We have been sailing on various cruise lines the last five years in an attempt to discover a favorite. We have not completed our "experiment" but believe we have found it. Our voyage on the Seven Seas Mariner exceeded our expectations by a wide margin. I'm definitely not a cheerleader personality but it's difficult not to be enthused about our recent experience.
We have sailed on other Premium and (so-called) "Six Star" Luxury lines with excellent service, but the level provided on this voyage was above all that we had experienced in the past. All requests were performed immediately, competently, and with a smile. An example: I dropped my laptop and needed some super glue to repair a crack in the case. Not finding any in the sundry shop, I took a chance and stopped by the front desk to see whether they had any. They did not, but said they would check and get back to me ... by the time I walked back to our cabin, the carpenter was waiting by the door with the glue.
I'm not a bar-fly but did enjoy aperitifs before dinner at the various cocktail venues. By mid-voyage each knew my special preference in preparation. Dining service at all venues was equally excellent. What I find nice is that this service is all rendered with no expectation of gratuities.
The Seven Seas Mariner is the best ship we have sailed on to-date. The layout is easy to navigate without any port?/starboard? confusion and the atrium is a design coup ... the glass elevators and cantilevered spiral staircase were impressive to an engineer like myself. The passenger space ratio appears optimal, even with a full sailing. Mariner is the only ship I have been on where, at the breakfast/lunch buffet, there is no problem finding an empty table. Further, the tables are well spaced and no fancy footwork or gyrations are required to get to one's seat.
Our (standard) cabin, while not the largest we have stayed in, made-up for this architecturally with an excellent layout. My wife being a late riser, I commonly have to creep around and dress in the dark, sometimes with surprising results ... my all-time blunder was later discovering that I had put my shorts on backwards. The roomy walk-in closet allowed me to dress in the light.
Dining on the Mariner was truly an enjoyable experience in all sit-down venues. Service was superior and the cuisine excellent. We have always preferred open seating, and this was handled very efficiently ... we never had to wait more than two minutes to be seated. Tip: Walk-up also works at Signatures and Prime 7. We stopped by a few times on the way to Compass Rose to check availability and were ushered to seats on three additional occasions due to cancellations or no-shows. We ended-up eating in Signatures four times and Prime 7 thrice, which was actually too much because the menu only changed once during our voyage.
A comment about the new "Elegant Casual" dress code is warranted. For myself, this was a very large PLUS. Packing a tux, suit, blazer, and appurtenances for formal, semi-formal, and informal nights has always been a drag ... putting them all on, even worse. Tip: wearing a tux does not make the food taste better. Packing only one blazer made life much easier and orders of magnitude more comfortable. My estimate is that 3/4 of all men wore jackets every night and the decorum was quite elegant ... and civilized.
Being a "Cruise Critic", I cannot submit a review sans criticism. With one significant exception, the area of shortfall on our voyage was in entertainment and enrichment. To be fair, one should not expect a Las Vegas song and dance extravaganza on a small ship, so such omission was not a surprise. The disappointment was in enrichment lecturers which were: 1) An ex-military social aide speaking about his experiences at the White House and 2) A chap describing his system for securities investment, both with books to sell. I'm sure some folks enjoyed the White House "tabloid tidbits" and others were interested in attempting to double the value of their portfolios, but it just wasn't my cup of tea (but with many sea days, attended anyway).
The exception was a group of Napa/Sonoma winemakers from the Louis Martini, Sbragia, and Turnbull wineries. They brought their best products and presented a series of wine tasting seminars on the various factors involved in the growth of grapes and the production of fine wines. The information was excellent, as were the wines they provided. It, however, did not stop there: known as "Private Reserve", they also make up a band that played late night music in the Horizons Lounge, well attended and enjoyed by many listeners and dancers.
"Joie de vivre" is the best way to describe Private Reserve, who enjoy both life and work to an extent that all of us would envy. Wine making is their business and they do not make these appearances on frequent or regular basis. We were just fortunate to have booked this voyage upon which they happened to appear.
Most shore excursions are included and, of course, well attended. The excursions were excellent, short notes of a few are:
* Funchal: The "Portuguese Bobsled" ride down the hill on the city streets among auto traffic was fun.
* Scenic Cadiz and Flamenco: The "scenic" part was enjoyable when, arriving at the beach seawall, we discovered nude sunbathing was popular.
* Malaga: The excursion to the Alhambra at Granada was at extra cost but well worth it. We had made an earlier land visit and actually stayed within the walls of Alhambra, never knowing the full story of the site. This was explained well, and in full detail on this excursion.
* Marseilles: Avignon and the Popes' Palace and des Baux ... impressive and much more in scale and magnitude than we had expected.
So, with almost everything included, I wondered what one does with the generous shipboard credits? My wife, of course, had the answer ... make the on-board shopkeepers happy, which was accomplished. We are not "spa folk", but one of the ladies in our group decided on that option and had her hair done along with a facial and pedicure. Although covered by OBC, even she was a bit startled when she received the bill for $420 ... wow!
I have changed my mind about the significance of the all-inclusive experience, which everyone knows is really is not free. One common topic of discussion is grumbling about signing chits, which is a bad argument because it is a normal procedure at all country club or similar organizations. However, aboard ship, all-inclusiveness simplifies and circumvents some great social issues: "Should I buy this new acquaintance a drink?" or "Is it my turn to buy the wine?" become non-issues. I have also read complaints on other boards that the late evening social scene aboard ships is limited or non-existent. This was not true on our voyage, where cabaret and dance venues were lively and well attended. It's my opinion that cruisers would not be financially damaged by the cost of an after-dinner drink but think twice and just elect not to have them. However, if it is included, why not attend and take part in the convivial social scene existing aboard ship, joining new acquaintances instead of remaining a stranger who happens to be sailing with other strangers.