Shaking things up was never the plan when Azamara Cruises left the Royal Caribbean Group umbrella earlier this year. The new ownership under private equity firm Sycamore Partners has, if anything, allowed the self-proclaimed boutique hotel brand to be more of itself than ever before, according to hotel director Tony Markey.
We’re onboard Azamara Journey in the Canary Islands and comparing this cruise to our Azamara Pursuit Greek Isles sailing in August 2019, there is a stark contrast. However, the changes that have touched nearly every aspect of the cruise have nothing to do with ownership and everything to do with the ongoing global pandemic.
White Night has become Bright Night; a decision to tweak the name was made to maintain the integrity of this hallmark Azamara experience under COVID protocols. The signature barbecue buffet and outdoor entertainment has been moved to a special menu for a seated indoor meal. The performances were just approved for guests to gather and enjoy maskless on the sun deck, but weather moved them to the lounge anyway.
Many guests still wore white, though there was a bit more of a creative license in the apparel. After being so careful and requiring mask usage both in public areas and when social distancing isn’t possible, many revelers reluctantly took to the dance floor but relished not wearing their face coverings, which seemed counterintuitive. Still, we were informed that with ever-changing CDC protocols, it’s looking like White Night will resume out on deck — more or less — by the next voyage or two.
Photo: Brittany Chrusciel
Another cornerstone of Azamara’s destination-immersive program is its AzAmazing Evenings — a truly special included experience, such as a classical concert in the ruins of Ephesus, Turkey, that became relatively impossible in an age of social distancing. Even outdoors, no port will currently allow for hundreds of ship passengers to congregate at the same event.
Markey reassured us that planning is already well underway for the spring to have these lauded events back in action. In the meantime, a Destination Evening is presented once per cruise to bring local culinary delicacies and entertainment onboard for guests to take part. Tomorrow, we’re looking forward to a colorful spread of Spanish food, wine, and music.
When he’s not rapidly adapting to the latest CDC guidance, Markey might be found chatting with loyal guests at the café or single-handedly putting together the new balcony furniture that the Journey received during its dry dock this summer.
Like everything, the renovations were affected by supply chain and shipping issues, leaving wallpaper in Japan until this week when apologetic workers donned the walls of passenger decks with a fine heather gray in the span of a day or two. When carpet didn’t arrive for the Den area on Deck 5, quick thinking lead to a “borrowed” carpet from former sister brand Celebrity until the real thing makes its way to the ship.
More changes can be found in the Windows Café, like many buffets that moved from self-serve to a la carte (breakfast and lunch are still served buffet).
Photo: Brittany Chrusciel
In Prime C and Aqualina, the ship’s specialty restaurants, the menus have been combined to accommodate sparse attendance. As Markey told us, there isn’t much of an ambiance if only four people are in the entire restaurant at any given time. So while either venue can be booked for $30 (still included for suite guests), the very best of each menu can be found in both restaurants as a steakhouse/Italian hybrid offering.
As with many recent changes, the moves are temporary. Many things are the same, including the friendly service we remember from two years ago and that repeat passengers praise above all else. While some of the fitness and spa staff are currently unable to join the ship from South Africa, the diverse crew that is onboard has made us feel welcome — like nothing has changed in terms of ownership, let alone the state of the world. (This is despite weekly testing and daily temperature reporting; all-new crew joining the vessel are subject to a mandatory weeklong quarantine, even with their required full vaccination status.)
In talking with Markey, the management changes to Azamara have mainly been administrative, and he believes they have been for the better. “We’re now being told to think of expenditures almost like it’s our own money,” which he says has led to more ownership over the purchasing and decision-making process.
That’s not to say Sycamore is stingy with funds. Remember that gray wallpaper? Apparently, it was quite pricey. But Markey tells me that the firm is willing to invest in the product where it’s needed to grow the brand.
The scoop on Azamara Onward, debuting this May, is…it should look nearly the same as the cruise line’s other four vessels, with minor tweaks. And that’s how Azamara passengers prefer it. Once it’s safe to do so, this departure from the color of the Night or the location of the Evening will revert to the Azamara standards that guests know and expect. From all accounts, these new investments will help the cruise line meet — and exceed — those expectations.