fresh, well-prepared, and served most graciously; this dinner, served by Catalin from Romania and assisted by Basant from Mauritius, was no exception. Azamara wins the specialty restaurant comparison to the other cruise lines.
Cabin/Butler Our truly non stop, hard working butler/cabin steward is Pravin, and his assistant is Rennie. There is a list of butler services available at this cruise level, including packing & unpacking, afternoon tea service, dinner reservations, etc. It sounds too good to be true, because our butler is more a cabin steward in what we used to call "soup and fish," meaning a swallow tail coat and dress pants, like a butler in a movie. On Celebrity's Mercury, which we cruised in the summer of '07, the butler is a butler with only butler duties but here it's more window dressing. These 2 hard working men have 22 cabins to service. The biggest number I ever saw a steward with an assistant do before was 18 and I thought that was excessive. I can't imagine them having time to do butler tasks, but I see some of my fellow cruisers attempting to use them like they were their personal servants.
The butler/stewards smile and keep our cabins clean & nice. We wouldn't think to ask them to do the stuff Azamara offers, such as packing and unpacking your bags, making alternative dining reservations etc., beyond the usual duties of a cabin steward.
On the Mercury a butler has more time to just be a butler and can do the little things such as those offered in the Azamara brochures. On the Azamara Journey the butler takes your preprinted order form for tea snacks and savories a la Celebrity Concierge class. The cruiser checks the boxes for the items he wants and assigns a time for delivery to the cabin within the window of the service time stated on the form. You must be in your cabin to take delivery at the appointed time. We'd rather not schedule our snacks, so we passed on this delivery method. We don't like the fact that the room service that is pre-ordered from the form the night before is brought to our hard working butler/cabin steward for delivery. We have someone delivering food who might have just been cleaning a toilet. Not that our steward is unaware of hand washing, wearing work gloves etc., but mistakes can happen. Not very cruisey.
On the Mercury the butler knocks on your door at tea time and you pick out some snacks from the cart if you're in the cabin.
We like the fact that the Discoveries dining room opens later for breakfast, 8AM, than on many ships, so that the waitstaff who worked late the previous night can hopefully get a bit more sleep before coming to work. These folks also work hard. We also like the fact that the dining room is open until 930AM, so we can eat there on the days we choose to sleep later.
More Cabin The cabin itself is from designs over a decade ago. Cruising has changed so much since these R ships were on the drawing boards. There are only two 110 volt AC plugs in this cabin, and they are nearly unreachable; the rest of the plugs are European. There are no switches near the bed to turn on low power nightlights; the switch in the center of the new headboard turns on multiple overhead lights that would disturb a sleeping companion. The bedside lamps are not weighted on their bases, so they are lightweight and too easy to knock over. That's not all bad though; since I was able to hold the lamp in one hand and my book in the other, I was able to read in bed! I had that nightstand taken out of the cabin because it too was a lightweight vertical stand with no drawers and only an 8 by 10 inch surface on top. Once the lamp was placed there, no space was available for glasses (reading or drinking) or the ever important remotes. I knocked the lamp and the nightstand over the first night more than once.
The beds are good, with high threadcount sheets, a selection of pillows, and a quality comforter. Your suitcases fit under them.
There is a wall mounted 23 inch Samsung Hi Def flatscreen TV, with an arm that can swing it for watching TV in bed or from the sitting area, with unblocked inputs for our DVD player and our Nintendo Wii. We mentioned the input blocking because we were amazed to find them blocked on our last HAL cruise. We brought a universal remote, (Sony, cost sixteen dollars) so the inputs could be selected, because the remote supplied is for hotel use, set up for ordering room service, examining one's cruise account and video on demand for pay movies, including adult, by the way. There is another way to access the multiple inputs, which we found a week into the cruise. On the lower right side of the black frame around the screen of the 23 inch Samsung flat screen TV is an array of imperceptible, black on black frame, selectors for inputs under the word "source." They operate electronically without the selector having to be depressed, merely touched, like a touch screen computer display, and they react quickly and electronically. There are 2 HDMI inputs, AV 1 & 2 and component video inputs. We used them for the DVD player we brought and our Nintendo Wii, which we use to play Tiger Woods '08 golf game.
There is only one drawer in this whole refurbished expensive looking dark wood cabin. What little storage there is, is in cabinets or on closet shelves, a lot of it so low that it is difficult to access or even see your things, compared to Celebrity M class Infinity balcony cabins that have lots of clever storage and little shelves in the bathroom with barriers that keep your stuff from falling off the bathroom shelf. Ergonomics weren't enough of a consideration when they refurbished this cabin.
We think the cruiser of today is interested in cabins set up in more of a hi tech sensibility -- like more hooks, open shelving above open closet area with double poles and finally bathrooms with simple shelving, designed to keep your bathroom stuff safe from falling off in a rough sea. There is only one shelf in this bathroom other than the sink top, and no medicine cabinet, no storage under the basin. Instead of the telephone being near the bed it's in a deep corner of the vanity area where it usually gets buried by things left on the counter.
We don't think a marine architect or for that matter a designer familiar with cruising had anything to do with figuring out the storage a cruise passenger needs. Not the standard of the premium cruise line Azamara is trying to brand itself as. Celebrity M class and HAL Vista class cabins are more premium (with appreciably lower cruise fares) than ours on the Journey. We're told that 30 million dollars was spent to refurbish these ships, but it doesn't begin to show in this category 2A balcony cabin. This cabin also lacks a privacy curtain, to divide the sleeping area from the sitting area, so one could read while the other person sleeps.
Staff and Crew What is truly premium on the Journey is the "can do" attitude of the staff and crew. From the Hotel Director, the guest relations staff, cabin stewards, Asst. Maitre'd's, servers, housekeeping staff, busboys and bartenders, this is a well managed crew in all departments working to give us an excellent cruise experience.
Guest Relations Department They are an amazing bunch with Ngawhira Fleet, the front office manager, and an efficient, multi lingual team manning the hotel desk. Ngawhira helped us settle in, running interference to get a situation with our shower fixed immediately. We also want to thank Alfred and German of guest relations for the helpful service cheerfully offered by the entire front desk staff.
Announcements This is a blessedly quiet ship. The Captain's informative, brief daily report at Noon every day is the only in-cabin announcement. His microphone technique is very good. Afternoon naps are quiet and restful, not like some ships with endless announcements.
There is one announcement missing, and we do not miss it. On almost every other ship we've been on, there is a LOUD recording attending your every elevator ride, announcing the approaching floor. On the Journey, a small video screen announces the floor, and lets one know if people are getting on or off. This boon is probably a result of the size of the Journey, there being so many fewer people to move around.
Coffee Tastes like instant would be a compliment. Not up to the standards of a freshly branded, self proclaimed "premium" cruise line.
We were on RCCL's (parent of Celebrity/Azamara) Radiance of the Seas in the fall of '06 and they were featuring Seattle's Best Coffee and it was truly premium and available everywhere from the dining rooms to room service at no charge. The only decent coffee on the Journey is at the Cova coffee bar, with a $3 charge. Wake up and smell the coffee, Azamara senior management! You seem to be striving to be almost Crystal; Crystal light, so to speak, but Crystal doesn't charge for designer coffee anymore. The food is good on this ship and the coffee should be as well.
Cova Cafe This is the designer coffee place. Our thanks to Ryan, Alexander, Maria and Eliana, who brew great lattes for the three dollars we have to pay. There are always pastries and little sandwiches and other goodies at the Cova. We tended to retreat to the quiet of the Cova during the day and its piano bar feeling at night.
Entertainment We enjoy piano player/song stylist Dan Daly who is in the Cova Cafe, at the piano from 9P until late, most evenings. The Azamara trio plays nightly in the Looking Glass lounge. They have a great repertoire in all the musical genres. Guitarist German Vilches and Harpist Melissa Calusio also entertain in different venues. Melissa also plays for tea, afternoons in the Aqualina Restaurant, and German sits in on his guitar during the jam sessions. There were solo violinists, pianists, a couple of singers, a Chilean Folklorico Troupe and a comedian/raconteur headlining in the Cabaret theater, which is the main showroom. The accent on entertainment seems to be more in a classical soloist vein.
That's Hollywood This is an excellent show in the Cabaret theatre. Simply staged and beautifully sung by five talented, young performers, the men are K.J. and Brandon; the women Brooke, Amanda-Jane and Natalie.
The show is a tribute to the music and lyrics throughout cinematic history. We enjoyed it immensely. The 7 piece Journey orchestra provided live music for this well paced show. It's a cabaret setting, much like a night club rather than a theater, giving the show a nice intimacy with good sight lines. This show is a wonderful change of pace from the typically over produced (too many singers and dancers, too many wardrobe changes) broadway type shows that seem to try too hard, which we have seen on some cruise ships. The sound design and levels were good, allowing us to hear everything without it becoming too loud. Kudos to all involved, from the talented singers to the technical crew.
More Entertainment There are two other shows done in this manner, "Twisted TV," a parody of guess what?, and "Sing It and Swing It," a tribute to the big band era.
Jazz There were 2 late evening (10:45PM) jam sessions in the Looking Glass lounge, with some members of the orchestra and other musicians on board playing Jazz from Antonio Carlos Jobim to Thelonius Monk.
Falkland Islands/Port Stanley Our first stop after leaving Buenos Aires: Port Stanley, the capital of the Falklands. Rough seas and bad weather got us there late, then we waited for clearance and after the people who had purchased excursion tickets were tendered, we managed to get off around 3:30PM. The last tender back was changed to 7:15 PM making for a very short time in a unique place. The sun came out and we wandered around in short sleeves.
We checked with the visitors' center about seeing some penguins and were told about the penguin bus (the sign on the minibus says Penguin Travel) that stops right at the parking lot of the center. Ten dollars US per person for a round trip, 15 minute each way, van ride to Gypsy Cove, where we saw many penguins.
The penguins are in an area that is cordoned off, because there might still be some Argentine land mines from the '82 war on the beautiful beach. (They thought the British might land troops there. Didn't happen.) The area was swept for mines after the war but the possibility remains that they were not all found, so the area is restricted by signs and fencing.
A group of several hundred penguins were gathered, sunning themselves on the beach, others of them swimming around close to shore, and smaller groups were up in the scrubby dunes between the walking trail and the beach. They were cute and plentiful, and some of them walked up so close to the observation point where we were that we got some excellent photos of these dear little birds.
The other penguin excursions (from the ship) were very expensive (as much as $200 dollars) and required bone shaking rides of 60 to 90 minutes to see a different type of penguins. Some cruisers expressed the thought that those less accessible birds were indeed "better."
This price disparity brought to mind the high priced Alaska excursions to glaciers versus taking the city bus in Juneau for a couple of bucks to the edge of Mendenhall Glacier. There are always options, even in a place as small as the Falklands, population around 3,000.
Our driver, Fiona, gave us a nice ride to the penguins and told us a bit about the Falklands. Children born here have the option at age 16 to leave for more secondary and university education, anywhere they wish, that is at least partly paid for by the Falklands government. Now that's a government truly in action. The kids do not even have to repay the kindness with a few years of social service, they have only to develop themselves as they wish and graduate!
Across the harbor is a monument on the low hills with the names of the British protector ships that won the Falklands war, and even now there is always a British warship anchored in the harbor or patrolling the area.
Small Ship Cruising We like this small ship a lot. It is easy to get anywhere quickly. The ambience is that of a boutique hotel. The bad news is that in order to make it profitable, Azamara has to charge more for drinks and excursions because of the fewer passengers on board.
Drink Prices There is no wine package. The soft drink card is $5.00 per day plus 15%. The cheapest jug level glass of wine, with the tip, is nearly nine dollars and change. High prices for vin ordinaire. Mixed drinks are high priced and martinis are around 12 dollars. You're allowed to bring in a couple of bottles of wine per passenger, which we did in Ushuaia (first port out of Antarctica; southernmost city in the world).
Housekeeping This ship is clean. Not just picked up and vaccumed. Cleaning and polishing goes on 24/7. Kudos to housekeeping supervisor Esta from Hungary.
Elephant Island, Antarctica We listened to expert Niki Sepsas relate the story of the harrowing adventure of the Shackelton expedition. The captain sailed us back and forth slowly past Elephant Island, giving everyone a chance to take a good look and get an excellent photo opportunity. It's starkly beautiful here, very much like Alaska. There are interestingly shaped icebergs floating near us as we get a close up view of the island. One of the icebergs has penguins sunning themselves with a few swimming and diving near the iceberg as the Journey passes by. This penguin sighting was announced by the captain as he brought the Journey as close as he safely could. Thank you, Captain Karlsson.
Cruise Director/Staff Cruise Director is Paul Grant. He's an affable sort, who dresses beautifully. He was very sensitive to cruisers' desires and tastes, organizing a jazz jam session one evening after dancing in the Looking Glass lounge. He then went the extra mile by greeting the listeners after the session for feedback.
Unfortunately, generally there was a bit of a reverberation inherent in his announcing technique, as if he was projecting to the back of the room as he would without a microphone, despite the fact that he was speaking into one. Captain Karlsson, on the contrary, is clear and easy to listen to. I guess he spoiled us!
The cruise staff Ryan, Naomi and Kelsey, along with activities director Matt, have a full range of activities for interested cruisers.
Question and Answer Session This was held in the cabaret with the hotel director, the cruise director and the food and beverage manager fielding passenger queries. We appreciate them making themselves available for a question and answer session.
Iceberg Alley In the late afternoon after leaving Elephant Island we arrived in Iceberg Alley. There were Penguin colonies on some of the 'bergs. Some of the icebergs have interesting rectangular or pie shaped geometric shapes. We photographed the busy penguins lolling in the sun and cavorting in the water. Some were skittering down the last 6 feet of solid ice into the water, while there were always just as many other penguins trying incessantly to clamber back up.
Windows Cafe This is the buffet on deck 9. There are numerous selections, including a smoothie bar, manned by the hard working Jesus, Mario and Wandaka. You can get fresh fruit smoothies, with protein powder if you desire, and a variety of fresh juices. In the morning there is a fresh-made waffle and pancake station, omelet bar, large selections of breakfast meats, including a delicious baked ham carving station, plenty of tasty, fresh baked pastries, hot and cold cereals etc. The negative about this buffet for us was the fact they have chosen not to have trays. It is harder to load and handle plates with everything, so people are scurrying more to get stuff they forgot and it exacerbates the already crowded conditions in this smaller buffet space when everybody is up and hungry. Every previous Celebrity cruise we have been on has had trays. But, to show how responsive the staff is to the passengers: On the fourth day of the cruise after some complaints, trays were made available for those who wished them.
This is a small ship, so when the Journey is in a cold place like Antarctica, the buffet overflow tables aft on the Windows patio at the stern of the ship are unusable. They bring in as many tables as they can from outside but there isn't room inside for all of the outside tables in bad weather, making it difficult to find a seat. The good news is that there is plenty of room in the Discoveries dining room on deck 5.
Discoveries Dining Room A lovely, light filled room. Restaurant Manager Ryszard Guzman and his Asst. Maitre'd's are very attentive to the customers' needs. With no traditional seat assignment, the staff has to seat people by themselves or with others as desired. Great for breakfast, lunch or dinner. High standards of food and thoughtful service. There is no assigned seating at dinner, so tables are shared and you meet a lot of your fellow cruisers. If you prefer to dine without company at your table, there are always tables for two available.
The food at Discoveries is tasty and interestingly garnished and presented, a feast for the tastebuds and the eyes. A step up from Celebrity M class or Holland America and for us, two steps above Princess.
Breeza At dinner time the Windows cafe morphs into Breeza, with elegant buffet dining and Sushi, pasta, antipasti, stirfry, pizza and many other tasty foods offered. A dining alternative that is truly casual. Shorts, jeans or whatever are welcome at Breeza.
Gerlache Strait, Antarctica We arrived in the Looking Glass lounge, at the bow of the ship on Deck 10, at around 3PM. We had believed the captain when he announced that the beauty of this part of the Antarctic Sound was such that we'd remember it for the rest of our lives.
We sat enthralled by the scenery, which was already revealing itself prior to our entering the strait, and we were rather amused -- well, maybe half annoyed -- at the music playing on the sound system. It was quite appropriate for the night club venue that this room becomes much later, but it seemed to add nothing at all to the spectacular vistas opening in front of us. It would have seemed more appropriate to have softer music to enhance the feelings of awe we were experiencing, rather than music which seems designed to elicit a nervous twitch.
Then, at 3:30PM, when we were entering the Strait, what did we find ourselves in the middle of but the start of a game called "The Battle of the Sexes Trivia!" Well named. Who, taking enjoyment from this game, would need or even appreciate this spectacular scenery as a backdrop while they were busy with their competition? Could this use of the Looking Glass lounge, with floor to ceiling windows, really take precedence over the enjoyment of the cruisers who were relaxing with each other while experiencing this once-in-a-lifetime sight, the raison d'etre of the cruise?
High Tea And it certainly is. Every afternoon, with proper scones with clotted cream, delicious tea sandwiches and pastries with a harp tinkling in the background, tea is served in the beautiful Aqualina. Yummy.
Library There are lots of books, haphazardly arranged. It's a beautiful room with big comfortable chairs and couches.
Neptune's Bellows This morning's adventures marked the end of our three days in Antarctica. We saw ruined huts of past scientific expeditions, and an abandoned station whose country needs its money for more immediately practical matters. This was a volcanic area, in which during times of eruption the sea actually boils. Today there was steam rising as we cruised past. Our last view before heading to open waters was a large colony of chinstrap penguins whose rookery was along the shoreline. The birds were too far away to see with our eyes but we got some pictures with our 18x zoom lens. It was fun watching smaller groups of them, up to a hundred or so, arcing through the water like small dolphins as they headed away from the ship, presumably back to the colony. Capt. Leif Karlsson said that the three day cruise through Antarctica, his first time, is the highlight of his sailing career, and he hoped it was that for us as well. The ice pilot, Capt. Ulrich Demel, said that he suspected that the Capt. would be very happy once the ship had successfully passed through the narrow, rock lined exit, Neptune's Bellows. We saw Capt. Karlsson at the Cova coffee bar shortly after we got back out into open sea and he had a big, satisfied grin on his face. We mentioned to him later that he looked like he had won the lottery and he said that's about how he felt getting back to open sea.
Cape Horn Cape Horn is breathtaking. We rounded Cape Horn in the late afternoon, and by doing so we each officially became a "Cape Horner" complete with a certificate signed by Capt. Karlsson.
Ushuaia Ushuaia is known by the locals as "fin del mundo," the end of the world. A lovely town surrounded by snow capped peaks and close to Pargue Nacional Tierra del Fuego (156,000 acres) with its bays, lakes, rivers and high mountain peaks. There is abundant bird life there. The parque is 11 miles west of Ushuaia. Cab drivers are waiting at the end of the pier and will take you to the parque at a very fair price.
This is a busy commercial port, dangerous (large forklifts moving containers being set down by cranes. Trucks moving supplies for the various ships, etc.), for cruise passengers to walk through, even worse for the physically challenged passenger, and with a strong smell of diesel fuel.
The walk to the end of the pier here from the ship is about a kilometer. When we berthed on other cruises at Mazatlan, or Puerto Limon, etc. in the commercial port area, we were shuttled through the working area in jitneys, mini vans, etc., to keep us safe from the vehicles working on the pier at the various berths we had to pass to get to the shore.
We had to be very careful walking here, because the port crews, truck drivers and giant forklift drivers are not very mindful of pedestrians. There were no Azamara crew members directing the path to take and no pathway painted or cordoned off. Cruisers had to keep their eyes open and walk sometimes on both sides of the pier depending on the irregular vehicle movement. Poor planning on the part of Azamara Cruise lines! Not premium in any way. It's not just a comfort issue but a serious safety issue.
We spoke to the Hotel Director, Niyazi Korkmaz, and he said there was nothing he could do; it was up to the "authorities." We believe that it is the Hotel Director's and corporate Azamara's job to deal with the authorities by working with the local chamber of commerce and Government Tourist Agency to obtain the proper permits for the pier and find drivers who have a pier security clearance to drive rented mini vans or similar vehicles.
Since the ship can bring transportation vehicles to the ships' gangway to send passengers off on excursions, then they can shuttle passengers through this dangerous working port.
We had a nice lunch at Tia Elvira; canelloni and spaghetti for two, with soft drinks and tip for only $20.00 US, well below the tourist prices found at some of the local bistros. We found a nearby internet cafe one block north of the pier on Ave. San Martin and checked our email, etc. If you walk a couple of blocks, there are excellent bargains and souvenirs to be had. We even found a new halter for our broodmare, Ruby of the Amazon, including a lead shank for $21.00 US. at El Faro, a large shop of much variety, a block from the pier. There is a lot of horse equipment for sale here in Argentina. You never know what you will find to buy on a cruise vacation. We love this kind of surprise.
We visited a few shops along the pier on our way back to the ship. At Huellas del Sur, Harriette got a beautiful pashmina scarf to round out her cruise wardrobe, for 96 pesos at 3.20 pesos to the US dollar (about $32 US). It is woven in pinks going on purple with some electric blue in there, and the weave makes it reminiscent of the tweed of a Chanel jacket. Everything in the shop was of high quality, most of it silk or wool. The ambience here reminds us of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
Punta Arenas, Chile Here again our access to and from the ship to the foot of the pier and the town has been lacking in ground transportation or a safely marked pathway.
Today, on the way from the Journey to the town of Punta Arenas, there was another problem: WIND. El viento. The wind really, really blows at this port, all day long. The walk itself was doable for us, the pier being shorter than that at Ushuaia, but had I lifted both my feet at the same time I might have been swept along with none of the effort of walking at all. Add the salt spray stinging us, and we allowed ourselves to be blown back to the comfort of the ship; after a time the wind died down a little and we made it all the way.
I'm glad we did; we both enjoy empanadas, which are this culture's version of a pot pie crossed with a taco: flaky pastry encloses beef or chicken, with olives and hardboiled egg in this case. We found these at "Happy Hours" cafeteria, along with really delicious strong coffee and a Coke with the original zing, from a glass bottle. Ten dollars US, including the tip.
The cab driver, for a five dollar US flat rate fare, took us to a corner downtown, where there is a square block of tree-shaded park in the center of town. There are many craft vendors set up with prices much lower than the many stores that stock crafts and souvenirs. We acquired 3 small penguins including one in a snow globe for eight dollars US total. This town seems similiar to Mazatlan, Mexico.
Puerto Madryn This is a lovely place. Nice new pier with no bustling commercial activity. At this port, a shuttle bus and a guide named Teresa who rode the bus with us, gave us much info about the town as we rode to the end of the pier. When we returned she queried us about where we ate and what we shopped for, and how did we like it all. Puerto Madryn is going all out to welcome cruisers. The pier is next to a park overlooking a very broad beach with the business district across the street. We went to the Telecom internet cafe, 3 blocks from the pier, and then to the supermercado, 2 blocks from the pier, to stock up on a few toiletries. We took pictures of some majestically artistic graffiti pieces that were up on some old dilapidated buildings that sit ready for redevelopment next to new properties under construction, and then we strolled back to the pier. This place reminded us of Cabo San Lucas, the old town, in look and ambience.
Punta Del Este, Uruguay (aka Punta del Expensivo) Upscale pricewise, ala the French Riviera, Beverly Hills etc. The locals tout it as the St. Tropez of South America. A lovely harbor/marina. We tendered in past rows of large yachts docked in the marina. Warm and pretty. Bikinis and shorts were the uniforms of the day along the pedestrian promenade skirting the marina. We walked 3 blocks to the left of the pier and one block up and had a delicious, fresh made, expensive pasta lunch at El Viejo Marino for about $52.00 US, including soft drinks and the tip. Shrimp and spaghetti with a thin red sauce of fresh tomatoes and gentle seasonings. Sublime! We also tried the spinach and ricotta ravioli in a not too heavy cream sauce.
Tipping The gratuities here on the Azamara Journey are $12.25 per day, per passenger, higher than most cruise lines. This covers the Butler/steward, his assistant, the waiters, the asst. Maitre'd's, the asst. Chief Housekeeper, etc.
There is an additional 15% tip added to bar drinks, bottles of wine. Designer coffee purchases at the Cova Cafe carry an added 18% tip.
We bring a bunch of US singles and give them away for good service. Room service waiters who deliver us a midnight snack get a couple of bucks. If we order a club soda or a designer coffee or a single glass of wine, we give the server an extra dollar in cash over the tip on the tab. It makes us feel good to do this to thank deserving staffers. We don't overdo it but it needs to be done in our opinion to show our appreciation. The standard tips don't cover the level of service available on the Azamara Journey.
Montevideo, Uruguay A truly lovely city, very friendly to the cruiser. This is an example of an industrial port that also accommodates us slow walking cruisers in comfortable safety. No shuttle was necessary.
There was a clearly defined, green painted walkway edged with a white border and pictographs indicating access for pedestrians and handicapped persons. This green path led us safely to the main (and nearby) tourist center, so that we could not wander into the large trucks which were carrying in loads of logs, etc. On the pier and at street crossings there were uniformed traffic control personnel who politely waved us through when it was safe.
Maybe a hundred meters from the ship was the "Communications Center," a phone and internet center right here inside the port, where we were able to quickly check our email. There were telephones as well, and postal services. The price was a fraction of the cost of using the internet on the ship, and the connection here was at a high speed. We brought our laptop and plugged in. There were also computer stations for rent.
Another short walk through the main gate of the port and you cross the main street and walk a block and you have arrived at the port market, "Mercado del Puerto." There we had lunch (pasta again) at La Marosqueria, and it was delicious and about half the price ($26.00 US) of our lunch yesterday in Punta del Este.
There were numerous restaurants, some with very low prices indeed; a grilled sausage sandwich on a fresh baked roll with fries for around for $3.00 US. There was a variety of delicious smelling meats, fish and chicken being grilled, empanada stands and pizza. The place was filled with locals on their lunch hour, always a good sign.
There are shops with beautiful locally made goods of leather, knit garments of wool; silver jewelry with inset gemstones were plentiful also. We did not come across the numerous cheap trinkets for sale at so many cruise stops.
Walking outside the Mercado on neighboring streets, we passed many colorful fruit stands. This neighborhood was very photogenic, in fact. Many buildings are in semi-ruin awaiting renovations. There are architects' signs on buildings in renovation and you can see the gentrification starting to happen. The textures, rusted iron scrollwork, ornate doors and window trimmings, and wildflowers (some might say weeds) that will bloom no matter what, made for great photographic backgrounds as well as subjects to feature.
In Montevideo we found the shopkeepers to be friendly and helpful. They were quoting an exchange rate of 20 pesos to the US dollar on this day. The port security troops are courteous and helpful. Our limited Spanish and their limited English was a good enough match. We want to return to Uruguay for a longer vacation.
Buenos Aires, the Return We rode from the Azamara to the Emperador Hotel in downtown Buenos Aires in a minivan, and by happy coincidence, we had the same driver who had taxied us from the airport to the ship 18 days ago: Carlos. At first the ride seemed a bit harrowing; the method to progress from one street to another or from one lane to another, etc., is to nudge your vehicle's way in front of whatever conveyance could possibly give way. There were countless near-misses, and even a pedestrian who did not seem to notice that our van began moving forward before he had cleared it! BUT: there were no raised voices; no obscene gestures. No horn honking at all! It was very peaceful chaos!
Emperador Hotel Seeing the uncomfortable conditions in the holding area Azamara had reserved for our wait, we tried to book a room for the day, but there were none available. A knowledgeable staffer confided that they were overbooked. There were a lot of cruise ships at the port; Insignia, Sinfornia, Rotterdam and the old Zenith, re-branded as Island Cruises. One could relax at a table in this secure, sterile waiting room or wander. We wandered upstairs and had a nice lunch in a light filled room with big windows overlooking a courtyard and garden with ivy covered walls. Birds, fountain, shaded sitting areas; a pretty place. You may purchase wi-fi for the day on the hotel network from the bartender.
Summing Up Azamara proclaims the following at the bottom of the e-mails I exchanged with the Customer Relations Department:
"Smaller ships. Out-of-the-ordinary destinations. Unmatched amenities -- this is Azamara."
Well, we loved the small ship. The food was really good. South America and Antarctica were majestic, but the unmatched amenities were not evident in many ways.
The first of these things was the cabin. Although the space would have permitted ample, easy storage, there was very little, and it wasn't very usable. It was impossible for one cabin mate to stay up reading while the other slept, which could be corrected by installing a retractable drape between the bed and a lighted reading area with adjustable wall lamps above the couch. A very easy thing to do.
Celebrity 'M' class ships and HAL's 'Vista' class both excel in "cabin ergonomics," making a comfortable nest for the duration of the cruise.
The lack of shuttle service on two of the piers we stopped at was quite unsafe.
Why was it not possible for the Azamara head office to align with local business associations for the benefit of both Azamara's passengers and the port town? This lack of planning was not premium.
Cruise Air The airline travel booked by the cruise line has us coming off the ship after 18 days of relaxing and cruising into a long, long wait for the plane for Miami that leaves at 11:15PM. We expect to leave the ship and a few hours later board a flight home.
We had tried to avoid this 13-1/4 hour wait lasting from leaving the ship at 10:00 AM to our flight, departing at 11:15 PM.
We obtained permission pre-cruise to leave the ship a day early, so we could spend the day relaxing on the ship, and after an early dinner, proceed to the airport, arriving there 2-1/2 to 3 hours before our flight. Miami based Azamara Customer Relations warned us that we could be required to clear immigration and customs as early as 9:30 AM that morning, and be required to then leave the ship, and be faced with the same long delay, in a strange city, with our carry-ons in tow, without a secure hotel holding area.
So, we chose not to leave the ship a day early. As it turned out, passengers who had elected to do so were allowed to stay aboard the Azamara Journey until 5:30 PM. No more cruise line booked air for us.
To come off an 18 day cruise with that wonderful relaxed feeling, and to spend a long, long day and into the night waiting for the nearly nine hour redeye flight, somewhat diminished our cruisey feelings.
Future Cruises When we complete a cruise we usually have the next one already booked, but we are waiting and watching the internet for exceptional cruise value.
We have never seen so many last minute cruise bargains or received so many e-mails from the cruise lines we sail. It's a cruise buyer's market now if your schedule is flexible.