Talk about a second act: Azamara welcomed Azamara Onward to its fleet, marking the first ship bought and launched under its current private ownership.
Azamara Onward -- the former Pacific Princess -- carries 670 passengers and is the same class of ship as the other three vessels in the Azamara fleet. These small ships, known in the industry as "R-class ships" because they were first owned by the defunct Renaissance Cruises -- are older, dating to the late 1990s. Yet they have avid fans, primarily for their coziness and ability to dock in smaller ports (more on that later).
Azamara bought Azamara Onward in January 2021, with the announcement coming soon after the investment firm Sycamore Partners bought the destination-oriented cruise line from Royal Caribbean. The almost-immediate expansion move came as good news to those at the line, Capt. Carl Smith said.
"It was very clever," he said of the timing. "I think we needed a bit of a shake-up."
After a christening May 2 in Monaco, Azamara Onward embarked on an 11-night cruise that centers on Italy and Croatia. Cruise Critic was onboard for a short four-night "shakedown" cruise before the event. Here's what you should know about the new Azamara Onward.
In renovating Azamara Onward, the line stuck with what its loyal cruisers love, from the restaurants onboard to the programming. If you've been on Azamara Journey, Azamara Quest or Azamara Pursuit, then you'll already know your way around the ship and know exactly what to expect.
Having all of the ships similar has tremendous advantages, Azamara President Carol Cabezas said, in so many areas: provisioning, engineering, marketing and sales.
"One message fits the whole fleet," Cabezas said. "If they understand one ship, they understand them all."
Supply chain issues meant that Azamara Onward wasn't quite done for our short preview sailing. Crews were working round-the-clock to get things ready for the first revenue voyage, which began May 2 after the christening. We were warned that we would not have hair dryers; we were still a little surprised that we didn't have balcony furniture or that the pool was unusable.
Azamara is hardly the one cruise line to face supply chain issues. Several new ships have been delayed in 2022 for similar reasons. Disney Wish is debuting six weeks later than expected, and NCL just canceled its first cruise in August on its newest ship, Norwegian Prima.
Cabezas said that she recognized the issues as soon as she boarded. Cruise Critic members who are booked on upcoming Azamara Onward sailings should be reassured that the line is "going to work with our guests to make sure they're happy," Cabezas said.
"Because at the end of the day, that's what matters," she said. "The guests coming in, are they happy? Is everything they need taken care of? Is their room comfortable? We're going to make sure that's the case."
One major enhancement on Azamara Onward compared with the other ships is the new Atlas Bar. Specializing in craft cocktails and small bites, the bar takes the space where the library is on other Azamara ships.
While some traditionalists might miss the library and its colorful murals, the Atlas Bar is an exciting addition to a ship that can otherwise seem sleepy at night.
The cocktails are creative and make good use of unusual ingredients. Favorites included the Date of Cairo (Grey Goose vodka; Egyptian date sauce and passionfruit juice); Osaka Spice (sake, fresh lime juice, lime, simple syrup and wasabi); and the Mumbai Hug (in-house chili-infused Grey Goose vodka, fresh lime juice, lime syrup, in-house ginger syrup and cilantro).
The cocktails are intended to be paired with small bites from a tapas menu. Selections we saw on display ranged from an "Atlas plate" of cheeses, olives and charcuterie to "millionaire fries" with foie gras to smoked lobster carpaccio. We were able to try mini versions of some items -- the morel mushroom arancini was particularly tasty, while the smoking wagyu came in a glass cone, making it difficult to eat.
What's still unclear is what the pricing on the cocktails and tapas will be. Basic alcoholic drinks (as well as house wines and beer) are included in the Azamara fare. Some of the drinks at Atlas will fall under the guidelines for the premium drink package, which costs about $16-$17 more per passenger per day, Hotel Director Tony Markey said. The top-drawer cocktails will be in the Ultimate drink package, which costs about $25 per person per day. Or, of course, you can order them a la carte, which might be what most Azamara Onward passengers do.
In any case, a craft cocktail bar is on trend with what other cruise lines are doing, and it's a nice update to a ship that otherwise sticks to the same formula.
Where Azamara has always shined is in its itineraries, which focus on smaller ports where the larger ships can't or don't go. Destinations and itineraries are at the heart of Azamara, which was originally developed by Royal Caribbean Group as a line that would concentrate on where you can go, rather than what's onboard.
Before the pandemic, Azamara took its destination concept further than most cruise lines, developing country-intensive itineraries where passengers spend the entire voyage exploring one place in-depth, as opposed to spreading themselves thin.
That proved to be a winning strategy when the line restarted in 2021 after the COVID-19 pandemic, Cabezas said. During a time when every country had its own health protocols for cruise lines and their guests, being able to center in on one place made the entire process simpler, she said.
"It was a bit of a challenge to visit multiple countries," she said. Focusing on itineraries in Greece and the Canary Islands proved to be easier and more popular. "Going in that direction was helpful," she said.
This year and moving forward, the destination-intensive itineraries will continue to be offered in countries such as France, Greece, Spain, Croatia, Norway, Italy, Scotland, Ireland and Iceland.
Another destination selling point that Azamara enjoys is that the ships' smaller size allows the line to berth closer to the heart of the action. The line also puts a focus on stays that go into the night, as well as overnights.
We were able to see the former even on our short cruise. In the busy port of Marseilles, France, Azamara was the only cruise line able to dock at the terminal in the heart of the old town. We were easily able to walk from the ship to the charming waterside cafes for a seaside lunch. Other cruise ships were forced to berth at an industrial port on the other side of town.
Azamara has run the numbers and the line spends more time in port than anyone else Cabezas said.
"People want to do things in a relaxed way," she said. A couple might spend the first day in a port doing an overview tour and then take the second day more slowly. "They like the feeling that they don't have to run back. You have more time," she said. "That is something that is very compelling to our guests."
Two cruise line line traditions that Azamara guests want to make sure they allow time for are the White Nights onboard barbecue and the destination-focused AzAmazing evenings in at least one port per cruise.
Other cruise lines have White Nights, but the participation and excitement that these theme nights generate on Azamara are unparalleled. On Azamara, passengers understand the assignment; they come ready with the vast majority participating.
On our Azamara Onward cruise, White Night was held with Monaco as the backdrop. With a gorgeous setting, an expansive and delicious buffet and a live band, it's a magical evening. Given the Mediterranean setting, dishes had a French feel to them, with grilled lobster, mussels, coq au vin and bouillabaisse.
Our AzAmazing evening presented itself as a daytime event, in the Italian city of Portovenere. The gateway to the Cinque Terre, Portovenere provided a stunning setting for a full buffet of local delicacies, as well as Prosecco and wine. Passengers strolled around the medieval town, listening to pop-up musical events along the way. My favorite was the opera performance, accompanied by a grand piano set up on a stone walkway to Portovenere's scenic church.
AzAmazing events were the heart of what Azamara was before its new owners. It's reassuring and delightful to see that the traditions are being carried on.
One thing that didn't age as well were the cabin renovations. We sailed in a veranda room that showed us why the R ships can feel dated, no matter what you do with them.
The bathrooms in particular are difficult on these ships. They are cramped, to the point that you might have to turn sideways to use the loo. I was surprised that Azamara kept the old-fashioned clingy shower curtains too, as opposed to putting in more modern glass doors.
The most modern touch were the USB ports that were placed underneath the bedside lights, on both sides of the bed.
What's slightly different about Azamara Onward is that the ship does have more suites than the other vessels in the fleet. That's a nice advantage on this ship, where an upgrade to a suite comes with not only more space but butler service, specialty restaurant inclusions and bathrooms that have the glass doors. Some suites have baths.
Azamara Onward is meant to be the ship used for Azamara's first World Cruise, a 155-day sailing in early 2024. If you're on that long of a voyage, or any trip longer than a week, we'd recommend the upgrade.
Azamara has a significant number of loyal fans who will now have more choices when it comes to the cruises that they love: a cozy small ship environment that places the emphasis firmly on where you're going, and not a lot of onboard bells and whistles.
And that's what Azamara Onward will deliver, for a line that is finally -- after long last -- expanding.
Updated May 03, 2022