We previously reviewed our first cruise which was on-board RSSC's Mariner in the Mediterranean in May 2011 and this is really by way of a comparison and update.
Travel to RSS Mariner
Again we made our own travel arrangements, not only because this was more economical than using Regent's included flights but to avoid the worry involved in flying out on the morning of embarkation. We flew LHR to IST in British Airways Club Europe cabin primarily to take advantage of the business lounge as we faced a considerable wait -- the roads around Heathrow are so unreliable that it is essential to leave around 4 hours early for what should be a 90 minute journey. We also looked forward to the increased legroom and better service on the four hour flight but in this we were disappointed. It was clear that BA had reconfigured the business cabin to increase capacity at the expense of both room and service - to the point where it is no longer worth paying the premium.
We had booked a standard room at the 'Four Seasons at the Bosphorus' in Istanbul and they had arranged for a car to meet us off the plane: this was done with courtesy and efficiency. The traffic (and some of the driving) in Istanbul was appalling however and it took nearly an hour to travel the 12 miles or so to the hotel. We were delighted on arrival to discover that our standard room had been upgraded to a beautiful split-level suite overlooking the Bosphorus! We had intended to take a short boat trip on the Bosphorus before going to the Mariner at lunchtime but decided to enjoy breakfast and a gracious late checkout from our lovely room.
At breakfast I plucked up courage to speak to an American couple at a neighbouring table who confirmed that they too were bound for the Mariner and were using Regent's included transfer facility. The concierge then contacted the Regent personnel at the hotel who confirmed that we were welcome to use the Regent bus rather than find a taxi for ourselves as I had originally intended. This is typical of the 'no problem' attitude found in so many of one's dealings with Regent staff.
Reception on board
This time we were delighted to find that the previous welcome glass of sparkling wine had been replaced by real Champagne which we enjoyed as we went through the reception process in the theatre. This took no more than 5 minutes despite the fact that we had arrived with many other guests. Our luggage, loaded on the Regent bus, duly reappeared in our suite when we gained access about 2.30pm following lunch from the La Veranda's excellent buffet; a bottle of Champagne on ice awaited us.
Our F category suite was located amidships on the port side of deck 8. Other than being 'the other way round' i.e. a mirror image of our starboard cabin last year, it was identical except that, in the interim, Regent had introduced the 'concierge class' benefits. These are incentives intended to attract passengers to suites on higher decks which, although identical to those lower down, cost more.
The main benefit of a concierge class suite is the opportunity to book excursions and speciality restaurants online earlier than others: from speaking to others, however, it seems that there was little difficulty in getting reservations at the later stage. There is also an included hour of Wi-Fi internet access. Both these benefits accrue to those who have sailed more than 21 nights with Regent regardless of the class of cabin, however. There is also a complimentary coffee machine (without instructions for use however), a pair of binoculars and a 25% discount on premium wines. If we were to book with Regent again, given that we would have accrued more than 21 nights, we would not pay the premium to be in concierge class unless more substantial benefits, such as additional speciality restaurant reservations or additional excursion options, were offered.
Food & Wine
We complained (mildly) about the timing of room service breakfasts last year but this had not improved this year: orders for 6.30 to 7.00 were delivered between 6.10 and 6.20 often catching us still in bed! Perhaps the timing slots are meant to indicate when you want to finish eating but this is not what the order-card says. This is only a minor inconvenience of course and is no doubt the result of pressure on the service when so many excursions require passengers to be ready at the same time in the morning. We just started ordering for a later time slot and hoped it would be early as usual! This tactic usually worked.
The food in all the restaurants was as good as last year - apart from a filet mignon which was ordered rare and arrived medium-rare and rather chewy, and, very strangely, a Dover sole which was tough and overcooked -- even odder given the fact that a thinner fish served to the same table was perfect.
Our impression was that the standard of the wines was not quite up to last year. Too many rather bland Chilean and Californian varietals and requests for an alternative served earlier in the cruise were not always met with complete enthusiasm from the servers. There definitely seemed to be more pressure to accept that evening's standard 'pour' than there was last year - particularly from staff of Central European origin.
We searched in vain for a premium wine to take advantage of the concierge class discount but nothing tempted us -- cynical it may be but I wondered whether the prices had been massaged to claw back some of the reduction in profit that might result from the discount?
It was unfortunate that we were accompanied for much of the itinerary by two much larger ships. This resulted in real crowding in many of the sites visited -- particularly Ephesus and Athens. Of course this is a popular itinerary but it was hardly high season -- perhaps these sites are reaching their capacity and consideration might be given to the inclusion of more places 'off the beaten track' especially if Regent's desire is to continue to attract repeat travellers.
The best of the excursions, we felt, was the Corfu 4x4 trip. It encouraged a sense of camaraderie and a little adventure -- although, to be honest, four wheel drive was not really necessary as all the roads were tarmacked albeit very bendy and quite bumpy. But even this experience was slightly diminished by finding that both of the scheduled stops were already occupied by groups from the accompanying cruise vessels. Unfortunately I managed to aggravate an existing knee problem when extricating myself from the rear of the tiny two-door cars used: this prevented us participating in any further excursions which involved any real walking. We enjoyed the resulting additional 'sea-days' on-board despite the variable weather we experienced throughout the voyage.
It was perhaps unwise of us to choose a cruise so similar to last year's. Last year we had never cruised before and therefore had no benchmark for comparison -- this year we had expectations. That these were largely met is a tribute to Regent's management and their standards of supervision and training. Disappointment resulted from one factor wholly beyond Regent's control -- the weather -- and from another partially so -- the popularity of the ports visited with other much larger vessels.
As regards two innovations that have been the subject of controversy in the Cruise Critic forums, included excursions and concierge class benefits, the first is no doubt an attraction to first time luxury cruisers but does have two disadvantages: a 'treadmill' effect where every day brings a new port and an excursion to take if you want to get your money's worth. As a way of making the upper decks more attractive, given that they cost more but are otherwise identical to those lower down, the concierge class scheme is understandable: its attractions diminish, however, as you earn repeat traveller benefits which match or exceed those of concierge class -- the addition of extra bookings in the speciality restaurants might be a way to redress the balance.