(4:20 p.m. EDT) As we boarded Azamara Cruises' Azamara Quest in Piraeus, Greece, I was greeted by the crew with their customary “Welcome Home" speech. It did feel like coming home -- I hadn't been aboard a cruise ship since February 2020.
There are COVID-19 health and safety protocols in place that must be adhered to before you can board, but I was happy to comply to be able to cruise once again. The inconveniences of the health and safety protocols were minor compared to my dreams of sipping an Aperol Spritz as Azamara Quest sailed the Greek Isles at sunset.
A requirement for cruising with Azamara is that everyone needs to be fully vaccinated against COVD-19 -- including the crew. Passengers must also have a negative antigen test prior to boarding the ship, taken at the cruise terminal, and provide completed documents as requested by the Greek government.
Despite these hurdles, embarkation was a seamless process. Onboard, masks are required when not eating or drinking, and when on excursions. Between the strict protocols and the reality that just 195 passengers would be onboard Azamara Quest for this sailing (instead of the usual capacity of 690), I felt safer on this cruise than I have traveling to other places since the pandemic started.
Azamara is focused heavily on destination immersion. This seven-night Greece-intensive voyage was the line's first return to service and first sailing as an independent cruise line after being sold to Sycamore Partners last year.
Azamara president, Carol Cabezas, said they chose Greece for the restart because it’s a destination where the line shines. “Our guests love it here, and we can execute the experience beautifully, especially with the Destination Celebration,” Cabezas said, noting Destination Celebration is an emerging onboard event for the company.
Cabezas also mentioned Azamara's new focus on elevating the culinary experience onboard, particularly in terms of destination-specific offerings. Past Azamara passengers have already noticed and are impressed with the updated offerings at Discoveries Restaurant, the main dining room located on aft Deck 5. Rob Doerfler, Guest Relations Manager, said the entire menu was redesigned during the pandemic.
Azamara also has a new partnership with the luxury division of Starboard Cruise Services – an LVMH Moet Hennessy company, which provides an upscale shopping experience at the two retail shops onboard the boutique cruise line’s three ships. Cabezas commented in a press statement that with this collaboration, “We are in a greater position to reveal even more of the history, art, cuisine, and local customs that make each destination rare and beautiful.”
AzAamazing Evenings, the line’s signature destination event that traditionally takes place in venues on-shore like the ancient amphitheater in Ephesus, Turkey, looks a little different right now, with a new "Destination Celebration" program designed to bring AzAmazing Evenings back to the ship.
Destination Celebration brings the heritage and cultural experiences onboard Azamara Quest. For this sailing, a live evening outdoor performance outdoor was held on the pool deck by Duo Violins and their accompanying musicians. Passengers seemed to enjoy the energetic performance of the two brothers with Greek-inspired rock, pop, dance music and cinematic soundscapes while sipping cocktails and sampling Baklava. To complete the theme, there were even Greek Gods in authentic tunics, cloaks, and crowns.
Azamara's White Night Party has also taken a temporary pause with the introduction of "Quest Fest". In the best interest of everyone’s safety, this onboard evening event keeps everyone socially distanced at several venues throughout the ship. According to Doerfler, since the event is new, it will evolve with every additional sailing.
On my sailing, a new “Dine Around the Quest” dinner was offered at either Windows Café or Discoveries Restaurant (both restaurants offered the same menu), followed by an evening of entertainment, small bites and appetizers featured around the ship. The event kicked off poolside with singing and dancing by The Quest Band, The Signature Signatures and Cruise Director Amanda and and Assistant Cruise Director Geoffrey.
Passengers were soon dancing and singing along with the crew, including myself. The Quest Fest After Party with DJ Justin in the Living Room brought in the regular nightly crowd and quite a few other passengers to culminate the evening’s festivities.
Just like old times -- with a new twist.
With Azamara Quest in service in the Mediterranean, the line's second ship to restart, Azamara Journey, is scheduled to return to service October 2021 in Greece, while Azamara Pursuit is scheduled to resume operations January 2022 in South Africa.
Earlier this year, Azamara announced the purchase of a fourth R-Class ship -- the former Pacific Princess --that will launch in May 2022 as Azamara Onward. Cabezas said the addition of Azamara Onward will allow the line to sail to more destinations, including the new, and so far, very popular, itinerary to the Black Sea. With a four-vessel fleet for the first time, passengers can expect more specialty sailings in conjunction with sporting events like the Monaco Grand Prix, the British Open, a continued relationship with Perry Golf, and cruises featuring art and cultural exhibitions like Venice Biennale.
As I disembark and head home tomorrow, leaving behind some of my fellow passengers who will sail the itinerary again next week, it was wonderful to be in this little bubble half-way around the world.
After 18 long months since the last time I cruised, for at least a week onboard Azamara Quest, life felt almost “normal” again.