AZAMARA JOURNEY – WESTERN MEDITERRANEAN CRUISE – 2014

Day 1: We flew to Toronto on a tiny plane where we were 2 of only six passengers but I must say it was one of the smoothest flights and best landings ever. Our flight to Barcelona was delayed due to weather. We flew Air Canada Rouge which, at best can be described as a budget carrier. We took this flight because of the times, but would not recommend it if there are other options.

Day 2: Arrival in Barcelona did not begin well. Our private transfer service failed to be there when we landed (so they are not on our list of recommended services). We ended up taking a cab which was less expensive and quite convenient, safe, and comfortable. On the upside, upon arrival at Hotel Colon, we were given a complimentary upgrade to a room with a balcony overlooking the square and the Cathedral. In the square, there was a food festival going on with all kinds of foods and drinks from basic to gourmet, along with wine appreciation and cooking technique classes. (I not only tell of all the great experiences one has when traveling, but I also add in the “oops” moments since we hope to make the mistakes first, for you, so you will have the solutions before you go!)

IMG_20141017_092349698_HDR     IMG_20141017_123256168_HDR

Having only limited time in Barcelona, we took the “hop on, hop off” bus. There are 3 different routes included in the fare. Our goal was to visit the Gaudi sites of “Sagrada Familia” Cathedral and Park Guell. Well, by that time of day, the lines were long and the wait time too long that we would have missed the last bus to our hotel, so we only saw what we could from outside, which is still pretty impressive. Our flight times and embarkation time for the ship were such that they would not coordinate with a tour, which we highly recommend for anyone planning to visit the city. I guess we will just have to go back to Barcelona! After a day with some small glitches, we were pleasantly surprised to find that the Cathedral at our doorstep was nothing short of spectacular, with grand statues, carvings and paintings around every corner. There is a beautiful cloister courtyard with trees, flowers and a pond with swans. After that, we had dinner at the food festival and returned to our hotel room for some much needed sleep. (I recommend 2 nights in a hotel in Barcelona giving you a full day to tour if your schedule allows it.)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

DAY 3: We had our breakfast at the hotel, which was included, and toured the old quarter which was all around the hotel, and did some souvenir shopping. The architecture is very stately and ornate along the narrow streets filled with eateries, shops and beautiful courtyards. We walked along part of La Rambla, the “main drag” of the city, which is a great place for people-watching. The shops in the old quarter are more reasonable and have better quality merchandise. We peeked into the market and passed the flower stalls. Then back to the hotel to collect our luggage and take a taxi to the ship. As we neared the harbor, we were very impressed by the area. Big beautiful buildings, palm trees, everything clean and bright. The centerpiece is the statue of Christopher Columbus on a tall column, pointing towards the Americas. The harbor area is the nicest we have been to by far, vibrant and full of people. We checked in and got on-board and then went ashore to explore. We saw an aerial cable car, a flea market, modern structures, yachts and sculptures before re-boarding the ship. After the muster drill, we had dinner in the cafe at an outdoor table with a view of the beautiful sunset as we set sail for our first port. We enjoyed the meal and the complimentary drinks while listening to a guitar player, all by “candle light”. We then toured the spa and strolled the upper deck before heading off to sleep.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

DAY 4: Mahon (Mao), Menorca, Spain is believed to be the place where Mayonnaise was created. If you want excitement, you will not find it here, however if you enjoy wandering quaint cobblestone streets among centuries old buildings, high above a sparkling natural harbor, off the beaten track and unspoiled by heavy tourist traffic, you will enjoy Mahon, as we did. First we made our way up the grand staircases from the harbor, lined with white fences and manicured landscaping (or you can take the winding road up the hill for an easier ascent) to the city behind the ancient walls. Behind those walls are old churches, discreet courtyards and ornate Spanish architecture. We walked between the buildings, under covered bridges joining those buildings, through archways, to the ends of streets to get some amazing views of the harbor. Then we returned to the shore and strolled along the harbor past shops, cafes, fishing boats and yachts before returning to the ship. The buildings along the water seem to be just in the early stages of renovation, but it was still a nice walk and rather refreshing not to be bombarded with cheap souvenirs and the vendors who aggressively hawk them. Don’t expect bargains here, as they cater more to the yachtsmen then to tourists. The souvenir of choice here is the locally made style of sandals. Finally, we stayed out on deck to enjoy the sights as we sailed out of the harbor. We found the best views on the starboard side where we saw the remnants of the ancient fortifications and a lighthouse. Then we enjoyed our complimentary cocktails and a great meal at an outdoor table in the cafe watching another beautiful sunset at sea.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

DAY 5: As we approached Palma de Mallorca (Majorca), Spain, we could see tall buildings and tall-masted sailing boats all along the palm tree-lined harbor-front. The sky was blue and almost cloudless which was great since the port area and the old town are so picturesque. We took the complimentary shuttle bus to the edge of the old town, just below the huge Cathedral. We walked past the pool with its fountain, through wonderful manicured grounds, along the ramparts and finally entered the Cathedral. Six Euros gets you into the Cathedral, Cloister and Museum.) We spent so much time in the Cathedral, that we opted to head into town rather than visit the other buildings.The Cathedral boasts the largest rose window in the world and a Gaudi-designed altar. It is a beautiful Gothic church. After that we strolled the narrow streets lined with shops inside the walls and then made our way along the street just outside the wall which had shops and cafes. This is a good place to buy the famous Mallorca Pearls. (I did!)  They are the highest quality cultured pearls formed by a secret, centuries-old process.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Afterwards we returned to the ship to get dressed up for our complimentary Azamara Evening event at Belliver Castle, high above the city and the waterfront. We were greeted by police on horseback and treated to an exclusive reception of wine, cava, beer, tapas, sweets and music while we moved around the outer ring of the circular castle.Next we were brought into the courtyard for their high energy entertainment. The Captain addressed us on behalf of Azamara and the Mayor of Palma gave us a warm welcome speech (short). Next the music and dancing began and was an incredible performance. The entire event lasted a bit over 2 hours. We returned to our ship to find a snack waiting for us in the cafe of sandwiches, pastries and gelato. We strolled the upper deck as we left port before heading off to bed. On returning to our cabin, we were surprised to find a gift of a traditional statue from the people of Palma!

DAY 6: A day at sea and a chance to see the benefits of cruising over a land vacation in action. A strong storm system showed us just how good our captain was. He altered our itinerary and changed course to avoid the storm, making the ride as comfortable as possible. We just relaxed all day and explored the ship, then went to bed early, lulled to sleep by the rocking. The captain had been giving us reports in the days leading up to today, and gave us great details as to what he was doing, why, how long it would last, and what areas of the ship to visit to feel the least amount of motion. I give Captain Johannson two thumbs up and that is only because I don’t have more thumbs to offer!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

DAY 7: Monte Carlo, Monaco. As we sailed into port, the first thing we saw were the high rocky cliffs and the enormous yachts in the harbor. We took the hop on, hop off bus which gave us a great tour of the area. We got off first at the palace. We walked around the square in front of the palace and just inside the old walls, getting some panoramic views of the sea. We continued down to the Cathedral where Prince Ranier and Princess Grace were married and are now interred before walking further to the Oceanographic Museum. All along the way, there are parks with shaded winding pathways overlooking the water. We got back on the bus and rode to the Casino Square. The famous Monte Carlo Casino is an impressive, old world building with a huge presence. The lobby is dark and grand with carved paneling and chandeliers. Parked outside were Lamborghinis, Rolls Royces and other high end cars of the high rollers inside. The neighboring Hotel de Paris and Cafe de Paris are obviously for those same rich and famous gamblers. Overall, Monaco is every bit the fairy-tale principality we expected it to be, and with a better view!

IMG_20141022_190826809

Back on board,, we were treated to a Mediterranean buffet on the pool deck, followed by crepe suzettes made while you watched and served by the hotel manager and finally a “white night” party, where everyone was encouraged to wear white. We ate, danced and relaxed under the stars in that beautiful setting of Monaco at night. The ship doesn’t leave for its next port until 6:30am.

DAY 8: Nice, France. After Monte Carlo, Nice was a bit of a let-down, but that is probably because the real hot spots of the French Riviera are a bit further west, in St. Tropez and Cannes, but here we did get a taste of both the Riviera and Provence so we opted not to venture further and to explore the city. The information center suggested that we take an elevator to the site where the old castle is currently being excavated, at the top of an imposing rock formation. While the site is still too early in this stage, the views of the harbor from the many observation points were well worth the trip up.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After that we had lunch on the ship and returned to explore the old city. We strolled the seaside, palm-lined Promenade des Anglais, past the rocky but popular beaches and the beautiful azure water and then headed for the narrow pedestrian streets filled with shops, from the tacky to the exclusive, and the many cafes and sweet shops. Our purchases include regional items, herbes de Provence, gourmet mustard and soaps. Finally we were back on board and enjoyed a French-themed dinner in the cafe before a stroll on the deck as we set sail, and a musical show in the intimate theater.

DAY 9: Ajaccio, Corsica. We walked along the beach promenade, past the citadel, which is still used by the military and then visited several sites related to Napoleon. We saw the house in which he was born, the church in which he was baptized (in which his baptismal font still remains), a building in which he had offices and many statues. Afterwards, we wandered the streets of the old city, among the shops, cafes, the outdoor market, taking in the atmosphere of the narrow, winding, cobblestone streets and the old world architecture. After many photo stops, we returned to the ship for a Greek-themed dinner in the cafe, enjoying yet another beautiful sunset and sail-away.

DAY 10: We arrived early at our last port of call, Livorno, Italy, the port for Tuscany. We booked the shore excursion for Pisa and Florence. We did not choose the fully guided tour, but the one that allowed us to explore these two cultural centers independently. Our first stop was Pisa. We walked past the marketplace of souvenir vendors, with t-shirts, mugs, umbrellas, jewelry and other typical trinkets, then through the gate in the stone wall to an incredible view of the three dominant white marble structures shining in the sun under a beautiful blue sky. This view exceeded our expectations. Yes, we took the tacky photos, posing as if we were holding up the leaning tower, because, well, it is tradition! The carving on the buildings, which are quite tall and imposing, is exquisite. And it is remarkable how much the tower actually leans, which makes us wonder, just how long it will defy gravity. The Cathedral and the Baptistry hold their own even in the shadow of the tower and along with the museum, this site is something special to see.

Next stop was the beautiful historic district of Florence. The view along the Arno River was lovely. It is dominated by two spectacular cathedrals. But our first order of business was lunch. Due to the crowds, that took longer than we wanted, but we ate a traditional Italian pizza and salad at a little cafe down one of the narrow streets running off of the main square. Then we headed to Pontevecchio, the only bridge that survived World War II and which is lined with so many jewelry stores, selling all kinds of gold and silver at higher prices than their counterparts which are not located on the bridge. Next we visited the Duomo, the huge white marble Church with two red domes. I must say, the outside was much more impressive than the inside, but still worth the visit. We lingered a bit in the square where the major museums are located and viewed the statuary, which are replicas of the originals, now housed inside the museums for safe keeping, not the least of which is Michelangelo’s David. Finally, we wandered the winding avenues on the way back to the main square in front of the Cathedral. The lines were long and we were short on time so we explored the architecture from the outside and checked out the shops. Florence is famous for its high quality leather goods, which are embossed with 18 karat gold fleur de lis designs and can be custom monogrammed while you wait. But be wary of anyone selling discounted leather goods, as they are most likely imitation imported from other countries. Finally, back on the bus, we relaxed as we drove through the scenic Tuscan countryside, with the mountains of marble as a backdrop. Tired from a long day of touring, we grabbed a quick dinner in the cafe and headed to our cabin where we quickly fell asleep.

DAY 11: We decided not to spend our last day on a lengthy tour, but instead to explore Livorno. Maybe because it was Sunday, but the port city seems to offer nothing to a visitor. We walked the main street and there were a few higher end stores mixed in with what I describe as junk stores, the kind you generally find in poor areas back home. A walk along the waterfront is a walk among dilapidated industrial buildings. So we returned to the ship, packed our things and just relaxed and enjoyed the sunshine, the pool and the shipboard atmosphere. After a Turkish dinner in the cafe, we took a stroll along the deck and then were able to watch some football, which the satellite was able to pick up for the American guests, who of course, made up the majority of the passengers. While sad that our wonderful cruise was ending, we were looking forward to being back home and lingering over our 1200 plus photos, reliving special memories, and of course, thinking about where we will travel next!

DAY 12: We booked private transfers to our Rome hotel, so we had the luxury of getting off the ship at our leisure, between 7:00 and 9:00 am. Disembarkation was quick and easy. We were greeted by our driver who arrived early and was waiting just outside the door holding a sign with our name on it. We used our favorite car service in Rome, which we always recommend to our clients. The car was clean and the ride very pleasant. Our driver kept the temperature and the speed comfortable for us. We arrived early at our hotel and were able to check in. We stayed right at the airport since our flight home is early morning. The lobby was large and bright, the receptionist cordial and efficient and the room spacious, well-appointed and clean. A complimentary shuttle bus was available to take us to the historic center of Rome every 2 hours. Soon after checking in, while relaxing before the next bus was to leave, an alarm sounded with instructions to evacuate the hotel immediately. It ended up being a false alarm, but we were able to see how  quickly and efficiently a large hotel can be evacuated in an emergency situation. We took the shuttle into Rome where we visited several of the sites, some of which we saw on our last visit and some we had missed. We grabbed a loaf of fresh bread from a bakery, some salami and some cheese from a deli and had a rustic dinner near the forum while waiting for the shuttle back to the hotel. Our hope is to get enough sleep before our very early wake up call for our flight home in the morning.

DAY 13 – We managed to make our early flight, which we choose in order to return home earlier in the evening than the noon flight out. Things went very smoothly at the Rome airport. Our flight was on Lufthansa to Munich where we had a short layover before boarding our United flight to Newark and then home. The European airports do seem to be much more efficient than ours, at least comparing them to Newark, but we managed and arrived home safely and happy to be sleeping in our own beds again.

ABOUT THE AZAMARA JOURNEY: With a capacity of just under 700 passengers, she is small enough to get into small harbors, which is why we were able to visit places like Menorca, Mallorca and Corsica. The public areas have rich decor with dark paneling and traditional artwork. The ship has many intimate nooks for relaxing, casual conversations or just reflection. The public rooms are intimate and inviting. The main negative is the cabin size which is quite small, especially for a premium class ship. The food in the cafe is good  quality and changes nightly based on a geographical theme. The service is exceptional all over the ship. There is limited entertainment and mostly consisted of the usual cruise ship song and dance revues, just on a smaller scale. There is an enrichment lecture almost daily, having to do with the next day’s port. The shops are quite small with little variety, but with the ports offering such variety of shopping opportunities, they are more than sufficient. The casino is proportionately small, but again, because of the time in port, it is closed for the most part anyway. The pool too is small, mostly due to the limited deck space, but it there are an ample amount of deck chairs, with heavy cushions and plush towels. The officers are very cordial and visible. The captain makes a perfect host, even to the point of standing at the gangway at times wishing us a good day and, on our return, welcoming us “home”. Staterooms and public areas are constantly immaculate and the captain made it clear that cleanliness and health are taken seriously on his watch. Gratuities are included in the fare, along with a self-service laundry room, complete with detergent, etc., and the included list of beverages is enough to satisfy most passengers and include soft drinks, alcoholic and non-alcoholic mixed drinks, wines which change daily, specialty coffees and bottle water. And of course, the highlight is the complimentary Azamara Evening event. Overall, I would recommend this ship and this itinerary, and I would be happy to sail Azamara again in the future.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s