Azamara Quest will never be a true luxury product -- not with its small staterooms and aging real estate in an industry where "newer" and "bigger" often mean "better." But with its smart new focus on "destination immersion" and sharply expanded menu of complimentary amenities, Azamara Club Cruises has carved out an upmarket niche that should have staying power.
What Azamara Quest (and sister ship Journey) aims to deliver is, as CEO Larry Pimentel frames it, a "bucket list" of must-see destinations around the world. How? With longer stays in port, more overnights and nighttime touring. It's a strategic move that represents a distinct departure from traditional cruising, which typically features daytime port visits and no overnights or nighttime touring. The ship also plans itineraries around popular events, docking in Rio for Carnaval, Monaco for the Grand Prix and London for the Chelsea Garden Show.
On our seven-night cruise along the French Riviera, we overnighted in both Nice and Monte Carlo. And, in other ports, we sailed away as late as 10 p.m., so there was ample time to enjoy dinner or explore the nightlife on shore. (One downside: On shorter itineraries with no sea days, there is no real sense of the sail or the sea because the cruising itself occurs in the dark. If that's an important consideration, it's best to rethink your itinerary.)
In addition, every cruise now features one complimentary AzAmazing Evening -- a local performance, concert or sporting event staged exclusively for Azamara that showcases a region's culture and cuisine. On our AzAmazing Evening in Sete, France, we watched a colorful water-jousting competition, a local tradition dating back to the Middle Ages, followed by an outdoor reception (with sparkling wines, octopus pie, fresh oysters and mussels) and fireworks. It was a showstopper.
As for the ship, Azamara Quest considers itself a floating boutique hotel. When it launched in 2007 with nearly 700 passengers, the ship was considered mid-size. By today's mega-ship standards, it's a small vessel, and that's part of its charm. Also, what Quest lacks in stateroom and bathroom panache, it makes up for with its handsome public spaces. It doesn't hurt either that the ship underwent a $10 million refurbishment in late 2012 that included an interior design redo of the Windows buffet restaurant, new chaise lounges on the pool deck, all new equipment in the fitness center and an upgrade of carpeting and furniture fabrics in most of the public spaces.
The food and service overall are quite good by any standard. One of the game-changers, though, are new fare inclusions -- not only an AzAmazing Evening but the self-service laundry, complimentary shuttles in many ports, butlers for suite passengers, house wines, beer, selected spirits, bottled water and soft drinks. The onboard experience is far more luxurious than it was before. Both onboard and ashore, this is a ship that has reinvented itself.
Passengers onboard were an international mix, though the largest nation represented by far was the U.S., followed by the U.K., Canada and Australia. Other Europeans rounded out the lot, although there were also passengers from the Dominican Republic, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Chile and Mexico.
A large fraction of passengers are seniors, but Azamara says the average age is 55 to 57. Onboard entertainment, from trivia topics to musical choice, is clearly intended for Baby Boomers and their elders.
Almost a quarter of passengers on a typical voyage are first-time cruisers who are seasoned land travelers. Azamara says its chief competitors are boutique hotels. Statistically, the cruise lines it draws from are, in order, Regent Seven Seas, Oceania, Seabourn, Silversea and Crystal.