There’s more to recommend cruising than just unpacking once during a holiday, although that is a major incentive.
Our decision to sail on the Azamara Club Cruises’ Quest was based on our previous trip aboard this 5-star ship around the Italian peninsula a few years ago when the line was brand new. That cruise was memorable in every way, and it was high time for a return trip.
As two ol’ sea travelers, it’s our custom to arrive a few days before and after a cruise to get a land and a sea holiday for the price of one round-trip airfare.
For the Azamara Quest’s ‘route of the wine traders’ trip from Southampton, we first splurged on the highly rated Red Carnation Hotel Collection’s The Rubens at the Palace and later at its 5-star Milestone in London. These hotels have consistently won major travel awards every year, for decades. Their locations, ambience and service are faultless. - read all about them on TripAdvisor or go to www.redcarnationhotels.com.
Why two hotels? The Rubens is the nearest hotel to Buckingham Palace and the Milestone is across the street from Kensington Palace and gardens. It’s fun to say we stayed next door to Queen Elizabeth II and later across the street from Will, Kate and baby Cambridge. We didn’t get to see them, but the spectacular views from both hotels in central London were worth a king’s ransom.
At the end of our enjoyable London stay, the Milestone rolled out its Range Rover (They also have a Bentley) and drove us directly to the waiting crew at Azamara’s dock-side luggage area in Southampton, an hour’s drive from London. How easy was that? Private car service is also available to London’s other major ports, Dover and Harwich.
The bonus for both frequent cruisers and first-timers, is that Azamara Club Cruises new ‘Destination Immersive Voyages’ has discounts on its Land Discoveries shore excursions when booked online prior to sailing. At each port, the Land Discovery motor coaches are waiting dockside to explore a passenger’s choice of several tour itineraries.
We particularly enjoyed the new, complimentary ‘Destination Immersive Voyage’ evening events onshore which offer exclusive Azamara parties to experience local traditions: dance, music, theater and cuisine, in gorgeous settings and memorable landmarks at selected ports.
For up-market travelers, Azamara Club Cruises has pioneered longer stays and more overnights in ports to ensure that passengers get the most out of every destination. And we especially liked the ship’s newsletter and additional materials featuring each port along the way, including a town map. These were delivered to staterooms the night before docking. And a tourist information desk, with local tourism guides, was always set up in the lobby at each port to answer questions and distribute detailed maps.
It was no surprise when the Quest and its sister ship, the Journey, were recently named by CruiseCritic.com as the Best Value-For-Money Ships for 2013. Among the many money-saving features and amenities on an Azamara cruise are complimentary bottled water, sodas, specialty coffee and teas, as well as complimentary boutique wines, international beers and select standard spirits in the ships’ bars, lounges and restaurants; complimentary self-service laundry and shuttle transportation to city centers in ports, where available, and the unbeatable deal-maker -inclusive gratuities.
The first port of call, a much anticipated new destination for us, St. Peter Port on Guernsey Island in the English Channel, was picture-book perfect. Over the millenniums, it has been a Roman harbor, part of the Dukedom of Normandy and occupied by the Germans in WWII. Today, it is an exceptionally beautiful and clean village of Regency and Georgian architecture nestled below Castle Cornet, an ancient fortress.
We had time for a tour of town and a chance to check-out two exceptional hotels, the four-star Duke of Richmond Hotel and the five-star Old Government House Hotel and Spa. These two highly acclaimed gems are part of the sixteen privately owned and operated Red Carnation Hotel Collection (RCH).
RCH is also famous for its exceptional traditional English tea with sumptuous savories and sweets each afternoon from 1 to 5 pm. For early diners, it’s enough to carry you all evening. We enjoyed a tea at The Old Government House and Spa. As typical Americans, we were thrilled when the concierge, Mr. Harry, graciously offered us a doggie bag for our unfinished sweets. We two chow-hounds ate every morsel – much later - back on the ship. The tour and the English tea made for a picturesque and delightful day-long shore excursion.
It was again smooth sailing on this powerful, small ship on the Atlantic and up the Garonne Estuary to the port of Bordeaux in southwestern France. It has been said the 18th century was the golden age of glorious Bordeaux. We say it’s still in a golden age. When Napoleon ordered the tearing down of mediaeval Paris, he told the architects to model the new center of town after Bordeaux – a petit Paris, if ever there was one.
Today, a well-lit, well-landscaped park is adjacent to the modern cruise ship docks that border the center of town. The park is filled with people strolling, picnicking, playing, and walking their dogs. This beautiful setting and the locals provided the warmest and most welcoming tone for our two-night stay in this magnificent city.
A highlight of our visit to Bordeaux was an exclusive Azamara-hosted French cocktail party in the majestic Palais de la Bourse, a national treasure that is on the UNESCO World Heritage list. In this grand old-world setting, we enjoyed an evening of wonderful singing, including a chanteuse interpreting many songs made famous by Edith Piaf - and a bevy of long-legged French can-can dancers. And the Azamara passengers danced to the music of the wonderful band.
As we sat on pretty white chairs at festive white tables, we over-indulged in generous servings of beautiful and delicious hors d’oeuvres, desserts and world-renowned Bordeaux wines by the outstanding wait staff.
For wine lovers, the great vineyards of Bordeaux are nearby, including Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Margaux, Château Latour, Château Haut-Brion and Château Mouton Rothschild, that produce some of the most expensive wines in the world. But there are 8,500 other wine makers, in all price ranges, here in the largest wine growing area in France.
Our next port, St. Jean de Luz, France is a lovely and lively beach-resort port with sandy beaches, half-timbered mansions, abundant shopping streets and a thriving fishing fleet in the most protected bay in the French Basque country.
The picture-perfect village has many attractive contemporary and traditional shops and boutiques that are open year-round, including Sundays and bank holidays. This sparkling clean, colorful market scene adds to the fun of buying and window shopping because many of the businesses spill out into streets with bargains galore. The vast sandy beach in St. Jean is as good as any on the Cote d’Azur.
The bustling village center is intermingled with fine restaurants, sidewalk cafes, bakeries and specialty food shops. They are mostly on pedestrian streets: rue Gambetta, rue Loquin, rue de la République and rue Garat. And what makes this town unique is the charming mix of old Basque and French architecture. We thoroughly enjoyed it and the friendly, polite locals during our two sun-filled days.
The port of Bilbao is on the Nervion River about 9 miles from the Bay of Biscay and the Atlantic Ocean. The modern cruise ship docks 20-minutes from the city center, which is easily accessible by Azamara’s Land Discoveries shore excursions and a free shuttle service into town.
We recommend using the Azamara Land Discovery itineraries because Bilbao is a sprawling city of many districts. Pick a tour that best suits your interest. The city is a fertile landscape of forests, mountains, beaches and steep coasts. For a birds-eye view of the city, the cable car is a truly exciting way to reach the 2400-feet summit for a stunning panorama of the city and the mouth of the estuary.
For shopping, the Gran Vía Don Diego López de Haro is a wide and elegant boulevard where you will see the shops of all the top international designers and stores with the finest of Spanish products.
The talk of the town and one of the world’s most hotly discussed contemporary buildings is the Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Gehry. It’s covered in titanium panels and has its own important collection, as well as sharing the largest private modern and contemporary art collection in the world with New York and Venice. It’s the cultural and tourism driving force of the Spanish Basque country.
There is a tourist bus, departing from the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum, which makes 15 stops and allows passengers to get on and off as many times as they want. Don’t miss the mediaeval Old Quarter, lively restaurants, tapas bars and the many other one-of-a-kind attractions in this 700 year old city.
As we sailed for toward Lisbon, Portugal, it gave us a chance to enjoy one of our favorite shipboard pastimes; a full sea day. A time to explore the ship and do nothing at all, or indulge in a long and leisurely breakfast, lunch and dinner, or take advantage of the many complimentary onboard fitness and nutrition classes.
For the ultimate in women’s and men’s wellness and looking good, the Azamara’s luxuriously appointed Astral Spa is staffed by professional aestheticians and therapists with an extensive menu of services. Pick up a complimentary one in the Spa and ask spa manager Jurizma Potgierter for a look around this tranquil and spacious health oasis.
Try a Thalassotherapy bath of bubbling salt water bath and powerful jets that massage you as you soak up the ocean views. Massages including hot stone therapy, deep tissue massage, Swedish massage and other exotic massage treatments from around the world.
Who couldn’t use a little body sculpting with renewing seaweed wraps, cellulite reduction body sculpting, and lime and ginger salt glows. You can choose from a selection of half and full-day packages including body sculpting, facials and massage for the ultimate in relaxation and teeth whitening for brighter beautiful smiles.
Azamara also had a licensed acupuncturist on call in the Astral Spa who was accredited by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine. Sr. Carlos Pereira provides a variety of treatments for pain management, smoking cessation, weight loss, stress reduction and more. A complimentary consultation is available with Carlos to discuss how treatments will benefit your specific situation. What a lovely way to spend a day.
Feeling totally refreshed from the relaxing sea day, we couldn’t take our eyes of the magnificent view as we sailed from the Atlantic up the Tagus River to the port of Lisbon, Portugal. It’s was a cityscape of old-world buildings with not a skyscraper in site. The town is located on a narrow plateau and quickly rises straight up to the top of a hill. The Quest docked in the center of the old city and we couldn’t wait to walk across the road and start exploring the winding cobble-stone streets all the way to the hilltop for a panoramic view all the way back to the ocean.
But before we continue this story, we must digress.
First, we give Azamara Club Cruises high marks for visiting exciting jewel-box destinations that can only accommodate small ships. It’s a treat for passengers and boon for the local and regional economies. The destination officials and property owners should show appreciation to the cruise ship companies by providing its passengers at least basic curb-appeal. In the case of Lisbon, the powers that be along the waterfront have some ‘splaining to do. The port neighborhood has wonderful old buildings and winding cobblestone streets, but many of the buildings are crumbling and covered with graffiti. The streets are in dire need of a major cleaning. There is garbage and other filth everywhere that attracts large flies whose bites left welts on our skin. Lisbon should use our previous ports, especially Bordeaux, as an example of how to do it right by cleaning up and gentrifying the drab industrial-looking dock enclosure and the shabby neighborhood.
Until that happens, don’t miss seeing the other parts of Lisbon and the surrounding areas that are worthy of a long visit and are accessible by booking an Azamara Land Discovery tour. Some of the local highlights are St. George’s castle, the World Heritage Sites: the white marble Jeonimos Monastery, home to the Maritime Museum and the National Archaeology Museum, and the waterfront Belem Tower, an area from which explorers such as Vasa de Gama sailed to glory in the Age of Discovery. Visit the elegant Baima shopping district with restaurants, and sidewalk cafes, and nearby Cascais, a popular seaside resort for a day in the sun; and Fatima, a world-renowned religious site. For foodies and wine lovers, try traditional Portuguese dishes and at least one of the country’s superb wines, Vinho Verde.
Another compelling reason we took this cruise was the startling revelation that the Azamara Quest would be docking right in the historic center of Seville, Spain. Who knew that Seville was again a port? That really helped to seal the deal. What an adventurous new way to arrive at one of our favorite cities in the world.
After the 17th century, ships docked at Cadiz on the Atlantic and then it was a 75-mile road trip to reach this glorious and fun capital of Andalusia. Because of modern dredging, small cruise ships are now able to sail from the Atlantic Ocean up fifty miles of the tree-lined Guadalquivir River, past rich agricultural lands as far as the eye can see, and dock in the beautiful port of old Seville, surrounded by the fabled city of the Romans, Moors and Spaniards.
From everywhere on the Quest, we had a panoramic view of the city. And from the well-landscaped and secured dock area, Azamara provided free and frequent shuttle service farther into the old town. We all could have walked into the city through the surrounding park-like setting, but it was thoughtful of Azamara to save us time so we could get right into exploring the heart of the historic district.
Seville was the last port of the cruise, but we luckily had one more night onboard ship; that gave us a chance the first day to reacquaint ourselves with Seville and take a leisurely stroll to our hotel in the old quarter, Las Casas de la Juderia. It’s a ducal palace and the property includes adjacent historically significant palaces, convents, and other buildings that have been painstakingly adapted for use as a four-star hotel, while preserving its architectural integrity, by the Duke of Segorbe, over the past 30 years.
We were assigned, much to our surprise, and most likely based on availability, a large and airy suite with an XL 21st-century marble bathroom with a two-sink vanity, Jacuzzi bath tub and a separate shower for two (or more)! An entrance hall led to an inner foyer and a large and comfortable living room. Paneled double doors led to the grand bedroom which had two sets of double garden doors overlooking lush interior courtyards. It’s good to be a Duke for a night!
We pretty well knew our way around the clean old quarter, and made the most of our two days wandering the Seville orange tree-lined cobblestone streets and alleys, charming plazas and parks of all sizes, including the nearby 14th-century Alcazar and gardens, the oldest royal palace still in use in Europe.
The mostly shaded sidewalk cafes featured delicious tapas, fresh seafood, excellent regional beef and pork (acorn-fed), affordable and highly drinkable Spanish red and white wines. Sometimes we ordered from the menus or just asked for a plate of our favorites: usually slices of Spanish Manchego cheese, Iberian ham, a loaf of fresh, crusty bread and extra virgin olive oil; and a regional Andalusian wine. The Spanish fare matched the excellent quality we found in the other picturesque ports and nearby vineyards, including some that produce many of the world’s most coveted wines.
One afternoon as we strolled on Calle Mateos Gago not far from the Alcazar, we stopped into a small corner pharmacy for some Ricola. After our purchase, and since it was lunchtime, we asked the pharmacist “What’s the best restaurant on this street for authentic tapas?” She immediately pointed across the street where an alley filled with tables covered by umbrellas had been set up. Cooled by sprayed mist, the clean modern outdoor café, La Moderna, enticed us to take the only unoccupied table. Immediately a charming guy dressed in black, who introduced himself as Uri, spoke to us, and realized that our Spanish was good but not great, so he changed from Spanish to English and asked if we’d like an English menu.
Ordering plate after plate of grilled sardines, roasted potatoes with olive oil and garlic, a variety of grilled pork and beef plates, bread and olives, we washed it all down with bottled water and lemonade. Uri was attentive, extremely friendly but not intrusive, and several times his counterpart, Curro, stopped by our table to see how we were enjoying the fare. When e offered our compliments to the chef, they called out Paco, a partner in the business, who was indeed the chef. Each plate cost between 2.5 and 3 Euros, so the entire bill which included service came to about 20 Euros – for a feast fit for El Rey. La Moderna has no website, but you can find them at #7 Calle Mateos Gago, around the corner from the Alcazar entrance, or phone Uri, Paco or Curro at 954-29-31-15.
As much as we liked exploring the ports of call, we always fully enjoyed getting back to the Azamara for a rest in our handsome and comfortable stateroom, the housekeeping couldn’t have been better and our cabin steward Rafael and his assistant made it picture-perfect twice a day.
All things considered, this was a memorable cruise, especially the consistent outstanding service onboard the Azamara Quest from the entry-level staff and crew to the senior officers. And with good reason: promotions are from within the company. For instance, it’s most likely that most top management started by washing dishes and pots in the galley. Employees are carefully chosen and then well-trained and supervised knowing their performance could lead to the top of the ladder of success.
We are sure that in the future we will find many of the fine people on the dining room staff promoted to management positions – Komang, Arnel and Salvadore who took great care of us in the Discoveries Restaurant, Johan and Yan Yang who were so attentive in the Windows Café, and Tayfun whose expertise with the menu made our visit to the specialty restaurant Aqualina such a great experience. These are the people who make the Azamara Club ships such a pleasure to sail aboard.
The Quest is a beautiful ship with many public areas. Housekeeping throughout the ship is faultless. In the main dining room, Discoveries, there was always at least one appetizer, soup, salad, entrée and dessert each day that we don’t have at home - and all were beautifully and pleasantly served. Unlike many ships, both the Quest and the Journey are low-key elegant rather that bright, bouncy and gaudy. One of our fellow travelers who had never before been on a small ship exclaimed (with a bit of disappointment) “Oh, they don’t have a grand atrium!”
That’s just the point of a smaller ship. The Quest is an example of quiet elegance. Details are less ostentatious. There’s a feeling in the public rooms of being in a private club. The handsome library is well-stocked, full of light from the large windows and has walls paneled with great style and furnished with comfortable reading chairs and reading lamps.
For those who crave city-bright lights, excitement can be found at the nightly events at the pool bar, casino and the cabaret lounge. For us, the pleasure of being aboard a fine ship was all that we needed – a relaxing cruise away from the hustle and bustle of the everyday work world.
Back in the office, with jacket and tie, we crave the ‘resort-casual’ life on board the Azamara Quest. So, we’re perusing the website (www.azamaraclubcruises.com) that highlights itineraries on the oceans of the world, year-round, on the Azamara Club Quest or the Azamara Club Journey. Sometime in the near future, we hope to see you on board!
Written by Don Church and Tony Schillaci, Out and Travelin’