ABOARD THE EMERALD AZZURRA — The 100-passenger Emerald Azzurra, which recently made its Red Sea debut, offers travel agents a product in a class of its own.

Smaller cruise ships like this tend to be built for the luxury or expedition markets, but the Azzurra positions itself as a premium ship, priced around $600 a night. Beer and wine are included with meals, and there is one included excursion per port of call.

I took half of an 11-day trip from Aqaba, Jordan, to Athens to experience the ship, the first ocean-going ship from Emerald Cruises, which has been operating river cruises for nine years. We circumnavigated the Sinai Peninsula, stopping in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, transiting through the Suez Canal and visiting Israel, where I disembarked as the ship continued towards the Greece.

The Azzurra may be billed as premium, but I found the food and service to be up to luxury standards. From the hot tomato soup to the pleasantly al dente risotto, from the mouth-watering rack of lamb to an impeccable Egg Benedict, meals were a highlight of each day.

Inspired by Emerald’s river ship design, the dining room features a square buffet area surrounding the stairs leading to the kitchen. Photo credit: Tom Stieghorst

The galley layout was adapted from river ships, with a large square buffet surrounding the stairs leading to the galley. Indoor and outdoor dining are available and there is plenty of space between tables.

The staff, some of whom were former Seabourn employees, were genuinely helpful, friendly and attentive. Everyone gets to know everyone pretty quickly on a 100 passenger ship, and I was sorry to leave my departing crew friends.

The Azzurra has comfortable and relaxing public areas, such as the forward-facing Observation Lounge with games, books, coffee and panoramic sea views. overflow with loungers and daybeds plus a snack bar that starts serving coffee at 6 a.m.

On a balmy summer night in the Mediterranean, I can think of no better place than the Sky Bar on the upper deck; unfortunately for me it was mid March when I sailed, and the deck was a bit windswept. At the bottom of the ship there is a beautiful spa and fitness center which looks bigger than it is. A sauna that uses infrared heat rather than radiant heat was a new bonus.

The infinity pool is the centerpiece of the Aqua Lounge on deck 6.

The infinity pool is the centerpiece of the Aqua Lounge on deck 6. Photo credit: Emerald Cruises

Two-thirds of the accommodations are balcony staterooms ranging from 285 to 306 square feet, with half a dozen ocean-view staterooms and larger suites rounding out the total. My bed was as comfortable as any I’ve slept in at sea. Another favorite feature was a little red nightlight in the bathroom that took out the fluorescent shock of a midnight call of nature.

A large “garage” below decks houses three 34-passenger aluminum tenders that extend out the side of the ship by means of an ingenious winch system. We weren’t able to use the tenders or the aft marina platform, but they both look like assets to Azzurra.

The look and feel of the ship was a bit difficult to judge as many pieces of furniture and artwork did not arrive for our sailing, another casualty of the global supply chain collapse. But the general idea is that of a contemporary yacht, with a color scheme of grays and greens and lots of reflective surfaces, which serve to open up smaller spaces.

I was curious to see if there would be entertainment on a 100 passenger ship. That mostly goes to Pablo, a singer/guitarist from Venezuela whose versatile repertoire and musicality offered something for everyone.

We also heard some modern show tunes one night from Cruise Director Adam Illsey, who has West End theater experience and a powerful tenor voice.

In the spa, the seats produce infrared light beams that warm the back, an alternative to the traditional sauna.

In the spa, the seats produce infrared light beams that warm the back, an alternative to the traditional sauna. Photo credit: Emerald Cruises

I have taken bus tours to the lost city of Petra in Jordan and the Egyptian pyramids of Giza. The guides were knowledgeable and the small tour group size made loading/unloading easy. The ship was able to arrange an independent snorkeling trip for me and two other guests through their port agent in Sharm el-Sheikh, a guest services favor that might not happen on a large ship.

During her first year, in addition to the Red Sea, the Azzurra will spend time in the Adriatic and the eastern and western Mediterranean. A sister ship, the Emerald Sakara, is scheduled for delivery in 2023 and will extend Emerald’s reach to the Black Sea (geopolitical factors permitting) and the Indian Ocean.