It was some enchanted evening: three tenors; the genius of Puccini, Verdi and Bellini; a jewel box of a theatre in a 16th-century Tuscan town – and it was for our eyes and ears only, the passengers on board Azamara Journey’s cruise from Tuscany to Provence. Life doesn’t get much better than watching opera in the land that gave birth to the art form. Or so we thought until we got back to our ship. There, spotlighted high on deck seven, was soprano Amanda Poulson, serenading us as we strolled back on board. It was a bravura performance from Azamara Club Cruises, one that still sends shivers down my spine.
The night at the opera at the Goldoni Theatre in Livorno is just one of a range of complimentary cultural experiences on the itinerary of all Azamara cruises. These “AzAmazing Evenings” are one of the ways the boutique cruise line delivers on its mission to put the destination, rather than the journey, centre stage. Longer overnight stays, late-night sailings and night touring are others. It’s a stance that sets the Azamara Journey and her sister ship Quest apart. The traveller in me likes this approach. Cities glow with life after dark; leaving at night, as so many cruise ships do, means you miss a lot of fun.
Putting on the Glitz
Our sojourn in Monte Carlo is a good example of how Azamara delivers the destination. We arrive early and leave late, so we were in the principality long enough to enjoy breakfast, lunch and dinner. We had time to meander through the narrow streets of old Monaco, pay our respects to Princess Grace in the cathedral over the harbour and catch the changing of the guard at Prince Albert’s pink-and-white palace. And that was just the morning.
After reviving our energy levels with jambon (ham) baguettes and a glass of rosé, we hit the shops (not a single thing we could afford) and then ogle the yachts of the super-rich and very famous (again, not a single thing we could afford).
You can’t say you’ve “done” Monte Carlo without a visit to the casino. I might have lost my stash of cash within 30 minutes under the sparkling chandeliers over the blackjack table but the experience, as the ad says, was priceless. Others in our group had the same thing to say about their bar-hopping experience. They had taken advice from the ship’s concierge on which bars were currently cool in Monte Carlo, and certainly looked like they’d enjoyed themselves when they surfaced the next morning. The concierge service is another way of ensuring Azamara passengers get what they want out of the destination.
The Azamara Journey offered 30 land tours from Tuscany to Provence, which is average for a seven-day voyage. I didn’t bother with tours in Monte Carlo or St Tropez, but I was keen to play follow-the-leader at other destinations, especially Elba, the rocky outcrop in Italy where Napoleon was exiled for 10 months in 1814. Before the excursion I sat in on a lecture, which was followed by a full-day tour with a local guide. When we sailed out of Portoferraio at dusk, I had a strong sense of the rugged island, from its black sand beaches to its forested mountaintops. I had sampled the sweet red wine Elba’s reluctant emperor was said to fancy and marvelled at how comfortable his home in exile was.
In Tuscany and Provence our guides delivered all the essential information – where to buy the best Florentine leather bags; where to find Tintoretto’s masterpiece, Last Supper, at Lucca Cathedral – then they left us to our own devices. Information and freedom: the perfect combination for getting the best out of a destination. Still, I would never have discovered the Pitti Ferrandi winery on my own. It’s a small but glorious holding with olive groves, a villa with its own 13th-century chapel and a reputation for producing some of the best sangiovese grapes in Tuscany. The Tuscan lunch of meats, breads, olives and pasta we were served up, along with a discourse on the wines, was sensational.
Don’t think all this exploration was about jumping ship out of need. I got to like Azamara Journey a lot over the cruise. She’s a minnow beside the super-size-me ships (thankfully), but I was still discovering nooks and crannies at the end of the week’s cruise. With nine passenger decks, four restaurants and at least six cafes and bars, not to mention the spa, gym, casino and nightclub, Journey has all the accoutrements you’d expect at the pointy end of the market.
Incredibly, in a lifetime of travel, I’d never done the Mediterranean before this trip. Like Marc Chagall, who is buried at St-Paul-de-Vence, I thank destiny for leading me to its shores, but I’m also thankful that I waited for Azamara Journey to take me there.