It was a real novelty leaving the office and arriving to the cruise terminal in Greenwich just 45 minutes later, so easy to get to and a beautiful place to embark. Guests onboard the Azamara Journey had enjoyed a busy couple of days and nights in London exploring the sites. Checked into my cabin, an outside cabin, which is fairly standard, small, yet perfectly formed. It's very traditional but has the added extra touches of oversized Elemis toiletries, Frette bathrobes and luxury bedding.
Dinner was in Aquafina, a superb mainly seafood speciality restaurant. I opted for a seafood platter followed by tuna tartare (very healthy), but other options included lobster and salmon. Only $15 per head surcharge and of course the house wine was included. Evening entertainment is very low key. This is not a cruise for those looking for glitzy entertainment and west end shows, there's a cabaret lounge and a couple of bars. We spent every evening in the Looking Glass lounge, which had tremendous views and live music plus a dance floor.
Up at 5 am to get on deck and enjoy sailing out of Greenwich at sunrise, past the O2, Canary Wharf and through the Thames Barrier, a fantastic experience. Followed by a ship tour and a training session. The training included a session with the marketing team to gain understanding of who the Azamara target market is (a 58 year old middle class married woman called Susan I think). We also had the opportunity to have a Q and A session with the cruise director, and so far the feedback from customers has been extremely positive. We had a fascinating wine tasting session followed by a meal in Prime C, a steak restaurant. The meat was tremendous although I could hardly move after the meal in typical cruise fashion. I enjoyed onion soup and Kobe mini burgers, delicious!
Amsterdam for the day, so we chose between a city visit or relaxing on the deck. I opted for a relaxing day enjoying the sunshine on one of the padded teak sunloungers around the pool. Lunch was in the buffet and wine again is included. I also enjoyed a bridge tour and met our Greek captain. Sampled elegant afternoon tea in the restaurant, what a very civilized day! For dinner, we opted for the main restaurant and the lobster, but many couldn't resist the freshly cooked food in the Indian buffet.
We sailed down the Kiel canal all day on Saturday. I hadn't realised that Germany was so beautiful. We were joined on deck by a German brass brand, and German food was also served on deck as we sailed slowly down the length of the canal. This was one of the highlights for me and only a small ship could manage this. We also enjoyed a galley tour, always fascinating to see behind the scenes.
I've come away from the trip with a completely different understanding of the Azamara brand, I think it's been confusing as the positioning of the brand has changed a couple of times. To be honest, I had in my mind that this was going to be luxury six star cruising, which is wrong: Azamara Journey is extremely comfortable and traditional with a relaxed, clubhouse feel for those looking for an intimate, small-ship experience with lots of time to explore new places and immerse yourself in local culture. There is nothing formal, the dress code is fairly relaxed (jacket and tie not required) and you can turn up for dinner when you wish.
Customers will love the semi all inclusive element with the following included: gratuities (which a hot topic at the moment), shuttles to the ports, cans of soft drink in your cabin, soft drinks, bottles of water, gym classes, wine with dinner and more. I can personally confirm that the wine with dinner is extremely high quality! There's wine from a different country every night plus a choice of half price wines at around €14 a bottle. People will also enjoy visiting exclusive and different destinations; Sorrento rather than Naples, St Tropez rather than Villefranche, London instead of Southampton...
Service on the ship was superb, low key but very personal.
Written by Simone Clark
With the British summer offering us its usual good form, there are more than a few of us who will be planning a winter cruise holiday to make the most of the galaxy's heat source. So far this year we've had BA strikes and ash clouds to contend with so why not save yourself the stress and jump onboard a cruise from Southampton. Independence of the Seas is the largest ship to sail from Southampton year round and offers some of the best food, entertainment and facilities at sea. I've had the pleasure of cruising on many ships, and if I was going to spend 11-18 days escaping the dreary winter weather, I can't think of a more vibrant place to be. I've come up with my four favourite reasons to to escape on the Independence of the Seas.
Firstly there are the itineraries, most people forget about the warmer climates closer to home and end up sitting on a long-haul flight for their sunshine fix, I'd rather jump on the train to Southampton and save myself the hassle. Sure, I see the appeal of the Caribbean, but there are plenty of treasures out there for cruise only holidays. The two main winter itineraries are an 11 night Canary Islands cruise or an 18 night Ultimate Med cruise. The Canaries cruise takes you to stunning, warm destinations like Lisbon, Gran Canaria and Madeira.
You can enjoy the sun-drenched beaches, deep blues oceans and relaxed culture of these volcanic islands - and get yourself a winter tan to boot! The 18 night Ultimate Med cruise combines beautiful beaches with historic and cosmopolitan cities. In between relaxing by the pool with a cocktail and the occasional black-tie dinner, you can walk around the Colusseum or Pantheon of Rome, the architectural delights of Barcelona's 'old town' or just soak up the weather on the beaches of Mallorca.
Whether you're on a full board cruise, all-inclusive holiday or even staying in a ski chalet, the one thing that can really make or break a holiday is the dining. A great Mojito or Perfect Martini, combined with superb service and delightful food, is what I'm looking for. With the Independence there is everything you need under one roof. For those who like a little bit of glamour there are at least a couple of formal nights, often staring with a Captain's cocktail party or champagne reception, and gastronomic treats in the rather grand dining room. The more intimate evening can be spent in Portofino's, or my favourite - Chops Grill, with its exceptional wine menu.
There is also a whole host of informal and relaxed dining, from Johnny Rocket's '50s inspired diner to the 24hr buffet style venue. You can find everything from the perfect espresso to a delicate Belini in the 21 bars onboard. Olive or Twist is great a great place to start the night with more Martini than you can imagine, and the Seattle Coffee Co have everything from skinny lattes to lavish hot chocolate. If you're missing home, there's a good old English pub, or for more escapism head to Bolero's Salsa Bar.
The entertainment onboard and the variety it offers really is incredible. Who needs Vegas when the Independence sails from Southampton? The glitzy casino gives you all the high stakes action you need without having to even think of Vegas. The shows too, are really fabulous; the main theatre offers Broadway-style productions every evening. The ice-shows also offer something completely different, though the venues do fill up - so don't dwindle!
The lounge bars have great live entertainment in the evenings, there is everything from the Sports Bar, with private karaoke booths, to line dancing and calming piano nights. During the day you can use the world-class spa, stunning solarium and a superb selection of swimming pools. For the more active, you can jump on the thrilling Flowrider surf simulator, scale the giant rock climbing wall or choose from a whole host of sports courts and facilities from pilates to boxing.
In a world that has been hit by a huge recession, value for money is more important than ever. The cruise industry is growing by the day, which is great for cruisers, as the price of a cruise is becoming increasingly competitive. For starters there are winter sun cruises from as little as £54 per day and cruise deals saving up to £400 per couple. Where else can you get a full board, 4*, 11 night holiday to the Canary Islands for £799!?
There are currently deals that include free coach transfers to Southampton, making life even easier, or regional flights to Gatwick, Heathrow and Southampton with transfers from £70. There are not too many winter sun holidays that offer full board, that include 16 dining options, live music, comedy and theatre and a whole selection of accommodation from inside cabins to suites at these great prices. I don't know about you, but I know what I'll be doing this winter!
By Stephen Adam
Like most people, when I hear the term Baltic, I picture visions of ice breakers and Russian submarines. I even use the term sometimes when describing how cold I am.
Well, it's the wrong name for one of the best cruise areas in the world. Go there in summer of course!
For most cruisers their first Scandinavian cruise is often their fourth cruise, after the trips to the more familiar destinations in the Med and Caribbean, and most of those are on the North Sea visiting the Norwegian Fjords. Nice, but a bit boring really. Scandinavian Sea cruises are the best value there is for multiple destinations. There are ten countries to visit and some of the most spectacular harbours in Europe.
There are a few starting points for Scandinavian cruises but because Copenhagen in Denmark has an excellent airport that is really close to the city, the majority start here on a fly-cruise basis. I really like Copenhagen so I recommend staying a day or two to see the Tivoli Gardens amusement parkat night and the Nyhaven harbour restaurant area for a very long lunch and people-watching session. Just don't get your hopes up to see the famous Little Mermaid in the Harbour. It got loaned to Shanghai and in it's place is a live feed on a big screen out in the water of where it is in China. You can see their locals walking past it. One of the funniest things I've ever seen.
A lot of cruises head north from Copenhagen to Oslo which is so cute the cameras just never stop clicking. I don't recommend using words like quaint to the rather large local descendants of Vikings. They still look capable of a good pillaging! Unfortunately, it's pretty expensive so take the organised tour, see the castle, have a meal of Herringor Salmon at the Harbour front and have a sunset drink on the deck back on board.
As much as I like Oslo's harbour, I think Stockholm's offers even more and that's the next stop on most cruises after Norway. So much water and so much blondeness in a city that's so easy to walk or cycle around. From Stockholm it's another short hop to Helsinki in Finland which is technically not Scandinavian but Nordic, but that's getting a bit pedantic. There are still a lot of blondes, Helsinki is a pretty town and the locals go all out to be friendly as they, like all the Nordic countries, speak perfect English.
The big picture stop on any Scandinavian Sea cruise is St Petersburg. What a monument to the grandeur of a different age of Russian emperors and the opulence of the aristocracy of the 1800s. You could spend a week gawping at the art and architecturehere but most cruises only give you two days, so make the most of it.
In my opinion, hitting four of those five big destinations is essential, leave out Helsinki if you must, but if you've got the time there are another five countries to visit. Heading further south you can visit Riga in Latvia, Vilnius in Lithuania, Tallinn in Estonia, Warnemünde in Germany (which is a short train from Berlin) and Gdansk in Poland.
Whichever cruise you take, you'll love the Scandinavian Sea where the temperature in summer is anything but Baltic!
Written by Adam Johnson.
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