One of the cruise industry’s most charismatic characters, Steve Odell, moved back to Sydney mid-2015 and quickly raised Australasian awareness of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NCL), of which he is SVP/MD Asia Pacific.
Without a second’s hesitation I switched cruise allegiance (anything that is good enough for Steve is more than good enough for this inveterate traveller). Coming to the end of my first NCL cruise with two more already signed up just shows how pleased I am.
I have long felt there is nothing better than sailing away over Christmas, and the lovely thing about Regent Seven Seas, one of NCL’s top-tier luxury vessels, is that Christmas is tasteful. There are a couple of understated Christmas trees and a few strands of tinsel, but none of that ghastly Jingle Bells music. I am on board Seven Seas Mariner. It is sheer luxury, for those who want to escape sock-it-to-you commercialism. Of course, there are standard features common to all cruising. Before the ship even leaves the port of Miami there is the compulsory safety drill, and once sailing away, there are those who want to start downing the Jacquart or another bubbly (the glasses in some restaurants are Riedel, but sensibly poolside glasses are plastic, though you can hardly tell).
Seven Seas Mariner is absolutely gorgeous, 15 years old but meticulously maintained. She carries 700 passengers on eight guest decks. Up on the 12th deck there is putting and two golf nets, and a full-sized tennis court and quoits. The gym is enormous, with a studio for spinning-for-10 and an ace fitness instructor, Slavi, one of three Serbs among the 446-strong crew from 40 countries. I quickly make myself at home. My daily routine starts with pre-dawn trekking round and round the jogging circuit, which is fine when the weather allows but is really ghastly when it rains, but who cares?
By midday, the entire deck area around the pool and three Jacuzzis hums with activity. Seven Seas is so inclusive that most tours are all-in, too (as someone said, yes, you pay up front but, once on board, you never need to spend a cent, unless you head for the boutique, the casino or the spa). You also seem to be able to eat and drink anything, and wherever and whenever you like, but more of that later. What does this ship not have, you might ask? Well, it does not do formal nights, although some men do bring dinner jackets, and actually most women dress quite stylishly every evening.
You generally do not see the officers eating in the buffet restaurant at breakfast or lunch, but they do host tables, in an informal and low-key way, at dinner. The first night on board I was lucky enough to have a table at Prime 7, the steakhouse that is so good it would give any luxury hotel’s Wolfgang Puck CUT or other carnivore theatre a run for its money, and, honestly, Prime 7’s truffle fries are as world-pinnacle as the onion rings at Le Grand InterContinental in Bordeaux, especially when paired with the Meritage Mondavi 2015 that the sommelier suggested that night. When I told the ship’s GM, Anatoli Makaev, how great the food is he just beamed.
The itinerary on this voyage starts with Key West FL – where I alight for lunch at the two recently-flagged Waldorf Astorias – and Cozumel, which gives me a chance to see the franchised InterContinental Presidente, and catch up with the father of Californian cuisine, Jeremiah Tower, who has been living on this island for the last decade. We go on to Costa Maya, where the free tours include masses of Chacchoben and other Mayan ruins. Next comes Belize City, for more Mayan ruins at Xunantunich, and Santo Tomás de Castilla, for a Guatemalan rainforest hike in Las Escobas Springs Reserve. Honduras’ Roatán Island offered an introduction to local dancing and then, bliss, we had a day at sea. At Costa Rica’s Puerto Limón I took a century-old train through a banana forest, and a serene boat ride through mangrove swamps. At Colón, the Panama Canal was the big draw, and I learned to kayak. In Cartagena I visited this stunning Colombian city’s heritage hotel, Sofitel Legend Santa Clara, and its newest hostelry, Hyatt Regency Cartagena, opened a month ago. Next, another day at sea, followed by Grand Cayman, which for me was not duty-free shopping, but lunch at the stunning beach-set Kimpton Seafire Resort + Spa, opened 15 November 2016. Now, our final day at sea, with nearly everyone on board packing for tomorrow’s disembarkation, though there are such onboard activities as demonstrations of ice carving and a National Geographic talk on Putin.
Every day for what will be, tomorrow, two weeks, I have watched the sun coming up over the horizon, which is always such a gorgeous sight at sea. Seven Seas Mariner‘s 350 suites are all complete with balconies, with the interior sizes starting at 27 square metres; Penthouse Suites, with 34-square-metre interiors, seem like double the size of most lines’ cabins; and there is so much storage that few can need all the drawers or all the coat hangers that are provided. Toiletries are Guerlain or Hermès, and there are Illy Francis Francis espresso machines.
Art in suites are, like the wallhangings around the ship, oil slapped on with a palate knife to give a feeling of nature. I think the piece above my bedhead would look like Cape Cod, were I American, or Norfolk, to someone from England. Beds are really comfortable and there are fibre optic reading lights, and European and US sockets, either side. Someone has thought of the customer, throughout. I had the great pleasure of lunching with Jason Montague, on boarding: he is the accountant who got into the cruise industry and became President and CEO of Regent Seven Seas this last September.
He listens, and he always wants to make things better. Luxury, he says, starts with the first telephone call to plan a trip, and he wants the world to know that his ships are for those who love luxury, who like interesting destinations, and appreciate exquisite food and service. Luxury is also having a work force that knows how to communicate with consumers – the 450 working aboard this ship are amazing at remembering names and idiosyncrasies and, bliss oh bliss, the butlers never get in the way.
Interestingly, the Captain is an Italian woman, Serena Melani, who apparently, when ashore, loves riding pillion on her husband’s motorbike. She is pretty extraordinary, not only for showing the distaff side of ship management, but for her general people skills. Instead of the industry-norm welcome cocktail, when passengers sit firmly in armchairs in a ship’s theatre and hardly meet anyone, here there is a ‘block party’. Take a glass from your suite and go out on to your corridor, where staff offer red and white wines and you meet your new neighbours, and the captain and officers manage to pass along all the corridors, a brilliant idea (luxury hotels, or at least resorts with long-stay guests, might think of devising something similar). And on more than one day, when coming back on the tender from yet another well-organised trip ashore, there was the Captain herself welcoming everyone back home.
What else has made this cruise outstanding? A restaurant manager who always brings out a cushion for my husband’s back, the sommelier in the outstanding steakhouse Prime 7 who knows my favourite wine, the decent books in the library (I recommend Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, to everyone, regardless of gender), trivia points that can be redeemed for something you really want, professional evening entertainment…. and yes, the Captain’s farewell, an immaculately directed production opened and closed by the Captain, with a video from all back-of-house departments, live acts from Filipino, Indonesian and Thai staff members, and as many of the crew as possible coming on stage to wave farewell.
I, like many of the Australians already hooked, will be back – next for me is Havana, this April.
Mary Gostelow travels over 300 days a year, doing one-night stands in top hotels around the world. Read her daily travelogue, www.girlahead.com