Thinking About an Azamara Club Cruise? Here's What I Loved About Mine
Does your idea of a good cruise involve:
- * staying late in ports of call so you can experience them at night?
- * not being nickeled and dimed?
- * not having to dress up?
- * a charismatic senior staff with a sense of humor--the type of people you'd actually want at a cocktail party you're throwing?
If so, you should know about the Adriatic cruise I just got back from--my 18th cruise, but my first onboard Azamara Club Cruises.
Our week-long itinerary, roundtrip out of Venice on the 694-passenger Azamara Quest, included four Croatian ports--Hvar, Dubrovnik, Split, and Korcula--as well as Kotor in Montenegro and Trieste in Italy.
It was an unusual cruise for me. First, there were no "days at sea"; we were off the ship exploring a different port every day. Second, I was an invited guest speaker, as opposed to an anonymous paying passenger (I'm typically the latter, of course). Third, it was my husband's and my first trip without the kids in six years. All of which meant we were predestined to have a great time.
Despite the unusual circumstances of the cruise, though, I do believe that my main takeaways about Azamara Club Cruises would hold true for other people. I say this because most of the passengers I spoke with--and as an "enrichment lecturer," I spoke with plenty--felt the same way I did about the cruise line. Here are the four things we liked most:
1. The itinerary had us staying in port till 11 p.m. on several nights.
The Azamara Quest anchored off Hvar at twilight.
Most cruise ships leave port at 5 or 6 p.m., which is a shame because, particularly in the Mediterranean in summertime, many port towns have a much less touristy vibe at night, once the daytrippers have left. After 6 p.m., the heat subsides, the light is better for photographs (the two hours before sunset are best), and the locals--or, at least, the European visitors--leave the beach and come into the Old Town to play. In ancient walled cities like those on our Azamara itinerary, the walls, belltowers, and fortresses light up at night, as do the multi-million-dollar yachts in their harbors, and over cocktails and calamari you experience a scene that didn't exist during the day.
In Hvar, for instance, which has become a chic playground for well-heeled and gorgeous young Europeans, Tim and I spent the evening playing fashion police as Eastern European models strolled by dressed like Roman goddesses.
In Kotor, the 10:45 deadline for returning to the ship meant we had all morning and until mid-afternoon to explore Montenegro's coast by car, saving the 1,300-step climb up to Kotor Fortress for the late afternoon when it's cooler, and saving Kotor itself for the evening, when it's even more magical than during the day. (Pictured above: A path of candles that we stumbled upon in Kotor at night led to a square where local art students were creating a giant communal art project.)
In Trieste, we had to be back onboard by 7:45 p.m., but even that deadline gave us a full ten hours to see nearby Slovenia. In one day we explored Ljubljana, Postojna Cave, and Lake Bled.
2. The price is about as all-inclusive as it gets.
I've spent many a cruise feeling like I was trapped inside a giant floating infomercial, bombarded by sales pitches for everything from jewelry to artwork to acupuncture to skin creams to wine-tasting sessions to shore tours. On top of that, certain ships charge you for all manner of additional expenses onboard--for sodas, cappuccinos, bottled water, fitness classes, staff gratuities, etc. The Azamara Quest, however, actively wants to prevent you from feeling forced to pull out your wallet ten times a day. Here's what's included in your Azamara fare that on many cruise lines is not included: wine with lunch and dinner, bottled water, soda, fancy coffee drinks, self-service laundry, and gratuities for shipboard staff. Even though I drank plenty of bottled water by day and wine by night, ate breakfast at the espresso bar (where they serve little quiches and croissants) most mornings, and did two loads of laundry, at check-out my bill totalled $128: $103 or Internet access, $25 for a photo shot by the shipboard photographer.
3. Formalwear is not a requirement.
All-inclusive ships tend to be small luxury ships, which typically have a certain number of formal nights. Because I have to dress up so much in my work life, it's the last thing I want to do on vacation, which is why I was thrilled not to have to pack a gown...and to hit the airport with only a carry-on.
4. Thanks to the top officers, the shipboard atmosphere was lighthearted and convivial.
On a lot of ships the senior staffers can be stiff, bland, and pretty much invisible. They basically tell you the rules, then disappear. The officers on the Azamara Quest, on the other hand, were always around...and finding ways to charm people. They even did activities with guests such as a three-hour group hike up the 1,300 ancient steps to the top of Kotor Fortress.
The tone was set by Captain Carl Smith, whose announcements from the bridge always included a line that made me laugh, and who keeps a giant cut-out of a hand that his team uses to wave hello to passersby (or to wave to the group atop Kotor Fortress).
The Hotel Director, Philip Herbert, seems to take conscientiousness to a new level, considering no matter too small to merit his attention. When he wasn't handing out ice-cold bottles of water to passengers disembarking in port, he was cooking bananas flambé for hundreds at the pool-deck party.
Philip even sent a form to each cabin on the morning of Day 3, requesting feedback about the cruise so far, so that he could fix any problems early in the voyage, rather than risk not learning about them till it was too late.
Cruise Director Kirk Detweiler is as big a multi-tasker as Hotel Director Philip. Not only does he sing the occasional Big Band number with the ship's orchestra poolside at night, but he and Activity Manager Alexander Yepremian host a hilarious free-wheeling TV show, The Daily Quest. Kirk and Alexander tell you what's on tap for each day, spontaneously interviewing staffers passing by and sometimes passengers too. They joke that you can go to KirkAndAlexander.com to order Season 1 of their show. I wish it were true, as I want it for my DVD library.
Speaking of TV shows, I don't know whose idea it was to put a television in the self-service launderette, but it's a smart touch and illustrates how, clearly, somebody is thinking about what customers want.
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