I'm a bang-for-the-buck kinda gal: I like to know I've gotten my money's worth and usually opt for the bigger-the-better philosophy. As a veteran cruiser on mega ships with occasional forays into tiny sailing vessels, I never thought I was missing much by sidestepping the upscale yet small-scale ultra luxury vessels. Of course, with so many things, once you've had a taste of true luxury as I have onboard the recently refurbished Regent Seven Seas Mariner (www.rssc.com), it's hard to step back down to a lower standard, or in my case, step back onboard a jumbo mega ship packed with super-sized crowds and micro-mini staterooms.
The Mariner is a perfect mid-size, carrying just 700 passengers; staterooms are huge, and the fares are all-inclusive, covering open bar and gratuities. So when you're paying $300 to $600 per person a night for a Regent cruise (and more depending on when and where you cruise), you're really getting something for it.
With a recent $20-million-dollar facelift, this ship was redone from top to bottom, with only a few elements untouched (namely some of the wooden furnishings and carpeting). While I had not seen the ship in the past, those who did claimed that they barely recognized her. When I arrived in Fort Lauderdale a few weeks ago to sail for the first five days of a three-month-long world cruise, the first thing I noticed about the Mariner was her dainty size compared to other ships berthed in the harbor. With only 700 guests, I imagined the ship would feel small, but in fact, it was quite spacious while not being overwhelming. The second thing that struck me was that the palatial stateroom was bigger than my apartment; complete with balcony, living room, walk-in closet and full bathtub. In fact, every single cabin, no matter what the category, has a balcony, bathtub, sofa and walk-in closet. Even the toiletries were easily twice the size of those usually supplied in stateroom baths. Some of the master suites we were shown had balconies overlooking the bow of the ship, bathrooms with a toilet and bidet, and dining rooms with a full bar. I was impressed to say the least.
Once I was done marveling at the swivel flat-screen TV (where I could watch hundreds of movies in my living room or bedroom) and finished ogling my giant veranda, I ventured forth to gawk at the newly refurbished public spaces. The corridors and foyers were bathed in warm neutral hues and punctuated with velvety furniture reminiscent of a chic European hotel, and a far cry from the cacophonous carnival of colors commonplace on typical mega-ships.
Dinner in all three restaurants was a masterpiece, both in terms of the opulent presentation and the caliber of each dish. My favorite in the Compass Rose main dining room was a broiled sable fish with apple-onion compote. In the steakhouse Prime 7, you can't go wrong with the spicy crab cake, followed by the surf and turf, served with a la carte sides such as sautéed mushrooms and French fries in truffle oil. Last but not least was Signatures, where my scallop appetizer was served in dainty tea cups and my filet of halibut appeared over a bed of fresh spinach, with the two separated by a palate-cleansing pear sorbet. Even the lunch buffet, room service pizza, and chai latte in the coffee bar were truly striking. The stellar service -- void of tiresome drink or bar bills -- was sheer bliss to a tightwad like me, who bristles at being nickeled and dimed aboard those other ships.
When it came to relaxing, the pool deck was spacious though the pool lacked water slides, fountains or oh yeah, screaming kiddies. In fact, there was only one child on board. If there were kids on board, I thought I'd find them at the arts and crafts tables set up each afternoon we were at sea, but in this cruise it was just a handful of us and the two lovely crafts specialists who set up tables with watercolors, beading, needlepoint, and card making.
The islands we visited were nearly as opulent as the shipboard experience. Stepping ashore in St. Barts is like being on a movie set in France -- everyone is glamorous and chic and all the stores sell designer cloths that rival Fifth Avenue boutiques. Next stop was Dominica, whose bustling streets, Colonial architecture, and Caribbean feel provided an exhilarating contrast. If the urban scene is too much, this island is rife with natural beauty waiting to be explored, and most shore excursions capitalize on that aspect of the island's charm. Since the sand in Barbados, our last Caribbean destination, is silkier than baby powder, you have no choice but to walk, run or drive to any one of the dozens of nearby sandy spots and bask in that postcard perfect perfection.
If price is an issue, you're in luck, since the line is offering some good deals, including free airfare and shore excursions, and up to 50% off on early bookings. Check out some of the deals featured in the deals column this week, some as low as $300 per person a day.
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