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Azamara Journey
South America/Antarctica-Round Trip Buenos Aires
February 9-27, 2008

by Patrick and Harriette Regan

Azamara Journey in Puerto Madryn, Argentina

We wanted to see the Penguins and cruise through Antarctica and around Cape Horn. We did all that on this 6,000 mile, 18 day, Azamara Journey voyage.

We've been watching the Internet prices on Antarctic cruises for the past couple of years. We don't want to cruise anymore on the megaships that carry around 3000 passengers.

We like Celebrity, enough to have reached the Elite level of their Captain's Club. We've had excellent food and service, and we decided to try their new, premium cruise brand, "Azamara." The emails of this company, which often referred to itself as "a premium cruise line," ended with: "Smaller ships. Out-of-the-ordinary destinations. Unmatched amenities - this is Azamara." The Azamara Journey cruise looked like the small ship cruise experience we were looking for. 18 days of South American cruising, including 5 days cruising Antarctica beginning and ending in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

We spotted an offer from Crucon on the Internet that included air travel from Miami, gratuities, and a two hundred dollar shipboard credit. With the added air to Miami from Vancouver BC, and factoring in the cost of drinks and extra gratuities to those who earned it, the price for two cruisers in a category 2A balcony cabin was ten thousand dollars. We decided to splurge and spend most of our yearly vacation budget on this 18 day cruise. The flying to and from Miami added two more days and a hotel day to the trip. Twenty days for ten thousand dollars works out to $500 per day for the two of us. That's one to two hundred dollars more per day than we've been averaging for the 2 or 3 balcony cruises per year that we like to take.

The prices were around 35% higher than the internet offerings on Celebrity M class or the Princess megaships doing this itinerary, or about 20% more on Holland America, to be able to cruise on this small ship. The Journey would be able to cruise into areas of Antarctica inaccessible to the big ships.

The cruise was offered with round trip air travel from Miami to Buenos Aires.

We carry Alaska Air credit cards and get a mile for every dollar we spend, so we used a combination of mileage and cash to fly Alaska to Miami so we could avoid the midwestern or eastern part of the US in the winter.

The bad news was that the only flight offered from Seattle to Miami is a red-eye. We took a puddle jumper from Vancouver early enough to dine at Anthony's Fish House, which is a real restaurant, not an airport fast food place, inside the secured area at the Seattle airport. We can't say enough about Anthony's food, service and prices, and we had delicious chowder and Cobb salads with shrimp. Yummy. The perfect way to soften the blow of a five hour red-eye to Miami crammed into the back of a 737 with poor seat pitch.

We arrived in Miami around 7AM, got our luggage and booked a day occupancy room (checkout by 6PM) at the Miami Airport Hotel, which is located right in the terminal. We had breakfast at their Top of the Port restaurant and went to bed.

was to be our carrier to Buenos Aires, and they recommended that we start checking in 3 hours ahead of time. We checked out of the hotel at 6PM and Joseph the bellman took our bags to the Lan Argentina counter in Terminal J, which is a brand new concourse, for our 9PM flight. It's a lengthy walk everywhere at the Miami airport and once through check in and security it's another long walk. Whew!

The lines were long to check in as well as to pass through security, and the extra time kept us in a relaxed mood in the middle of the organized chaos of the airport. The problem of noise pollution in public areas is everywhere now, and the gate area where we waited had brand new flat screen televisions blasting CNN while airport background music also played on different speakers, regularly interrupted by loud PA announcements. We couldn't wait to get on the plane and get going.

The plane was a 767 that had been totally refurbished. Very spiffy. Very clean. The food service was good, harkening back to the airline service of yore including a blue room (restroom) that a person over six feet tall can stand up in.

We had a nice dinner; chicken or beef was offered along with complementary wine service and a variety of soft drinks. There was a high quality entertainment system with an individual screen for each passenger, with free movies, games, etc., and a free headset. We were also provided with sleep masks and ear plugs. In the morning, coffee, juice and omelets were served. We were well taken care of by Lan Argentina in the person of Lucia, who was the cabin attendant in our section. Thank you, Lucia.

We filled out our customs and immigration forms on the plane and passed quickly through the modern terminal. Cruisers need to be aware that the stamped portion of the paperwork returned to you, needs to be kept and turned in when you depart Argentina. You will also need to pay the departure tax when you leave.

We easily found the Azamara reps, who guided us to the airport transfer vehicle included in our cruise price. Our luggage went directly from the plane to the ship.

It was a pleasant, sunny day with the temperature in the mid 70s. We rode through the central part of Buenos Aires, which looks a lot like cities in Europe, on the way to the terminal where the ship was docked. We got to the terminal about a half hour before the ship could be boarded and had strong, perfectly made lattes and pastry for two at a small cafe in the terminal. The price was about five dollars US including the tip. The exchange rate is around 3.20 pesos for every US or Canadian dollar.

was very smooth. We turned in our boarding passes, which we had printed at home after filling out the necessary forms using the Internet. Staff scanned our boarding pass, checked our passports, and gave us our cruise cards. The whole process took less than 5 minutes.

When we boarded the Journey, we were greeted with complementary champagne (or cranberry juice), and we saw Hotel Director Niyazi Korkmas, who was in the entrance lobby watching over the boarding process and greeting passengers. We like to see Hotel Directors out and about and talking with the passengers.

We were fried from 2 nights of red-eye flights and we stopped by the poolside grill for a quick sandwich before we crashed for an afternoon nap. They were offering the usual hamburgers and hot dogs, plus lovely kebabs and many other grilled delights. Chips, salsa and guacamole were always available.

Excellent, everywhere on the ship, under the direction of Executive Chef Milos Pales and Restaurant Manager Ryszard Guzman. From Discoveries dining room to the grill at the pool to the specialty restaurants Aqualina and Prime C, the Windows buffet and room service, the food is good. Well prepared and presented in sometimes dazzling ways, particularly in the specialty restaurants. The array of pastries and desserts is unending, and the croissants are properly crisp and buttery. The beef is excellent on this ship, too. We have been served lesser cuts of meat on many cruises lately, and the beef on this ship was of high quality. Food and Beverage manager Desiderio Cavaco is to be commended for the quality provisioning of these dining venues under the supply chain difficulties of a cruise all the way through south South America and Antarctica.

is the buffet on deck 9. There are numerous selections, including a smoothie bar, manned by the hard working Jesus, Mario and Wandaka. You can get fresh fruit smoothies, with protein powder if you desire, and a variety of fresh juices. In the morning there is a fresh-made waffle and pancake station, omelet bar, large selections of breakfast meats, including a delicious baked ham carving station, plenty of tasty, fresh baked pastries, hot and cold cereals etc. The negative about this buffet for us was the fact they have chosen not to have trays. It is harder to load and handle plates with everything so people are scurrying more to get stuff they forgot and it exacerbates the already crowded conditions in this smaller buffet space when everybody is up and hungry. Every previous Celebrity cruise we have been on has had trays. But, to show how responsive the staff is to the passengers: on the fourth day of the cruise after some complaints, trays were made available for those who wished them.

This is a small ship, so when the Journey is in a cold place like Antarctica, the buffet overflow tables aft on the Windows patio at the stern of the ship are unusable. They bring in as many tables as they can from outside but there isn't room inside for all of the outside tables in bad weather, making it difficult to find a seat. The good news is that there is plenty of room in the Discoveries dining room on deck 5.

A lovely, light-filled room. Restaurant Manager Ryszard Guzman and his Asst. Maitre'ds are very attentive to the customers' needs. With no traditional seat assignment, the staff has to seat people by themselves or with others as desired. Great for breakfast, lunch or dinner. High standards of food and thoughtful service. There is no assigned seating at dinner, so tables are shared and you meet a lot of your fellow cruisers. If you prefer to dine without company at your table, there are always tables for two available.

The food at Discoveries is tasty and interestingly garnished and presented, a feast for the tastebuds and the eyes. A half step up from Celebrity M class or Holland America and for us, two steps above Princess.

At dinner time the Windows cafe morphs into Breeza, with elegant buffet dining and Sushi, pasta, antipasti, stir-fry, pizza, and many other tasty foods offered. A dining alternative that is truly casual. Shorts, jeans or whatever are welcome at Breeza.

Chef Anthony Mauboussin presides over the kitchens for both Aqualina and Prime C, the Journey's specialty restaurants located aft on deck 10. Azamara has eliminated the previous surcharge for this restaurant. The only cost is the suggested tip to the servers of five dollars each for our two servers. Ten dollars US buys a truly fine dining experience.

This is the specialty dining steak house. We made a reservation through the Captain's Club before we left for the cruise, because main dining rooms can be a zoo on the first night of a cruise. We were still exhausted from our back to back red-eye flights, but we knew we had to get up from our nap and eat dinner to keep up our energy and to turn our body clocks back toward normal.

We were greeted and seated by Maitre'd Gokhan, who runs Prime C. We had thought we would just pick at our food and go back to bed, but we ended up having delicious soup, a popcorn shrimp appetizer and buttery filet mignon which was cooked perfectly. We added creamed spinach, onion rings perfectly fried and chocolate lava cake for dessert. A gold star for the Prime C steak house--and all for just the previously mentioned five dollar gratuity for each of our two servers.

Maitre'd Marius Borchila welcomes us to this lovely, light filled room that he manages with a watchful eye. We cruised with Marius previously on the Mercury. This is the most pleasant dining room on Journey. Aqualina specializes in seafood; Prime C is more meat oriented. Some previous reviews I read in November 2007 were not happy with the specialty restaurants on the Journey, but things have changed for the very much better. The food is good on the Journey, and there is way too much of it. Seriously, we would prefer smaller portions, because we know they'd bring us seconds if we asked.

Couple this with the fact that at dinner at Aqualina we were treated to a magnificent sight. Our table was in the window at the very back of the ship, and as twilight lingered, we were mesmerized by a long, slow display of icy, Antarctic beauty. It went on for miles and miles as we moved through waters "littered" with small chunks of ice, surrounded by rocky mountains which were themselves surrounded by glaciers along their shorelines, and pressed upon from above by clouds. This was a nice, leisurely dinner, absolutely delicious from the arugula/bacon/goat cheese salad, brie in baked in phyllo dough through the broiled lobster tail, down to the chocolate soufflé. All the food we've been served aboard has been fresh, well-prepared, and served most graciously; this dinner, served by Catalin from Romania assisted by Basant from Mauritius, was no exception. Azamara wins the specialty restaurant comparison to the other cruise lines. We were able to eat at Aqualina a few times. If Discoveries dining room has a wait list and open tables are available at Aqualina or Prime C, you may get a table in these alternative restaurants again.

Our truly non-stop, hard working butler/cabin steward is Pravin, and his assistant is Rennie. There is a list of butler services available at this cruise level, including packing & unpacking, afternoon tea service, dinner reservations, etc. It sounds too good to be true, because our butler is more a cabin steward in what we used to call "soup and fish," meaning a swallow tail coat and dress pants, like a butler in a movie. On Celebrity's Mercury, which we cruised in the summer of '07, the butler is a butler with only butler duties but here it's more window dressing. These 2 hard working men have 22 cabins to service. The biggest number I ever saw a steward with an assistant do before was 18 and I thought that was excessive. I can't imagine them having time to do butler tasks, but I see some of my fellow cruisers attempting to use them like they were their personal servants.

The butler/stewards smile and keep our cabins clean & nice. We wouldn't think to ask them to do the stuff Azamara offers, such as packing and unpacking your bags, making alternative dining reservations etc., beyond the usual duties of a cabin steward.

On the Mercury a butler has more time to just be a butler and can do the little things such as those offered in the Azamara brochures. On the Azamara Journey the butler takes your preprinted order form for tea snacks and savories a la Celebrity Concierge class. The cruiser checks the boxes for the items he wants and assigns a time for delivery to the cabin within the window of the service time stated on the form. You must be in your cabin to take delivery at the appointed time. We'd rather not schedule our snacks, so we passed on this delivery method. We don't like the fact that the room service that is pre-ordered from the form the night before is brought to our hard working butler/cabin steward for delivery. We have someone delivering food who might have just been cleaning a toilet. Not that our steward is unaware of hand washing, wearing work gloves etc., but mistakes can happen. Not very cruisey. On the Mercury the butler knocks on your door at tea time and you pick out some snacks from the cart if you're in the cabin.

We like the fact that the Discoveries dining room opens later for breakfast, 8AM, than on many ships, so that the waitstaff who worked late the previous night can hopefully get a bit more sleep before coming to work. These folks also work hard. We also like the fact that the dining room is open until 930AM, so we can eat there on the days we choose to sleep later.

The cabin itself is from designs over a decade ago. Cruising has changed so much since these R ships were on the drawing boards. There are only two 110 volt AC plugs in this cabin, and they are nearly unreachable; the rest of the plugs are European. There are no switches near the bed to turn on low power nightlights; the switch in the center of the new headboard turns on multiple overhead lights that would disturb a sleeping companion. The bedside lamps are not weighted on their bases, so they are lightweight and too easy to knock over. That's not all bad though; since I was able to hold the lamp in one hand and my book in the other, I was able to read in bed! I had that nightstand taken out of the cabin because it too was a lightweight vertical stand with no drawers and only an 8 by 10 inch surface on top. Once the lamp was placed there, no space was available for glasses (reading or drinking) or the ever important remotes. I knocked the lamp and the nightstand over the first night more than once.

The beds are good, with high thread count sheets, a selection of pillows, and a quality comforter. Your suitcases fit under them.

There is a wall mounted 23 inch Samsung Hi Def flat screen TV, with an arm that can swing it for watching TV in bed or from the sitting area, with unblocked inputs for our DVD player and our Nintendo Wii. We mentioned the input blocking because we were amazed to find them blocked on our last HAL cruise. We brought a universal remote, (Sony, cost sixteen dollars) so the inputs could be selected, because the remote supplied is for hotel use, set up for ordering room service, examining one's cruise account and video on demand for pay movies, including adult, by the way. There is another way to access the multiple inputs, which we found a week into the cruise. On the lower right side of the black frame around the screen of the 23 inch Samsung flat screen TV is an array of imperceptible, black on black frame, selectors for inputs under the word "source." They operate electronically without the selector having to be depressed, merely touched, like a touch screen computer display, and they react quickly and electronically. There are 2 HDMI inputs, AV 1 & 2 and component video inputs. We used them for the DVD player we brought and our Nintendo Wii, which we use to play Tiger Woods '08 golf game.

There is only one drawer in this whole refurbished expensive looking dark wood cabin. What little storage there is, is in cabinets or on closet shelves, a lot of it so low that it is difficult to access or even see your things, compared to Celebrity M class Infinity balcony cabins that have lots of clever storage and little shelves in the bathroom with barriers that keep your stuff from falling off the bathroom shelf. Ergonomics weren't enough of a consideration when they refurbished this cabin.

We think the cruiser of today is interested in cabins set up in more of an hi tech sensibility like more hooks, open shelving above open closet area with double poles and finally bathrooms with simple shelving, designed to keep your bathroom stuff safe from falling off in a rough sea. There is only one shelf in this bathroom other than the sink top, and no medicine cabinet, no storage under the basin. Instead of the telephone being near the bed it's in a deep corner of the vanity area where it usually gets buried by things left on the counter.

We don't think a marine architect or for that matter a designer familiar with cruising had anything to do with figuring out the storage a cruise passenger needs. Not the standard of the premium cruise line Azamara is trying to brand itself as. Celebrity M class and HAL Vista class cabins are more premium (with appreciably lower cruise fares) than ours on the Journey. We're told that 30 million dollars was spent to refurbish these ships, but it doesn't begin to show in this category 2A balcony cabin. This cabin also lacks a privacy curtain, to divide the sleeping area from the sitting area so one could read while the other person sleeps.

What is truly premium on the Journey is the "can do" attitude of the staff and crew. From the Hotel Director, the guest relations staff, cabin stewards, Asst. Maitre'ds, servers, housekeeping staff, busboys and bartenders, this is a well managed crew in all departments working to give us an excellent cruise experience.

They are an amazing bunch with Ngawhira Fleet, the front office manager, and an efficient, multi lingual team manning the hotel desk. Ngawhira helped us settle in, running interference to get a situation with our shower fixed immediately. We also want to thank Alfred and German of guest relations for the helpful service cheerfully offered by them and the entire front desk staff.

This is a blessedly quiet ship. The Captain's informative, brief daily report at Noon every day is the only in-cabin announcement. His microphone technique is very good. Afternoon naps are quiet and restful, not like some ships with endless announcements.

There is one announcement missing, and we do not miss it. On almost every other ship we've been on, there is a LOUD recording attending your every elevator ride, announcing the approaching floor. On the Journey, a small video screen announces the floor, and lets one know if people are getting on or off. This boon is probably a result of the size of the Journey, there being so many fewer people to move around.

Tastes like instant would be a compliment. Not up to the standards of a freshly branded, self proclaimed "premium" cruise line.

We were on RCCL's (parent of Celebrity/Azamara) Radiance of the Seas in the fall of '06 and they were featuring Seattle's Best Coffee and it was truly premium and available everywhere from the dining rooms to room service at no charge. The only decent coffee on the Journey is at the Cova coffee bar, with a $3 charge. Wake up and smell the coffee, Azamara senior management! You seem to be striving to be almost Crystal; Crystal light, so to speak, but Crystal doesn't charge for designer coffee anymore. The food is good on this ship and the coffee should be as well.

is the designer coffee place. Our thanks to Ryan, Alexander, Maria and Eliana, who brew great lattes for the three dollars we have to pay. There are always pastries and little sandwiches and other goodies at the Cova. We tended to retreat to the quiet of the Cova during the day and its piano bar feeling at night.

and it certainly is. Every afternoon, with proper scones with clotted cream, delicious tea sandwiches and pastries with a harp tinkling in the background, tea is served in the beautiful Aqualina. Yummy.

There are lots of books, haphazardly arranged. It's a beautiful room with big comfortable chairs and couches.

We enjoy piano player/song stylist Dan Daly who is in the Cova Cafe, at the piano from 9P until late, most evenings. The Azamara trio plays nightly in the Looking Glass lounge. They have a great repertoire in all the musical genres. Guitarist German Vilches and Harpist Melissa Calusio also entertain in different venues. Melissa also plays for tea, afternoons in the Aqualina Restaurant, and German sits in on his guitar during the jam sessions. There were solo violinists, pianists, a couple of singers, a Chilean Folklorico Troupe and a comedian/raconteur headlining in the Cabaret theater, which is the main showroom. The accent on entertainment seems to be more in a classical soloist vein.

An excellent show in the Cabaret theatre. Simply staged and beautifully sung by five talented, young performers, the men are K.J. and Brandon; the women Brooke, Amanda-Jane and Natalie. The show is a tribute to the music and lyrics throughout cinematic history. We enjoyed it immensely. The 7 piece Journey orchestra provided live music for this well paced show. It's a cabaret setting, much like a night club rather than a theater, giving the show a nice intimacy with good sight lines. This show is a wonderful change of pace from the typically over produced (too many singers and dancers, too many wardrobe changes) Broadway type shows that seem to try too hard, which we have seen on some cruise ships. The sound design and levels were good, allowing us to hear everything without it becoming too loud. Kudos to all involved, from the talented singers to the technical crew.

There are two other shows done in this manner, "Twisted TV," a parody of--guess what?, and "Sing It and Swing It," a tribute to the big band era.

There were 2 late evening (10:45PM) jam sessions in the Looking Glass lounge, with some members of the orchestra and other musicians on board playing Jazz from Antonio Carlos Jobim to Thelonius Monk.

We like this small ship a lot. It is easy to get anywhere quickly. The ambience is that of a boutique hotel. The bad news is that in order to make it profitable, Azamara has to charge more for drinks and excursions because of the fewer passengers on board.

There is no wine package. The soft drink card is $5.00 per day plus 18%. The cheapest jug level glass of wine, with the tip, is nearly nine dollars and change. High prices for vin ordinaire. Mixed drinks are high priced and martinis are around 12 dollars. You're allowed to bring in a couple of bottles of wine per passenger, which we did in Ushuaia (first port out of Antarctica; southernmost city in the world).

This ship is clean. Not just picked up and vaccumed. Cleaning and polishing goes on 24/7. Kudos to housekeeping supervisor Esta from Hungary.

Paul Grant. An affable sort, who dresses beautifully. He was very sensitive to cruisers' desires and tastes, organizing a jazz jam session one evening after dancing in the Looking Glass lounge. He then went the extra mile by greeting the listeners after the session for feedback.

Unfortunately, generally there was a bit of a reverberation inherent in his announcing technique, as if he was projecting to the back of the room as he would without a microphone despite the fact that he was speaking into one. Captain Karlsson, on the contrary, is clear and easy to listen to. I guess he spoiled us! The cruise staff Ryan, Naomi and Kelsey along with activities director Matt have a full range of activities for interested cruisers.

was held in the cabaret with the hotel director, the cruise director and the food and beverage manager fielding passenger queries. We appreciate them making themselves available for a question and answer session.

The gratuities on the Azamara Journey are $12.25 per day, per passenger, higher than most cruise lines. This covers the Butler/steward, his assistant, the waiters, the asst. Maitre'ds, the asst. Chief Housekeeper, etc. There is an additional 18% tip added to bar drinks, bottles of wine and designer coffee purchases at the Cova Cafe. That's 3% more than other cruise lines.

We bring a bunch of US singles and give them away for good service. Room service waiters who deliver us a midnight snack get a couple of bucks. If we order a club soda or a designer coffee or a single glass of wine, we give the server an extra dollar in cash over the tip on the tab. It makes us feel good to do this to thank deserving staffers. We don't overdo it but it needs to be done in our opinion to show our appreciation. The standard tips don't cover the level of service available on the Azamara Journey.

Visit the ports & find the penguins in Azamara Journey Part Two

Story & Photos Copyright © 2008 by Patrick & Harriette Regan

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