I recently had the great opportunity to sail with a new-to-me cruise line, Azamara Club Cruises. Don’t worry if you’re not familiar with the name, that’s sort of how they like it. Offering boutique cruise experiences, they’re small but as I learned, they are one of the most innovative cruise lines in the world. With just two ships, each carrying a maximum of 690 guests, these aren’t the mega-liners that sail the seven seas, no, instead they’re a cruise experience for those of us who want to do more than just lay out on the Lido deck, they’re for discerning explorers who want to experience the best that the world has to offer. I’ve touched on a few aspects of the cruise experience in previous posts, but today I want to write a more thorough review of my cruise experience onboard the Azamara Quest, what I liked and didn’t like and why, ultimately, I think they’re a great cruise option. In the interest of full disclosure, I am working with Azamara to provide my thoughts based on my cruise experience but, as always, my opinions are entirely my own.
How They’re Different
Every travel entity says they’re different from their competitors but, sadly, few actually are. Azamara is one of those rare examples of a cruise line that is indeed unlike most others in the industry. With only two ships in their fleet, it’s easy to overlook Azamara but, as I learned, there is strength in keeping things small. It allows the cruise line to focus intensely on the passenger and their travel experiences, to make sure every detail is taken care of and that they have the best staff for the job. Not only is the fleet on the smaller side, so are their ships. Carrying nearly 700 passengers, they’re a far cry from the 4,000 person mega-liners sailing today, but again, that is to their distinct advantage. Smaller ships allow for greater intimacy, better service and, ultimately, a better experience for the guests. No one feels like a number or just another person passing through for the journey, instead they feel special and important because they are. Staff very quickly learned my name and even that I have a particular affinity for Diet Coke. When we talk about boutique or luxury experiences, it’s that level of familiarization which is key. The accouterments don’t matter unless you can back it up with outstanding service and quality.
The Ship and Onboard Experiences
Since I’ve sailed on other smaller cruise ships, I thought I knew what to expect onboard the Azamara Quest, but even I was surprised. You won’t find giant waterslides or rock-climbing walls onboard, but that’s not why you sail with Azamara. I don’t want massive diversions and thousands of other people milling about. No, when I take a cruise I want a smaller, bespoke experience that is both refined and relaxed. Although it’s a fine line to walk, Azamara accomplishes this feat with ease. Don’t misunderstand me, there’s plenty to do onboard and with only a week on the ship, I found it impossible to try everything on my to-do list. Part of the reason for that is that as a company, Azamara is intensely focused on the destinations, which I’ll get to in a later point, so I frankly wasn’t onboard long enough to experience everything, but there are certainly plenty of activities. A large spa and fitness area, relaxation spots, pool and hot tub, casino, theater with shows and myriad enrichment activities throughout the day, every day guarantees that no one will be bored while sailing with them.
Destinations and Connecting Locally
An important reason to sail with Azamara are the destinations the ships are able to visit thanks in large part to their size. The ships can visit ports of call and even docking locations other cruise lines simply can’t manage and this in turn provides unique experiences to their passengers that they won’t find on many other cruise lines. That was an important reason why I wanted to sail with them on their Western Mediterranean itinerary, for the opportunity to visit destinations I’d probably never otherwise see. Mallorca, Corsica and Monte Carlo are just a few but, when also combined with larger ports of call, it offered a variety of destination styles that was perfect for me and my interests. More than just being rarely frequented by other cruise lines, the ports were also just fun places to be. Mallorca and Corsica weren’t destinations I’d thought I’d soon see, but I quickly fell in love with both almost right away. They’re fascinating little places with equally interesting histories and enjoying the unique opportunity to visit and explore both was one of the great highlights of the cruise.
It’s not only about where the Azamara ships visit, it’s also about the activities offered to passengers once they’ve arrived. Connecting locally is a very important focus for Azamara, and they accomplish this key tenet of the travel experience in a variety of different ways. In Italy everyone onboard was invited to a special opera event in Livorno. In Corsica, I joined a market tour where I sampled more than my fair share and ended up purchasing all of the ingredients needed for the perfect lunch. In other ports of call, passengers walked through markets and shops with the ship’s chef, selecting ingredients to then transform back in the kitchens. The experiences offered are many times unique and always special and create opportunities for guests to “go local,” to feel like a member of the community and that is exceptionally rare. You don’t have to join an excursion though to feel more connected to the communities when sailing with Azamara. Their policy of staying longer in ports of call means that guests have plenty of time to explore on their own. Walking through town or, more usually, finding the perfect local restaurant for dinner, staying overnight or longer in port gives passengers one of the greatest travel luxuries there is, time.
Cabins and Food
When discussing cruise ship cabins, not everyone is in agreement regarding their importance. For me though, any room I stay in – be it hotel or cruise ship – is an important aspect of my trip and on the Azamara Quest I was thrilled with the cabin. Staying in a Club Veranda Stateroom, as soon as I walked in I knew I’d be happy. A larger than average bed, sitting area and spacious veranda were all important aspects of my travel experience onboard the Quest. Amenities offered in the staterooms also help guarantee a relaxing trip including complimentary sodas and water, super soft Egyptian cotton linens, a large 40″ TV, welcome fruit baskets, shoe-shining service and an AC system that actually works. The last point was important to me, too many times hotels and cruise ships fail when it comes to temperature control, but I was able to create the floating icebox I had hoped for.
When choosing a cruise the first aspect I consider is not usually food. I’m much more interested in the itinerary and ports of call, but spending time on any ship means that food is an important aspect of the experience. Based on my time spent on the Azamara Quest, I think it’s safe to say that the culinary options are amongst the best at sea. Food is actually an important aspect of any boutique travel experience, and Azamara knows this and gives passengers not only delicious bites, but plenty of options as well. Room service is the great unheralded hero of the ship and is how I started almost every day onboard the Quest, enjoying a quiet breakfast on my veranda before heading out for the day. Mainstays on board are the dining room – Discoveries Restaurant – as well as more casual options on the Patio Deck. The foodie highlights for me personally though were the two specialty restaurants, Aqualina and Prime C. The former is a modern Italian restaurant that quickly one me over with fresh, local ingredients prepared in ways I didn’t expect. This isn’t your standard trattoria and had I planned things a little better, I would have eaten there again and again. I also though enjoy a great steakhouse and onboard that meant a visit to Prime C was in order. With all of the classics we look for in any steakhouse, there were also some surprises including the delicious beignets for dessert. The star of Prime C though is of course the steak selection, one of the best I’ve enjoyed whether on land or at sea. No matter how you prefer to enjoy your meals, casual or more formal, there are plenty of options – more than I could try even in a week of sailing.
One of my least favorite words in the travel world is bespoke, and yet that’s the one that keeps coming to mind when describing Azamara Club Cruises. Unlike so many other cruise lines, the company prides itself not on creating cookie cutter experiences, but one of a kind journeys the likes of which are difficult to otherwise replicate. That’s important, that’s rare and that is just one of many attributes that helps to separate Azamara from many other cruise lines. A major criticism I hear about cruising as a travel style is that people fear losing their independence. They fear turning into a travel sheep but, after having cruised many times with many companies, I can say with certitude that not only is Azamara a great choice for the independent traveler, they actually help to facilitate an active and independent experience. Travel should be all about learning, about growing as a person and many times that means connecting to and with the local communities. Instead of traveling inside a bubble, we want to get our hands dirty and to experience a culture different from our own. That is, I believe, at the heart of the Azamara experience, to connect locally and in the process not only have fun, but have a meaningful experience as well. The days of doing nothing but lying by the pool when we vacation are on their way out. The modern traveler wants to relax but also to be engaged. Thanks to the incredible onboard staff, the ship-based enrichment and of course the destinations themselves, Azamara not only rises to the challenge, but they have excelled in nearly every way imaginable.