Going Forward with Azamara Onward
Welcome to Azamara Onward. Now get off the ship!
Don’t take that the wrong way; take it as a gift. Azamara’s mission is to give its guests the one thing no one ever has enough of: time. Time to explore unusual, offbeat destinations. Time to have a late dinner at the cute little brasserie you saw that morning on the shore excursion. Time, even, to do nothing at all.
If that sounds like an unusual philosophy for a cruise line, remember that Azamara is an outlier in the industry, and has been since its launch under the Royal Caribbean corporate umbrella in 2007. The emphasis is on destination immersion and country-intensive voyages. Consider: Most cruise ships usher their passengers onto tour buses at 8:00 a.m. (not even enough time for a decent breakfast!) and pour them back on board by 5:00, after which the ship may not even see land again for another 30 hours. Azamara, on the other hand, seems to be asking, “Why the rush?”
From R-Three to Onward
The newest addition to Azamara’s fleet of luxury small ships is Azamara Onward, which debuted in May 2022 after its christening in Monte Carlo. Cruise geeks will eagerly tell you the origins of Onward, and how it recently completed a renovation to erase any trace of its previous life as Pacific Princess, operated by Princess Cruises until 2021. In its earliest incarnation, the ship was known by the almost Orwellian moniker R-Three, the third in the fabled R-class ships built for Renaissance Cruises, which went belly-up in 2001. R-Three, today Azamara Onward, is identical to its three Azamara sister ships.
The eight original R-class ships are now evenly dispersed between Azamara and its cross-town rival in the luxury small-ship category, Oceania. There are no others. How, then, can Azamara ever hope to expand? Carol Cabezas, Azamara’s president, is sly about revealing future plans. When I recently suggested to her that they probably would have to kidnap one of the Oceania vessels, she discreetly replied, “We’re exploring all options.”
At the risk of being labeled an unreliable narrator, I will backtrack and rephrase my description of the four Azamara ships as being identical: The newly launched Onward has a special something none of the others has: the Atlas Bar. The goal there is to prep and serve artisanal cocktails that no one on earth has ever drunk or even heard of. How about a Grand Bazaar (Turkish yeni raki, fresh lemon juice, arugula syrup), a Mumbai Hug (chili-infused Grey Goose vodka, fresh lime juice, ginger syrup, lime syrup, cilantro) or a Heat of Azamara (Grey Goose vodka, fresh strawberry puree, fresh lime juice, passion fruit nectar, Galliano, absinthe)? Imagine, someone actually gets paid to come up with these concoctions. The space itself is intimate, tucked away, and has the late-night atmosphere of a fashionable London private club.
Considering its small size (684 passengers), Onward has plenty of nooks like that. The Den, with a bar called Spirits, is another such just-us place, especially with Vasi at the Keys (as the ship’s daily newsletter insists on calling the pianist who plays there). The mononymical Vasi is more than just an anonymous lounge pianist drifting from “Strangers in the Night” to “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” She chats with the crowd as if with friends (and occasionally lets them sing abbreviated versions of songs, karaoke-style). She transforms the Den into a sophisticated Broadway piano bar where it’s always 1:00 a.m. and the audience doesn’t want to leave.
Let’s say a passenger decided to stay on board one day while their fellow guests were off exploring some charm-filled, medieval Provençal village. I’m not recommending that, but there are plenty of times during a cruise when someone doesn’t necessarily want to go anywhere. Options exist.
One could join a trivia team to compete against one’s fellow layabouts in, say, the music category. (I lost the Motown trivia contest to an English couple. An English couple!) One afternoon I watched the entertainment staff compete against the kitchen team in a cake-decorating competition. Guess who won? (“If anyone wants a slice, please help yourself,” said cruise director Eric De Gray, pointing to his lopsided pastry, generously covered in frosting, fruit, and, I’m guessing, Jujubes. “I’m sure it tastes better than it looks.”) Or point yourself in the direction of the swimming pool, twin Jacuzzis, shuffleboard court on the Sun Deck, board games in the Card Room, day-drinking indoors at Discoveries or outdoors at the Pool Bar, and dining at any of seven restaurants (everything from the Mosaic coffee bar for cappuccino and pastries to the buffet at Windows to the elegant, wood-paneled (and extra-charge) Prime C steakhouse.
But again, why would you?!
Even on my short, 4-night, pre-inaugural cruise from Barcelona to Monte Carlo via Cinque Terre, the adventures ashore were the heavy attraction. In the pastel-painted seafront village of Porto Venere, Italy, Azamara took over the town, planting opera singers next to ancient churches and an accordionist at the plaza. Guests were proffered lavish pours of prosecco and platters of prosciutto on a pier overlooking the handsome seaport. In Monterosso al Mare, the largest of the five towns of Cinque Terre, a guide led our small group up an ancient cobbled lane to a hillside winery, where we were treated to a wine tasting and light lunch on a covered patio overlooking lush vineyards and fruit-laden lemon trees.
Azamara has built its reputation on such unconventional and unexpected “AzAmazing” experiences.
The ship also spent one night in port at Monte Carlo — long enough for at least one bartender in town to know me by name. (Cue the wife: “Not that unusual for you, Mark.”) Azamara claims it has more late departures and overnights in port than any other cruise line. So go ahead and linger over the Rioja in the late-night tapas bar; no need to hurry back to the ship. In most cases, passengers don’t even have to concern themselves with tender schedules; at 30,277 gross registered tons, Azamara Onward, like its sisters, is small enough to dock in most of the ports it visits.
Some industry observers wondered what, if anything, would change when Royal Caribbean Group sold Azamara to Sycamore Partners, a New York-based private equity firm, in March 2021. But if any Azamara fans were wary of the transition, their concern—so far, at least—seems misplaced. Carol Cabezas, who was named chief operating officer of the line in 2017 and president in 2021, seems likely to carry on Azamara’s goals and traditions. If anything, she’s even expanding on them. Cabezas recently announced that Onward would be the first Azamara ship to offer a world voyage — more than 40 countries across 155 nights, January 4 to June 9, 2024. Until then, the ship will spend the summer in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America, and the fall and winter roaming the Mediterranean. It’s a wonder some wag hasn’t already rechristened the Onward the Wayward.
“The addition of Azamara Onward has given us so many itinerary options we didn’t have before,” she said.
But I have to cut this short. Vasi at the Keys has (somewhat reluctantly) said I could sing Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” and will even let me hold the microphone.
But one verse only!