Cruising a niche named 'deluxe'

On Azamara's Journey, dining is open seating and styled after that of a European boutique hotel.

Admit it. We'd all like to travel in grand style - spoiled by white-glove service and a staff catering to our every wish.

Truth is - most of us can't afford that. Luxury cruises come at a price, often a steep one.

So what's a cruiser to do who finds mainstream ships too crowded, too busy, too big, and service on them not attentive enough?

The management at Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises asked themselves a similar question. What could they offer vacationers as an alternative to big and brassy?

Their solution: a new cruise line launched in May from its home port at Cape Liberty in Bayonne, N.J., about 95 miles from Philadelphia. Azamara Cruises, operated by Celebrity, is wedged into a niche already occupied by Oceania Cruises but, until now, not officially codified as a category.

Celebrity dubs Azamara's category "deluxe," floating above premium lines such as Princess, Holland America and Celebrity itself, but below the ultra-luxe brands of Seabourn, Silversea and Crystal.

With cruise lines continually upping the ante on oversized vessels, christening a brand of intimate, boutique ships with personalized service sounds like an idea whose time has come.

Richard Fain, chairman and CEO of Royal Caribbean and Celebrity, says the line will deliver "impeccable service, off-the-beaten-path destinations, and exceptional shore excursions."

Fain acknowledges that Royal Caribbean's behemoths - the 160,000-ton Freedom class ships, for instance - may "deliver the wow!" but the two sleeker, 30,277-ton, 710-passenger Azamara ships deliver "the aah."

On Azamara's first ship, the just-launched Journey, and on the soon-to-be-launched Quest (both former vessels of defunct Renaissance Cruises), passengers get upscale pampering, but without formality.

Azamara targets well-heeled cruisers who appreciate fine dining and the ambience of a European boutique hotel, says Daniel Hanrahan, the line's president.

There are no formal nights, and all dining is open seating. In addition, all staterooms include butler and concierge services, and passengers get a complimentary dinner once per cruise in either of the ship's two fee-based specialty restaurants; suite passengers get complimentary dinners twice.

Suite passengers also get added perks such as laundry pressed for free, fresh-cut flowers, fresh fruit daily, Frette cotton robes, complimentary nonalcoholic beverages and a bottle of Champagne, plus the opportunity to sample some spa treatments in their cabins.

To provide this new level of service and a signature Park Avenue ambience, Azamara sank $19 million into renovating the two former Renaissance vessels, including creating 32 suites aboard each, expanding the spa areas, and adding bars, lounges and a coffeehouse. The line also perked up the decor with a 203-piece collection of contemporary art worth $7 million. As a result of the face-lift, 93 percent of the ship's staterooms offer ocean views, and 68 percent have a private veranda.

To satisfy passengers' desires for an "out-of-the-ordinary experience," the line intends to call at ports too small for big ships, and to add more overnight stays on voyages of 10 days or more, Hanrahan says. Azamara will add more than 20 overnight options in Europe, for example, and, an undetermined number in South America and Asia.

Azamara aims for better than run-of-the-mill excursions, too, although Hanrahan concedes that his line, like others, is to some extent held hostage by the tour operators in each port. Azamara will distinguish itself, he says, by organizing smaller and more intimate group tours. The line's excursion office will do a better job of vetting guides, he says, so that passengers won't be stuck with someone who claims knowledge of the English language but hasn't really mastered it, or be subjected to a guide who isn't well-informed about the sights.

A Cruising Middle Tier

Azamara's target passengers are "serious cruisers and serious travelers" - baby boomers (born between 1944 and 1964) - who prefer to cruise for longer than a week, line president Daniel Hanrahan says.

The price tag for Azamara cruises equates to a 40 percent premium over fares on Celebrity's sailings, but below those of luxury lines, Hanrahan says. For instance, 10-night sailings on Azamara's Journey in the western Mediterranean start at $2,599 per person for an inside cabin. On Celebrity's Millennium, for 12 nights in the Med, fares begin at $1,799.

Azamara Journey's home port is Bayonne's Cape Liberty, but cruises will depart from other ports when the winter season revs up. The ship's routes include seven-night Bermuda jaunts, ranging from $1,049 for an inside cabin to $1,599 for suites.

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