THERE’S ALWAYS a sense of excitement when a ship is named, and we see a giant Champagne bottle smashing against a dark blue hull. So, it was for the naming ceremony of the Azamara Onward. As a cruise lover, perhaps the only thing better than heading to sea is watching a ship come to life. On a clear May evening, with the sun setting over Monte Carlo, we welcomed Azamara’s fourth vessel and revelled in the maritime tradition of christening a ship.
This vessel is not new; Azamara Onward was purchased from another cruise line and extensively refurbished to brandish the same finery as her three nearly identical sisters: Azamara Journey, Azamara Quest, and Azamara Pursuit. She is just 592 feet long and 84 feet wide, which allows her to squeeze into narrow channels and dock at the small harbours closest to town. The advantage? Guests step off the ship immediately in the centre of the action.
My sailing took me to Marseille, docking in the city’s old port, where I could see the larger vessels berthed at the commercial port a few kilometres away from the top deck. For us, it was a leisurely stroll to browse the shops along the waterfront, with plenty of time to sip the famous rosé wines of Provence and feast on fresh bouillabaisse.
The inclusive nature of Azamara’s onboard program is one of its star attractions, offering a variety of indulgences to voyagers. I enjoyed pleasant meals at the Discoveries Restaurant and Windows Café, a buffet with outdoor seating. And for a special occasion, or just because, there are two specialty restaurants – Aqualina Italian trattoria and Prime C steakhouse – that offer wonderfully cooked-to-order meals in an intimate setting. Both are only open for dinner, require reservations, and have an up-charge.
Throughout the cruise, house wines, beer, and spirits are freely poured, with the option to upgrade to the premium beverage package to include top-shelf brands. All non-alcoholic beverages such as sodas, bottled waters, specialty coffees and teas are also included.
A favourite pastime for many of us was to sip lattes and taste the sinful pastries at the Mosaic Café. Its location next to th boutiques and the grand filigreed staircase is perfect for people-watching. And at sail-away, it’s always a treat to toast to today’s perfect visit and anticipate the next with a glass of bubbly.
The atmosphere onboard the Onward is resort-casual and relaxed. With aptly named lounges like The Living Room, The Den, and an al-fresco eatery called The Patio, it’s easy to feel at home on this floating retreat. Daytime dress is casual, and evenings are elegant but not dressy. There aren’t any formal nights, and no gowns or jackets are required.
In an effort to innovate, Azamara made one design change to the Onward. In the space previously occupied by the Drawing Room was a sitting area and library that was under-utilized on the sister ships. Thus, the library was relocated to The Den, and the Drawing Room became Atlas Bar. With a bank of yellow sofas, a green-panelled bar, and an animated video wall, it’s now a bustling place for pre-dinner drinks (it’s also conveniently located adjacent to Aqualina and Prime C). A special menu features signature cocktails (included with the premium beverage package) and hot and cold gourmet plates were available to tide me over until dinner. Atlas Bar has proven so successful that Azamara will add it to the rest of the fleet as the ships go through their next refresh.
The event everyone looks most forward to on every Azamara cruise is the White Night party. During our overnight in Monte Carlo, the entire pool deck was dressed in white tablecloths and linens, and the culinary team pulled out all the stops with an over-the-top barbecue. Picture grilled lobsters, filet mignons, and every delicious side and sweet treat imaginable. The photo-ops were incredible – from the elaborate spread to the aptly dressed guests wearing everything from a splash of white to full-on white get-ups that included boas and top hats. After dinner, my white-clad table mates and I surrendered to the beckoning of the Azamara singers, dancers, and musicians and danced the night away.
While its shipboard life dazzles, Azamara really shines ashore. The company firmly believes in delivering the most immersive experiences in every destination by changing the way we “sea”. As other ships leave port by late afternoon, Azamara stays well into the evening, allowing guests to take in dinner shoreside or enjoy night touring after the crowds have departed.
In her inaugural season, the Onward will feature 85 late-night stays and 21 overnight visits on her Mediterranean itineraries. Before or after select sailings, Onward guests can add immersive land packages in Cappadocia, Istanbul, or the mythological centres of Greece.
Giving its guests the best opportunities to get to know each port, Azamara’s extensive shore excursion offerings include market tours, cooking lessons, the opportunity to meet local families, artists, historians, and proprietors of wineries, orchards, and more. For those who want to deep-dive into a specific country, voyages to Croatia, the Canary Islands, France, and Italy are all part of the Onward’s confirmed roster.
Club Veranda Bedroom
But by far, my favourite onshore event is the AzAmazing Evening, where on voyages seven days or longer, every guest is treated to a complimentary experience at an exclusive venue. Think private cellar tours and tastings in Andalucia, a classical concert overlooking the cliffs of Amalfi, a beach party in Ibiza, and dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant in the Basque country.
New this year and to complement AzAmazing Evening is AzAmazing Day, the same concept except taking place during the day. On our visit to Portovenere, Italy, Azamara literally took over the village for the entire morning, setting up local food, music, and cultural stations for us to enjoy as we meandered through its cobblestoned streets.
With busy days ashore, guests often turn in early each night. But the energetic bunch can take in the small-scale performances in the Cabaret Lounge or dance off dinner with the DJ in The Living Room. The complimentary classes and equipment at the fitness centre come in handy after days of gastronomic indulges, and the Sanctum Spa provides much-needed relaxation and pampering.
At full capacity, the Onward only carries 684 guests and its small size facilitates easy interactions with fellow guests. Small ships typically attract experienced and congenial travellers interested in meeting others. And with cozy lounges and restaurants operating under a dine-with-whoever-you-like set-up, there are ample chances to meet new friends and establish rapport.
Attending to the Onward’s guests are 408 crew members who are always ready with a warm greeting and are eager to fulfill guests’ desires. Another benefit of smaller ships – the crew members had the time to chat and get to know my preferences. It’s common to see guests reunited with crew members they met on previous voyages and to witness the camaraderie that has lasted throughout the years. Crew gratuities are included in the fare, so there’s one less detail to worry about while enjoying a fantastic time onboard.
After completing her inaugural European season, Azamara Onward will reposition to Miami for a series of Caribbean and South American sailings. She will return to Europe for an encore season in March 2023, and in January 2024, she will embark on her first world voyage.
Basilica Notre Dame de la Garde overlooks the old harbour of Marseille.
Written by Ming Tappin for Cruise & Travel Lifestyles (Fall/Winter 2022-23)
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