As I step onboard Regent’s Seven Seas Explorer, I’m handed a glass of sparkling wine as my hand luggage is whisked away. I take in the magnificent lobby that features a 10-foot-wide chandelier, sparkling with 6,000 octagonal crystals, hanging above the staircase. It’s then that I realize this isn’t going to be an ordinary vacation.
Welcome to the world of luxury cruising.
Many people yearn for this kind of experience but balk at the price. Indeed, luxury cruising is more expensive than most voyages, but upon examining the differences, cruising on an all-inclusive, luxury vessel is more of a value than you’d think.
For starters, Regent Seven Seas Cruises offers free round-trip airfare for North American passengers, so getting to the vessel is easy. Check-in is friendly, fast, and effortless, and there certainly aren’t hordes of passengers jostling in line.
Virtually everything else is included as part of the cruise price. That means all dining, soft drinks, almost all alcohol — including 40 complimentary wines — ground transfers, entertainment, lectures and classes, nearly all shore excursions, port fees and taxes, and Wi-Fi is included in the prepaid price. Additionally, the fare includes prepaid gratuities for the staff, although passengers can tip at the end for exemplary services.
MEET THE SHIP
Seven Seas Explorer debuted about two years ago and has a capacity of only 750 guests and 552 crewmembers. That’s a 1.36 guest-to-crew ratio, a very high standard ensuring attentive service. There are 375 balcony suites, including a few that are so large, they look like fully furnished luxury apartments.
A fully stocked and replenished bar is in each suite. Usually, a cruise ship’s bar bill can add up to hundreds of dollars per person and can cause an unpleasant shock at the end of the voyage. Not with Regent. Plus, if the ample complimentary wine list doesn’t satisfy, just ask the friendly sommeliers to find other good wines for you at no charge. I tested them repeatedly on this point and they passed every time.
On the Seven Seas Explorer, each restaurant has a “private stock” of complimentary wines that go with the cuisine. For instance, the excellent Chartreuse Restaurant serves French cuisine (order escargot in Burgundy-Dijon sauce) and carries a few excellent Chablis wines not offered elsewhere. But if you ask, they can get a bottle sent to you in your suite or any other bar.
Chartreuse and Prime 7 steakhouse also have small bars. It’s a nice touch. Pull up a seat and enjoy a pre-dinner drink, even if you’re dining elsewhere that evening.
And as expected, dining venues are impressive. At Prime 7, sample the superb U.S.D.A. New York strip steak or the two-pound Alaskan king crab. Pacific Rim offers pan Asian cuisine, including a truly amazing fried lobster tempura. In the impressive Compass Rose main dining room, try the petite lamb chops.
Qualitatively, Seven Seas Explorer provides its passengers with a considerably higher class of accommodations, including luxurious bedding and bath products from L’Occitane, Guerlain, and Bottega Veneta. Carrera marble and stone surfaces are in each suites’ bathroom.
“My bathroom on the Regent Seven Seas Explorer was perhaps the finest bathroom available on a cruise ship, and certainly bigger and more luxurious than the one that I have at home,” said passenger Lucy Thomas of Los Angeles, Calif.
DAYS AT SEA
Meet fellow cruise guests in the various bars or attend a challenging daily game of trivia. Join a fun game of “Name that Tune” in the evenings.
Some of the ship’s activities will cost extra, including spa and beauty treatments, a few custom dining experiences, and onboard gambling.
Everyone can enjoy the ship’s gym and pool at no additional cost, but the Canyon Ranch SpaClub is a serene spot, with its healing waters, infinity pool, and calming interior. My excellent massage therapist cured my aching back.
I splurged and reserved the Connoisseur Wine Lunch ($169), which began with caviar and Dom Pérignon and got better from there. It was an unforgettable meal.
PORTS OF CALL
Another important attribute of luxury cruising is sailing aboard a smaller ship that can dock at undersized ports and get right into towns. This allows more time for exploring and less tendering, making the port-of-call experience more rewarding.
On my western Caribbean cruise from Miami, Fla., we were scheduled to call at St. Bart’s, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, Antigua, Martinique, and Great Stirrup Cay (Bahamas). Unfortunately, our voyage couldn’t stop at St. Bart’s due to rough seas, but the captain and crew quickly went to “Plan B.” They opened other dining spots, put on a well-attended bingo game, and held an impromptu wine tasting. I finished an entire book that afternoon in the library and loved it.
I took a tour of the little downtown on St. Kitts and walked around the port. I admired its multicolored houses, sharp green hills in the background, and warm people.
A few days later, we arrived at the island of Martinique, which is reminiscent of a little town on the French Riviera. The farmer’s market in Fort-de-France showed off arts and crafts, fresh fruits, and gorgeous linens. My favorite excursion was the tour of the Balata Gardens in Martinique combined with a stop at the Clements plantation distillery. The gardens were awe-inspiring and even though I’m not really a rum drinker, loved the smooth and smoky “Rum Clement” so much that I just had to take a bottle home.
For me, although interesting, the destinations visited in the Caribbean aren’t as important as the voyage itself. After all, you’re in your floating hotel suite and want to unwind, be decadent, and soak up this precious time away.
“It’s about the most beautiful ship I’ve ever been on,” said Pat Ano, from Beaufort, S.C. “It doesn’t feel crowded at all,” her husband, Harry, added. “We love the materials and the colors. It was a big draw to be on such a new ship.”
As the Seven Seas Explorer headed back to Miami, a delta winged frigate bird dipped and swayed alongside the stern in the balmy air. It looked so effortless, like sailing onboard this wonderful ship.
Bob Ecker is a contributor from Napa, Calif.