The first ocean yacht from Australian-owned Emerald Cruises, known for its culturally rich river cruises, is sleek, compact and full of shiny mirrored spaces – and temporary IKEA furnishings.
It's to be expected when you book an early cruise on a new ship from a cruise company that while not exactly new, is entering a sector for the first time. In this case, on Emerald Azzurra's 11-day sailing to Egypt, Israel, Turkey and Greece – the ship’s second cruise with passengers – the issues had more to do with supply chain delays than anything else.
Containers didn’t arrive in time at the shipyard in Vietnam where the 100-passenger ship was built, nor in the Middle East in time for the yacht’s first few passenger sailings. The hotel director improvised via IKEA and so did the food and beverage department in some cases – for instance, the hastily acquired beer choices include Budweiser.
Yet this is all likely temporary. Emerald Cruises is owned by luxury line Scenic Cruises. The Emerald Cruises proposition is that they can deliver a luxury yacht experience complete with shore excursions to top sights in every port, wine, beer and soft drinks at lunch and dinner, WiFi and gratuities – all similar to river cruise inclusions – for less than $500 per passenger, per night. Already there are signs that this ship will provide a special experience.
The food is excellent, the service superb – Emerald raided the Seabourn crew ranks and it shows! The décor also shows promise and will only get better when more of the real stuff arrives.
Vaccinated travelers arriving in Jordan no longer need a PCR test. It felt odd not to have one, since every other post-Covid international trip I have done required a test. There was mingling with other passengers pre-cruise as we traveled from Amman to Aqaba. When we arrived at the ship, we were hustled into the lounge, given champagne cocktails and then given Antigen nasal swabs.
All cleared, no one wore masks – not crew nor passengers.
On Day 3 when the ship was in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, most passengers were off on a glass boat and beach tour on the Red Sea when it was announced that "a few crew" had tested positive for COVID and were isolated (among them, based on her absence, was the tour manager who had greeted all guests in the lounge the first night). The rest of the crew put on masks, sort of – some wore them incorrectly, or forgot. Passengers were advised that masks were optional.
In Ain Sokhna, Egypt, crew escorting a shore excursion to the pyramids and Sphinx in Giza were re-tested, though not passengers. Our turn will come Wednesday, when the ship arrives in Ashdod, because Israel requires a PCR test for anyone entering the country.
Part of the thrill of being on a 360-foot yacht is seeing it in the harbor. You may imagine that everyone in Aqaba, Jordan, where our sailing began at the cruise pier, must think a billionaire (but hopefully not a Russian oligarch) is in town. Our long-bowed wedding cake yacht has that look, sans helicopter pad.
Hang out on a day bed on the superb open decks, in the infinity pool or the top-deck hot tub or even munching made-to-order flatbread at the open-air poolside café, and you may continue this fantasy.
The interior of the ship, which is again a work in progress – hopefully at least partially resolved when a container arrives in Rhodes last this week – has a lot of shades of gray and shiny chrome, mirrors and glass everywhere. Troughs for plants are everywhere too and when the plants arrive in greater numbers the foliage will add a warmth currently missing. So will soft goods like pillows and artwork. Spaces like the living room lounge are crying out for pops of color.
A gin display will be a cool design feature in the lounge, when it is properly put together.
The dining room is impressive – even done up as it currently is in mostly IKEA. To add a feeling that you are never part of a crowd, Emerald went big on extra seating, many more than needed indoors and a lot outdoors as well. It will never feel crowded.
There are a few ocean-view cabins with no balcony, but once you move up a notch to a balcony suite you’ll be in a space large enough for a long desk-dresser-minibar combo and a small couch, plus a lounge chair (these have not yet arrived) and a queen-size bed (that can be separated into twins). The headboard and opposite wall are pleather-padded in light gray and there’s a huge full-length mirror panel and a big mirror on the desk. My favorite thing may be the real mirrored medicine cabinets, big enough for all your stuff and more.
The balconies are narrow strips unless you move up further to suites with patios – and on our cruise were without furniture until a few IKEA chairs were moved outside.
Not in use on our sailing is the marina, from which guests will on warmer-weather sailings be able to borrow inflatable kayaks, paddleboards, Skidoos and other toys or swim out to a water trampoline – all adding to the yacht vibe. Also not in use on our cruise are three custom-built metal tenders that emerge via a giant claw from a garage just above sea level.
The ship is also equipped with a small fleet of electric bikes for exploring on land.
Of the 52 or so paying guests onboard our sailing, most are over age 60, half are British and half American. Australia’s full opening will likely make the numbers one-third each. Most were chill about the minor issues of a startup sailing.
“So they have a few hiccups,” said Tom Giboney of Dallas, a retired Lt. Colonel in the U.S. Army, who usually sails with his wife on substantially larger Royal Caribbean ships. “We’re enjoying, just enjoying this.”