A cruise with a difference

19:30, Mar 18 2013
Tresco in the Isles of Scilly off Cornwall and in St Peter Port Guernsey.

It's near midnight in Dublin and I am with my new friends, New Yorkers Eddie and Nicole, at The Brazen Head, reputedly the Irish capital's oldest pub. There is, as they say in these parts, some fine craic going on.

''Hey! I wonder if they'll play me some Van Morrison,'' Eddie yells over the band. I'm nervous; I fear he may get us thrown out. These musicians play pure traditional Irish music.

Though Van is an Irish legend, he's not so much in the songbook of a group that plays Black Velvet Band.

I'm pretty sure they'd be just as annoyed at a request for Moon dance as they would be for a Ronan Keating song. I politely attempt to dissuade Eddie from asking.

Mid-negotiation, I'm interrupted.

''Shut up, Australia! We're trying to sing!'' the lead vocalist of the band yells, looking in my direction. He's only half joking. Eddie and Nicole - as Americans who cop this kind of thing a lot - think it's hilarious. But I'm happy to bear the brunt of their mirth - and the rest of the pub's.

In his distraction, Eddie has forgotten about his hankering for Van Morrison. Crisis averted. We shan't be thrown out tonight. Well, not until closing time, anyway.

It is in fact after closing that we make it back to where I first met Eddie and Nicole: the cruise ship, Azamara Journey. And as we wander up the gangway, merry from a couple of pints, we vow to return to The Brazen Head the next night, we've had so much fun.

Eddie, Nicole and I have bonded over a shared love of the kind of experiential travel that gets you out among the locals. And it's our passion for experiencing local life that has warmed us to Azamara. The small-ship cruising company has a point of difference that we really enjoy: Azamara Club Cruises prides itself on late sails, overnight stays and even multiple-night stays in really exciting destinations such as Dublin in order to let its passengers get among it.

While many cruise companies like their ships to get out of port ASAP so they can open their casinos and make some coin, Azamara's business model - a little more expensive, a little less time with the casino open - is an interesting one.

During time in port, Azamara provides plenty of shore tours for anyone who wants them, but also plenty of time for individual exploration, often with shuttles to and from the ship.

Time in port is not Azamara's only selling point. The line also prides itself on minimal repeats of destinations for each ship throughout the cruising year. To that end, I meet an Australian couple that has been on board Azamara Journey for nearly three months and in that time they've been to only one place twice. ''But we really didn't mind going to Monte Carlo the second time,'' they say.

Azamara Club Cruises is the small-ship arm of the giant Miami based Royal Caribbean, which has 22 ships sailing all over the globe, including Australasia. There are only two ships under the Azamara banner: Azamara Journey and Azamara Quest. The closest they get to Australia (at the moment) is Indonesia.

The company describes the pair as large small ships, or small large ships. Azamara Journey can carry 694 passengers and 407 crew.

(Compare that to RC's Oasis of the Seas' 2400 crew.) Their uniqueness in the RC stable also extends to look and feel. The word ''club'' is not used flippantly. The ships have a deliberate old-world lodge style and ambience to them. The Azamara Journey's livery, for instance, was designed to look like the venerable den of classic opulence, the Ritz-Carlton Chicago (before its 2012 revamp).

This is adventure cruising, kind of, only without the expedition angle.

Unlike adventure brands, Azamara still offers (and has room for) live shows, a casino, a big range of activities, lavish facilities, amazing buffets and a variety of fine dining options. But like expedition ships, the size of the vessels means the company can pull off itineraries full of out-of-the-way destinations.

Our cruise, for instance, follows a ''Castles, Distilleries and Pubs'' itinerary, an attractive title if ever there was one.

But it's the wonderful opportunities it affords to visit little islands that is the clincher forme.

Our journey begins in the Port of Leith, near Edinburgh, Scotland.

Day two we arrive at Invergordon mid-morning and our shore excursion is to the atmospheric Glen morangie Distillery for a tour and some tasting of the award winning whiskies before heading to Loch Ness to visit Urquhart Castle.

The ship sails at 8pm and by day three we are in the Orkney Islands, my favourite destination of the whole trip. We're fortunate enough to have a terrific local guide who - after taking us to the things on our set excursion itinerary, Balfour Castle, a private residence where we have high tea, and Highland Park distillery for more whisky tasting - on his own initiative e takes us to the haunting Orcadian Standing Stones, a beautiful conundrum of prehistoric life.

The sturdy Azamara Journey is a mid-sized beauty.

No one really knows why they were placed here nor why they were placed the way they were, nor by whom. We spend a lot of time exploring them. What is great is that we have the time to do it - our ship doesn't depart again until 8pm.

The following day we hit the Isle of Skye and we choose to go on the excursion, which unfortunately is disappointing. We are whisked straight off Skye to the very hohum Eilean Donan Castle back on the mainland and like the castle, our guide is a real let-down, especially after the Orkneys. That is, of course, the downside to going to out-of-the-way places -Azamara can struggle with hit-and-miss guide quality.

Things are back on track in Dublin the next day with a hilariously narrated introductory guided bus tour, followed by dinner at The Church, then lots of free time to explore.(We sit out the organised tour of the Guinness factory.)We arrive in Dublin on the Wednesday and the ship departs at 2am on the Friday.

And when we wake up, we find ourselves in Holy head, Wales. That's our jumping-off point for travelling to Porthmadog, the gateway to the Snowdonia National Park, where we board the historic Ffestiniog Narrow Gauge Railway, completed in 1836, for a spectacular trip through the Welsh countryside.

The ship then stops at the beautiful Isles of Scilly off Cornwall and in St Peter Port Guernsey, just in time for the waterfront market and to hear the church bells ringing all over the island on a perfect sunny Sunday.

By day 10 we are in France, exploring Normandy via the port of Rouen. We visit the From agerie Graindorge and the gorgeous Chateau du Breuil calvados distillery, the seaside town of Deauville and the French painter's favourite town, Honfleur.

On the second day in Rouen,we opt to take the train to Paris on our own. Others take a tour and explore the footsteps of Joan of Arc. The cruise finishes at the English port of Southampton.

Forme, it's all about life off the ship, but as for life at sea, Azamara Journey delivers exceptionally.

We're usually hungry fromall that exploration and the Journey's restaurants are pretty fabulous.

The main restaurant, Discoveries on deck five, has ocean views from three sides and seats 350 in big comfy armchairs.

It has an extensive menu with American classics such as steak, prawns and salmon always available, and there is complimentary red and white wine, a different selection each night, as there is in all the restaurants.

Aqualina and PrimeC provide fine dining options and even the buffets are terrific - especially our farewell poolside buffet dinner, at which the cruise director and the performers put on an open-air show that culminates in a conga line around the pool deck.

I turn my head away for about 30 seconds and my New Yorker friend Eddie is up and into the thick of that conga line. Eddie's a participator, on shore and at sea.

As I watch him joyously snake his way around the deck I think Azamara really is his kind of cruise company.

The writer was a guest of Azamara Club Cruises and Emirates.

Trip notes

Getting there
Emirates flies to more than 120 destinations around the world, handy, as Azamara's cruises start in lots of different places.

While there A British Isles Cruise aboard Azamara Journey departs August 8. Its route will vary a bit from that described here. It will commence its voyage in Copenhagen, before taking 12 days to get to Southampton via Edinburgh, Orkney Islands, Liverpool, Holyhead, Dublin (no overnight stay but a midnight sailing), Isles of Scilly, Dartmouth, Guernsey and Southampton. azamaraclubcruises.com


Sydney Morning Herald