CRUISING ON THE AZAMARA QUEST, WEST INDIES HIDEAWAYS, MAR. 2-14, 2013
I wasn’t all that excited about a Caribbean cruise because my home in Cuernavaca is so close to Acapulco and the weather in Mexico’s dry season is so spectacular. But Azamara offered me a generous credit for having to abandon ship due to an eye hemorrhage on the first day of a European Garden Show voyage on the Azamara Journey in May 2012. I had to use the credit or lose it, so I chose a sailing that departed close to Mexico, Miami rather than Singapore or Barcelona. The flight from MEX to MIA is less than two and a half hours and quite reasonably priced. And I have friends in Naples FL that I had not seen in over twenty years, so I could spend a few days in sunny Florida before sailing.
I found a great bus service that serves south Florida from Miami and Fort Lauderdale airports. The Florida Express Bus picked me up at the Regency Hotel, Miami Airport, and delivered me to Naples, and returned me from Naples to the Port of Miami’s Azamara dock for 90 dollars round-trip. Alas, sunny Florida turned out to be gray overcast Florida for five days, and Miami had a low temperature on 40 degrees F the night of my departure. Nonetheless I had a great visit with my friends. I liked Naples but was disappointed not to be able to lounge by the pool or do my water aerobics. It certainly reinforced my love of balmy Cuernavaca with its blue skies, 85 degree days, and fresh nights.
The 9:30 AM express bus from Naples delivered me to my ship shortly after noon on Saturday Mar. 2. By 2 PM I had explored the Azamara Quest, sampled the lunch buffet, and settled into my comfortable stateroom with a large balcony furnished with a table and two comfortable chairs. With 640 passengers, the ship is larger than I would like, albeit I have been on much larger ships which I didn’t like at all. I prefer the size of Wind Surf with 300 or, even better, the Explorer II in Galapagos with 100. But the Quest is a beautiful ship with distinguished appointments and beautiful dining facilities, a small library, an internet facility (not needed with a laptop and wifi in the cabins), a small casino and a large spa, also unused, and a huge sundeck with a pool deep enough for water aerobics. Best of all for someone used to working out daily, I loved the huge well-equipped gym with floor-to-ceiling windows with thrilling views of the Caribbean as I worked out.
In addition to the elegant main dining room, Departures Restaurant, Windows Café is a huge dining facility for the buffet with both indoor and outdoor service. For quick fast food there is also a pool-deck snack bar with grilled burgers, sandwiches, fries, onion rings and the like. In addition two specialty restaurants, Prime C and Aqualina, offer more intimate settings with upscale offerings like lobster thermidor and prime steaks for an additional charge of 25 dollars except for guests in suites. Alas, repeat voyagers knew to reserve the two specialty restaurants immediately and I had difficulty getting repeat reservations except late at night. And as a solo traveler I had to arrange my own company or sit alone since there are no group tables there.
Even repeat voyagers who express their passion for sailing with Azamara were disappointed with the apparent under-staffing in the main dining room. The second night of the voyage, if you didn’t get into the dining room before 6:30 PM there was a wait of an hour or more, and then the service was decidedly not up to expectations. There were at least fifty passengers complaining to the maître d’ in rather bitter voices. The restaurant manager told me everyone decided to eat in Departures the same evening instead of the buffet or the other options and the staff was overwhelmed. The manager attempted to correct the problem by making the buffet more enticing with live music and such, but most passengers seem to have preferred elegant waiter-service to buffets. I just don’t get enticed by buffets when I can have more elegant dining, and classic dishes like surf and turf, lobster tails, duck, crab cakes, and the like in the main dining room. The buffet offered casual dining in shorts with an outdoor terrace, but I can’t stand watching someone load a plate three times, then return again for five desserts as one corpulent diner did.
There are at least five bars aboard and three of them feature live entertainment, a harpist, a guitarist, a female soloist, and the like. Drinks are not inexpensive at 7 dollars plus tip for Johnny Walker Black for example. One can buy a drink package with unlimited consumption for 30 dollars per day, more for a premium liquor package. Starting this summer in Europe drinks on Azamara cruises will be all-inclusive, obviously bowing to the pressure of competition from so many other lines now offering that amenity. Generous pourings of fine wines are already included with lunch and dinner, and there is no problem keeping a bottle in your cabin.
Typical of many ships internet access and shore excursions are overpriced. Internet prices start at 65 cents a minute, but a 99 dollar package brings the cost down to 45 cents a minute. And connections are usually fairly slow so if you need to be connected plan on a big bill. Since booking with American Express Platinum gave me a 300 dollar shipboard credit, I could splurge on two packages that were sufficient for my needs. Suite guests and repeat passengers get some minutes free and I met one passenger who had a credit of 400 minutes.
Due to the itinerary from the Virgin Islands to French-speaking islands, the cruise was first publicized with the witty if inappropriate title of “Virgins and Frenchmen.” I e-mailed the office asking humorously whether I had to make a choice. I got no response but others must have ridiculed the name also since it was changed to “ West Indies Hideaways.”
We set sail from cloudy Miami on March 2 only to spend two overcast days at sea before arriving in St. John Virgin Islands in a downpour. Only a few brave souls went ashore and regretted it. I was disappointed not to be able to enjoy the largest national park in the Caribbean. After three gloomy days I was beginning to think cruising wasn’t for me. I’d rather have a deluxe hotel in a great city where, if it rained, I could taxi to a museum. Fortunately, on the fourth day, March 6, we anchored off Iles des Saintes, Guadeloupe on a cheerful sunny morning, with a lovely view of the island from my outdoor breakfast table. I waited until late afternoon to go ashore and just walked around the charming French-style village snapping photos.
On Thursday March 7 we tied up in Roseau, Dominica. I went ashore at 10 AM and found a small jitney bus waiting for a few more passengers before setting off on a two-hour excursion around the island for just 20 dollars a person. There was nothing historical or cultural to see, but lots of tropical flowers. We stopped just to peek at a hot spring bubbling out of the ground at a dangerous 120 degrees but we just skipped past the area famous for sulphur baths. We ended up at a botanical garden and a promontory with a great view of the harbor.
On Friday March 8 we arrived in Charlestown, Nevis which I found unattractive with little to appeal to shoppers or walkers. Some passengers booked golf at the deluxe Four Seasons Hotel or took taxis to beaches outside of town. The island is perhaps famous for its exclusive resorts for the jet set. Princess Diana vacationed here. As an historian I was interested in the local museum in the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton, but it has almost nothing related to the Founding Father and seems to be a work in progress . I went back to the ship early and enjoyed the pool. That evening the ship crew hosted a lively white party on the pool deck, moving all the lounge chairs to the corners, setting up cabaret-style tables, and decorating the deck with festive white balloons. Most people wore white and some guests seemed happy for an occasion to dress up on an otherwise rather informal cruise. The dance band was sensational and entertainers from the show group mingled with the guests and added some youthful dancers to motivate us old folks.
Saturday morning March 9 we arrived in Gustavia, St. Barth. Unlike the quiet earlier ports, this one reeked of money and the streets of upscale shops circling the port area showed significant investment. No tacky souvenir shops here, just Bulgari, Polo, and other big-money brands. The French ancestry was evident in street and shop signs, posted restaurant menus, and overheard voices around the pier. Several hundred sailboats bobbed in the port along with half a dozen super-sized yachts. Some passengers taxied to one of a dozen beaches to spend the day, or hired vans to see other parts of the island and avoid the 150 dollar ship excursions. I walked until I was tired and returned to the ship for lunch, siesta, and gym.
Sunday morning March 10 found us anchored off Phillipsburg, St. Maarten. This is the only place I spent any time looking in shops since the main shopping street was colorful with lots of variety and not too many shoppers. A bit off the beaten-path I found the white shorts and white belt I had been looking for both very reasonably priced. I didn’t tour here since it was the only island I had visited previously. The evening variety show aboard was moved from the Cabaret to the pool deck and the starry night and tropical breeze made it a delight.
Some passengers who had been to the Caribbean often were disappointed that we were rerouted from Virgin Gorda to St. Thomas Virgin Islands by Monday morning March 11. Huge swells made it impossible to land passengers by tender in the small port at Virgin Gorda. I was not disappointed since I had heard so much about the Virgin Islands and had skipped St. John due to the heavy rain. But I was disillusioned to see the mobs of people debarking from two enormous Carnival line ships, one of which went subsequently to St. Maarten where it had engine problems and had to fly its passengers back to Florida. I was lucky to find a space on an open-air bus around the island with wonderful photo-stops with great views in every direction. We could see St. John, St. Croix, and many smaller islands. Alas, the photo-stops all had shops and it was hard to get the small group back on the bus. I’m glad I saw the island but I hated the traffic and the high state of development with K-Mart, Home Depot, and other large stores. Allegedly, Magen’s Bay beach is rated fourth best in the world by whomver makes the sacrifice to judge those things, and it was beautiful enough for me to wish I had worn a bathing suit and jumped off the bus at that point.
Tuesday and Wednesday March 12 & 13 were spent at sea, heading back to Miami. They were spa days for many, but I have a masseur come to the house in Cuernavaca for 30 dollars plus tip, so 170 dollars for the same service seemed a bit outrageous to me. I enjoyed the gym or water aerobics and lounging on the pool deck to brown up. I awoke the morning of Thursday March 14 to find a brilliantly lit Miami skyline off my balcony, and watched the sun rise over the port while enjoying my last breakfast aboard.
The debarking went very smoothly with groups being called punctually on schedule, large buses waiting for the airport transfer, and only a long wait for everyone to board due to the obesity and infirmity of many of those boarding. Once underway it took about twenty minutes to reach the airport where I enjoyed the VIP treatments of a business class passenger with separate check-in, security line, and the amenities of the Admiral’s Club with drinks, snacks, and free wifi. The AA flight at 12:45 left punctually and we landed 15 minutes earlier than scheduled at 2 pm due to a two-hour time change until Mexico springs forward in April. I rushed to the immigration desks to find almost no one there, and my bags came off among the first, so lucky I should have stopped to buy a lottery ticket. But my driver was waiting with a bottle of water in the car and he had me home before 4 pm, delighted to be back in the “city of eternal spring,” and my garden lush with many of the same blooms I saw on the islands.
I liked the Azamara Quest in every way except the dining service which I am sure they will be working to improve after reading the evaluations. The food was outstanding and I got my fill of shrimp and lobster and even indulged in the homemade gelato with ten different choices daily. The pool and gym were pleasant surprises compared to smaller ships I had taken. But I still like the smaller numbers on Windstar and on the river boats. Azamara Quest with 640 passengers was comfortable compared to the enormous Carnival ships, and I wouldn’t even think of boarding one of the new 5000 passenger ships. Imagine all of them herding on the main shopping street on any island! Ugh. Or trying to get a local taxi tour with all that competition. I can’t imagine the attraction unless prices are giveaways, and if I needed a golf course or bowling alley I don’t need to look for it floating off some distant shore. But I guess that’s why god invented vanilla and chocolate.
If nothing else, the cruise confirmed me in my preference for land travel. I’d rather spend several nights in cities with great cultures like Rome, Florence, Paris, London, or revisit the hill towns of Tuscany and Umbria or the sensational cities of Northern Spain from Santiago de Campostela to Santander, San Sebastián and Barcelona. That’s travel to me. Spending two hours or so on a number of islands is just not for me, though I could enjoy a week in a deluxe hotel on a splendid beach on any one of them. And I do like the river cruises with few passengers landing at interesting cities, but otherwise I will stick to land for now. I may change my mind when I am too frail, too tired, too lazy, or just too old for real travel, and then the Azamara will be a good choice.