by Mark Tre (with permission)
Right from joining ship last month in Civitavecchia, things got off to a good start. The first thing we were offered was a tray of drinks and arriving at the cabin, glass of champagne in hand, the television screen greeted all of us by name. After a week on board, one thing you can say about this ship is that Capt Carl Smith, an ever-present and welcoming host, has a great crew under his charge.
Touring the ship, we made ourselves familiar with the various lounges and dining venues as well as the open decks before going to drill and eventually after we sailed at 7 pm to dinner in the main Discoveries restaurant. We never did get to dine in either of the alternative restaurants, Aqualina for Continental fare or Prime C for steak, but most people said with food as good as it was in Discoveries why would one want to? And the staff everywhere were tops, always smiling, always helpful, seeing if more could be done to please us.
From Rome, we sailed overnight to our anchorage in Sorrento, intending to stay there for two days so we could explore Capri, Pompeii, Amalfi and Positano and even Naples if we wanted to. This is the new Azamara Club Cruises, whose tag line,"You’ll love where we take you," is now so destination-oriented. This is a line that is not afraid to spend more time in ports of call, rather than sailing in a hurry in order to make money in the casino.
From Sorrento, it was on for calls at the walled city of Kotor in Montenegro and lovely Split, with its palace of the former Roman governor Diocletian. The final port of call, for yet another overnight stay, was Venice. And a bonus port was Naples, which substituted for the second day at Sorrento when the autumn winds built up.
As we cruised, we soon got the feel for Azamara Quest. Our captain was someone who loves his job and communicates with both his crew and his passengers. And his crew also communicate with the passengers. Crew members answered questions and if they didn’t have an answer they took your cabin number and got back to you later. Half-way through the cruise we filled out a brief questionnaire on what was good and what might not be so good and I received two phone calls from two different crew members thanking me for my input.
A few comments on the master. Capt Smith is from the Isle of Man and once sailed with easyCruise. When it came to matters of navigation, he gave us in his announcements all the detail that we might have wanted and more on the planned manouevres for entering or leaving each port, how many lines would be used, what speed and what engines and how we would steer. When we hit a patch of rough weather between the Strait of Messina and the Adriatic he explained how he had changed course to minimise the movement of the ship and changed course again to get back where we wanted to be.
One will find his praises sung on the internet. To pick just three comments: "The lectures were amazing! He was young, funny, and a wonderful ‘people person’." "He was as excited and enthusiastic about everything we saw as we were. I have never sailed with a captain who was as outgoing and approachable as him." "He is the friendliest and most approachable captain I have ever sailed with and his enthusiasm for what he does is infectious." And he was there every day and at all the functions he could attend.
We mentioned a bridge tour to one officer and the next thing we knew we had invitations through the door to visit the bridge at sea. Despite the rubbish some lines might give you about this no longer being possible because of security, it is. This is of course confirmed by the fact that Princess Cruises now charge $150 a person for a bridge visit, thrown in with a bunch of other places people don’t necessarily want to see!
On our final day at sea, we attended the disembarkation briefing, something we didn’t intend to do. So why did we attend? Because we ran into Capt. Smith and he steered us in to see it. What followed was fascinating. Not your usual cruise director’s blather about which colour tags etc. But an introduction to 41 members of the crew representing the 41 nationalities that worked on board.
This was fascinating as each was presented on stage and asked to say a few words. And in addition to Capt. Smith, cruise director Tony Markey, hotel manager Ryszard Gusmann and food and beverage manager Rudi Lainer are all top notch and ever present. And this from someone who can’t stand cruise directors!
Oh, did we forget to add that wines are now included with lunch and dinner? Sampled on our cruise were some quite very tasty boutique wines from Spain, Portugal, Italy, Chile and South Africa, to name a few. These are all reds and whites, although it might be nice sometimes to have a choice of rosé at lunch. Specialty coffees, bottled water, soft drinks and teas are also now included in the fare, as are gratuities. And there is something many call for on ships, a self-service laundry.
These changes have all occurred since the rebranding from Azamara Cruises to Azamara Club Cruises six months ago, and it is said that while Azamara passenger numbers are down year-on-year after raising some of the fares, revenues are up, which is a result parent company Royal Caribbean will be pleased with.
This turnaround is down not only to the ships’ crews but also Azamara ceo Larry Pimentel, who came from SeaDream Yacht Club after his earlier terms as president of both Cunard Line and Seabourn. And there is room for growth. Our shoulder season sailing, for example, had about 450 guests on board out of a maximum of 694. And it was interesting that around 100 guests remained on board to take the next leg from Venice to Athens, many of whom had booked on board. Now that is a good measure by anyone’s rule.
This ship is well tied together and we wish Azamara great success in the future.