Tag Archives: azamara

The Eggs Benedict Test

Eggs Benedict

The “eggs benedict test” is my ritual go-to quality indicator when onboard a cruise ship. Let me explain: On every cruise I take that’s longer than a few days, I head down to the ship’s main restaurant and order the dish – poached eggs, slightly runny, served with Canadian bacon or ham, and with a dollop of hollandaise. It’s a treat (I only order it once a cruise) that I never make at home because the dish is a bit too fussy to get right.

Which is why eggs benedict is a great way to test a restaurant kitchen. Are chefs paying attention? It only takes a few seconds for the eggs to go from undercooked to overcooked.  Are waiters responsive enough to get the dish from kitchen to table before the hollandaise congeals? And, if the dish is not quite right, if for instance, the egg yolks are cooked too hard, does staff respond quickly and pleasantly?

On Westerdam, my eggs benedict test (the only score is pass or fail) took place yesterday in Vista, its main dining room. The dish was a huge pass (a new inspiration occurred to me: add one triangle of fried hash brown potatoes – hey nobody ever said this was a healthy endeavor —  and mix the potato up with the runny yolk and the hollandaise). Delicious!

The test actually was born out of a disastrous cruise dining experience  and has served me well in the years since. Traveling on Silversea’s Silver Wind, I’d ordered the dish. That it came so badly overcooked on a luxury line was a manageable disappointment, but what turned this into a lasting memory was the fact that the waiter balked when I asked for another try – and later engaged in a rather unpleasant argument, within ear-shot, with his maitre ‘d over who would tell the chef that his dish didn’t please.

I was appalled and embarrassed and the experience reflected the mediocre level of food and service experienced elsewhere on that journey.

Having reviewed some 150-plus cruise ships over the past 13 years, there are certainly other symbolic indicators that tell me more about the quality of that voyage than a particular incident would normally suggest. Do the majority of crew members say hello and look you in the eye when they pass by in corridors or bring you a cocktail? (On Westerdam, so far, check, check, it’s been a pass all around). If so, they’ll be personable all around. Does the cabin steward clean the balcony as well as your stateroom? It shows an attention to detail (so far, so good on Westerdam) as far as cleaning standards are concerned. On another recent cruise, my balcony never felt clean (cigarette ashes from other smokers on other verandahs were omnipresent, and dirty water pooled there every day;  frankly the lack of attention to detail was also reflected in other parts of the stateroom).

Do security officers smile and greet you when you return to the ship from a day in port? Actually this one’s mostly in jest – no one really expects security staffers to offer a smile or a sense of humor but on Azamara Journey a few weeks ago, I was startled when the men and women who man the screening machine would say “welcome home” when I came back aboard. It was a nice touch.

Before I leave for my cruise, I also look at Cruise Critic member reviews, particularly the most recent ones, to see what to expect. Ships do change personalities, often depending on which hotel director, who oversees everything from cuisine and housekeeping to entertainment and services like casinos, art auctions, and photography, is onboard at the time. Hotel directors typically serve four month contracts. Those who deftly manage their huge staffs typically run excellent ships.

What’s your go-to indicator for cruise quality? Share it with us.

CSB

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Filed under Cruise Lines, Dining, Luxury Cruises, Opinion, Round-Britain Cruise

3 reasons to take an “exotic” Northern Europe cruise

If in cruise line marketing efforts, Northern Europe is largely defined through itineraries that focus on the great Nordic capitals or that dip into Norway’s fjords, well…that’s not all there is to the region. On a genuinely enticing itinerary this week aboard Azamara Club Cruises’ Azamara Journey, in which only the homeport of Copenhagen represented any destination even remotely on the trodden track, I discovered three reasons why an exotic ports cruise of northern Europe offers amazing adventures:

Azamara Journey in Orkney

*We’re the only ship in port. Forget the cruise hordes that flock to Nordic cities on summer days – ports on our route, like Reykjavik, the Orkney Islands’ Kirkwall, and the Faroe Islands’ Torshavn were one-ship towns. Locals seemed genuinely welcoming and at  attractions, from the Orkney Islands’ well-known Ring of Brodgar – an early Bronze Age precursor to Stonehenge – to Iceland’s Blue Lagoon, the atmosphere was reasonably laid back and crowds were manageable.

*In summer don’t you want to be outside? “If there is such a thing as fun, this is it!” shrieked fellow passenger Justin Hilliard, a teenager from Nashville. He was talking about the “fjord and sea safari by RIB” excursion in Torshavn and he was right. The first boat ride I’ve ever taken wearing a helmet, the 12-seater can go as fast as 55 knots (trust me, the meek do not want to sit in the front seat) while you sit on a pommel-horse contraption and hold on for dear life.

Speed boat

The speed boat takes time as well to meander in and out of seriously gorge-beautiful fjords, weaving in and out of caves so narrow and low-slung (hence the need for helmets) that you can see where the rock formations were burned when they were hurtled out of a volcano eons ago to form the islands that make up the Faroes.  You also get up-close views of the myriad rock platforms where puffins have made their homes.

Faroe Islands boat tour

Just to make the experience a little bit different, the captain plays 1980s’ rock tunes; in the caves the audio reverberates against the rocks. And for cruise ship fans, the neatest moment was when he nudged the inflatable boat right up against Journey’s hull.

Iceland's landscape

*Do something daring! Azamara’s recently revamped its shore excursion menu to add numerous options not just for recreation but also for adventure. Iceland’s Reykjavik, famed for its “white nights” summer bacchanals, is a delightful urban capital, easy to explore independently. But less easy and more challenging is a visit to the rugged interior. While quite far from the troublesome volcanic duo of Eyjafjallajökull and Hekla (the former of course disrupted international travel this spring after a s eries of eruptions and the latter is reputedly on the cusp of a major eruption), our trip, via a Ford Club Wagon “Super Jeep” (used to cross Antarctica and also the deserts of the Middle East) wasn’t pretty but sure did capture an aspect of Iceland.

Roughly equitable to traveling down a farm lane studded with post-winter potholes, we crossed through lava fields, ascended steep off-road mini mountains, and splashed through a mighty river.

On a jeep in Iceland

Other ports visited on this cruise on Azamara Journey included Norway’s Geiranger, Scotland’s Shetland and Orkney islands, and Iceland’s Akeyuri.

Exotic spin-offs of mainstream cruises aren’t limited by any means to Northern Europe. For you, which offbeat ports in the Mediterranean do you think would make a memorable cruise more memorable?

CSB

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Filed under Cruise Lines, Destinations, Luxury Cruises, Uncategorized

Get an eyeful of Eyjafjallajokull

I’m probably tempting fate, talking about Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano and the dark days of the ash cloud. On the other hand, it’s peak season for cruises to Iceland and I’ll bet it’s the first topic of conversation for anybody cruising to Reykjavik.

So why not splash out on a scenic flight over the volcano, ash plume permitting? Several cruise lines, including Voyages of Discovery, Azamara, P&O Cruises and Fred. Olsen, offer a light aircraft flight of an hour and a half, zooming in low over the smouldering beast. Amusingly, P&O’s website is the only one I visited that acknowledges the recent eruption; the others word the description of the tour as though nothing had ever happened.

Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupting/Shutterstock

Eyjafjallajokull in full flow in May 2010

The flightseeing tour (which costs £200 upwards) is undeniably breathtaking and you’ll see other unpronounceable geological features, like Tindfjallajokull, Blahnjukur and the river Jokulgilsa. And the volcano Hekla, of course, reckoned to be the next Big One, Eyjafjallajokull having merely been a supporting act.

Meanwhile, in preparation for your visit, check out Cruise Critic member FlyerTalker’s cringe-worthy volcano humour here!

And for the armchair traveller, here’s a webcam, which shows Eyjafjallajokull itself, steaming peacefully. For now.

SJB

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A whine about wine

Visit the home page of Cruise Critic today and you’ll see a section called Things To Know Before You Go, packed with information on all those cruising mysteries – tipping, dress code, staying in touch… and one of the most contentious subjects of all: bringing your own alcohol on board.

Cruise lines’ attitudes to BYO alcohol range from perfectly reasonable to nannying to apparently illogical. I’m not campaigning for the idea of bringing truckloads of your own booze on board and depriving the cruise line of bar revenue. Just a couple of innocent bottles of wine.

It’s summer in the Mediterranean. Wine-tasting excursions abound. Ships are calling at ports where the shops are stocked with delicious, cheap French rosés from small Provencal growers, while passengers are enjoying tastings in exquisite Tuscan country estates. What’s wrong with loving a new wine so much that you buy a bottle to enjoy with dinner that night?

Yes, of course we’ll pay a corkage fee, just like we would in a restaurant at home. Yet some cruise lines are completely relaxed with this, while others forbid it completely.

Take P&O, for example: a blanket ban on BYO. Also, Fred. Olsen, MSC and Royal Caribbean. Any booze you buy on your travels is confiscated and handed back to you at the end of the cruise. Costa allows you to bring a bottle, in theory, but the procedure is so complicated (you have to write a letter two weeks in advance for approval and produce both the letter and the wine on embarkation for inspection) that it’s hardly worth bothering.

Cunard, though, along with Princess Cruises, Celebrity Cruises and Holland America Line will allow you to consume your own wine for a corkage fee of around $20. And hats off to foodie-friendly Oceania Cruises, which assumes that you may have enjoyed one of its shore excursions so much that you’d quite like to buy some regional wine ashore and crack it open at dinner to remind you of the day.

Less so Azamara, which insists you can only bring your own wine at the beginning of the cruise, thus removing all spontaneity.

I know there are plenty of logical arguments against letting guests supply their own wine: loss of revenue, diluting the cruise line’s own effort, storing everybody’s wine, chilling it, reuniting each bottle with the right owner.

But why do some cruise lines treat us like adults and others like irresponsible kids?

SJB

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Filed under Dining

What do you really want from a port of call?

Every now and then, one of the opinion polls in the Cruise Critic message boards captures the imagination of our members and fires off a spirited debate.

The one I’m referring to (it’s here: http://tinyurl.com/2felwxo) was inspired by the announcement a few months ago by Azamara Cruises that it was going to offer more port-intensive itineraries, with deeper ‘immersion’ in the local culture. We asked you what cruise lines should do to improve the whole destination experience – a question that’s particularly relevant as the Mediterranean, where culture is one of the main attractions, enters its peak season.

Personally, I would have ticked nearly all the boxes; surely anything that makes it easier to explore the local culture is a good thing? As it turned out, though, everybody has a different idea!

Top billing went to the suggestion that cruise lines provide suggestions for independent exploration, like self-guided walks; 58.48 percent of the respondents voted for this. Similarly, more authentic port lecturers, who actually lived in the ports of call, would be popular, as would an alert to any festivals going on when the ship was in port. More food and wine from the region in which the ship was travelling got the thumbs up from 57.75 percent, while 53.17 percent wanted free destination information. And by that, I imagine they don’t mean photocopied maps of the shopping area.

The ensuing discussion pointed out that we’d missed out more overnights in port, which I imagine would be a winner (and in the case of Azamara, is beginning to happen).

What made me smile was the universal slamming of the dreaded ‘shopping programme’, whereby a ‘lecturer’ advises the willing on board where to shop in port. Needless to say, the cruise line gets a kickback for any purchases made.

Member SeaStar2 wanted “Port talks that don’t stress shopping but rather the history and culture of the ports….better maps that show something besides the stores in an area.”

Member MrsMuir was less charitable: “The so-called port ambassadors should walk the plank, and port lecturers should take their place.”

Member Hlitner, meanwhile, has a conspiracy theory: “The dirty truth about cruise lines is their main interest in ports is selling their own overpriced excursions. Cruise line excursions are a nice profit center for cruise lines who increasingly rely on-board expenditures to fatten the bottom line. Many cruise lines no longer provide any good information for travelers who want to do things on their own.”

Strong stuff. And may I put in my own request for improving the local experience? Although 38.03 percent thought it was a good idea to bring local entertainers on board, does it always have to be the ubiquitous ‘folkloric’ show? I’m all for a spot of impromptu Greek dancing after dinner in a taverna (after enough retsina) or taking a flamenco class in Spain but how many of you really attend/enjoy/remember yet another display from a handkerchief-waving dance troupe with, heaven forbid, audience participation?

Shout me down if I’m wrong, though!

SJB

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