Cruise review: Azamara Pursuit could be the perfect cruise ship

If you were to make a crude generalisation about ocean cruising, you could say cruise ships fall into three categories. Expedition ships take you to out-of-the-way places, big budget ships visit predictable ports and emphasise on-board entertainment, and small luxury ships suit sedate folk with deep pockets.

That leaves many in-between passengers rather perplexed. What to do if you're a reasonable person who likes a bit of everything? Some smaller ports, a focus on destination, a taste for comfort on a mid-range budget, and a ship neither big nor small, neither stuffy nor raucous? Only a few cruise companies address this market, which seems surprising. Of those, Azamara Club Cruises does a fine job of making middle-of-the-wave seem like a sensible, attractive option rather than an accusation of blandness.

Azamara Pursuit (which is virtually identical in layout to the company's other ships, Azamara Journey and Azamara Quest) is several cuts above its big-ship competitors, but doesn't match luxury vessels in terms of its quality finishes, amenities and food. At a more modest price tag, however, it cleverly provides a luxury feel thanks to stylish decor and excellent service. Many Azamara passengers have moved upwards from larger ships in search of a more intimate and sophisticated experience, and have found themselves gratified by the difference.

Azamara Pursuit makes compromise seem like the smart choice. It's somewhat larger than most luxury ships, carrying 702 passengers, yet considerably smaller than mainstream vessels carrying several thousand. It can dock at smaller ports, or efficiently tender passengers ashore when at anchor in harbours. It's compact enough to feel cosy and special, yet spacious enough it never feels crowded.

At times the atmosphere is convivial. The once-in-a-journey White Night deck barbecue party is especially popular, and several of the ship's bars have a lively evening buzz. Still, those in search of downtime will find no shortage of relaxing nooks. You can sink into a leather armchair in a corner of The Den, or wallow in a spa treatment at The Sanctum. I particularly like the simple, quiet corner on the 11th deck, with its hanging pod chair and view over the pool deck and ocean, where I can perch uninterrupted for an hour.

The sense of space is helped by Azamara Pursuit's uncluttered, unfussy decor. This isn't a brand-new ship but often feels like one, having had an entire overhaul before its Azamara launch in August 2018. The elegant country-club interior is pleasantly understated and contemporary; eye-catching only in some surprising artworks. Even the stairwells are prettily presented, with long mirrors and Chinese porcelain side tables. Only the Cabaret Lounge, with its old-fashioned heavy wood decor, seems like a leftover from the ship's previous incarnation.

The disadvantage of refurbishing an older ship is that basic structure can't easily be altered. Newer vessels have created ever-higher expectations among cruise passengers and, for a luxury-style ship, Azamara Pursuit's cabins are compact, and the ensuite bathrooms decidedly cramped and oddly angled. My shower cubicle is tiny, and not helped by having a shower curtain that sticks to me like amorous seaweed. It's a disappointing aspect of an otherwise pleasant and upmarket shipboard experience.

The size of the cabin is no great bother given Azamara Pursuit's many attractive public spaces, including multiple restaurants, spa, theatre, particularly impressive fitness centre and good pool deck. Mosaic Cafe is perennially popular thanks to its properly made coffees, a particular boon on cruise ships that often serve hideous American-style brews. The Living Room is expansive enough to serve as an observation lounge, bar and games space, with a corner dedicated to puzzles and cards. It has red-velvet, high-backed chairs that a medieval pope would appreciate. You can sit and watch port arrivals from your deck 10 vantage point.

My favourite chill-out zone is The Drawing Room, which is encased in library shelves and resembles a Georgian-era conservatory. It has a glass dome and ceiling frescoes depicting tropical birds and flowers, looks over the pool deck and is flooded with light. Not your average ship's library then, which is often cramped and gloomy. It's the ship's loveliest space, and yet is always tranquil.

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You won't find super-sized bedazzlement on this ship. It's a friendly but relatively quiet vessel.  The entertainment is limited to fitness classes, lectures, trivia competitions and evening theatre shows. That's partly because Azamara Club Cruises has a destination-focused philosophy, and passengers spend a lot of time off the ship, which often docks all day and sometimes into the evening, too, and spends at least one overnight on every itinerary. Guests are offered an impressive choice of shore excursions, which range from overview tours to culinary walks and cultural experiences to hikes and vineyard visits.

For a mid-size ship, you'll find a good choice of on-board restaurants. There are no surprises, with Azamara Pursuit ticking the typical cruise-ship boxes with a pool-side cafe, added-cost speciality grill (Prime C) and Italian restaurant. The main restaurant is notable for having a vegan menu and plenty of vegetarian options. Buffet venue Windows Cafe has well-developed theme nights that run the gamut of French, Indian, Spanish and other cuisines, and very helpful and friendly staff.

Yet again, things are done well, with a luxury feel and a bit of flair. Speciality restaurant Aqualina is my top pick and could match many an Italian restaurant on more upmarket ships. It has contemporary, rather minimalist chic (cappuccino-coloured walls and carpet, white leather chairs, abundant natural light) and avoids cliches, apart from the odd Roman column. The food is similarly unfussy – which good Italian food should be – but prettily presented and full of flavour. The classic tomato-and-mozzarella entree alone is a reminder that even simple dishes can be outstanding if properly executed.

You could finish off with a hazelnut chocolate souffle with espresso sauce. The dessert isn't trying to wow you, but it does. Azamara Pursuit doesn't wow you either, but that's perhaps the point. It doesn't give you the razzle-dazzle, the giddy big-ship flashiness, the luxury small-ship pretensions. It just quietly goes on its in-between way, a pleasant and elegant ship at a reasonable price point, and keen to let you make the most of the destinations it visits. A modest ship, and all the more impressive for it.

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Azamara Club Cruises operates three similar ships. Azamara Pursuit sails 30 voyages in 2020, starting in Antarctica, the Chilean fiords and South America. It journeys in Europe from April to October before heading to Asia, and finishes the year with an Australia Intensive Voyage departing Perth on December 21, 2020, which spends New Year's Eve in Sydney Harbour and finishes in Melbourne.

The writer travelled on a Greece Intensive Voyage, of which there are three in 2020 between Athens and Venice (or the reverse). As an example, the nine-night Greece Intensive Voyage departing on April 23, 2020 visits Mykonos, Patmos, Santorini, Chania, Zakynthos, Corfu and Kotor in Montenegro. Prices from $US2667 a person twin share. Phone 1800 754 500. See azamaraclubcruises.com

Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Azamara Club Cruises.

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