Azamara Journey Cruise Review by agathasmum
- Sail Date: November 2018
- Destination: Cuba
We sailed on the 24th November 2018 10 day Intensive Cuba cruise on the Azamara Journey and wanted to share a few long overdue thoughts about the trip.
As a bit of background information, we are a quiet couple in our 50’s and 60’s, pretty low key and happy to entertain ourselves. We are originally from the UK but have lived in the USA for 30 years.We cruise for the food and destinations, rather than the entertainment, and for the past 20 years have primarily cruised on Celebrity. However we have found todays Celebrity isn’t what it once was and have been trying a few other cruiselines, (Cunard, Oceania) to see if we can find a “better fit” for us. This time we gave Azamara a whirl as this 10 day Cuba Intensive itinerary (including 3 days in Havana, a day in Cienfuegos and an overnight in Santiago de Cuba), was too good to miss. As a bonus our Elite Plus status on Celebrity was recognised by Azamara so we received Discover Plus benefits with them.
We flew down to Miami the day before on American from Reagan National. The flight was uneventful, taking off and landing on time. We spent the night at the Doubletree Biscayne Bay Hotel in Miami. I am allergic to feathers and it is usually quite a palaver to get a feather free bedding request taken seriously in hotels. As soon as I checked in at the Doubletree the receptionist said “…and your room has been made feather free”. Excellent! The Doubletree turned out to be part of a large entertainment and shopping complex and we ate onsite at Casablanca on the Bay and had a very pleasant dinner overlooking the marina. I would definitely recommend this as a pre-cruise hotel.
Saturday morning, cruise embarkation / disembarkation day was manic at the hotel, and although they did offer us a shuttle to the port, we thought it would be quicker and easier to take a taxi as the shuttle was dropping people at many different ships. We arrived relatively early and dropped our bags at the kerb. Inside the terminal we were asked to fill out a Cuba visa application, told that $75 per person would be charged to our online account, and we were strongly urged to check the box saying we would be doing Azamara excursions. We were doing a mix of private and cruiseline tours, but as our first tour was private, we checked the “support of the Cuban people box”. When I handed the application back I was again asked to check a different box. I replied that I had checked the box that applied to me. The agent shrugged and handed me two blank visa forms and said we would be shown how to fill them out on board. We finished checking in and were asked to sit down for a while as they weren’t yet ready for boarding. After a few minutes they started boarding by cruise status, so we were among the first to board, and get a glass of fizz.
As we took the stairs instead of having to wait for the elevator we were the first people in the buffet for lunch. I thought there was a good selection of food, and was happy to get a table in the aft outdoor seating area. There were plenty of bar waiters and they were very keen to pour the red or white wine of the day or rose or sparkling wine.
We had a verandah cabin it seemed quite comfortable with ample storage space. The bathroom, particularly the shower was a totally different experience. I had heard that it was small, but assumed that being petite I wouldn’t have any issues. I was wrong, and boy did that shower curtain like to cling!!! Our cabin attendants were excellent and when we first met said that they had removed everything with feathers from our cabin. I was impressed. They kept the place scrupulously clean, and our bathroom was always well stocked with clean towels.
A lot has been said about Azamara and Oceania offering a similar small ship product, but with the emphasis on food being Oceania’s strength and the emphasis on the destination being Azamara’s forte. I have to say that the food on Azamara gave Oceania a run for it’s money. We really enjoyed all the food in the dining room for lunch and dinner, so much so that we didn’t bother trying the speciality restaurants. We ate in the buffet the night it was Indian food and we were very impressed by it. The only disappointment with Azamara was the croissants. They always seemed dry and stale, whereas the ones on Oceania were exquisite. It was nice to have drinks anytime included in the cruise fare, and as a wine drinker I never felt the need to upgrade to a higher package to get better wines. I really enjoyed the french rose that was always available and the sparkling wine. My husband got used to drinking Becks, the included beer. What did surprise me was that sparkling water like Perrier or San Pellegrino wasn’t included in the basic drink package. The first couple of days they offered what looked like sparkling water in unlabelled bottles that had very little sparkle in them. I imagined they were perhaps making it themselves with a sodastream machine! In the end we bit the bullet and paid for Perrier.
I can’t comment on the shows as they aren’t our thing so we didn’t go to any. We do like live music and listened to the “Sparkle Trio” in the Living Room most evenings. They were from Ukraine and comprised a young female singer and young male guitarist and an older keyboard player who scowled the entire time. We weren’t sure if he was their dad or their minder but he did not seem happy to be there! The other “entertainment” option was a female pianist who sang lyrics we knew to tunes we didn’t, and she seemed incapable of playing and singing at the same time. It was quite bizarre, but she did have a following in the Martini Bar! I really missed a string quartet playing classic music or a singer/guitarist.
A lot has been said about Cuba, the Cuban visa, disembarkation in Cuba, exchanging money and private versus Azamara tours. Here is our experience. We checked the “support of the cuban people” box on the visa application, and were given blank visas which we filled out in the cabin. I’m not sure if there ever was help to fill out the visa on board but it was pretty self explanatory, and just required you to copy information from your passport onto it. An FYI, ANYONE arriving in Cuba on a ship that has sailed from the USA, MUST get the visa, even if you are from a country that would not require you to purchase a visa if you flew to Cuba, for example if you were Canadian. As we had a private tour booked at 11am, and as Azamara asked that passengers on Azamara tours be allowed to disembark first, we got off around 10:15am and took about 30 minutes to get through immigration. The official checked the passport and visa, took a photo and waved us through. This was the only time they seemed to really check passports and no one ever asked us if we were on a tour of any kind be it private or cruiseline operated. We changed money at the currency booths in the terminal. There is a 3% fee to change money plus an additional 10% fee if you are changing US dollars. We found some leftover Canadian currency at home and used that! We were out of the terminal by 11am, so ship to street took approximately 45 minutes. We downloaded the app maps.me before the trip and found it very useful to find our way around without having to use wi-fi.
We booked a 2 day tour with I Love Cuba Photo Tours in Havana. We booked the tour via email from a recommendation we found on Cruisecritic. The tour was led by Yosel, an ex college professor who is now a professional photographer. His english was excellent. He showed us all the main tourist spots around Havana, and some off the beaten track spots where we got a real insight into the every day life of the locals. We had a car at our disposal and on the second day he rented a huge purple convertible that looked like a spaceship for us for 2 hours! The nice thing about doing this photo tour was that we provided our own SD card and Yosel took photos for us and of us on his camera and also showed us the perfect spots to take some of the Iconic Havana photos from. It was really nice to have his photos of us as a souvenir. On our 3rd day in Havana we did a private combined walking and food tour with “A Taste of Cuba” aka “Food Tours Havana”. We found the tour recommended on cruisecritic and were able to book and pay online in US dollars. Our guide Ana was brilliant, full of fun and again an excellent english speaker. She toured the central historic district of Havana with us and we visited 7 different establishments to sample food.
The Azamazing Evening was the second evening in Havana. It had originally been scheduled for our overnight in Santiago de Cuba but was switched to Havana as there was an issue with the dock there and it became a tender port for us. My husband isn’t a fan of dance and didn’t want to go to the show, so we gave it a miss. From what we heard from other passengers, it seems the show was phenomenal and they really enjoyed it.
I feel I should add that in Havana we found everyone to be very pleasant, and the city felt very safe
At Cienfuegos we took a ship tour to Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its colonial buildings. The buses were good for the 90 minute drive and our guide, an elementary english teacher, although pleasant, was at times harder to understand than the guides we had in Havana. Trinidad was very interesting and we looked around the museum and a local church and also did a walking tour. The cobbled streets were very uneven and the terrain was challenging to people with mobility issues. We had a buffet lunch at a european style 4 star hotel and while nice I would have preferred something a little more authentically cuban. Our guide was from Cienfuegos and very proud of her city and took us on an unplanned panoramic drive around it at the end of the tour which was an unexpected surprise.
We dropped anchor early evening in Santiago de Cuba, and it was a 20 to 25 minute tender ride to the city. We had booked an Azamara evening excursion to a jazz club to hear “authentic Cuban Jazz.” Oh my. Not what we expected at all. I will leave it at that.
After the jazz experience the night before it was with trepidation that we boarded our bus for the ship tour to El Cobre as it had a “meet the people” element with a visit to a community centre to hear a steel drum band. We couldn’t believe our ears. They were phenomenal with a repertoire that spanned Cuban music to classical to Michael Jackson and The Eagles! Again a 3 course lunch was included and although it was in an italian restaurant, we were served traditional Cuban food, including rice and beans, plantain, pork, ropa vieja, fish and shrimp. We were seated outside and it was very hot but the staff wouldn’t turn on the fans, and people were complaining that there were no lights in the loos. Eventually the owner very apologetically admitted that the power had gone out a few minutes before we arrived. I was really impressed that they were able to prepare and serve such a lovely meal under the circumstances. Just before we were served dessert the power came back on, the fans worked and we were treated to deafening karaoke versions of traditional italian songs by the proprietors friend. What an experience! The final part of the tour was a walking tour of the historic centre of Santiago de Cuba and this was the only time in Cuba when I felt unsafe as we were surrounded by people begging. The guide was very angry that we were being hassled and bothered, and despite him repeatedly asking them to leave us alone they didn’t.
We had one other port, the cruiseline private island. We thought it would be nice to stay on board and have the ship to ourselves while everyone else enjoyed their beach day. It seemed half the ship had the same plan as us!
I mentioned previously that we were Discoverer Plus. This level comes with a number of perks including social activities (which we were never organised enough to take advantage of!), and free laundry and a set number of free wifi minutes which we did use. I thought the ship wifi was really slow and very hard to log onto, compared to the speeds we had on Oceania even in the middle of the Atlantic.
We really enjoyed this cruise. We thought the ship was elegant, the crew friendly, happy and very helpful. We liked that there isn’t a class system on board with certain areas unavailable to people who aren’t in suites. The cabin was nice. We loved the food, and enjoyed that the drinks we wanted were included. The cruise itinerary was wonderful. I’m not sure we have found our “forever cruise home” with Azamara, but I wouldn’t hesitate to sail with them again if the price and itinerary was right.
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