This blog was written by Matt Long of LandLopers. Matt was invited to travel aboard Azamara Club Cruises.
As a travel blogger, writer and photographer, I travel fairly often and when I travel I do so in any number of ways. Solo trips, tours and traveling with friends are all ways I like to spend my time away from home. One of my favorite travel styles though is cruising and over the last decade or so I’ve done everything from sail on large mega-ships to join small expeditionary cruises to the far reaches of the planet. I’m a firm believer that there really is a cruise for everyone, whether they realize it or not. That’s one reason why I was so happy to recently partner with Azamara Club Cruises, to continue my evangelism of a style of travel that I think sometimes is misunderstood. I was also excited to see what makes Azamara tick, to understand why so very many people sing their praises and why their journeys are so very highly rated. Sailing from Barcelona to Rome, the Western Mediterranean was the perfect first introduction and while I thought I knew what to expect, I was happily surprised throughout the experience, from those amazing onboard experiences to being immersed in local cultures. To share what the Azamara experience is really like, I thought I would explore a few of those ways in which I was surprised, to demonstrate what makes this one of the most distinctive cruise lines in the world.
Staff Makes the Difference
At first blush, this may seem like a gimmee point to make. I mean, one expects great service from any luxury or boutique travel experience, right? Well, as a luxury travel writer I can say definitively that while we may all expect it, an extremely high level of service is actually difficult to find. For exceptional service, everything has to be perfect. It takes years of training and a corporate outlook that is positive and encouraging. The stars have to align in every way, which is why so few travel experiences attain this vaunted level of customer satisfaction. Even given this extremely high bar, after a week sailing with Azamara I can say without hesitation that they have captured this unicorn of the travel world through levels of service that are amongst the best I’ve ever seen. I noticed it right away, and it’s not just about making sure everything goes right onboard. It’s also about attitude, and after about an hour on the Quest I was almost overwhelmed by the kindness shared by every member of the staff. Throughout the week there was no such thing as a problem. Every issue was quickly and easily dealt with, ensuring my experience was as enjoyable as possible. Bad service isn’t just unpleasant, it can destroy an entire trip. Even worse, it usually sours our opinions of the experience, whether it’s a hotel or a cruise. All of the mechanics of a cruise can be perfect, but if the crew fails at providing excellent service, then it’s all for naught. Happily, Azamara understands this and has created a culture of extraordinary service that is nearly unparalleled.
Ports of Call That Aren’t Standard
A distinct advantage that Azamara enjoys over other cruise lines is its size. With only 690 fellow passengers onboard, the smaller ship size means that it can visit ports of call the mega-ships could never fit into. As a traveler, I loved the opportunity to visit cities and ports of call that I never thought I’d see, much less on a cruise. One of my problems with some cruise lines is that they aren’t creative when it comes down to planning itineraries. I don’t want to be one of 10 ships in port that day, I want to feel as if I have the place to myself and with Azamara I enjoyed that experience day after day. Once docked, the smaller port size in most cases made it easy to get out and about, whether I joined an excursion offered by the ship or ventured off on my own. It was a more intimate, more private experience and at the end of the day, that’s one of the reasons why we travel. We travel to connect with local destinations and the people who live there and the ports of call frequented by Azamara make this easy to accomplish. One of my favorite smaller ports of call was Corsica and the city of Ajaccio. Made famous as the birthplace of Napoleon, the city has a lot to offer visitors from the languid beaches to the vibrant and colorful downtown with shops, restaurants and a daily farmer’s market that I guarantee is better than anything you have at home. Gathering the ingredients for a perfect picnic, I took my newfound snacks to the waterfront and enjoyed the ideal meal in the perfect place. If moments like that isn’t what we want from the travel experience, then I don’t know what is.
Onboard Cuisine is Exceptional
When choosing a cruise the first aspect I consider is not usually food. I’m much more interested in the itinerary and ports of call, but spending time on any ship means that food is an important aspect of the experience. Based on my time spent on the Azamara Quest, I think it’s safe to say that the culinary options are amongst the best at sea. Food is actually an important aspect of any boutique travel experience, and Azamara knows this and gives passengers not only delicious bites, but plenty of options as well. Room service is the great unheralded hero of the ship and is how I started almost every day onboard the Quest, enjoying a quiet breakfast on my veranda before heading out for the day. Mainstays on board are the dining room – Discoveries Restaurant – as well as more casual options on the Patio Deck. The foodie highlight for me personally though were the two specialty restaurants, Aqualina and Prime C. The former is a modern Italian restaurant that quickly one me over with fresh, local ingredients prepared in ways I didn’t expect. This isn’t your standard trattoria and had I planned things a little better, I would have eaten there again and again. I also though enjoy a great steakhouse and onboard that meant a visit to Prime C was in order. With all of the classics we look for in any steakhouse, there were also some surprises included the delicious beignets for dessert. The star of Prime C though is of course the steak selection, one of the best I’ve enjoyed whether on land or at sea. No matter how you prefer to enjoy your meals, casual or more formal, there are plenty of options – more than I could try even in a week of sailing.
At the heart of the Azamara experience though I believe are the immersive local experiences offered to all passengers. These experiences occur in any number of ways, from the intimacy of smaller ports and easy-to-access dock locations, to the many times unique excursions offered by Azamara. One of my favorite local experiences was a market tour in Corsica, where I assembled that lunch I mentioned. Following a general tour of the city, our guide took us to the market and slowly walked us through the various stalls, explaining the local foods and delicacies, most of which one finds only on Corsica. Following the crash course into all things edible, we stopped and enjoyed a snack of local meats, cheeses and wine, soaking up the warm sunshine and enjoying each other’s company. It was a fun morning for sure, but it also connected us to the local community in a way impossible to replicate on our own. Having a local share her city and her favorite foods with us was a once in a lifetime opportunity, just one of many on the weeklong cruise. During the course of the trip there were many such experiences offered, from biking through local communities to special events just for Azamara passengers. The overall program is one of the best I’ve ever seen for connecting guests with local destinations and it transformed the trip from a nice vacation into a travel experience I know I’ll never forget.
These are just some of the many ways I wasn’t only surprised by my first voyage with Azamara, but in which my own lofty expectations were quickly surpassed. For those of us who enjoy smaller, boutique and bespoke experiences, this is certainly one of the best choices and definitely the most fun.
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