Colorful Counties

Azamara’s intimate, elegant ships offer discriminating passengers unmatched service with outstanding worldwide ports of call.
By Michele Peters

We’d never heard of Scrabster, Scotland, until a recent cruise to the British Isles, a destination that is culturally rich and boasts grand architecture, including fairytale castles. Travelers can get to the British Isles in a number of ways, but Azamara Cruises, the small-ship luxury cruise line launched by Celebrity Cruises in 2007, is well-suited for the sophisticated, seasoned traveler seeking a port-intensive experience.

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Above: Azamara Cruises’ Journey Michel Verdue/Azamara Cruises photos

Below: A deluxe ocean-view stateroom on the Journey.

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Castle
Above: Walk to the top of Blarney Castle for a chance to kiss the legendary stone and enjoy a marvelous view of the grounds. ©Pascal Rateau/Fotolia.com photo

Azamara Journey and Azamara Quest–each accommodate 690 passengers, which allows access to unusual ports–such as Scrabster–with fewer times to tender to shore. In addition, the small-ship experience is more informal, comfortable and personal. If you have never experienced small-ship cruising, I recommend the Azamara experience.

Interesting ports

Our 12-night British Isles cruise onboard Azamara Journey departed from Copenhagen, and when we docked at Edinburgh in Scotland, we found a thoroughly cosmopolitan center that has successfully incorporated its rich historical past. Natural beauty, fabulous golf courses and ancient traditions beckon to you. We walked the Royal Mile–a street lined with performers, pubs and shops–to Edinburgh Castle. According to legend, there is a tunnel that runs underneath the Royal Mile from the castle to the street that could have been used in the past by the royal family as an escape route.

To hear more legends, the Ghost and Ghouls tour explored the buried city of old Edinburgh with its catacombs, old market stalls and colorful history, culminating with refreshments in a century-old tavern.

From Edinburgh, we sailed to the pristine port of Scrabster in the north of Scotland, where the landscape can only be described as idyllic. This city is on very few itineraries, but it is where England’s Queen Mother Elizabeth rescued the Castle of Mey. Nestled at the end of a tranquil country lane, the castle was a dilapidated shell but is now a warm, friendly home with prize-winning animals and world-renowned gardens. The castle is totally furnished and remains as the Queen Mother left it, complete with toy moose heads on the walls, leprechauns on the curtain rods and her full wardrobe. The small cottage restaurant on the grounds will warm your heart and your taste buds, and the small gift shop sells jams and jellies, as well as the usual souvenirs, all charming mementos of the Castle of Mey.

No tour to these islands would be complete without a visit to Ireland, and no tour of Ireland would exclude a visit to Blarney Castle and the Blarney stone near Cork. We climbed the narrow, winding stone staircase to the top and were rewarded with a magnificent view of the grounds. Kiss the stone and receive the gift of eloquence, according to legend.

Azamara’s shore excursion staff is extremely knowledgeable, matching passengers’ interests to activities and capabilities, eliminating any unpleasant surprises. Tours include comfortable motorcoach transportation, a tender to move from the ship to the shore when needed and a knowledgeable local guide. After a fun-filled day on shore, it was wonderful to be welcomed back on board with a warm “welcome back home my lady” from a crew member and a cup of either coffee or hot chocolate. With a caring staff, wonderful food and superior accommodations, coming home to Azamara Journey was a pleasure.

Beautiful staterooms, amazing staff

The staterooms are generous by comparison. Fresh flowers and fruit are delivered daily. When trying to decide upon accommodations, book a veranda stateroom (starting around $3,000 per person) if a suite is not in your budget. Nothing can compare to having morning coffee on a private veranda listening to the peaceful lull of the sea or feeling the refreshing ocean breeze. Once your butler brings your luggage to the stateroom and hangs up your wardrobe, the Azamara adventure begins.

Activities satisfy any interest and include computer classes, line dancing, digital camera tips or port briefings. Details on shore excursions and onboard activities are listed on the TV and in the ship’s newsletter delivered nightly to your stateroom.

Crew members are multi-lingual and speak English well. They genuinely care about the passengers’ comfort and well-being. The first night at sea, some passengers experienced the intense discomfort of seasickness. The concerned crew and guest relations staff immediately offered whatever help was necessary.

A particularly impressive feat came from the waiters. After only one dinner seating, they remembered many guests’ dining preferences. When asked about this, our headwaiter simply stated, “We are all wish masters and come with a very large memory card.”

Glorious food

Azamara Journey excels in the dining experience, and there is something for every palate and dietary need. Breakfast offers an appealing array of the usual morning fare, but for those with a hearty appetite, freshly made Belgian waffles, crêpes, omelets, smoked salmon, rolls and breads are abundant.

Restaurant choices range from Breeza, a poolside grill and dinner buffet, to very casual dining at the Windows Café, where your meal is complemented by a spectacular ocean view. The cozy, French-inspired Cova Café offers coffee and lighter fare, including sweets. For an elegant change of pace, choose the upscale white-linen Discoveries Dining Room, the refined Prime C or Aqualina restaurants.

Dinner menus have sumptuous selections that include prime rib, lobster, shrimp, fish, chicken, lamb and veal. Selections found on the left side of the menu remained the same, but for the more adventurous, the right side was a new and delightful surprise each evening.

For anyone with a sweet tooth, each evening's desserts were a treat for the palate, as well as the eyes, and included impossible to describe chocolate confections, Baked Alaska and Cherries Jubilee.

Seating is open, and shared tables can be requested, often resulting in interesting and exciting dinner conversations. Dine one night with people from Italy, the next evening with a couple from Denmark and the next with a group from Spain. Reservations are required for the two specialty restaurants, Prime C and Aqualina. The ambience and menus here are more elegant with a distinct European feel. In all restaurants, formal attire is optional.

At 3:30 every afternoon in the quiet elegance of the Aqualina restaurant, the very civilized tradition of English High Tea is served, which must be tried at least once. Afternoon tea also can be delivered to the stateroom.

Quiet time and nightlife

The onboard spa has a luxurious and relaxing ambience complete with soft music and highly experienced staff. Separate areas for the various services offered were equally elegant and inviting. Get a hot stone, deep tissue or Swedish massage. At the end of the spa session, each guest is offered a refreshing drink of sparkling water with fresh lemon and orange.

The fitness facility, located next to the spa, offers an impressive selection of equipment, machines, weights, treadmills and a spectacular 180-degree view. Fitness classes include yoga, Pilates and stretching. The top deck includes an open-air three-lane track with cool water or fresh lemonade readily available.

Some guests occasionally preferred a quiet getaway and found the library the perfect place with its abundance of reading materials and soft overstuffed chairs.

After a spectacular day of sightseeing, food and fun, the day was nowhere near over. Night on board offered a dazzling array of entertainment, ranging from the elegantly urbane Looking Glass nightclub–with floor-to-ceiling windows and spectacular view, soft lighting and ample dance floor–to cabaret-style entertainment in the Cabaret Lounge.

Small-ship advantages

I talked to dozens of passengers about Azamara and most said they chose the cruise line because of the ship’s size, cruise value and for the attentive crew.

“You don’t feel like you’re in a stadium; more theater-in-the-round,” said Lillian Mandel of Nevada.

Azamara has a strong appeal for the traveler seeking the more unusual, port-intensive travel experience. For those who are at a time in their lives when they have earned the right to travel hassle-free and be pampered, the Azamara experience affords an easy sampling of spectacular cities, places and people, creating a true worry-free vacation.

Michele Peters is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.

A Closeup Look

  • Double occupancy – 694
  • Tons – 30,277
  • Length – 593 feet
  • Beam – 95 feet
  • Guest decks – nine
  • Stateroom categories – seven. Inside stateroom, 158 square feet; ocean-view stateroom, 170 square feet; deluxe ocean-view stateroom with verandah, 175 square feet; sunset verandah stateroom, 175 square feet; sky suite, 266 square feet; royal suite, 440–501 square feet; penthouse suite, 560 square feet.
  • Accessibility – Azamara ships are fully wheelchair accessible, as are selected staterooms in many categories.
Nov/Dec 2009 Issue

BEFORE YOU GO

Azamara Journey offers a 12-night British Isles cruise that departs Copenhagen on Aug. 17, 2010. This winter, Azamara Journey will offer 12-night cruises in the Caribbean that depart from from Miami. The sister ship, Azamara Quest, will sail on 14-night southeast Asian cruises this winter, returning to the western Mediterranean for next summer.

Although rates vary accordingly between itineraries, the average rate for a stateroom described in this article is $3,000 per person, based on double occupancy.

Shore excursions for the British Isles cruise included the four-hour Blarney Castle and Woollen Mill Shop tour, $59 per adult, $32 per child; the four-hour Royal Mile Walking Tour, $82 per adult, $42 per child; the Queen Mother’s Castle of Mey, a four-hour tour, $79 per adult, $45 per child.

For additional rates and information, visit www.AAA.com or contact your AAA Travel professional. List of offices to serve you.

Order free information about AAA cruises through the Reader Service Card, found online at http://southern.ai-dsg.com


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