If your invitation to join Roman Abramovich or P Diddy on their mega-yachts for a cruise round the Med this summer did not arrive, then jump on board Azamara Quest, which heralds a return to the delights of small ship cruising

 

There are two ways to visit the Italian and French Riviera in style. One is to wangle an invite onto Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich’s seriously big yacht; the other is to book a cruise with Azamara Club Cruises.

I decided it might be easier to choose the latter, and joined a seven-day cruise on the 694-passenger Azamara Quest. It wasn’t just the stylish places we visited, although I loved the chic Riviera fashions; it was the wonderful crew, the fellow passengers and the ship, which is a comfortable size – not so small you have to compromise on facilities but not so big you feel exhausted walking to the dining room.

Within an hour of dumping our suitcases in our suite, my daughter and I had done the grand tour and were back ready to unpack and plan our days ashore. There were shore excursions, but as we would be calling at small ports, we decided it would be easy to go it alone.

The deck in in the public rooms

Seeing the sights

From Civitavecchia, the port for Rome where we embarked, we would be sailing to Portoferraio on the island of Elbe, where Napoleon was exiled in 1814, and then to Bastia in Corsica, where he was born. We had a big-city stop at Livorno, for excursions to Florence and Pisa, then it was back to the small ports – Portofino, St Tropez and Monaco before disembarking in Nice.

I have visited most of these ports before, but arriving to them on Azamara Quest was a real treat. In Livorno we docked in the yacht marina, close to the floating gin palaces, which felt very exclusive. In Portofino, we were anchored outside the harbour (to the left of Paul Allen’s super yacht) – a first for me as I’ve always reached the village, surely the most beautiful in the Italian Riviera, by bus or a long walk from neighbouring Santa Margherita where the big cruise ships moor.

It was such a treat to have a leisurely breakfast as Portofino glinted in the morning sun – and we had a repeat performance that evening when we dined in Prime, the steakhouse, this time looking out over Portofino by night as we didn’t set sail until 11pm.

Night life

Staying late in port is one of Azamara’s stand-out features, made possible by shortening the itineraries leaving less distance to cruise. We didn’t leave Livorno until midnight so we could stay after dark in Florence. We were in Elbe until 11pm, St Tropez until 2am and Monaco until 10pm.

Bar Florence, which is all about sightseeing – the Rialto Bridge, the Duomo, the art galleries for those with the patience to queue or sense to book ahead – these Atrium staircase aboard ship places are made for strolling, so that’s what we did. We walked to Napoleon’s former palace in Portoferraio, picked our favourite yachts in the harbour in St Tropez before browsing the shops, took the lift to the aquarium and Royal Palace in Monaco, and even walked from Portofino to Santa Margherita and back.

Back on board, we breakfasted al-fresco in the self- service Windows Café and tried all the restaurants for dinner – the dining room, Prime, Aqualina (which serves Mediterranean-style dishes) and the self service.

Portofino

Food glorious food

I usually advise cruisers to escape the dining room, to enjoy the better food and ambience in the speciality restaurants, but I don’t need to on Azamara as we really enjoyed eating there. It’s open seating, so we could eat when and with whom we wanted – we went for a sharing table, as it was a great way to meet people each evening – they serve free wine (actually wherever you dine), which made it convivial as no one was worrying who would pick up the bar bill, and the food was delicious.

That said, the speciality restaurants (free for suite passengers, otherwise a reasonable $15 per person) are not to be missed for the excellent food and service, and we also had a fabulous meal in the self-service – there’s a themed menu each night as well as made-to-order stir-fry and pasta – where we had the added bonus of a table outside and view of Monaco’s casino and waterfront.

The evening shows by the Quest singers didn’t appeal to us – the show lounge is small so they are limited in what they can do – but we soon discovered that the Looking Glass observation lounge was the place to be after dinner. There was live music, a cabaret pianist, comedian-cum-singer Jim Badger, and an ABBA evening, when the dance floor was packed.

Although I loved the ship – its size, its country- house-style décor, its friendly feel – it is in need of some minor refurbishments. The double-glazing on some aft windows has blown, there were one or two marks on the deck and the white towel covers on the loungers were a bit off-white. But these are small niggles, and did not affect our overall experience of the cruise.

The cabins on Azamara Quest are not big but we were lucky enough to have a suite, which was spacious and came with a balcony and a butler, Zoran, from Serbia, who was not quite polished enough to be English-standard as Azamara says its butlers are, but made up for it with charming and his eagerness to please. He exchanged a welcome bottle of whisky for wine in double-quick time; when I phoned for a bucket of ice, it arrived in minutes.

The teak steamer deck loungers add style and tradition, and I loved the library with its leather armchairs, faux fireplace and glass-fronted book cases, all unlocked as they operate on trust. It’s really just yet another reason to love small-ship cruising.

Oversized yachts might turn heads, but if I’d waited for an invite from Chelsea FC’s owner I’d have missed what has to be one of the most enjoyable cruises I’ve done.

And with in excess of 200 cruises under my belt, that is really saying something.

SHOPPING WITH THE CHEF

The fishmongers in St Tropez can hardly believe their luck. Azamara Quest is in port and the ship’s French executive chef, Frederic, is in their market, ordering huge quantities of that morning’s catch for that evening’s barbecue.

He’s not alone. Some 30 passengers, myself included, have joined him for the shopping expedition – a free excursion Azamara offers on every cruise in the Mediterranean if possible.

“Look at the eyes, look at the insides,” says Frederic, poking his fingers into the gills, when I ask how he knows the fish is fresh. The eyes look alive, the guts red.

I leave him to his negotiations because Philip, Azamara Quest’s cruise director, has let slip the best is yet to come – wine-tasting in the market.

A wine merchant has set up tables in the street; laid out plates of bread, cheese and olives and is busy pouring rosé wine. “It’s a light wine, to enjoy at the swimming pool,” he says as he pours. And pours. And pours.

“Hasn’t this been great,” an Australian couple enthuse as we do our best to help the French wine lake. St Tropez might have big yachts, a cute old town and chic shops, but I will forever remember it for the wine.

Need to know

♦ Itinerary: Azamara Quest has a five-night Riviera cruise from Nice on 23 May 2012, visiting St Tropez, Monaco and Portofino. Prices start from £1,652 per person for an ocean-view cabin, including flights. A seven-night cruise leaving on 7 October, 2011 visiting Civitavecchia for Rome), Sorrento (Italy), Taormina (Sicily), Chania (Crete), Mykynos (Greece), Kusadasi (Turkey) and Piraeus (Greece) starts at £1,810 pp including flights.

♦ Ideal for: Couples aged 40-plus who want a stylish destination-rich cruise on a small ship

♦ Take: Smart casual. There are no formal nights on Azamara Club Cruises

♦ Contact: Azamara: 0844 493 4016; azamaraclubcruises.co.uk Virgin Holidays Cruises: 0844 573 4385 virginholidayscruises.co.uk