It's not until Corfu that we start to feel small. Until then this is just a normal boat, a vessel to move around on, with people onboard to see and recognise, facilities to use, experiences to enjoy. The Emerald Azzurra is quite large really, luxuriously so, far bigger than the Greek fishing boats that tend to chug past in the early-morning sun.
But then we wake up one day and we've arrived in Corfu. My cabin is facing Corfu Town, so until we disembark I'm not even aware there's another ship moored across from us on the jetty. I step out onto the gangway though and look up and there's this colossus right there looming above, a skyscraper with a hull, a moving city that literally blocks out the sun, disgorging thousands upon thousands of passengers onto buses lined up like caterpillars on the dock.
And suddenly it's all put into perspective. The Azzurra isn't a "normal boat". It's comparatively tiny. There are only 100 guests on board at any one time – I know all of them by sight after just a few days. This is cruising on a micro scale, on a personal scale, aboard a vessel that can go places the floating metropolises can't, an intimate affair with passengers and staff who all know each other's names.
We stopped a few nights ago in a Greek fishing village called Gythio. It's close to the ruins of Sparta, and a popular spot for residents of the Peloponnese looking for a seaside getaway. I decided to explore the town on my own, to wander its tight alleyways and stroll its marina, to eat grilled calamari at a taverna and drink strong black coffee in a nearby café. And not once did I notice anyone else from the ship. One hundred people barely makes a mark, even in a town as small as Gythio. They just blend into the background.
This is what cruising should be. The Emerald Azzurra might not turn out to be the true future of this industry – I don't have a crystal ball – but it should be. This is how cruising should look. Small ships, low impact, maximum enjoyment.
And the Azzurra is a small ship. I understand this is not a great time to make this comparison, but from a distance it looks like the plaything of a Russian oligarch. It's a superyacht, 110 metres in length, sleek and beautiful, small enough to be a private vessel for the uber-rich. If it was really an oligarch's boat it would probably have only 10 or so guests on board – the Azzurra can take 100 paying passengers, though it still never feels crowded.
There's never a queue at the breakfast buffet or the bar. There's never a problem grabbing a table as soon as you arrive at dinner. Every staff member knows your preferences within days, the coffee you like to have with breakfast, the drink you will probably order around sunset, the wine you tend to have with dinner. "Good morning Mr Groundwater – flat white?"
The Azzurra presents a very different take on the idea of open-water cruising. It's the inaugural journey for this vessel, as well as the first foray into this style for Emerald, which has previously been solely a river-cruising line. I'm joining for the seven-night Athens to Dubrovnik portion, and plenty of my fellow passengers are here on the strength of the concept alone. "We just googled 'small ship cruise Europe'," an Adelaidean man shrugs as we share dinner one night on the Azzurra's open-air back deck. "This was pretty much all that came up."
We all boarded in Athens, where rapid-antigen tests were compulsory before stepping on the ship. We sailed for the first time in the pastel glow of the evening, heading due south (rather than west towards the Corinth Canal, which was closed for maintenance), before rounding Cape Maleas in the south of the Peloponnese and berthing in absolute stillness at Gythio.
Our next stop should have been the Ionian island of Cephalonia; however, Zeus, Ancient Greece's weather god, was against us, with high winds forcing an extended stay in Gythio and a direct run to the northern port town of Parga.
That left plenty of time to explore the facilities on board the ship, all of which are easy to cover in a vessel this size. There's a gym and sauna on the lower deck; a large bar area, an Italian-themed, a la carte restaurant and an airy back deck on the entry level; an open-air bar and café, with heated pool, on level six; and a "sky deck" with lounging space and a hot tub on the upper seventh.
Given this is the inaugural voyage, it's no surprise that everything has that new-car smell, including staff who are bright and enthusiastic, and a few teething problems that should be ironed out with time (onboard wifi, for example, is achingly slow, and there's no information about the ship provided in the cabin; it takes me a few days – because no one tells me – to figure out it's all on my TV). Everything is sparkling and new; even on this voyage, new features are being added, including a giant flat-screen TV that was dragged aboard in Athens.
Now seems as good a time as any to make a confession: I've never been on a European cruise before. The Emerald Azzurra is my debut, the appeal being its intimate size and packed itinerary. In only seven nights we're ticking off four countries and several major attractions, the sort of sights people who have been locked in their own country for the last couple of years would surely have been dreaming about.
Parga is a gorgeous fishing village on the Ionian coast, with brightly coloured hillside homes that make you think of a quieter version of the Italian Riviera. It also provides access, for us at least, to Meteora, a UNESCO heritage-listed site about a three-hour bus ride away in central Greece.
This is one of those absolute jaw-droppers, one of the reasons we all save our money and dedicate our time to overseas travel. Seven-hundred-year-old monasteries cling to the top of towering rock pillars, testaments to the passion and dedication of the monks and nuns who built them to escape attacks in the 14th and 15th centuries. To stand atop these pillars is incredible; to view them from ground level is astounding.
Back on the Azzurra, it's just a short skip across to Corfu. It's here that I spot a "real" cruise ship and realise just how good we have it. There's time to explore historic Corfu Town, to wander its narrow alleys and relax in its squares, to buy local fig cake at the markets and drink coffee down by the water. Fellow Azzurra cruisers spotted: zero.
From here you can gaze across the water to Albania, which is our next stop, to visit another UNESCO-listed site. This is Butrint, an Ancient Greek and then Roman city (and later Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman), a culturally rich site just south of the Albanian seaside resort town of Sarande.
And then we set sail once again, bound for the highlight of any seaborne journey in this region: the approach to Kotor, in Montenegro. This walled, medieval town sits at the back of two large bays, in a ria – a partially submerged river valley – surrounding by towering hills.
We approach on the sort of day that you just don't get in real life, the water dead flat, the sky bright, the breeze non-existent. We sail through the heads and into the first bay, most passengers gathered at the sky bar on the top level, sipping mimosas and listening as Pablo, the cruise director, plays classical guitar music and the Azzurra slips quietly through a narrow passageway and into the final ria, the approach to Kotor, where our superyacht is small enough to moor right on the jetty rather than out in the bay.
There's another ship anchored out there, a huge German cruise liner. It allows us to savour the pleasure of being small.
Emerald Cruises' eight-day Mediterranean Enchantment cruise, from Athens to Dubrovnik aboard the new Azzurra, has cabins available for departures in 2022 (starting from $6088 per person), and 2023 (starting from $6150 per person for a D-category Oceanview Stateroom). Prices include 20 meals on board with complimentary drinks during meals, tips, transfers, wifi and use of e-bikes. Guided walking tours of Sparta, Kotor, Butrint, Corfu Town and Delphi are also included, as well as other cultural demonstrations and performances. Meteora visits are an optional extra. Phone 1300 286 110. See emeraldcruises.com.au
Ben Groundwater travelled as a guest of Emerald Cruises.