On a warm mid-May morning, I found myself sipping an Aperol Spritz while gorging on local cheeses, fresh rosemary and olive focaccia in Portovenere, dubbed the sixth village of the Cinque Terre. Refueled, I climbed the slopes of the village, passing skinny pastel-hued houses before stopping at the 12th-century striped church of Chiesa di San Pietro, built on the ruins of a Roman temple dedicated to the love godess. It is here that local opera singers, resplendent in sapphire blue robes, regale passengers and locals alike with familiar tunes in front of a towering grand piano.

Indeed, everywhere I wandered in this pretty paintbox village set against wooded hills – whether to Byron’s Cave (local lore holds that the 19th century English poet enjoyed swimming in the creek) or a cobbled lane lined with quaint pasta shops – I came across similar delights: surprises, brought to life by Azamara.

These so-called “AzAmazing Days” are the result of the cruise line’s commitment to “immersion” – creating experiences to take passengers into the heart of a destination. As part of this philosophy, its smaller ships also spend more time in port, often including a late departure or even an overnight stay, so passengers can get a good feel for where they are. A stopover on board my ship, Onward – the newest addition to Azamara’s fleet – meant that I found myself with plenty of time to travel by boat along the spectacular cliff-lined Ligurian coast, past the five historic villages that make up the Cinque Terre in all their dazzling splendour.

This authentic part of the coast is reserved for small vessels

At Vernazza, a succession of brightly colored houses clinging to the hillside, I stopped for a perfect cappuccino at a waterside taverna in the main square while admiring the lemon-colored church and watching the boats up and down on azure water. May turned out to be the perfect time to visit – the sun was warm while tourist levels were still low – and it felt like I had the little place all to myself. Not your typical cruise experience, but not your typical cruise.