Because recent reviews of the Regent Mariner have been scarce, I thought it was important to provide an update. Rather than providing the day-by-day review of the ship typical of many reviews, I've decided to focus this review on the key issues that may help you decide if the Mariner is the right cruise ship for you.
Quick Review (If you are scanning reviews and only have a few minutes, read this part first. If you have more time, you can read the rest in more detail now or later.)
Older, well-traveled, wealthy clientele. Good food and excellent complimentary wine. Many of the amenities you would expect on a luxury cruise line, including 24-hour room service. Cabins were spacious and well arranged. Onboard activities were plentiful for this clientele, but won't suit younger cruisers. Many of the shore excursions were excellent, and the complementary shuttle into town at some ports was a real bonus. Internet access was good for a ship. Dining room and some buffet service was mixed. Don't choose this ship for the quality of the entertainment, fitness center, or décor.
Clientele - I estimate 80-90% of the passengers were in the 55-90 age group with the median age of about 65. There were very few passengers under 50. We saw about three children. Wealthy and well traveled; over half were repeat Regent customers. About 160 of the 590 people aboard were taking the entire four-segment cruise around South America. Regent understands what this demographic wants and focuses their services on their needs.
Things that make Regent better than many other cruise lines:
- Shore excursion amenities. Like some of the other premium cruise lines, red carpets, shade tents, chairs, water, and fruit punch are often set up shore-side. Free bottled water and beach towels are available at the gangway. One of the useful amenities we liked was a complementary shuttle bus at several of the ports. If you aren't interested in taking an organized shore excursion, these busses are great alternatives that allow you to get into town to a hotel, shopping areas, or central plazas.
- Food, wine, and drinks. The food was good. A few meals were incredible, some were just average. The menu variety in the main dining room was impressive—-something that is likely quite a challenge for a longer, multi-segment cruises. In fact, they often incorporated local menu items to provide a taste of South America while eating aboard the ship. We ate one dinner at Signatures and it was wonderful. We also ate one Italian dinner at La Veranda. The food at La Veranda was also excellent. The captain was dining at a table nearby, if that gives you any idea what his preferences are. (OK, I'll admit. He is Italian, so that may have something to do with it!) The wine with every dinner in all three venues was outstanding! Their great selection of complimentary white and red wines varied each evening. Although you can pay to get premium wines, we found the nightly offerings to be excellent quality and didn't see anybody spending money on other vintages. If you don't care for one of the selected wines, you can ask for an offering from a previous night. It will probably still be available and will be provided to you free for your enjoyment. It is very nice to have complimentary bottled water, sodas, premium coffees, and alcoholic beverages widely available. It was also nice to have free soda and popcorn available at the afternoon movies. Other than paying for some pictures at the end of the cruise, I really enjoyed never having to sign a charge slip the entire cruise.
- Cabin Size and Layout. With balconies, walk in closets, and large bathrooms with full size tubs or showers in every suite, even the smallest guest cabin on the ship is larger than many premium cabins on other lines. The space was very well organized. The sitting area with a small sofa and comfortable chair was great for lounging and eating in the room. The mini fridge was always well stocked. Fresh fruit and flowers were the extra touch of luxury you would expect in a cruise line in this class. Lots of power plugs made it easy to recharge camera batteries, etc.
- Room Service. The breakfast menu was left on the bed each night. We ordered breakfast in the room over half the mornings because it was so convenient. We really enjoyed eating breakfast in the room as we were getting ready to go ashore on excursion days. Unlike many other lines, you could even order room service breakfast on disembarkation day. The hours were just limited so you could eat and be out of the room on time. We also had one lunch and one late night dinner in the room. It is easy to get spoiled with room service on this cruise. As a side note: Since room service is available 24 hours a day, this ship doesn't have food available at a buffet or other venue at odd hours. The Coffee Connection did have cookies, coffee, hot tea, and a refrigerator full of cold drinks available 24 hours as well as some sandwich meats and cheeses during the off hours in the afternoon. However, at other times if you want food or a real meal when the restaurants are closed, order room service.
- Daily Activities. Onboard activities were appropriate for the clientele. You won't find any belly flop contests at the pool!! Instead, there were a variety of lectures on ports, South American culture, and geopolitical issues. The best thing about the port lectures is that they focused on things to do and see in port, not on shopping the "company stores" or buying shore excursions. The schedule also included daily movies, classes, and cooking demonstrations. Our problem with the activity schedule was not being able to do all the things we wanted to do in a given day. Many of the best activities tended to be clustered in the mid-afternoon, sometimes making it difficult to attend more than one event. It would be better to have early afternoon and late afternoon activities to allow more opportunities to participate.
- Muster drill. The muster drill was simple and occurred at 1015 on the first morning at sea. Given the small passenger load of this ship, everybody can fit in the theater at one time. As we sat in the theater, it was explained to us that Regent's philosophy is to muster passengers in the theater and only evacuate to the life boats if the situation requires it, thus keeping everybody out of any cold or bad weather until the last minute. That's a pretty nice way to do a muster!
- Panama Canal. Several special touches made this a very nice experience. Mariner provided lots of covered chairs on the deck at the front of the boat to watch the activity. The Observation Lounge was the best indoor space to view the passage, and they served a nice continental breakfast and afternoon tea there during the canal transit. (I later discovered this was standard every day, but just more popular on that day.) We spent much of the day there and it was fantastic. We couldn't ask for much more than a comfy chair with a view of the world and food and drinks at our fingertips! Since every cabin has a balcony, you could also view the passage from the comfort of your cabin (and order room service, if you want to). The Panamanian tour guide was only being broadcast in the public areas, but you could tune into the ship's channel on TV to hear her while in the cabin.
- Dress code. If you like to dress for dinner (we do), this is your ship. In 12 nights, we had three formal nights (tuxes and formals were the standard) and three informal nights (coat and tie for men, cocktail dresses for women). The rest were "country club casual," which was still pretty dressy. Most of the women were wearing dresses or nice slacks. Most of the men wore nice shirts and many still wore jackets with open collar shirts. Signatures requires coat and tie minimum, even on casual nights.
- Meet your neighbor. This was the first cruise ship we've been on where they had a "block party" in the hallways outside the cabins late the first afternoon. It was a great opportunity to meet some of the people who you would see in the halls for the next 12 days. The serving staff was pouring wine and offering snacks. The entertainment staff and ship's officers were also in the hallways meeting the guests. It was a great way to start building the camaraderie and meeting friends that became one of the most memorable parts of this cruise.
The mixed bag. Some good and some bad made these things that Regent does only slightly better or on par with other cruise lines:
- Shore Excursions. I detest tours that take you to one "commission store" after another. We thought Regent was going to be different and for many tours they were. Many excellent tours focused on seeing the sights and never stepped foot in a store. However, Cartagena, Colombia was the disappointing exception. Apparently the tour operator there also owns a small shopping mall in the new part of the city and all tours included an obligatory stop at that mall. After an excellent tour of the city, we wasted over an hour of our precious port time at that mall. Many people on the tour were quite upset and some abandoned the tour at that point and took a cab back to the ship. Even those people who took the dedicated shopping tour expecting to be able to spend time at some of the high quality shops downtown were instead taken to this "tourist trap" mall. Other tour highlights included the Gamboa Resort aerial tram in Panama, which included a walk up a tower with spectacular views of the area and the Panama Canal. Archeological sites near Trujillo, Peru were also spectacular. Note that Regent shore excursions are appropriate for their clientele. There were lots of beautiful coach and walking tours, but you won't find many action and adventure options here!
- Internet. Most ship internet is slow, and the Mariner's was no exception. However, the prices were a bit more reasonable than other ships. Package prices had 20-25 cents per minute, and packages were easy to use up on a 12-day cruise. Here's a tip: Leave a couple of minutes on your package for your last online session. The prices do not change during the session, so if you have a 20 cent per minute package any additional minutes you use will be charged at that rate—as long as you started with that rate. It's an easy way to extend the value of your package for one session without having to buy another package you may not need. The non-package price was 35 cents, which is still not bad when compared with some other lines. The best deal was for people who had cruised more than 20 nights with Regent—-free internet access! There were lots of computers available in the computer room and four more just outside at nice desks in the Coffee Connection area. Wireless was also available at several locations throughout the ship and in your cabin. The wireless worked flawlessly in our cabin.
- Housekeeping, Bed Quality, and Linens. First let me say that our stewardess was excellent. She was incredibly fast and thorough. On other lines we've often returned to the cabin while it was being serviced. We only caught our stewardess once. She was finished, but had stepped down the hall to get fresh fruit for our bowl. We can hardly complain about that! We heard from other frequent Regent cruisers that this is the one exception some people make to the no-tipping policy, so we had no problem providing a little extra for our stewardess. (It was entirely optional, but we felt like we should recognize and reward what we felt was truly outstanding service.) The bed was nice and comfortable, but I overheated under the down comforter. So I doubled the comforter over my wife (who always gets cold) and slept under a sheet. Although there was an extra wool blanket in the room, I wanted something lighter weight. I called housekeeping and asked for a cotton blanket, but was told they were not available. I found that somewhat surprising. If a ship of this size doesn't have any cotton blankets onboard, they need to get a few! Housekeeping did bring me a lightweight acrylic/wool blend blanket, which was better than all wool or nothing.
- Dining Room Service. One of the things we really liked about this cruise was the ability to meet new people at dinner each evening. The Maitre d' will give you a choice when you check in. Sometimes you get great table companions and sometimes you don't. If you want some alone time, you can ask for a table for two. The down side to the open seating arrangement is that you may get a different waiter every time, so they won't know your special needs or preferences from serving you the entire cruise. My wife has some special dietary limitations. Regent wants to you fax those requirements to the ship at least 30 days prior to embarkation. We also provided the information to the registration desk staff and dining room staff the first evening. They provided advance copies of next day's menu at our cabin every night and asked us to pre-order any special requests at the dining room before 1000. We didn't find that very convenient, since we were either rushing to get out the door for a shore excursion and ate room service in the cabin, or we were sleeping in. We never made the dining room for breakfast. It would have been far easier for us to simply know what menu items were compatible with my wife's dietary requirements. Reading the brief description often wasn't enough and the waiters had to consult the chef because they didn't know the details either. The one morning my wife attempted to pre-order, she felt like she was scolded by the Maitre d' on duty. On a few occasions, we had repeat waiters who understood her requirements and identified the items on the menu which met her requirements. In retrospect, a face-to-face meeting with the dining room supervisor may have made the situation easier to handle. In sharp contrast to the main dining room, La Veranda and Signatures handled her special needs very well. We expected to have a few issues at Signatures because they clearly state that menu items cannot be modified because they are prepared to exacting Cordon Bleu standards. We were pleasantly surprised when the waiter asked us up front if there were any dietary concerns! At both Signatures and La Veranda the chefs personally came out to discuss the preparations with my wife to make sure they were acceptable. That probably isn't possible given the quantity of people in the main dining room, but it was a welcome change of pace. One final issue about the main dining room is that it seemed like somebody dropped dishes every night and there were no rough seas to blame. The noise of clanking dishes and silverware was particularly distracting at lunch and occasionally so during dinner.
- Drink and Buffet Service and Cooks. The drink service in the theater was hit or miss. Plan to get to the theater early, if you want a drink. The only time we got drink service when we arrived just before the show started was in the balcony. I suppose this makes sense, since they don't want the servers distracting the performers. I've noticed they continue to serve during the show on some other cruise lines where they are making money from the drinks, but that's not the case here. Despite the fact that it was a buffet, the breakfast and lunch servers at La Veranda were quite attentive—quickly bringing drinks and clearing dishes. Although most of the buffet is self-serve, they usually had a carving station and some kind of cooking station set up on the end for omelets, pasta, etc. You need to have a table "staked out" before you order anything cooked to order in La Veranda or upstairs at the pool grill. That often wasn't convenient if you were just then selecting buffet items for your plate. The easiest thing to do was go through the buffet once, put your plate at a table, and then go back to order anything you wanted cooked. I felt like I got some attitude from a La Veranda omelet chef when I selected some baby shrimp from the buffet and asked him if he could include them in the omelet. I was somewhat surprised by that in a ship of this class.
- Disco. This could be good or bad, depending on your perspective. The disco was usually virtually empty. If you want to select your own music and dance in relative privacy (which we did), you'll love it. If you are looking for lots of people dancing, you won't find them here.
- Photographic services. It was a pleasure to have photographers available, but never pressuring you for a photo. With Regent you won't find photographers stopping the tender disembarkation line to snap mandatory photos. Like most other ships, the photos are outrageously overpriced at $25 each, with no quantity discounts. Most of the pictures they took were excellent and we bought four. I hated to see them throw away perfectly good pictures, but I thought $100 was enough to spend on prints. We also bought a Regent SharedBook for about $100. This is a 60-page hardbound book that included stock shots from the ship's files, any photos you purchased onboard, and the ability to upload any of your own digital photos. It sounded like a great idea at the time to create a photo keepsake. Unfortunately, there were disappointingly few stock photos actually included. The website is so slow that it makes the shipboard internet seem fast! Finally, the software is limited and cumbersome. Since we took over 2200 digital photos and have several hundred photos from some of the friends we met, we will produce a quality photo book. It will just be much more work than we anticipated based on the description of the process we received from the onboard photographers who sold us the package.
- Spotlight on Chocolate. Regent frequently has "spotlight" cruises that focus on a particular topic. This cruise was touted as a "Spotlight on Chocolate." We expected lots of opportunities to sample chocolate specialties, but that wasn't the case. One afternoon included a rum and chocolate tasting that focused more on rum than chocolate—-interesting, but not what we expected or wanted. Much later during the cruise a guest dessert chef demonstrated preparation of a couple of his recipes. His desserts were featured that night in the dining room. While all of this was a unique learning opportunity, these couple of events fell well short of our expectation of what a "spotlight" cruise would include.
Things that could use improvement:
- Entertainment. Some of the evening entertainers were good. (Three of the solo entertainers got standing ovations.) Others were mediocre. I thought the first production show and the magician were weak. The shows are fun, but don't expect consistently high quality entertainment on this cruise.
- Security. We were very surprised that there was no peephole in the door. We never knew who was ringing our doorbell until we opened it, and that's not very secure. The safe was half size. Ironically, the shelf was empty behind the safe, so it could have accommodated a full size safe. I would think both of these items could and should be easily upgraded.
- Ship Décor. Some people say the Mariner has an "understated elegance." In some places, that is true. The Coffee Connection area, which was just recently added, and the hallway area next to it were very nice. In other places the ship is boring and worn. I thought the grey metal mesh decorations suspended in the atrium were downright ugly. I've seen comments about them in several reviews, so I'm somewhat surprised they are still there. Some good interior design could really brighten up the ship. We like elegant and classy, not boring or garish.
- TV. We didn't find much to watch so we left it on the bow camera station most of the time so we could listen to the classical music. Unfortunately, it was the same music over and over every night. They really could use more variety. When our schedule was too full to allow us to attend a cultural or port lecture, we frequently tuned in to the replay channels to hear what we missed. Additionally, the TV really should be interactive. While some guests on this ship may be intimidated by the technology, many would appreciate the capability to order shore excursions and check the few charges you may incur. A DVD player was included and we noticed quite a few guests checking out free DVDs from the library. Since that's something we can do better at home, we never watched a single movie in the room.
- Fitness Center. While the equipment was adequate for a ship of this size; the location, ambience, and view are horrible. Most land-based gyms are nicer and this is the worst onboard fitness center I've seen in 10 years. In all fairness, they do have a nice large group exercise room connected to the gym and did hold classes there. We've enjoyed several fitness centers at sea, but we didn't have the desire to spend any time in this one. We took the stairs everywhere instead. We heard they may have plans for a new fitness center, including an expansion and relocation to a better part of the ship.
- Boutique selection. The onboard store had a very limited selection of Regent or Mariner branded merchandise. Most of the selection was Izod Lacoste. While that is fine if you forgot to pack casual clothes for the cruise, we wanted a quality souvenir shirt or jacket from the ship. We were disappointed to leave empty handed because the one shirt in three different colors wasn't anything we wanted to buy.
- A good plan gone bad. On each of the four legs of this South American cruise, Regent planned a complementary shore excursion or party of some kind. For this first leg they planned a party in Panama at the Miraflores Visitor's Center. It sounded great. A guided bus tour to the visitor's center, a quick tour of the displays followed by food, entertainment, dancing, and free drinks all evening as we watched the ships transit the locks of the Panama Canal. Unfortunately, the execution fell short of the plan and many guests were disappointed and upset. The tender and bus rides took way too much of the allotted time. The food was marginal and many people missed most of the entertainment. I enjoyed the displays at the visitor's center and watching the ships transit the locks up close was fantastic. It was advertised that the party would last until midnight, but there wasn't much time to enjoy the evening before the final busses returned to the ship shortly after 10:00 pm. To add insult to injury, there were long lines for the tenders back to the ship. The lines moved quickly, but lines of any kind are a rarity that Regent customers don't expect and don't tolerate well. We were left standing in the parking lot for 15-20 minutes and that caused some of the passengers physical discomfort. Also, we had been promised a nice barbeque and buffet upon returning to the ship, but it wasn't anything more than the standard pool grill fare, a few sandwiches, and a table of desserts. Since the food was so bad on shore, lots of hungry people were upset with the poor showing on the ship and returned to their cabins for room service. (Thank goodness for an excellent menu and no-fee, 24-hour room service. The room service waiter said they were surprisingly busy that night and didn't know why!) The complaints were widespread and emphatic. Although the event was free to guests, everybody (including the staff) was well aware that this event did not meet Regent standards of service and quality. I think this was the low point for many people, including us, on this leg of the cruise. The captain even apologized the next day for not having enough tenders available. The word around the ship was that this was Regent's first and last time to use the Miraflores Visitor's Center for a party.
In summary, we loved our cruise and would do it again in a heartbeat. The good friends we made on board will hopefully last a life time. However, OVERALL, it is difficult to rate our experience 5 or 6 stars. Yes, there were some 5 and 6 star moments--dinner menus delivered to our door, our cabin stewardess, the size and comfort of the cabins, room service, the on-deck fresh grilled fish buffet, and two restaurants (Signatures and La Veranda Italian Steakhouse). Perhaps our expectations of perfection were too high and it is easy to get spoiled quickly, but by the end of the cruise we were surprised that Mariner fell short in so many areas identified above.