Azamara fans are eagerly awaiting Azamara Quest’s first Australian season in 2015-16. Sally Macmillan takes a Black Sea cruise to find out what we can expect.
Purists may say that Azamara Club Cruises is despoiling the English language by creating its own marketing jargon. Fans will beg to differ.
“Azamazing”, a word created by its president to describe the line’s unique experiences, does sum up the way the vessels look at cruising.
Instead of packing in more ports, they linger longer for what they describe as “deep immersion”. They sail late, so guests can take in more sights and tour at night.
After three exciting days exploring Istanbul, we board the Azamara Quest for a seven-night Black Sea cruise. We head north up the Bosphorus, the narrowest strait in the world that’s used for international navigation, towards the Black Sea, and have two days to get acquainted with the ship before our first port of call.
For its inaugural Australian season, the Azamara Quest will sail five voyages ranging from 10 to 17 nights, starting with a Christmas and New Year journey on December 22, 2015 from Bali to Cairns.
The Quest is a 686-passenger ship that’s virtually identical to its fleet mate, Azamara Journey. Having cruised on Journey from Athens to Rome a couple of years ago, we are keen to see new destinations with a cruise line we’d both thoroughly enjoyed.
The ships have an interesting history, being part of a fleet of eight built for Renaissance Cruises between 1998 and 2001; Quest was ‘R7’. Azamara spent nearly US$20 million on refurbishing Quest in 2007, then another US$20 million on twin makeovers for the ships in 2012.
When we sailed on Journey, we were lucky to be upgraded to one of the most spacious suites I’ve ever stayed in – the Club World Owner’s Suite. This time we are in a Club Veranda Stateroom on Deck 7, which is obviously not nearly as big but has plenty of room for two people and has a good-sized balcony.
The bathroom is pretty compact; apparently some people head for the showers in the spa on Deck 9 when they feel the need for space while performing their ablutions.
As well as refurbishing both ships’ fixtures and fittings, Azamara has made some recent changes to its cruise offerings. Fares now include most soft and alcoholic drinks, the line’s signature AzAmazing Evenings (complimentary cultural events onshore), and free shuttles in many ports.
Wining, dining and trying to keep fit
Over the course of two sea days, we sample lunch at Windows Cafe (the buffet on Deck 9), dinner at Discoveries (the main dining room on Deck 5), breakfast on the aft deck (Sunset bar, outside Windows Café) and another dinner at the Mediterranean-style Aqualina (one of the two extra-charge specialty restaurants). There is a jazz brunch at Discoveries one morning, and afternoon tea is served there on sea days. The Mosaic Café does really good coffee, tea, cakes and pastries; edibles are free but coffee and tea cost a little extra.
Windows is our favourite spot for breakfast and lunch – the food is fresh, varied and tasty – and of the ship’s two specialty restaurants we much prefer Prime C, where we eat a few days later, for its décor, atmosphere and menu choices.
In an attempt to ward off the cruise kilojoules we sign up for free Pilates, yoga and stretch classes with Andrew Millard, the personal trainer in the fitness centre. The charming Canadian makes classes fun – and it always helps to have wide-open sea views from the gym’s floor-to-ceiling windows. The gym is well equipped with treadmills, stationery bikes and elliptical trainers. Andrew offers personal training, individually tailored diet and exercise regimens and body composition analysis (BCA), for an extra charge.
Bulgaria and Romania
The first port of call is Nessebar, a Bulgarian seaside town that has a history stretching back some 3,000 years. The old city centre is a UNESCO World Heritage site; wander along the quaint cobbled streets and you’ll see medieval walls, ruined churches and attractive wooden buildings that date back to the 1800s. It is very quiet when we visit – apparently at the height of summer it is thronged by British tourists who come for the beach resorts.
Azamara offers three different tours of Nessebar and surrounds, including a wine-tasting trip into the countryside. We take ourselves off for an independent walking tour of the old city that includes a look at the art gallery inside the 13th-century Christ Pantocrator church, and a coffee stop in a pretty cafe; by the way, it’s a good idea to bring some currency for each of the countries on the itinerary as they don’t all accept euros.
The following day the ship docks at Constanta in Romania. Its main claim to fame is as a jumping off point for day trips to Bucharest and the Danube Delta. Several crew members tell us it isn’t really worth going into the town so we take their advice and spend a day on board, indulging in a couple of spa treatments and enjoying a lengthy chat with our entertaining cruise director, Russ Grieve. The library is another place to while away an hour or so – it is as lovely as I remember from Journey, refined and relaxing, and featuring a fireplace and beautifully painted ceiling.
Georgia and Turkey
After a day at sea we arrive in Batumi, Georgia in glorious sunshine. The harbourfront is an interesting mix of old and contemporary architecture; church spires and minarets jostle with cranes and high-rise buildings against a backdrop of wooded mountains. We take a local minibus to the botanical garden, which is set on 108 hectares on the coast, about nine kilometres north of the city centre. There are nine distinct areas within the garden planted with trees, shrubs and flowers from all over the world, including Mexico, New Zealand, Japan and the Mediterranean. For a small fee you can jump on an open-sided electric bus, which stops at strategic points for photo opportunities.
The cruise’s AzAmazing Evening is an exclusive performance for the ship’s passengers by the Georgian National Dance Company. It’s held at Batumi’s State Musical Centre, an attractive modern building a short drive from the port. Everyone is spellbound by the dancers’ energy, the swirling costumes and stories of love and war. Later we learn that the dancers are all aged between 18 and 21 – perhaps not surprising considering the sheer muscle power poured into the performances.
When we return to the ship we are greeted by a jazz band and our crew bearing post-concert drinks. A crowd gathers on the dock as we embark, feeling like royalty. Sailing out of Batumi on the inky Black Sea under a three-quarter moon is a magical experience.
The historic trading port of Trabzon in north-eastern Turkey is our last destination before we return to Istanbul. The ship’s whistle scatters a flotilla of colourful wooden fishing boats as we head into the harbour, a big industrial hub surrounded by buildings climbing up the hillsides. The city itself is described as a “mini Istanbul” with its Byzantine bazaars, winding streets, Aya Sofya church (now a museum) and Ataturk Pavilion. We only have time for a quick walk through on our way to find a local minibus to take us to the 1,000-year-old Sumela Monastery, 47 kilometres south of Trabzon.
The drive is spectacular, through steep wooded hills and valleys punctuated by a rushing river and waterfalls, and takes about an hour. The monastery, perched on the side of a 1,200m-high mountain, is a major attraction and crowded with visitors even though you have to climb a steep path and dozens of steps to reach it. Highlights include the Rock Church, which is decorated by frescoes from the 13th through to 18th centuries, and the kitchen, students’ rooms, chapels and library. It is gradually being restored by the Turkish government and the surrounding area, Altindere Valley, is now a national park.
It is a shame that Azamara Quest’s original itinerary, which included visits to Odessa and Sevastapol, had to be changed due to the crisis in Ukraine.
Ports of Istanbul, Batumi, Trabzon; dinner at Prime C; comedy show; artworks around the ship.
Windows’ alfresco dining area was often crowded; poky bathroom; port of Constanta.