Paint alongside a well-known artist in Croatia. // © 2014 Antonia Ruskovic Radonic
Every year, bottles of bubbly are ceremoniously smashed against the sides of new mega ships with ever-increasing bells and whistles. While the main focus for many cruise lines these days is to attract passengers with glamorous onboard features, Azamara Club Cruises is hoping to entice guests with a new line of small, unique excursions.
With the introduction of the new Insider Access program, Azamara is offering guests unique and authentic personal experiences in each region. These tours allow visitors to get a behind-the-scenes look at a destination. They visit a variety of sites, from private homes and farms to villas and villages, offering guests the opportunity to meet local people and have one-on-one conversations with them.
“Travelers really cherish those people-to-people connections,” said Helen Panagos, director of global product development for parent company Royal Caribbean Cruise Line. “Sometimes, you make a friend for life, and sometimes you just have a memory of somebody you were able to connect with on that particular day.”
The new excursions are designed to take a group of eight to 10 people out of the tourist-packed crowds and give them a glimpse into the private lives of the local people in that destination.
Up in the hillside village of Gruda — at the very southernmost tip of Croatia, near Dubrovnik — Antonia Ruskovic Radonic, a well-known local artist, welcomes Inside Access guests into her gallery and apartment. Amid the walls, heavily adorned with her work of hand-painted silk, pottery and traditional Konavle embroidery, guests enjoy local brandy, sweet liqueurs and homemade wine. Radonic shares her stories of international exhibitions and raising silk worms (an integral part of making the region’s silk embroidery) and discusses the art of painting with watercolors. Guests are then welcome to try painting for themselves.
For an even more intimate experience, cruisers traveling to Florence, Italy, can visit the picturesque fortress town of Lucca. The city is famous for its sturdy Renaissance-era city walls. Guests can stroll along its charming cobbled lanes and venture out to its famous ramparts to enjoy magnificent views of the town’s architecture and surrounding countryside. Afterward, they will travel to the hillside villa built by Count Cosimo Bernardini in the 1700s, which served as a hunting retreat. His decedents still live there today, and a family member gives tours of the private home and its expansive gardens. Guests can sip wine as they hear stories of the family’s lineage, encompassing 12 generations, and its prominent role in the community.
For those interested in seeing the inside of a private historical home in the Netherlands, Insider Access offers a taste of Dutch hospitality. Guests share coffee and fresh baked apple pie with a local family in its 16th-century home. The hosts share stories and discuss the house’s distinctive decorative elements, including a painted ceiling and rare delft-blue tiles. This comes after a guided walking tour of Edam, a charming small town famous for the cheese that bears its name.
Agriturismo (rural farm vacations) and culinary tours are a big trend in today’s market, and Azamara’s Insider Access meets that demand with a Mozzarella from Farm to Table tour. After taking in a scenic drive along the Amalfi Coast, guests will visit a family-owned farm in the Pontecagnano region of Italy (port of Sorrento) to learn about the making of the area’s trademark Mozzarella di Bufala Campana cheese. The family cares for its 600 water buffalo and produces its mozzarella using traditional techniques. After a tour of the farm, guests are invited into the owner’s villa for cheese and conversation.
Throughout the many excursions offered, from chocolate-making workshops and eating home-cooked Scottish cuisine to learning about daily life at the Monastery of Evangelismos, Azamara creates opportunities for guests to sit down with locals. Rather than directing its resources to creating more luxurious amenities at sea, Azamara is offering increasingly distinctive experiences for its passengers on land.