Winston Aldworth checks out the world's newest luxury cruise ship.
What's in a name?
When Lucy Huxley and Ellen Asmodeo-Giglio sprayed the contents of a bottle of champagne all over a dock in Southampton last week they were following in a rich and lively history.
The pair are dual godmothers of the Azamara Pursuit, the latest offering for the cruise line company owned by Royal Caribbean. Yes, ships have godmothers, and yes, this one has two of them.
It's the godmother's job to smash a bottle of champagne against the hull — the crowning moment in the ship's naming ceremony. To any sensible drinker, it seems like a waste of perfectly good grog. But in nautical circles, the smashing of a bottle of good bubbles in the naming ceremony of a ship is a very serious business.
Huxley and Asmodeo-Giglio — both from backgrounds in travel media — did a fine job. In truth, it's a simple matter of saying a few words then pressing a button. The button fires a pin, which releases the bottle on its hull-bound path. But it doesn't always go to plan.
It's considered bad luck if the bottle doesn't break. Eyebrows were raised back in 2007 when Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, failed in her role — an unsmashed bottle of champagne bounced back and dangled against the hull of the freshly anointed Queen Victoria. A decade later: Brexit hits Britain. You do the math.
Regardless, the Azamara Pursuit got under way last Tuesday, the Champagne still damp on her bow, recording a successful inaugural journey. She sailed from Southampton to Cherbourg, in France, or — as the locals are very clear — Normandy.
There are many things about the Azamara Pursuit that warrant a salute. I've not yet found a smaller ship with wider corridors; the food is fabulous (I write this with five portions of lobster in my belly) and the Azamara brand's "destination immersion" is to the fore.
On the inaugural sailing from Southampton into Normandy, guests divvied up, some exploring Utah, the famed D-Day landing beach, others heading for the Bayeux Tapestry. Normandy, it seems, wears its invasions on its sleeves.
It wasn't all landing crafts and lances, we found great cheese, too. With a longer stay in port than most cruise ships allow, I had time to buy a spiffy pair of white shoes, some sharp local cider and two rounds of lively Normandy cheese — the kind of fromage that smells like a big man's socks halfway around the Camino de Santiago. Hot tip: if you buy cheese from around here, don't leave it in the same bag as your new shoes.
Cherbourg — where the stonework and town planning were flattened by the Allies in the 1940s — found its feet again as a beautiful town, with great shopping in abundance. Worth saluting with a glass of bubbles.
The Azamara Pursuit luxury features
The flashest suite
If luxurious relaxation is your thing, you'll love the Club Spa Suites, featuring a private spa pool alongside a great window with sea views. But the pick of the suites is the Club World Owner's Suite, with a giant veranda looking out the aft of the ship, a vast bedroom and butler service. For $14,452, it's yours for a 10-night Amalfi and Dalmatian Coast tour.
The White Night
The thing about white clothes is they stain easily.
Every Azamara cruise features one White Night, when passengers present themselves in Federesque finery. The potential for stains is high — which sounds like a downer, especially when the red wine is quaffable. But in truth, a night in white adds a frisson of excitement to your evening. You know you're partying with the luxe crowd when a pinot-inspired trip to the dry cleaners is treated with such disdain.
The stunning destinations
Azamara's smaller ships can access ports that are off limits to bigger ships.
In 2019, the Pursuit heads on an epic 17-night journey to the "end of the world", going from South American beaches to the icebergs of Antarctica. Our highlight: pulling into Elephant Island, where Ernest Shackleton and his crew camped out after their ship Endurance was crushed in ice in 1916. Nothing underlines the luxe life quite as much as looking down on the spot where men huddled in the snow for months on end. Fares start at $6400pp.
The caviar and champagne pairing
Get yourself a serving of the Russian Osetra Karat Caviar (a snip at $186) and set yourself up for a "Paris tasting" by adding a bottle of Taittinger ($110).
The weird saltwater spa
Amid the familiar stock of high-end spa treatments (restorative facials — check; renewing seaweed wraps — check; lime and ginger salt glows — check; and Swedish massage — well, duh, obviously) the Pursuit offers something called a Thalassotherapy bath:
Basically, it's a spa pool filled with deliciously warm salt water.
The theory behind this treatment that was developed in France in the 19th century: salt water is good for the pores, and minerals in the water are thought to be absorbed through the skin.
Noted academic journal Wikipedia observes "the effectiveness of this method of therapy is not widely accepted". They might be right, but sitting in a spa pool filled with warm salt water, while looking out at an ocean of cold salt water? That's luxury.
The top restaurant
Prime C is a step above your usual cruise ship fare, a fact attested to by the presence on the menu of words like "remoulade", "bisque", "game hens" and "$30 surcharge". It's all presented with produce from the last local market the ship visited. You'll need to make a reservation. You should.
For more information on Azamara Pursuit's upcoming itineraries and fares, go to azamaraclubcruises.com/en-nz