Discovering the French Riviera
The captain of the Azamara Quest has just gone overboard.
He's flailing in the water fully clothed after a fearsome-looking French jouster lunged a lance at him. It's 10 degrees with a wind chill factor, yet Captain Carl Smith is laughing and, from the stands, so are we.
No, he hasn't been forced to walk the plank, he has willingly taken part in a sunset water jousting competition along the Grand Canal in the town of Sete, France.
Water jousting is a Setois tradition handed down through the generations and celebrated every summer. Two rival wooden boats, one decorated in red (full of married men), the other in blue (full of single men) compete, the winning boat declared by the amount of shield-carrying jousters who manage to stay dry.
This spectacle is part of what's known as a bespoke "AzAmazing Evening", a feature of every Azamara Club Cruise.
Afterwards the whole town, including the mayor, and 694 Azamara passengers from the seven-day Cote d'Azur cruise from Barcelona to Monaco join a musical procession towards the dock, where stalls are set up offering the best provincial wines and seafood, including oysters and octopus, and tomato tielle - a small pie.
A jousting juror, who looks a lot like Tommy Lee Jones, joins me for a tete-a-tete.
My French is a little rusty and his English is not magnifique, so we speak in the universal language of food and music. "Voulez vous," he sings proffering a serviette piled with mussels.
"I do, I do, I do," I sing back trying to keep the Abba theme going. Abba is big in the nautical world - 100 per cent of the cruises I have experienced have featured an Abba Night.
We join in to sing Waterloo, and then move on after kissing cheeks - three times in this part of the country. Above us, fireworks erupt. Azamara calls this sort of experience "destination immersion".
In these days of resort-like megaships, where everything from ice rinks to climbing walls are on deck in an effort to keep passengers spending more time and money on board, Azamara Club Cruises has taken the opposite approach by getting to the core of the reason why we travel in the first place - to discover new cultures, new people and new destinations.
Quite simply, you're encouraged to get off and roam.
The company's point of difference includes longer stays, more overnights and night touring. Larry Pimentel, the chief executive of Amazara Club Cruises, is on our cruise and lets us in on his business plan.
"Most ships come in in the morning and are gone before evening," he says. "But in places like Saint Tropez, the culture really reveals itself in the evening."
I decide to test his theory - Saint Tropez is our next port of call.
By day, tourists line the promenade drinking overpriced Kronenbourg 1664 beers hoping for a glimpse of a young Brigitte Bardot lookalike (or even the real one, she does live here). By night? The famed nightclubs are shut. (Granted it is a Sunday and the summer season is yet to officially begin.)
Instead, we wander the streets hoping to find an open bar or restaurant and chance upon a charming brasserie in a back lane. True to his word, there's Larry and his wife Sandi enjoying a glass of wine and chatting to the locals at one of the outdoor tables, soaking up the nightlife in Saint Tropez.
Along the French Riviera we stop at Nice and Cannes. A day tour exploring the buildings and graveyard of the mediaeval walled town of Saint-Paul-de-Vence precedes a night walking the Promenade des Anglais in Nice.
We slip in to the Hotel Negressco and wander through its art-lined hallways and ballrooms, then quietly sip champagne in the walnut-walled Le Relais Bar, accurately described in Negressco's in-house pamphlet as "a place of hushed tasting".
In Cannes, we fossick in antique markets and wander the high-end fashion on Rue Meynadier before stopping by the Hotel Carlton for an evening drink. Here the most famous asset is neither the Sophia Loren suite (she liked to stay here) nor the drinks menu endorsed by Film Festival favourites George Clooney and Sean Penn, it's the two domes atop the hotel, said to be inspired by the breasts of Spanish dancer La Belle Otero.
Back on board in time for a late dinner, I sample some of the freshest seafood I have eaten at sea.
There are two speciality restaurants on the Azamara Quest - Aqualina and Prime C, both worth the $25 fee to experience.
There's also an extensive buffet at Windows Cafe and a la carte at Discoveries dining room. I linger the longest in the Mosaic Cafe, where coffee, pastries and baguettes are on the house. On Azamara most alcoholic drinks, proper coffee, water and even laundry is included in the price.
The cruise line's most significant growth is coming from Australian passengers, whose numbers have doubled in the past year. It seems the recent product enhancements, which now include gratuities and wine as part of the package, are resonating well with us.
The ship's fit-out has an upscale country club feel with recently renovated staterooms kept immaculate by two fantastic British butler-trained room attendants. There's also a theatre, casino, spa, gym, pool and whirlpools to bide the time.
On our final night we are treated to another AzAmazing Evening. As part of the president's cruise, we get to enjoy a preview of an event to be enjoyed on a later voyage - a private night tour of Monaco's Oceanographic Museum.
Built on the side of the Rock of Monaco more than 100 years ago, the museum, known as "The Temple of the Sea", was under the direction of Jacques Cousteau for 30 years. Our group wanders unencumbered by the crowds, eyeing sea mammal skeletons and, downstairs, the impressive aquarium.
"You can't buy this experience, which is another thing that makes it so special," Pimentel says, marvelling at the Shark Lagoon.
It took shore excursion specialist Emilio Freeman two and a half years to charter the waters planning these itineraries.
Each Azamara cruise now features one complimentary night-time excursion. It could be a private concert in Gibraltar's St Michael's Cave or an after-hours tour of the Titanic Belfast museum complete with a string quartet.
At the Oceanographic Museum we are enjoying apres-viewing regional wines and Monegasque finger food on the rooftop, affording a spectacular view of the principality.
The biggest competitor for Azamara Club Cruises is not cruise ships, it's boutique hotels.
Twenty-three per cent of passengers on the two Azamara ships are first-time cruisers. In ports like Monaco, the vessel could be seen as a floating luxury hotel that is conveniently anchored where all the action is. Looking out to the Azamara Quest as the sun sets over Monte Carlo, Pimentel tells us: "The ship is a conveyance, it gets you to the place to create this kind of experience." This point of difference may be why guests return.
Back on board in time to have a crack at karaoke night, I now know never to sing Nick Lowe's Cruel to Be Kind on a cruise ship - no one will know it. The crowd disperses and we slink off the dance floor.
Loud cheers reverberate - it is a cruise ship after all - when the next in line sings Abba's Mamma Mia. The next morning Pimentel gives us a pat on the back. Always a brand man, he tells us our efforts were "azamazing".
The writer was a guest of Azamara Club Cruises.
MORE INFORMATION azamaraclubcruises.com
WHAT TO DO Azamara Club Cruises visits the French Riviera on a number of different itineraries on-board the Azamara Quest or Azamara Journey during the 2013 season, including the seven-night Principality to Vatican Voyage, which features an AzAmazing Evening at the Oceanographic Museum in Monaco, departing on October 16 from Nice.
Sydney Morning Herald