Everything begins with history. Flowers grow from decay. New cities rise on the ruins of old. Businesses fail, creating opportunity for others.
Take the case of Renaissance Cruises. Formed in 1989, the line was all about changing the cruise paradigm, selling direct to customers rather than through agents, building smallish ships in a supersized era, and concentrating on long, destination-intensive itineraries rather than the usual 7-night slog. By 2001 it had a fleet of ten ships, eight of them identical 684-passenger "R-class" vessels with the vibe of small boutique hotels.
And then they went bankrupt.
It wasn't a sudden thing: The line had been in shallow financial waters for some time, and then the post-9/11 travel downturn finished them off. RIP Renaissance, but what to do with those eight lovely little ships, some of which had only just been launched?
They didn't go homeless for long. Within a couple of years, three had ended up with Oceania Cruises (www.oceaniacruises.com), a new line formed by former Renaissance CEO Frank Del Rio, and two had been snapped up by Princess Cruises (www.princess.com). The remaining three were out with smaller lines in Europe, but soon they too were drawn back into the American cruise orbit. Late last year, Princess arranged to take possession of the former R8 from Swan Hellenic and rename her Royal Princess. Meanwhile, Royal Caribbean bought Spain's Pullmantur Cruises and arranged for its two R-class ships, the former R6 and R7, to go to sister-company Celebrity Cruises (www.celebrity.com) in exchange for Celebrity's old Zenith. Celebrity announced plans to rename the two R-class ships Celebrity Journey and Celebrity Quest and use them as part of their Xpeditions sub-brand, concentrating on longer, out-of-the-way itineraries.
But then they changed their mind.
Instead, Celebrity has created a whole new line around the two vessels, a line called Azamara Cruises (tel. 877/999-9553; www.azamaracruises.com). Earlier this month I sailed aboard Azamara Journey, getting an early peek at what Celebrity has in mind.
The Idea Behind Azamara
The idea behind Azamara is pretty much the same idea that animates the operation of all the former Renaissance vessels, whoever they sail for: smaller, more intimate ships sailing longer itineraries, visiting out-of-the-ordinary ports, and offering a casual yet country-clubbish experience, with extra-special service. So am I saying Azamara is just ripping off Oceania -- and, by extension, Renaissance? Nope. Fact is, there are only so many different kinds of cruise experiences, and this is the kind these ships were made for. Call it a nature-versus-nurture scenario: The DNA of the former Renaissance ships virtually dictates that they be used for long, exploratory itineraries, which tend to appeal to fewer (and richer) passengers, who tend to prefer a quiet, casual, adult atmosphere. The ships' smallish size also means they're able to access almost any port around the world. Conversely, their size is a liability for, say, weekly runs in the Caribbean, where lines tend to seek economies of scale -- the more people you can pack aboard a single ship, the more money you can make.
The "nurture" part comes in around the edges, in the ship's manners and customs, the way it's dressed, and the cut of its jib.
So here's what I can report: Azamara is a very adult product, with most of the cheesiness and obviousness of the typical mainstream cruise stripped away. It's an old-fashioned product, relying on social interaction and small-scale activities rather than tech gimmicks to give the onboard experience momentum. Overall (and like Oceania), Azamara offers an experience that straddles the mainstream and luxe segments of the cruise biz -- somewhere between Celebrity and Crystal or Regent. On the pool deck, a quiet jazz trio replaces the kind of loud pop/reggae bands found on most mainstream ships, and in the cafe you'll often find a harpist plucking out traditional and classical tunes, spiced with pop standards.
Service is exceptional, from the butlers who attend all cabins (performing services like shining shoes, helping with packing/unpacking, serving meals and hors d'oeuvres, and assisting with dining and spa reservations) to little touches like cold towels offered at the gangway after a hot day in port. At dinner, things are entirely flexible -- just show up when you like, either at the main restaurant, at two reservations-only alternatives, or at a casual but still waiter-serviced option in the buffet restaurant. Onboard activities run from the usual (bingo, napkin folding, team trivia) to the unusual, including poetry reading/writing get-togethers and seminars on the Afrikaans language. At night you can take in a floor show at the theater, catch a performance by a guest magician or comedian, do the karaoke thing, watch a late-night movie, or enjoy music in several of the public rooms. Around the ship, even the piped-in background music is of a higher quality than you hear aboard most vessels, mixing jazz, standards, New Age-y selections, a few pop songs, and the occasional novelty number to get your attention.
A Tour of the Ship
Azamara Journey is exactly the kind of cruise ship I love: small-scale, cozy, and traditionally decorated, with an onboard vibe that's casual and quiet, but not too quiet. Like all the former Renaissance vessels, she's more boutique hotel than Vegas resort, with a decor that harks back to the golden age of ocean liners, all warm, dark woods, rich fabrics, and clubby, intimate public areas. When Celebrity took possession of the ship, they sunk some $19 million into major refurbishments, moving the walls around on some cabin decks to create 32 new suites, designing new specialty restaurants, expanding the spa, adding a cafe, and installing a new art collection, decking, carpets, paint schemes, bedding, cushions, drapes, table linens, and other soft goods. The result is a lovely, practically new-looking ship, with only a few dents in cabins corridors (courtesy of luggage carts) betraying the fact that she's already been in service for the better part of a decade, under several owners.
Cabins on Journey are divided into just seven configurations: standard inside and oceanview cabins, deluxe oceanview (with veranda), "Sunset" veranda cabins (all facing the bow or stern), Sky Suites, Royal Suites, and Penthouse Suites.
Standard inside, oceanview, and oceanview balcony cabins are all almost identical in size and amenities. Each has a sitting area with a sofa bed and small table, a flat-screen TV that's awkwardly mounted flush to the wall (meaning you can only watch straight-on from the couch), a mini-fridge, and a writing desk. Closet space is only just about adequate for the long itineraries Journey will be sailing, though an abundance of drawers and storage space under the bed help matters some. Bathrooms are on the small side, with a small shower stall and awkwardly angled toilet, and are stocked with Elemis bath products. Cabin decor is nicely understated, with off-white walls, wood-tone furnishings and headboard, and upholstery and carpeting done in easy-on-the-eyes blues and golds. More than half the accommodations on board are oceanview veranda cabins, which include a smallish 40-square-foot balcony -- big enough for a table and two chairs, but too small for lounge chairs.
Sky Suites add considerably to your elbow room, and add amenities like a 60-square-foot balcony, bathroom tub, and DVD/CD player. Royal Suites and Penthouse Suites have separate bedrooms and living rooms, balconies that run between 105 and 233 square feet, master baths with whirlpool tub and shower, a guest bathroom, and (Penthouses only) a dressing room with vanity.
Four cabins on each ship are wheelchair-accessible.
Public rooms on Journey are clustered on Decks 5, 9, and 10. On Deck 5 forward, the Cabaret has space to seat about half the passengers on board, mostly at comfortable chairs interspersed with cocktail tables. During my week aboard, Journey's production shows featured five singers/dancers backed by a live band, with the musical selections tilted toward American standards. While production shows aren't really my cup of tea, these get extra points for their intimacy (the Cabaret has no raised stage, so the performers are down at floor level, just steps from the audience), for the energy of their featured performers, and for their 100% live-ness, with no pre-recorded backing tracks or lip-synching involved. Other shows included an improv comedian, a Bermudian steel-pan player, a cabaret entertainer, and the very talented magician Carl Andrews, who's also performed aboard Crystal, NCL, HAL, Princess, Regent, and Celebrity. In addition to production shows, the room is used for late-night movies, bingo, and other activities.
Moving toward midships, there's a relatively large casino with a big-screen TV in one corner for sports events; the ship's two understated retail shops; and the Cova Cafe, a warm, inviting space that offers free tea sandwiches, cookies, and desserts from about 7am to 1am, along with fancy, extra-charge coffee drinks and teas. A harpist and pianist perform here regularly throughout the day. On my trip, harpist/vocalist Jacqueline Dolan dazzled during three hour-long sets per day, mixing classical, traditional, and popular melodies. A pianist performed in the evening, and a five-piece jazz band set up around the piano one night for an after-hours set.
On Deck 10 forward, the Looking Glass disco/observation lounge has wrap-around floor-to-ceiling windows, a dance floor, and cocktail tables for 2 and 4 set in a large but still comfortably intimate space. Toward midships, Michael's Club is a combination library and piano lounge that maintains a generally quiet, gentlemen's club feel, with dark wood bookcases and wall paneling, velvety couches, leather armchairs, oriental-patterned rugs, a chessboard, and a couple of globes showing the world that was. A faux fireplace, racing-dog ceramics, and a trompe l'oeil conservatory ceiling complete the picture. Afternoon tea is served here daily.
Outdoors, the pool deck offers one smallish pool, two hot tubs, and a bar, along with some of the best deck chairs I've ever seen -- heavy, wooden, and dressed in thick navy-blue cushions with flip-back pillows. On the small performance stage, a quiet jazz trio replaces the kind of thumping pop/reggae/dance band that's a fixture on most ships. On the rear port side of the deck, a covered seating area offers double-width deck lounges for couples. On warm days at sea, the pool deck can get very crowded, but a little walking (not much -- these are small ships) will net you much less crowded lounging spots on Sun Deck, two levels up. There's also a lovely little half-moon of sunning space and a hot tub just forward of the gym and spa. Shade worshippers can head to the Promenade Deck, which is filled with those same great deck chairs but gets little traffic.
Journey's gym, located just forward of the pool deck, offers treadmills, stationary bikes, elliptical trainers, dumbbells, weight machines, and a large aerobics floor. Though the space is not huge, it's adequate for the relatively small number of passengers on board, and only got crowded once during my cruise. Pilates, spinning, stretch, abs, and yoga classes are offered throughout the cruise. Next door there's a beauty salon and a suite offering acupuncture, laser hair removal, and microdermabrasion.
The ship's spa offers the usual array of massages, facials, manicures, pedicures, body-cleansing treatments, and wraps, as well as several expensive spa packages that bundle a number of treatments into a themed package. The "His Journey" package, for instance, combines a 55-minute deep-tissue sports massage with a 25-minute "Frangipani Hair & Scalp Conditioning Ritual" and a 55-minute "Pro-Collagen Grooming with Shave," the latter a succession of latherings, shaves, mild facial massages, and applications of fragrant goo that added up to the most enjoyable spa experience of my life, bar none. (Tip: The individual elements of the package can be booked separately, and there appears to be no real savings to booking them by the package.)
A corner of the pool deck has Ping-Pong tables, and shuffleboard and a small golf-putting green are available on Sun Deck.
Who's on Board
Though Azamara has only been in existence for four months, I can project the following: The line will likely draw from the typical cruise demographic, roughly ages 45 and up. The relatively long and unusual itineraries and the quiet onboard experience will probably appeal to a more cultured, accomplished crowd, while the higher-than-mass-market prices and the length of the itineraries will probably draw a large proportion of retirees. The lack of children's programming will limit the number of families with kids who book this line, while the stringent smoking regulations (the strictest in the mainstream and luxe categories, along with Oceania's) mean few smokers will book -- and those who do will be very unhappy.
Based on Celebrity's typical sales patterns, expect about 60% of the line's passengers on European sailings to be American, with the remaining 40% hailing from Europe and elsewhere.
What's on the Daily Calendar
A full roster of onboard activities identifies Azamara's roots in the mainstream, though the way it's spiced with truly unusual touches shows that the line is trying for more depth. At least in their start-up season, though, they had a ways to go to catch up with lines like Crystal and Cunard.
For those who like to stick to cruise ship tradition, there are pool games, team trivia contests, quizzes, darts and Ping-Pong tournaments, golf putting, shuffleboard, chess, bridge, bingo, spelling bees, and pet-lovers' get-togethers. There are also computer classes, digital photography seminars, golf clinics, and wine-appreciation seminars (some at extra cost), as well as culinary demonstrations, mixology clinics, and beauty and fitness clinics offered by the spa staff. For more unusual ways to spend an hour, you can attend improvisational acting or Shakespearean monologue workshops, poetry writing/reading get-togethers, and introductions to the Afrikaans language. The ship also offers a relatively large casino.
In the evenings, passengers can take in a show at the Cabaret, a jazz or classical set in one of the lounges, karaoke, or dancing in the disco.
What's for Dinner? (And Breakfast, and Lunch, and in-Between)
Dining on Azamara is a step up from Celebrity in both cuisine and presentation. Dining service -- which is excellent on Celebrity -- is at least as good here, and probably better. At mealtimes, passengers have full flexibility in terms of where, when, and with whom they dine. Dinner is available in four restaurants: one traditional, two specialty, and one casual.
Dining in Journey's country-clubbish main dining room is ideally a two-step process. First, you set a time to meet your friends at the clubby, wood-paneled Martini Bar, located just outside the maitre d's station. Set below Sistine Chapel-esque ceiling murals there's a chunky semicircular bar, couches, comfy armchairs, with a faux fireplace and curio cabinets separating it from the dining room itself. Next, get a table for dinner, preferably in the central portion of the room, where they seem to be more widely spaced than those along the periphery. Dinner is served within a 3.5-hour window, so you won't be rushed to get there.
Menus in the dining room run to five courses, with passengers able to choose among five appetizers, three soups, two salads, and five main courses. Appetizer selections included dishes like marinated and cured salmon in cucumber dill cream; beef, Gruyere, and caramelized onion turnover; wild mushroom and chicken quiche; and scallops with Thai curry sauce and coconut rice cake. Soups included oven-roasted tomato and garlic soup with goat cheese crostini; Louisiana gumbo with andouille sausage and okra; and rustic cannellini bean soup with beef, basil, roasted tomato, and olive oil. For main courses, there were herb-crusted South African white fish with toasted quinoa; sesame seared yellow-fin tuna steak with tamarind stir-fried Asian vegetables; New York strip steak with roasted potatoes, green beans, and blue cheese butter; penne pasta tossed with four cheeses; and beef short ribs braised in red Burgundy wine with creamy polenta, carrots, and turnips. In addition, you can always choose from an assortment of classic favorites (grilled filet of salmon with herb butter, lemon marinated roasted chicken, etc.). Unlike Celebrity, Azamara does not offer a dedicated vegetarian menu, though options like vegetarian curry can be made by request.
Up on Deck 10, Journey has two specialty, reservations-only restaurants. Passengers can dine here without charge once per cruise (twice per cruise for suite passengers), and are free to make as many additional reservations as they like at a charge of $25 per person.
Prime C is a classic steakhouse with a hardwood floor and dark wall paneling, a chunky bar, a mix of modern art and classic Hollywood photos, and wraparound windows. Appetizers here include chilled jumbo shrimp cocktail, beef carpaccio, crispy popcorn rock shrimp, and lump crab cake. There's also a selection of soups and salads. Main courses run just like you'd figure, with a choice of steaks (16-ounce cowboy bone- in ribeye, 12-ounce New York strip, 8-ounce filet mignon, or 8-ounce Kobe-style flatiron), chops (double-cut Colorado lamb chop, 14-ounce veal chop, or 12-ounce Berkshire pork chop), and "other" (including oven-roasted sea bass, sesame grilled tuna, roasted organic chicken, surf 'n' turf, or seafood papardelle). At the entrance to the restaurant, a raised table for 14 is set up in front of a glass-fronted wine locker, and is used for wine-appreciation seminars.
Right next door, Aqualina is a Mediterranean/American restaurant adorned with white faux pillars, a rich sea-blue carpet, and a bright, sunny vibe that contrasts sharply with Prime C's manly woodiness. Appetizers include pan-seared diver scallops and brie in crisp phyllo dough with candied pecans and cranberry compote. There's also a selection of soups and salads. Main courses include sauteed Chilean sea bass, rock lobster thermidor and lobster pot pie, and veal osso bucco with a butternut squash ragout.
For casual dining, Journey offers a traditional buffet restaurant with seating inside or on a nice stern-facing outdoor deck. In the morning, the restaurant has all the standards (eggs, bacon and sausage, made-to-order omelets, Virginia ham, cheese blintzes, a fruit selection, breads, a cold cereal bar, etc.), plus two nice extra touches: a separate window for waffles and pancakes and a fresh juice bar where attendants will whip you up a carrot-apple, tomato, celery, or carrot-ginger juice (or whatever combination you like) or a fresh smoothie. This is a true rarity in the cruise market, and a wonderful, healthful touch. At lunch, the buffet serves an adventurous spread of salads, meats, pastas, and other dishes.
At night, one section of the buffet is transformed into Breeza, a casual restaurant where passengers can order from a fixed menu or, if they choose, wander over to the buffet for sushi, made-to-order pasta, and other options. Though technically by reservation, you can usually do walk-ins here. Guests sitting elsewhere in the restaurant are free to graze the buffet.
Out on deck, the poolside grill offers the usual burgers, hot dogs, veggie burgers, and pizza, plus fun oddities like seafood-and-veggie shish kabobs, hot pretzels, and nachos. Toppings like grilled onions and mushrooms are available for the burgers.
Where She's Going & What She CostsWhen Azamara was formed, Celebrity had already committed to offering a season of Bermuda sailings aboard the now-departed Zenith. Rather than disappoint booked passengers, they decided to position Journey on the Bermuda run -- not exactly representative of the kind of long, exploratory itineraries Azamara is supposed to represent, but business is business.
Once Journey's Bermuda season ends in late October, she'll head to South America for a series of 12-night cruises in Brazil, interspersed with 18-night Antarctica cruises and bracketed by a pair of 18-night South America/Caribbean repositioning cruises. A 16-night transatlantic sailing on April 9, 2008, will set her up for a series of 10-, 12-, 14-, and 16-night cruises in Europe (April-November), including two that feature port calls in Israel. Another transatlantic sailing (December 2, 2008) will bring Journey back to the western hemisphere, where she'll again sail in South America and Antarctica.
Journey's sister ship, Azamara Quest, will debut in October 2007 with a series of 12- to 14-night Caribbean sailings, followed by 14-night eastbound and westbound Panama Canal itineraries.
While Azamara's prices are higher than those of Celebrity, they're still quite a deal. Twelve-night Brazil cruises are currently starting between $1,449 and $2,100, while 12-night European itineraries are starting between $2,050 and $2,500.
The Last Word
In an age dominated by bigger and bigger megaships, it's both a surprise and a delight that a big mainstream cruise line has committed to offering large-scale, world-ranging itineraries aboard classy, small-scale ships -- in effect providing an experience usually available only on the luxury lines and offering it at a price more of us can afford. Kudos for that.
As of my sailing (only three months into the line's existence), Azamara was still experiencing a bit of adolescent awkwardness -- some disorganization in the main dining room, a tentativeness in presentation of some onboard activities -- but that should pass. All things considered, we have a winner here.
Note: Some public rooms on Journey (specifically Michael's Club and the Cova Cafe) mimic those on Celebrity's ships, since the vessel was originally intended to join the Celebrity fleet. Word is, though, that Quest will have completely different, Azamara-specific public rooms when she debuts, and that Journey may be retrofitted later to match.
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