Azamara Club Cruises – Azamara Journey Asian Adventure – Part III
(“Cruise Global, Go Local” in Sri Lanka)

Over the past ten days during my Azamara Club Cruises Asian Adventure on the Azamara Journey, especially with so many sea days, I have been able to experience pretty much all of the culinary offerings onboard and, to be sure, there are many…some of them sort of hidden. But before I get to onboard dining in my next article, you know that it is the local experience that really get me going.

And Azamara Club Cruises focuses on more overnights, late nights and “Going Local”.  Having written about the AzAmazing Evening in Myanmar, now it is time to put Azamara’s shore excursions from booking to execution to the test.  So, let’s get going!

Asian Elephant
Bundala National Park, Sri Lanka

After many sea days and a relatively laid back stay in Myanmar, arriving in Sri Lanka was a bit more anticipated than normal.  Our first port was Hambantota, Sri Lanka located in the south of the island, but we were scheduled to arrive at 12:30 p.m. and depart at 9:00 p.m. along with the advice that if you did not take a tour there was pretty much no town to visit, so don’t bother.  Seriously?  Why are we here?  Hint:  Sometimes being as skeptical as I am is NOT a good thing!

When we arrived I saw a brand new, pristine, harbour…like ultra-clean unused and empty that was clearly poorly designed and built with Chinese money and no real purpose.  (Apparently there is a similarly unused Chinese build airport nearby.) Of course, because of this poor design the harbour had swell so it took some doing for Azamara’s captain, Johannes Tysse, and his crew to arrange the gangway so it could handle the ship constantly moving.  My skepticism was foolishly growing.

By the way, Captain Johannes is charming, engaging, funny and out and about the ship all the time, as are the hotel director, Heike, the Food & Beverage, Guest Services, etc. officers.  It makes a difference in your cruise experience when the cruise line allows for the officers to get out from doing mountains of paperwork so they can see what is really going on about the ship and be the brand ambassadors that the guests on upper-premium and luxury cruise lines expect.

Adding to my frustration/anticipation was that I long ago signed up for an Azamara tour, “Birdwatching in Bundala with a Professional Ornithologist”; noted as a 4 hour tour departing at 2:15 p.m.  The price for this relatively short tour was $179.00, which is not inexpensive.   I checked with the Shore Excursion Deck a couple of days prior and they said that 19 people signed up for the tour.  Nineteen?  How the heck can you go on an actual birdwatching trip with 19 people?

While they should have, the Shore Excursions folks – while very nice – didn’t know.  Oh well, I was committed, so I sucked it up.

Short review:  It was an awesome experience!  I score it 12 out of 10.  Azamara’s only failing was its description of the tour.

Grey-Headed Fish Eagle

After a 45 minute drive we arrived at a turnoff where three high quality open-air 4x4s were waiting for us.  Each vehicle had a driver-guide and a spotter who were in the cabin and seriously comfortable seating for us in the rear.

Our sightings started almost immediate as we drove through a marshy area (one of many mini-ecosystems we visited) as we headed to the 6,240 hectare Bundala Sanctuary.

Just as our guide was doing the park entry paperwork, he jumped into our vehicle and raced backwards, spun the vehicle around and:  Elephant!

We spent about 10 minutes watching this 30-40 year old Asian elephant casually dusting himself with mud before quietly backing into the forest and disappearing without a sound.  What a different experience from African elephants, as one would never get this close and never would feel as safe.  Truly a great start!

I won’t bore you with too many bird photos or captions, but I was feeling “Just Ducky!”…and, yes, peafowl (peacocks and peahens) are native to Sri Lanka.

Without saying a word, our guide then got out of the vehicle and locked the hubs on the front wheels…Time to go four-wheeling in the sand!  And then WOW:  A spectacular view of the rugged Sri Lanka coast along the Indian Ocean.

Our four hour tour was taking much longer because our guides wanted to be sure we saw everything.  Even as the sun was setting they stopped so that we could see some more monitor lizards, Grey Langurs and Toque Macaques.

Arriving back at the ship an hour and a half later than scheduled, I heard not a single complaint; only raves.

The next morning we arrived in Columbo, Sri Lanka.  It was a bit weird on this cruise to actually wind up in a different port the next morning.  But I was really looking forward to my second Azamara Club Cruises tour called Exploring Old Columbo; another four hour tour costing only $89.00. It looked like it would be truly “Going Local”; though I note that the staff regularly…and I mean regularly…warn against eating any local or street food.  So grabbing samples along the way isn’t going to happen.  Ugh.

Pettah District, Columbo, Sri Lanka

This wander through the Pettah District with its vegetable market and crammed in shops for everything you might ever need and then on to the Columbo Fort district, was led by a local Dutch Burger (Sri Lankan, but not of Sinhales or Tamil decent), Mark Forbes.  He is truly passionate about saving the buildings and, thus, grand history, of Ceylon come Sri Lanka.

One niggle:  Azamara added a second group for this tour, not lead by Mark, but his cousin.  While I specifically took this tour so that I could learn from Mark and the shore excursion folks were great at assuring I was in his group, swapping chosen guides is a sore point with me.  If a second group is added, those who sign up after the first group is full should be advised they will have a different  guide rather than a random assignment of those who booked first and later.

Anyway, while Mark was enthusiastic with the efforts being made to save and rehabilitate the historic buildings, if you listened closely there was also a frustration not only that the civil war was meaningless to most while devastated the country, but that although there is peace now there is still a tension as the population is now more accepting, but with deep scars.

Mark also repeated how the military is now being used to rehabilitate certain iconic buildings which left me with the unspoken question:  If the military isn’t needed for military purposes, why are so many still in service and doing non-military work?  Me thinks the peace is growing, but not as well-rooted as desired.

As the tour came to an end, we arrived at the old Dutch Hospital which was recently been rehabilitated and turned into an upscale social hub with various shops, pubs and restaurants.  The best restaurant specialized in exactly what I was planning to seek out:  Giant Sri Lankan river crab.  The Ministry of Crab was recently opened by two of Sri Lanka’s top cricketers. Far more upscale than I am used to wandering into, with all the dilapidated buildings it seemed like a good respite…and it was!

Old Dutch Hospital, Columbo, Sri Lanka

While the obvious choice was spicy garlic chili crab, Mark suggested I go truly local with the Sri Lankan Curry Crab.  A large crab ordered with a plate of cubed bread so you can soak up the curry and a beer, it was a bit expensive ($64.00) it was a local experience as to what is hoped Columbo will develop into in the next three to five years…and delicious!

After a long, hot, wander around the city, I was very happy to board the Azamara Journey and enjoy the air conditioning!

Over the past days I have listened to quite a number of guests comments about the Azamara Club Cruises shore excursions and the vast majority have noted their real satisfaction with their tours, be it heading to wildlife areas, cultural centers or general tours.  I, pleasantly, and even with my skepticism, concur.

From this point on I will be utilizing two other shore excursion companies unless something changes.  But I am quite pleased I have Azamara Club Cruises the opportunity to get me to “Go Local”!

Interested in experiencing Azamara Club Cruises or want to ask me a question? Give me a call, drop me an email or send me a Facebook message!

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