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Azamara gets it right

November 30, 2012
Azamara Quest gets a warm welcome in Vietnam

Azamara Quest gets a warm welcome in Vietnam

Until recently most cruise ships departed ports at 6pm, limiting daytime activities shoreside and eliminating any chance of an evening in an interesting city. Then along came Azamara Club Cruises, which rewrote the rule book, starting with the deck bar. No longer does it close at what is often the best part of the day, but allows for sundowners until, well, the sun goes down.

Time for lunch at the Oriental, Bangkok, via the hotel river shuttle

Time for lunch at the Oriental, Bangkok, via the hotel river shuttle

Azamara then introduced overnights in port, three of them on my cruise from Singapore to Hong Kong. What is more, the modest size of the ship, Azamara Quest, at 30,000 tons, enabled it to make a scenic voyage upriver and dock in the center of Bangkok. With two nights at my disposable I could buy hand-made shirts (two pockets for traveling, one for the passport and ticket, the other for sunglasses) at Jesse & Victor near the Landmark Hotel, and dine at the world’s best hotel, the Oriental.

Similarly at Ho Chi Minh City, Captain Carl Smith stick-handled the Quest up the Saigon River like a sports car — hard to port, then 200 meters later, hard to starboard, for more than 70 kms. Then we tied up just a stroll from the Rex Hotel, famous from the Vietnam war for its 5 o’clock follies, as the US military’s news briefings were known.
It was 18 years since my first visit, when there were few cars and the way to get around was on a cyclo-rickshaw. Today the city is a bedlam of motorbikes and cars, but I did find a cyclo and enjoyed a memorable, peaceful experience through backstreets to the central market, where a few dollars buys enough cottons for a weekend vendor to broker into a tidy sum at a music gig back home.
American passengers roamed the streets looking for the rooftop from which the last refugees were lifted off by helicopter as Saigon fell. I went to the War Museum which has a guillotine left behind by the French.
More than a few passengers had local food at riverside restaurants festooned with fairy lights, some went to the beautifully restored Rex, while one couple checked into the Sofitel for the night.
Then Halong Bay, from where passengers went by bus to Hanoi. It was a four-hour drive, but made more than bearable by a banquet and overnight at a posh hotel with Rolls-Royces in the driveway. For this the ricebowl soldiers took on the Pentagon.
Not that one as to go far to enjoy Halong Bay. The arrival afforded epic, close-up views of the rock formations that have made this waterway deservedly famous, and for those who wanted to see more there were excursions by local junks. I was impressed with Azamara’s range of excellent, reasonably priced tours.
Azamara has an interesting niche in that it has ships you can consider small (680 passengers) in an era of mega ships, but while little has come to mean costing a lot, cruising on Azamara’s two vessels is relatively affordable.
Cabins are comfortable, many have balconies, and there are some attractive public rooms such as a spacious library. The Mosaic coffee bar is a sociable spot,and what’s more the coffee,and cookies, are free. Even better, there is no charge for wine at lunch and dinner.
A flourish of the wallet is required, however, for two of the four restaurants on board, but $25 per person is not bad. As someone said, if they were free you’d ever be able to get in.
Afterwards, entertainment breaks out all over the ship, from song and dance acts in the theatre to a London guitar man called Trevor, whose polished Mustang Sally in the snazzy Observation lounge leaves the thought that compared to home these days, a cruise ship is just about the only place you can find live music, and dance, without venturing into a combat zone.

Finally, a dawn entry into Hong Kong’s fabulous harbor, always a thrill no matter how many times I do it. And taking a leaf out of Azamara’s book, we would not be rushing away, not as Asia’s most exciting city was in the throes of giving a rousing welcome to the Chinese New Year.

Kung hei fat choy!

– Beginning with the Europe season this year, Azamara will be offering passengers a complimentary AzAmazing Evenings event to remember on every voyage—a chance to see the advantages of longer and later stays in port, such as a night at the ballet at the Mikhailovsky Theatre in St. Petersburg or a polo match and reception in Saint Tropez.

Also, Azamara joins the elite group of vessels on which passengers don’t have to pay for alcoholic drinks, wines and tips. Bottled water, soft drinks, specialty coffees and teas are also free.

Other features are English-trained butlers for suites, a self-service laundry, concierges and shuttle service to and from ports, where available

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