Trip Review: South American Sailing On The Azamara Cruise Line
A few months ago, I had the opportunity of going on an Azamara Club Cruise in South America. If you are unfamiliar with this cruise line, Azamara is part of the Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. Company which also includes Celebrity Cruises. Azamara sails the world with its 2 ships: The Azamara Journey and The Azamara Quest, both of which are identical.
The Azamara Journey ship was my home for 11 days. The ship was refurbished in 2012, holds 686 guests and 408 officers, crew & staff. In comparison to mass market cruise lines, Azamara Journey is a floating town versus the likes of Royal Caribbean’s mega city ships. If you are wondering, the biggest cruise ship in the world is Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Sea which holds between 5,000-6,000 passengers alone. From my experience cruising & preferences, the size of the ship does matter and smaller is better. Why? Azamara is able to sail to smaller ports of call that bigger ships can’t get to.
Azamara’s clientele is mostly baby boomers and the +60 crowd. It is rare to see guests under the age of 40, unless they are traveling with their families. By far, I was one of the youngest guests on the ship except for the crew.
Azamara is an “upscale” cruise line that offers amenities that mass market cruise ships do not, such as: all beverages and select spirits, beers and wines; gratuities; self service laundry; and shuttle service. This cruise line is perfect for those who have the means to spend more than $5,000 per person on a cruise and have the time to go on 10 day to 2 week cruises (hint… retired travelers). I met one couple who went on back to back cruises on the previous sailing to Antarctica and the Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil sailing I was on. Most of the guests were from the United States as well as Europe and South America. In terms of service, Azamara prides itself on its friendly and professional crew, many of which come from Southeast Asia. It was a pleasure getting to know the friendly faces that you see multiple times a day.
Another perk of going on an Azamara cruise is the food. Despite the ships small size, the Journey boasts 2 specialty restaurants - Aqualina (Italian) and Prime C (steakhouse), as well as a main dining hall, pool grill, and two cafes. Having tried specialty restaurants and a Chef's table dinner one evening, the food speaks for itself. The cruise line is vegetarian friendly with daily options available at its buffets and restaurants.
Despite the many advantages of taking an Azamara cruise, there are some drawbacks. The number 1 complaint was internet connectivity. The wifi/internet was weak and overpriced. It will be the day when free wifi is readily available onboard cruise ships. Moreover, the pool area and main social space lacks decor and personality. The pool and hot tubs were anything special either. Note to Azamara Corporate - why not make it trendier and jazz it up a bit? To top it off, the onboard entertainment wasn't anything to rave about. There were no flashy Broadway or Las Vegas inspired shows, instead lounge-y performers and a singer who could pass for Wayne Brady's doppelganger headlined the cruise. I am being really picky about the negatives here.
The cruise started in Buenos Aires, Argentina where we docked for 3 days and 2 nights. One of the biggest perks of Azamara cruises is OVERNIGHT ports which makes a world of a difference. The haste to rush back to the port before the ship departs for the next port is not a predicament. You can do an excursion during the day, then go back to your cabin to change and freshen up to hit the town for the evening – essential for truly understanding the flow of Buenos Aires as a city and its local Porteños. Buenos Aires is a city that needs to be experienced for at least a couple of nights and Azamara gets that. Thank you Azamara!
It’s good to know that Azamara offers one complimentary “AzAmazing Evening” per sailing. This special shore excursion is put together for guests docked in port for overnight stays or late evening departures. The majority of guests take advantage of this experience as transportation to/from the event is arranged. The “AzAmazing Evening” on my sailing was a night out to experience a Tango show with behind the scenes access for only Azamara guests. The majority of guests participated and attended the event. Unfortunately, I was too busy exploring Buenos Aires on my own to get back to the ship in time to see it, but was told it was “amazing”. Azamara offers daily land excursions (“Land Discoveries”) at each port for guests to experience - a hit with the older crowd. I did not have the opportunity to go on one of these excursions, but they did seem very interesting and somewhat different that the typical, touristy tours.
Buenos Aires is a great city for people-watching. Here are some of the lasting impressions and observations I have made… Buenos Aires has the same European sophistication and Haussmann type architecture as Paris. If you love Paris, you’ll love Buenos Aires. Flatform sandals are all the rage. Everyone and their mother were sporting these types of shoes. It’s funny that the trend has finally come to the United States for spring/summer. The Black market of exchanging foreign currency and counterfeit money is REALLY widespread here. Dealers try to get business by saying "cambio, cambio" in the busy streets. Prepare to be harassed. Mate is a really popular drink. You will see people walking around with their gourd. The funny thing is the readily prepared drink is not available for purchase in café or restaurants (for the most part). The Buenos Aires Subte (subway system) is efficient and cheap. Trains run every 5-10 minutes from 5 am to 10 pm only (except on Sundays). This is a city that I could live in. Be sure to admire all of Buenos Aires plentiful street art. It’s everywhere, super creative and adds to the artsy vibe of the city. Indulge in Malbec and asado, and lots of it. Lastly, If you have the time, spend a half day in Tigre exploring the delta. All the locals rave about it. Many Portenos come here on the weekends to go shopping or take boats to explore the area.
After Buenos Aires, we hit Punta del Este, a burgeoning cruise port. Unfortunately, we only docked here for one day. However once again, Azamara does a great job of stretching out the time at port and last call to get back to the ship was around 9:00 pm. Punta del Este is South America’s St. Tropez. It oozes summertime vibes, money and trendiness. It’s where rich Argentines and Brazilians spend their dough on real estate. Keep in mind EVERYTHING is expensive. The rule of thumb is don’t come to Uruguay for the beaches… you might as well go to the Jersey shore. You won’t find Caribbean blue waters here.
Taking a taxi or driving (recommended to get rental car) 40 minutes east to Jose Ignacio is a must. Jose Ignacio is where all the jetsetters come to vacation. It is more relaxing and more family friendly oriented here. Not to mention, the very chic Vik retreats are here. If you only do one thing in Jose Ignacio, going to La Huella is an absolute must. The food is fresh, healthy and the bustling scene makes you want to stay all afternoon. The servers are super trendy (some speak English). There even have a sushi chef and you may be able to the owner of the restaurant shaking hands with his customers. It is a friendly atmosphere and so very TRENDY. The people are bronzed and beautiful here. People take tanning seriously in Uruguay. It’s a way of life people!
And if you are planning on hitting the town at night, go to La Barra in Punta Del Este for the best action and parties. Most parties start around 2:00-3:00 am. If you are more of an art and culture snob, Punta del Este has that too! To sum up, Punta del Este is a great vacation destination, yet not a winning cruise port. Why? This place needs to be experienced for a week or more. It’s the way of life here that will keep you young and fresh. I would go back and do an independent trip here, maybe even visit the rest of the country.
Next port of call was Montevideo on a Saturday... the ideal day for walking around especially in Ciudad Vieja (Old Town) and the business district. The city is very pedestrian friend and walk-able. If you get lost, no big deal the city is only so big. Montevideo is predictably a very clean and well-kept city. Similar to Buenos Aires, it has a European flair and sophistication. Generally speaking, Uruguay can be compared to the likes of Switzerland, Singapore and maybe even a bit of The Netherlands. The capital of Uruguay is a mix of old and contemporary in terms of architecture, its buildings are clad with cool, unique graffiti. The weather is seemingly perfect all year round. It’s a pleasant, peaceful and chill town. You can tell why people from other South American countries would want to live here i.e. extremely safe.
Be sure to check out the weekend markets for some great antique/vintage finds. If you get hungry, indulge in some local street food namely chivito – a traditional Uruguayan sandwich with sliced steak, ham, cheese, eggs and mayonnaise. If you are lucky enough, you might come across a café that serves the infamous South American drink – mate. You can’t go to South America and not try this drink! Having tried the weaker version of mate tea, there is no doubt that you get a kick of energy from drinking it. Plus there are health benefits. Mate is bitter and tastes like fresh cut grass. Next time I am in Uruguay, I am going to be hardcore and try the strong version!
The fourth stop on the cruise was Ilhabela, Brazil or "Beautiful Island" for the day. The name speaks for itself. To get to the island, you need to take a tender boat to Ilhabela port which leads into its downtown area - full of shops, restaurants, local artisans, etc. There is a beautiful bright white and blue church, Igreja Nossa Senhora D´Ajuda e Bom Sucesso, that's worth checking out. Before heading out to experience the rest of the island, stop at once of the local fish shacks and indulge in mouthwatering fresh fish and ice cold Brazilian beer.
Even though Ilhabela is a tropical Eden, it is a magnet for small black mosquitoes and you will get bit. My advice is to drench your body with bug spray. I got bit at least 100 times (mostly on my legs). Despite this one annoying inconvenience, this island reminded me of the lush tropical island of St. Lucia with a picturesque mountainside in the background.
Ilhabela is truly a trekker's paradise. Fun fact: Almost 85% of the island's 350,000 square miles is designated as Ilhabela State Park and no further development is allowed. If you include this island in your next trip to Brazil, you must explore the jungles and waterfalls. See what the country really has to offer, enjoy the beautiful picturesque natural scenery and repeat the next day…
The beaches right by the port and main part of the city are not recommended to visit. The beaches that are out of the way are worth checking out over 40 of them. The one beach that I visited had full service, bathrooms and tons of yellow umbrellas and chairs. The water is warm. The sand glistens gold underneath the water. The bus system is pretty decent here having used it across the island to get to the nicer beaches. If you manage to figure out and take the bus, you will get to see lots of windy roads, jungles and cliffs.
Following Ilhabela, the ship made its way to Paraty for the day. Hands down, Paraty was my favorite port of call. The boardwalk's planks by the Port are wide and spacious. Be careful with flip flops! It has a charming historic village with cobblestone streets which are perfect for exploring by foot. It is best to hire an expert local guide to discover the historical significance of the town famous for exporting a lot of gold in the 18th century. After exploring the town, a boat day is an absolute must. Your boat captain may or may not be English speaking. Mine was not. Despite the cloudy weather and rain, snorkeling and swimming in the emerald green water was an amazing experience. If you go to the right beach at the right time, you’ll have it all to yourself. Don’t forget to buy cachaça (sugarcane juice)
This place is more off the beaten path... a hidden gem. Paraty is the lush, tropical place (with colorful toucans flying from tree to tree) that you envision when Brazil and nature come to mind. You'll definitely want to spend more than a day here or want to move here when it’s all said and done. It is the type of place that oozes relaxation.
Bear in mind, if you are not coming to Paraty via cruise, sailboat, yacht, etc., you can take a bus from Rio (4 hour drive) or take a small commercial plane; it’s totally worth it.
One of the biggest disappointments (if not the biggest) of the cruise was not being able to dock in Buzios due to unsafe conditions. Let’s just say the wind’s direction was not in our favor that day. The captain decided not to risk it. The tender from the ship to the pier would’ve been rocky and wet – not ideal for elderly passengers. Combine that with cloudy, overcast weather and you can see why the Azamara management called it a day. It is reassuring to know that Azamara really prioritizes the safety and comfort of all passengers.
On the previous sailing to Antarctica, I learned that the ship was not able to go to 2 ports due to weather. Missing a port happens...but talk about a letdown especially on a once of a lifetime bucket list trip. I would be crushed! I’m sure seeing penguins and other majestic wildlife (albeit from afar as you don’t actually dock in Antarctica) partly made up for the inconvenience.
Instead of losing a day at sea, we were able to cruise to Rio de Janeiro 1 day earlier and the crew turned the day around with a revamped schedule of activities for the passengers. Kudos to them for that.
Buzios, I will be back! In fact, out of the 3 countries I visited, Brazil is my favorite. I only scratched the surface of Brazil and want to go much deeper next time. Now that I have a valid tourist visa for the next 9 years, I can return anytime I want.
Last but certainly not least was the final port of call, Rio de Janeiro, where we spent 2 nights and 3 days. I will never forget coming into Guanabara Bay and the harbor; it was magical and everything that I imagined and more! The panoramic views of the city's encompassing mountains and landscape are breathtaking. There is no better way to arrive in Rio than by cruise ship.
In terms of the city's personality, Rio is the perfect South American city for maxing and relaxing. The capital of Brazil’s population is predominantly made up of young adults (or so it seemed having visited 1 week before Carnival), many of which hang out at Arpoador.
There is bona fide beach culture in Rio. If you are out and about at Copacabana or Ipanema Beach, you will see tons of beautiful men AND women in skimpy Speedos and g-string bikinis.
When in Rio, do as the Cariocas do…drink endless Caipirinhas… pig out at a churrascaria!
The amazing views from Christ the Redeemer and Sugar Loaf are breathtaking and unforgettable. A perfect evening is watching the sunset from Sugar Loaf, taking in the beauty of this marvelous city.
Overall, the cruise was very enjoyable and memorable trip of a lifetime. It really opened my eyes to the value of cruising, especially if you want to visit a lot of destinations and don’t want to be bothered with transportation logistics. A home run with the older crowd. Azamara is not your typical cruise line – remember overnight ports & access to harder to reach, smaller port of calls. I would almost equate it to river cruising because of the intimate experience you get on small-scale ships. The Azamara Journey is currently sailing in the Mediterranean until November 2015. The awesome thing is that each sailing is different from the previous one, meaning Azamara doesn’t do the same exact trip every week like most cruise lines. Azamara sails all over the world throughout the year hitting the best destinations at the right time. After the Mediterranean, the ship is going to the Caribbean/West Indies to Central America than back to Europe featuring a 15 day transatlantic cruise from Miami to Nice. If you aren’t planning a vacation in these regions of the world, fear not the sister ship, Azamara Quest, has some amazing itineraries of its own. Why not go on a Azamara Quest cruise exploring Scandinavia and Baltic Russia or perhaps a 2 week trip from Athens, Greece to Dubai hitting Rhodes, Kas, Turkey, Limassol, Cyprus, Suez Canal, Muscat, Oman in between. If you are thinking about going to Asia or Australia next fall or winter, The Azamara Quest is going to be sailing there! In terms of destinations, Azamara is really on top of their game and can be compared to the likes of other small ship cruise lines such as Regent or Oceania.
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