With the launch of Emerald Azzurra, river cruise operator Emerald Cruises made an impressive debut on the oceans. This 100-passenger beauty is not your typical cruise ship, either. I’d call it more of a luxury superyacht, with a beautiful profile and intimate, elegant spaces on board — plus service that shines.
When you take a cruise on Emerald Azzurra, you just might feel like a member of the jet-set crowd cruising the Mediterranean with a big gathering of your newest friends. I know this because I was invited onboard and hosted by Emerald Cruises during a weeklong sailing in the Western Med that took us all around charming small port towns in Italy.
Here is a batch of my best experiences aboard the new Emerald Azzurra.
1. Charming Port Stops
Port stops on our voyage included the quaint towns of Monopoli and Otranto in the southern region of Italy called Puglia (you know it as the heel of the “boot”). We also visited Crotone and Giardini Naxos in the Taormina region of Sicily, as well as Amalfi and Sorrento on Italy’s western coast, before disembarking in Civitavecchia in the Metropolitan City of Rome.
We were always the only cruise ship in the ports we visited, and our small group of about 95 allowed us to blend in with the locals seamlessly.
These places offer a wonderful mix of shops, restaurants, and cafes, as well as cathedrals, museums, and other points of interest that you can thoroughly enjoy without feeling like part of a herd coming through town.
The ship docks at ports or anchors offshore close to historic old towns and pretty marinas.
My wife Colleen and I took a bike ride in Monopoli (the ship carries a fleet of e-bikes) and pedaled through town to a pretty beach filled with residents swimming and having family picnics on a Sunday.
We delighted walking the maze-like alleyways of Otranto. This seaside community on the Salento Peninsula is home to a pretty marina and a couple of historic attractions: the 15th-century Aragonese Castle and 11th-century Otranto Cathedral.
Crotone offered a chance to shop with the chef. Azzurra Executive Chef Li and a couple of team members took our small group into the market area, and it was a joy to see the process of picking fresh ingredients and haggling over prices.
The haul of squid, clams, mussels, octopus, chilis, and cheeses was brought back to the ship, and just a couple hours later, we sampled what the chef and the rest of the galley team were able to put together using exotic items like squash blossoms (made into a delicious, crispy fried tempura filled with dill and ricotta) and water pumpkin.
This is how it went for the entire voyage, with additional stops in Taormina, Amalfi, and Sorrento bringing daily delights like a “Godfather Tour,” adventure kayaking, and a city tour and gelato tasting in each destination.
Pro Tip: It’s easy to load your schedule with formal shore excursions, booked through the ship or independently, but give yourself a break and leave a day or two open. You’ll appreciate a more casual pace, and you’ll have time to walk through some great old town centers.
2. Delicious Restaurants
Emerald Azzurra offers two restaurants: La Cucina and Agua Cafe.
La Cucina is the main restaurant. It serves breakfast and lunch buffet style, then dinner with open seating and a menu featuring meals made with regional ingredients and a selection of daily favorites.
We favored having lunch each day outside at the Aqua Cafe up on Deck 6, right by the pool. Aqua Cafe is a small eatery that seats about 30 people in comfy chairs and banquettes. Having a meal in the fresh air is fantastic and really enhances the fact that this is a yacht and not a cruise ship. Our captain, Julian Burgess, was always proud to point that out as we interacted with the incredibly engaging and highly visible master of the vessel all week.
Aqua Cafe is a casual eatery that serves a continental breakfast for early risers and offers a nice menu with a fantastic array of comfort foods for lunch.
This is where you can order one of the creative flatbreads topped with meats, veggies, cheeses, and even seasonal fruits. The offerings also include juicy gourmet burgers or hot dogs with crisp fries.
The eatery is open throughout the afternoon, and the selection of sandwiches, salads, and fruit cups was always enticing. The best, for me, though, were the chewy gourmet cookies (chocolate chip, white chocolate chunk, oatmeal raisin, and peanut butter), rich brownies, creamy gelatos, and decadent macarons (six varieties!).
Pro Tip: Can’t decide on what to order for dinner? Emerald Azzurra encourages sharing midmeal courses — typically risotto or pasta. They even have gluten-free options.
3. Next-Level Shore Excursions
While Emerald Azzurra features several included shore excursions during your voyages. Several stops featured a nice city tour, and we joined one of these in Sorrento that included a walk around the new and old districts with our friendly guide, Patty. Plus, we got to attend a gelato demonstration and tasting at Gelateria David to close out the tour. The things they can do with lemons in this region of the world are amazing.
I liked leveling up my cruise experience with the premium DiscoverMORE options.
They cost $150 or more. We picked a kayaking expedition around Amalfi, and several of our fellow cruisers enjoyed small-group visits to spots like Pompeii, Positano, and Capri.
4. Infrared Sauna & Elements Spa
All passengers on Emerald Azzurra are given access to the spa facility’s relaxing infrared sauna room. This is a nice perk and a great way to relax after a busy day ashore. The sauna uses red-light therapy, and it has five seats that allow the heat to warm up your spine and emanate through your body to ease tension.
Spa manager Ozay and his team take wonderful care of cruisers, preparing herbal teas and waters to enjoy in the facility.
The ship also offers a range of massages, such as hot stone and deep-tissue treatments, as well as facials. You can also stop by the salon for haircuts, styling, manicures, and pedicures.
The wellness area is so nice that we made sure to schedule time there daily, often waking up to join Mahesh, who taught a morning yoga class, or hitting the attached fitness center for a workout (the gym has treadmills, a rowing machine, an elliptical, and weights). Then, we would return at the end of the day for time in the infrared sauna to relax and ease our muscles before getting ready for dinner and the rest of the evening.
5. E-Bikes And Water Toys
The ship carries electric bikes that cruisers can use in port. They even get them ashore at destinations that require taking smaller boats in while the ship is anchored offshore. We biked in Monopoli to go to Porto Paradiso, a popular beach in a beautiful cove. At Giardini Naxos, we took a challenging ride up to Taormina (thank goodness for the e-assist feature).
When Emerald Azzurra anchors offshore at picturesque destinations, the marina is open and all the toys are put out in the water. We had a blast using the trampoline, laying on the floating mats, tooling around in the kayaks and stand-up paddle boards, and even trying out Seabobs for the first time. These are a kind of water scooter that propels you through the water — and even below it — like a dolphin.
Pro Tip: The marina platform itself is a destination. When it’s open, it serves as a sundeck, where you can chill waterside, taking a dip in the sea as the need arises.
6. Relaxing Outdoor Spaces
Emerald Azzurra offers such lovely outdoor spaces that the ship truly feels like an intimate yacht chartered by a group of friends. We found ourselves spending hours outside during the day, having lunch at Aqua Cafe on Deck 6, which also features a large infinity pool with huge floating pillows for ultimate relaxation.
I caught several of my fellow cruisers napping on the loungers and day beds that encircle the pool area. The Sky Deck one level up at the very top of the ship also has welcoming seating with incredible views over the seas. This is where you find the big hot tub, the Sky Bar, and more inviting seating areas ideal for lazing about as you sail with new friends.
The Observation Lounge on Deck 4 is a quiet space with 270-degree views through the huge windows. The space also opens up to an outer deck area at the bow. Inside, you can enjoy a game of chess or read from the library of books and magazines.
The deck outside is the location for yoga classes led by members of the spa team. We joined instructor Mahesh there for a wonderful session as the sun rose over Monopoli.
With all of this, Emerald Azzurra delivers on the promise of that luxurious yacht life you’ve always wanted to enjoy.