Travel Market Report’s editor Dori Saltzman returned this weekend from a week onboard Emerald Cruises’ brand-new ocean-going yacht, Emerald Azzurra, the first of two the line has planned. Having sailed with Emerald on a river cruise, she was familiar with the line’s value-based sailing experience. But Emerald is marketing Emerald Azzurra as a luxury experience. So what would the experience be like?
Below are some of her observations and what travel advisors looking to sell the yacht to their clients should know.
Before we get into some of our observations, a few quick facts.
Emerald Azzurra is a 100-passenger yacht that has been sailing for a little less than two months. (On our sailing, there were 85 guests.)
The main highlights of the yacht are an aft marina, which, weather permitting, is opened when at anchor for swimming, kayaking, and stand-up paddle boarding; an aft hot tub and a forward infinity pool; a small spa with facials, massages, and body treatments, along with a small fitness center; and two dining venues, the main La Cucina restaurant and a pool café.
Our itinerary was port-intensive. We had no day at sea, and port stops were usually three-quarters to a full day in length. We had one overnight in Corfu, Greece.
1. River Cruise Experience at Sea
The biggest surprise regarding Emerald Azzurra was how much like a river cruise it is. Having sailed on dozens of ocean-going ships, including one that’s technically a yacht, I wasn’t sure what Emerald’s take on the concept would be. From the destination experience to the dining, lounge-based social life, and crew onboard, it felt very much like Emerald took its river cruise experience and placed it onto an ocean ship.
The overall vibe was friendly and laid-back. Just like an Emerald river cruise. There were few pretensions, no dress code, the crew was friendly from the captain to the room stewards, and there was very little formality – though we never were able to get the waiters to call us by our first names.
For the most part, the yacht docks in small ports within a short walk of the main town (just like on a river cruise). In ports where tendering is required, the tenders usually go straight to town. In some ports, a shuttle was available to go to a nearby beach. As with Emerald river cruises, there was at least one complimentary excursion in each port – again, just like an Emerald river cruise, except with two exceptions. In Parga and on Cephalonia Island, the only excursions on offer were extra fee, though there was a free shuttle to a nearby beach for anyone interested in Cephalonia. Only two ports had more than one complimentary excursion.
It’s clear that Emerald is still experimenting with its shore excursion offerings on Emerald Azzurra. Unlike on the rivers, fewer guests seem interested in shore excursions so not as many are offered, and several alternate options were canceled due to lack of interest (see below). Quite a few people seemed content to have a leisurely morning on the ship and explore on their own a bit later.
Dining onboard Emerald Azzurra is also river cruise style, with a small buffet for breakfast and lunch and one dinner seating starting at 7 pm after the evening’s presentation of the next day’s activities. There’s also a small café near the ship’s infinity pool, giving the ship a more ocean ship feel. The café was open for breakfast and lunch and offered the most delicious assortment of flatbread pizzas.
Also reminiscent of the river cruise experience is the lounge-based entertainment. A guitar player/singer was the main entertainment playing before and after dinner, though the cruise director hosted a few theme nights. Most drew a small crowd, including trivia night, name that tune, a deck party, and his one-man show. The most ocean cruise-like of the theme nights was a love and marriage show. The only true bust was karaoke, but that was the night before disembarkation when most people were packing up or going to bed early.
2. Upscale, Not Luxury
Despite Emerald’s marketing promising a luxury experience, Emerald Azzurra isn’t really luxury. Don’t get us wrong. It’s upscale, friendly, and sometimes personalized but it’s not luxury. Occasionally long waits for dinner, no room service except for the top suites, being sent to the one open bar on deck 7 to get a cold drink after getting back from a particularly strenuous excursion rather than having one delivered, this is not luxury service. Neither is no sit-down service for breakfast and lunch.
With that said, at least one of the dining room servers remembered my Coke Zero drink preference within 24 hours, everyone knew our names and the lounge bartender occasionally came to us rather than wait for us to go to the bar as we were told we were supposed to do.
And the food was always spot-on. I can’t think of another cruise I’ve been on where I couldn’t find fault with a single meal I ate.
The ship, itself, feels luxurious, with a sleek shape that reminds one of nothing less than a Russian oligarch’s private yacht. Leather seating in the lounge, a hot tub and infinity pool, Missoni towels, plush robes with a hood, a jump-off-the-back marina, all invoke the exclusivity and luxury of the yachting lifestyle.
With such a luxurious feeling, the lack of all-inclusiveness, a hallmark of Emerald Cruises, feels a bit more noticeable. Many of the excursion options carried a fee. Drinks in the minibar cost extra, even if you have the premium drink package. We did get the impression that everyone onboard had the premium package though, as we never saw anyone ask for their cabin number when ordering a drink outside of lunch and dinner. It’s unclear if that inclusion is only for the yacht’s inaugural season pricing or something that will be included permanently.
Serviced laundry also costs extra, but the vast majority of guests took advantage of the DIY launderette, which was free.
Emerald Azzurra is distinctly upmarket, but if your clients are looking for the type of luxury where they don’t need to lift a finger, Emerald Azzurra may not be the right fit.
3. Younger, International Demographic
We don’t know if it’s the word “yacht” or the warm-weather destinations that Emerald Azzurra visits, but the demographic onboard skews younger than what you usually find on river cruises. On our one-week sailing, the ages ranged from mid-30s to 80s, but most people were between their early 40s and mid-70s.
Cruisers are primarily English speaking with most coming from the U.K. On our sailing, there were only a handful of Australians, but Emerald often draws more. North Americans, most from the U.S., represented the second-largest group onboard our sailing.
We found that people grouped together more by geography than age, but everyone was friendly and we had conversations with at least half the 85 people onboard. It’s not easy being shy on a 100-passenger superyacht where most people want to meet and mingle. Let your introverted clients know that people are going to start conversations with them!
When considering which of your clients to offer Emerald Azzurra to, keep the younger age demographic in mind. The majority of those onboard wanted to get off and experience the destinations we visited. Most were relatively fit and not put off by lots of walking. (Being able to navigate stairs and get on and off tenders was essential for our Dubrovnik to Athens sailing.)
With that said, the ship does have elevator service to all decks, making the ship completely accessible. However, there’s no wheelchair access for tenders and just getting on and off the ship would be difficult for someone who can’t actually walk themselves up and down the gangway.
4. Active Vacationing
Speaking of fit passengers, the Emerald Azzurra experience isn’t the best choice for the mobility-impaired or slow walkers – unless they’re okay with staying onboard and relaxing, which, to be fair, a decent number of guests on our sailing did opt for.
Excursions, however, range from moderate to strenuous. We’d estimated we climbed or descended at least 4,000 stairs over the course of the week’s cruise excursions. There are no slow walking tours or panoramic bus tours, but depending on how long the yacht is in port, you could probably arrange such a tour for your clients.
The “easiest” options were probably the shorter town center walking tours (like the one in Kotor) and the food-related tours like a mussel cooking demo and tasting near Ancient Butrint in Albania. But even that tour was immediately preceded by a moderate walking tour of ancient Roman ruins, part of which was uphill and all was over uneven stone pathways. A Greek cooking class with a local chef in Corfu was canceled for lack of interest, but that would have been relatively easy as well.
5. No Guarantees
There are never guarantees in cruising, regardless of ship size. We almost missed one tender port because of weather but the captain was able to reposition the ship to a more sheltered cove. However, the same was sadly not true for the vast majority of extra fee tours. Of eight so-called DiscoverMore tours, five were canceled. One, that Greek cooking class we mentioned above, has yet to run at all, as they’ve found it impossible to meet the 20-person minimum. (Understandable on a 100-person ship!)
One our sailing, all but one was canceled for lack of interest (ie Emerald had minimums to meet, which they couldn’t); our extra-fee kayaking trip was canceled by the operator citing rain and swells, which never actually materialized. That left cruisers with very few choices of what to do in each port. In one port, there were actually no included tours and only one extra fee option.
According to the shore excursion manager on board, the low numbers of options reflect the lack of interest passengers have so far shown in group excursions. Some, she said, wait until the last minute to decide to join a tour, but by then it’s too late as tour providers usually need at least 24 hours to finalize details.
Depending on what your clients are interested in, helping them to plan an optional tour or activity may help elevate their destination experience.
And, for tender ports, remind clients not to have their hearts set on visiting them. They’re always weather dependent.