Commitment to passenger satisfaction includes 2007 upgrades to three ships; the significance of Regent's "string theory."
What can a mere piece of string tell you about a cruise line?
Quite a bit. The piece of string was something I marveled at during a recent Baltic cruise aboard Regent Seven Seas Cruises' 700-passenger, all-balcony-suite Seven Seas Voyager. It was in the bathroom, inside a cabinet under the sink, and it told me just how much thought the line puts into its passenger amenities.
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|Penthouse Bathroom||Penthouse Bedroom|
The bathroom had a wastebasket mounted to the inside of the cabinet door, so when you opened the door, the wastebasket would swing out for easy access. But think a minute: If you need to use the wastebasket, odds are that you will be holding something in one hand to throw away. The wastebasket has a lid on top. So if one hand is holding your trash, and the other holds open the cabinet door, how can you lift the lid on the wastebasket?
Regent's solution was to attach one end of a string to the lid of the wastebasket, route it through a small metal loop and attach the other end to the wall inside the cabinet, so the act of opening the cabinet door pulled the string taut and lifted the lid of the wastebasket.
Maybe you would consider this insignificant - after all, you could just hold the door open with your leg, then lift the lid with your free hand. The point is, you don't have to. Lots of companies might have just installed a wastebasket without the string -- they might not even have attached it to the door. But someone at Regent thought through this small bit of human activity and engineered a solution to make it a little easier.
2007 Upgrades It's things like that piece of string that make the difference between a true luxury ship and a lesser vessel. To maintain its status in the cruise world, Regent has to keep making its ships and its cruise product better, and it took a big step in that direction this year with $20 million in improvements to the Voyager, and to its sister ship Seven Seas Mariner, and the smaller (470 passengers) Seven Seas Navigator. (The line's smaller, 330-passenger Paul Gauguin, based in Tahiti, got an upgrade last year.)
All three ships got a communications upgrade, with the addition of in-cabin wireless service for passengers' laptop computers, as well as faster Internet connectivity and cell phone service. When we met the butler for our suite on Voyager, he introduced us to the newest amenity for butler suites: Bose speakers for use with your iPod. You didn't bring one? No problem - the butler dropped off an iPod fully loaded with hundreds of songs from various genres. The music quality was great. The speakers were on the desk right next to my laptop, which I cranked up to see if the in-cabin WiFi really worked. It did.
Other enhancements to the three ships during their 2007 dry dock included new Anichini bed linens, duvets, cashmere throws and bathrobes; new towels and slippers; new Regent-branded amenities in the bathrooms; and the re-carpeting of the ships' public areas. If you're fortunate enough to book a Master or Grand Suite on one of the ships, you'll see a Nespresso coffee machine in your cabin. The ships' computer lounges also got new espresso bars.
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|Regent Seven Seas Voyager|
In addition to the iPod and speakers, guests in butler suites now get a choice of daily canapés, which they can pick a la carte off the butler's menu. In its dry dock, the Mariner added a coffee bar on Deck 6; besides coffee, it also has breakfast and lunch snacks and after-dinner drinks. And on the Navigator, the fitness center/aerobics room, displaced from its Deck 11 site by the addition of a new Navigator Suite, was reinstalled in the space previously occupied by the observation lounge. Other enhancements this year are in the ships' entertainment offerings, which now feature a nine-piece band on each vessel -- "the largest aboard any luxury cruise line," a spokesman said -- as well as five new musical productions by the resident Regent Singers and Dancers.
No Nickel-and-Diming One thing I like about Regent is its all-inclusive pricing. Cruise rates cover all the usual stuff -- food, entertainment, etc. But they also cover some things many lines charge separately (and considerably) for. Passengers get a mini-fridge restocked daily with bottled water and their soft drinks and beer of choice; those in butler suites also get two bottles of liquor -- again, whatever they choose -- in their cabin at no charge. (Can't finish it? Take it home.) If you're heading out for a shore excursion, take one of those water bottles stacked near the exit -- they're free. And don't fret over how much to tip the crew -- there's no tipping. Want some wine to enjoy with your dinner? It's included (although premium selections from the extensive wine list are extra). Or try one of the three alternative restaurants instead of the main dining room -- there's no surcharge, even for the elegant Signatures.
I was surprised to see that on our seven-night Baltic cruise on the Voyager, there were no formal nights -- just informal (jacket, no tie) and "country club casual." Regent, keeping up with the industry's changing standards, also has an open-seating, come-anytime policy for its main dining room, Compass Rose (want a table by the windows? Get there early -- they go first.) The three entrée choices that changed each night in Compass Rose sometimes included regional specialties, like Baltic snapper and reindeer. In addition, every night the menu offered chicken, steak or salmon prepared to your specifications, plus a pasta dish. A full page of the menu was devoted to that night's 'Menu Degustation,' the chef's recommended tastings-type menu. Another nice feature: Separate listings on the back of the menu divided the night's cuisine (entrees, appetizers, desserts, etc.) into categories for the health-conscious, including no-added-salt dishes, heart-healthy and vegetarian.
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|Signatures Restaurant||Poolside Grill|
For a relatively small ship, the 46,000-ton Voyager has a full range of passenger options, including four dinner venues. Besides Compass Rose, there's 1) Signatures, the ship's gourmet Le Cordon Bleu restaurant, with continental cuisine and white-glove service; 2) Latitudes/Indochine, serving up elegant Asian dishes with grace and style; and 3) La Veranda, which is the breakfast/lunch buffet restaurant, but in the evening becomes a sit-down dining venue -- they call it a steakhouse, but the cuisine is Italian. Go figure. Both Signatures and Latitudes require reservations.
Voyager also has most of the other features you'd find in a larger vessel - a spa, fitness center, casino, computer center, a sizeable library, shops, various lounges, large theater for evening shows; etc. Up on top are the pool (with a poolside grill), running track, a less-than-regulation-size tennis court, shuffleboard court and an observation lounge.
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|Running Track||Fitness Room|
Cabins and Crew The basic accommodations on Seven Seas Voyager start at 356 sq. ft. for categories D through H, with 50 sq. ft. balconies (I once had an apartment in Manhattan smaller than that -- and no balcony). Class C suites are 386 sq. ft. with a balcony more than twice as large. And anything above that -- Penthouse A and B suites, Seven Seas suites, Voyager suite, Grand suite and Master suites -- come with the aforementioned butler service and the extra perks that it brings. They range from 370 sq. ft. for Penthouse suites to 1,403 sq. ft. for the largest Master suite. All cabins have king-size beds convertible to twins, a separate sitting area, marble bath with tub and separate shower, walk-in closet, DVD/CD player and more.
The ship's 447 crew members are quite international in their origins; we met staff that came from places as varied as France and Bali. They wear stylish uniforms and are unfailingly pleasant to passengers. They may have been influenced by the line's staff educational program, overhauled when the company was renamed last year from Radisson Seven Seas to Regent Seven Seas, aligning its product more closely with its luxury sister hotel company, Regent International. "As part of last year's rebranding, all Regent employees received training in the 'Tao of Regent,' the guiding principles for its brand essence, values and service philosophy," a spokesperson said.
A World of Cruise Options Instead of serving up a continuously repeating series of itineraries, Regent sends its ships literally all over the world, with cruises of varying lengths, from seven nights to world cruises of almost four months. We were delighted to find that the line had some Baltic cruises of only seven nights, since some of us do have to get back home and back to work, and since seven-night Baltic itineraries are relatively rare. This shorter cruise length had a marked impact on the average age of the passengers, who were noticeably younger than those we had seen on a 10-day Regent sailing we took a couple of years ago.
Our seven-day sailing departed from Copenhagen and called at Visby, a Swedish island with a well-preserved old town; Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, with its own popular old city on a hill; and St. Petersburg, before ending in Stockholm. The highlight of any Baltic cruise -- it claims to be the world's fastest-growing cruise venue, by the way -- is St. Petersburg, formerly Leningrad. It's Russia's second-largest city and home to many of its most renowned cultural and historic treasures, from the world-class Hermitage Museum to the iconic Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood, to the czars' ridiculously opulent summer palaces outside the city, like Peterhof, resplendent with gold-leaf-lined walls and legions of larger-than-life statues and giant fountains spread across its extensive grounds. Fortunately, Regent scheduled a stay of three full days in St. Petersburg, giving passengers plenty of time to see the city. (When I visited on a cruise several years ago, on a line that no longer exists, we had just one day in port, time only for a quick city tour and a rushed walk through a few of the Hermitage's scores of galleries.)
Any complaints? Just a couple of minor things. The newly upgraded Internet service seemed a bit slow and dodgy, especially the in-cabin WiFi. But Regent says this was a unique circumstance related to the ship's far-north Baltic location. The line even posted a notice in the computer center warning that Internet service would be "intermittent due to the low elevation of the satellite antenna and also due to interference in some ports." The other minor irritant came as we docked in Stockholm. A staffer at the Travel Concierge desk told us that Regent's motorcoach transfers to the airport would cost $65 per person. When we asked about taxi fares, he said they were about $120, almost as much as two people would pay for the bus transfer. As it turned out, the motorcoach was full, so we took a taxi by default -- except the fare only came to about $70. Shouldn't a Travel Concierge know that? And why would the line charge almost twice as much as taxi fare for a 30-minute bus ride?
For 2008, the Seven Seas Voyager will kick off the year with a 115-day world cruise from San Francisco to Athens, visiting 51 ports in 26 countries. It will also repeat its offering of seven-day Baltic cruises from late July through the end of August, again with Copenhagen-to-Stockholm itineraries or the reverse. Fares for those cruises currently start at $5,795. For details, go to www.rssc.com