After a hasty launch in 2007, Azamara Club Cruises undertook an ambitious overhaul last year to reinvent itself and create an intriguing new category in the cruise industry: ‘luxury lite’.
It is late on New Year’s Eve and we’re standing on the deck of Azamara Quest with the neon lights of downtown Saigon – that’s Ho Chi Minh City – flickering all around us. As the minutes tick by, the expressway near the pier quickly becomes packed with thousands of people on motorbikes, gathering for the celebrations.
Around us, Quest’s hard-working crew ignores the heat and humidity, handing out glasses of sparkling wine and party hats. As the clock strikes midnight, the sky comes alive with the colour and sound of fireworks, a band strikes up, and guests and crew alike start dancing.
It is a memorable night and, as it turns out, just one of many on our first cruise with Azamara Club Cruises. We’d joined Azamara Quest in Singapore just over a week earlier for an 18-night cruise to Hong Kong, with high expectations of a relative newcomer in the industry that claims to have carved a distinct niche for itself. Dubbed ‘luxury lite’, it’s a hybrid product that sits between premium and five-star but, as we discovered, has plenty to offer cruisers who enjoy luxury but have an eye for a bargain.
Like sister ship Azamara Journey, Quest once belonged to the now-defunct Renaissance fleet, cruising under the names Delphin Renaissance and R Seven before being snapped up by what was then Azamara Cruises in 2007. Like her sister, she’s a ‘boutique’ ship, accommodating a maximum of 777 guests and offering many unusual features.
Her décor is one of them: more ‘contemporary traditional’ than modern, with the feel of a French country mansion, Quest is elegantly styled. Her public areas have dark leather-panelled walls, trompe l’oeil ceilings and detailed cornices, rich blue carpeting and drapes, modern artworks, marble fireplaces and comfortable lounge chairs.
For a small-to-mid-sized ship, Quest also has more than her fair share of quality dining options. The primary venue, Discoveries, is an open-seating affair; Windows Café is a casual, part-alfresco buffet; and there are two specialty restaurants located forward on deck 10, both with terrific views and attracting a surcharge of US$15 a head but free for suite guests. Prime C is a classic steakhouse from its décor to menu, while Aqualina Restaurant offers American-style cuisine with Mediterranean flair. Both include top-quality wines in the price.
Quest has four basic types of accommodation to choose from: interior staterooms, ocean-view staterooms, verandah staterooms and suites. All feature similarly plush décor and each boasts a sitting area, a refrigerator with mini-bar, a flatscreen TV and wi-fi accessibility.
Our verandah stateroom on Deck 7 is elegantly appointed and just spacious enough for a long-range cruise. The only drawback is the size of the bathroom, which is poky, has a toilet situated at an odd angle and is somewhat short on refinement.
Another point of difference typical of new-style Azamara Club Cruises voyages is the itinerary, which is heavy on unusual ports of call and features longer stays in port, including more overnight visits. The latter, in particular, overturns a widespread criticism of cruising: that you get to visit many places but don’t generally have enough time ashore to see them properly.
On our cruise, for example, we have overnight stays at both ends of the itinerary as well as in Halong Bay and Saigon (Vietnam), and a two-night, three-day stint in Bangkok to celebrate Christmas.
As onboard facilities go, Quest isn’t anything out of the ordinary compared
with other small-to-mid-sized ships today. She has a spacious sun deck with a pool and two jacuzzi spas, a decent fitness centre, a small but full-service spa, an aft-deck thalassotherapy hot tub, an internet centre, a chic European-style café, and plenty of nooks and crannies in which to escape the crowds.
The ‘luxury lite’ tag really comes into play when you examine what’s included in the cruise fare – inclusions being a major part of the line’s 2010 overhaul. Falling just short of the all-inclusive experience offered by cruise lines such as Regent Seven Seas Cruises (RSSC) and Seabourn, Azamara charges no extra for bottled water, sodas and fresh juices, house wines at lunch and dinner, and specialty coffees.
Shuttle-bus rides are also free in ports where transport is deemed necessary,
and all onboard gratuities are included in your fare.
Overall, the Azamara experience well exceeded our expectations, scoring highly on a number of fronts. The food was top-quality, the ship was nicely appointed, and the crew was almost impossible to fault. And for cruisers who like to travel in style but enjoy value for money, this is a cruise line that’s unlikely to disappoint.
The longer than usual stays in port, the sushi bar, the excellent crew
• The pokey bathroom
• 2 for 1 beers in restaurants only
Fares for a seven-night cruise of the Greek Islands, a round-trip from Athens departing on June 11, start from $2,250 per person, twin share. For more information, call 1800 754 500 or visit www.azamaraclubcruises.com.