When it comes to flying I'm an early morning person, but for the start of an ocean voyage there is something intensely romantic about an evening departure. Sailing across the inky waters of Auckland's Waitemata Harbour is a delightful experience, but the sight of Devonport's neat clapboard houses and the distinctive outline of Rangitoto Island is especially poignant for me.The last time I gazed at this view I was an 18-year-old deckhand on board a German freighter bound for Rotterdam via Pitcairn Island and the Panama Canal.
Back in the 1970s it was still possible to a penniless lad to hitch a nautical ride at the city docks – if you could find a sympathetic master and ship in need of an extra sailor.
My memories of that six-week voyage are of punishing physical labour, long periods of boredom and the woeful singing of our alcoholic and foul-mouthed bosun.
Standing at the stern of the Azamara Quest, an elegant French-built cruise ship, watching the bright lights of Auckland fade to black I order a gin and tonic and make a silent toast to my fearless, deeply naive younger self.
During my earlier voyage I'd spent my time attacking rust with a giant electric grinder or scrubbing out the galley. There was little to do outside work hours, apart from watching dolphins and flying fish. In Rotterdam the captain handed back my passport and a fistful of deutschmarks and sent me on my way.
So as the whisper-quiet Azamara Quest makes its leisurely passage north to the Bay of Islands I can't help feeling a little smug about my current circumstances. My stateroom towards the stern of the ship is beautifully appointed with a king-size bed, writing desk and sofa. Sliding glass doors open out to a small verandah – a joy on any cruise – with table and chairs.The ship underwent a major refurbishment in 2016 and its 345 suites and staterooms now sport a fresh, earthy colour palette and improved entertainment systems, such as a 40-inch flat screen TV and handy bedside USB ports. Storage and hanging space is adequate, but some guests may find the compact bathroom a little disappointing.
Azamara Club Cruises describes its ships as "floating boutique hotels" and I am constantly amazed at the attention to detail and quality of service shown throughout this voyage. My cabin attendants Dustin and Kokok are a constant, smiling presence in my life – ensuring that my stateroom was always immaculate, with fresh flowers and towels. One morning I order breakfast in bed and my tray of fresh fruit, cheese and pastries is totally Instagrammable; a polite phone call alerts me to its impending arrival.
In fact, politeness seems to be part of Azamara Quest's DNA. The mid-size cruise ship carries a maximum 690 passengers at any one time, so the atmosphere on board is intimate, convivial and fairly laid-back. Indeed, this is one of the key reasons that so many guests become die-hard supporters of the company – those who have notched up several voyages proudly tell you they have joined the "Azamara family".
How exactly Azamara achieves this level of harmony is difficult to pinpoint. The passenger list is dominated by Americans, Canadians, Brits and Australians with a smattering of French, Germans and Poles. My dinner table companions included a posh English couple from Wiltshire, a Scottish dairy farmer and his wife, a Texas rancher, a retired business executive from Arizona and a high-spirited widow from the Central Coast of NSW.
"I hate all of that formal dressing up for dinner," one guest confided. "Azamara does everything well but without the fanfare and pomp of other cruise companies."
At 30,277 tonnes, the Azamara Quest may lack some of the grander public spaces of the newer generation of cruise liners, but it still provides an impressive range of dining options, sports facilities, talks and night time entertainment, including music recitals, cabarets, movie screenings and discos.
If the weather is fine, head up to Deck 9 where you'll find a saltwater swimming pool, a well-stocked pool bar and plenty of lounge chairs. This is a great place to catch up on some reading with a cold drink in hand; the twin Jacuzzis here are perfect if you want to watch a tropical sunset.
Apart from a well-equipped gym, the ship also offers a full-service spa, The Sanctum, and its own in-house acupuncturist. Guests can revive the body with a complimentary early morning stretch or yoga session and then, after lunch, get the brain working with a spot of bridge, sudoku or mahjong. For something more relaxed there are themed trivia sessions and bingo nights.
Like any cruise ship, the Azamara Quest places a huge emphasis on the high quality and range of its food and beverage offerings. With three formal restaurants (Aqualina, Prime C, Discoveries) and several casual dining options, no one could ever become bored with the cuisine on this ship. Country-themed buffets, hosted-officer dinners and a Chef's Table keep things interesting.
One night I join chief engineer Pavle Loncar and five other guests in Discoveries for a sumptuous meal of beef carpaccio with wild mushroom salad, caramelised cauliflower soup, osso bucco ravioli and pavlova with hokey-pokey ice-cream. While the setting was formal and the service crisp, there was nothing stuffy about the evening – and the Croatian-born chief engineer was a charming dinner companion.
A 15-night New Zealand and Australia voyage may seem like a fairly leisurely way to explore this part of the world, but the itinerary has been expertly planned with plenty of shore excursions and several major highlights, such as an early morning arrival in Sydney Harbour and the glamorous White Night Party, a signature event held by the pool.
From Auckland the ship proceeds north to the Bay of Islands then follows the coast southwards to Tauranga, Gisborne and Wellington before embarking on the three-day, 2224 kilometre voyage across the Tasman Sea to Sydney. From the Harbour City the ship sails north to Mooloolaba, Airlie Beach, Townsville and Cairns, where most guests take a plane to Brisbane and fly home to the United Kingdom, Europe or North America.
I left the Azamara Quest in Sydney but took particular delight in hearing the British and American guests trying to get their tongues around Mooloolaba. "Darn funny name. I guess that's an Aboriginal word," said the Texan rancher.
I'm pretty sure that my brief voyage around New Zealand did not qualify me for admission to the Azamara Family, but I will nevertheless treasure the friendships made, the chance to rediscover places from my backpacking days and the sheer calm induced by a leisurely seaboard adventure. My strongest memory is a special concert of classical and Pacific music at the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul's. The haunting sounds of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings heard that night followed me across the ocean.
FIVE FACTS ABOUT AZAMARA
Founded in 2007, Azamara Club Cruises is part of the Royal Caribbean Cruises group, the world's second-largest cruise ship company. The fleet also includes the Azamara Pursuit and Azamara Journey. All three are R-class ships built by the Chantiers de l'Atlantique company in France.
Like its parent company, Azamara Club Cruises has a long-standing commitment to the environment. The company has pledged to reduce greenhouse gases and other pollutants and adheres to a strict recycling protocol. A dedicated environmental officer is present on each voyage.
This year Azamara Club Cruises will visit 250 ports in 69 countries; more than 60 per cent of these destinations are not open to larger cruise ships. Itineraries range from three-night weekend voyages to 24-night ocean adventures. In 2020 the company will add a number of new destinations to its roster, including Heimaey (Iceland), Bora Bora (French Polynesia), Oahu (Hawaii) and Rarotonga (Cook Islands).
A hallmark of all Azamara Club Cruises is its handpicked shore excursions, which are promoted under the Immersive Cultures banner. Experiences range from golf days, market tours, curated sightseeing and city walks. Thanks to their compact size the ships are able to moor at smaller ports such as Venice, St Petersburg and London.
THE AZAMARA HANDSHAKE
To prevent the exchange of germs while onboard, Azamara Club Cruises encourages guests and crew to knock fists instead of the traditional handshake. Hand sanitizing dispensers are located in the dining areas and menus carry warnings about the possible dangers of consuming raw or undercooked seafood and meat.
Mark Chipperfield was a guest of Azamara Club Cruises.
Azamara Club Cruises' 15-night New Zealand and Australia Voyage departs Auckland in February 2020 and March 2020. Fares from $5339 a person twin share . See azamaraclubcruises.com