It's cool to be trendy, but sometimes it's cooler to buck the trend. In an era in which cruise ships and passenger loads practically require their own zip codes, along came Regent Seven Seas Cruises with a totally retro concept: Build medium-size ships with reduced passenger loads to foster service that's attentive and gracious in an onboard environment that's open and spacious. And, though Seven Seas Mariner was built in 2001, it has been kept in impeccable condition. (Regent regularly pours big money into its ships' upkeep; the latest refurb, in January 2009, saw the line spending over $20 million.)
RSSC's 50,000-ton Seven Seas Mariner is a perfect blend of ship -- both big enough to offer spacious, cruise-like amenities and small enough to feel cozy at the same time. With a double-occupancy capacity of 700, it sports a phenomenal passenger-to-space ratio of 71.43 (total tons divided by double-occupancy capacity) and a none-too-shabby passenger-to-crew ratio of 1.57. Is it pricey? Sure. But, take into account that even the bottommost accommodations are suites, and every cabin has a balcony; couple that with a firm no-tipping policy, and add into the mix that your fare now boasts an all-inclusive liquor policy and all-inclusive specialty restaurants. There's no doubt about it: If you can spring for the fare, you'll get a lot of bang for your buck.
There is much that is retro -- in a good sense -- about Seven Seas Mariner. The ship's main dining venue, Compass Rose, which recalls classic ship architecture, is a single-deck room, set squarely mid-ship. Another inheritance from earlier generations of passenger ships is the absence of a bar in the main entry lobby, even though the lobby sits at the bottom of a very modern eight-deck atrium. Instead, Mariner has an intimate, deeply carpeted, softly lit lounge set off the foyer, between the atrium and Compass Rose. The result? The reception area remains quiet and uncrowded, and it's a comfortable place to relax or rendezvous with fellow passengers.
The style of the ship is classic, without being a self-conscious imitation of the past -- sophisticated without pretense. Service is prompt and, for the most part, gracious and warm. Passengers are well-traveled and have many experiences to share without drifting into braggadocio.
Interestingly, Seven Seas Mariner is one of the few luxury ships to genuinely welcome families, offering heartfelt warmth and, during kids' school breaks in summer, a dedicated children's program.
There are, of course, a few glitches, but these rise only as high as quibble level. For a luxury ship, there is a surprising lack of quality art displayed in public rooms and hallways. Instead, with the main exceptions of restaurant walls and a multi-deck sculpture that climbs the atrium, the walls mainly bear samples from Park West's art auction inventory. And, in a relatively new move, Regent Seven Seas has abolished its on-ship photography service. While that means there are no cheerful requests to pose for pictures at the most inconvenient times, it also means you'll be toting a camera.
Michelin may give a maximum of three stars to restaurants, but in our book, Mariner rates almost a perfect five. Meals invariably came out piping hot, deliciously prepared and beautifully presented. Mariner's cuisine shows deeply planted French roots, though only the alternative restaurant, Signatures, claims the Cordon Bleu pedigree. Emphasis is on finely tuned, delicate flavoring and larger numbers of small-portion courses.
Compass Rose, the main dining room, is an airy, comfortable space, stretching the full width of the ship and offering plenty of space between tables. Service there, with the exception of turnaround days, when waiters and weary travelers in equal measure tend to run short on patience, is superlative. Seating is open, as are the doors, typically from 7 until 9 p.m. Passengers may choose from three options: dine alone, dine with tablemates of their choosing or sit with strangers.
All three meals are served in Compass Rose, and all are ordered from a menu. Although Compass Rose offers specialties like Swedish pancakes and lamb chops, breakfast there is not very different from La Veranda's breakfast on Deck 11. But lunches, like dinners, have a wide range of choices that reflect multiple nationalities. A single lunch, for example, included dishes from Mexico, Norway, Argentina, Italy, France, Greece, Denmark and Germany. Selections from the main menu are flagged for a fixed "Light & Healthy" menu, and there are always vegetarian, salad, sandwich and pasta choices.
Dinner is where Compass Rose truly shines. Each night features both red and white selections from the ship's extensive wine list, poured gratis, though passengers may purchase bottles of other vintages, as well. Main dinner selections include an appetizer, soup, a salad, pasta and a main course. Generally, there are two or three choices for each (except for the single pasta dish), which are followed by cheeses, after-dinner drinks and desserts. Most intriguing, however, is the nightly, six-course degustation (tasting) menu. In addition to the categories on the main menu, this special menu includes dessert and palate-cleansing sherbet courses. Few, if any, choices are repeated between the two menus, but, of course, mixing and matching is allowed.
In addition, dinner features four specialty menus: "Low Carb, Light & Healthy," "Vegetarian" (lacto- and ovo-appropriate), "No Added Salt" and "Simplicity" (pasta with tomato sauce, plain steak, chicken breast or salmon). One minor complaint is the surprising lack of quality coffee onboard. A children's menu -- which includes the typical burgers, pizza and hot dogs -- is available during the Alaska season.
La Veranda, the breakfast and lunch buffet eatery, is a large, pleasant space that occupies nearly the entire aft half of the Pool Deck. There is room for outdoor seating for about 50 under a canopy on the fantail -- another nice retro aspect, reminding us of days aboard the classic ocean liners, where eating breakfast and drinking coffee outside with an open view of sea or port was the norm. There is additional outdoor seating forward of La Veranda, near the pool, and plenty of comfortable seating inside on both port and starboard sides of the ship. There are complimentary buffet lines in the aft area of the room and a separate counter for self-serve pizza on the portside, as well as a pair of omelet stations.
Adjacent to La Veranda's forward, outdoor-eating area are two grill areas, which (at sunrise) serve a crack-of-dawn "Fitness First" breakfast -- a combination of fruit, pastries and do-it-yourself juices (juice makers with platters of fruits and vegetables). Beyond that, there are two stations where eggs are cooked to order. The cold-cut selection is extensive, ranging from various cheeses and meats to gravlax (salmon).
During both breakfast and lunch, the ambience is gracious and elegant, featuring white linen and sterling tableware. It's barely necessary to even pick up your plate since there's always a server standing by to help you to your table. Even the omelet chef hand-carries your eggs to the table. Just remember your table number before going to make your order.
At night, La Veranda dons the mantle of Mediterranean Bistro (or the Alaskan Grill Lodge, Mariner's casual, alternative restaurant on Alaska sailings). Each night in this no-reservations-required dining area, a different Mediterranean cuisine (or a selection of Alaskan seafood and grilled meats) is featured. The appetizer course is a fairly unchanging tapas (Spanish hors d'oeuvres) bar, followed by varying regional dishes, which are ordered from the menu.
There are two other alternative dining venues aboard Mariner. The 100-seat Signatures has the distinction of being one of two Cordon Bleu restaurants at sea. (The other is, of course, Regent Seven Seas' Seven Seas Voyager.) This is, perhaps, the only restaurant afloat that always requires gentlemen to wear jackets. The menu has basically stayed the same for years. For my meal, I started with scallops in herb oil, spring onions and mashed potatoes. For my second appetizer, I ordered foie gras terrine with prune marmalade. (The famous mushroom soup here is delicious, too.) For the main course, I tried the very tender beef tournedos Rossini. You may be surprised that there was any room left for dessert, but a "why not" attitude prevailed, and I'm glad it did. The Tahitian creme brulee was, perhaps, the best dessert I had onboard.
Equally popular is the intimate, 70-seat Prime 7 steakhouse. The menu features steaks and seafood. (Try the ahi tuna tartar or jumbo lump crab cake starters.) I actually chose a meal consisting of starters, including foie gras with rhubarb, which was nice; the entrees are pretty huge. All beef products served are U.S.D.A.-approved, and the menu includes Prime New York Strip, Prime Porterhouse (carved tableside, by the way), Prime Fillet Mignon (6- or 10-ounce) and surf-and-turf. There's also lobster, New Zealand lamb chops, pork, veal and a half chicken (cooked and served on an iron skillet). Sides include baked potatoes, creamed spinach, truffle fries and Lyonaise potatoes. Regent Seven Seas' famous, 14-layer cake is on the dessert menu, but how can anyone possibly still have room?
Not unexpectedly, Signatures and Prime 7 top everyone's dining wish list, so it makes a great deal of sense to book reservations early in the cruise. Reservations can be made directly with each specialty restaurant when open, through the Compass Rose's maitre d' or through the butler in upper-category suites. There is no additional charge for these alternative dining restaurants, but dining may be limited to one reservation per week to allow all passengers to experience them.
During breakfast and lunch times, there is also another alternative. Coffee Connection serves pastries, fruit and cold cuts, as well as cottage cheese from 6:30 until 10 a.m. and again offers snacks from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m.
There is a separate menu for 24-hour room service, which offers everything from sandwiches and pizza to burgers and pasta. During dinner hours, guests may also order room service from the Compass Rose dinner menu. Menus for all dining venues are broadcast daily on in-suite televisions.
The location of Mariner's public rooms mirrors its classic attributes and casual elegance. While some contemporary ships have ramped up the numbers and winnowed down the sizes of their lounges, Mariner's lounges return to the basics: a main show lounge; a secondary activities and entertainment room; a top-deck, panoramic observation lounge; a disco/nightclub; and a "rendezvous" lounge, next to the main dining room, for pre-dinner drinks, hors d'oeuvres and conversation.
One of our favorite areas on the ship is the Coffee Connection coffee bar; it's adjacent to the airy and well-stocked library, which includes videos and board games, as well as books. One nice touch (though you would expect this of a luxury ship) is that nothing is locked away in the library, so it is possible to have access to any of its materials, night and day, without needing crewmember assistance. Here, you'll also find a 24-hour, self-serve coffee/espresso/cappuccino machine, which comes in handy when the coffee bar isn't manned. Also offered are trays of mini-pastries at breakfast time, finger sandwiches in the late morning and cookies at all hours. In keeping with Seven Seas Mariner's inclusive policy, Coffee Connection beverages and treats are available at no extra charge.
The Internet cafe is also located there. Internet access, offered from stem to stern, costs between 25 and 55 cents per minute, depending on the plan you purchase. Service is, of course, slower than you'd find on land, but it worked well enough on our recent trip. Make sure you log off when you're done, or you will eat up your minutes, even if you close your browser or turn off your computer. There is also roaming access for mobile phones.
Adjacent is the Garden Promenade, along whose windows passengers can gather for games, reading or -- an idea that charmed us -- participation in communal jigsaw puzzles. (The cruise staff puts out an unassembled puzzle, and passersby usually yield to the temptation to "just put in one piece." As soon as the puzzle is completed, it disappears, and a new one takes its place.)
All of Mariner's rooms are at least 301 square ft., every one of them a suite with an extra-large teak balcony, walk-in (or -through) closet and an unobstructed view. The decor is predominantly gold and burnt orange with beautiful cherry wood cabinets. Trim in the bathrooms is marble. All accommodations include balconies (with padded chaises and small tables), bathrooms (shower-only set-ups in most suites), robes, hair dryers, flat-screen TV/DVD combos, refrigerators, safes, telephones and bath products.
The largest suites measure 2,002 square ft., and those in the top seven categories (Penthouse, Category B and above -- approximately 18 percent of the total) include butler service. Besides handling dining reservations and delivering nightly hors d'oeuvres and room service orders, butlers duplicate some of the functions of cabin stewardesses and handle shore excursion bookings and concierge services. In short, they serve as 24/7 point persons for passenger requests. In addition, the butler takes special requests, such as one of ours: setting up a private, sunset Champagne and caviar service on our balcony one evening.
For those who don't have butler service, cabin stewardesses provide exceptional service with a smile, minus some of the extra bells and whistles.
There are 13 channels on the in-suite televisions. Channel 1 features the day's menus from each of the restaurants. Channels 2 and 3 are for the bridge cam (along with public address system announcements) and GPS/Nautical/Weather information, respectively. Two additional channels offer rebroadcasts of onboard presentations (port talks, enrichment lectures, etc.), and one channel offers documentaries on ports and shore excursions. There are three channels devoted to closed-circuit movies. Four channels carry satellite or local television broadcasts (CNN and Fox, Sports, TNT movies and CNBC Financial). A caveat: Availability of networks does vary with the ship's location.
All suites have small refrigerators, but these are not set up as mini-bars in the conventional sense. They contain water, soft drinks and beer, but because the ship now provides complimentary drinks in its bars, there are no longer bars set up in the suites. In addition to tending to the suite's drink requirements, the butler or stewardess also refills the fruit basket with fresh fruit each morning (even if the fruit is untouched).
There are six staterooms designated for handicapped passengers. Several stateroom bathrooms also have shower stalls without bathtubs, which might be preferable to taller passengers or those who have difficulty climbing over high tub walls.
Self-service laundry facilities (located on Decks 8, 9 and 10) are available at no extra charge.
Though mature by chronological standards, this is hardly a ship of old fogies. Passengers are well-traveled, sophisticated and, for the most part, tolerant and patient. Affluent retirees form a substantial percentage, especially on longer itineraries. Most passengers are repeaters. On Alaska cruises, you'll find that 10 to 20 percent are families, traveling with children of all ages.
Relatively inexpensive single supplements of 10 to 30 percent are available on selected sailings, as well.
|Fitness and Recreation|
Seven Seas Mariner's fitness center and spa are located on Deck 7. The spa, operated by Carita of Paris, includes a salon that offers full-service hair, manicure, pedicure and waxing services. The adjacent spa offers a sauna and steam bath, facials (from $60 to $185) and a range of body treatments and massages, including reflexology, Shiatsu and Swedish massages and aromatherapy (from $60 to $195). In-suite massages can also be booked ($120 for 50 minutes). While the spa is smaller and not quite as luxurious or private as those on some other lines, we appreciated the variety of treatments and also the fact that, quite counter to spas operated on other lines' luxury ships, there's no odious sales pitch at the end.
The nearby fitness facility, open from 6 a.m. until 7 p.m., has an adequate number of machines, although it feels cramped, dark and crowded -- particularly during early-morning workouts, when lines are not uncommon. Complimentary headsets and water bottles are provided, and mini-televisions are available on the treadmills and cross-trainers.
There are a number of organized physical activities and classes taught on the top deck (Deck 12) or in the fitness center's aerobics room, available to passengers at no additional charge. Deck 12 is also home to the ship's jogging track (eight circuits to the mile), though it is not marked clearly as such. At the aft end of Deck 12 are a paddle tennis court and golf driving cages. The pool area has a main pool and three whirlpools. More-than-adequate seating can be found there and in the additional sunning area on Deck 12.
In fall, winter and spring, Seven Seas Mariner is, without question, an adult ship; there is little to occupy children, and there are no kids' facilities. However, during the summer months, the ship's Alaska itineraries really are marketed to families. Editor's Note: While the ship, overall, garners a family-friendly rating of 3, it's important to note that the Alaska offerings bump that particular score to a 4.
Some Alaska sailings offer both a Club Mariner kids program for the follow age groups: 5 - 8, 9 - 12 and 13-17. There's also an innovative Ambassadors of the Environment (AOTE) program, run by Jean-Michel Cousteau's Ocean Futures Society, a non-profit organization.
The program features onboard activities that teach kids about totem polls, marine mammals and glaciers and focus on cultural activities like making native, Alaskan bread and nature-watching. Each sailing features one AOTE-organized shore excursion (on our trip, a raptors' sanctuary in Sitka). The cost of the program is $165 per child, and the off-ship tour is included.
Club Mariner, the ship's more mainstream kids' program, is fee-free. Activities include board games, card games, outdoor sports, native Alaskan arts and crafts projects and theme nights that have included "Alaskan Olympics" or "Survivor." Youth dinners are offered every night in Alaska, except on the cruise's first evening and when docked in Juneau.
One challenge is that the two programs often occur simultaneously; some schedule-juggling may be necessary.
In-cabin babysitting can be arranged, but there are no structured group arrangements. Seven Seas Mariner can't accommodate infants younger than one year old and won't accept reservations from women who will be more than six months pregnant by the end of their cruise.
For the remainder of 2009, evening dress will either be formal, informal or country-club casual; check your cruise documents for the exact number of each night. Beginning with the New Year's 2009-2010 cruise, the dress code will almost always be elegant casual after 6 p.m. Skirts or slacks paired with blouses or sweaters, pant suits or dresses are acceptable for ladies, while men should wear slacks and collared shirts. Sport jackets are optional; jeans, T-shirts, baseball caps, shorts, sneakers and bathrobes are not allowed in any public area in the evening. In addition, cruises of 16 nights or longer will have two formal optional nights, when passengers can either wear elegant casual attire or opt for a more formal look (gowns, cocktail dresses, dark suits or tuxedos).
No tipping ambiguity here. Tipping, though not prohibited, is not expected and is certainly not encouraged. Most passengers seem to take the policy at face value.
Unlike many cruise lines, where days between ports are chock full of overlapping -- and sometimes conflicting -- activities, daytime events are lightly scheduled, even on sea days. Early activities include computer classes, enrichment lectures by outside specialists and bridge lectures by onboard experts, as well as daily art auctions and film screenings in Constellation Theater, Seven Seas Mariner's main show lounge.
New in 2009 is the intriguing "Dinner and a Show." This consists of a gourmet meal in Signatures restaurant, followed by an intimate, cabaret-style performance in the Horizon Lounge. Following the meal, passengers adjourn to the redesigned Horizon Lounge for the evening show. To date, these have consisted of special performances from Broadway's Tony Award-winning show, "Forbidden Broadway," as well as "The Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein," presented by singer/pianist Bobby Nesbitt and Friends. Future "Dinner and a Show" entertainers scheduled to perform include Broadway star KT Sullivan, Australian Mo Award-winning singer Rhonda Burchmore, New York cabaret star Jeff Hamar, actress and singer Susan Anton and, direct from Buenos Aires, "Tango e Tango." As with all entertainment aboard the ships of Regent Seven Seas Cruises, there is no additional charge for "Dinner and a Show." However, reservations are required for this exclusive evening.
Teatime in the Horizon Lounge is a hugely popular afternoon diversion, brightened by expansive views from the picture windows aft and to either side and punctuated by the daily cluster of activities (including bingo and trivia quizzes, neither of which ever take place in the morning or early afternoon hours). We initially found this bottom- and top-heavy arrangement of typical onboard pastimes to be curious, especially on sea days, but once adjusted to it, we came to appreciate its low-key, non-frenetic pacing.
A small casino offers craps, roulette, slots, table poker and a small number of blackjack tables. The casino's hours are surprisingly limited, with tables open for only about four hours during the day, even on sea days. Tables reopen at 9 p.m. for evening play. It was generally not crowded.
On our sailing, musical entertainers included a harpist, a pianist and a vocal duo, which rotated through the various lounges at various times of day. The show lounge orchestra also contributed to the live music experience.
Constellation Theater, the main show lounge, is one of the best designed we've seen. On two levels, but with the balcony pushed far enough back to reduce the number of obscuring columns, it has nearly perfect sightlines; there are few, if any, bad seats. A combination of banquettes and comfortable chairs are arranged in a manner that allows ample room for audience members to easily navigate to their seats and to stretch their legs once seated. Nightly entertainment is comprised of three production shows, alternating with the usual comics, singers, instrumentalists and movie nights.
The shore excursion department gets high praise. There is very little hype or pressure to purchase the line's offerings. There is also plenty of support for independent-minded passengers to find their own way, including well-rendered maps, suggestion lists and video presentations on in-suite television. Shore excursion personnel are knowledgeable and helpful, and most excursions include one crewmember to monitor and assist.
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