Azamara Club Cruise Review – Japan

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Kongo just completed an “intensive” 15-day cruise about the Japanese islands aboard the Azamara Quest. This review is an in-depth critique of that cruise and examines the good, okay, so-so, and downright awful aspects of this cruise line and the voyage in general. If you’re considering an Azamara cruise in the future, the monkey urges you to read on and he would be happy to answer any of your questions.

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In many ways this is a hard review for the monkey to write. He’s generally fairly forgiving and upbeat and takes life as it comes with a little grumbling now and then when things go wrong. (Okay, okay, he grumbles a lot…at least to Mrs. Kongo) There were some really nice features of this cruise and then there were some things that were not so good. I know, I know, into every life a little rain must fall (and we did see rain) but the annoyances on this cruise built up steadily and never quite went away.

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Map from the Azamara Website

So first, lets set the table. This was Kongo’s first sailing on an Azamara cruise. Previously he has sailed on Viking Ocean, Celebrity, Paul Gauguin, and has done a couple of river cruises on AMA. Azamara puts themselves out there as an upscale, boutique line offering its customers luxury cruises, smaller ships that provide intimate encounters in ports the larger ships can’t visit, gourmet dining, and country intensive itineraries that are supposed to immerse you in a new culture. Previously the monkey had heard nothing but high praise and ooh-la-la raves about Azamara. In Kongo’s opinion this cruise fell far short of the hype.

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This cruise was a 15-day “Japanese Intensive Cruise” that visited eleven ports in Japan and one in South Korea. While most of the actual sailing was done at night, there were some longer stays in Tokyo and Kobe.

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Japan is an amazing place to visit. Although Kongo had been to the country several times  in the 1980s, his visits were just to the Tokyo area and he didn’t venture into the rest of the country. This trip afforded opportunities to see everything from the northern island of Hokkaido to the southern isles of Kyushu and Shikoku. Most of the stops were on the largest island of Honshu.

Fellow Cruisers

600 rapidly aging baby boomers made up the bulk of the guests on this cruise. But “baby boomers” may be giving many of these cruisers the benefit of the doubt. Kongo guesses the average age is somewhere in the upper 70s. Kongo will join this group in another decade or so but in his view many of these ancient thrill seekers spending their children’s inheritance are past their prime cruising days. Not that growing old is a bad thing. Not at all. The monkey knows we all grow old but on a cruise these demographics can actually affect your shipboard experience. Tours move only as fast as the slowest walker and many of these cruisers were very slow walkers meaning your tours were not what they could have been. Some of these people also ended up getting lost on tours (this happened twice to Kongo) which means there are interminable waits on the bus while deciding whether to abandon granny or sit through a tour you’ve paid a lot of money for in an idling tour bus. It also makes the breakfast buffet scramble challenging as you dodge wheel chairs and scooters, avoiding people balancing their plates with a cane, and so forth.

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From interactions with fellow shipmates, Kongo estimates the largest contingent group hailed from Australia. North Americans came in second, followed by the stiff upper lip British. There were a few Swiss, some New Zealanders, and a couple from Denmark.

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This was a big group and Kongo is not talking about numbers. Kongo can only imagine what the overwhelmingly petite Japanese thought when these lumbering visitors disembarked. One morning Kongo was surprised when he visited the restroom just prior to departing on a tour and found an enormous Australian stripped down to his underwear washing his shirt in the lavatory sink. “Just trying to get breakfast off my clothes,” he cheerily quipped at the monkey. It was not a pretty sight and you can’t unsee something like this.

There were no children (thankfully) on this cruise and Kongo noted that this group was very homogenous. Basically it was an all white group of old people. Most cruisers were very well travelled on a number of cruise lines.

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Now Kongo doesn’t mean to appear snarky and he doesn’t want to fat shame or age shame anyone. He met some wonderful people on this cruise from all over the world. He’s just making the point that seagoing simians considering a cruise on this line are going to find themselves with a lot of older fellow travelers and if this isn’t quite your cup of tea, then perhaps you should look elsewhere.

The Cabins

 

The short video (from Cruise Oyster) gives an overview of the stateroom Kongo occupied on his cruise. It shows the cabin in its best light and avoids any shots of the bathroom. (probably because the camera rig wouldn’t fit in there) Kongo’s veranda stateroom on the 7th deck (7020) was the smallest stateroom he’s ever sailed in. The bathroom takes minuscule to a whole new level. There’s not another way to put it. You have to sit semi-sideways on the toilet, the shower is about three square feet (really!) with a shower curtain that tends to get stuck on the runners, and you need to open the door to prevent the bathroom from becoming a sauna when taking a shower. There is a safe and a stocked minibar (beware of up-charges), a flat screen television with several satellite and shipboard channels, and a closet. There are USB connections under the bed lights and and two sockets that will take an American plug. Bring a multi-outlet extension cord to keep your phones, iPads, cameras, and computers charged. There is (sometimes) shipboard WiFi at a cost of about $20/day per device. The first four days aboard there was no internet at all. Then it was “fixed.” At the best of times it’s agonizing slow but that’s fairly standard on cruise ships. There is no free WiFi anywhere on the ship. The king-sized bed (made by pushing two semi-queens together) is good and there is room underneath to store your luggage.

Kongo’s cabin attendants were superb. The room was cleaned and spiffed up twice daily.

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Meals and Liquor

There are a number of eating venues aboard the Azamara Quest. The two up-charge specialty restaurants, Prime C (steak) and Aqualina (Italian), were excellent. There are no gratuitous meals at the specialty restaurants. The rest of the dining options were not excellent. They were at best okay and and at worst terrible. Breakfast dining in the Windows Cafe sometimes resembles a buffet food fight as cruisers scramble for their meals before departing on tours. Kongo once had to wait 20 minutes for a single pancake after giving up on ever getting a waffle. For the first three days, the ship was fighting a small outbreak of norovirus so everything was served by staff, significantly increasing delays at meal times, and the eating areas smelled like the disinfectant that was slathered over the entire ship. Breakfast pastries were humdrum, bacon was often overcooked, juices were somewhat watery, and the milk had a metallic taste to it. You would think that visiting so many ports famous for their seafood that there would be a great variety on board. Not so. There was branzino from the Mediterranean and salmon that had been frozen and frankly tasted fishy.

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Now, having said all this, the monkey gained four pounds on this cruise and while Mrs. Kongo will never reveal how much she gained, she was complaining.

Room service is available 24-hours a day at no extra cost. It was excellent and proved the best option to avoid the breakfast food menagerie on the 9th deck.

Drinks, including wine, beer, and various liquors, are included in the cruise price but premium wines and liquor are extra although not too exorbitant. A Grey Goose martini, for example, was $7.50 while one made with Smirnoff was free. Kongo mostly drank for free and avoided the up-charge drink packages where he just didn’t see the value. Besides, a vodka gimlet tastes pretty much the same whether its Grey Goose or Finlandia.

Tours

By far the largest disappointment of this trip were the ship sponsored tours. In Kongo’s view they were overcrowded, overpriced, and over hyped. The guides ranged from god-awful to outstanding but in general, English fluency was an issue. Most tours did not use listening devices so once you were out of the bus you really had no idea what was going on unless you were standing next to the guide. Kongo likes to roam a bit and take pictures so he missed most of the information the guides were putting out. Tour meeting places were hazy, people got lost and missed the bus, long bus rides and short times on the ground were common, too frequent rest stops (yes!) meant that on many of the tours you were spending nearly as much time at a roadside rest area as at the destination. Some tours were arbitrarily extended to take in other sights which caused missed appointments on the ship.

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Now don’t get Kongo wrong. He saw some amazing sights on this trip and felt he had a good overview of Japan from top to bottom. On the other hand, spending $300 (for two) to take a three hour bus ride for a 40-minute lake ride in an over-crowded boat was too much cost for too little culture. In Kyoto, for example, an all day excursion included lunch in a giant conference room at the Crown Plaza and included an almost inedible entree that the monkey can’t even remember. It came with a salad of peas in mayonnaise. I mean, seriously? The Crowne Plaza? This was Kyoto for monkey sakes!

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Experienced Azamara cruisers told the Kongos that indeed, these tours were “off” but this was a new itinerary for Azamara and they were still learning. The monkey didn’t care about that. He had shelled out $4,000 for shore excursions and expected good tours.  Past cruisers with this cruise line advised Kongo to complain and that the ship would “do something about it.” So we complained. Mrs. Kongo wrote a several page missive politely detailing the shortcomings of several tours. She was thanked for her input and after several days was told that Azamara appreciated her input, was sending it to Miami for review, and that they appreciated her efforts to help make future tours better. Huh? Are you kidding me?  The Kongos began canceling future tours at this point. We weren’t spending our retirement to train Azamara’s tour contractor.

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Now shame on the monkey for not doing better research before sailing. On past cruises there were always some free tours or shuttle buses to the center of town and so forth if you just wanted to take off on your own. Actually, you could have done that on this cruise if you had known in advance where the ship was docking and if there were going to be any shuttles. (There are no free tours on Azamara) But none of that information was available before you arrived on the ship. The Azamara website sucks, by the way, and information about tours and what options you might have in the different ports was severely sparse. Had Kongo known what he knows now he would have arranged for private tours from sites like “Tours by Locals” or Viator for a lot less money and much more variety.

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One tour guide would begin talking before you had even exited the bus (think slow moving cruisers in front of you) and was a block away on crowded streets by the time you bowed goodbye to the driver and had to take off at a run to catch up. Other tour guides would hold you in a group for long periods of time while they went to gather “tickets” which turned out to be maps of where you were and there was no ticket required. Why couldn’t these brochures be obtained BEFORE the tour?

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Kongo could go on and on about the tours but suspects you get the idea by now. And he wants to reiterate that he did see some wonderful sites. It just could have been so much better.

Shipboard Entertainment

Kongo has never been much for shipboard shows and that’s not why he travels so he’ll give Azamara a pass on the floating entertainment. He did attend a magic show by an Australian comedian that was really good. Mrs. Kongo attended a couple of song and dance reviews which she liked.

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On each cruise Azamara hosts an “Azamazing” venue. On this cruise it was held in Busan, South Korea at the city’s Cultural Arts Center. It was basically a Korean folkloric show with traditional costumes, some singing, and a tae-kwon-doh exhibition. It was pretty good. Prior to the show the ship served some bad wine and warm beer.

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Other Things

In general, the service aboard was good although Kongo would not give it a stellar rating. Orders were frequently mixed up and service was sometimes slow. There were some notable exceptions of outstanding service: Hem at the bar in Prime C and Jonathan who seemed to be everywhere and took a special liking to the monkey. Cabin steward Mario was over the top.

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There is a pool and two jacuzzis on the 9th deck. Kongo saw one person using the pool on this cruise. There’s a walking course that circles the pool deck, a spa which Mrs. Kongo visited frequently for massages and facials, a gym, coffee shop, upscale shopping, an artist in residence, and lectures on Japanese culture (this must have been the ‘immersion’ part).

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The ships decor is generally in good shape although the Windows Cafe (buffet style dining) is in sore need of a makeover. Common areas have lots of wood paneling giving a clubby feel to the ship. Furniture was nicely appointed and comfortable. When the ship is moored in a favorable direction, the sunset view from the aft bar on Deck 9 could be spectacular.

Embarking and disembarking is easy. Security at the ports was strong and you must put your bags through a scanner every time you return to the ship. Key cards match your face to your card to ensure you’re who you are supposed to be.

Although the seas were pretty calm throughout this voyage of over 2,000 miles, the ship is equipped with fin stabilizers that limit rocking (but not pitching) and the captain charted a smooth course around the islands.  Arrival and departure times were as scheduled.

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There is a free shipboard laundry on the 7th deck that came in handy but be prepared for a crowded mob scene. Unless you are there really early you may not get a machine. Reportedly, on the cruise before Kongo embarked, two women got in a tiff about taking clothes out of a dryer and an iron ended up being thrown. Not good. The offending Iron Lady and her group were escorted off the ship at the next port. Sometimes you have to take a breath.

Cost

Kongo booked his trip over two years ago and got a great deal negotiated by his astute travel agent, Betty. Booking this cruise today is about $10,000 per person but if you are with a group you could probably get a discount. Kongo paid about 40% less than the going rate.

Tips are included in the price as are standard drinks. Kongo did a few up-charge drinks and spa packages for Mrs. Kongo were not in the basic price. Kongo left extra tips for a few of his favorite staff.  You pay extra to eat at the specialty restaurants and Kongo spent another few hundred dollars eating in style.

Internet for the voyage is about $250.

Kongo’s original tour package was nearly $4,000 before he began cancelling tours but still ended up contributing roughly $3,000 to the Azamara learning experience.

Air fare to and from Japan is not included. Kongo flew Delta One round trip from LAX using points. First class fare from the west coast is about $5,000 per person. (Save your points!!!)

Pre-sailing hotel accordions at the Prince Sakura Hotel (Marriott) for two nights was booked using points. Cost per night for Kongo’s upgraded suite on the concierge level would cost you about $265 per night. (Save your points!)

Airport transfers to and from the ship to Haneda airport were about $200.

Summary

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Kongo rates this cruise only 2 out of 5 bananas. The biggest negative by far was the tours. Kongo feels taking a trip like this is to do the country, not the ship, although others may just want to bask in the onboard experience.  The lack of responsiveness to negative tour input was the icing on this fallen cake. Up-charge options were also a put down and things that are free on other cruises cost money here. Another negative was the size of the staterooms, particularly the bath.

In general this did not live up to the luxury, boutique, country-immersive ambience this cruise line boasts.

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Japan is a wonderful place to visit with amazing sites, a new culture, friendly people, and a safe, spotless environment. Kongo wants you to go to Japan and there are many ways to do it. If you’re considering a cruise around the islands be sure to carefully study all your options.

Travel safe. Have fun!

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11 comments

  1. I appreciate your candid review. I’m so glad I got to “travel with you” by blog and see the wonderful places you visited. I doubt we will ever be ready for that sort of cruise/tour experience. We are crowd averse and active. Our trip this fall will include biking from Salzburg to Vienna, then bike/sail the Croatian islands on a small boat with e-bikes. I don’t think the boat carries more than 20 passengers. (For the record, The Putterer will be 71 when we go.)

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    1. Well, yes….that would have been nice but it was a great trip all in all, Sue. Kongo blames himself for not being better prepared for this one. I think he grew too complacent in his old monkey age…

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      1. We-ell, I think the ship need to be clearer about stating what minimum fitness for some of the shore trips needs to be

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