Here’s what I learned hopping aboard my first ship in 20 years.
“I’m so nervous,” Jonas Lyddby, our tall, confident, but at this moment, wildly giddy captain, told me as we chatted in the hall before the ship’s departure. “It’s a big day,” he added.
A big day indeed — both for him and for me. This was my very first cruise in 20 years.
In September, I stepped aboard the Azamara Quest for its seven-day Croatia Intensive sailing. The last time I cruised was in the early 2000s, over spring break with my parents, at the tender age of 17. Setting sail as an adult was a new experience for me, thus befitting of a somewhat new cruise company like Azamara. (It became an independent cruise line in 2021 after being sold by Royal Caribbean, its former parent company.)
It was a trip I met with both excitement and confusion. What do I pack? Which shore excursion do I choose? Which shows do I see, restaurants do I dine at, or activities do I take part in? After all, cruising really is a different kind of travel.
But by the end of my journey, I realized I could do it all, or none, because cruising is all about getting a taste for everything you want and nothing you don’t.
Our ship departed from Ravenna, Italy, providing a gorgeous bon voyage. Picking a special departure city is an intentional choice by Azamara, which aims to make every stop — even if it’s just the departure port — worth it for its guests.
“There are so many beautiful and fascinating places along the Adriatic and Dalmatian coasts, but it is the smaller ports that are very popular with our guests, as they love to discover the unique personalities of these less-visited destinations that larger ships cannot reach,” Mike Pawlus, Azamara’s director of strategic itinerary and destination planning, told Travel + Leisure. “When we call at smaller ports, we are often the only ship in port, which gives our guests an exclusive and special experience.”
Indeed, this ship stopped in all the places I would never have associated with cruising. The itinerary included Koper, Slovenia; Zadar, Split, Korcula, and Dubrovnik in Croatia; and Kotor, Montenegro, before it ended in Athens, Greece.
“Our smaller ships also allow us to dock right near the city center, giving guests easy access to the heart of the destination,” Pawlus said. “For example, in Zadar, we usually get a prime docking location in the heart of the city and stay late, so our guests can join the locals as they gather right near our ship to watch a spectacular Croatian sunset.”
But it’s not just about getting off the ship, snapping a few photos, and getting back on with Azamara. The cruise line offers culturally rich excursions that allow guests to feel like they’ve fully immersed themselves, even if it is for just a few hours.
On my trip, I was able to meet with local leaders in Koper, Slovenia, who told me it’s “the only nation with the word ‘love’ in its name.” Locals also enthusiastically shared that some 60 percent of the nation is forested, that it’s the land of beekeeping, and how I simply must return for a camping trip.
In Zadar, Croatia, I met with salt purveyors, who explained that the locals here have been harvesting salt in this very location for a millennium and that most of the workers are women.
Those who want to delve deeper into a destination have the option to pick excursions that take them beyond a port city.
“In smaller destinations, our guests can get away from the crowds to experience less-traveled towns and villages and connect with local culture and people on a deeper level,” Pawlus explained. “In Koper, for instance, our guests can take an immersive shore excursion to the tiny historic village of Padna, where they are greeted by friendly locals offering homemade delicacies. Our guests love these kinds of excursions that go beyond a cookie-cutter travel experience and allow them to dive deeper into destinations that they may not have even heard of before.”
In Split, Croatia, I did just that — split from the group and rented bikes with my travel companion to explore the shoreline. We found a quiet little cove with a restaurant on the water, chatted up the owners over pizza, and departed just in time to grab ice cream before getting back on the ship.
This journey felt different — both in the destinations and on board as well. I enjoyed spending time with my fellow cruisers, sipping destination-inspired cocktails. I looked forward to the nightly Destination Celebration events, which also featured local entertainment (we had opera singers on board in Italy), so I got an even richer sense of where I’d just spent the day.
“Our smaller ships also allow guests to enjoy their voyage at a more relaxed pace, as they don’t have to feel crowded or bound to set dining times,” Pawlus said.
Though, there was one timed event on board: the meeting of the ships. For the first time ever, all four Azamara ships passed one another in Koper, Slovenia, which is why Lyddby’s had been so excited about our sailing.
At dawn, I sat on my balcony, coffee in hand, and watched as the deep blue sky turned a heavenly mix of yellow and orange as the sun rose over the verdant hillsides. I waved at the other ships, knowing those on board were getting to experience the same quick taste for destinations that deserved much longer adventures.
Azamara’s next Croatia Intensive departs in June 2023, with rates starting at $4,452 per person. To see the full itinerary and booking details, visit azamara.com.
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