As I have previously reviewed a Mariner Mediterranean cruise, this review concentrates on areas where our experience differed this time.
Pre-cruise hotel & transfers
We arrived in Venice on a BA flight from LGW around 4pm local time. Regent's local reps greeted us at the exit after baggage collect. We waited until all the expected passengers had been assembled then we set off by foot to the water taxi station. This is about a 10 minute walk and with the high humidity and temperature in the 80s in the non-existent shade was quite taxing. Our bags had been colour-coded to indicate whether we were in the Excelsior or the Hilton Molino Stucky. We then had a 15 minute wait for the water taxis to arrive – again no shade was available and it was not a pleasant experience even for the younger passengers. When the taxis arrived, the baggage carts followed. Despite the labelling, one unfortunate passenger had to run after the party bound for the Hilton to recapture his luggage so as to ensure it finished up with him at the Excelsior.
The water taxi trip took around 45 minutes and our driver seemed unsure of the location of the Hotel Excelsior which was on the Lido. We crawled past the hotels and restaurants at the sort of pace one uses if looking for house numbers on an unknown street until we were met by the hotel's own shuttle boat who pointed out the canal needed to access the hotel's landing point. This was at the rear of the hotel and there were no staff, either from the hotel or from Regent, to guide us or help us with our luggage. Finding the reception desk involved lengthy trudges down and up carpeted corridors and stairs hauling not only our carry-ons but our main hold bags. This was a poor start. I will review the Excelsior on Trip Adviser.
The transfer to the Mariner was again by water taxi but was much quicker and reasonably well organised, our luggage having been spirited away in the early morning. But not actually all that early – we were warned to have our bags outside our bedroom doors by 06.30 hours but another passenger told us that, having overslept, he found, much to his relief, that his neighbour's bags were still there at 08.30! Never mind, this is Italy, seemed the appropriate response.
Staffing & Signatures Restaurant Dining
First, we were struck by how many of the waiters in La Veranda at lunch time were new to Regent – we spoke to three guys and none had been with them more than a couple of months. This was also the case in Signatures – our main waiter (authentically French) was in his first week, never having been at sea before. Our breakfast has just been (expertly) delivered by a guy from India who has been with Regent two months too! Not scientific, of course, but some evidence of a rookie service team on board.
Initially service at Signatures was fine. I asked for a different wine than that being offered and the wine waiter went off in search. She returned and reported that the head sommelier had said no other Sauvignon Blanc was available which seemed unusual. Our starters arrived promptly, as did our main course – we rarely take soup or sorbet – but then a considerable delay before……. A small tray of petit fours (which conventionally accompany coffee at the end of the meal) appeared quite unbidden! I remonstrated that we had not yet even seen the dessert menu, let alone finished our meal! It was also very apparent that the majority of the wait staff had disappeared, I counted only 3 waiters remained in the room. Finally our original waiter reappeared with the dessert menu and then as requested the cheese chariot.
Whether it was our forgoing of the soup and sorbet that caused confusion or whether it was some external crisis that resulted in the disappearance of so many of the staff, we were in effect forgotten! The room wasn't particularly busy – perhaps 75% of the tables were occupied at the most. OK the food itself was fine (although the Epoisses was criminally underage) and of course it's very much a first world reaction but really not a luxury cruise dining experience.
Day Two: Koper, Slovenia
I am not a great supporter of included excursions without the option but it certainly works to bring in new customers. I have spoken with several newcomers to Regent and the attraction most often mentioned was the tours – this included existing Seabourn and Crystal cruisers. All seemed happy with the Regent experience too – so far, of course. If the reactions of participants in this morning's excursion 'Historical Piran and Wine Tasting' are anything to go by, then they are not alone. A personable and well-informed young man, our guide communicated his knowledge and enthusiasm for his country very clearly. Excellent weather, non-stop sunshine, an uncrowded bus with effective AC all made for a very pleasant drive through verdant countryside to the Rodica family's vineyard some 30 minutes out of Koper. In the modern and well-equipped winery, we first sampled a refreshing rosé and then an attractively floral white made from the local Malvazije grapes. We then sat down to a snack of local ham, cheeses and bread to accompany the 'black' wine – a very dark red made solely from the unique local Refoska vine. Finally we tried their best-selling blend of Refoska, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. All were delicious and deserve to be more widely known. Accompanied by some spirited local dance music on the accordion, it was a great success. I was surprised when the guide told us it was the first tour he had taken to the Rodica's – it was not only a very smooth operation but also demonstrated the genuine warmth and hospitality of this small country's people.
Day Three: Not Split, Not Happy!
We had booked a tour with the tickets showing 09.30 this morning as the time to arrive in the theatre and we were there at about 09.20. The theatre was crowded and there was a very long queue waiting to get to the Destination Services desk at which there were only 2 staff. As we had been told previously we sat down and waited to be called to exchange our tour tickets for bus numbers. We never heard our tour number called either to go to the desk or to proceed to the buses. At 09.40 a number of buses were called and we were left alone in the theatre!
The Destination Services team told me that they had called the tour earlier and that I should have checked with them as soon as we entered the theatre. This was directly contradictory to what we had been told to do the day before and on previous Regent cruises! Clearly the DS team had called the tour well before the scheduled meeting time. I cannot see the point of having scheduled and staggered timings if they are to be ignored. I'm afraid I am beginning to subscribe to the 'going downhill fast' school of thought – I now believe that RSSC has cut staffing levels to the detriment of service standards.
I wrote an email outlining the problems we had had and sent it to the Executive Concierge (Ben) as Reception advised that he was the correct person and only if I was not satisfied with his response, could I meet with the General Manager as I had requested initially. Ben undertook to investigate and get back to me. Ultimately Ben assured me that Head Office would be taking up the issues I had raised with the pre-cruise hotel and the local agency who provided the transfers in Venice and that as regards the on-board issues, the appropriate section managers would be reviewing procedures and speaking to staff as necessary. He thanked me for raising these matters as Regent was always anxious to improve its service and we later received a complimentary bottle of premium champagne. I was pleased to be able to draw a line under the matter.
Day Four: Another excursion missed!
This time it was our decision not to take the Kotor tour because beautiful though it is, with temperatures forecast to reach into the 90s, we couldn’t face the heat. As some of you will recall, Kotor is at the head of a fjord and sheltered by mountains on three sides, thus with no clouds and no real wind, temperatures will climb throughout the day. So we enjoyed a ‘sea-day’ at anchor in the bay, under shade by the pool or enjoying the balcony – even with regular cold drinks, we quietly stewed. The afternoon saw dark clouds appear at the far end of the bay, producing a heavy shower with strong winds temporarily suspending tendering.
We dined in Prime 7 and the service was exemplary throughout. Our main waiter was, again, new(ish) to Regent but he ensured that our fillets were properly rare – we have learnt that ‘bleu’ on board produces the result nearest to what we consider rare at home. We drank a Macon Lugny with our seafood (raw tuna) starter and it has become our white of choice, while the steaks accompanied a full-bodied but smooth Californian Cabernet Sauvignon. Although cheese does not appear on the P7 menu, our waiter snaffled some Munster and some Epoisses (both still underage but very edible) from Signatures. A great evening to round off a good day.
Day Five And a Lesson Learned!
We actually got on our excursion this time although I rather wish we hadn’t. We arrived in Corfu (Kerkera) along with at least 3 other cruise ships including Oceania’s Nautica and Crystal Serenity. The chaos that is tourticket/busticket exchange time was not quite as bad as previously and we arrived in the theatre around 15 minutes ahead of the ‘required’ time and queued dutifully. We had booked the ‘Achilleion Palace, Perama & Corfu Town’ tour, consisting of a visit to the palace and its gardens, a photo stop in Perama on the coast and a one hour walking tour of Corfu town. Unfortunately the temperature was in the 80s and rising and all the other cruise ships had the same idea. There were already several coaches in line before us and many from Regent following us. When we left I counted at least 20 buses parked on the other side of the site. The Palace is not a large Palace either. As a result, the tour was pandemonium with about 5 groups with their guides milling around on the ground floor and more queuing up at the entrance – all in an non-AC 85+F. Add to this our guide's heavily accented English and inability to direct her voice consistently into the radio system and you can understand why we began to escape into the shade in the garden.
We finally reassembled in the bus and threaded our way through the many still waiting on the approach roads with much grumbling from the passengers. The photo stop at Perama produced a mini-rebellion – everybody refused to get off the bus and out of the AC! An hour of following other tour groups around the town of Corfu did not appeal to us, so we hitched a lift on the Crystal shuttle bus back to the harbour, the Regent bus not being due for nearly an hour.
The lesson? Well, think strategically before picking your excursion. First, there were only 4 tours offered in Corfu. One was a $190 self-drive trip in a 4x4 into the interior – not much take-up there – did you remember to bring your driver’s licence? Another was mountain-biking, again a minority interest given the Regent demographic. That leaves only two of mass appeal so you can reckon between 300 – 500 people are going to be split between those two tours. Let’s assume a 50:50 distribution, that would mean between 5 and 8 buses from Regent alone – and all arriving within 10 to 15 minutes. Some congestion is inevitable. Second, there were at least 4 cruise ships in the port all with eager visitors on-board – many of them will finish up at the same place as you if it is the major attraction within easy reach. Finally ask yourself, is the destination sufficiently compelling to outweigh the disadvantages of the conditions (including the weather) under which you will be visiting? Had we done that sort of analysis, we’d have enjoyed another relaxing day on the boat!
Day Six: Amalfi
Weather hot (80+ again) and humid with low cloud and haze making photography unrewarding. We opted for the drive up to Ravello excursion as we had already done a couple of others here. Our guide was very good, not a continuous recital of facts like some but just enough information leavened with humour – much of it aimed at the driver and the driving. The road to Ravello is in essence a series of hairpin bends and in many places only wide enough for one vehicle. In the worst section traffic lights are intended to produce one-way tidal traffic flows although these are not always obeyed by the locals. The net result is much excitement with the driver just missing the rock walls as he turns the bus through 270 degrees, narrowly avoiding the wing mirrors of oncoming trucks and cars and occasionally resorting to shouting and gesticulating at those who do not cede priority or give enough leeway.
In Ravello we visited Villa Rufulo and saw the site of the famous annual music festival, the concert platform extending out over the steep valley leading down to Amalfi. Apparently, the acoustic is so good, thanks to the valley's contours, that the inhabitants of Amalfi and the other small villages perched in the valley can hear the music almost as well as the fortunate 300 who pay a high price for a concert seat. Our guide later discussed real estate prices in the area – a modest 3 bedroom villa with views out to the sea, owned by an Italian film director, is on sale at about US$12 million – so the ‘free concert seats’ are not cheap either! The orchestra also greets the sunrise by playing from 5am – perhaps providing an early if unusual awakening for the locals!
We enjoyed about an hour of free time in Ravello, mainly visiting the parish church which was being prepared, with a red carpet and lots of flowers, for a wedding later in the day and enjoying a cool drink in the shade at a café in the town square. A very pleasant way to spend a rather hot and humid morning.
Day Seven: Civitavecchia - Domestics
Although Regent had organised several excursions - one of which, we heard later, was a great success - we had already decided to stay on board and deal with the laundry, change a couple of excursions and get our new key-cards. The key-card change was required because we had purchased the cruise as two back-to-backs although others remaining on-board had booked it as one continuous trip. No real inconvenience, just a few minutes at reception. Similarly, Destination Services issued new tour cards after we filled in a simple request form. DW mastered the free laundry while I was doing this.
We also had the chance to observe how hard the housekeeping staff have to work to prepare the suites for their new guests in the few hours they have. As far as I could learn only about 140 pax remained on board and around 600 were expected to board. Open suite doors gave those of us unable to afford it a glimpse of the luxury and space available at PH level and above. Not that we were envious .........really!
Day Eight: Another Sea Day!
The weather had taken a turn for the worse just before we set sail from Civitavecchia. High winds and rain lashing down albeit briefly did not augur well for the trip to Sorrento overnight but, in fact, there was no real motion to speak of. I did check the weather forecast before we turned in, after another great meal in P7, and it seemed that the storms were following us. No surprise then, when, shortly after dropping anchor in the bay, Captain Patruno announced that, with regret, we must continue on to Trapani as the conditions would make tendering hazardous. I heard later that several passengers made formal complaints as this meant missing one of their favourite ports but most sensible people accepted that this is an inevitable risk if you try to visit these small but beautiful ports where docking is not possible.
We dined in Compass Rose which was very busy directly after the Captain’s welcome reception. Nevertheless the service was very good – after the shaky start last week, the staff were on top form. We enjoyed Dover Sole – beautifully cooked but always rather larger than we expect so we passed on desserts and even missed the cheese!
Day Nine: Trapani & Signatures Again
Back to Sicily again but this time to the northern end of the island. Trapani itself is an attractive port at which we docked. We had an early tour so enjoyed an excellent breakfast from room service. As usual our bus was about 75% full – Regent seems to keep the number of passengers down to about 35 or so – and the AC was very effective. Our guide hit just the right balance of speaking and silence and his commentary was consistently informative and interesting, particularly on the history of the country.
We began with a drive out of Trapani towards Marsala and took a small boat from the mainland into the lagoon to visit the island of Mothia (sometimes Moxia or Mozzia). Now uninhabited, the island was first colonised by the Phoenicians about 2500 years ago. When Joseph Whittaker, one of the first exporters of Marsala wines to England, purchased the island in 1902, he began excavations which uncovered much of the island’s archaeological heritage. It is possible to view the fortifications, some domestic dwellings, a temple and necropolis. The museum, containing many artefacts from the Phoenician era, bears Whitaker’s name and is still run by the institution he founded, the Fondazione Giuseppe Whitaker. It was a fascinating trip. You can find an excellent article on the island here.
We then visited the Marsala winery where we sampled three wines, some of which were made from vines growing on Mothia. The visit suffered by contrast with the previous excellent wine tasting in Koper. There we had plenty of space to stand and sample the wine but here there were far too many of us – upwards of 70 participants (all from Regent – poor planning) made for a bit of a scrum at the solitary serving point and it was difficult to see during the tour of the winery. Otherwise a very good excursion.
We dined in Signatures and enjoyed much better service than last week. My wife had a very substantial fillet of halibut and I enjoyed the rack of lamb. I found that the ever-reliable Chateaneuf du Pape was more to my taste with the lamb than the rather thin petit-chateau claret that was the orthodox pour offered.
Day Ten: Cagliari, Sardinia
Another new Italian island for us but a slightly disappointing excursion. Basically a panoramic coach tour followed by a walk around the old part of Cagliari. Disappointing for several reasons.
First at the flamingo colony we were not able to get off the bus so photography was limited to shots through the rather grimy windows. Nor could we do so at a beautiful Church where ‘everybody wants to get married’. Only at a parking spot overlooking the city could we alight and take landscape views.
In the walking visit to the Castello district, the problems arose because Regent seemed to have scheduled the tours so that at least 5 groups were on the same route at the same time, leading to congestion at many points. Not only that but we arrived as the midday sun began to beat down so it was not always possible to find shade in which to stop. DW is very susceptible to skin problems in excessive heat so it made for an uncomfortable and rather anxious time. We did, however, get a chance to visit the city’s beautiful cathedral, including its amazing crypt, and the vice regal palace with its ornate parliament chamber which redressed the balance somewhat.
We dined in Compass Rose with a couple we happened to meet in the lounge beforehand. They were long-time Crystal cruisers and we were pleased to hear of their experiences since Crystal is a line we have been considering as an alternative. We were also pleased to find that they thought the standard of food and service on Regent were generally as good as Crystal’s. In fact, they said that they preferred La Veranda as a breakfast venue. A good meal and a pleasant way to spend the evening.
Day Eleven: Palma de Mallorca
In view of the high temperatures forecast and the tours offered, we decided on yet another sea-day and spent most of the time reading and relaxing. A light seafood, salad and fresh fruit lunch accompanied by a glass of champagne sustained our efforts!
We dined again in Compass Rose in the central area at a table for two but enjoyed a pleasant chat with a couple from Ontario on the nearest table. DW ate a very substantial piece of halibut, beautifully cooked while I enjoyed a very good steak - service again excellent.
Day Twelve: Barcelona
We had originally booked a tour of Gaudi’s Barcelona which was cancelled before we boarded and chose the Torres winery tour instead. We had previously enjoyed the tour to the neighbouring Jean Leon property (actually owned by Torres but run independently as an upmarket label) so were rather concerned as to whether the Torres trip would be something of an anti-climax. It turned out to be one of the best excursions we have had.
First, we toured Barcelona city centre, the heavy traffic affording us plenty of time to look at the varied and beautiful architecture. After a pleasant drive through the vineyards and fields, we arrived at the Torres’ extensive site. In a purpose-built visitor centre we were shown an introductory video outlining the history of the Torres family who have owned the property for some 200 years and their expansion both into other regions of Spain such as Rioja and to Chile and California.
A motor-train then took us through the cellars and processing plants. In the cellars we stopped several time to watch as holograms were projected with the figures in historic dress, explaining the background and context – very impressive!
Finally we had a tasting of 4 wines. The first was Vina Esmeralda, a light (11% abv) white wine, blended from Muscat, Gewurztraminer and a local grape whose name now eludes me. We had drunk this wine at home on summer evenings as an aperitif and were delighted to be reacquainted with it. Next came a rosé from their Chilean property, based on the Cabernet Sauvignon grape which, though pleasant enough, did not leave a lasting impression. Then a light red based on the same grape and intended to be drunk young. Finally the 2010 Gran Coronas, a blend of CS, tempranillo and small amounts of local grape varieties. Again we have drunk this at home and enjoyed it but it is a wine intended for the dinner table and needs food to accompany it in my opinion. Both the Gran Coronas and its predecessor were served at the room temperature which, at about 80ËšF, did them no favours. Otherwise an excellent, polished and professional presentation. It was interesting to note that the young lady from Torres guiding us was Russian and she explained, in excellent English, that this was because they had a very high proportion of visitors from Russia.
We used the Regent bus to transfer to Nice airport - they managed to get us there an hour before BA even opened the check-in/bag-drop desks so we had to stand in line and wait. I do wish Regent would manage these transfers better - some other passengers had even been taken there over an hour before us for the same flight - they were not at all impressed!
First and last impressions are important and it is really a shame that a generally excellent cruise on a beautiful ship with a wonderful crew is not complimented by better handling of the pre and post-cruise experience.