5 things to love about Azamara Onward, the new cruise ship from upscale line Azamara
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Editor’s note: TPG’s Gene Sloan accepted a free trip from Azamara to attend a preview event over the weekend for its new cruise ship, Azamara Onward. The opinions expressed below are entirely his and weren’t subject to review by the line.
Are you looking for an intimate, upscale cruise vessel that can take you to some of the world’s most spectacular destinations at a reasonable price?
If you’re not too fussy about the size of the room where you’ll be spending your nights, you might want to look at small-ship cruise line Azamara‘s new Azamara Onward.
At 30,277 tons, Azamara Onward is just a small fraction of the size of the giant megaships that so many lines are building these days (Royal Caribbean‘s new Wonder of the Seas is nearly eight times larger) — and that means it can access lots of world-class destinations such as Amalfi, Italy, and Rovinj, Croatia, that are too small for bigger ships to visit.
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Azamara Onward also sails with just 684 passengers at double occupancy, an unusually intimate number that means you’ll never feel like you’re traveling with a crowd.
The biggest drawback to a trip on Azamara Onward is that the ship has relatively small cabins — at least for a vessel that aims to play in the upscale cruise space.
This is mostly due to the fact that the ship’s underlying design dates to an earlier era of cruising when cabins in general weren’t as big as they are today.
Christened Monday in Monaco, Azamara Onward isn’t actually a new ship. Originally built for Renaissance Cruises in the late 1990s, it’s been sailing the world’s oceans for nearly 23 years — first for Renaissance and later for Princess Cruises. Azamara bought it in 2021 and is just now adding it to its fleet after giving it a major makeover.
Still, despite its age, Azamara Onward is an alluring vessel, as I saw over the weekend during a short non-revenue preview sailing for travel industry leaders, media and company employees. Here are five things you’ll love about Azamara Onward.
Its small size
Many cruisers love big ships for all they have to offer — from large arrays of restaurants and bars to a smorgasbord of decktop amusements. But when it comes to upscale cruising, often smaller is better.
Like other ships of its size, Azamara Onward offers an intimate experience with spaces that never feel crowded, and it can get you into charming small port towns that are off limits to bigger vessels.
I experienced this myself over the weekend when Azamara Onward arrived at tiny Porto Venere, Italy (pop. 3,763), a picture-perfect hillside town along the Ligurian coast where you’ll never find bigger ships. After Azamara Onward anchored just off shore, I rode a water shuttle to the UNESCO World Heritage Site-listed destination’s dock for an Azamara-organized “AzAmazing Day” with live music performances at multiple locations and waterside drinks and hors d’oeuvres. Azamara offers such events at no extra charge once per cruise.
Some passengers, including me, later boarded a boat from Porto Venere for an Azamara-organized tour of the nearby, built-into-the-cliffs Cinque Terre villages — icons of Italy’s northwest coast. The tour included a lovely and intimate private lunch and wine tasting at a winery just above one of the villages.
It was the sort of magical day that would be hard to organize for passengers on a ship much bigger than Azamara Onward — and that’s a good chunk of cruise ships these days. There are relatively few cruise vessels left that are as small or smaller than Azamara Onward, other than specialized expedition cruise vessels designed to go to places like Antarctica and the Arctic.
Notably, Azamara’s two most direct competitors in the upscale cruise space have been building ships lately that carry far more people. Two new ships on order for Azamara rival Oceania Cruises will carry 1,200 passengers apiece, and close competitor Viking‘s ocean ships are all designed to carry 930 passengers.
Its upscale feel
Azamara Onward may be an older ship. But that doesn’t mean it’s run down. Azamara has spent millions of dollars on the vessel in recent months, revamping its public spaces to give them a new, contemporary and upscale feel.
Among essentially brand new spaces on Azamara Onward is The Den, an inviting lounge and bar area at the center of the ship that serves as a central gathering point during the day and night. It’s a multipurpose space that is home to a shore excursion desk, loyalty desk and travel guide library, in addition to comfortable seating where you can kick back with cocktails in the evening with live piano music as a backdrop.
Also completely revamped is the Living Room, a spacious observation lounge at the top of the ship. Featuring a bar, lots of seating nooks and a large dance floor, it offers everything from trivia contests during the day to music and dancing at night.
But, to me, its greatest feature is its expansive window wall offering stunning views over the bow. I sat, mesmerized, for more than an hour on Sunday looking out from this window wall as the ship glided into the port of Monaco. The entire principality with its yacht-filled harbor, palace-topped Old Town and glitzy downtown district spread before me like a movie set.
Both The Den and the Living Room are venues you’ll find on Azamara’s three other vessels (all of which are sister ships to Azamara Onward that were originally built for Renaissance Cruises). But Azamara Onward also offers one all-new venue: the Atlas Bar.
Located at the top of the ship in a space that houses a library on other Azamara vessels, it’s a stylish artisanal cocktail lounge of the sort that is all the rage in places like New York and Los Angeles. You’ll find all kinds of crafty concoctions made with smoking domes, nitro infusions, fresh-squeezed juices and handmade syrups.
The Atlas Bar also serves up a premium menu of scrumptious small plates such as beef tartare topped with caviar and shaved truffle, and smoked lobster carpaccio.
Note that while house drinks are included in the fare on Azamara ships, the over-the-top offerings at Atlas Bar come with a hefty extra charge of $17.95 a piece (or you can upgrade to Azamara’s Ultimate Beverage Package, which costs $24.95 per day and includes unlimited drinks at the Atlas Bar). The food items will come with an extra charge, too, that had yet to be set when I visited the ship but will likely be around $6.50 a plate.
To be clear, not every area of the ship has the same level of upscale feel. As noted above, the biggest shortcoming of Azamara Onward as a ship that is playing in the high-end cruise space is that its cabins are relatively small. The typical balcony cabin on Azamara Onward offers just 175 square feet of interior space. That’s about 22% less than the typical balcony cabin on a Viking ocean ship.
The small size of Azamara Onward cabins is particularly noticeable in cabin bathrooms, which are very tight. Be warned that the showers in bathrooms are narrow and set off with clingy shower curtains. I found it a challenge to fully soap up without some Twister-like contortions.
The sleeping areas of cabins have been heavily renovated but still show their age in places (while carpeting, bedding and other soft goods are all-new as are other elements including bedside lighting with built-in USB ports, built-in cabinetry is from an older era).
Bottom line: Azamara Onward isn’t a ship that you necessarily book for its rooms.
Its port-intensive itineraries
Azamara Onward may not be a ship that you book for its rooms. But it’s definitely a vessel that you should consider for its itineraries. Like all Azamara ships, it’ll be operating a wide variety of port-intensive “destination immersion” voyages over the coming year that offer a lot of time in ports, often including late-night stays and even overnight stays. That’s not always the case in the cruise world.
By way of example, an 11-night Mediterranean itinerary that Azamara Onward will operate for the first time in June will start and end with overnight stays in Ravenna, Italy, and Istanbul, Turkey, respectively. During the same trip, the ship also will make day stops in Santorini, Greece, and Koper, Slovenia, that start early in the morning and continue to 9:30 p.m. and 10:00 p.m., respectively.
In addition, the ship will make day stops in Dubrovnik, Croatia, and Corfu, Greece, that last until 8:00 p.m., among six other port calls.
Such lengthy port stops that last into the night are the Holy Grail for cruisers who seek the deepest dive possible into the places their ships go, as they allow for seeing a different side of a destination. In addition to touring by day, they offer the chance to sample the local cuisine of a port over dinner and take in the local nightlife.
Azamara Onward will spend the next six months sailing seven- to 15-night trips in the Mediterranean that, like the above itinerary, are chock full of late-night stays and overnight stays in ports. The ship then will reposition to the Caribbean and South America for the winter for sailings that include late-night stays in places like St. Maarten, St. Kitts and Fuerte Amador, Panama (the port for Panama City).
The ship also is scheduled to do an epic, 155-day world voyage in 2024 that will feature an enormous number of late-night and overnight stays in ports.
Among intimate, upscale vessels that offer destination-rich itineraries, Azamara Onward is debuting as one of the great values. This may not always be the case. As Azamara absorbs the massive 33% increase in capacity that is occurring at the line as a result of the ship’s addition, its pricing is likely to rise. But for now, at least, you can get on board Azamara Onward at fares that are significantly lower than some of its closest competitors.
As of the publishing of this story, 11-night Mediterranean sailings on Azamara Onward for the coming months were starting at $1,499 per person, based on double occupancy — or about $136 per night. Compare that to current starting rates of around $230 per night for Mediterranean sailings in the coming months on Oceania ships. Starting rates for Mediterranean sailings in the coming months on Viking ships are significantly higher at around $500 per night.
For the coming fall, there are seven- and eight-night sailings around Italy and Spain, respectively, available starting as low as $1,199 per person — the latter just $150 per night. There’s also an 11-night transatlantic voyage starting at $1,199 per person — or $109 per night.
Keep in mind that such pricing is for the very smallest cabins on Azamara Onward, and as noted above cabins on Azamara Onward in general are small. Azamara’s entry-level fares also generally will just get you an “interior” cabins that has no windows — a type of cabin that doesn’t even exist on Viking ships.
Still, booking one of these low-priced cabins gets you access to all of the same onboard amenities and destination experiences that come with any other cabin type. It’ll be the same cruise that you would experience in a fancier cabin, with the only difference being the cabin itself.
Such fares are an even better value than they might initially seem when you consider that Azamara includes several things in its fares that sometimes cost extra at other lines, such as gratuities for crew and drinks. Select house spirits, beer, wine, bottled water, soft drinks, specialty coffees and teas are available around the clock on Azamara ships at no extra charge.
Its happy vibe
With small ships, the allure of the onboard experience often comes down to the vibe (and related service level) that you get from the crew. And the vibe on Azamara Onward is a happy one.
When I boarded Azamara Onward on Thursday for the preview, the ship had yet to operate for a single night with passengers under the Azamara banner. Furniture for the pool deck had yet to be unpacked, and some cabin amenities such as hairdryers had yet to arrive. But if the crew was feeling stressed or even overwhelmed, it didn’t show. At every turn, I was met by smiling, upbeat and welcoming staff that were delivering service at a high level.
It was a staff that notably was made up of lots of veteran Azamara crew who have been with the line for years, and they knew what they were doing. They were on top of their game.
Up at the Atlas Bar — as noted above, a new-for-the-line venue — a phalanx of bartenders were shaking up strawberry vodka martinis and smoking whiskey sours with a flair that made it seem like they had been working in the venue for years. My room steward, Chang, quickly got every little start-up flaw that I noticed in my room — from faulty power outlets to a nonworking television — fixed in a jiffy.
Azamara is a line that is particularly known for the service levels on its ships, and Azamara Onward is no exception.
Azamara Onward isn’t a built-from-scratch new ship. But many of its interior areas have a new-like feel after a major overhaul in advance of its debut as an Azamara vessel.
Like Azamara’s three other ships (Azamara Journey, Azamara Quest and Azamara Pursuit), it’s not quite as snazzy, design-wise, as some newer vessels in the upscale cruise space. Most notably, its cabins are relatively small as compared to newer ships in its market and — for those who look closely — reveal signs of the ship’s age. (We couldn’t help but notice the scratched-up sink basin in our cabin bathroom and some dings in the sleeping area’s built-in cabinetry.) But in the grand scheme of things, these seem like minor quibbles.
Azamara is all about offering intimate, upscale cruises that will give you a much more in-depth experience in the destinations its ships visit than many other lines, and for that, Azamara Onward is a wonderful vehicle. Its small size is just what you want for a cruise that will take you to lots of smaller and lesser-visited places, and its affordable pricing (at least for now) is a major draw.
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Featured photo of Azamara Onward by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy.
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