Cruising upmarket

The French south coast in spring offers its delights without crowds

Sat, Sep 28, 2013, 01:00

To someone more used to a 12ft sailing dinghy and dodging the scary monsters that now heave into Dublin Port, the first sight of the massive 180-metre long, 30,000 ton, Azamara Quest in Barcelona was overwhelming.

It was to be home to this cruise neophyte for the week and, according to more seasoned veterans, was small fry compared to the real colossi that bestride the world’s oceans with thousands on board.

Our seven-day cruise in April was to take in a variety of ports in the northern Mediterranean starting in Barcelona and proceeding to Sète, Marseille, Cannes, St Tropez, Nice and, finally, Monte Carlo.

Coming from a wintry Dublin, the sight of Barcelona in the evening sunshine from the top deck of a cruise ship was mesmerising, the first of many such perspectives of cities viewed from the sea rather than land – and even better from a private veranda.

What to bring when the dress code was “smart casual” was a bit of a challenge when land trips, weather variations and various dinners had to be taken into consideration, but at least there was only one unpacking to face.

It took a while to navigate around the various decks, to find where the restaurants and other facilities were.

My cabin – sorry, stateroom – was compact and well-designed with a galley bathroom and a small veranda with table and two chairs.

Safety was a priority; passengers were instructed about “muster stations” in the case of emergencies and endlessly reminded about hand hygiene.

Both crew and passengers were a cosmopolitan mix, the 600 passengers hailing mostly from the US and UK, followed by Canada and Australia, with a handful from other European countries.

The 400-plus crew were equally mixed and we were to learn from Larry Pimentel, president of Azamara, that when no one culture dominates, crews co-operate better. “This is an international destination before it starts,” he says. What was noticeable throughout the trip was the high level of service and friendliness of the staff.

There were many surprises for a first timer travelling alone; the first being you could be as gregarious or as anti-social as you liked. You could skip “Salute to Bublé” and sit and read Henry James in the library instead; attend a seminar on back pain, have your teeth whitened (special offer $149!) or just lounge beside the small seawater pool – though the weather was chilly and overcast for most of the trip.

Spa treatments were pricey and internet connection expensive and slow, but shore excursions ranged from $49 for a Cannes walking tour up to $369 for an “action packed”, strenuous seven-hour hike in St Tropez, with other options in between.

A point of distinction between this and other upmarket cruises, is that it offers an exclusive “Azamazing Evening”, an event tailor-made for the cruise. In our case it involved watching a water-jousting tournament in Sète, a sporting tradition dating from the 17th century and normally only played during the summer. We were led to our ringside seats in this lovely canal city by a brass band and introduced to the competing teams and afterwards treated to local food and wines. We sailed out to the accompaniment of a spectacular firework display. Fifty such experiences are organised every year – free to passengers – like the one in Cherbourg this year marking V-Day.

Others have centred on the Chelsea Flower Show, the Carnival at Rio and the British Open.

“We site the ship like a hotel, placing it near areas where there are such events,” says Pimentel. For some hardcore cruisers on board, mostly Americans, there is no other way to travel. “We’ve been cruising since our honeymoon,” says a couple from Miami, now grandparents. “We took our children and now our children are taking theirs,” they tell me. A girl in her 20s from New York says that many in her age group go on party cruises to the Caribbean; the latest organised by Coachella.

The average age, however, on Azamara Quest cruises is around 55/57 and, though not particularly geared to small children, it suited older ones experiencing a new country for the first time. A girl accompanying her mother from Texas, for instance, fell totally in love with the French cities we visited. “Now I want to live in France,” she sighs after a tour in Aix-en-Provence.

For an Irish couple on board who are in their 60s, the big attraction was that tips and wine are included in the overall price.

The standard of food was excellent, with lots of choices. If you wanted waiter service, a three-course meal with wine in the Aqualina Restaurant was an extra $25 and good value, otherwise buffets in the Discoveries Restaurant were included.

The land discovery tours were well organised, the more memorable being the visit to Cezanne’s studio (hard to do on public transport) in Aix-en-Provence and a visit to Domaine de la Croix, a state-of-the-art winery in St Tropez, conducted by Jean Jacques Benetti with authority and wit.

If anything, a longer stay in Marseille, this year’s European City of Culture, would have been welcomed. In St Tropez, we learnt that a mooring there costs €5,000 a day and it is booked solid for the next three years. “This was once a small fishing village” chipped our guide, “now the main catch is tourists.” Year round, 5,000 people live here, but in high summer the population swells to 150,000.

So the advantage of a cruise in April in the northern Mediterranean is fewer tourists and crowds, balanced against more unpredictable weather.

It was an enjoyable few days and being able to visit so many places without the stress of driving, finding directions and parking, with all their attendant frustrations, made for an easy going, undemanding week. Would I go again? Now there’s the question.

Deirdre McQuillan was a guest of Azamara Club Cruises. For details visit azamaraclubcruises.com

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