This was our first cruise and was to celebrate our retirement. We had always holidayed independently before, usually travelling by car in Western Europe and avoiding crowds and too much heat but as we were limited to school holidays, this was not easy. We chose this cruise after much research, mainly on Cruise Critic and its invaluable forums.
Travel to SS Mariner
We did not use Regent's included air option as it was confined to flights from LHR whereas we have very much easier road access to LGW and STN. We flew EasyJet LGW - VCE and although the flight was delayed by an hour arrived at SS Mariner in good time. Being rather apprehensive about travelling in Venice, we had pre-booked a water-taxi with meet and greet service at the airport which was very expensive but very efficient, taking about 40 minutes in total. If we went again we would take a cheaper option as there was no real sightseeing element to the trip - the route goes around Venice rather than through it.
At the taxi drop-off point we were met by a young man from Regent who took our heaviest case for delivery to our suite and pointed out the route to the Terminal and the ship. This involved a 5 minute walk in quite hot weather, some of which was over rather unsteady pontoons and was not very well signposted. We coped but it would have been daunting for those less able or fit. In the embarkation hall we first had to complete a form at one desk to confirm we did not have swine 'flu or other contagious diseases before we could proceed to another desk to have our passports checked and photos taken for the key cards. This was done very quickly and pleasantly and after a luggage check, we were climbing aboard.
Reception on board
On board we were welcomed and given a very small serving of 'champagne' which was actually a sweetish and rather characterless Loire sparkling wine. This does not set the right tone for a luxury cruise: it seems penny-pinching and implies that guests do not know the difference. We were told that suites would not be ready until 14.30 and the venues where we could get some lunch were explained. There was apparently nowhere we could leave the carry-on luggage we had with us so we dragged it up to deck 11 and La Veranda where we enjoyed another glass of rather better Loire sparkling wine with a good salad selection from the buffet. After an announcement that the rooms were ready, we went down to our suite. There we found yet another bottle of Loire sparkling wine and a note introducing our stewardess, Hannah.
After unpacking our carry-on case, our larger case was delivered. Hannah then called in to see if we needed anything. I asked for a bottle of gin and some real champagne. She explained that they were still loading and there was none on board yet but she would put some in the room later in the evening. This she did.
We were in an E category suite on deck 9. We had tried to get a lower deck, the rooms being otherwise identical, to minimise any risk of motion sickness but they had all gone - presumably to RSSC regulars who take early advantage of the considerable saving that goes with a lower deck location. At first sight the suite looks rather small - there is a 6ft passage way past the bathroom - but is so well-designed that it seems more than adequate once you are settled in. The bed is what Europeans would class as king-size, about 6'3" square and very comfortable except that it seems to have soft 2" layer on top of the mattress which tends to retain body heat. To avoid overheating at night, we had to have the AC quite high - fortunately this was very quiet.
The sitting area, which can be curtained off from the bed, contains a comfortable sofa and armchair but is rather dominated by the LCD TV which protrudes from the desk opposite. The minibar, which was regularly re-stocked, was located under the desk and proved effective in keeping its contents cold despite being silent in operation.
Mariner is an all-balcony ship which was one of the reasons why we chose it. The balcony has a small table and two chairs and is more than adequate for breakfast or to sit reading and enjoying the view.
The bathroom is excellent: plenty of space, both Regent and L'Occitaine toiletries supplied and a splendid walk-in shower with both rain-head and handheld spray. Water temperature was always stable and pressure high.
Overall the room and its facilities would be comparable to a junior suite in a high-end hotel on land - but with a balcony, a sea view and a variety of beautiful locations, of course - and it was very discreetly and efficiently serviced by the charming Hannah.
The Mariner's maximum capacity is 700 and we were told that the ship was full and had no reason to doubt it - other than the fact that it rarely seemed crowded. There was always somewhere to sit in the Observation Lounge on deck 12, although the best tables (nearest the windows) rapidly filled in the late afternoon. In the evenings there was always space in the Horizon and Mariner bars both of which, though very comfortable, were rather gloomy. When there was a popular show in the Theatre or many passengers were late back from excursions, the main dining room, the Compass Rose, could be very busy and it was necessary to wait for a table unless you were prepared to share - which we usually enjoyed doing.
This was a port-intensive cruise and all sailing took place between 6am and 8am so most passengers were out on excursions every day. This meant that there was usually plenty of room to lounge around the (very small) pool particularly if you wanted to sunbathe. If, like us, you can't take too much sun there were many loungers in the shade and although these were surprisingly popular, we never failed to find a couple unoccupied.
The ship was in immaculate condition having been in dry-dock for refurbishment only a few weeks earlier and the occasional aroma of varnish indicated that the maintenance programme is on-going.
When we had an early excursion we ate a light breakfast of fruit and muesli in our room. Our only minor complaint about the otherwise excellent room service was in terms of timing: the meal always arrived well before the beginning of the specified 30 minute slot, catching us still in bed. We also breakfasted a couple of times in La Veranda where there was a very good selection on the buffet.
When on-board for lunch we always had a delicious mixed salad with king prawns, scallops and smoked salmon, followed by fresh fruit: melons, mango and pineapple. We soon discovered that Coffee Connection on deck 6 made by far the best fresh coffee so usually finished up there - often succumbing to the temptation of a biscuit or slice of cake.
We usually dined in the Compass Rose. The food, wine and service were generally of a very high standard. The meal is based on the US pattern with which we were not familiar: appetiser, soup, salad, sorbet, entrEe and then dessert. We always skipped the soup and the salads were sometimes too heavy on cheese and bacon so we learnt to specify a plain green version. The sorbets were usually fine apart from a spiced red wine one which recalled all too vividly the ghastly mulled wines of Christmastide and did anything but refresh the palate. The appetisers were varied and usually delicious, as were the entrees: both fish and meat were always properly cooked. Particularly good was the Dover sole and rib eye steak. We always find lobster rather bland and the Wiener schnitzel also lacked flavour but apart from those two (poor choices on our part), the cooking was on a par with that of top class international hotels.
The wines were of a good standard: usually New World varietals of the type which would retail in the UK at between £10 and £20 - which you could multiply by 50 to 100% for restaurant prices. We were surprised and delighted, however, by the early appearance of a Dopff et Irion Gewurtztraminer, to which we returned quite often at subsequent meals. As we had an on board credit to spend, we chose one red wine off the list: a Penfolds Bin 407 which came highly recommended by some Aussies on a nearby table and represented amazingly good value at Regent's price. The only minor criticism of the wine policy is the tendency to serve a Loire sparkling wine unless one specifies 'real champagne' or names the house wine ('Montaudon' on our cruise).
With only one very minor exception, the service throughout the ship was excellent: unfailingly courteous and prompt. The exception was at the 'caviar and champagne' event where we waited in vain to have our order for caviar taken, having missed the first round of service because we were waiting for someone. On the plus side, however, this meant we saved money as we ate the free canapEs and drank the house champagne as usual!
We found that after the excursion every day, several aperitifs and a multi-course dinner with wines, we did not have the energy for dancing or even a show! The shows started at nearly 10pm and those we spoke to who did go said they were generally very good. We did go to the crew show on the final evening as it was early evening and enjoyed it and the farewell speeches.
There is a choice of 'free' (i.e. included) and paid for excursions in every port. We made our selections through the RSSC website and chose two paid for. Strangely, one of our paid for choices was already waitlisted even though booking had only been open for an hour or so at most. We later received a phone call from Regent's UK office to say that the waitlist had cleared and we could now book. On board, however, that excursion was cancelled 'due to low numbers'!
The standard of excursions was variable: none were excellent, some were good and some were poor. Of the included excursions, many involved travelling on a large and almost full bus with limited legroom. The roads were often very narrow with sharp chicanes and some passengers experienced motion sickness. Where the destination was small, e.g. an olive oil mill or winery, it was crowded. In larger places, e.g. museums, we were often following even larger groups and having to wait until the next room in the predetermined sequence was vacated. Of those tours which included meals, the timing was clearly dictated by the need to fit in with other groups rather than our interests: a wine-tasting with local food for 'lunch' at 10am on one; a seafood and pasta 'lunch' at 5.30pm on another! The quality of the guides was variable - only one or two were really good speakers. Others we spoke to made similar criticisms of the included excursions but some were very pleased with those they paid extra for. Interestingly, when looking for a non-bus excursion we were actually warned off a particular boat trip by a member of destinations staff as 'not worth the bother' and were grateful for that advice when others reported back that it was indeed very poor. Perhaps our expectations were too high or simply unrealistic because of our lack of experience but we must agree with those who feel that this is by far the weakest aspect of the Regent product.
As we still had unused on-board credit, we booked a private car to ensure we got to Nice in time for our EasyJet flight - we had been advised by the Destinations team that taxis could be thin on the ground in Monte Carlo. We left our luggage out the night before with the colour-coded tags attached. In the morning we assembled in the theatre and waited while other colours were called. We were told that, although our car was at the dockside, the driver could not be found. After another 10 minutes rather anxious wait, we were finally called and went down the gangway to begin the search for our cases. When we found the correct area, there was no sign of our cases! I explained the position to the driver and giving him our hand luggage set off in search. Regent staff were conspicuous by their absence at this stage! I finally spied our smaller case on a cart about 50 yards away and, despite the protests of the baggage handlers, reclaimed it. No sign of the larger case anywhere, so back to the appointed area to wait in the hope it would turn up. My wife decided to have a good rummage, however, and after moving a very large case which was sitting at an odd angle, we discovered our own case buried beneath it. Mightily relieved, we were on our way. Again Regent was let down by its destinations staff and/or systems so that our final experience of the cruise was less than luxurious.
Overall, it was a very good cruise which could have been excellent but for the shortcomings of the destinations department. Would we do it again? Probably not in the same way: when shopping around, we would certainly discount the value of the included excursions in comparing Regent's prices with others. But the Mariner is a wonderful ship and I suspect we will sail on her again!