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Credit: Bolsover Cruise Club.

Onwards and upwards with Azamara's star of small ship cruising

Author: Vicky Mayer

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White Night parties, amazing excursions and a super-chic cocktail bar make Azamara Onward the new star of small-ship cruising.

Three stilt walkers in billowing white costumes glide down the red carpet to meet the VIP guests; champagne corks pop all around and the sun beams down from a ravishingly blue Mediterranean sky. It is, as you’ll gather, quite some party – but only the best will do for the christening of new Azamara Onward in glamorous Monte Carlo.

Newly painted, the ship looks amazing in crisp monochrome tones. On board, passengers joining her inaugural cruise to Venice lean over their balconies, drinks in hand, marvelling at the enormous bottle of fizz that’s hanging high above and will soon be smashed against the hull.

The entertainment is as stylish as the location, with a children’s choir resplendent in Breton tops, gymnasts performing splits on white ropes above the stage, and the ship’s own performers belting out a spirited rendition of John Lennon’s Imagine.

Then it’s the turn of the Azamara team to speak, and we hear from company president Carol Cabezas and ship’s godmother Beth Santos – a US-based travel influencer – about the journey that lies behind today’s celebration.

Like many other ship launches this year, it’s a tale of patience, setbacks and the power of optimism. The fourth of Azamara’s ships, Onward (previously Pacific Princess) was hit by Covid and supply-chain setbacks, with a whole checklist of items, including chairs, TVs, hairdryers and umbrellas, still arriving at the dock right up to her launch date.

It’s a testament to the passion of the Azamara team, from the President to all the staff on board, that the christening was such a huge success. On a special mini-cruise around the Mediterranean, World of Cruising was among the first publications to be invited aboard – and I was one of the first journalists to see what lies in store for lucky guests on this brilliant new ship.

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The new ship’s decor is stylish but reassuringly traditional. Credit: Cruise International.

What’s on board?
Like her sister vessels, Quest, Journey and Pursuit, Azamara Onward is a classic small ocean ship, hosting 684 passengers in 352 staterooms with eight public decks.

Azamara regulars will be happy that the onboard ambience is the familiar blend of classic wooden decks and steamer chairs beside the pool, while inside it’s all dark wood, plush carpets and crystal lighting.

-READ MORE: Azamara introduces Azamara Quest-

What’s different, and comes as a welcome surprise, is the super-chic new Atlas Bar on deck 10, which wouldn’t look out of place in a five-star hotel.

Decorated in bright jewel colours, with inviting velvet banquettes and a curved bar as the centrepiece, it’s the place to be for pre or post-dinner cocktails (London Fog martini, anyone?) and guests can also enjoy a menu of small plates, such as beef tartare and smoked lobster crudo.

While house drinks are included in your fare, cocktails here are charged at $17.95 per glass, so if fancy drinks are your thing it may pay to upgrade to the Azamara Ultimate Beverage Package, at $23.95 a day.

Replacing the former casino on deck 5, the Den provides the ship with a hub where you can catch up with friends over a drink, sit quietly and read, or book excursions and further cruises.

Also on this deck is the Indulgences boutique, which sells local European labels alongside the big brands, lending the ship a pleasingly continental feel.

Just down the corridor is the Mosaic Café, where the baristas whip up a great coffee but don’t look blank if you request a pot of tea (the freshly baked pastries are pretty special too).

-READ MORE: Azamara announces destination programme developments-

All the ship’s public spaces – not just the new bars and restaurants – feel upmarket and welcoming. The only slight disappointment is the size of the standard staterooms, which are smaller than you might expect, with bathrooms that some cruisers may find too compact.

There’s no faulting the cabins for comfort, however, and the sleep-inducing beds are excellent.

Enjoy complimentary meals at the newly refurbished Discoveries restaurant. Credit: Pure Holidays.

Diners’ delight
Azamara Onward’s guests can enjoy complimentary meals at the newly refurbished Discoveries restaurant on deck 5 and Windows Café on deck 9.

Both are highly recommended, offering a wide choice of dishes including classic favourites such as Caesar salad and steak (I particularly enjoyed a sunset alfresco meal at Windows, where a special French menu included an exemplary beef bourguignon and tarte tatin).

-READ MORE: Azamara Reveals Name of Fourth Ship-

An excellent breakfast can be had at either venue, and for lunch Windows serves an impressive range of dishes both hot and cold. The ship also has two speciality restaurants – Aqualina, which serves Mediterranean fare, and Prime C, for surf and turf – at a surcharge of $30 per meal unless you’re a suite guest.

Frankly, the complimentary offerings are so good that even foodies could go for a whole cruise without splashing out the extra – though having dined at Aqualina, I can say the charge is well worth it, especially if you want to treat a loved one on your trip.

I enjoyed two amazing dishes here – a creamy goat’s cheese soufflé and a melt-in-the-mouth osso buco, each with an expertly chosen wine pairing.

Small is beautiful
Apart from the sheer joy of being able to find your way around the ship without ever getting lost, Azamara Onward’s small size means she can venture into destinations where you’d never see a mega-ship.

Our first stop was Marseille, and sailing straight into the old port meant we could stroll into town, with plenty of time to enjoy a café au lait overlooking the impressive yacht harbour before indulging in a bit of light shopping (got to love those famous Marseille soaps).

-READ MORE: Amazing Azamara-

The following day we sailed with equal ease into the heart of the Cinque Terre, that famous cluster of brightly painted villages on the cliffs of the Italian Riviera. Here the ship’s agility allowed us to take a quick and easy tender to the village of Portovenere, where Azamara had arranged a special ‘Az-Amazing Day’.

The concept is a great idea – the line takes over a destination for a day (or night) and guests are treated to much more than just a regular tour.

We could hardly wait to explore this Insta-friendly village, where the craggy shore is lined with houses in vibrant shades of ochre, mustard and coral, but first we were invited to a delicious Italian feast on the jetty.

Awaiting us was a table piled with fresh rosemary-and-olive focaccia, a tempting selection of local Italian cheeses and hams, and tiny cream- filled pastries, as well as excellent fresh coffee and sparkling glasses of Aperol spritz.

Throughout the village, Azamara banners were placed at places of interest so we knew what to look out for, and live music was provided by a jazz ensemble. So much thought had been put into the day – which is complimentary for all Azamara guests – that even the loos were free.

-READ MORE: Azamara announces sailing to Cuba-

It would have been easy to linger at Portovenere, but time was ticking on and we had a lunch appointment at the Buranco winery in Monterosso, an hour’s journey by local motorboat (a charming way to see this famous coastline at its best).

Nestled above the village, the winery is a bucolic delight, with lovely views of vineyards and lemon trees. Here, on the shade-dappled terrace, I enjoyed one of the most fabulous meals of my life – creamy burrata cheese with fresh prosciutto to start, a perfect bowl of pesto spaghetti for the main course and a homemade lemon tart to finish. Needless to say, each dish was perfectly paired with a wine from the vineyard. Fantastico!

Dress up for Azamara's famous White Night party. Credit: TripAdvisor.

All white on the night
If you’re lucky enough to have sailed with Azamara before, you’ll know the line is famous for its White Night parties, giving everyone on board a chance to dress up (in white, of course) and enjoy an on-deck celebration, complete with a huge buffet and live entertainment.

-READ MORE: Azamara Club Cruises offers a trio of choices-

Against the glittering backdrop of Monte Carlo, I made my White Night debut – and what a swell party it was, the tables decked with barbecued meats, fresh lobster and fruit, champagne all round and the house band rockin’ the night away. Dressed up to the nines,

I loved every minute of it.

My verdict
Azamara Onward closely follows the successful recipe of her sister vessels, offering the chance to rest and relax on a traditional small ship with great staff, fantastic food and excellent excursions.

The new Atlas Bar adds a cleverly modern twist, and if you’re looking for the perfect boutique cruise, this delightful ship should be top of your list.

Get on board
An eight-night ‘Islands of the Med’ cruise aboard Azamara Onward, from Civitavecchia to Barcelona via Portoferraio, Olbia, Corsica, Mahon, Palma de Mallorca and Valencia, departs October 21, 2022, from £1,471 (azamara.co.uk).

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