This was our first Mariner experience – probably a little cheaper than it might otherwise have been because it was a re-positioning cruise - taking the Mariner from Buenos Aires to Barcelona (from where it progressed to Marseilles for a much needed refurbishment).
We wondered before the cruise, how we’d find the Seven Seas all inclusive package compared say, to Cunard’s offer. Certainly, the additional cost of the Mariner experience is significantly offset by the value of free excursions and free drinks. But even taking account of those things, it’s still a great deal more expensive.
Irrespective of price there are some things about the Mariner which are unequivocally outstanding. The food isn’t just the best we have experienced on a cruise ship (and we’ve tried Cunard, Viking, Holland America and Princess) it’s some of the best food we’ve eaten anywhere. The Italian restaurant produces pasta every evening which is near perfect and the French Restaurant is outstanding.
There are four restaurants: the Compass Rose, the main dining room; Sette Mari, an Italian restaurant; and two speciality restaurants for which there was no additional charge but for which bookings have to be made. We ate in one of the speciality restaurants about every fourth night. The Steak Restaurant was the most popular but we preferred the excellent French Restaurant whose food and wine was the best on the ship (typically a good Sancerre and an excellent Chateauneuf Du Pape were the house wines on offer).
We could have eaten in the speciality restaurants more frequently had we been prepared to share a table. But although we enjoy fixed seating, the sharing of a table with different people each night, and the same tiresome conversations about where you’re from and how did you travel here were tedious. But to Mariner’s credit they had little difficulty in providing us with our own table each evening (the tables for two in Compass Rose and Sette Mari are, in any case, the best tables in the restaurant each being next to a window).
The ship is quite small, although the relatively small number of guests meant that it rarely felt crowded. Sometimes there was a shortage of sunbeds on the sun deck and the really tiny single pool – in which a maximum of only 12 swimmers are allowed – was crowded when more than three or four swimmers were present. The elderly nature of the passengers on this 28 day cruise meant that was not often a problem. But on a shorter Mediterranean itinerary the pool would be inadequate. The sun deck itself has relatively little shelter (there’s no roof of course) and even in relatively calm weather it was surprisingly windy.
The refurbishment may change things a little but the interior of the ship was extremely bland – as if a designer was trying too hard to be tasteful - and the selection of art around the ship, including innumerable Rothko prints, was monotonous. But the ship’s worst fault was that it rolls a lot when the wind is blowing across the beam. We crossed the Atlantic without mishap but running up the west coast of Africa, particularly near the Canaries (but in relatively modest seas), the rolling was so pronounced that on two evenings the pool had to be emptied.
The entertainment was variable. The Theatre troupe were pretty much third rate (I heard one American speculate as to whether they had ever thought about rehearsing) On the other hand, free from the confines of the Theatre, the orchestra, in whole or in part, were very good. And a three-man band Nature Rhythm Trio were excellent.
The excursions were disappointing and we returned our tickets for about half of those we’d booked. Arrangements were sometimes chaotic, departures were inevitably delayed and there was often an inordinate amount of waiting for tenders. The Mariner might only have 700 passengers but when excursions are included in the all inclusive price, most people take advantage of them and the excursion staff struggled to cope. They were better at explaining the reasons for frequent delays than preventing them. This was a pity because there was no shortage of investment from Mariner in the quality of some of the experiences. In Brazil we enjoyed an excursion which involved three cable car trips, a walk through the rainforest and an hour at a beautiful beach. But even though the beach visit was chopped from 60 minutes to 15 we still returned more than an hour late and without our guide who became irretrievably lost.
Not all excursions were well planned. Delivering us to Arrecife in Lanzarote on a Sunday in March when almost everything was closed – including most restaurants and cafes – was pretty thoughtless when, just a few miles away, Tenerife would have offered much more. Dakar, in Senegal, was very disappointing and the much vaunted Goree Island did not live up to its reputation. In Brazil, we tendered at a number of entirely forgettable ports when an overnight stay in Rio would have offered so much more.
The tendering for excursions was not simply frustrating but, in my opinion, occasionally dangerous. Very frequently our tenders failed to tie up along side the ship both fore and aft (although visiting schooners always did so). Instead they would tie up either fore or aft and use the tender engine to keep the craft close to the Mariner. But this looked unsafe on more than one occasion and caused some real problems for the less able when leaving the tenders. When I wrote – very politely - to the General Manager, mid cruise, suggesting that the tendering was not always competent. I received a message on my cabin phone, which thanked me for writing, promised me that my comments had been forwarded to Miami, and urging me to have a great day.
Part of the problem was that the Cruise Director, Jamie Logan, seemed much more comfortable in the bars or the theatre than in managing excursions. On one occasion, returning from an excursion to Olinda in Brazil, there was a serious shortage of buses to transport us back to the ship from the hill town. The delays were such that our guide - herself exasperated by a 45 minute wait without shade – told us that Mariner had miscalculated and ordered only half the necessary number of vehicles. When we explained this to Mr Logan, he seemed to think we were just passing the time of day. He needs to learn that an amiable grin does not compensate for unnecessary and repetitive frustrations.
The Mariner experience overall is very good and in parts, outstanding. Will we book again with Mariner? Probably not. Our view is that although the food is better, many other things about the Mariner product are disappointing. We shall almost certainly return to Cunard and pocket the saving.