It’s remarkable to watch an active volcano from the deck of a cruise ship in the middle of the night — especially in Europe. The experience was not on our original itinerary, but it’s the kind of unusual experience Captain Carl Smith loves to find and share with passengers onboard the Azamara Quest. The deck lights are turned off, and passengers line the ship’s decks to watch in awe as Italy’s Mount Stromboli spews orange lava into the sky.
“I love my job!” Smith tells his passengers. And it shows; the captain even welcomes passengers to join him for a hike in Kotor, Montenegro — basically a “free” shore excursion. I’ve never seen any other cruise captain engage with passengers like this.
Cruising on a premium line with smaller ships creates a more intimate experience than the mass-market mega ships (some now carrying more than 6,000 passengers). For a price, passengers of Azamara, Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn, Crystal, and other premium, smaller-ship lines get an upscale experience with added value. The bonuses vary from line to line, but can include such things as airfare, shore excursions, or hotels before or after the cruise.
With a capacity of only about 700 passengers, the Azamara Quest isn’t exactly a private yacht, but she’s small enough to feel intimate, especially with a ratio of one staff member for two passengers — who are mostly adults on our sailing. Stepping aboard the Quest, my partner remarks that the ship’s sophisticated and refined decor reminds him of a Farimont hotel. The Azamara cruise fare includes basic gratuities. It also includes wine selections with lunch and dinner. The food is the best I’ve ever eaten on a ship — good enough to tempt us away from Italy’s restaurants and back onboard for dinner. Azamara offers long stays in some ports; with departures as late as 11:00 p.m., it’s often possible to dine in port.
Our oversized stateroom (a “Club Continent Suite”) includes a large balcony where our butler serves our requested breakfasts. Dining with the Italian coastline in sight is truly a dolce vita experience.
Toward the end of the voyage I hear many fellow passengers dreaming of their next Azamara trip. With a huge variety of ports and itineraries available, we’re tempted to do the same. But it’s not just the itineraries that tempt us; it’s the intimate feel, refined service and the personality of the crew — from the captain down — that may lure us back on board.
Five trends in cruising
1. Theme & group cruises
A theme or group generally shares the ship with mainstream cruises, possibly having exclusive onboard events. In some cases, a group may charter an entire ship — as is popular for all-gay cruises. Whether you’ve got a penchant for sports, Broadway, or Christianity, chances are there’s a cruise for you.
2. Distant ports and round-the-world cruising
Cruises visit far-flung ports — itineraries to and around Australia, New Zealand, Asia, and even the Persian Gulf are available. You can also circle the globe on a ship, with some itineraries lasting over 100 nights. Cunard, P&O, and Holland America are some of the lines offering this.
3. River cruises
Cruise across a continent instead of around it. River cruise ships offer itineraries on European, Egyptian, Asian and even American rivers. In eastern Canada, cruise ships ply the Saint Lawrence River to and from New England/New York, and CTMA offers cruises from Montreal to Quebec’s Magdalen (Madeleine) Islands.
4. Polar region cruises
See polar bears or penguins from a cruise ship. Cruising in Antarctica has become mainstream; several cruise lines will take you there. Meanwhile, Canadian-owned Cruise North Expeditions offers unique ways to experience Canada’s far northern waters.
5. Cheap fares but extra charges on mainstream ships
The rough economy hit cruise lines’ bottom line. Like airlines, they’ve managed to keep fares relatively low while selling some items (bottled water, specialty coffees) and more-aggressively marketing amenities like photographs, specialty dining rooms, gift shops and spa packages.
• Randall Shirley is a freelance writer and the editor of MeetMeOnBoard.com, which focuses on gay cruise travel. His recent Mediterranean sailing was courtesy of Azamara Club Cruises.