Why You Should Cruise Azamara Now

At Sea On Azamara Quest: Given the skewed the valuation between the U.S. dollar and the Euro, it’s unusual to hear the words “Europe” and “good value” mentioned in the same sentence. But those words were in frequent use on a recent 14-night Mediterranean cruise on Azamara Quest.

The reason was twofold: First, a cruise represents a bargain proposition when compared to other modes of travel and accommodations within Europe. The cruise lines’ oft-repeated mantra is that paying in U.S. dollars for goods and services onboard isolates travelers from the higher costs in Euros ashore.

Second, passengers on Azamara Quest paid considerably less than they would have paid for similar sailings on other cruise lines. The reason: As a relative newcomer in the business, Azamara Cruises (now known as Azamara Club Cruises) faces the challenge of establishing its brand. Though under the corporate umbrella of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., Azamara does not yet have the name recognition of its sister companiesRoyal Caribbean Cruise Line and Celebrity Cruises. One way to build brand: Get people on board and send them home as ambassadors who will spread the word. How to get people on board? Give them a deal.

For now at least, Azamara provides exceptional value when compared to its competitors. And Azamara compares favorably to its most formidable competitor, Oceania Cruises. The two cruise lines operate nearly identical hardware: Oceania Cruises sails three vessels once operated by now-defunct Renaissance Cruises; Azamara sails two, Quest and Journey.

Essentially, Azamara is an Oceania wannabe, and though Azamara got off to a shaky start, a year into the game, the newcomer is proving to be quite adept at replicating Oceania’s successful model.

Four-time Azamara cruisers Steve Henderson (pictured) and his wife Kate say they’ve cruised so often on Azamara because the deals have simply been too good to pass up. The Texas couple had only disembarked Quest a month before I met them in the Mediterranean. They had returned to Europe because of “irresistible offers.”

“When comparing us to Oceania, we are way lower pricewise,” says Niyazi Korkmaz, hotel director on Azamara Quest. “What we’re charging for the ticket price, it’s fantastic. The guests notice the value.”

‘Quest’ For Perfection

All staterooms on each of the 694-passenger ships feature butler service and upgraded amenities such as European bedding with duvet and pillow-top mattress; 100 percent Egyptian-cotton bathrobes; umbrella; binoculars; bottled Evian water; welcome fruit basket; fresh-cut flowers; pillow menu and more.

The cruise line spent $40 million modernizing the fleet. As part of the upgrade, some blocks of staterooms were reconfigured to suites. Azamara’s ships feature ten Penthouse Suites, four Royal Suites and 32 Sky Suites.

At 266 square feet, Sky Suites on deck 8 occupy the equivalent of a standard stateroom and a half (three staterooms were reconfigured into two suites).

Suites come with all of that standard staterooms offer and more: priority check-in and departure; priority luggage delivery; complimentary garment pressing (two items); priority tender service; fragrant drawer liners upon request; silk-wrapped hangers; Hansgrohe showerhead; welcome bottle of champagne; daily fruit basket; daily hors d’oeuvres served in-suite between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. and complimentary espresso/cappuccino, but oddly only when ordered in-suite. Soft drinks are also free of charge when taken from the suite mini-bar.

Like Oceania Cruises, Azamara features multiple dining venues: the main open-seating dining room Discoveries; the reservations-only Prime C and Aqualina (suggested gratuity is $5); and Windows Cafe. The latter is remarkable in that during dinner, diners often will find sushi, sashimi, whole lobster and a carving station in what is essentially the lido buffet on other ships.

When in port, the aft section of Windows Cafe transforms into Brisas, an outdoor floating café overlooking exotic ports of call.

Breakfast in Windows Cafe features a juice bar, with complimentary fresh-squeezed juices and smoothies. For those who appreciate healthy dining options, the Pool Grill serves up turkey and veggie burgers, baked potatoes and kebabs in addition to the usual burgers and hot dogs.

Deluxe Cruise Line

Azamara defines itself as deluxe, positioned between premium cruise lines (like sister brand Celebrity Cruises) and luxury cruise lines (such as Regent Seven Seas Cruises). The smaller size of Azamara’s vessels, when compared to Celebrity, allows the two-ship fleet to visit small, unexplored ports. In 2008, Azamara charted 68 ports that were new to the Royal Caribbean family of cruise lines.

Following its first European season, Quest and Journey will sail away in different directions: Journey will cross the Atlantic to operate a series of Panama Canal and Caribbean sailings through March 2009, then return to Europe; Quest will head east to sail a series of Asia voyages, with extended cruisetour packages available, before returning to Europe in the spring.

While passengers who booked early snagged some good deals on Azamara’s first season in Europe, those looking ahead to Azamara’s return to Europe and its first season in Asia are bound to find deals.

Few, however, expect Azamara’s competitive advantage to last for long. Fares will increase as Azamara gains name recognition. That’s only one good reason to cruise Azamara now. The other is that this is an up-and-coming cruise line that is sure to please, just as its competitor does.

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Sidebar: Azamara’s Bumpy ‘Journey’
When launched in spring 2007, Azamara Cruises got off to a shaky start, largely because of logistical issues that delayed the refurbishment of the its first ship, Azamara Journey. The new cruise line was hammered, particularly in the online cruise chat rooms and forums. Azamara Cruises President and CEO Dan Hanrahan admitted that his company made mistakes during its inaugural period, but he says that some of the harsh criticism seemed unfair.

Four-time Azamara cruiser Steve Henderson agrees. Scanning the boards on popular web sites, he noted many remarks that he says “simply were not true.” Henderson responded with posts that essentially said, “I was on that cruise, and what you wrote did not happen.”

What’s The Beef

Still, Azamara had plenty of kinks to iron out, and when Quest was introduced in October, the company was beginning to see improved comments from both cruise passengers and travel agents. Moreover, the company committed to responding quickly to passenger complaints. A $20 charge for dining in specialty restaurants Aqualina and Prime C was replaced with a $5 suggested gratuity.

In Prime C, one menu item that featured “Kobe-style beef” was removed, because it caused confusion among guests. The restaurant featured beef raised “Kobe style” in Idaho at a cost to the company of $30 to $40 a pound, compared to more than $100 a pound for true Kobe beef.

On Journey, open-seating dining also had proved challenging for staff, many who came from sister company Celebrity Cruises, where staff was accustomed to two-seating dining. Service in Journey’s main dining room was often slow and not as personal as it was on Celebrity. But those challenges too have been ironed out.

There are still minor irritations and quirks. Specialty coffees, free on Azamara’s competitors, cost nearly $5 ($4 plus 18 percent gratuity) in the Mosaic Cafe. Sure, guests in suites receive complimentary specialty coffees, but only if ordered in their suites. And a can of Coke costs $4 from the stateroom fridge, and only $2 at food and beverage outlets outside the room.

And even with the significant investment in Quest and Journey, some things are not up to the Celebrity standard. Standard stateroom bathrooms, for example, are small. With the added room to stretch out, a large balcony and bathroom, Sky Suites represent perhaps the best value.

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