Amazing Azamara: Escape the cruise crowds on a floating boutique hotel
Want to escape the cruise crowds? Try a boutique line with just two ships, says Nicola Brady.
Just beyond my dining table, the fading sun is dappling on the ocean, bouncing off the waves as they part in our path. I'm two glasses into an excellent Sauvignon Blanc, have finished a quiveringly fresh tuna tartare, and a beast of a Chateaubriand steak awaits.
"How lucky are we?" my dining companion asks, as the steak is cut into thick, pink slices before us.
"A real man makes his own luck," I reply.
I wish I could get through a cruise without quoting from Titanic, but alas, I cannot. It happens when faced with multiple pieces of cutlery, when I descend a grand staircase, when I'm told the brand-new china has never been used.
It's not advisable to bring up Titanic whilst on a cruise (not least because most people have no idea what you're bleating on about). But on a ship as grand as Azamara Journey, it's a challenge.
If you've always associated cruises with colossal ships and thousands of other guests, Azamara Club Cruises will make you think again. Pitched as 'boutique hotels at sea' the two ships in its fleet, Journey and Quest fit only 690 guests. The bonus here, as well as a less crowded vibe, is that the ships can fit into smaller ports that larger vessels cannot.
There's a luxurious, boutique feel to the décor too, which was brand new when I boarded Azamara Journey. Throughout the rooms, relaxation areas and restaurants, the furnishings are lavish, and the colour scheme muted and chic.
My accommodation is a Club Continent Suite, as spacious as it is stylish, with a gorgeous balcony. There are a few benefits to choosing a suite over a stateroom - besides the additional space, you get an afternoon platter of food delivered (think chocolate-dipped strawberries, cheese plates and so on), a fully stocked minibar and access to specialty dining (which costs $30 for stateroom guests). Considering this dining includes the Prime C (home of the aforementioned Chateaubriand) and Aqualina restaurants, it's a fair investment.
That's not to say the regular dining options are lacking. Dinner in Discoveries, the ship's main restaurant, is far from everyday - think snails to start and perfectly charred lamb chops to follow. During the day, you can grab lunch in Windows Café or at the poolside grill (where you can also visit the frozen-yoghurt stand for a DIY sundae).
It's a decent-sized pool, considering the size of the ship, and the lack of kids makes it feel all the calmer. Technically, this isn't an adult-only cruise, but children aren't particularly catered for, meaning families tend to opt for more kid-friendly ships and lines.
Things are even more serene over on the Sanctum spa deck, where you can unwind in a saltwater hot tub as you gaze out at the horizon. When you've soaked your cares away, there are some seriously cool day beds and hammock chairs ready for you to enjoy, gimlet in hand, as you saunter into your next city.
And Azamara is all about the destinations. The focus is on immersive experiences and excursions - ranging from mozzarella-making workshops in Campania to tours of private art collections in Palma de Mallorca. But those exploring on their own won't be short-changed - Azamara ships stay in port later than most others, meaning you won't be pelting back for an early departure.
Though, to be honest, you might be rushing back for different reasons. While mozzarella making is all well and good, it's hard to resist the lure of a dirty martini on the pool deck.
How to do it
Travel in style
A three-night Italian and French Riviera Voyage starts at €1,320pp in a Club Oceanview stateroom, departing and returning in Nice, sailing to Portofino and St Tropez. An 11-night Classic Mediterranean Voyage in a Club Continent Suite costs from €3,689pp. See more at azamaraclubcruises.com.
As you might expect, the passengers tend to be a little older (likely due to the lack of children on board). On my cruise, guests ranged from couples in their 50s to a few nudging triple figures (who were the best for gossip, in my opinion). There were a good few people setting sail solo, too.
Unsure which cruise ship, or cruise line, to pick for your holiday? Read the reviews on cruisecritic.co.uk. It's a subsidiary of TripAdvisor but includes lots of editorial info and insights among the user reviews and feedback.
Read more:River of Dreams: A cruise holiday with a difference on the Danube