The terraces of vines carved into the hills of Cinque Terre form a backdrop behind me.
In the shade beneath them, I sit and sip the product of their grapes, a blend of three white varietals that have been grown here for centuries: bosco, albarola, and vermentino.
The five colourful villages of Cinque Terre were intentionally built along this rugged and roadless stretch of Italian coastline so they could only be accessed from the sea, making them easier to defend. But now, that doesn’t stop the legions of tourists who come every day, filling the narrow streets that wind between shops, restaurants, and churches.
Thankfully, up here near the agricultural terraces, it’s quiet in the garden of the Buranco winery. Even though it’s just five minutes’ walk from the centre of the largest village, Monterosso, I would probably not even have realised it was here if it was not for the tour I’m on, a shore excursion from the Azamara Onward cruise ship.
The Onward is moored offshore at nearby Portovenere and passengers approach Cinque Terre by sea, just as its residents have done for centuries. While it’s here on its 14-hour stop, the ship offers several guided tours through the villages, with options like hiking and wine tasting. Like most cruises, the shore excursions can be a little pricey, but a long stay in port means plenty of time to explore independently if you prefer. Plus, the Onward won’t sail today until well into the evening, with the last tender from Portovenere at 10pm, so it’s easy to have a meal at a local restaurant, experiencing this charming little town by day and night.
It’s this destination-focused approach, with long stays and evening activities, that Azamara hopes will help set it apart from other cruise companies as travellers take to the waters again after the pandemic.
“We did a tremendous amount of studying of the different audiences that are interested in cruise,” Azamara president Carol Cabezas tells us onboard. “And one of the things that came across quite often is they want to be able to do things in a very relaxed way, they didn’t want to have to hurry through anything and feel pressured.”
It’s not just about spending longer in destinations. Azamara’s smaller ships mean it can also go to some ports that the larger cruise lines can’t access, and it can dock in more convenient locations. When we arrive at Marseille during a gorgeous sunrise, for instance, we pull in right in front of the city’s cathedral, just a few minutes’ walk from the old town. I’m able to easily wander through the historic part of the French city, from the baroque church, through the street art, to the rows of fishing boats floating behind the imposing fortifications atop a bluff.
Of course, when I say the Azamara Onward is small, that’s relative. It is, after all, still 10 decks high and can accommodate 684 passengers along with its 408 crew. But compared to ships from lines like Royal Caribbean or even P&O Australia, which accommodate between 2,500 to 3,500 passengers, this certainly feels more boutique.
I’ve been invited to spend a few nights on the Azamara Onward as it travels around the Mediterranean before its inaugural cruise this month – and it’s a good opportunity to not just see a new ship, but to also get a sense of how cruising is looking post-COVID. Everyone needs to be vaccinated and provide a negative rapid test before embarkation, and crew members wear masks the whole time. But for passengers, masks are optional, and most people seem to not be wearing them (which, I suspect, means there will be some positive cases, just like in most aspects of life these days).
Azamara’s approach seems to be like the rest of the cruise industry – that the threat from the pandemic is almost over. And this new ship, the Azamara Onward, is a symbol of that, not only in name. It’s just the fourth vessel for the company and was bought from Princess Cruises last year because it’s the same type of ship as the first three. It’s now been decked out almost identically to them in style and features. It’s back to the future, it seems, giving loyal passengers the same experience they remember fondly, while offering new guests a point of difference from the megaships.
The sticker price for the Azamara cruises is higher than many other lines, but there are also more inclusions, such as alcoholic drinks, laundry, and transfers to shore. And for additional charges, there are two speciality restaurants plus a stunning new bar with artisanal cocktails.
But the biggest pitch that Azamara is making to potential new customers is the opportunity to spend longer in destinations, exploring them in a more textured way. I can’t see how it replaces the authenticity of actually staying in a hotel for a few nights, eating all your meals in local establishments, taking the time to get lost without worrying you’ll be left behind. But for those who want the convenience of the same accommodation for the whole holiday and find comfort knowing the staff are regularly tested for COVID, this is an attractive post-pandemic way to travel.