Larry Pimentel has seen a lot of water under the bridge. Literally and figuratively.
As past CEO of Seabourn, Sea Dream Yacht Club, and Cunard, the veteran travel industry exec has helmed some of the most storied names in cruising. So when Royal Caribbean Cruises lured him out of retirement in 2009 to head its new Azamara Club Cruises brand, he demanded carte blanche to create something the cruise industry hadn't seen before. And he has.
How is Azamara different? Three things, really: longer stays in port, more overnight stays and unusual itineraries that include ports that other cruise ships pass by.
For example, on a recent 12-night voyage from Edinburgh, Scotland to Southampton, England, the Azamara Journey spent two nights in Dublin and two-and-a-half days in Rouen, France, which it reached by a fascinating six-hour cruise up and down the Seine. On this voyage, the ship stopped at such unlikely, and un-touristy, places as the Orkney Islands and Portree (I had never heard of it either; it's on the Isle of Skye).
Needless to say, we were the only ships in port most of the time, which added to the sense of being somewhere special, far from the crowds. To get an idea of some of the unusual ports that Azamara's two ships visit, check out this partial list. I'm embarrassed to say that there are at least 20 that I've never even heard of, let alone visited.
The advantage for you, the passenger, is that with these "longer stay" itineraries you can spend a night (or two) pub-crawling in Dublin, or do an overnight to Paris even though you've docked in Rouen, just a short train ride away. What fun is visiting a favorite port on a Greek isle or on the Amalfi Coast and not sampling a meal in a buzzed-about local restaurant or hanging out at the town's hot new disco? Whereas the typical cruise ship steams out of town at 5 or 6 p.m., Azamara lingers. And lingers. You might not set sail until midnight. Or 2 a.m. Or you might spend the entire night.
By the way, all the other elements of luxury cruising are in place on Azamara. There are two "specialty" restaurants, which cost an extra $25 to dine in but are well worth it, plus free wine selections with lunch and dinner. Tips are included. The spa is lovely and the fitness center's equipment is new. And the staff has been well-trained to engage guests with friendly "good mornings" and "good evenings" when you pass them in the hallways or on deck. I sometimes think that a few guests might get tired of being cheerily greeted each time they encounter a member of the crew on board, especially if they themselves aren't in a cheery mood, but it's a sign of careful training that staff are instructed to greet passengers. Returning to the ship, the security officers seem sincere when they check your key card and say, "welcome home."
Many of my friends avoid cruising altogether because they think it's not "destination-immersive" enough or they don't want to be "trapped" onboard. So Azamara might be just the thing for them. I love "days at sea," just looking at the ocean, but it's not for everyone.
Why, you might ask, don't all cruise lines spend more time in port? Well, as Pimentel explains, it's pretty simple: when ships are in port, the law requires that casinos and retail outlets on board remain closed. And if guests are boozing it up on shore, they're not visiting the ship's bars or the spa, all of which are revenue centers (in fact, some cruise lines probably lose money on those $350 four-night cruise fares you sometimes see, but make all their profits on these "extras"). And the more nights in port, the more the ship pays in fees to the port. But after running cruise lines for over 20 years, Pimentel decided the industry needed to be rethought. And it seems to be working.
Oh, and one final Azamara distinction: some sailings offer cabins for solo travelers at just a 25% premium over the double-occupancy fare. Most cruise lines charge single passengers 100%, i.e. twice the double-occupancy fare, so that's a huge savings if you're traveling alone.