Monday, May 14, 2007

Alaska Cruise Family Adventure

Alaska cruises used to conjure up images of sedate itineraries aboard stuffy ships, favored by seniors and retirees. Today, that is the furthest thing from the truth! Alaska cruises are one of the fastest growing markets for families, my own included, looking to explore and photograph the spectacular scenery, and embark on adventurous activities that go beyond that of a typical tourist. The cruise lines have responded by deploying their newer ships to the area, and with shore excursions that provide active, safe adventure for the whole family.

My Alaska vacation was a 7 night Hubbard Glacier cruise aboard Royal Caribbean’s Radiance of the Sea. Coined by cruising aficionados as a “glass class” ship, she was built with Alaska in mind. With such large expanses of glass, including outside elevators, you are never sequestered from the resplendent beauty of the landscape. Family pleasing amenities include a rock climbing wall, pools and waterslide, mini golf, and the wonderful Adventure Ocean children’s program. Our balcony cabin was a private retreat where we could watch dolphins frolic, seemingly, for us alone.

The long and varied list of shore excursions offered by Royal Caribbean satisfied our requisite for soft adventure. In Juneau, Alaska’s state capital, we took a whale watching tour. The sight of a breaching orca is not one we will forget anytime soon. In the afternoon we signed up for a helicopter tour of the Juneau Ice Fields. Touching down on a glacier was a scary, but exhilarating experience. Then on to Skagway, gateway to the Klondike. In the morning we traveled the White Pass & Yukon Route narrow gauge railroad. The precipitous climb is not for the faint of heart, although the magnificent views are enough of a reward for such a daring feat. That same afternoon we participated in the quintessence of Alaskan adventure…dogsledding! Try doing that in the Caribbean! In our last port of call, Ketchikan, we had plans to take a flight to the Anan Creek Bear Observatory. I was told that the observation platform provides a great photo op of black bears catching salmon. Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate, and the tour was cancelled. Instead, we grabbed umbrellas and walked around the Saxman Native Village for totem pole viewing and took in the local Lumberjack Show. It was a pleasant way to wind down our Alaskan adventure.

Our Alaskan cruise was more than a year ago, but the memories of the experiences we shared together are still fresh in our minds. When my family travels, we want more than to follow the green flag of some tour guide. To quote Royal Caribbean, we want to “get out there.” And we did.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

My Review of the Azamara Journey

Below are pictures and my review of the brand new Azamara Journey. Enjoy!

This past Friday I was one of the privileged travel agents to be allowed the first viewing of the Azamara Journey. In case you haven’t already heard, Celebrity Cruises announced a new deluxe cruise brand entitled “Azamara Cruises”. And, guess what? The Journey is now the first ship from the Azamara fleet. The second ship will be the Azamara Quest, which will enter service this October. If you would like more information on this new ultra luxury brand, please see my previous blog posting.

Now, back to my review of the Journey. As I pulled up to the Cape Liberty (Bayonne), NJ pier, I noticed two ships were docked. Royal Caribbean was also in the process of introducing their newest member of their fleet, the Liberty of the Seas. The Liberty of the Seas is the sister ship to the Freedom of the Seas, which is currently the largest cruise ship in the industry. The Liberty is approximately 160,000 gross tons. Right next to the Liberty was the 30,000-ton Journey. It was quite a funny site comparing the size difference of these two ships. But, really these two ships should never be compared. They are in completely different leagues and are meant to attract a completely opposite type of clientele. If you were looking for the family-fun cruise ship with endless onboard activities, then the Liberty would be your perfect choice. However, if you are looking for a unique, luxury cruise experience, then you may want to consider the Journey. The reason I say “unique” is because of the exotic destinations and onboard service amenities the Journey offers. The size of the Journey allows this ship to travel to new cruise ports such as Asia, Africa, Antarctica, Panama Canal, Mediterranean and even South America. In addition to great destinations, the Journey immediately differentiates itself from the mass-market cruise lines by offering butler service in every stateroom.

After marveling over the size differences of these ships, I focused my attention on the Journey. Celebrity Cruises had the travel agents and press wait outside in a nicely decorated tent before we could board the ship. I quickly noticed the logo was conveniently concealed on this ship. Before this past Friday, I was still under the impression that the Journey would be part of the Celebrity Cruise Fleet. However, I was advised that Celebrity would be making a big announcement onboard the Journey. Once I saw the concealment of the logo, I had a pretty good idea what that surprise might be.

Anyway, back to the exciting stuff. Soon after, we were quickly ushered onboard the ship. I believe the first room we entered was on deck 5 and it was their entertainment lounge. We were quickly greeted with waiters and waitresses serving finger food and champagne. As we settled in, Richard Fain (Chairman and CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruises Limited) and Dan Hanrahan (President of Celebrity Cruises) quickly announced the Celebrity Journey will be the 1st ship of the new Azamara fleet. After the announcement we received a small sample of the onboard entertainment. It was a 5-piece singing and dancing group that was absolutely phenomenal. I’ve come to expect great entertainment from Celebrity Cruises, but this show was different. Since we were in an intimate lounge, the entertainers were right up-close to us. There was no elaborate stage settings or sound equipment. The show was based purely on talent. And, wow was this was quite a talented act. You couldn’t help but be drawn into the show and appreciate how tight they sounded together. I was truly impressed. I am not quite sure if Azamara plans on using this lounge for all of their entertainment, but I thought it was truly a unique and intimate show.

Now to my favorite part; the food of-course. Those of you who don’t know me, I am an average size man who just loves to eat all the time. Probably the number # 1 thing I look forward to on a cruise is the food. My wife and I took the Celebrity Constellation for our honeymoon and every day I woke up excited to see the lunch and dinner menus. I guess I’m just strange that way. The Azamara Journey has three different restaurants onboard. The “Discoveries” is the ship’s main dining room and has open seating. I personally think this is a huge positive for this ship. For a cruise that visits such unique destinations, it would be ashamed if you always found yourself rushing back to the ship to make your dinner arrangements. In addition to “Discoveries”, the two specialty restaurants onboard are “Prime C” and “Aqualina”. Prime C serves steak and seafood dishes. Aqualina serves Mediterranean styled dishes that are inspired and based purely on the ports of call you visit. All three restaurants do not require formal attire.

We were invited to eat lunch in Aqualina. Now before I go any further, you may interpret this next sentence as a biased endorsement for Azamara Cruises, but I am purely just stating my opinion. THIS WAS THE BEST FOOD I HAVE EVER HAD ON A CRUISE SHIP. I think that gets my point across. I can’t express how good my meal was. I started off with a buffalo mozzarella salad that left me wanting seconds. Actually, I’m sure if we had more time they would have gladly offered me another serving. Next came a tuna wonton that I quickly devoured. As for the main course, I had a filet mignon served with popcorn shrimp and macaroni & cheese. While the macaroni & cheese may not sound very upscale, it really nicely complimented the whole meal. My only complaint with the main course was there was not enough of it. The steak was excellent, but a little too small for my liking. That may have actually been a good thing because desert was still coming. We were given a choice of Chocolate assortments or Chocolate Fondue. While I am not a big sweet person, I must say I did a nice job cleaning up my Chocolate Fondue. The desert was incredible and too good to resist. To top the whole meal off, the service was outstanding. Every meal was served precisely at the same time as all of my other dining companions. I really felt spoiled and a little undeserving of all this great treatment.

After lunch we had about 15 minutes to see the entire ship. Unfortunately because of various coast guard restrictions and the fact that the ship was still not finished, we were not able see the entire ship. Every corridor we turned, crews were feverishly running around to get the ship prepared for it’s first sailing to Bermuda. I quickly peeked my head into as many public rooms and staterooms as possible. Prime C featured dark rich woods with a beautiful glass enclosed wine cellar. The Discoveries restaurant had a nice bar / lounge waiting area before you prepare to dine. It was a nice touch that I have never seen done before on any cruise ship. The Windows Café (where Sushi is served during the evening) featured marble covered counters all around. I will admit that I am not a gambling man, but the Casino was a tad small. However, keep in mind this ship only occupies 700 passengers compared to the typical 2,000 passenger cruise ship.

I only had the opportunity to see two types of staterooms, which were a standard balcony and the Penthouse Suite. The balcony stateroom (1A or 2A) was quite spacious and nicely decorated. Everything looked and smelled so clean. I loved the flat screen televisions. The standard balcony staterooms are 215 square feet with a 38 square foot balcony. As for the other stateroom, my jaw dropped when I entered the Penthouse Suite.
This room featured a separate living room area with its own master bedroom and walk-in closets. The master bath featured a whirlpool tub and every counter was in a beautiful marble finish. I personally don’t like seeing these cabins on tours because it is one BIG tease. I am always jealous of the person staying in these cabins and wished it were me.

So how would I conclude my review of the Azamara Journey? Would I suggest the Azamara Journey to my clients, friends or family? The answer depends on what they are looking for in a cruise experience. I must stress this is really not a family-oriented cruise ship. This is a LUXURY ship that focuses on excellent food, impeccable service and unique cruise destinations. If you are the type of person that wants to be on the ship with the rock-climbing wall and ice-skating rink, then this ship is not for you. I will never knock those mega ships because they are quite possibly my favorite, but the Journey is just simply a different type of cruise experience all together. If you want to be completely pampered and take the road far less traveled, then I recommend the Azamara Journey.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Celebrity Cruises Introduces Azamara Cruises

Well, this past Friday (05/04/07) was quite a surprising and exciting day for me. Celebrity Cruises was scheduled to introduce their brand new ship, the Journey to a select group of travel agents. Luckily, I was one of those select few. Over the last week, there was quite a buzz that Celebrity Cruises would be announcing something BIG on this special day. So, in addition to eagerly anticipating the unveiling of the Journey, I could not wait to hear this BIG announcement.

Soon after we were ushered onto this brand new ship, President of Celebrity Cruises (Dan Hanrahan) had announced the launch of a new cruise brand called “Azamara Cruises”. The Journey is now the official first ship of this new deluxe cruise brand. The Azamara Quest will be the second ship in this fleet when she is introduced in October 2007.

Don’t miss my next blog posting in which I will provide an in-depth review of the Azamara Journey. And, who knows maybe I will share some photos of my experience as a walked around this brand new ship.
Below is a press release issued directly from Celebrity Cruises regarding the announcement of Azamara Cruises:

The launch of a new ship is a momentous occasion for any cruise line, but Celebrity Cruises has made the introduction of their latest liner especially significant. Today, Celebrity not only marked the launch of a 710-guest ship which sets sail tomorrow, but also introduced an entirely new, deluxe cruise brand: "Azamara Cruises."Designed to offer exotic destination-driven travel experiences, Azamara Cruises - consisting of Azamara Journey, which sets sail May 5, and sister ship, Azamara Quest, which enters service in October-will present a more intimate onboard experience, while allowing access to the less-traveled ports of call experienced travelers want to visit.

"We created Azamara Cruises to target an area of the market that we believe is underserved, and an area this product is ideally suited to fill," said Richard Fain, Chairman and CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruises Limited, parent company of Azamara Cruises. "This new line falls into what we consider the deluxe category - a category between premium and luxury."

According to Azamara Cruises President Dan Hanrahan, who also is president of Celebrity Cruises, "Azamara Cruises is expressly designed for travel enthusiasts who appreciate what a cruise vacation has to offer, but are looking for something a little different, and a little more special. And what's special about Azamara Cruises is its distinctive combination of impeccable service, exceptional cuisine and off-the-beaten-path destinations, with truly immersive excursions."

Complementing the exotic Caribbean and Europe itineraries for Azamara Journey and Azamara Quest, previously announced under the former "Celebrity Expeditions" banner, Hanrahan today announced that Azamara Cruises' itineraries will not only take travelers to some of the most desirable locations in the Caribbean, but will immerse them in Asia, and even transport them around the world. Itinerary details for Azamara Cruises' Asia and world cruises are yet to be announced, but once finalized, the line expects to visit more than 200 ports - most of them new to cruise travelers-in over 70 countries.

While delving deep into the history and culture of remote destinations larger ships can't reach, guests sailing with Azamara Cruises also will enjoy a more exclusive guest experience. Azamara Journey and Azamara Quest offer butler service in every stateroom and suite, as well as concierge-style amenities, including fresh-cut flowers, fresh fruit, Elemis toiletries, complimentary use of Frette cotton robes, two complimentary pairs of slippers, plasma TVs and plush European bedding.

Despite the ships' smaller size, each offers two specialty restaurants: On Azamara Journey, the Mediterranean-influenced "Aqualina" and the stylish steak and seafood restaurant, "Prime C." Guests staying in suites will receive two nights of complimentary dining in one of the two specialty restaurants, while guests in staterooms will receive one. The ships will not require formal attire for dining, and will feature open seating in the main dining room.

Azamara Cruises also presents a wine bar with a spectacular wine cellar offering wine and champagne tastings, seminars, and mini-pairings of food and wine, in addition to its standard menu of fine wines by the glass or bottle.

Azamara Journey and Azamara Quest offer an enhanced emphasis on spa and relaxation, with treatments many cruise travelers have never experienced. Guests in suites can enjoy certain spa services in the privacy of their room. Both ships also will offer an outdoor spa relaxation lounge and an aesthetics suite offering acupuncture, laser hair removal and microdermabrasion.

An onboard "excursion expert" will not only help guests select shore excursions based on their personal interests, but also will serve as a destination guide, offering information about the culture and history of each port of call.The Azamara retail experience onboard also will be enticing to most experienced travelers, with its focus on fine art, sculpture, photography, jewelry, and upscale resort wear. Just prior to setting sail on its maiden voyage May 5, Azamara Journey completed a four-week, approximately $19-million makeover, highlighted by the conversion of 48 staterooms into 32 suites, a complete refurbishment of the dining areas to create the two new specialty restaurants, an expansion of the spa area to include an aesthetics suite, a new Sunset Bar on the aft deck, a new art collection, Cova Café, entirely new carpets and flooring throughout, new exterior decking, new paint schemes, new walls, and entirely new "soft goods," ranging from plush European bedding to cushions, drapes and table linens.

The name "Azamara" is a coined term, rooted in Romance language references to blue ("aza"), the sea ("mar"), and a lesser-known word, "acamar," which, in Classical times, was the southernmost bright star that could be seen from the latitude of Greece. Hanrahan said the company views the new brand as "a bright star on the deep blue sea." Azamara Cruises unlocks the hidden corners of the world for those who desire to immerse themselves in the rich details of every voyage. The deluxe ships - Azamara Journey and Azamara Quest - offer an intimate experience, while allowing access to exotic destinations experienced travelers long to reach. For the 710 guests on each Azamara Cruises ship, every moment at sea embodies the pinnacle of luxury, and each footstep on shore accentuates the difference between visiting a place and getting a true sense of place. Azamara Cruises presents the best of Bermuda and Panama Canal/South America in 2007, elite Asia and the most captivating Caribbean, South America and Europe in 2008, and around-the-world voyages in 2010.