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Investing several million dollars refurbishing its popular small ships is paying off big time for Azamara Club Cruises. Sally Macmillan checks out the changes on a recent New Zealand cruise onboard Azamara Journey.

The first thing I notice when boarding Azamara Journey in Auckland is how light and bright everything looks. It’s been four years since I cruised on this popular small ship and since then its chintzy furnishings and dark wood panelling have been replaced by soft-coloured, contemporary interiors in a massive $33 million makeover.

Of course, it helps that the sun is shining, but when I check into my spacious Club Veranda stateroom the natural sand and white colour scheme and fresh flowers on the desk create an instantly uplifting impression.

Azamara Journey Club Spa Suite

The Club Spa Suite on the Azamara Journey

All the suites and staterooms have been redesigned and two spa suites were added on deck 9, adjacent to the swish new Sanctum Spa. The bathroom in my stateroom is as small as I recall – complete with clingy shower curtain – but you can’t change everything. Useful additions include USB ports under the bedside lights and an adequate number of power-points by the desk; I didn’t use the interactive iTV much but apparently it can be used for just about everything except making tea.

After a spirited pre-sailaway display of Maori music and dance on the pool deck I head off to the Sunset Bar – the al fresco section of Windows Café – for an excellent seafood barbecue dinner. Azamara Journey’s restaurants, cafes and lounges have all been updated and The Patio, a semi-outdoor restaurant next to Windows on the pool deck, is a new venue. I enjoy a few lunches at The Patio but it seems to lack atmosphere in the evenings. Maybe the lighting isn’t quite right.

Discoveries, the main restaurant, is positively buzzing when I join a group of solo travellers there after a day out in the Bay of Islands. It’s my first solo cruise for a long time and I’m loving it – the ship is the perfect size for easy socialising and the onboard atmosphere is relaxed and friendly. All my dining companions are women, apart from our host Tony Markey, the cruise director; most are American with a few Aussies, Kiwis and Poms in the mix.

Azamara Journey Aqualina restaurant

Onboard restaurant Aqualina

The food is, again, very good indeed and the service is upbeat and (mostly) very attentive. Drinks are now included in the fare although if you don’t fancy the nightly wine selection at dinner you can always order from the extensive wine list.

Paul Draper, an American magician I’d met on a shore excursion in the Bay of Islands earlier in the day, is performing in the Cabaret Lounge that evening, so I leave dinner just before the all-too tempting desserts are served to watch him perform his tricks. It’s a spellbinding show – this unassuming, ponytailed man turns into a whip-smart, tuxedoed entertainer and he’s playing to a full house.

Azamara has partnered with New York supper club Feinstein’s/54 Below to create 54 Below at Sea, a program that brings leading Broadway talent onboard. This cruise is the first to feature the program and I see two more shows, both starring the charming, talented swing singer, Scotsman Glenn Macnamara. I first meet Glenn at the pool bar, where we have an interesting conversation about the pros and cons of performing on a cruise ship.

“Audiences on a ship don’t have to come along – they have nothing invested in a ticket so they can wander off mid-show if they feel like it,” he says. “My challenge is to keep them in their seats then get them out of their seats to give me an ovation at the end.” Seeing your audience around the ship can be rewarding, or occasionally not so much – “you become part of their vacation and people tell you exactly what they think about your act. When you do stage door at a theatre in UK you do five or 10 minutes, signing autographs or posing for photos, then get in a taxi and go home. But on a ship, the ship is your stage door.”

I’m happy to report Glenn received standing ovations at both shows I attend and during the four days he was onboard he was often spotted chatting with admiring passengers.

Live music, karaoke and late-night dance sessions are held in the newly transformed Living Room (formerly the Looking Glass Lounge) on deck 10. During the day it’s an attractive space where tea, coffee and light bites are served, and from late afternoon it becomes a wine and tapas bar. One thing that hasn’t changed is the elegant Drawing Room, the library that features a gorgeous painted trompe l’oeil ceiling.

Destination immersion is one of Azamara’s main selling points. The standout on this cruise is the AzAmazing Evening at Wellington Cathedral, a concert performed by Orchestra Wellington and conducted by Marc Taddei, who is well known to aficionados of classical music. I’m not one of these but even I recognise most of the opera arias; it’s an enthralling performance.

Before we arrive in Wellington, I join an excursion to Waitangi, in the Bay of Islands – a well-organised, informative walking tour – and a minibus trip from Tauranga to Rotorua. Small-group tours are a great way to get to know fellow passengers and our driver-guide keeps up an entertaining patter on the 45-minute drive.

At Te Puia, Rotorua, we enjoy the full tourist experience of Maori storytelling and dance in the Meeting House, puffing geysers, bubbling mud pools and a sighting of kiwi chicks in the nocturnal bird house. Soaking in geothermal pools at the Polynesian Spa after lunch is blissful, and we agree we’d rather linger longer there than stop off at a kiwifruit farm on the way back to the ship.

I do my own thing in the pretty Art Deco town of Napier, meeting friends at the nearby Clearview Estate winery for lunch. It’s a beautiful spot, set among vineyards on the shores of Hawkes Bay, and once again we are blessed by perfect summer weather. By the time we reach Picton, south of Wellington, the temperature has dropped considerably but that doesn’t prevent the sea-kayaking adventure in Queen Charlotte Sound from going ahead. It’s another small-group tour and it turns out to be enormous fun, as well as being incredibly scenic. And surely paddling 14 kilometres must cancel out a bit of added cruise weight…

Although I leave the ship in Dunedin mid-cruise and don’t have time to look around, I know from past experience that it’s a city well worth spending a day in.

Azamara Journey and Quest will be joined by Azamara Pursuit in August this year, following a major refurbishment that will take about three months to complete. She is nearly identical to her two sisters – a Renaissance R-class ship, most recently sailing as Adonia for P&O Cruises UK – and no doubt she will be as busy and sought-after as her fleetmates.

Azamara Journey in Sydney at night

The Azamara Journey docked in Sydney Harbour

The Verdict

HIGHS: Fantastic food in all dining venues; upbeat, relaxed atmosphere; AzAmazing Evening; and what’s included in the fare. That is, gratuities, self-service laundry, soft drinks, standard wine, beer and spirits, decent coffee and tea, shuttle buses to city centres (where available), and butler service for suite guests.

LOWS: Several guests mentioned the website was extremely difficult to navigate when booking the cruise or excursions; excursions are pricy; and why not put tea and coffee machines in the staterooms?

BEST SUITED TO: 40-plus couples and singles who prefer a ‘smart casual’ dress code to formal nights. Azamara ships are not set up for children.

Fact File

CRUISE LINE: Azamara Club Cruises

VESSEL: Azamara Journey

STAR RATING: 4+

PASSENGER CAPACITY: 690

TOTAL CREW: 408

ENTERED SERVICE: 2000/2007

TONNAGE: 30,277

FACILITIES: Five restaurants, six lounges/cafes/bars, two pools (one is the Thalassotherapy pool), Sanctum Spa, fitness centre, hair salon, jogging track, self-service laundry, shops, Cabaret Lounge theatre, casino.

BOOKINGS: Azamara Quest will sail four voyages between Australia and New Zealand in 2019; 16-night Melbourne to Auckland, departing January 6; 16-night Auckland to Sydney, departing January 22; 14-night Sydney to Auckland, departing February 7; and 15-night Auckland to Cairns, departing February 21. From $5,129 per person, twin share (interior stateroom).
azamaraclubcruises.com.