For those who prefer to focus on the destination, the Azamara cruise fleet are smaller, boutique style luxurious cruises with a predominantly American clientele. Azamara cruises dock for longer in ports to make the most of the destination and its smaller size means that it can access more ports. Our experience started in Barcelona where we wove our way through the Mediterranean Sea.
There are people that you meet that are cruise enthusiasts. They can think of no better way to travel and rack up loyalty points on their favourite cruise line like frequent flyers or loyal shoppers do at stores. They love the fact that everything is prepaid for and that they can travel to different ports around the world without unpacking or hauling luggage on and off transport.
Then there are other people to whom cruising is an untested form of travel. "I don't think I'd like cruising," these people say. Their concerns have much to do with the image of an "RSL on the sea", the food served on board and how much (or in fact little) time that they have in each destination. I wasn't sure where you would fit Dear Reader, but when we looked at last year's most popular posts, the series on the Queen Mary 2 was extremely popular.
Part of the Norwegian American company Royal Caribbean, Azamara has two ships: the Azamara Journey and Azamara Quest and positions itself as an upper premium cruise line with a more boutique feel. These smaller cruise ships have 347 state rooms and suites and caters for around 700 guests. In 2015/2016 they will be visiting Australia for the first time. The age profile of cruising tends to skew older but we notice that there are some other people our age as well. The majority of guests are American which is actually very nice because Americans tend to be chatty and friendly. There are no formals nights at all on the Azamara ships.
We board at Barcelona Port and hand our bags over and check in procedures begin. It goes smoothly and we are offered a glass of champagne and lunch at the Windows Cafe or a drink in the bar. Our room won't be ready until 1:30pm so we make our way to look at what is on offer.
It's a buffet lunch with a good range of items. Alas we had just eaten a substantial breakfast but I was very tempted by the DIY club sandwich where you can have it made to order and toasted on the spot. Mr NQN has some ice cream - there are six flavours available every day at the Windows Cafe. There is a range of cold and hot meals from salmon, roast lamb, sushi and salads.
We take a walk around the ship while waiting for our room. The top deck restaurants Aqualina and Prime C are the signature experiences and involve a surcharge of $25 per person for non suite guests. There is also a caviar and champagne bar, casino, spa, fitness centre, library, shop. Most of the guests having eaten lunch are lying back on the sun lounges around the pool and the whirlpools.
At 1:45pm we make our way to the room. Our room #7086 is on the 7th floor and is a balcony stateroom. It's compact but clean and well thought out. There is a queen bed and a two seater lounge. It looks exactly the same as our state room on the Queen Mary 2 in size and layout. I always find the bathrooms a bit of a challenge and even though I am elf height (slight exaggeration), I feel all elbows in the shower.
The bathroom has a small shower and About Rose products including shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, soap, body lotion and a vanity kit. The balcony has a table and two chairs. Unfortunately it is a game of cat and mouse with my suitcase and our steward, the person who will be looking after us while we are on board acknowledges that they are still delivering our bag. Sadly some of the service lacks in this respect with one staff member being rude on the telephone.
At 5 o' clock there is a mandatory safety briefing where we are shown how to use life vests. The captain Johannes Tysse also details the importance of hygiene on board and that we must report any cases of gastro intestional virus straight away. There is a heightened sense of safety during the first 24 hours of the cruise and buffets are served by staff. During the cruise the staff have been told not to shake hands to limit any spread of infectious disease. Instead, fist bumps suffice.
At 6 o'clock on the dot the ship's horn sounds and we are off and bidding Barcelona adios. Mr NQN and I get ready for dinner at Aqualina, one of the ships's premium restaurants. It is a good idea to book for the signature restaurants as soon as possible as they fill up quickly and even when we booked that afternoon, there is only one time available. The decor in Aqualina is all whites and blues making the most of the Mediterranean sea that reflects back at us.
The menu is Italian with a lot of seafood and pasta options. For the extra tariff, guests can have a four course meal and there is a good range of included wines, cocktails and spirits included in the price. The menu here changes every 5-7 days and during the cruise it will change once so that cruise guests don't get bored.
A basket of bread is brought to the table along with butter, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. We nibble on the parmesan breadsticks and foccacia while we decide on what to order.
Our waiter brings out our amuse bouche, a crunchy bruschetta topped with tomato and lettuce and a slice of reggiano.
We decide to go for something light to start with. The carpaccio of beef tenderloin is sliced paper thin and served with a golden parmesan croquette, orange flavoured olive oil and a dab of pesto cream and a parmesan cracker. I particularly like this entree.
The tartare of tuna is served in a timbale with diced avocado on the bottom and hand chopped ahi tuna on top. It is paired with a spicy roasted capsicum dip and a salad with baby arugula dressed with lemon oil. I wasn't particularly taken with the tuna portion of the tartare as the tuna taste was a bit strong.
The salad is a good mix of bitter flavours and sweetness from the arugula and radicchio with caramelised red onions. It is topped with pine nuts and finely crumbled blue cheese and a disc of crispy pancetta.
The veal is one of the signature dishes and it comes in three versions. There is a breaded veal shank croquette that is soft and comforting. The veal tenderloin is wrapped in zucchini ribbons but it is the crumbed veal sweetbreads that I fall for as it is like a tender schnitzel. They're all accompanied with a compote of artichoke, tomato, pancetta and a Chianti sauce which is poured at the table.
I had a hankering for risotto and there are two kinds on the menu and I went with the prawn one. There are three types of prawns, a small, medium and king prawn grilled perfectly and served with a saffron risotto.
I decide to try a dessert wine and as soon as I pick up the wine menu, the sommelier appears and makes a recommendation for an orange muscat wine.
The flourless chocolate cake had a rugged, crackly top and is dense and bittersweet. It is paired with ginger marinated strawberries and an intriguing balsamic and slightly tart mascarpone cream.
The berry misu is a white sponge layered with cream and berries and it is served with a biscotti atop a pot of Bacardi cream and an amazingly rich and divine dark chocolate ganache-I almost want to lick the plate of this.
We return to our room and turndown has been performed. One of the most delightful things about cruising is how well looked after you are and your room steward is like a fairy that cleans your room twice daily and deposits things like food and the next day's programme. A breakfast menu lies on the bed - room service is free on board and breakfast in your room is part of the service or you can have it at the breakfast buffet (as a room service freak it was always going to be room service). There is also an option for a complimentary afternoon tea and savouries service that you can pre order to have in your stateroom.
Two small squares of brownie sit on the coffee table along with a fruit bowl. Just in case you get peckish which must be a slim chance to none!
So tell me Dear Reader, are you a cruise enthusiast or cruise wary? Would you prefer a big ship or a smaller one do you think? And are you more interested in a destination or the cruise experience itself?
Fares start from $3,699 per person twin share for a 10-night Great Barrier Reef voyage onboard Azamara Quest. For further information or to make a booking, visit www.azamaraclubcruises.com, phone 1800 754 500 or contact your local travel agent.