Azamara Club Cruises
The Line in a Nutshell
Launched in mid-2007, Azamara Club Cruises is a more high-end and adult-oriented sister brand to Celebrity and Royal Caribbean, offering more out-of-the-way itineraries, better service and cuisine, more enrichment opportunities, and lots of little extras that make the experience extra-special. The line's two ships are midsize gems that were originally built for now-defunct Renaissance Cruises. Sails to: Caribbean, Panama Canal, Baja/Sea of Cortez (plus Europe, Asia, transatlantic).
The idea behind Azamara is pretty much the same idea that animates all the other former Renaissance vessels (some of which are also operated by Oceania and Princess): smaller, more intimate ships sailing longer itineraries, visiting out-of-the-ordinary ports, and offering a casual yet country-clubbish experience, with great service. That's not to call Azamara a copycat, though. Fact is, there are only so many different kinds of cruise experiences that can be offered, and this is the kind for which these ships were made. In an age dominated by bigger and bigger megaships, we welcome the return of midsize vessels with open arms. Kudos to Celebrity/Azamara for putting the resources into keeping this kind of cruise option alive.
Overall (and like Oceania), Azamara provides an experience that straddles the mainstream and luxury segments of the cruise biz -- somewhere between Celebrity and Crystal or Regent, though new luxury initiatives (complimentary house wines at lunch and dinner, free gratuities, free specialty coffees and bottled wines, more overnights in port and high-end excursions) are trying to nudge the line closer to the high end. Not that it was all that mainstream to begin with. On the Pool Deck, a quiet jazz trio replaces the kind of loud pop/reggae band found on most mainstream ships, and in the cafe you'll often find a harpist plucking out traditional and classical tunes, spiced with pop standards. Service is exceptional, from the butlers who attend to all cabins to little touches such as the cold towels offered at the gangway after a hot day in port. At dinner, things are entirely flexible -- just show up when you like, either at the main restaurant, at two reservations-only alternatives, or at a casual but still waiter-serviced buffet restaurant. Onboard activities run from the usual (bingo, napkin folding, team trivia) to the unusual, including poetry reading/writing get-togethers and seminars on etiquette and art. At night you can take in a floor show at the theater, catch a performance by a guest magician or comedian, do the karaoke thing, watch a late-night movie, or take in music in several of the public rooms.
The line draws from the typical cruise demographic, roughly ages 45 and up. The relatively long and unusual itineraries and the quiet onboard atmosphere appeal to a more cultured, accomplished crowd, while the higher-than-mass-market prices and the length of the itineraries favor retirees. The majority of passengers on Caribbean, Mexico, and Panama Canal sailings are Americans, along with a smattering from Canada, Europe, Asia, and South America.
The lack of children's programming limits the number of families with kids who book this line, while the stringent smoking regulations mean few smokers sail Azamara. (Smoking is prohibited everywhere on board except in the aft port-side section of the Looking Glass Lounge and in the starboard forward section of the Pool Deck.)
When Renaissance Cruises folded in 2001, its beautiful fleet of eight identical and almost brand-new midsize ships was disbursed to the four winds. Oceania got two (and later a third), Princess got two (and later a third, which now sails for sister-line P&O), and two ended up being operated by Pullmantur S.A., Spain's largest cruise line. In late 2006, Celebrity Cruises' parent company, Royal Caribbean, purchased Pullmantur and soon pulled the old switcheroo, sending Celebrity's elderly Zenith to Spain and claiming the two ex-Renaissance ships in her place. Around them, Celebrity created an entirely new cruise thus was born Azamara Cruises. The addition of "Club" as its middle name came later, after the line hired longtime cruise exec Larry Pimentel (ex-head of Cunard, Seabourn, and SeaDream Yacht Club) to be its president and CEO, and to take the experience to the next luxe level. Today, rather than being a sub-brand of Celebrity, Azamara has emerged as a stand-alone cruise line in its own right.
Dining on Azamara is a step up from Celebrity in both cuisine and presentation. Dining service -- which is excellent on Celebrity -- is at least as good here, and probably a little better. At mealtimes, passengers have full flexibility in terms of where, when, and with whom they dine. Dinner is available in four restaurants: one traditional, two specialty, and one casual. House wines are complimentary with lunch and dinner in all restaurants, and more expensive vintages (including selections from boutique wineries around the world) are available for purchase.
Traditional -- The main dining room aboard each ship is a one-level space with tables for 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the latter within a 3 1/2-hour window. Menus run to five courses, with passengers able to choose from among five appetizers, three soups, two salads, and five main courses. Appetizer selections may include dishes such as marinated and cured salmon in cucumber dill cream; beef, Gruyère, and caramelized onion turnover; wild mushroom and chicken quiche; and scallops with Thai curry sauce and coconut rice cake. Soups might include oven-roasted tomato and garlic soup with goat cheese crostini; Louisiana gumbo with andouille sausage and okra; and rustic cannellini bean soup with beef, basil, roasted tomato, and olive oil. For main courses, expect the likes of herb-crusted South African white fish with toasted quinoa; sesame seared yellow-fin tuna steak with tamarind stir-fried Asian vegetables; filet mignon with black truffle sauce; penne pasta tossed with four cheeses; and beef short ribs braised in red Burgundy wine with creamy polenta, carrots, and turnips. In addition, you can always choose from an assortment of classic favorites (grilled filet of salmon with herb butter, lemon-marinated roasted chicken, and so on) and vegetarian options (we had some wonderful vegetarian curries while aboard Journey).
Specialty -- Each ship has two specialty, reservations-only restaurants. Passengers in regular staterooms get one free specialty dinner per cruise and are free to make as many additional reservations as they like, paying the regular per-person cost. Suite guests can dine in both restaurants free throughout their cruise.
Set in the stern on Deck 10, Prime C is a classic steakhouse with a hardwood floor and dark wall paneling, a chunky wooden bar, a mix of modern art and classic Hollywood photos, and wraparound windows. The per-person cost is $15. Appetizers here include chilled jumbo shrimp cocktail, beef carpaccio, crispy popcorn rock shrimp, and lump crab cake. There's also a selection of soups and salads. Main courses run just like you'd figure, with a choice of steaks (16-oz. cowboy bone-in rib-eye, 12-oz. New York strip, 8-oz. filet mignon, or 8-oz. Kobe-style flat-iron), chops (double-cut Colorado lamb chop, 14-oz. veal chop, or 12-oz. Berkshire pork chop), and "other" (including oven-roasted sea bass, sesame grilled tuna, roasted organic chicken, surf 'n' turf, or seafood pappardelle). At the entrance to the restaurant, a raised table for 14 is set up in front of a glass-fronted wine locker and is used for wine-appreciation seminars.
Right next door, Aqualina is a Mediterranean/American restaurant adorned with white faux pillars, a rich sea-blue carpet, and a bright, sunny vibe that contrasts with Prime C's manly woodiness. Appetizers include pan-seared diver scallops and brie in crisp phyllo dough with candied pecans and cranberry compote. There's also a selection of soups and salads. Main courses include sautéed Chilean sea bass, rock lobster thermidor and lobster pot pie, and veal osso bucco with a butternut-squash ragout. Passengers can dine off the regular menu (at $15 per person) or choose the $50 food-and-wine pairing menu.
Casual -- Each ship has a traditional buffet restaurant with seating inside or on a nice stern-facing outdoor deck. In the morning, the restaurant has all the standards (eggs, bacon and sausage, made-to-order omelets, Virginia ham, cheese blintzes, a fruit selection, breads, a cold cereal bar, and so on), plus two nice extra touches: a separate window for waffles and pancakes, and a juice bar where attendants will whip you up a fresh carrot-apple, tomato, or carrot-ginger juice (or whatever combination you like), or a fresh smoothie. At lunch, the buffet serves an adventurous spread of salads, meats, pastas, and other dishes. At dinner, the restaurant offers a fixed casual menu as well as a buffet of fresh sushi, made-to-order pasta, and other choices.
Out on deck, the poolside grill has the usual burgers, hot dogs, veggie burgers, and pizza, plus a salad bar and fun oddities such as seafood-and-veggie shish kabobs, gyros, hot pretzels, and nachos. Toppings such as grilled onions and mushrooms are available for the burgers.
Snacks & Extras -- On each ship, an Italian-style coffee shop serves specialized coffee drinks and fine teas at extra cost, plus a cart of free tea sandwiches, cookies, and desserts that's kept stocked from about 7am to 1am. A similar traditional tea time spread is put out daily between 4 and 5pm at each ship's combo lounge/library/piano club. Room service is available 24 hours a day.
Service is one of the high points at Azamara, as it is aboard sister line Celebrity. In cabins, butlers do the usual cabin steward job but also help with packing/unpacking, making restaurant and spa reservations, serving full breakfasts en suite, delivering daily canapes, shining shoes, and so on. Service is unobtrusive but very personal when it does obtrude: Butlers know your name from day one and will go out of their way to greet you in the corridors. Dining service is good in the main restaurant and excellent in the specialty restaurants.
Gratuities for restaurant, housekeeping, and bar staff are included in the line's base rates, so no additional tipping for these staffmembers is necessary. Spa services have a gratuity added automatically to your bill, so don't tip more unless you really want to.
Regular send-out laundry and dry cleaning services are available at cost, and each ship also has a free self-service laundry located midship on Deck 7.
A full roster of onboard activities identifies Azamara's roots in the mainstream, though the way it's spiced with unusual touches shows that the line is going for more depth.
For those who like to stick to cruise ship tradition, there are pool games, team trivia contests, quizzes, darts and Ping-Pong tournaments, shuffleboard, chess, bridge, and bingo. There are also computer classes, digital photography seminars, golf clinics, wine-appreciation seminars (some at extra cost), and destination lectures, plus culinary demonstrations, mixology clinics, and beauty and fitness clinics offered by the spa staff. Both ships also have relatively large casinos.
The ships' spas provide the usual array of massages, facials, manicures, pedicures, body-cleansing treatments, and wraps, as well as several expensive spa packages that bundle a number of treatments into a themed package.
Azamara offers a mixed bag of entertainment, with evenings in the show lounges rotating between musical production shows and guest comedians, magicians, and musical acts. The smaller host quality musical acts.
During our last sailing, production shows featured five singers/dancers backed up by a live band, with the musical selections tilted toward American standards. While production shows aren't necessarily our cup of tea, these got extra points for their intimacy (the ships' show lounges have no stage, so the performers are down at floor level, just steps from the audience), for the energy of their performers, and for being 100% live, with no prerecorded backing tracks or lip-synching involved. Other shows on our trip included an improv comedian, a Bermudian steel-pan player, a cabaret entertainer, and the very talented magician Carl Andrews, a regular on such lines as Celebrity, Crystal, HAL, NCL, Princess, and Regent.
Musicians perform daily in various parts of the ship. In the cafe, each cruise features a harpist/vocalist who performs three hour-long sets per day, mixing classical, traditional, and popular melodies. A pianist performs after hours, and a jazz ensemble occasionally shows up to do a set of standards and classic jazz tunes. On the Pool Deck, Azamara replaces the usual thumping dance band with a quiet, subtle jazz trio of guitar, bass, and drums. Around the ship, even the piped-in background music is of a higher quality than you hear aboard most ships, mixing jazz, standards, New Agey selections, a few pop songs, and the occasional novelty number to get your attention.
For those who like to entertain themselves, there's also karaoke some evenings, as well as dancing in the disco "till late."
None. These ships have no children's facilities or programs.