The secret is out and the vote is in from this consummate cruise diva – Azamara Club Cruises ranks as a top pick in the small ship luxury category. Over the last few years, Azamara has been a mystery line to most consumers given its sales and marketing efforts have been tied to Celebrity, under the Royal Caribbean moniker.

The once little sister has grown up and is creating a buzz. Azamara Club Cruises has received high marks industry wide.  Named one of the “World’s Best” Cruise Lines by Travel & Leisure Magazine two years in a row, Azamara offers intimate and inspiring voyages featuring longer stays and more overnights in ports.

174 Ports  * 54 Destinations  * 38 Overnights in Port  * 37 New Maiden Voyages for 2011

I joined the Azamara Quest in early January for a two week Southeast Asia adventure where the ship and her attentive staff introduced me to a whole new caliber of cruising.

One always has choices when cruising, but for me a smaller ship like the Quest has some very important advantages.

First and foremost, smaller cruise ships can visit places where the big ships can’t go. Azamara’s fleet easily navigates some of the tightest ports, so there is no need for spending half your day traveling to shore by tender boat or hours over ground by bus. This is critical when you want to maximize your vacation experience. Secondly, a smaller ship with a greater crew to passenger ratio offers a higher level of personalized customer service. Finally, a smaller passenger capacity creates the perfect breeding ground for social interaction and the potential for new friendships while still allowing you breathing room and space for private moments.

With Azamara Club Cruises, there are never long lines at embarkation or disembarkation; preferred open seating is available every night at dinner; wine flows freely; and all gratuities are included in your cruise fare.

Moreover, beverages like bottled water, soda, tea, coffee and fruit juices are all complimentary and there is even a 24 hour café that would put any Starbucks to shame.

In terms of dining, returning and new cruise guests were equally impressed with Azamara’s consistent superior food quality, selection, presentation and outstanding service. The Windows Café, featuring comfortable casual indoor and alfresco seating, offers an extensive and ever changing buffet complete with a gelato station and an incredible sushi bar. The Quest’s main restaurant, Discoveries, is an elegant five- star dining venue with a contemporary European menu. No need to pack the formal wear and heels, the dress code is always smart casual. But for me it was difficult not to dress for dinner.  The staff worked diligently to make every meal a truly special occasion worthy of donning my pearls and favorite designer frock.

Those who prefer to remain outside soaking in the sunshine or reading a good book, no worries. Azamara’s poolside Grill on Deck 9 offers a full menu which includes hot dogs, burgers, salad bar and other light fare every afternoon.

For foodies who love to tantalize their palates with a custom dining experience, check out the Azamara specialty restaurants – Prime C Steakhouse & Wine Cellar and Aqualina Mediterranean Restaurant.  For a nominal fee ($10), you can treat your taste buds to a juicy steak or try the best of both worlds with the Surf & Turf .  Given the rave reviews, be sure to book ahead; these exclusive ship dining spots always require advance reservations.

The Azamara team did not miss a beat in terms of service and on-board amenities. My cabin, a Club Oceanview room (Deck 4), seemed much larger than the 170 square feet in the description. It was bright and open with a small sofa, desk, queen sized bed and a window not unlike a room you would find at an upscale boutique hotel. A flat screen television, mini-fridge and safe are standard in all the staterooms and suites.  Fresh cut flowers decorate each room. The luxurious spa inspired bath and shower collection by Elemis is a true treasure chest of soothing comfort especially after a long afternoon of sightseeing or sunbathing.

Each day, I felt like a pampered princess when fresh fruit was delivered to my room in the morning and a decadent chocolate indulgence bid me good night each evening.

When booking, you will have many cabin options – ranging from a Deluxe Veranda Stateroom with private balcony to an Ocean Suite (501 square ft) featuring a huge master bath with a whirlpool soaking tub and floor to ceiling glass doors that open to an oversized veranda. I checked out the deck plans and enjoyed a few sneak peaks. Loved my stateroom, but the suites on Deck 6 and 7…are hard to resist.

Azamara cannot be matched in terms of its commitment to discovery!  Immersion in the cultural and historical assets of each host country is an integral part of each cruise itinerary. For most discerning travelers, the destination is often more important than the ship itself.

I share in the passion for learning and discovery, recognizing that a cruise is often the perfect reconnaissance mission.  Cruising will allow you to check out the destination giving you greater insight and confidence to plan a future land tour experience. But more importantly, you will avoid the travel stress when trying to cover a larger geographic area and the often exorbitant costs of hotel lodging and meals.

The ship’s cruise excursions are an extension of the Azamara’s immersion philosophy. Tour operators have been carefully selected for their expertise and high customer satisfaction ratings. The tours are designed and sized for comfort. Activity levels range from mild to strenuous but the travel tour featured content and focus is far from ordinary. The Southeast Asia tour highlights included a Journey to Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, a Thai floating market tour, a visit to the famous Cu Chi Tunnels, a Jungle Eco Safari featuring an Elephant ride, and an overnight trip the River Kwai

Take advantage of Azamara’s excursion promotions. At the time of my booking, the ship offered up to 50% off all tour excursions prior to departure.

On board, the Azamara team strives for excellence in entertainment. Guest lecturers and performers include historians and world class artists who are tasked to educate and enrich.

However endearing, you won’t hear your wait or housekeeping staff singing their homeland anthems as is the norm on most large ships. On an Azamara cruise, guests will be entranced by the musical genius of world class performers – a cellist, pianist or vocalist is always an entertainment headliner. Cruise Director, Russ Thomas Grieve, along with the Quest orchestra and singers also light up the Cabaret Lounge stage nearly every night with an electrifying show of favorite Las Vegas and Broadway tunes. For those who want a little more action, there is a casino and two lively bars. But, the Looking Glass Lounge is the spot to get your groove on. Salutes to ABBA and MOTOWN were huge crowd pleasers.

If dancing all night pulled a few muscles, the Astral Spa offers the perfect relief. Enjoy a full body massage or explore ancient Chinese medicine and the Art of Acupuncture.Exercise enthusiasts will love the fitness center and the full schedule of daily classes. Stretch, condition and spin your way to a healthier and happy new you!

The freestyle walk/jog course on Deck 10 was soon part of my daily routine.  I faced a painful reality each morning that it would take more than 13 laps around the course (roughly a mile) to burn off the pastries I devoured at breakfast.  Yet as one is reminded…with no pain…no gain. The laps kept me in good shape and engaged in the ship’s community. Walking or jogging on deck is a phenomenal way to meet some of your fellow passengers. I still treasure the day when I met Giordano and Juliano, interesting Italian gents from Venice, as I circled the course one early afternoon. Each moment thereafter together was a delight…lunch, dinner, drinks and evenings of fun and endless laughter.  New friends and a few less pounds…what more could a gal ask for?

Staying connected with old friends and family back home is very easy; the ship has a computer center which offers internet connectivity packages that start at $30 US. There is even a photo specialist on board that can assist you in editing and saving all your cruise memories.

Just before the Quest reaches its final port, nostalgia will take over. You will pine for just another week… just another day at sea…just more time to bask in the luxury. All the while, your subconscious takes over…and your mind races ahead already deep in planning your next great voyage!

You will return…it is just simply a matter of time.

Whether seeking adventure or a tranquil escape, Azamara Club Cruises will captivate your senses and capture your heart.

To learn more: Visit Azamara Club Cruises online or contact your local travel agent.

Azamara Quest Fast Facts:

Size: Length- 592 feet; Width- 84 feet

Cruising Speed: 18.5 Knots

Crew/Staff: 408

Guest Capacity: 694

9 Decks

347 Staterooms:

42 Suites

199 Verandas

80 Ocean Views

26 Interiors

Cruise Itinerary Highlights:

Hong Kong: Asia’s answer to New York on shopping steroids. When the locals aren’t shopping, they are enjoying the sights and smells of this dynamic modern and international city. You will not want to miss the night market, a ride on the famous Star Ferry and a visit to the Hong Kong Museum of History. Contact: Hong Tourism for travel tips and assistance.

A Must: A visit to the Giant Buddha and Po Lin Monastery. The trip is easy and accessible by MTR subway (Tung Chung Station-Exit B) from Hong Kong (under $5 US R/T). Exit subway and walk 10 minutes to cable car to Ngong ping village to visit the world’s tallest seated outdoor Buddha (under $20 US R/T). An incredible scenic aerial ride!

Danang (Hue), Vietnam: A major port city and the hub for several world heritage sites. Home to China Beach, a rest & relaxation beach area during the war made popular by a U.S. Television series of the same name. Special Note: a visa is required in most cases to enter the country. Check with Cruise Company or Travel Agent at least 60 days prior to departure to secure all needed paperwork. The Official Vietnam Tourism website also offers helpful trip planning information.

A Must: Exploring the historic and quaint streets of Hoi An, a charming village on the banks of the Thu Bon River near the South China Sea, offering a glimpse into Vietnam’s colorful past.  (*Azamara Cruise Excursions offers an exploratory countryside bicycle tour which includes a close-up view of the neighboring rice paddy fields.)

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam: A bustling metropolis of nearly 10 million people and nearly as many motorbikes, now Vietnam’s core economic center and top port. Don’t be surprised if you see a worker on a motorbike carrying nearly half a house on his shoulder as he navigates the streets at top speed.

The city’s rich history dates back over 500,000 years but is best recognized as the key political epicenter during the Vietnam War.

A Must: A visit to BEN THANH Market, a Saigon landmark (intersection of Le Loi, Tran Hung Dao and Ham Nghi roads) that has been in existence since the French occupation offers a true Saigon experience.  Here you will find almost anything you desire – t-shirts, shoes, bags, fabric, spices, tea and endless food stalls. Note: You will need more than a few hours to work your way through the crowds. Bargaining is widely expected but credit cards are not accepted.

Bangkok, Thailand: A magical city laden with beautiful temples, museums, floating markets and ancient shrines. This capital city has something for everyone – incredible dining, shopping and entertainment. The historical and cultural assets reach beyond the city limits. This is a destination that warrants a return visit. Contact Thailand Tourism for travel planning assistance.

A Must: A Visit to the Grand Palace and Temple Wat Pho. The Temple grounds contain more than 1,000 Buddha images, but the true highlight of Wat Pho is the magnificent gold-plated Reclining Buddha which is huge – 151 feet long and 49 feet high.

Ko Samui, Thailand: Known as “Coconut Island”. A popular stop for cruise ships and pleasure boats; often compared to Phuket Island but just half the size. You will find tourist shops, fishing villages and open sandy beach areas and unique geological rock formations. The perfect place for a little R&R!

A Must: Spend a lazy day soaking in the sunshine. A visit to Hin Yai and Hin Ta, also known as “Grandmother Rock” and “Grandfather Rock” located at the southern end of Lamai Beach.

SingaporeA pristine cosmopolitan city known for its beautiful gardens, towering skyscrapers, and rich colonial historyCity Symbolic Icon: The Merlion – a mythical beast, half lion/half fish; a 25 foot high statue guards the city at the mouth of the Singapore River. Contact Singapore Tourism for detailed travel information.

A Must List:  Indulge in a “Singapore Sling” at the historic Long Bar in Raffles Hotel.  Discover Chinatown’s shopping delights. Explore Singapore with a Duck/Hippo City Tour –a fun family-friendly sightseeing experience. Stroll through Singapore’s lush landscaped Botanic Gardens visiting the National Orchid Garden featuring over 1,000 orchid species.  Take in the view from atop the Skypark level (57th Floor) of new Marina Sands Casino Hotel, one of the largest casino/convention complex hotels in the world.

For pre/post cruise lodging recommendations, be sure to check out my reviews:

The LUXE Manor Honk Kong

The Wanderlust Hotel Singapore

Capella Singapore – Sentosa Island Oasis