Some people like hosting relatives at their homes. We prefer cruising with family because it gives us time together (and apart), plus interesting ports, entertainment and meals without the hassle of shopping, cooking and housekeeping. Every summer since 2009, my cousins Wayne and Mary Jane have joined me and my husband, David, on the high seas.
This year, when it came time to map out our annual trip, Wayne suggested that we try something different. Azamara Club Cruises' small ships specialize in upscale but casual — no tux or gowns required — voyages. Aboard its two vessels, the Azamara Journey and the Azamara Quest, the line offers something it calls "immersive cruising," the ability to explore a port through shore tours that convey the local culture as well as overnights that enable cruisers to experience a destination after dark as well as the next day.
As frequent cruisers on megaships that carry more than 4,000 passengers, we wondered if we'd find happiness on the 690-passenger Azamara Journey. Could we forgo the bumper cars, ropes courses, outdoor movies and multiple music and food venues on large vessels?
Despite our misgivings, we were hooked by the promise of more time on land and the opportunity to visit ports that aren't accessible to large ships. We booked Azamara Journey's nine-night Normandy, Holland and Germany package. The ship departed from Lisbon in mid-June, docking in St. Peter Port, Guernsey; Cherbourg, France; Honfleur, France; Amsterdam; and Hamburg, where we disembarked for our flights back to the United States. Our booking came with a $300-per-person shipboard credit, and our goal was to stick as close to that amount as possible. After all, most cruise lines offer special outings — helicopter rides, dog-sledding atop a glacier, floatplane trips, VIP winery tours with dinner — for hefty fees, but we hoped Azamara would deliver local outings at more-affordable prices.
The ship had the requisite pool deck, lounge, buffet cafe, main dining room, specialty restaurants, gym, spa, and theater. Although the venues appeared doll-size compared to those on big ships, David and I liked the scale. Wayne and Mary Jane, however, thought the ship was too small and lamented its lack of organized activities and people-watching spots.
We all looked forward to our first stop, St. Peter Port, Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands occupied by the Germans in World War II. It was time to test Azamara's immersive-cruise proposition. Of the six available tours in St. Peter Port, two were primarily sightseeing rides, a third traced the sites in "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society," a novel none of us had read, and a fourth explored the German occupation, a topic that didn't appeal to us on a fine summer's day.
That left us two options, both of which would have decimated our budget: the "Fishmonger, Farm and Gin Distillery Tour" and that evening's "Castle Cornet Reception." The medieval castle rose on an island a 15-minute walk from the dock and the admission cost was about $23. We wondered whether the prosecco, canapés and private guide would be worth the added zeros. Maybe, but we had an allowance to consider. We settled for a self-guided walk and a drink at a local cafe.
Back on board, we were pleasantly surprised by the evening's entertainment. We had assumed that a small ship focused on land tours would skimp on talent. But as soon as cruise director Eric De Gray began belting out "Some Enchanted Evening," we realized our error. In his "From Vegas to Broadway" show, De Gray, backed by a seven-piece chamber orchestra — a rarity at sea — sang "Send in the Clowns," "Phantom of the Opera," and other Broadway favorites . His delivery energized a crowd of attendees with an average age hovering in the mid-60s.
In the morning, our ship arrived in Cherbourg, at the tip of Normandy's Cotentin Peninsula and stayed 14 hours. That gave Wayne, Mary Jane and David plenty of time to stroll through the Cité de la Mer museum. An outing to Mont Saint-Michel, an island UNESCO World Heritage site, intrigued me, but nine hours on a bus did not, so I signed up for a four-hour bus tour to Cap de la Hague.
Following the Route des Caps, we passed manor houses, woodlands and cornfields . In the hamlet of Gruchy, we strolled to the house where artist Jean-François Millet was born. Between the summer haze and the wild grasses, it was easy to imagine that we were in the farm fields of Millet's paintings. In Port Racine, we watched a scuba club prepare to search for wrecks; in Le Nez de Jobourg, we ventured out onto the gorse and heather-covered cliffs that rose 419 feet above the sea. Waves broke against the sandy beach below, and cormorants and gulls called into the wind. At the site's cafe, we sampled a crepe and the local, five-percent-alcohol Cidre Cotentin.
Our next stop was Honfleur, a picturesque town that dates to the 14th century. Unlike Le Havre, across the river, Honfleur was not bombed during World War II. Cobblestone streets fan out from the historical harbor, home to centuries-old buildings, including half-timbered medieval dwellings. Boutiques, galleries, and cafes line the quay. The town's lesser-known gem, the Eugene Boudin Museum, features pre-impressionist, impressionist and contemporary works.
When the ship overnighted there, we eschewed the 9½ -hour "D-Day Landing Tour" (too long) as well as the 10-hour Paris excursion to the Eiffel Tower and Notre-Dame. (Been there, done that). Instead we explored Honfleur on our own, pausing at the 15th-century Church of St. Catherine — the oldest wooden church in France — browsing in galleries and lingering over a late lunch. We weren't in a hurry, since we had the next day to explore the museum .
The ship did not offer a Paris shuttle or information on how to reach the city on one's own; this was frustrating for Wayne, who wanted to visit without paying hundreds of dollars to tour sites he already knew well. Instead, he followed directions gleaned from the Internet, then took a cab to Deauville and a train to Paris.
That evening, concert pianist and raconteur Brooks Aehron charmed us with his anecdotes and renditions of pieces by composers including Sergei Rachmaninoff and John Lennon. After his performance of new material the next night, De Gray and the ship's singers and dancers staged a Broadway tribute whose high-energy finale featured the cruise director in drag circling the stage on roller skates.
The Journey arrived in Amsterdam the next afternoon. All of us had previously visited the cosmopolitan city known for its culture, canals and throngs of bicyclists. Among its many museums, two stand out: the Rijksmuseum for its works by Rembrandt, Vermeer and other Dutch masters, and the Van Gogh Museum, which houses the largest collection of the artist's works.
Azamara offered a tour of the Van Gogh Museum, but it conflicted with our previously purchased tickets to the Rijksmuseum, so we admired Rembrandt's "The Night Watch" and other masterworks on our own. By now, we liked the concept of overnight stays because it gifted us with the ability to see more. On the second day in Amsterdam, David joined the bike ride through Waterland, a municipality north of the city. The bikers took a ferry there, then cycled through scenery out of a Dutch landscape painting.
The second night in Amsterdam, the ship's passengers had been promised an "AzAmazing Evening." We traveled by bus to the centuries-old Grote Kerk church in Monnickendam for a classical organ concert . For the its finale, 30 actors in period attire created a living version of "The Night Watch," complete with a dog (real) and a little girl holding a chicken (rubber). Although we aren't big fans of organ music, we appreciated the spectacle, as well as the lavish onboard dessert buffet that followed.
Our final destination, Hamburg, has served as a major German port for centuries. The Kunstmeile (art mile) showcases five art museums; the Reeperbahn buzzes with bars, clubs and brothels; and HafenCity, a large urban-renewal district, pops with a mix of harborside walkways, modern architecture and the repurposed redbrick, 19th-century warehouses of the Speicherstadt district.
Because we wanted to sample another Azamara offering and still have time to explore on our own, we opted to take the Sweet Hamburg tour. Twenty-three of us walked behind a guide whom we couldn't hear most of the time as she had no microphone and we had no headphones. Fortunately, our destination, the Chocoversum, was well worth a visit. We customized our own chocolate bars with toppings and spices before taking the museum's chocolate-making tour.
Our gripe: The museum's fee for these activities was only about $13, which meant we'd paid through the nose for our less-than-informative walk through town. This letdown aside, we enjoyed the city, walking on our own to the Hamburg Town Hall and square and browsing in the nearby shops.
By the end of the nine-day cruise, we had learned that immersive cruising is dependent on the quality of the tours, with longer and more expensive outings perhaps delivering more local flavor. We regretted, for instance, not busting our budget to take the big-ticket tour that might have brought St. Peter Port to life for us.
Nonetheless, David and I would gladly board the Journey again, if only for the long hours in port. We liked setting our own agenda simply by wandering, taking advantage of the overnights in Honfleur and Amsterdam to experience more in an unhurried way, a rarity on megaships that steam to different ports each day. But the lack of things to do on the ship bored Wayne and Mary Jane; they won't sail Azamara again. Clearly, next year's cousins' cruise is going to be problematic.
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Azamara Club Cruises
In 2018, Azamara Club Cruises will sail guests to more than 214 ports in 70 countries. Itineraries for the Azamara Journey include a
10-night Normandy and Amsterdam voyage in June that starts at $4,299; an 11-night Cities of Northern Europe voyage in August that starts at $4,399; and a 10-night Circle Cuba voyage in November that starts at $3,599. Azamara Quest itineraries include a 10-night Islands of the Western Mediterranean voyage in June that starts at $4,099 per and a 10-night Classic Grand Prix and Mediterranean voyage in May that starts at $3,399. (Prices are per person double.) Cost includes tips, meals, nonalcoholic beverages and select spirits, beers and wines; an array of optional outings are offered for a fee. For select bookings through Nov. 30, Azamara offers a complimentary upgrade from a Club Interior to a Club Veranda stateroom.