The smallest line within Royal Caribbean's stable, Azamara Club Cruises has made destination cruising its focus, offering longer port stays and overnights, interesting shore excursions and programming that encourages passengers to take advantage of local cuisine. Carrying just 686 passengers, Azamara Journey is well designed to deliver on these promises. The small ship can go to smaller, lesser-known ports -- and usually does. On our Greece and Turkey itinerary, for example, we not only stopped in the island standards of Mykonos and Santorini, but also Skiathos and Hydra.
The culmination of Azamara's destination focus is the complimentary Azamazing Evening that's held at least once per voyage. These events are billed as one-of-a-kind and, at least on our trip, it was true with a classical music concert among the ruins of Ephesus. Another special evening that's held every cruise, the White Night Party, was also a rousing success, judging by passenger participation.
Azamara Journey is one of the former Renaissance cruise ships -- known as "R class" vessels -- and while the ships are loved for their coziness and classic style, they are beginning to show signs of age. Along with sister vessel Azamara Quest, Journey will be undergoing a complete refurbishment in January 2016. The update will include a change in public space decor to appear more modern, along with significant upgrades to the cabins and suites, the expansion of the Pool Grill and a massive spa redo that will include the addition of two spa suites.
These changes were announced before we boarded, so we were a little surprised by how great the ship looked already. In its current incarnation, Azamara Journey resembles a classic hotel, with cream walls and molding in the public spaces and traditional wood in the library. While the ship's current look might not have the "wow" factor of a new-build, it does invite you to relax and feel secure that you're in good hands. Azamara loyalists are divided on the changes, but since most of the upgrades -- especially in the cabins -- are being driven by passenger research, they will likely be satisfied in the end.
Speaking of passengers, Azamara Journey attracts a regular supply of repeat visitors; on our cruise, nearly 40 percent had sailed on either Journey or Quest previously. One feature of Azamara is its friendly service, and the staff makes an effort to greet returning passengers by name from the first day.
If Azamara Journey has one fault, it's the lack of nightlife. Its Cabaret Lounge feels cramped, and with no real stage, the types of shows the ship can put on are limited. As part of Royal Caribbean, the line does have access to the company's outstanding theatrical production center in Miami, and Voices, a multimedia show that was clearly dreamed up there, was exceptionally entertaining. Other acts we saw were less successful, and the musicians around the ship were lackluster. With few live music options, passengers tended to congregate in the casino, which is nonsmoking.
But this is a minor quibble for a ship that has so many other unique features. From the upscale specialty restaurants to the calm pool environment, Azamara Journey is a ship for grown-ups who want to cruise the world with more of an independent frame of mind, without sacrificing amenities.