We boarded the Mariner at Los Angeles. The boarding process was extremely smooth, even though we arrived an hour and a half before the "official" boarding time. A porter whisked our bags away and we waited no more than 2 minutes to be checked in. (There were at least 8 lines open).
We were handed the traditional glass of champagne as we went on board and informed that our suite would be ready at 2.30pm. I went to make reservations at Signatures (we were celebrating our 40th wedding anniversary on board) and my husband went to settle down in the Observation Lounge to wait! I was delighted to learn that our table had already been reserved for us by RSSC since I had mentioned this as something I would like on my information form. The suites were indeed ready at 2.30 and when we went to ours, our luggage was already there.
I unpacked and headed for the laundry on deck 10 since we had been travelling for a week en route from Switzerland to LA. To my delight the laundry was empty and I got my things done in record time.
Our butler introduced himself, and made some other reservations for us. This was the first time we have had a butler, and he was very nice and specially helpful in organizing our anniversary celebration. The evening canapés he brought each night were very nice, but I think I would not reserve a suite just to get a butler. Based on our experience (Alaska '05 on the Mariner without a butler, in a Penthouse C suite, and this cruise in a Penthouse A suite) I would choose the suite I like and if it has a butler, fine. If not one can organize things oneself!
Our first port was San Diego. We had both been there many times before and so we just headed on the "trolley" for Old Town, then did some shopping at Horton Plaza and came back to the ship. I was enrolled in the Cordon Bleu cooking course and our first meeting - a cocktail reception - was that evening. There I met the chef who had been flown from London to teach the course - Michael Katz - and the Executive Chef of the Mariner, Quinn MacMahon, and other Food and Beverage staff. The next day was a sea day and the Cordon Bleu course started. We had four sessions with Michael, all on sea days. He did a demonstration for around 90 minutes and then we (a group of 6 - there were two groups) worked hard to replicate what he had done, with lots of help from him, for another 2 hours. The course also included a wonderful visit to the Central Market in Acapulco, arranged by Quinn MacMahon. Around 10 of us participated, and we went in a minibus to the market with Quinn and Michael, who lectured us on the spot on the choice and cooking of fish. It was really interesting. The course ended with a long demonstration from Michael and that evening a cocktail reception followed by dinner in Signatures, which had closed for the evening to everyone else and was just open for the course participants, some crew members who had been involved with the course and our spouses. The dinner was a special menu set up by Michael which more or less recapitulated things we had learned to make in class.
In addition to the course, Quinn organized a tour of the provisioning area of the ship and the galley for us. This took around 2 hours and we visited the storage areas on deck 3 - huge freezer, 0°C storage for fresh fruit and veg - even caviar locker! - and the galley, meeting many of the chefs and assistants as well. The cleanliness of the galley was amazing - walls and ceiling were in stainless steel and washed daily. All large machines were completely stripped and cleaned, down to the last bolt and nut, once a week - which, by the way, takes them at least two hours after the normal evening meal service! They bake their own bread on the ship, and the pastry chef was very informative about how things are done, and produced superb sweets and pastries! Even the soup cook got into the act and showed us his pots for soup and stocks! I am really, really delighted that I took this course. It was well organized, well taught and I learned a lot and had a lot of fun!
Other things going on on sea days included an excellent lecture series on the Panama canal from a man who had worked there for 25 years. He gave 4 lectures - one on the canal's history, one on the present-day operation, one on what we would see (given the day before, so really pertinent) and the last the day after the transit on what we had seen, and our questions etc. These lectures were truly enriching, and our experience during the transit was greatly enhanced.
Another series of lectures was from a young woman from the Cousteau "Ocean Futures" society. She spoke about various aspects of marine life and was very good, and very informative. Both my husband and I attended all her talks and gained a deeper appreciation of the oceans around us and their importance. The theirs group of lectures concerned the selection and care of gemstones. A bit esoteric but none the less interesting and well presented!
Our first Mexican port was Los Cabos. The scenery going into the port was great and made greater by a little seal who swam alongside the ship and did somersaults in the sea! We took a Radisson-organized catamaran sail excursion. We were really disappointed in this. First, the boat was definitely overcrowded and therefore dangerous. Second, the safety demonstration was a joke - literally. The "wise guy" who had the microphone made jokes about where the life jackets were and never did tell us where they actually were. Third, instead of sailing along the coast with a commentary on what we were seeing they simply headed out to sea for an hour and back for an hour. On our return I found a "How are we doing" comments form in our suite so I mentioned our problems with the excursion. Radisson is know for swift dealings with problems and this case was no exception. I turned the form into the reception desk at around 2pm. At 5pm I got a voice mail from the Tour Director telling me he was looking into it. The next day he saw me and told me that he was very concerned, that they did not normally use that boat, and that he had asked his land operator what went wrong. The next day we had a letter to say that they would not use that boat again, and that our excursion fee was being reduced 40% because the excursion was not as billed. I was not looking for a refund, only trying to tell RSSC that the excursion was badly done, so I was very surprised and pleased at their reaction.
Acapulco was our next port, and we went to the market as noted above.
Huatulco was the final Mexican port. It is pretty but there is not much to do. However the weather was lovely and we spent the day at the pool on deck 11!
Aside from the canal, the best excursion/port we had was Puntarenas. We took the trip to the Poas volcano. It was Good Friday, and everything in CR shuts down. We were warned that we might be slowed down by religious processions, and indeed we did see a couple, which were interesting. Our guide, Vicky, was superb. (Contrast to the chap at los Cabos!) She was very informative and a delightful person. We learnt a lot about CR from her en route to the volcano. We had been warned that the volcano is only visible 3 out of 10 times - so we held our breath!! When we got to the rim of the crater - we could see it all! Fumaroles, sulpher and the turquoise lake! A wonderful trip in a very pretty and interesting country.
After another sea day we arrived at the canal. We got up at 4.30am and they were already serving a continental breakfast in the Observation lounge (RSSC is just wonderful - they think of everything!) Bolstered by coffee and croissant we went outside in the dark and watched the approach to the canal. By 6am we were under the bridge and by 7am in the first lock. It is very impressive to see the size of these locks, which function entirely on water power. The Mariner was raised a total of 85feet from the Pacific to the Gatun lake. After the first lock (there are 3 on each side) we went to our suite and installed ourselves on our balcony, called the butler and ordered breakfast - fittingly "lox and bagels"!! It was amazing to sit there eating in the sunshine watching the men working on the lockside with the electric engines stabilizing the ship. A large "Panamax" freighter went through alongside us - I wonder if they were looking at us as curiously as we were looking at them! We anchored in the Gatun Lake and my husband and I took the helicopter flight over the locks, Colon, the sea and the Chagres river. It cost $150 pp but was worth every penny. We were thrilled to be able to do it! As we went down through the Gatun locks we went to dinner in the Compass Rose. We were given a great table right next to a window, which, when we started to eat, had a nice view of the lockside. Soon however our view was of the concrete wall of the lock as we went down! By main course time we were moving into the next lock, and again had a view!
The last port was Key West, which is pretty but again not so much to do. We shopped! As on our Alaska trip, we hated to leave the Mariner - but we had to get off in Ft Lauderdale.
Disembarkation was handled as smoothly as embarkation - we were allowed to stay in our suite till 0830, breakfast having started early that day. We then waited in the Observation lounge until our colour code was called, and had to say goodbye to a great ship!
During our voyage we ate in Signatures three times, la Verandah twice and the Compass Rose for the rest of the time. We mainly took breakfast and lunch at la Verandah - one lunch in the Compass Rose, and one at the pool grill (Mexican buffet which was very good!). We did not eat in Latitudes because on our Alaskan trip we had been quite disappointed with it and we really love the Compass Rose. We prefer to eat alone, and were always asked if we wanted a table for 2 or would like to share. There was never a problem in getting our own table, and pretty soon the Maître d'hôtel knew that we wanted one for just two. We eat in some pretty sophisticated restaurants here in Switzerland and in nearby France, and the quality, variety and presentation in the Compass Rose are just excellent!!! The service at table was also good throughout.
Our suite was spacious and well looked after by our two stewardesses. We had problems with our TV (there was nothing wrong with the TV, it was we who didn't know how to work it!) Our stewardess was adept at fixing it, and my husband soon came to call her "the electrician"!! He husband was one of our regular waiters at la Verandah and we told him - he thought it was a great nickname for her!! One night we had a problem with the toilet, which refused to flush. We rang the butler, and he said that he had already called maintenance because the suite next door had the same problem - we went to dinner and when we returned all was in order.
One thing we really appreciated was the frequency with which we saw the Captain around the ship. He seemed to go "walkabout" at least twice a day, stopping to chat with passengers, seeing how things were going, and generally being very friendly. We really liked the Captain and hope we can sail with him again! His attitude seemed to permeate throughout all the crew who really seemed to get along well together and work closely together as a team.
As to entertainment on board - there were three production numbers from the Peter Terhune singers and dancers. We had seen two of them in Alaska - it was a shame that they didn't change the show more often! But they were all well done and we enjoyed them all. We didn't bother with the comic or the singer since these are really not our cup of tea.
One thing we did find, contrary to all I have read however, was that the pool area got really crowded and it was sometimes hard to find a place. Perhaps this was a result of a trip over the Easter holidays when there were more young families on board. To sum up - we love the Mariner.
The standard of service, food, etc is second to none. We have already started plans to travel with RSSC to the Baltic next summer, although this trip will be on the Voyager. RSSC does things not just right, but perfectly!!!