A Sailing With Azamara Club Cruises


Our 12-night sailing with Azamara Club Cruises aboard Azamara Journey, in journal form,  aimed to accurately describe what sailing with Azamara is like right here at ChrisCruises and on Azamara’s Destination Immersion blog, where the focus is on providing “the home of insider destination info, travel tips and things Azamara.”  Socially, look to our Twitter, Instagram and Facebook feeds for the latest, as it happens.

The coverage actually began three days in advance of flying with a day by day account of the experience from start to finish.  Along the way we* are touching on topics of interest to those considering a trip of this type ranging from air travel to packing, spending, budgeting and more.  This post will stay right here, at the top of the list and easy to find every day while we are on this trip.  New posts will come in below for those who hate trying to find the rest of a story, bouncing from page to page to rack up web site traffic for someone, somewhere.  You’ll still have to scroll down to see the latest but it’s all right here.  New additions will also be posted as separate stand alone stories for readers who prefer to compartmentalize a travel experience.

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A Little Background

Azamara Club Cruises is the lesser-known luxury boutique brand of Miami-based Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd who also owns very well-known Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises.  Azamara was founded in 2007 as Azamara Cruises and was rebranded in 2009 as Azamara Club Cruises, operating two ships; Azamara Journey and Azamara Quest. Both ships were refurbished in the winter of 2012–2013 and are scheduled for a major remodeling in 2016.  It was in the Summer of 2012 that I last sailed Azamara on Azamara Journey for a very unique sailing themed Castles, Pubs and Distilleries that changed my perspective on cruise travel forever.

Prior to sailing with Azamara, when I thought ‘cruise’, I thought ‘Caribbean’, like many of you reading this right now.  The two just seemed to go together so very naturally…and they still do. Simply put, Caribbean cruises offer one of the most consistent travel experiences available. That’s a fact that I eagerly shared with others, wanting to ‘turn them on’ to the easy world of travel we had come to know and love, on every cruise line that sails in the Caribbean. Still, there is something to be said for going beyond what is comfortable and easy, especially when it comes to travel.

Flying to Edinburgh, Scotland to begin our Azamara Journey sailing of 2012, the airline experience was riddled with the unexpected.  Still, in all things, we focus on the positive and roll with changes as they happen. That’s just the way we go through life.  Inconvenient at the time, two very good things came out of that flight schedule as enduring memories.  One was meeting United Airlines’ Rick Chase and a great story for Gadling. The other was arriving at Azamara Journey.

After air schedule disruptions caused our little group of travelers to miss the first day of our sailing, we finally rendezvoused with Azamara Journey.  Our motorcoach pulled up in front of the ship and on came several Azamara crew members, we assumed to tell us where we go from there.  Last on the bus was Captain Johannes Tysse who very calmly explained “We know you have been through a lot on the way to the ship but I want you to know, everything is going to be just fine from here on”.  And it was.  Tysse reflected on our last day aboard Azamara Journey, speaking of the line’s many devoted, loyal guests, “they come for the destinations, they come back for the crew.”  We’re looking forward to exploring both, again.

*I say ‘we’ because Lisa is always watching where I am and what I am doing, serving as a second set of eyes on everything I write and helping behind the scenes in addition to her daily post on The World As Lisa Sees It. 

Three Days Prior To Travel

Critical Pre-Travel Topics

Documentation
Azamara Journey 15 - 00002My Venice, Greece And The Isles Of Croatia itinerary sails round-trip Istanbul.  That’s in Turkey.  Americans traveling in Turkey need a Turkish visa.  Show up at the ship without one and boarding will be denied.  The responsibility for knowing that rests solely on the traveler, not the cruise line or the travel agent for one very big reason: not everyone needs a visa and keeping track of who has citizenship where would be really hard to do.

Oddly, people are sometimes clueless about these things as I found out many years ago as a travel agent, trying to help a client get back home on their own dime after exactly that happened.  Azamara does offer assistance though with a Visa Requirement section of the travel documents that come about 30 days prior to sailing.

Visa instructions

Getting a visa took all of 2 minutes and $20 via Turkey’s Electronic Visa Application System.   I placed a printed copy with my passport and captured an image of it with my smartphone to have handy along with images of my passport, credit cards, travel documents,  travel insurance policy with contact numbers and other important papers.  It’s something I highly recommend if your smartphone is really smart. My iPhone requires my thumbprint to open.  No passcode, my thumb.  I plan on keeping my thumb. I am good with that level of security.

Checking other destinations I will visit, no visa is necessary.

 

Currency
Airports- Barcelona BCN - 12I like to have at least a little of the local currency when arriving at a foreign destination.  A wonderful part of the European Union is the Euro, accepted in all member nations.  Turkey is not one of those yet so Turkish Lira is the currency to have and I will get it from a secure bank ATM machine/currency exchange at the airport. I would not dream of landing someplace without enough for at least cab fare to the first stop after the Istanbul airport, in this case the Istanbul cruise port and Azamara Journey.  Odds are a cab will not be needed as transfers are set up through the cruise line.  I expect to find an Azamara representative just outside of the baggage claim area, the common meeting place for international arrivals.  Still, it has happened to me before and will probably happen again; signals get crossed, flights are missed and arrive early or late; making walking off an international flight with money in hand for cab fare as well as directions to the pier a smart move.  I’ll have the currency, Azamara provided the port information. Actually, Azamara recently updated that information via email

We would like to provide you with important information regarding your June 23, 2015, sailing onboard Azamara Journey out of Istanbul. Azamara Journey will be docked at Istanbul’s Sarayburnu Port. – Address is Kennedy Ave. Sarayburnu / Ýstanbul 34400. Check-in will be available between 12:30 pm and 5:30 pm, due to limited facilities we ask that guests not arrive prior to 12:30pm. We look forward to welcoming you onboard.

So, two thoughts here driving the “should I get local currency or not?” question:

1) My flight arrives at 9:25 AM local time putting me at the meeting point by 9:45 easy. (I travel with carry on luggage only).  That gives me some time to kill somewhere assuming the suggested 12:30 boarding time is accurate.  This might be more of a reason to have currency on hand, thinking even if transfers go well, I might want to buy something somewhere along the way to the ship. It’s about a 30-minute drive from the airport to the cruise port. One way or another, I will be waiting somewhere.

2) This is a round-trip Istanbul sailing so if I don’t use currency on the way to the ship or after boarding before the ship leaves late that night, I might before flying back home.

The final decision will probably be made when I land, evaluate the situation and move forward.  Still it’s a good idea to think about these things in advance.

 

Flights
Airports London Gatwick LGW - 03Air Canada is the airline going both to and from Istanbul.  Relatively easy flight plans have me going Orlando to Toronto with a bit less than a two hour layover then Toronto to Istanbul overnight. While we just brushed up against the topic of currency, I have some Canadian dollars I’ll bring along in case something catches my eye in the Toronto airport.  Seats are selected but I continue to check every day, sometimes twice a day, to see if better seats become available.  By “better” I mean seats close to the front of the economy cabin, easier to get to and from when getting on and off the plane, something quite critical when traveling with carry-on luggage only: I have got to get the overhead bin space.

I’ll have more on that tomorrow as well as my packing strategy for this trip, a production schedule of what readers should expect to see here and on our social media outlets and more.  It’s a road map of sorts and one we try to stick close to for some elements but intentionally stray from when the occasion arises to embrace the best parts of travel.

Two Days Prior to Travel

Final Preparations

It’s good to have a road map and a plan when going anywhere I suppose and we do that here, maybe too much.  Once on location, those well-laid plans are subject to change based on variables at the destination.  It might be a matter of weather that changes plans for flightseeing in Alaska, so we book flight seeing more than once, hoping to make it the first time but with a backup date in place to help insure that it happens.  A common variable subject to change and one that pretty much defines my life at sea is how efficiently (or not) the ship’s Internet access works.

Compromised, I’ll skip dinner and order in, choosing room service so I can upload photos at the very best time to do so; while most other passengers and most crew members are involved in the dining process.  Getting up early before everyone else to do the same helps too.  Azamara Club Cruises new room service menu looks so good that I might do that anyway a few times, just to check it out, fast Internet or not.  On this trip, we’re trying something new for us, a personal MiFi hotspot.

Utilizing local 3G Internet access, much like some travelers insert a local sim card in their smartphone, I contracted with CellHire an international service provider that promise connections in most European countries, including all I will be visiting for this sailing as well as some upcoming sailings on our future event schedule.  CellHire promises no worry about expensive global data roaming bills, high overage charges or “bill shock” again with data from only $0.07 per MB – no overage. The European data SIM card is supposed to work on all our devices for a flat fee in bundles of 100MB up to 1GB. Their European MiFi looks to be great for sharing one Internet connection between up to 10 WiFi enabled devices. This European data device offers complete freedom to browse the Internet, post photos and check email, wherever we are in the world with easy online recharge.  This video explains how it works:

We’ll see along the way, when in port.  This does us no good at sea at the mercy of satellite signals.  Stay tuned for updates throughout our Azamara Journey voyage.

Today also brought last minute runs to the grocery store, a trip to the airport to pick up Whitney just returning from Hawaii and a double check on packing, flights, seat assignments and devices.  This is the time when we make sure all devices have the latest upgrades, are functioning properly and if there is anything that needs to be updated or downloaded, today is the day to do that.  This is also the day to switch from land-based working mode to travel mode, loading a desktop folder with hard copies of spreadsheets used in business that would otherwise reside in the cloud which may or may not be accessible while traveling.  Called my Travel Folder, it also contains copies of passports, travel documents, important numbers and passwords along with an assortment of downsized stock photos I can use should Internet access along the way be a total joke.  I don’t anticipate that being the case but being prepared in this critical area is a wise move as is being sure Lisa has books downloaded for her iPad, I have music I want along with movies to watch if in-air offerings are sub-par.   The point of making this day, two days before travel, a busy one is to make the day before international travel one with a light schedule.  That gives time for last-minute activities that might come up as well as the most important thing I do before leaving the country without Lisa, as I am on this trip: connecting with quality time.

As our friend Matt Long from Landlopers says “I love to travel, but I love coming home too”.  Tomorrow will be flavored like that.

Nov 8, 2014 - 00063

Travel Day Eve

All packed and ready to go, I have basically nothing to do today except wait for the shoe to drop…the unexpected thing that happens just before travel that is the main reason for having nothing on the schedule before an event.  Interestingly, that did not happen today which leaves a very short list of things to double check before leaving home.

Top priority is checking in for flights at the exact moment when air travelers are given that ability, 24 hours in advance of flying.  United Airlines, God bless them, cares less for me than something they might scrape off their shoe after mowing the lawn.  I pay for everything with United; a decent seat and priority boarding which is really nothing to get very excited about. After the handicapped, people with children, Diamond, Ruby, Platinum, Gold, Silver, Bronze, Tin and Cardboard members, First Class, Business Class, Plush Economy Wonder Seats and People Without A Ticket, comes my Priority Boarding That You Pay For.  I did not think it possible to be any further down the list until I checked in on partner airline Air Canada, the Rouge Version which is portrayed as where all the swingers sit.  There, I couldn’t even pay to get a better seat or priority boarding.  Not an option.

Frankly, all of the above is a very self-inflicted bad attitude from traveling with all carry-on luggage.  It is really important for me to get on the plane rather quickly and get that space overhead. The carry-on bag and personal item I bring are exactly the dimensions of major airline requirement….empty.  Add a candy bar and pair of socks and I’m in trouble, fretting as to if the gatekeepers to the aircraft will notice.  This leaves me often standing in a position that blocks their full view of my luggage or has that luggage strategically placed so they see the slender profile, not the one of three acceptable measurements that is in excess of regulations.

I do have my reasons for this behavior.  On a sailing out of Barbados, Whitney and I first flew to Miami with a tight connection made tighter by the first flight running late.  It was one of the few times I have had to run to the gate to make the flight. With short-legged Whitney pattering behind me, it was every man for himself .  We made it but the thought never crossed our minds that our checked luggage might not have.  It didn’t.  So here we were in Barbados waiting and waiting for our luggage until the dreaded piece of luggage labeled ‘LAST BAG’ came through.  Not a big deal for me; I can wear the same clothes for day and wash my hair with Tide if needed.  But lost in the other bag that did not make it: Whitney’s hair care products.   Gentlemen, let me tell you, there is no greater travel sin than losing a ladies hair care products.  The ship could sink and it would not be as tragic.  We had to say out loud, over and over ‘WE WILL NOT LET THIS RUIN OUR CRUISE, WE WILL NOT LET THIS RUIN OUR CRUISE, WE WILL NOT LET THIS RUIN OUR CRUISE with all the gusto of Dorothy Gale wanting to return back home to Kansas from Oz where THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE HOME.   That worked but I vowed never to check luggage ever again so anything that stands a chance of upsetting that apple cart is public enemy #1.

However…!

The folks at Air Canada are a likeable bunch who understood my concern/psychosis and moved me to boarding group #1, the same group as those who snatched up the Premium Economy tickets because “we really want your first experience with Air Canada to be a pleasant one”.  Well that’s a done deal: Pleasant it is!  Happy go lucky Chris will be skipping right on the aircraft, giddy with boarding group one thrill.

All of the above does give a bit of credibility to the notion of not having much on the plate the day before travel though.  Had I been running around doing errands, I might not have thought to call the airline directly.

So, next comes a car pick up in the morning for transfer to the airport.  In Orlando, where we live, all things considered, that’s the best option.

Delta  Operations - 30

 

Travel Day

Like a kid on Christmas Eve in the days when Santa had no helper and managed to deliver presents to good little children all over the planet, I usually do not sleep well the night before a long day of travel.  It’s kind of the downside of overthinking everything possible to overthink then making up new things to overthink because overthinking is a world in which one feels comfortable.  On the other hand, that time and thought keeps me out of trouble more often than not, avoiding totally avoidable travel disruptions.  When unanticipated events pose a challenge, I rely on our good friend the Creator of the Universe who has a many more resources at His disposal.  I believe it is He who is behind the little voice in my head that says ‘Stop, sit down and enjoy this sidewalk cafe in France’, ‘Put the camera down and drink in this scene as only your eyes will be able to capture’, ‘If the crowd is going right, turn left’, and thoughts of that sort.  Travel day, by nature, can easily be looked at as a regimented step-by-step procedure that gets us to the place where the action starts.  Indeed, we need to leave wherever we are and be at the airport by a certain time. We need to be on planes, check in and out of hotels, rent cars or whatever other bullet point list items are required to get there.

But that does not mean Travel Day has to be a grueling ordeal one just has to get through.  Travel day can also be one of the most enjoyable parts of the entire experience, with a little thought.

The first step is to get those timed items locked down with someone in the travel party watching the clock.  When we traveled as a family with kids in tow, it was Whitney’s job to navigate the airports, something she just seemed to fall into as a natural thing.  Sydney, the brave one, forged ahead in a crowd, making way for us and generally emitting an aura of control; also a natural occurrence.   That done, it’s time to think of what to do to make travel more enjoyable rather than letting scheduled elements dominate the experience, as they so like to do.

VIK Travel Day - 00005Traditions are a good place to start and can be as simple as how Lisa and I always split a Cheeseburger and have a beer before every trip out of Orlando International Airport.  This is not a time to budget, bringing sandwiches from home.

 

TVIK Travel Day - 00008his is a special time that gets us set for travel and puts our brains in the right place, by practice.  Another tradition is a photo of us on the aircraft, happy to be there, healthy and looking forward to the trip ahead.

 

Making travel day more enjoyable can be helped along a bit with a few common-sense suggestions, this time with the international flight experience ahead today

Wear Comfortable Clothing. There are no fashion police on the aircraft.  If your most comfortable outfit is only to be worn around the house and not for the world to see, bring it along and change once the long flight has begun if flying internationally.  If a short domestic flight is what it takes to get you there, maybe not but while some elements of travel may be uncomfortable because they are new, different and scary; your clothing should not be one of those.

Bring Your Devices, loaded with movies, music, books and/or whatever else you like to do with them…within reason. It was difficult not to feel a bit sorry for the parents of some pre-teens within view of another air traveler ahead who was watching something best left behind on his laptop.

Bring Your Own Food and Water.  Not that there is any lack of it on an overnight international flight but having the ability to influence our own feeding schedule is something humans should embrace.  All added up, I could consume far more during the time it takes me to fly overnight from North America to Europe than I would at home and on their schedule.  See More International Travel Tips in a variety of articles we have written here.

A Fresh Look At What Lies Ahead
For me, one of the most enjoyable parts of getting to the destination is taking another look at what is planned once we get there.  On a cruise vacation, that means taking another look at the itinerary, something travelers commonly do when deciding on one ship and sailing date over another, very early in the process.  After booking, they may have browsed through shore excursion offerings on the cruise line website and either reserved them or just thought about what they might reserve once on board. Indeed, a good case could be made for either approach.  Those who want to be absolutely sure they get to experience something offered as an option by the cruise line, book early, lock the door and throw away the key.  Others want the professional advice of the on-ship shore excursion staff who has been to the destinations and experienced various tours.

In either case, another look at the experience ahead, as our bodies are physically on the way to the scene of the action is a good idea for a couple reasons. First, we might not have that information fresh in our minds and reviewing it is a good idea.  Also, there is a sense of urgency that comes into play when the highly-anticipated travel event is within our grasp. Important too, our personal priorities and/or budget may have changed bringing a new viewpoint on planned activities and/or more (or less) resources at our disposal enabling/requiring a change.

Personally, I will take a good look at the itinerary, consider all elements of what we will be doing on the trip and plan when, where and how I will capture images of what we will experience, Production Plan spreadsheet enabled.  While this might sound like more overthinking, the end result is surprising and the whole process comes from personal experience.

It was after our first dozen cruises as a family that I realized “I have experienced every single scene of every vacation we have ever been on through the viewfinder of a camera”, put the camera down and never picked it up for several years. I had seen nothing with my own eyes and needed to reset that part of travel, allowing time to capture images while at the same time enjoying where we were and what we were seeing, with our eyes.

I have that Production Plan spreadsheet in hand and will be working on it as I make my way to Istanbul.  Still it is a road map of sorts that helps me highlight where and when I have outstanding opportunities to bring readers good information that is usable and of value…or so I think.  I’ll let you be the judge on that as we continue to detail getting there and then what sailing with Azamara Club Cruises is all about.

I won’t show you the current production plan because that would lock me into it and that’s the last thing in the world I want to do.  Still, here is one from a recent event that proved to be a popular series here.   It includes photo opportunities I can think of in advance based on the travel itinerary, experiences of others, the location of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, recommendations by the cruise line, needs for stock photo shots (like general airport, hotel, etc) and more.

Screenshot 2015-06-22 04.49.59

My Production Plan spreadsheet also includes possible opportunities to post updates on our social properties (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc) Some of those work better in a given situation than others…which brings us to the end of this post and a reminder to please follow along via any one (or all) of the social media choices below under Follow Along Socially.  While I will be in the air most of today, I’ll slip in a few updates as I go along.

Istanbul - 188

Arriving In Istanbul, Travel Day: Meaningless

I suppose I should not have thought twice about embarkation being anything other than a breeze.  After all, Azamara Club Cruises is a member of the Royal Caribbean family, the same people who turn over 6000 people in one day off giant Oasis and Allure of the Seas.  Still, this was easy from the moment our flight touched down until we were on board Azamara Journey.

Istanbul - 094

Admittedly, it was a long travel day to get here but a funny thing happened on the way to this forum for destination-focused travelers.  I met Linda, another passenger who hails from Kissimmee, Florida a mere stones throw away from our home in the Orlando suburb of Apopka.  At the airport, on the same flights as I was on which was odd enough in and of itself, but that sort of thing happens from time to time when we travel.  Interesting about this happenstance meeting, once past exchanging pleasantries and commenting on the oddity of the chance meeting, Linda goes immediately into her reasons for wanting to be on this ship, on this itinerary, at this time of year.  Point: the destination focus is way way way way more than a selling point/marketing ploy with this cruise line.

Istanbul - 159

It was a theme repeated throughout the day as I met other passengers too.  Brent and Faye from Canada who happened to be sitting across the aisle from Linda on our Air Canada flight, had been to Istanbul before.  When I brought up the topic of iconic Istanbul landmark Hagia Sophia, both rattled off facts, figures and their impressions of the UNESCO World Heritage site like history professors…but with the sense of accomplishment in their voices that direct contact travel brings.

Istanbul - 003

Jim and Marion joined all of us for a casual lunch and extolled the virtues of coming in a day early so they too could experience more of Istanbul, the starting and finishing line of what looks to be an epic event at sea.  They too were totally into the architecture, religious and social significance of this place and those it’s historical and geographic significance.

Istanbul - 208

Pointing out to me that “right across that bridge is Asia”, I chose to walk off the ship and along shore with Azamara Journey parked closeby, overlooking the scene; the scene you see in the photos accompanying this post.  As kids played, young lovers walked hand in hand, and shoreside restaurants vied for their business, I walked along considering the scene.  Young and old locals fished, sat in the shade, enjoyed the sunny day and ocean breeze as the aroma of Turkish coffee mixed with cotton candy and fire roasted meats drowned out cigarettes and I’m-not-sure-what-it-was in giant Turkish hookahs.

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Well before sunset I walked back to Azamara Journey for the mandatory muster drill then walked the decks, unable to come back inside really as an unusually interesting sun went down, changing the complexion of the area entirely every few minutes, or so it seemed.  Perhaps it was jet lag but I doubt it. Maybe it was the normal anticipation of what is yet to come on any cruise vacation, but notion does not seem to fit well here.  Its more than that, this part of the world and the way Azamara has integrated itself into it.

Istanbul - 188

Taking in the scene in the ship’s lobby area, passengers came and went, stopping to ask directions or advice on where to go.  Not booking excursions, just wanting some tips on what was closeby and what to see within walking distance.  Behind the  counter were either very well trained crew members or captured locals who had lived in the area their entire lives, providing in-depth, personal recommendations for those who asked…the well-traveled passengers I am seeing on board this ship; people not afraid or too timid to let formalities stand in the way of a stellar travel experience.  Totally unexpected, I suspect that will be a recurring theme on this voyage.  Come along with me and find out won’t you?

The Last 24 Hours

Looking back on the last 24 hours or so, little sleep, a long flight, embarkation and getting settled in on the ship?  Meaningless in comparison to the solid destination connection made here today, enabled by Azamara.

A Day At Sea- I Did Absolutely Nothing

Frankly, I can’t remember the last time I said that.  It surely was not on a cruise.  I have absolutely nothing to report.

I will.

Direct connections with the destinations we will visit are planned at every stop along the way. I’ll tell you about all of them.

I had some fascinating conversations with some of the most interesting people I have ever talked to in my entire life. After I have thought about those conversations a bit, we’ll talk about those as well.

I got to know a bit more than normal about a few crew members on Azamara Journey, another effort that reaped some rich rewards that I’m not sure yet quite how to describe. I might need to talk to one of my ‘real journalist’ friends for help on that.

Commonly heard/expressed, everywhere on board Azamara Journey today, a thought along the lines of “Isn’t this a great, relaxed atmosphere?” …as if creating it up until this moment had not possible.

This is good.

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Sailing Azamara- The Last 24 Hours

Looking back on the last 24 hours…yep: nothing.

Well, this was how I ended the day:

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Moving Along, Past Azamazing

It’s interesting how starting out on the right foot makes such a big difference on any travel experience. Have a bad flight in one way or another and it can be hard to shake that negative beginning, even though it is totally unrelated to what cruise lines do.  Mismatch a traveler with the wrong cruise line and doom sits on the horizon, waiting to swoop down and ruin what could be the perfect travel experience for the right person.  Knowing how very important matching the right traveler with the right cruise line can be, it is with great happiness that I am able to proclaim Azamara Club Cruises everything I hoped it would be, at a very early point in the experience.  At the end of day two on a 12-day voyage, I have high praises for a couple of very good reasons that every cruise traveler should find important.

Friendly Respect and Undeniable Value.

Perhaps these are not the two virtues those who command what happens on Azamara Club Cruises might hope to be said of them, at least not in those words.  But in the vernacular of which we travelers are accustomed to understanding, the friendly respect I have been shown on this cruise and the undeniable value offered by Azamara are two solid differentiating factors worthy of serious consideration.

Adding further support to those factors: this is the general consensus of opinion of other travelers I have talked to on board right now.  Some have sailed before with Azamara while others took a bit of a gamble, hoping what they had heard from friends was actually what they would experience. All do not hesitate to extol the virtues of a crew that insures the success of some very well thought out plans for guests.

The exciting part: It normally takes an entire voyage to feel comfortable enough with the people part to call it a win.

Words From The Wise

At the end of my first sailing with Azamara, Captain Johannes Tysse and I were having a conversation. I commented on how unique the itineraries were and was impressed that Azamara rarely repeated them.  Indeed, that particular itinerary served as my personal gold standard for destination immersion, a focus that just about every cruise line is promoting just a few years later.

“They come for the itineraries, they come back for the crew” said Captain Tysse at the time.  Facebook friends since then, Johannes has kept in contact, documentable proof of the importance the entire Azamara organization places on making direct connections with those they serve, both on and off the ship.

Beginning Where Others End

All of the above could be viewed as a whole lot of flowery words from someone who typically puts the people factor above all else anyway.  Not to take anything away from the stellar job the crew appears to be doing or how nicely the itineraries are planned but this experience is about to take a giant leap forward.  All of the above is usually the stuff of last posts from a wonderful cruise experience,  looking back on it.   After two days we have already reached that point.

Imagine the very best cruise vacation you have ever been on.  Imagine that best cruise experience as a baseline and dream that all future sailings will be that good or better.  You are now entering the world  of Azamara Club Cruises.

Incomparable, Beyond Azamazing

If readers are expecting me to compare what Azamara does to other lines, forget it.  That is not going to happen nor would it be appropriate to do so.  After just two days I can clearly see that all is well at Azamara Club Cruises and the Azamara Journey experience is even better than I had experienced before.

For now, I will leave you with one single photo that says it all. One stellar crew member that is typical of what we are experiencing here. Louis works the deck on Azamara Journey starting early in the morning until late in the day, setting up deck chairs and taking good care of passengers on board. This is one person who absolutely defines the Azamara brand in a very positive way.

 

 

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Now that we have that out of the way, I’ll move along to the interesting direct connection with the destination I made today in Greece, on a tour.  I’ll tell you about a half dozen other crew members who remembered me from my sailing three years ago, by name.  You’ll read about other crew who I never saw before but felt as though I have known for years.  We’ll talk about the like-minded travelers I am sailing with and the fact that, so far anyway, there is no one on board that we want to avoid, like ther surely is on so many other travel experiences.  It’s turning into a very interesting story and we have only begin.  Hang in there for more of what I believe is an enchanting tale.

That’s all tomorrow on a day at sea. I’m going to need to have some time to process the magnitude of what I experienced today.  Do come back, this is about to get really good.

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Gythion By The Beach

Sailing with Azamara Club Cruises allows visiting ports not often seen by larger ships.  Unique itineraries take the well-traveled passengers aboard their twin ships to places those big ships can’t get to or would overwhelm with thousands of people going ashore.  The Greek port of Gythion was one of those places and served as an interesting first stop on our 12-night sailing.

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Like many small ports, Gythion is a tender port, one of many on our itinerary requiring use of the ship’s lifeboats to get back and forth from shore.  Like other small ship lines though, this is an easy process with multiple tenders sailing back and forth all day.  For those to whom the thought of tendering is a deciding factor in choosing one itinerary over another, forget that.  There is no clogging the stairwells waiting for the first tender to go ashore, no lines of people wanting to be first and no wasting time for a long tender operation. I don’t see that situation developing for a couple of reasons.  First, Azamara stays in port a long time, almost always after other ships have left for the day and often into the late night.  That takes a bit of the pressure off passengers to hustle ashore, take care of business then get back before the ship leaves.  Also, this is a bit different clientele and rushing is not something they do, regardless of their age or background.  Most have thoroughly researched each port, have an idea of what they want to do and have probably booked a shore tour to do take care of that desire.  As those on tours are escorted off the ship with priority, the tender operation is made a smooth running process.  That the ship is smaller and can anchor closer to shore probably does not hurt that timing either.

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My tour du jour (I have one booked for every port of call) was the longest of the bunch at a scheduled five hours.  On a number of other lines, that would leave little time for going it on my own, a favorite thing to do in any port, on any ship, in any part of the world.  That our ship would be in port until 7PM allowed plenty of time to linger at a beachfront cafe; an activity that turned out to be the icing on a very tasty cake.

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Called Medieval Wonders Of Mystras it was one of two Azamara Land Discoveries tours available.  Traveling up high into the mountains, by motorcoach, we walked back down to town, stopping along the way at a number of places, with free time allowed at each.  “Free time” is an interesting animal that those on destination focused cruise vacations get extremely greedy about about two tours into the trip.

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It’s like a very lovely legal drug that is easy to become addicted to.  Still, to cover the advertised ground and enable travelers to see all they want to see, guides need to keep the group moving along.  That our tour included free time throughout rather than only at the end as one might anticipate is a huge benefit and dynamic differentiating factor I hope to see on other tours as well.

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Interestingly, as I was getting off the ship before this tour, Azamara Journey Hotel Director Heike asked which tour I was going on.  When I told her, a look of joy came across her face as she said in a you-don’t-doubt-it sort of way “Oh, you’ll like that!”.  She was right.

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Ending the day back at the Gythion port I stopped by H Trata cafe where I found the local flavor that defines a place to me.  Seated within view of the ship until time to leave, that activity harkens back to Caribbean cruises on ships that would stay in port a longer time, wanting to squeeze every drop of fun out of the day.  I miss those days as ships seem to spend less time in port and more time at sea generating onboard revenue.

Gythion By The Beach

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Enjoyed: 3 giant Greek beers, a big plate of Greek olives swimming in Greek olive oil with crusty bread to soak it up and a jumbo Baklava that served as the perfect ending, for a couple of reasons.  Baklava in Greece is a must-have confection/dessert/sin that presents one of those situations where one has to just look beyond the calories.  When I asked my waiter for some, I think he could see the hunger in my eyes.  This was not something they had on the menu.  He paused, thought about it, looked around in all directions, then said “Yes, I get that for you”.

A couple minutes later, I saw him speed away on a motorcycle, briefly, and return with that Baklava.  It was an enchanting, leisurely afternoon for a grand total of 10 Euro.  Unbelievably inexpensive in price yet rich in direct destination contact.

This is more like it.  This was lovely.  This is the Azamara I remember, now even better.

5
The Focused Onboard Experience

Prior to sailing with Azamara Club Cruises on this 12-night itinerary that features a number of stops in Croatia, Italy and Greece, I knew nothing of Montenegro. As we do before every cruise, some homework was in order to get the most out of each destination along the way. I came prepared with facts and figures that were verified on a walking tour of Kotor, a place Azamara aptly promotes as a ‘true gem nestled on the sparkling Adriatic.’ Still, no amount of advance study could have prepared us for this stunningly beautiful part of the world. It was a full day of cultural immersion enjoyed by passengers that also serves as a good place and time to begin talking about the Azamara Journey onboard experience as well.

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It would be very easy to focus the lion’s share of our coverage on this sailing ashore. After all, connecting travelers with interesting places around the world is a differentiating factor promised and delivered by Azamara on every sailing.

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Today’s port of call is a perfect example. Kotor’s imposing city walls date back to the 12th century, interesting architecture surrounds visitors in all directions and the entire area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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That we were in port for 13 hours was an appropriate amount of time for passengers to become fully immersed in the destination, and many did.

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That time in port also provided a great backdrop to one of Azamara’s signature onboard events; White Night.

White Night Party

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Encouraging passengers to wear white, the evening begins showcasing the culinary department’s best creations at a buffet dinner featuring everything from char grilled meats to salads, bakery items, desserts and more.

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This is dinner tonight every guest on board is in attendance. Typically well staffed, waiters keep glasses full and passengers happy throughout the event that includes a nicely-done crew parade, dance party and continues with a late night after-party.

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Typically Incredible

Let’s stop right here for a minute to think about those last few thoughts as they highlight some of the best parts of what Azamara does.

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That it is even possible for all guests on the entire ship to be together for dinner, in and of itself, speaks to the allure of small-ship cruising. This simply cannot be done on a larger ship. Yes, other cruise lines have on deck culinary events.

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Different here is that the entire passenger group fits on deck, at tables, receiving table service.

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During that table service, waiters keep glasses full easily because that’s included in the price and there is none of this going to ring up each drink on some machine. Premium offerings were available for a modest fee, some guests had taken up Azamara on upgraded beverage packages too. Still, the more inclusive nature of what they do here goes a long way toward enabling Azamara to focus our attention on having a memorable experience.

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Of particular interest to me was the Crew Parade. Held not even halfway through the sailing, the timing gives passengers a chance to show their appreciation for the extraordinarily good job crewmembers do. And they really do.

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This is not the night before the last night thing on a big ship where all of the sudden we see the Maitre’d and the customarily sour-faced crew all of the sudden found their smile.

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This is really appropriate and consistent with a genuine desire to do well that seems shared by the entire staff. Really.   A good example of that commitment is found in a flyer mixed in with the day’s shipboard newsletter.

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“I would like to invite you to participate in an invaluable and important guest feedback letter,” begins Hotel Director Heike Berdos, a 25-year veteran of the hotel business. Not waiting until there is no time to fix something that might be wrong, Berdos continues; “I encourage you to use the space provided to specify any details you would like us to focus on during the remainder of the cruise rather than wait for the customary guest questionnaire at the end of the voyage.”

Impressive.

It’s not the first time we have seen efforts of this nature, but the first time we have seen that door opened by a Hotel Director as highly visible as this one. She is all over the place, including leading a group of passengers on a hike in Kotor. Hotel Director Heike is not alone though; we see ship management frequently including something I have never seen before when coming back to the ship from my time in Montenegro.

The Onboard Experience

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After a nice lunch at a hotel café in Kotor, I did some shopping and got a good idea of what the port had to offer in advance of returning here later this year with Lisa. I did not want to spend too much time ashore but get a general overview, saving the shared experience element of it all for when we came back.

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At the dock, a tender was waiting for guests to return and go back to the ship but no one else had arrived making me the first one. My first thought was ‘I wonder how long it will be until this fills up and they take me back?’ which made sense to bring an efficient tendering process…but then we left right away. No complaints there but I was a bit puzzled until I realized it was Captain Sindre Borsheim piloting the tender boat.

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Asking if I would like to take a little spin around the ship for photos, I had no hesitation taking Captain Borsheim up on the offer and was treated to some wonderful views of Azamara Journey in the process.

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This is typical of what we are experiencing as we sail with Azamara Club Cruises, every step of the way. The uber-important end result is a relaxed onboard atmosphere that lends itself to some wonderful moments, like these images captured at the White Party.

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5
We’re Not In Dubrovnik Anymore

(Korcula, Croatia) We had visited Croatia a number of times in the past. Popular Dubrovnik goes down as an all time favorite port of call. Visited by ships of all sizes, Dubrovnik’s old town is within walking distance and the port itself makes a great place to begin a shore excursion. Pre-sold on the flavor of Croatia and its people, one of the most attractive parts of our Azamara Journey sailing was visiting different three ports on the Dalmatian coast other than Dubrovnik. Doing so with destination-focused Azamara Club Cruises had the potential to bring a unique perspective to our travels. In Korcula, we found all we had bargained for and more during a day that highlighted a number factors that differentiate Azamara from other cruise lines.

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The Background We Need

Like so many places in this part of the world, Korcula has an interesting past, dating back to around 1000BC. Also similar to a number of destinations we have visited, Korcula too is a walled city, located about halfway between Dubrovnik and Split. Highlights include a land gate dating built in the 14th century, St Mark’s Cathedral and an Old Town area. All of the information above and more comes to Azamara passengers the night before arrival in any given port, courtesy of the onboard Pursuits newsletter. Concise and usable information for those who may not have spent time researching the destinations or need a bit of a refresher before actually visiting.

Taking that focus a bit further, Azamara has on board a guest lecturer who frequently narrates what we are seeing as we sail much like a U.S. Park Service Ranger might come on board when passing through protected areas in Alaska.

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Tendering Made Easy

The smaller size of Azamara Journey enables us to visit ports like Korcula, where docking a larger ship would not be possible. It’s not so much that big ships cannot visit these ports due to size as it is getting passengers on and off when they get there. Big ship tendering operations are complicated and time-consuming, robbing passengers of valuable time ashore. Indeed, many cruise travelers shy away from itineraries with a number of tender ports or simply don’t get off the ship at them.

Azamara makes it easy with continual tender operations all day. Different than other lines, they don’t wait for tender boats to fill up with passengers before going back or forth from the ship.

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Unique Ports Of Call

As mentioned, we love Dubrovnik and have visited a number of times. Had we stopped there on this trip, that would have been just fine with me too. Still, nearly every Mediterranean cruise we have been on has included a stop in Dubrovnik. Visiting Korcula provided a unique and different experience.

While a walled city, Korcula was steps away from the pier, no other ships were in port and even on a rainy day, navigating the streets was easy. On our walking tour of the area, the local guide provided additional information about the history, buildings and traditions of Croatia, all consistent with what we had read and heard on the ship.

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Interesting Tour Guides

It is perhaps a subtle difference but an important one nonetheless. I have been on tours where guides have been a bit generous when larger than real numbers suit their narrative or conservative when smaller is better.   Still, those keenly interested in the history, geography and current state of a destination will find accurate information via the vetted guides used by Azamara. From what I can tell. I am not a historian.

Personally, my thought is just get me there and put me in front of the places I want to capture images of because I don’t trust your information anyway. I can count on two hands the excellent tour guides I have experienced in my lifetime. They were all on river cruises with not one on an ocean cruise. To me, that makes Azamara’s destination focus, taken to this detailed level we are experiencing here, a solid point in their favor.

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And When Things Go Wrong…

To me, it often feels like big ship shore excursion operations are often more focused on the logistics of moving people from place to place without considering the details of the experience carefully. Azamara seems to have taken that time and used it wisely. Granted, I have been on three tours out of hundreds they offer around the world. Still, not every tour is a home run, even for Azamara.

On a cave-focused tour taken by a number of passengers on our sailing, it appears that the enduring memory will be that of being barked at by the guide over safety issues.   They won’t shake that memory but revisiting it over the last few day, recounts of that tour have morphed into a bit of a joke, referring to that guide as The Cave Nazi, once again highlighting the value of the shared experience offered by cruise vacations.

Fielding the curve balls that travel throws our way from time to time with ease is typical of the passengers who sail with Azamara.   Still, that crewmembers pay keen attention to detail heads off trouble before it starts. Accessible shipboard management gives us the opportunity to express our concerns and gives them the opportunity to right wrongs.

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Interestingly, we have just begun to explore that area of Azamara operations. Coming up next is Venice Italy and what is called an Azamazing Evening. The signature event highlights the fact that Azamara ships stay late in port and offer what they call ‘night touring’.

That’s next. That’s what Azamara promotes as one of their best features.

 6
They Come Out At Night Too

Smack dab in the middle of a five-in-a-row run of back-to-back non-stop port action* sat Venice, Italy on our 12-night sailing with Azamara Club Cruises. Arriving early and staying late in port brought plenty of time to explore the City of Water, known for its highway of canals, gondolas, fabulous food and marshy lagoon. Throw in a thousand years of history and a simple walk in any direction enabled a direct connection as we experienced both during the day and at night.

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Continuing our routine of using an Azamara shore exploration as a springboard for cultural immersion, the night would bring a signature Azamara Club Cruises event tagged an ‘Azamazing Evening’. (more on that in a moment) I counted that potentially extraordinary event as the tour du jour and set out on a walk from Azamara Journey in morning with no particular purpose in mind.

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I liked that the ship was docked just steps away from shops, dining, historic landmarks and more at the UNESCO World Heritage Site. While bigger ships in port docked farther away from the action, we were right in the middle of it all once again; highlighting a distinct advantage of sailing on a smaller ship. Of bonus interest to me; this part of town was not nearly as busy as I remembered from previous visits when it seemed so very crowded, any time of the year.

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Walking through history on cobblestone streets as lunchtime approached, the aroma of fresh baked pizza started to fill the air. Demanding a stop along the canal for what I have been calling ‘a direct connection’ in this series of posts, let’s pause a moment and define that term as I see it.

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Making A Connection

Making a connection with any given destination can be accomplished by not only visiting somewhere but doing something once we get there. As I began to build my cruise history and take advantage of the ‘unpack once, visit multiple destinations’ element of it all, if I walked off the ship and my feet touched ground, that counted as having visited there.

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Making A Direct Connection

Making a direct connection with a destination does that too but includes direct contact with someone who lives there. When that goes well, we walk away with contact information and a new friend who we hope to visit again some day, tell our friends about and do social engagement in person, old school.

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The AzaAdvantage

If buzz words are something that works for you, here’s another one I think I just made up. A distinct advantage of sailing with Azamara Club Cruises that no other cruise line we have talked about in this space has ever done: enabling direct connection. We’ll call that the AzaAdvantage. Readers who have been following along on this trip may have noticed that at each port of call we have posted a photo of our ship, as seen from shore, while we are making a direct connection.   That I was able to do that in Venice where a simple turn in the wrong direction can get visitors lost rather quickly highlights the importance of this AzaAdvantage.

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Leveraging AzaAdvantage to my benefit, I stopped at a little café along the canal for lunch. Starting with Bruschetta and a beer I moved along to a wonderful pizza, the vehicle that connected me with Antonio. When asked what kind of pizza I wanted, the answer was easy and serves as a great way to get that connection action going.

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“How about which ever combination is the best, what you would have yourself or suggest to a very good friend,” I answered, adding “…just no anchovies.” You could see the wheels turning in Antonio’s head as he considered this proposition and said “Ok!”, morphing from an order taker into a real live human being.

Enjoying every minute of the wait for that pizza to be baked, Antonio presented the creation to me, saying at the same time “Wait, not yet”, and produced a bottle of olive oil flavored with pepperoncini. “Can I drizzle (this) over the top? You will never want pizza without it again” And he was so right.

Having consumed a days worth of food with Antonio, I paid, left the café and walked away with a great memory of a nice lunch and someone to come back and see some day. Whether I do or not is basically irrelevant. I could get hit by a truck tomorrow and not go back anywhere. So why not make the most of every single opportunity? Such was the case during our Azamazing Evening, an included tour on every Azamara Club Cruises sailing

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They Come Out At Night Too.

As mentioned above, this was what I counted as the tour du jour, although I might have chosen a more organized way to see Venice via optional shore exploration. Part of what Azamara calls “Night Touring” it’s something unique that other cruise lines do not do, mainly because they have already sailed off to the next port of call.

Knowing I would be on this sailing of Azamara Journey months in advance, I paid attention when we were in port on other cruise lines and verified this differentiating factor that may or may not be important to you. Frankly, it’s something I really never thought about all that much and really did not consider one itinerary over another based on how long ships were in one place.   Like most cruise travelers, it was the ports themselves that were considered, not how long they stayed unless it was overnight; something Azamara also does on many itineraries.

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The logistics alone, moving a ship full of people on and off for the Azamazing Evening event, is impressive. Especially in Venice which required a water taxi ride then a 15 minute walk deeper into the city to arrive at the Teatro La Fenice Venizia opera house on time. That transfer lawlessly executed, we arrived early with about 40 minutes to spare.

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This is a beautiful venue that I visited several years ago in connection with a visit to the Fincantieri shipyard with Princess Cruises for a look at Royal and Regal Princess, both under construction at the time.

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“One of the most famous and renowned landmarks in the history of Italian theater,” Azamara tells us in the souvenir program, it was being refurbished at the time of my last visit. Refurbishment now complete, the place looks very much like it did in the 18th century and provided a stunning venue for the Azamazing Evening.

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The ensemble of talented musicians performed a nice selection of works by Veracini, Broschi and Vivaldi (a personal favorite) punctuated by Germany soprano Liesl Odenweller as we see in this short clip.

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Walking back to the canal for another water taxi ride back to Azamara Journey. A few passengers stayed behind, enjoying just a bit more of the fabulous city’s nightlife.

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Once there, we were greeted by the ship’s band and crew then enjoyed a late night buffet and talked about the experience among ourselves…as in, we had a conversation. We talked about the shared experience which most agreed was simply fabulous. Returning to our staterooms, Azamara had left a review form for us to fill out, rating the event and continuing their in-your-face proactive focus on providing a quality experience.

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Overheard after the Azamazing Evening

“Nicely done”
(Azamara is) “a real class act”
“I never thought we would be here in Venice, at night, at an opera”
“That was just wonderful”
“That was worth the trip”
“That made the cruise for me”

I agree with all of the above.

 

7
Expert Status Verified

As Adriatic towns go one would be challenged to find one more beautiful than Zadar; our second of three stops in Croatia on Azamara Journey. But then I could have said that about Korcula, also visited with Azamara Club Cruises on this 12-night itinerary. Back that up further and past posts here rated Dubrovnik a must-see destination, visited on a number of other cruise lines. In other words, we have been blessed with wonderful weather and Mother Nature did some of her best work in Zadar. Still, the magnitude of Azamara’s focus on destinations is beginning to sink in: they mean business. Serious business.

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One hope I had for this trip was to reaffirm that Azamara Club Cruises is the leader among cruise lines in destination immersion, still scoring as high with passengers now as they did when I last sailed the two-ship line in 2012. After all, they were focusing on destinations well in advance of other cruise lines, perhaps starting a revolution that brought more focus on what is done off the ship than ever before. As I write this post, with just two more ports of call left to visit, the verdict is in.

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Expert Status Verified

No one I have sailed with does destinations better and with more commitment than Azamara Club Cruises…and I can prove it.

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This is not Chris choosing to look on the positive side of things. I absolutely do focus on positive, differentiating factors that define what a cruise line is or wants to be. That positive view is consistent with our purpose; to take you inside cruise vacations. Follow along with us here and on our social properties before sailing then compare your actual experience to that promised. We won’t tell you something that is not going to happen. Still, we can put a positive spin on anything in our sleep. It’s what we do. Rarely do we get as much quantifiable data, as many perfect examples and support for our happy views as we do sailing Azamara Club Cruises.

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That said, a wonderful example of just how committed Azamara is to destinations came in Zadar via Captain Sindre Borsheim, master of Azamara Journey on temporary assignment while regular Captain Johannes Tysse is on vacation. Those who follow us on Instagram and Facebook already know this story, but it is worth repeating in this space as well.

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Scheduled to stay in Zadar, Croatia until 7:00PM by the planned and published itinerary, Captain Borsheim made the call to stay later until 10:30PM, giving passengers more time ashore at a remarkable destination. When I asked why that decision was made, Borsheim had no hesitation explaining “to give our guests more time in port”, something other cruise lines just would not do.

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Azamara’s business model is built on making the lion’s share of revenue from cruise fares. Higher than that of a larger ship that makes a little revenue on a lot more people, Azamara charges a higher but fair price and includes more in that price to create value. On a bigger ship where the cruise fare often does not cover the cost of operations, they must leave port on time. There are no ifs ands or buts about it for a very good reason: Not doing so could cost them as much as $100,000 per hour or more in lost casino action (not everyone wins) as well as gift shop and other purchases (most people buy). This is also a reason passengers late back to the port on an independent tour could find that the ship left without them.

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Staying late enabled us to have dinner ashore at a great little restaurant, stick around to see sundown and experience Zadar’s Sun Salutation and Sea Organ.

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Zadar shares a similar rich history with other places in Croatia too. The heart of Old Town is the 13th century St Stephen’s square, bordered by abundant shops, restaurants and cafes…one of which I started my day at.

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The day ended nicely, with passengers coming back on board Azamara Journey later than normal, taking full advantage of the gift of time given to us by Captain Borsheim. Azamara promotes what they do a number of ways with television advertising, colorful brochures and a variety of social media efforts. Accurately tagged #LoveTravel, that element is quite visible in everything they do.  It’s more than a buzz word.  It’s their way of life and an evolving way of life at that.

8
Actually, The Ship Is A Destination Too

At every port of call on our 12-night Azamara Journey sailing I have scheduled a tour through the ship and put Azamara Club Cruises to test. In Sailing Azamara: Expert Status Verified, we documented unique differentiating factors that make Azamara a solid choice. Travelers wishing to visit interesting places with a travel company that ‘gets it’ about destinations will find a nice home here. Still, the ships of Azamara have some unique features worthy of discussion. While moving us from place to place efficiently might be their primary purpose, what happens on board seems to sneak up on us until we realize; the ship is a destination too.

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Nicely Appointed Staterooms

As cruise ship staterooms go, these are as nice as any other cruise line and about to get better. Soon, both Azamara ships will be go through a major remodeling, adding a number of new features that will affect most public areas. Right now, these staterooms have everything one might need to focus their attention on whatever aspect of the cruise experience interests them most. Attentive stateroom stewards do a good job providing specific needs of each passenger. Beginning with an introduction on the first day of sailing, they pay attention and hit individual needs with a high consistency. I don’t have many requests but happen to like ice cold Diet Coke. There has been one on ice every minute of every day since I boarded this ship.

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Personal Dining Options
I like that in addition to a main dining room, there is a buffet that is well-staffed and always has something unique on the menu. Themed nights range from Asian to American with careful attention paid to details right down to background music that reflects the part of the world being featured. A made-to-your-order station does one thing every meal and does it very well. Signature specialty restaurants Prime C (steakhouse) and Aqualina (Italian) are offered for a nominal extra charge that most passengers I have talked to agree seems fair. 24-hour room service and a pool grill complete the culinary offerings that add up to a seemingly unimpressive lineup if it were not for one very unique factor that is probably one of the most difficult parts of the Azamara experience to explain: This is a very relaxed product.

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Slow Cruising
There is no pressure to pick a certain dining time and schedule your evening around it. Open seating in the main dining room and long hours of operation are a combination that’s hard to beat. But other cruise lines have open seating too. This is different. It is not unusual to be in any given area of the ship and strike up a conversation with someone I have not met before. Speaking well of Azamara’s efforts to define what they do in advance, that conversation usually happens with other people like me. They may be from different parts of the world but they all love to travel and enjoy a back and forth conversation with others of similar background.

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After our Azamazing Evening at an opera house in Venice, a welcome back buffet was offered with passengers sitting randomly around the dining room. A couple from the UK came to the table I was sitting at, sat down, began to eat then one of them looked at me and said “Would you have ever believed when you were younger that you would have just done that?”, referring to the marvelous experience we had all just shared. “The thought would have never crossed my mind,” I replied, touching on the untold, unadvertised, you-gotta-be-there-and-experience it part of what Azamara brings to the table: slow cruising that gives time to appreciate every single part of the experience.

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Active Or Not, Your Choice
For those who want/need/prefer a lot of onboard activities, they are there. A full roster of them comes to our staterooms every night just like every other cruise line. Different here, they are not shoved down our throats. There are no announcements about anything ever, other than a daily briefing by the Captain and safety-related information on embarkation. That’s it.

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Interestingly, while much of the focus here is on destinations, there is also onboard entertainment, a topic I have not written one word about during this entire voyage until now…and you’ll have to wait until tomorrow to hear about that. Also not mentioned thus far: the cruise director. There is good reason to hold these topics to the end, trust me on that.

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Again, It’s All In The Details
The ship itself is not something we read much about. In advance, little information is provided. Even on board, there is not much fuss made about the different dining options, venues, activities and features. Clearly, the primary purpose of Azamara Journey and Azamara Quest is to take their well-traveled passengers to amazing destinations around the world. As they do that though, there is careful attention given to details, as one might expect of a small ship, luxury cruise line.   As we continue to profile Azamara Club Cruises, those quantifiable tiny details are making a big impact on passengers.

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Note: Pictured here, images captured during our visit to Hvar, Croatia- another beautiful stop on our itinerary, again blessed with lovely weather.

 

9
Reasons To Sail Azamara

I am often asked “What did you think of _______ cruise line,” almost universally, after every sailing.   It’s a good question that I can usually answer in a few words, summing up the experience. Regardless of the cruise line, each has its good points and is a wonderful fit for some traveler. The primary goal then is to align the right cruise line with the right traveler. In the process, one cruise line might rise to the top due to a number of factors important to each of us, as individuals.

Still, there are some cruise lines I would recommend as top choices and others that are not on the top of the list. Azamara Club Cruises ranks high with a number of solid reasons to sail with them.

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Two Ships
That Azamara Journey and Azamara Quest comprise the entire Azamara fleet is significant. Just as significant as the small fleets of Silversea, Crystal Cruises, Star Clippers and others for sure, but perhaps more so. The ships of Azamara enjoy a very high crew retention rate. Odds are, sailing again with this cruise line, there will be crew that is remembered and they remember you.
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Staying Longer In Port
Staying late in port, enabling what Azamara calls ‘night touring’ is an easy claim to verify. At every port of call on our 12-night Mediterranean sailing of Azamara Journey, we were the last ship to leave port except one. In Kotor, Montenegro The World stayed longer which almost doesn’t count. That’s the residential cruise ship that passengers own which stays multiple days in nearly every port. No one else beats that one out of town either.
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Compact Size
The standard selling point for small ship cruising is that they can physically sail to different places that larger ships. That’s because their ships can navigate in more shallow waters due to their draft, which determines the depth of water a ship operate in. Azamara ships have a draft of 5.8 meters (19 feet) while giant Oasis of the Seas measures in at 9.3 meters (30.5 feet).

Another advantage of smaller ships is that it does not take long to go from one end to the other. Two sets of elevators are nicely placed to allow easy access to not as many decks either. On the down side (to some) there are no amusing features to speak of.

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Unique Itineraries
While top deck things to do and multiple interior public spaces are limited compared to larger ships, the number is quite appropriate for the clientele that sail with Azamara. Like river cruising and sailing on other small ships, a great amount of focus is on the destinations they visit. Rightfully so, they make some wonderful choices. With two Azamara sailings under my belt, I am beginning to give this factor a whole lot more credit than one might imagine. They walk a very fine line in this area and do it well. On one hand, they need to have some ports that are popular and appeal to travelers just visiting a given part of the world for the first time. On the other hand, they know they are capable of visiting a far greater number of ports than most other ships and want to differentiate themselves from other lines by going there.

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Trustworthy
When we sail, regardless of the cruise line, we have given them a vote of confidence in advance of travel. That they will take us safely from place to place alone is a common quality among cruise lines in general. That Azamara rules in favor of passengers on a more frequent basis than most is one of their biggest selling points but not one they mention.   Visiting Hvar Croatia, Azamara Journey’s Captain Borsheim decided to stay in port longer, enabling us to have dinner ashore which turned out to be one of the most enjoyable parts of the sailing. Putting the petal to the metal, he also brought us to Santorini Greece a couple hours earlier than scheduled, giving more time to enjoy our last port of call.

We rarely get the chance to rate trust in a quantifiable manner. The above examples came from comparing the published itinerary, what we thought we would be doing, to the actual experience.

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10
Sailing Azamara, An Unusual Value

Small ships usually bring higher prices, it’s just the business model the companies who run them must follow to stay afloat… financially. Azamara offers some outstanding price points for those who book far in advance, as we think all cruise lines should. If for no other reason, we’re giving them our money in deposit that could be sitting elsewhere, earning interest. Not that anyone is going to make a fortune on the interest generated by a cruise ship deposit, but it’s the point of it. Here is a list of documentable factors that add to and highlight the value of Azamara Club Cruises.

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A Break For Singles– Traditionally, the cruise industry bases their world on double occupancy, two people per cabin. Solo travelers who commonly pay nearly double the per person price everyone else is paying will like frequently offered reduced single supplements.

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Inclusive- That Azamara includes liquor, beer and wine anytime adds value.  Upgrade packages are available but are a bit of a double-edged sword.  Pricing is reasonable for those to whom the brand of hard liquor and/or wine is a really big deal but brings a corkage fee on wine brought on board from ashore. Also included, lovely coffee drinks travelers might as well have gone ashore to pay for and enjoy.

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Inclusive With A Nice Swing– That crewmembers are plentiful and eager to serve those beverages is an important distinction too. It’s the follow through not all inclusive cruise lines do well.

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The Azamazing Evening is an included signature event on every sailing. Ours could have easily been a $100+ per person event considering transportation to and from along with the event itself

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Night Touring sounds sort of like Azamara offers shore excursions that begin at night. Not really, other than the Azamazing evening.  Although (and this is a big ‘although’), staying late in port does open a lot of opportunities.  In advance of experiencing it, this was not all that interesting to me. Having dinner ashore in Zadar, Croatia was absolutely fabulous.

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Local On Board– At each port of call, Azamara brought on board a local destination expert to answer questions and help direct those not on a tour.  I thought that was a nice touch.

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Upgrades- They upgrade more. If space is available, past guests find the Azamara upgrade fairy knocking on their door with some frequency, which makes a whole lot of sense. While other cruise lines will let top end accommodations sit empty, Azamara often offers them to booked guests for a reasonable fee just before sailing. It’s not free but it happens more here.

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Quality Port Calls– Staying longer in port with many itineraries featuring overnights provides a travel option that could viably take the place of a land vacation that is rarely a comparatively good value.

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Generous Past Guest Program- Le Club Voyage is Azamara’s past guest program that lets earn earn points that can be applied toward complimentary nights, complimentary Internet and laundry service, spa savings and more. The program is also reciprocal with sister lines Celebrity Cruises’ Captain’s Club and Royal Caribbean’s Crown and Anchor Society.

Once booked, this is also a line to pay close attention to on pricing. Already competitive with other luxury cruise lines, occasional sale pricing happens and is often applicable to existing bookings.  On our voyage, I talked to a number of passengers who seemed to have received remarkably lower pricing than others. On the other hand, I put ‘confessed price claims’ in the same folder as fishing stories, golf scores and casino skills; difficult to prove and often exaggerated. Bigger is better unless smaller is.

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Learn More
Want to know more about what it is like to sail with Azamara Club Cruises?    We have a nice library of posts started about that.   See our Complete Experience Voyage Journal that begins with planning and ends with reflection of the experience.

Blog Posts
See these posts made during our 12-night Greece, Italy and Croatia sailing

Facebook Photo Albums
One from each port of call

 

 

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