Seven Seas Mariner: The Long Cruise Challenge

It used to be Radisson Seven Seas. Now the company has changed to Regent, but more on that later. As far as the product is concerned, by either name it's a truly luxurious experience. On a recent 20-night cruise from Buenos Aires around Cape Horn to Peru, I had a chance to indulge myself, especially as there were several scenic days at sea.

The Seven Seas Mariner offers some very strong features. The all-suite, all-balcony configuration appeals to an upscale group. The entry-level suite is very comfortable at 252 sq. ft. plus a 49 sq. ft. balcony. For more space, larger suites get as big as 1,204 sq. ft., with two balconies totaling 798 sq. ft. Second, at 48,015 gross registered tons and only 700 guests, the space ratio with a full ship is 69 -- one of the highest in the industry.

Open-seating dining works superbly, as it does on Mariner, when there are enough seats in the combined venues to sit everyone at once, when and with whom they want. Reservations are needed at two of the four dining rooms for dinner, but on this longer trip there didn't seem to be a problem getting one; and only at peak hours in the other two did any guests have to wait even a couple of minutes. In addition, the cruise fare covers all tips as well as the excellent wines served at dinner -- nice touches to be sure.

The Long Cruise Challenge On a long cruise such as this, consider some of the challenges Regent faces when it is selling the trip as four segments of a 62-night circumnavigation of South America. On this 20-night leg, there were 574 guests on board; that was about the same for each four segments of the full trip. I learned that 168 passengers were on for the full cruise, the rest for one or more segments. Moreover, 68 of those were on last year's RSSC world cruise. Naturally, the largest numbers of guests were from the U.S. -- about 80 percent. Fifty-seven were from the U.K., 14 from France, 13 from Germany and the rest from 21 various countries.

The challenge is this: How do you feed, entertain and provide shore excursions for such a group over a long period, without repeating things or becoming boring? It takes a lot of thinking and innovation, and I was quite impressed by RSSC's performance.

Dining In the dining area, the main restaurant, Compass Rose, did not repeat a menu -- not even any of the entrées or appetizers (except traditional things always available such as a shrimp cocktail). They always managed to come up with variations in terms of accompanying ingredients and presentation to keep things interesting. In Latitudes, one of the two reservations-only alternative restaurants, the theme is now Indochine, with lots of Southeast Asian items. But the menu was varied during the cruise, so it never got stale. Food here is served family-style (in a very classy way - even the dishes are beautiful) and the taste-sensation is excellent.

Compass Rose Restaurant

Signatures, the other reservations-only alternative restaurant, is the Cordon Bleu dining venue. For those who like top-notch French cuisine, it's great. On two consecutive nights when I went to Signatures and Latitudes, I had the chicken soup. One was Vietnamese style, the other was a "cappuccino" style. Both were sensational, and you would not guess they were made with a chicken base. The daytime buffet restaurant, La Veranda, becomes a casual café at night, where guests select their salad and dessert items from a buffet and the wait-staff brings soup and the main course. This cruise featured a variety of menus: Argentinean dishes, a steakhouse, Chilean flavors and an all-encompassing buffet on a scenic sailing night.

Signature Restaurant

Entertainment For entertainment, the most prolific group was the production team's four singers and six dancers. But gone is the day when the leads could only stand around and sing. This may have been the most talented group, top to bottom, I have seen in the last five years. Their range was from Broadway to rock 'n roll and more. It's amazing what raw talent, some choreography and a bit of staging can do to enliven what is occasionally demeaned as passé. They performed four complete production shows, and then segments for other evenings. The Beatles review and the rock 'n roll show were the best of that sort I have seen.

The cruise director and the assistant cruise director were also very talented and helped create greater variety. Along the way, cabaret acts -- three singers, a magician/comedian, a guitarist and a flutist -- appeared at least twice each. For themed entertainment, there was a two-brother gaucho act and a late afternoon tango/folkloric show in Buenos Aires, and a troupe of 40 Chilean folk singers/dancers that came on board in Valparaiso. The production team helped stage a British Pub Night, a Western Night and a mystery Sherlock Holmes musical game. In addition, the two excellent guest lecturers were a former Managing Director of the Falklands - boy, did he have some stories - and Jean-Michel Cousteau, a very firm advocate of saving our seas. Regent's resident destination expert gave several talks on the historic and cultural aspects of the ports we visited.

The Extras But the quality of the experience involved more than just the standard cruise features. The officers' welcome-aboard presentation, usually quite ho-hum, was done differently than I've ever seen, and was very enjoyable. So were the farewell Captain's presentation and the cruise-ending crew show. I won't go into details about what they did (who knows what competitors may be lurking), but they seemed to reflect a sense of innovative thinking in corporate headquarters as well as on board. Well done!

Officers and crew aboard Radisson Seven Seas Mariner

On Shore For shore excursions, the challenge was putting together enough options for this very well-traveled group to keep them interested. It's not easy when you visit these ports only once a year, and have no real control over what's going to happen. But every tour I took was well handled, with clean, comfortable transportation. When one of two buses broke down on a very steep, dirt mountain road, re-arrangements were quickly made, keeping guest dissatisfaction to a minimum. Many of the ports on this cruise were not names that roll off the tongue of most travelers. They weren't really much in themselves, but they served as the gateway to so much. On a shorter cruise, many people stay away from itineraries with no-name places; but when they are part of a circumnavigation of a continent, you have to go with the flow. And it's worth it. For the scenic highlights of the cruise -- including Cape Horn and the Chilean Fjords -- the destination specialist provided well-informed commentary from the bridge to tell us what we were seeing.

As I mentioned at the top, the corporate name of the cruise line has been changed from Radisson to Regent, properly identifying it as part of the parent company's luxury hotel division. The company has announced many changes that will take place over the coming months. Modifications to the already excellent suites -- such as new comforters and Egyptian cotton linens, new mattresses, cashmere throws, soft bathrobes and towels, and Regent luxury bathroom amenities -- will be part of a multi-million dollar investment; lots more is scheduled to be done. Now, if they would just go to double odds at the mini-craps table.

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