Stilt walkers and jugglers paraded on the dock at Monte Carlo to celebrate the launch of Azamara’s fourth ship, Azamara Onward, which was named, or rather, renamed on May 2 by US-based entrepreneur Beth Santos.

The vessel, one of eight identical ships built in 1999 for the long-defunct Renaissance Cruises, is a sister to Azamara’s other three ships, Journey, Quest and Pursuit. Azamara acquired Onward last year from Princess Cruises, where she sailed as Pacific Princess, and spent US$50 million on a much-needed revamp.

The reason cruise lines race to snap up these R-Class ships, as they’re called, is their size. Carrying just 684 passengers each, they’re small enough to dock in the heart of interesting ports, staying true to Azamara’s philosophy and selling point of “destination immersion”. On my four-day preview cruise, we moored a stone’s throw from the atmospheric Vieux Port in Marseille. Across the bay, I could see several bigger ships crowded into the big-ship dock, 10 kilometres from the city centre.

We also dropped anchor just off the gorgeous town of Portovenere on the Ligurian Riviera, a short tender journey to the waterfront. Here again, I could see bigger ships passing us
by for the less lovely port of La Spezia. And in Monaco, we were surrounded by gleaming mega-yachts belonging to mysterious oligarchs.

Despite their small size, Azamara’s ships offer plenty of choice. You’ll find four restaurants for dinner, for example. There are enough bars and lounges to create a sense of space, and a stylish, spacious pool deck with smart new grey padded loungers.

The public areas are done out in shades of pale grey, gold, stone and cream, inspired by the colours of water, sand, wood and stone. The suites are beautiful, gleaming new, with furnishings in pale grey and creamy white, and smart bathrooms. Australians, one of the crew told me, who tend to opt for longer voyages, prefer the Club Continent suites, which are wider than the standard cabins, filled with light and have a brand new bathroom with walk-in shower.

There are always going to be issues when it comes to refitting a 23-year-old ship. My issue was with the standard balcony cabins, which make up the bulk of the accommodation. They’ve certainly been revamped – the carpets feel new, the beds are extremely comfortable and the robes suitably fluffy – but not completely, in that the woodwork is dark and chipped and my sofa was stained. The bathrooms are tiny, something you can’t change, but does anybody ever enter a cabin and say, “Oh good, a shower curtain”?

Having said that, a lot can be forgiven when the food and service are as good as Onward offers. The mainly Asian crew is delightful – intuitive, thoughtful and cheerful – and friendly without being obsequious. There’s real interaction between passengers and the officers.  Some captains have a following, as does talented cruise director Eric de Gray, who is on Onward for the maiden season and performs several shows during the course of a voyage.

Food punches above its weight. The lunchtime buffets in the Windows Café are exceptional, with a huge salad bar and an impressive assortment of hot dishes, cheeses and dainty desserts. The two speciality restaurants, Italian-influenced Aqualina and the steakhouse Prime C, are gorgeous, located high on the ship with dreamy sunset views and some seriously impressive dishes. My seabass with a creamy risotto in Aqualina was faultless.

You do have to pay US$30 per person for these, though, and suite passengers get priority (and also don’t pay), so book early during your cruise. I love the little bar in Prime C, too; even if you’re not dining there, it’s an elegant and peaceful spot for a pre-dinner martini.

If you can’t get into the speciality restaurants, try to bag a table at the rear of Discoveries, the elegant main dining room, where you’re overlooking the ship’s wake. Or have dinner in the Windows Café, where there’s a table d’hôte menu in the evenings as opposed to a buffet, and tables out on the sunny aft deck.

Onward has some new features, too, making it stand out from its sisters. There’s a new shop selling tasteful clothing, sustainably made bags, ceramics and beauty products from around the Mediterranean. There’s also a new drinking venue, Atlas Bar, aft on Deck 10, in the space that used to be the library. Done out in shades of gold and aqua, this elegant, cosy bar has a limited menu of special, destination-themed cocktails that cost US$17.95 each, unless you’ve bought the ultimate drinks package, in which case they’re included.

I fell immediately for the Mumbai Hug: chilli-infused Grey Goose vodka over ice, with ginger syrup and a garnish of lime and coriander. It was like the freshest of curries in a glass. Other offerings include the London Fog Martini: Earl Gray-infused Tanqueray, lemon and simple syrup served under a dramatically smoking dome. You can pair the cocktails with decadent tapas, from shots of wagyu beef in broth to melt-in-the-mouth arancini which you inject with a pomodoro sauce before biting into them, although there’s a charge for these.

Azamara says its real selling point is “destination immersion” and Atlas Bar is certainly a creative nod to this. But what is destination immersion? Even as recently as a few years ago, any cruise line that went beyond the unimaginative city tour by coach was considered adventurous, so Azamara did stand out then. But nowadays, everybody is offering immersive, experiential tours. Look at Silversea with its S.A.L.T. programme of food-themed excursions, for example.

I asked Azamara’s president Carol Cabezas where the line sits among competitors, which presumably include lines like Oceania and Viking, with similar sized ships and an emphasis on culture. She quickly put me straight: “Our focus on how we design our voyages is differentiating us. And how we plan our land experiences. Viking, for example, never even used to publish which ship you’d be on, or what time you were arriving or leaving. We tell you. Statistically, we have the longest amount of time in port than any other line in the industry. While our ships are lovely, we understand that the guest is coming for the destinations and we are giving them the opportunity to experience day and night.”

These late sailings are certainly a bonus, especially in the Mediterranean, when evening to many is the best part of the day. For example, on a 10-night cruise to Greece later this season, there are late departures from five ports: Mykonos, Volos, Kavala, Kusadasi and Santorini.

What really persuaded me that Azamara is different, though, was the effort and attention to detail that went into our AzAmazing Day in the pretty Italian town of Portovenere. These special days ashore have temporarily replaced the AzAmazing Evenings, which, before Covid, took all the ship’s passengers ashore to a local cultural event, often a concert or a performance in a special venue. Covid restrictions and the unpredictability of local rules mean that the evening has for now morphed into a daytime event designed to show off local food and culture.

Portovenere itself is exquisite, a waterfront of skinny old houses in gelato shades of pale pink and creamy yellow, backed by forested hills. We jumped off the tender and were directed by Azamara flags to a jetty, where local caterers had set up ravishing displays of Italian specialties. This is how I found myself munching on sweet, ricotta-filled cannoli at breakfast time, and sampling an Aperol spritz with a sharp local cheese and a vegetable filo pie before downing my double espresso. We wandered around the town to discover an opera trio singing in the grounds of the old fort. A jazz band played in one of the narrow streets. The town was the perfect setting for the event and locals, too, were stopping to listen to the music.

The AzAmazing days are a bonding experience for the passengers and by the following night, everybody was ready for the White Night party, held against the glittering backdrop of Monte Carlo, the pool deck festooned in white bunting. The crew laid on an enormous feast: a bouillabaisse station, mountains of lobster, moules marinière, steak, barbecued chicken, dainty desserts and French cheeses. Cruise director Eric led the band and everybody danced on deck. I bet those oligarchs were looking on from their superyachts in envy.


Favourite shore excursion: The Best of Cinque Terre day, which involved travelling by boat along the craggy Ligurian coastline past the five candy-coloured villages of the Cinque Terre, clinging to the hillside. We stopped in Vernazza for coffee, then took the train that runs along the coast to Monterosso, for a long, leisurely lunch of pasta con salsa di nocci (a deliciously creamy walnut sauce) and zucchini fritti, followed by a paddle in the still-cold sea.

The most surprising thing about the ship: Passengers have really embraced the new Atlas Bar, which was packed both before and after dinner. It’s a much better use of the space than the library; if you want somewhere quiet to read, there are plenty of nooks and crannies in The Den on deck five. You do have
to pay extra for the fancy cocktails
but regular drinks are part of the all-inclusive deal.

What to pack? Smart casual, with comfortable shoes as you’re likely to do a lot of walking. There are no formal nights on Azamara. Remember something white for the White Night party, which takes place once per cruise; everybody makes an effort for this, although I did spot one woman attending in her white bathrobe.

The Verdict

Highs: The intimate size of the ship, superb food on offer, personal service, and late nights in port.AzAmazing Days are an excellent way to immerse into destinations.

Lows: Standard cabins still look a bit tired, despite the refit. Specialty cocktails are a little pricey.

Verdict: Perfect for adults wanting an immersive itinerary and a friendly, small-ship vibe.