Sign Up for Our Monthly Cruise Newsletter
In the age of the rock-star chef and real housewives of most major cities, could it be time for captains and cruise directors to gather a fan base of their own? This question was top-of-mind last year when I sailed along the Adriatic coast onboard Azamara Club Cruises’ Azamara Quest.
I discovered a good cruise captain does more than just steer the ship. He helps set the course for a great experience for all his passengers.
“This ship is our home, and we treat our passengers like guests in our home,” said Jose Vilarinho, captain of the 686-room ship.
A warm and charismatic man, Vilarinho was often seen around the ship rather than aloft in the bridge. His friendly smile and approachable demeanor made it easy for passengers to say hello and ask questions. To make his guests feel welcome, he often hosts dinners with a group of randomly selected cruisers at a side table.
Hailing from Los Angeles, I know the buzz people get from a celebrity sighting — and that was often what I saw from my fellow passengers as the captain or Russ Grieve, his equally affable cruise director, strolled by. More than once I was told that some guests had selected their cruise based on when Vilarinho and Grieve were onboard.
My first experience with this dynamic duo came when we anchored in the Mediterranean port of Kotor, Montenegro. This medieval village sits at the base of steep limestone bluffs, and visitors can trek up 1,350 stairs on the city’s fortress walls to the Castle of San Giovanni for a spectacular view of the surrounding bay and the city below. As a tradition, Vilarinho and Grieve make the climb whenever they are in port and invite any interested guests to join them.
A group of roughly 80 passengers and I took them up on their offer of what was essentially a free port excursion. Grieve, Vilarinho and a collection of other crewmembers offered ample encouragement as we hiked up the steps. Once we reached the summit, they happily posed for pictures with their cruisers-turned-fans.
This casual, impromptu-style of city touring continued when we reached Dubrovnik, Croatia. This time, Grieve led cruise passengers through the streets of the old city, past all the major sights and street markets to a small, quaint cafe overlooking the sea. Then he bought everyone a round of drinks. Having done a fair amount of cruising, I often feel nickel-and-dimed at the end of the cruise — this, however, was the exact opposite.
This relaxed, come-as-you-are atmosphere complements Azamara’s night tours and overnight stays, which aim to immerse guests in a destination. Bespoke AzAmazing Evenings offer passengers additional in-depth cultural experiences.
Event options include a romantic evening on a hillside in Tuscany, Italy, with a live performance by three tenors or red-carpet treatment before a ballet at Mikhailovsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia. The brand’s feel is much like a country club: casually elegant without all the fuss of tuxedos and formal gowns.
With all gratuities included, along with beer, wine, bottled water, soft drinks, specialty coffees and teas, I enjoyed never having to worry about a tip (except at the spa).
I took full advantage of the suite guests’ privilege of afternoon cream tea delivered to my room by an English-trained butler. It was a special treat I scheduled in between keeping an eye on the load of clothes I had going at the self-service laundry. The free shuttle service Azamara provides to and from ports was also a big help.
Onboard, I embraced the advantages of the smaller ship size, smirking as I sashayed past the long lines of megaship passengers waiting to be ferried back and forth on tenders in the smaller ports. My favorite part of the cruise came when we landed in Venice for an extended two-day stay.
I bumped into Captain Vilarinho one last time here. He was having dinner in the city with his wife and two daughters, and I felt again what a genuine host he is to all his guests.
Occupancy:686 (double occupancy)
Crew:408 officers, crew and staff
Renovated:$7 million in 2012
2015 Vilarinho and Grieve Cruises:July 4 - Aug. 1 Oct. 19 - Nov. 3