First look: Emerald Azzurra, the first oceangoing yacht from Emerald Cruises
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Editor’s note: TPG’s Eric Rosen sailed on Emerald Azzurra on a free trip provided by Emerald Cruises. The opinions expressed below are entirely his and weren’t subject to review by the line.
A cruise ship isn’t my typical travel habitat. Instead, you’ll usually find me trying to score award flights in Singapore Suites or figuring out when whale sharks will next be passing through La Paz for a friendly snorkel.
That’s not to say I’m not intrigued by the ever-evolving panoply of amenities and activities cruise lines now offer, such as shipboard tattoo parlors, luxury spas and surf simulators. I just haven’t gone out of my way to experience them.
However, when the opportunity arose to sail on Emerald Azzurra — the first oceangoing vessel from Emerald Cruises — I was on board, so to speak.
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To start, I was intrigued by the itinerary, running from Aqaba, Jordan, to Athens, Greece, which would take me to see several wonders of the ancient world.
Plus, the ship’s small size (it accommodates just 100 passengers) and sleek design made it seem more like a high-tech yacht than a crowd-pleasing megaship. It even has a marina platform so passengers can snorkel, kayak and paddleboard right off the ship in certain destinations. Basically, it felt like my kind of cruise.
Here’s what else my experience aboard Emerald Azzurra’s second voyage entailed and what passengers can expect on future sailings.
A little background: From rivers to seas
Emerald Azzurra marks a new chapter for Emerald Cruises, which has been primarily a river cruise line since its founding in 2014. Emerald Cruises is part of Glen Moroney’s Scenic Group, which also operates Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours.
My sailing was just the second for Emerald Azzurra, which was constructed in Vietnam’s Ha Long Shipyard and delivered to Emerald in February of this year. Its maiden voyage took place in March on an itinerary titled, “Best of the Red Sea,” ending in Aqaba where my fellow passengers and I would board.
Designed for an intimate guest experience, Emerald Azzurra is petite at 360 feet long, with six passenger decks and just 50 cabins. The scale, as well as its pronounced, aquadynamic prow, reminded me of nothing so much as a Russian oligarch’s impounded yacht … minus the geopolitical implications, of course.
Emerald Azzurra is also representative of a new wave of luxurious yacht-like and expedition vessels that multiple lines are launching, including Silversea Cruises and the much-anticipated Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection. Emerald Azzurra and its forthcoming sister ship, Emerald Sakara, will carry just 100 passengers at most, however, which is around half the capacity of competitors’ ships.
What’s more, Emerald’s sailings are priced more attractively than those on comparable vessels, starting below $4,000 per person on some itineraries. That’s versus Mediterranean cruises from $6,800 per person with the Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection, for instance. Emerald’s fares even include most excursions (there are a few optional DiscoverMORE experiences that require an extra fee). While you might not enjoy over-the-top amenities like butler service or on-demand caviar that some other luxury lines proffer, that price differential is likely to entice a fair number of prospective passengers who are price conscious but still desire a high-end experience.
Emerald Azzurra: Deck by deck
On the other hand, a cruise ship feels more like a destination unto itself, sort of like a floating hotel, and I was eager to explore Emerald Azzurra’s many features.
The guest decks run from levels 2 to 7, with the cabins spread across decks 3 to 6. Deck 3 is the “ground floor” of sorts, from which we would disembark and re-board at each port of call. It’s where my fellow passengers and I were first welcomed aboard. We were shepherded past the reception desk and toward the bow into the bar and lounge area for COVID-19 tests and sparkling pineapple cocktails.
As we awaited our results, I scoped out the room, which was fitted with large booths and low tables on both sides for convivial gatherings over pre-dinner cocktails. Through the center, a hodgepodge of Saarinen-like tulip chairs, velvet ottomans and rounded loveseats were arranged in casual groupings around chrome-legged, marble-topped tables. Toward the far end, high Monarch-style stools flanked the cocktail bar.
The understated palette of silver and charcoal grays, limestone and taupe, along with the mirrored pillars and ceiling panels, gave the space a sophisticated but unstuffy ambiance that blended art deco and midcentury modern aesthetics with a splash of ‘70s glam thrown in.
Because some of the artwork and plants meant to decorate the walls had not arrived by our sailing, the room did look a little stark, but I imagine it felt a little livelier when those final touches arrived after my disembarkation.
Once we had our negative results, we were free to check into our cabins, enjoy a light buffet lunch at the main restaurant at the stern of Deck 3, La Cucina, or simply explore the ship.
I took the opportunity to roam the decks for pictures while other passengers were settling in. I started at the Sky Deck on level 7, where there is a small outdoor bar and a jacuzzi at the front and various lounging and seating areas running along either side of deck. Other travelers were soon up here enjoying glasses of wine and beer while taking advantage of the sunshine.
Like the lounge, this area seemed a little bare, but it should be outfitted with a lush assortment of plants before long to give it a more garden-like feel.
From there, I took a set of stairs down to the pool deck at the back of level 6. There is a small infinity pool facing the stern with sun loungers, two round day beds and padded deep benches. Because the weather was not very warm during my trip and the crew actually had to drain the pool for some of the rougher parts of the sailing, I didn’t actually use it, though I can imagine it’ll be the place to hang on hot days this summer.
Just in front of the pool is the Aqua Café, which serves light bites, pastries and coffee throughout the day. We had lunch out here one sunny afternoon and it was delightfully warm and breezy.
Deck 5 comprises cabins (including the one I occupied). One level down from that, at the front of Deck 4, is an observation lounge that’s kind of like a living room and library in one. Guests can serve themselves cappuccinos and other hot drinks from an espresso machine or fill up a glass with still or sparkling water, then settle into one of the cozy chairs with a travel or history book from the shelves. There are various games at the table, too, including chess and tic-tac-toe.
Back on Deck 3, I stopped by the reception desk to hand over my passport to the agents so they could take care of customs formalities at our upcoming ports. Heading toward the stern, I peeked into the small boutique that opens in international waters to sell items like Ray-Ban sunglasses, Frey Wille jewelry and Johnstons of Elgin cashmere scarves.
From there, it was a quick turn to the central axis of the ship, with a bank of two elevators and a stunning bifurcated staircase with glass balustrades, chrome railings and floating steps that hearkened to the grand staircases of golden age ocean liners.
The back half of this deck is taken up by the main restaurant, La Cucina, which serves buffet breakfast and lunch and a la carte dinner. Though our voyage was too cold and windy to take advantage of it, the restaurant has an expansive outdoor deck that should hopefully be open for dining under the stars while at anchor in the summer months, or for enjoying an early-morning coffee while steaming into port. You might also notice that the dining room looks slightly bare-bones, but more art and permanent tables are on the way (the crew reportedly raided the Amman Ikea store for temporary furnishings, including dining room tables, for this sailing).
For a ship this size, it felt like there were plenty of public areas in which to spend time, whether it was quietly reading in the observation lounge, sharing drinks with fellow travelers in the lounge, or finding a sheltered corner of the Sky Deck to take in the coastline as we approached various ports.
The cabin: Spare but elegant
Emerald Azzurra has 50 cabins, 44 of which have balconies.
Ocean-view rooms start at a mere 182 square feet and only have windows, while Balcony Suites, of which there are 36, range from a more sizable 285-306 square feet and have private balconies.
There are two larger Deluxe Balcony Suites with separate bedroom and living areas, two Terrace Suites with both a balcony and a private terrace, two Yacht Suites with their own large private terraces and two Owner’s Suites, which measure up at 1,162-1,192 square feet including both indoor bedroom and living areas as well as large outdoor decks.
The specialty suites come with extra amenities that vary by category but include items like a welcome fruit platter and bottle of sparkling wine, a full minibar that’s restocked daily, in-room coffee and tea-making accouterments and complimentary daily laundry.
I was lucky enough to be assigned one of the Terrace Suites and was immediately impressed by the size of both the interior space as well as the outdoor deck and the amount of natural light filtering in through the floor-to-ceiling glass doors on two sides of the cabin.
The outdoor furniture and pillows had not all arrived by the time of our sailing, so I stuck mostly to the lounge chair when enjoying the fresh air, but luckily the cabin itself was quite comfortable. I thought this was the biggest drawback of an early sailing — not being able to fully use the suite’s terrace other than for a few minutes of sunshine here or there.
However, it appears that the outdoor furnishings arrived after my departure, and the line sent TPG an updated photo of the other Terrace Suite’s deck to show what it should look like going forward.
You might notice a sloping wall to the side of the deck. That shields the terrace from a public staircase down to the third deck, which does cut down on the privacy, but I didn’t see any passengers use it during our cruise, so I don’t think that should dissuade anyone from booking this suite.
Much of the indoor footprint is taken up by the bed, which can be split into two twins, and is dressed in the same soft white, 600 thread-count linens you’ll find on other Emerald and Scenic ships. You can also use a control to raise and lower the top portion of the mattress on either side.
To either side is a built-in set of shelves in light-colored timber for small items. There are also USB ports and power plugs plus a small, flip-out reading light. You’ll notice a large empty space with a mirrored wall behind it between the bed and the balcony. After I disembarked, the crew met a shipment of furniture that included swivel chairs and footrests for the space, though it remained empty for my sojourn.
There is a work desk across from the bed, which also houses the minibar. The crew had left me a fruit platter with a dramatic glass cover plus a bottle of prosecco, though I was more interested in the electric kettle and the Illy espresso machine, which looked harder to use than it actually was. The cabin’s phone, audio sets for our guided tours, carafes of water and two metal water bottles took up the rest of the desk.
Though small, the closet had enough space for all our hanging clothes and had several drawers for other apparel plus two bathrobes, two large umbrellas and a safe.
Across from it, the bathroom lies behind a mirrored door. Like many ship restrooms, this one is compact but efficiently laid out.
In addition to the toilet, there is a single sink, above which is a vanity that opens into a large cupboard and a smaller one for toiletries. Below it are drawers and shelves for more belongings as well as a provided hairdryer. The glass walk-in shower had both an enormous overhead rainfall showerhead and a higher-pressure hand-held one by Hansgrohe.
The tiling, which is made to look like deeply veined Calacatta marble, feels bright and clean and contrasts nicely with the colorfully patterned Missoni towels. What I appreciated most, however, were the upscale ESPA bath and skincare products the line stocks for guests to use, which are light on the skin and aromatic without being overpowering.
Although I wasn’t able to snap photos of another passenger cabin, one traveler showed me hers in the Balcony Suite category. The interior felt just as large as the Terrace Suite thanks to some slightly different furnishings and placements, and the bathroom looked like my suite’s, though the shower had just a single handheld shower head mounted on the wall.
Onboard amenities: Massages and a marina
I’ve already mentioned a few of Emerald Azzurra’s amenities, like the top-deck jacuzzi and the rear-facing infinity pool. There is also a guest laundry where passengers can clean their own clothes, so passengers can pack light without worrying about running out of attire.
Deck 2 houses the ship’s wellness area, which includes a gym equipped with Technogym cardio machines, some free weights and a multiuse weight machine. Passengers can also reserve private sessions for personal training, yoga, meditation and Pilates, ranging from $55 to $105.
There is a single-seat salon where guests can book manicures, waxes, eyebrow grooming, cuts and styling using Kitoko Arte products.
The spa has two treatment rooms and offers a range of treatments with ESPA products, such as the 60-minute intense regeneration facial for $175 and the 60-minute hot stone massage for $205, among other possibilities.
Though I did not personally indulge, my travel companion booked a combination massage and facial and practically melted into bed when he returned to the cabin that afternoon. I woke him up for an hour-long yoga session with the ship’s personal trainer later that day (complimentary classes were available on several days of the sailing). After, we headed back to the spa for a 20-minute sit in the infrared sauna to loosen up.
One of Emerald Azzurra’s main selling points, at least in my estimation, is that it has an onboard water sports marina of sorts.
Passengers will be able to enjoy more active pursuits such as snorkeling and kayaking in certain ports such as Korcula in Croatia and Parga in Greece (pending weather and final approval of the harbormaster, of course).
Though the itinerary I was on would not allow for this, I still got a tour of the equipment stowed down there, and some guests were able to borrow the complimentary Gocycle electric bikes in Kusadasi, Turkey. There was an active cycling tour offered in Rhodes, too, but that was after I had disembarked.
For travelers who, like me, need to keep up with a bit of work while on board, the ship offers free Wi-Fi and will eventually also feature premium, higher-speed packages for sale. The free version worked decently for things like emailing and internet browsing, but not quite well enough for uploading photos or videos. It also caused the television reception to cut out frequently, so hopefully, that will be fixed when the faster service comes online.
Dining and drinking: You won’t go hungry
One of the elements of my cruise I was most impressed with was the culinary program. Although there is only one main restaurant plus the poolside cafe, the kitchen team kept things interesting throughout the cruise, with few repeats in the lunch buffets and the Mediterranean-inspired dinner menus.
Each day’s breakfast buffet featured a variety of hot options including scrambled eggs, hash browns, bacon, different kinds of sausage and roasted mushrooms and tomatoes, plus a plethora of pastries, fresh fruit and various kinds of juices and smoothies.
Since I was in one of the specialty suites, I was also entitled to order breakfast as room service and took advantage of that on a few of the days when excursions started earlier. Like the buffet, the choices were extensive and included things like omelets, pancakes, waffles, bagels with smoked salmon and different coffee and tea selections.
At lunchtime, the servers would set out another wide-ranging buffet with mains such as seared filet of rockfish with beurre blanc; beef-lamb kofte with grilled halloumi; and herb-grilled chicken breast and shrimps in a creamy pumpkin sauce. There was also a small salad bar plus plenty of desserts like sorbet, ice cream, chocolate cake with raspberry drizzle and enormous cookies, including some excellent caramel toffee ones.
After a morning spent snorkeling in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, I spent the afternoon at Aqua Café and sampled some of the healthy flatbreads, including a Greek version with tomato, feta, onions and olive and another with lemon, ricotta and artichoke, both of which were flavorful and satisfying.
Dinner menus in La Cucina changed each evening and began with small dishes such as octopus-potato salad; tuna ceviche with mango, mint and lime; and shredded baked beets with apple and horseradish. Next would come a soup course, with choices such as sweet corn potage, hearty German lentil and smoked eggplant cream. There was always a pasta or risotto dish to share followed by a choice of a main course.
The standouts I tried included a succulent duck breast and leg confit with red cabbage praline; grilled beef tenderloin with black truffle butter and fondant potatoes; and filet of sole with tangy lemon-caper Sicilian sauce and ratatouille cream.
Even after all that food, I was always game for desserts like chocolate-passionfruit cake, a creamy deconstructed chocolate millefeuille and tiramisu.
For guests who favor consistency over novelty, there is also a roster of “always available” dishes that includes shrimp cocktail, Caesar salad, spaghetti Bolognese, grilled salmon, chicken, steak and breaded eggplant.
The wines rotated each lunch and evening, too, with options like a Picpoul Blanc from the south of France, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Tempranillo from Spain’s Ribera del Duero and a French Cote du Rhone.
I was on the premium spirits package, so drinks at the lounge and the Sky Bar were included as well, and the bartending team made a delicious old fashioned and great Negronis. We would drop by for a nightcap after dinner to hear the ship’s guitarist play.
The one food-related downside to cruising is that you don’t get many opportunities to sample the cuisine of the various destinations you visit. And while the menus on board the ship were excellent, I would love to see the kitchen team incorporate more “local” dishes onto the menu, such as falafel after a day in Jerusalem, for instance, or ful medames for breakfast before a visit to the pyramids in Egypt.
Itinerary highlights: Petra and the pyramids
Of course, I didn’t spend all my time poking around the ship, especially on an itinerary as action-packed with sightseeing as this one.
Among the most rewarding days of the journey was the first full one, during which we remained docked in Aqaba. From there, we took buses two hours in each direction to visit the ancient Nabatean desert city of Petra, with its famous treasury building carved into a red rock face.
Two days later (with a stop in Sharm El-Sheikh in the meantime), we docked in Ain Sokhna, Egypt, and boarded buses for the trek around the outskirts of Cairo to see the pyramids at Giza and the Sphinx before a riverfront lunch in the city.
Cruising through the Suez Canal was an interesting experience that also provided some much-needed downtime, since we remained on the ship, and the next day brought us to Ashdod, Israel, from which we set off to explore the Old City of Jerusalem.
We spent another afternoon visiting ancient settlements along Cyprus’s south coast before disembarking in Antalya, Turkey, which has a beautiful, pedestrianized old city chock full of Ottoman villas. The cruise went on to visit Kusadasi, Turkey, as well as Rhodes, Santorini and Athens in Greece.
Although many of the excursions required a substantial amount of time in transit, it felt more than worthwhile for the opportunity to see breathtaking wonders like Petra and the pyramids as well as to visit new (to me) places like Cyprus.
Being in the care of the ship’s activities team also meant that customs processes, COVID-19 testing (in Israel) and my early disembarkation were all handled smoothly, with little to no effort on my part. Plus, since the excursions were included in the cruise fare, venturing out was that much more enjoyable.
One note on sailing for folks who are a little more motion-sensitive: Given Emerald Azzurra’s relatively small size, you could feel the movement of the ship and some significant pitching in heavier seas. So, if you have issues with seasickness, you might want to consider whether a larger vessel might suit you better. This was also the reason the crew had to drain the infinity pool at one point since, otherwise, the water would have sloshed over onto the deck.
Working out the kinks
As you might expect from any early sailing on a new ship, there were a few kinks that Emerald will have to work out.
First and foremost was the fact that the ship didn’t have all its permanent furnishings aboard when we embarked, including chairs and tables for the cabins’ balconies, which, understandably, upset several of my fellow sailors. The crew’s uniforms only arrived a day before I disembarked, too.
However, my contacts at the cruise line have told me that all the furniture is now aboard, assembled and set out, as is all the artwork and much of the greenery, so hopefully the experience on sailings going forward will feel more comfortable and consistent.
Although the Wi-Fi worked fine for my needs, hopefully, faster service will soon be available so that it will be easier to keep up with things back home or to research upcoming ports of call in detail by going online.
The excursions on my specific itinerary required a lot of time in tour buses and some fairly complicated logistics, some of which was related to COVID-19, and some of which was not. For instance, passengers were woken at 5 a.m. for COVID-19 tests to enter Israel on that day of the cruise due to changing conditions. A few days earlier, we sat on buses waiting to exit the port in Ain Sokhna en route to the pyramids for nearly 90 minutes as some snafu was ironed out. Both instances curtailed our time visiting the sights and certain activities had to be excised from the schedule. As the ship visits various ports again and again, though, hopefully, some of these rough patches will resolve into smoother sailing.
Finally, a few crew members tested positive for COVID-19 just two days into the sailing. They were isolated in the crew quarters, the crew was required to wear masks at all times after that, and passengers were asked to monitor their own health for any symptoms. Luckily, the crew members recovered, no one else fell ill and it did not impact our itinerary, but it could have been much worse had more people been exposed.
Though this is not unique to Emerald, it’s something to be aware of if you intend to cruise with any line in the coming months.
Why I’d sail again
Logistical whitecaps aside, I wouldn’t hesitate to cruise with Emerald again for a few reasons.
Even without all its furnishings, Emerald Azzurra was a stunner, with spacious, comfortable cabins, beautiful public areas and high-end touches like the full-service spa, Missoni textiles and ESPA products that made the experience feel luxurious.
My itinerary from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean included stops at fascinating sites. I’d be curious what some of the ship’s Mediterranean itineraries — especially those that allow for use of the marina deck — are like.
More than anything, though, the service was truly excellent. Every crew member we interacted with was a pleasure to see and speak with every day, from the friendly staff at reception to the assiduous servers in the lounge and restaurant (as well as the ones who carefully toted our in-room breakfast to us), not to mention Martina, our cabin steward, who took care of everything from cleaning the stateroom to refilling our water carafes and stowing our luggage.
Many of them accompanied us on excursions and we enjoyed chatting with them at the sights and attractions we visited. Each of them knew all the passengers by name within a day or two, which also gave the experience a friendlier, more casual feel. I heard from many of my other passengers how impressed they were by the crew — so it wasn’t just my experience.
The uniqueness of Emerald Azzurra, its intimate size and high-end amenities, the intriguing itinerary and the friendliness of the crew all combined to make this a memorable sailing, and one I would have no trouble recommending to others.
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Featured photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy.
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