Last Updated on January 8, 2023
Cruising with Azamara Onward – More shore, less sea and affordable luxury.
I count myself lucky to have happened upon Azamara, a cruise line that gets everything right for me. While I love the openness of the sea, it took travelling on a press trip with another cruise line Seabourn to convince me that I might enjoy what I’d imagined being the confines of a cruise. Who wouldn’t like champagne in their cabin every night, a choice of top-end toiletries and caviar service by the pool? Like Azamara, Seabourn is a small ship cruise line so you get the benefit of being able to visit more unusual ports and the chance to actually get to know people who you are travelling with. On reflection, it was that intimacy which made my first cruise so special and for that reason, I was thrilled to discover Azamara cruises.
I don’t have a bottomless bank account to fund holidays and I do want to travel regularly rather than saving up for a special occasion. I travel alone and on many cruises that is either costly or consigns you to an inside cabin. Azamara runs ships which are similar in size to the Seabourn fleet, but have the added benefit of solo cruise deals that are reasonably priced – and include enough little luxuries to make the trip special. More on that later. What’s particularly important for me is the itinerary and here’s where I think Azamara is spot on.
The emphasis of most of the Azamara cruises is onshore time (repositioning cruises are different). On our Intensive Italy trip, we had two overnight stops in port, allowing us to visit the Tuscan trio of Florence, Lucca and Pisa and giving everyone plenty of time to visit Rome from our final destination, Civitavecchia. If you cruise as a way of travelling rather than because you want to spend time on the cruise ship, that seems spot on.
While Azamara Onward is the newest ship in the Azamara fleet, it was originally part of the Princess Cruise line. Extensively refurbished in 2022, at full capacity it can carry up to 670 passengers with 400 crew. In cruise terms, it’s a minnow – there are ships with capacity for around 6000 guests. If you are a fan of large ship cruising, you may find the amenities are limited, but you’ll also find that there’s a very personal level of service from restaurants and bars through to cabin service. My Club Balcony cabin was the smallest option with its own outside space kitted out with a table and two chairs. A large double bed was well appointed with white cotton bedlinen, good quality bedding and thoughtful fittings including USB plugs under the bedside lights for charging phones and other devices. The desk was big enough to comfortably work at, there was a TV, table and chairs for dining in my room and a small but comfy sofa.
The bathroom did feel slightly tired despite the refurbishment. But the shower was very efficient and there were plenty of complimentary toiletries, fluffy towels and luxurious bathrobes. There was plenty of storage, including a wardrobe, drawers, a safe, mini fridge and space under the bed for suitcases. All the rooms come with complimentary bottled water and soft drinks.
On deck, there was a reasonably sized heated pool with two hot tubs on either side. Azamara Onward has a poolside bar with outside seating and a small grill where food is made to order for you. There’s plenty of space for sun loungers and luckily for us, even in November, it was warm enough to sit outside. There’s additional al-fresco seating on the level above the pool and along the side of the deck. There’s also a running track, shuffleboard and ping-pong table.
Indoors there are plenty of places to relax. There’s a spa and beauty salon with a whole range of treatments. There’s a fitness centre with gym equipment and daily classes for yoga, pilates and more. There are lounges that are large enough to be anonymous but small enough to feel cosy and there’s a cabaret lounge/theatre where you’ll find shows, lectures and the occasional bingo session!
Finally, the ship has a laundry service but also offers a laundry room free of charge.
Food and Drink on Board Azamara Onward
The first thing I did when I boarded Onward was to buy the ‘smallest’ premium dining option. That gave me three upgraded meals in their fine dining restaurants. Over a seven-day period with all my evening meals on the ship, I knew I’d want to try everything that was on offer and I was really impressed that the upgrade cost me around £70. And, I was impressed by the overall quality both of the inclusive and the upgraded dining and beverage options.
The two main restaurants on Azamara Onward are Windows Buffet and Discoveries restaurant. The buffet is packed with healthy salad options, hot meals and more. Relaxed and casual, it’s an easy place to grab a quick lunch or evening meal.
Discoveries Restaurant is very much in the style of traditional cruise ship dining. While you don’t need to dress up, it’s waiter service and classically styled with white linen tablecloths, elegant china and silverware. I was lucky enough to be invited to a hosted dinner there, in the company of Tony Markey and his wife which really showcased the kitchen’s ability.
I also dined in both Aqualina, the ship’s Italian restaurant and Prime C, the steakhouse. Both were excellent, although I did giggle a bit as I ate the Cioppino (fish stew) offered on the menu, which is actually an American invention.
Livorno, the Italian port we’d just left, serves an authentic Italian fish stew called Cacciucco and I’d made a special trip on the previous day to La Barcarola, a traditional Italian restaurant launched in 1935 and still serving what my Tuscan friend recommends as the most authentic Cacciucco in the port!
That apart, I really couldn’t fault the food in either restaurant.
For lunches, I found my own favourite spot – the Patio bar and cafe, where I really loved the freshly grilled dishes.
With Azamara, basic wines, spirits and cocktails together with water, soft drinks, speciality teas and coffees are included. I did indulge in a glass of port one evening but otherwise found the inclusive offering perfectly adequate. If I’d been travelling with a partner or friends, I might have indulged in a bottle of champagne, but the inclusive drinks had a choice of red, white, rose and sparkling wines and my own favourite cocktail (a margarita) as part of the package.
There’s the beautiful and rather swanky Atlas bar on the same deck as the premium dining rooms. Since I didn’t try the cocktails I can only comment that it was a lovely space and if I hadn’t been trying to avoid spirits, I’d have been lurking in there.
And, there’s the Living Room – perfect for pre-dinner cocktails and somewhere you’ll often find live entertainment.
Mosaic Cafe offered a round-the-clock selection of coffees and teas so I could get my espresso hit in the morning and a camomile tea before bed. They also had a stunning range of pastries and at various times of the day, canapes, sandwiches, croissants and breakfast muffins.
Finally, room service was available – I enjoyed breakfast in my cabin every day. The 24-hour offering was not particularly well publicised, but as with any problem on Azamara Onward, the Customer Services desk seemed to be able to find a solution for everything.
Shore Information, Trips and Support on Azamara Onward
If there’s one thing that marks Azamara out against even Seabourn, it’s genuine enthusiasm and helpfulness from everyone. You’ll find even the cleaners say good morning. It’s impossible not to get to know the team. And, that enthusiasm spills over into the information that is provided for every port. I’m slightly embarrassed that, although I managed a bingo session and a couple of evening shows, I didn’t go to a single destination lecture. In my defence, I was genuinely on holiday – and I did book a few shore excursions. Unless you know every destination really well, I’d recommend the shore excursions. I still remember the Seabourn ones that I took (4 years later) and I am pretty certain the Azamara ones will stay in my heart in the same way. I pick excursions based on gaps in my own experience. So, in Portofino, I chose to go to Portovenere rather than Cinque Terre (where I’ve been before). I took a self-guided trip to Lucca which was just a little misleading because our helpful guide had told us everywhere to go before we left the coach. And, I explored the bourbon tunnels and ate pizza in Naples
If you join a shore trip you will be looked after until you are back on the ship and you will enjoy an intensive learning experience. There is a good range of options and other than a few cancellations, there didn’t seem to be any hiccups. Each shore trip I took was fabulous in its own right – and I genuinely enjoyed the guided element.
In Lucca, a destination I’ve visited before, I was impressed by the information we were given before we left the bus. I certainly found more than had I been left to my own devices.
In Portovenere, I really enjoyed some of the details that were pointed out. The special marble, the ancient windmills and the two churches.
And in Naples, the bourbon tunnels were a revelation and the pizza was truly delicious.
With the help of the daily guides provided by the Customer Service team, I had great fun exploring Livorno by myself. Ok, I was on a mission to revisit La Barcarola where I’d already tried the Cacciucco and just needed to eat it again.
And, I wanted to find the indoor market which is famous for its fish, but also sells a whole range of Italian foods. Needless to say, I came home with olive oil, beans and various jars of preserved vegetables.
My trip to Lucca was a hybrid – I had some ideas of things I wanted to do – but got more from the guide. Who would have spotted the Roman Amphitheatre without a bit of a push?
As for Rome, for whatever reason, despite having travelled across much of Italy, I’ve never spent any time at all in Rome. From Civitavecchia, you can get a train to Rome – and if, like me, you really just want to get a feel for the city, you can easily spend five or six hours just walking around. I stopped for lunch and ended up speaking French to the charming Italian gentleman at the next-door table, I saw the Trevi Fountain and the Coliseum. And, I loved not having a schedule. I’ll go back of course, and next time make sure I have time for a tour.
What marks out Azamara for me, again, is a distinct level of intimacy and friendliness that you’ll find. Go on a shore trip and you’ll find that you are joined by members of the crew – dancers, singers, photographers and more. It makes the cruise feel like you are part of a big family.
Small ship cruising isn’t the place to experience a West End show at sea. But, there’s always something to do in the evening with two big events that are well-established hallmarks of Azamara cruises. The first, AzAmazing is only just returning after covid restrictions and the version we had was held on the ship rather than on shore. Essentially, it’s an evening of entertainment from local performers – usually done as a shore trip. Ours was on board the ship, but still really good fun!
The second, the Ship’s white evening, was a real party, with practically everyone on board getting involved. There was singing and dancing. Members of the crew who might normally NOT be on stage got up there, in the spirit of the evening. And, most of the guests were chilling, feasting on the buffet or dancing the night away on deck. Not everyone was in white – but enough were to make this feel ultra glamorous.
Apart from the two ‘big’ events, there was live entertainment every night – a cabaret show, a piano player in The Den and singers in The Living Room. There were bingo sessions with a difference – to win a cruise or a suite upgrade. And, there were lectures and photography classes. There was no excuse to get bored for a minute.
The Intensive Italy Itinerary, 2022
My cruise, a seven-night gentle ramble along the coast of Italy started in Monte Carlo. The airport-to-ship transfers were organised by Azamara and were seamless, without the long queues that I’ve experienced with larger cruise lines. On board, with a welcome drink in hand, we were offered lunch at the Window Buffet before going to our cabins. Luggage was already there and everything was ship shape. I’d definitely book an extra day in Monte Carlo – there simply wasn’t time to explore.
We set sail for La Spezia in the evening, arriving just as the sun was rising. The second largest city in Liguria after Genoa, I was thrilled to be able to explore more of a part of Italy I know very little about. It’s worth noting that some of the Azamara Italian itineraries include Genoa, but for me, I’ve already spent time there (taking part in the World Pesto Championships!). The ship was docked from 8 am through till around 6 pm so there was time for a shore trip to Portovenere and then for me to explore La Spezia by myself.
They say that one of the attractions of a cruise is to discover places you’d like to visit for longer. Portovenere definitely falls into that category for me. Quieter than the nearby Cinque Terre villages, it’s a stunning hilltop town with two beautiful churches, a pair of ancient windmills, a medieval castle and beautiful sea views.
Lord Byron’s Grotto, or Grotto Arpaia, is worthy of a poet’s name. There are plenty of quirky shops selling local artisan products. Do look out for the special marble – Portoro – which is black with gold veins.
If you have more than a few hours there are good hikes from Portovenere and you can also visit the nearby islands, Palmaria, Tinetto and Tino. There’s no rail service to Portovenere which explains why this town (sometimes labelled as the 6th ‘Cinque Terre’ village) isn’t overwhelmed with tourists.
Livorno, our next port, is a great base to explore Northern Tuscany. But, it’s a fascinating town in its own right and like any travelling food lover, I headed straight for the market.
You’ll find locally caught fresh fish in one of the halls, a wealth of vegetables and fruits just outside and all kinds of meat products in another hall.
The market is packed with shops selling artisanal pasta, grains, beans, spices and dried herbs along with all manner of preserved fruits and vegetables. Grab a coffee and a pastry and do a little people-watching Italian style. This place doesn’t have the markup of Borough Market so it’s well worth stocking up on goodies to take home.
As mentioned before I wanted to relive an old memory and try Cacciucco again. It’s a rich fisherman’s stew – hearty, spiced and substantial. La Barcarola was packed with Italian locals enjoying this very authentic and very delicious dish with a glass of red (not white) wine.
For my second day in Livorno, rather than visiting Pisa or Florence (both of which are easy by train or as a shore trip), I went to Lucca. Having only managed a fleeting visit when I stayed in Florence for a week, I was determined to see the place by day – and to eat the famous Buccellato – a spiced bread that we missed when we visited thanks to going in the evening when all the baked goods had sold out.
I wasn’t disappointed – a coffee and a slice of Buccellato from Taddeuci should be on everyone’s to-do list. I did see more of Lucca than previously – the curious amphitheatre which has been transformed into shops and restaurants stood out in a town with some truly stunning architecture
On to Elba where inclement weather and lack of planning on my part meant I didn’t actually see much. Everyone is allowed a day of rest and relaxation though – and if the weather had been better, the beaches here would have been great for relaxing.
Naples, a new destination for me, was teeming with people. Not cruise passengers, just locals enjoying this busy City. A tour of the Bourbon Tunnel was a welcome break from the crowds. Originally built to be a secret escape route for the Royal Family in 1853 the tunnel was commissioned by King Ferdinand II of Bourbon. It was intended to take the family from the Royal Palace to the military barracks in case of a revolution.
Never used for that purpose, the tunnel and adjoining caves became air raid shelters, housing up to 10,000 Neapolitans. You can still see artefacts left by people who sheltered here from toys, beds and prams to toilets and baths! When the war ended, the tunnels became a dumping ground for everything left over from the war – from building rubble and broken crockery to cars and rusting Vespas.
Back above ground, we did as all self-respecting visitors to Naples should do and went to eat pizza and drink wine.
Our final stop, Civitavecchia, is the port that serves Rome. Determined to be independent and wanting to make up my own schedule, I took the advice of friends and headed for the train station to get a train to the capital.
Yes, it was every bit as easy as I’d been told and since Azamara was docked overnight, I could relax knowing that there was no pressure on me to get back to ship at any given time. I thoroughly enjoyed wandering around Rome by myself, although at some point I’ll look for a guided tour.
Azamara is a cruise group for travellers. Longer time in port with occasional overnight stays ensures that you can really get under the skin of the destinations on your cruise.
While not an ultra-luxury line, Azamara does provide what I’d call essential treats so that you don’t have to justify a glass of wine with your meal or a cocktail by the pool. And, room service is included so that if, like me, you are not a morning person you can hide in your cabin till you’ve had a few cups of coffee. How much luxury you afford yourself after that is up to you. The premium restaurants are definitely worth trying and not ridiculously expensive and you can enjoy premium drinks packages or simply order by the glass or bottle. Shoretrips range from pocket-friendly walking tours to private car tours.
What really set this cruise apart for me was the team on board. From the senior officers to the baristas and waiters, everyone was helpful and enthusiastic. I mentioned to my Pinoy waiter that I loved chicken adobo – and was invited to enjoy a plateful one evening, off-menu. It’s a different kind of ‘ask and you will receive’ to Seabourn, but one that seems truly genuine and heartfelt.
Azamara offers excellent options for solo travellers and affordable luxury, together with intelligent and perceptive itineraries.
The group has new owners and I’ll be watching with interest to see how the cruises evolve. I hope it doesn’t change too much
For more about Azamara, check their website