Review: Azamara Onward in Italy's Cinque Terre
By Becky Fantham | 7 Jul 2022
Italy’s Cinque Terre brightens up Becky Fantham’s journey on the maiden voyage of boutique ship Azamara Onward. Here’s her review of Azamara’s brand-new vessel on her Mediterranean cruise.
It’s 11am and I’m sipping a glass of chilled champagne and nibbling on a deliciously flaky little savoury pastry: a local delicacy with sweet caramelised onion, dotted with salty olives.
A steep climb past the pretty painted tower houses of Portovenere, where fishermen mend their nets by the tiny harbour, had taken us up to the beautiful Gothic stripes of Chiesa di San Pietro, teetering on the cliff face, where an opera singer in a sweeping ruby gown sings arias next to an impossibly placed glossy grand piano. This is destination immersion, Azamara-style.
Normally, I’d scoff at the travel cliché, but our ‘AzAmazing morning’ includes not just fizz and clifftop opera, but an incredible jazz trio, a taste of the most heavenly homemade pesto, a visit to Lord Byron’s grotto (he liked to swim from a local cave here), and a very tasty Aperol spritz. We’re so invested in the experience, we start to wonder if even the dog snoozing on a balcony that groans with glossy green basil has been specially arranged.
Our four-night cruise on board Azamara Onward – the newest addition to the boutique cruise line’s fleet – has so far surprised and delighted. Boarding in Barcelona, the small vessel is dwarfed by most of the other cruise ships, but this, in essence, is its USP, able to squeeze into harbours and ports that larger ships just can’t access, and gifting its clientele with wonderful deep-dive cultural experiences.
Our next stop is Marseille, the oldest city in France. We dock right next to the impressive architecture of Cathédrale de la Major and tackle the steep steps to Le Panier, the city’s old quarter, where tiny, twisting streets are bursting with art, from graffiti to elaborate portraits.
A stroll down wide, tree-lined Rue de la Republique, with its ancient, honeyed buildings and baroque balconies brings you to Vieux Port and the bustling Quai des Belges, where fishermen sell their catch (some of it still flapping) and locals shop for their dinner.
We stop for café au lait, croissants and people-watching in nearby Place Général de Gaulle, before doubling back to the pretty central square in Le Panier for a well-earned chilled rosé and a spot of lunch al fresco. A couple of museums had been on my ‘to do’ list, but in the end the beautiful sunshine tempted us back to the ship to laze next to the small, sky-blue swimming pool.
Public spaces are chic and understated, with impressive attention to detail. There’s a beautiful flow through the entire ship, with interesting pieces of art and plenty of cosy places to while away an hour with a good book from the well-stocked library. The feel is that of a high-end hotel, and although the focus seems to have been more on updating the public areas than the accommodation, our stateroom had a calming colour scheme, making it a peaceful place to rest after a day’s exploring.
If your budget stretches to it, consider the Club Ocean Suite – a symphony of soft cream leather and marble, with inviting upholstery, fresh flowers and exquisite views. Sanctum Spa is a relaxed, inviting space, whether you’d rather pound the treadmill in the gym or indulge in a massage in one of the seaview treatment rooms.
Dinner is a highlight of each day: speciality restaurants Aqualina (a must-visit upmarket Italian eatery – on the day we dined, the chef had been ashore and bagged delicious sea bass), and steak and seafood offering Prime C, are both at the top of the ship with huge windows allowing sweeping views of twinkling ports or shimmering sunsets.
Main dining in Discoveries is excellent, with no reservations, superb service and varied menus. Windows Cafe offers more casual dining while remaining a classy place to eat and a lovely place to have breakfast (the smoothie bar is fabulous), while Mosaic Cafe is a delightful spot for a coffee, sweet treat or light snack.
After dinner, there is entertainment for everyone, from Abba singalongs in the Cabaret Lounge to ’80s club nights and classical soloists. We found ourselves returning to the cosy Den to sip a glass of something delicious and listen to the charming piano player sing and chat with her audience.
Across the ship, service is warm, friendly and unobtrusive. A real standout is the new Atlas Bar, with a cool, clubby vibe in dark wood, plush lime and ochre velvet, boasting an incredible array of delicious hand-crafted cocktails, with state-of-the-art electronic ‘windows’ showing everything from the New York skyline to a meandering river at dusk.
We set ourselves the target of working through the whole cocktail menu, but kept going back to old favourites instead.
From Portovenere, we set sail on a small private charter to explore Cinque Terre (literally five towns), sailing past romantic Riomaggiore, then the tiny harbour of Manarola, scene of a thousand Instagram shots of rainbow-coloured houses clinging to the steep shoreline.
We whoosh past the tiny, ancient village of Corniglia, perched impossibly high on the cliff face, surrounded by vineyards; and Vernazza, where houses cluster around a pretty little harbour and people sit sipping wine on a terrace that seems attached to the rockface by nothing more than sheer determination.
Our destination, though, is glorious Monterosso al Mare, which boasts Cinque Terre’s only sandy beach, and where more towering houses painted in all the colours of the sunset – from palest lavender and peach to burnt orange and red – loom over narrow, cobbled streets.
We meander uphill, calves burning, scaling a wobbly path lined with scented lemon groves and heady jasmine to a sweet little vineyard where we’re treated to a selection of their delicious wines and a perfect lunch of burrata, tomatoes, pasta and pesto, all the time wondering how they tend these vertiginous vines without scaling the pathways on all-fours.
The wine selection on board is cracking, by the way. When requesting a rosé, we’re lovingly presented with perfectly chilled glasses of Whispering Angel. In fact, all the wines served in both the speciality dining and the main dining restaurants are incredibly good.
Our final port is dazzling Monte Carlo, where we dock for a sumptuous christening celebration. Of course it’s spotless and faultlessly signposted, so we walk up to the impressively beautiful Oceanographic Museum, looking for all the world like it was hewn directly from the steep coastline, on to the pristine Prince’s Palace, then stop for a spot of lunch in the dappled sunshine of Piaceta Don Pacchiero (salade Niçoise of course).
As we’re there just before the Grand Prix, it seems rude not to walk some of the route, before indulging in more people – and supercar – spotting at the Monte Carlo Casino and glamorous Hôtel de Paris.
Back on board, everyone’s jazzed up for White Night – Azamara’s famous deck party, with live music and delicious food cooked out on deck. Sizzling barbecues fill the air with tempting wafts and we grab a table on the top deck above the pool to dine and sip champagne as the sun sets over the superyachts in Monte Carlo harbour.
If you could capture the entire cruise experience – the sights, sounds, tastes and scents of such wonderful destinations – in just one moment, it would be this. But there remains one question I still can’t answer: how on earth did they get the piano up that cliff face?
Booking your Azamara cruise
A 12-night Best of the Med Voyage departing August 27, 2022, on Azamara Onward, starts at £1,198 per person (not including flights). It leaves from Ravenna, calling at Dubrovnik in Croatia; Amalfi, Sorrento, Civitavecchia (for Rome) and Livorno (for Florence) in Italy; Monte Carlo and finishes in Barcelona. Book online at azamara.co.uk or call 0344 493 4016.