Regent Seven Seas Cruises' Mariner: Panama Canal
About the Virtual Cruise
Sail through the Panama Canal as Cruise Critic's virtual correspondent Steve Faber cruises on Regent Seven Seas' Mariner. Faber details on- and off-the-ship experiences aboard this all-suite luxury vessel as the ship sails from Ft. Lauderdale to Los Angeles and visits Grand Cayman, Puntarenas, Huatulco and more along the way. One special feature of Mariner's Panama Canal transit? The ship crosses this historic waterway first during the daytime, stops to let passengers off for an excursion, and then reboards them and continues cruising through the locks at night.
Steve is a longtime contributor to Cruise Critic and, now, a regular contributor to Cruise Critic's Cruise News & Reviews. Beyond our publications, his work has appeared in a myriad of outlets, including Cruise Travel, the Miami Herald and in The Total Traveler Guide to Worldwide Cruising.
Day 1: Tuesday, Ft. Lauderdale
What goes around comes around: The last time I transited the Panama Canal (and the only time, for that matter) was in 1998 aboard Holland America's Maasdam. I disembarked that cruise with two wishes for the future: one that I could return for a repeat visit through this marvel of engineering, and the other to do the trip in better weather (on my previous sailing we were dogged by the fringes of Hurricane Gilbert).
So it wasn't surprising that I would leap at the chance to do it again, especially since the vessel would be Regent Seven Seas Cruises' Seven Seas Mariner. Till now I hadn't had the opportunity to sail this gracious upscale line which rates so high in the rankings of every publication and survey (Cruise Critic's included). A mid-size, 46,000-ton ship, Mariner carries only about 700 guests, with an extremely expansive guest-to-space ratio of 67, much of it generated by Mariner's all-suite design; the bottom-end stateroom measures over 300 square feet, and every suite has a private balcony, a major boon to transiting the canal. Add to that the ship's reputation for fabulous service and cuisine served in four distinctly different restaurants.
On this voyage, our itinerary is a bit more of a mixed bag. Of course, on both sailings the full canal transit was the centerpiece, but on my Maasdam cruise we had had more port calls in Central America, visited less often by typical cruise itineraries; I would have liked to have had the opportunity on this sailing to visit the great Mayan ruins at Tikal (in Guatemala) or those in Copan, Honduras.
On the plus side, our itinerary on Mariner would do something highly unusual: break up the canal transit into two pieces. We'd go though the first set of locks (at Gatun), then anchor in Gatun Lake and tender to the Gatun Yacht Club for shore exploration and refreshments before weighing anchor and sailing through the remainder of the locks into the Pacific during nighttime hours, a new experience for me which I enthusiastically looked forward to.
One other aspect of this cruise that I highly anticipated was the large number of sea days: five out of a total itinerary of 14 days. Sea days are wonderful, relaxing respites from high-energy touring, but usually differ little one from the next. So, unless something unusual pops up on a sea day (a school of giant squid, or a chorus line of mermaids doing a can-can), my plans are to condense our 14 days into ten reports, and spare the reader yet another tale of being waited on hand and foot while reclining on a poolside chaise!
Our departure was midweek, so the port was relatively quiet -- the only ships there were
Mariner and Carnival's Legend, and, even though we arrived during
"Embarkation Rush Hour" (half past noon), we were spared the usual
seemingly endless parade of giant motor coaches clogging the port
entrance. After showing our cruise docs and passports to port
security we were directed to the baggage drop-off at Pier 25, where
we were met by a chipper lady in RSSC livery, who greeted us, offered
to answer any questions, and escorted a porter back to the car to
offload the bags.
After parking the car we returned to the terminal, and, unexpectedly,
to long check-in lines moving at a pace that could be overtaken by
Alaska's Mendenhall Glacier. This surprised me -- that in an era of
accelerated check-in processing and Internet pre-based registration
and on a ship of just 700 passengers we waited in line for a solid
hour. Finally, at 1:30 p.m., we finally set foot on the polished
marble floors of Mariner's atrium reception area.
On this all-suite ship, cabins are not ready until 2:30 p.m., so we
were directed to the Mariner Lounge, where we could enjoy a
complimentary glass of sparkling wine. Snaking
through the lounge was yet another endless line of guests, who were,
we were informed, waiting to book reservations in one or both of
Mariner's optional, reservations-only restaurants. I couldn't
understand the wisdom of queuing up immediately on arrival when we
would have two full weeks onboard to plan and enjoy meals. Sure enough, we
were informed by helpful stewards that booking on the first afternoon
was totally unnecessary, and that reservations could easily be made
during the next couple of days or at any time by dining room
personnel in Compass Rose, the ship's primary dining venue, or, for
passengers in the top eight categories of accommodations, by their
butlers. We waited comfortably in the Mariner Lounge, though passengers could of course also head to the pool deck for a light lunch served at the grill station.
On the dot of 2:30 p.m. we ventured to our Category SSA (Seven Seas
Aft) suite, a lovely corner unit at the aft end of the ship with a
separate bedroom and living room. The color palette is comprised of pastel blues, golds, taupes and mauves. The warmth of the room is accentuated by ample use of cherry-hued wood accents, trim and wall units. Like much of the ship, decor has an open feel to it and is somewhat spare in terms of artwork.
But the feature that gets the most raves -- especially on a ship such
as this where guests tend to dress at the upper end of the dress code -- is the walk-in closet. In our case, it was more of a walk-through closet, which connected the bedroom and bath.
After settling in and dealing with the obligatory boat drill, we
decided it was time we made the acquaintance of our butler, who could
be summoned any time between 6:00 a.m. (7:00 a.m. on sea days) and
10:00 p.m. by pressing the "Butler" button on the suite's telephone.
Within five minutes Saurabh, dressed in full butler uniform, appeared
at our door, ready to introduce himself and to take any orders or
requests we might have. We asked him to request dining reservations
for us in Signatures, the classic French eatery operated under the
auspices of Le Cordon Bleu, and for Latitudes, the cutting-edge world
cuisine restaurant. Saurabh promised to get back to us tomorrow with
the confirmations. He also inquired as to our liquor preferences, as
all passengers aboard get two complimentary bottles of the libation
of their choice, which appeared in our suite sometime during dinner.
Unpacking, for once, was a pleasure because we discovered that there actually
was drawer and shelf space we hadn't used, a first for us. Then we
headed to Horizon, Mariner's secondary entertainment lounge (bingo,
teas, quizzes, etc.) for a pre-dinner drink. Set at the very aft end
of the ship with panoramic views to the rear and sides, its decor,
like that throughout the vessel, reflected a "Nautical Deco" theme,
offering a warm ambience with ample expanses of wood and the
unusual, sharp geometric shapes and curves emblematic of that era.
Unlike many ships nowadays which vary decor, style and themes from
room to room, Mariner is remarkably consistent in style from stem to
We found the room inviting and welcoming, with a great spread of hors
d'oeuvres and snacks (egg rolls, steak mini-skewers, seafood toasts
and assorted cold canapes), which we appreciated, having opted not to
bother with an actual lunch after overindulging
in the canapes earlier while waiting for our suited to be readied.
But by now we were getting hungry again. At 7:30 p.m. we made our way to the ship's main restaurant,
Compass Rose is Mariner's primary restaurant, and is a
bit of a paradox, offering elements that are both contemporary and
retro. It follows the modern trend of open seating; you choose your
dining time (between 7:00 and 9:00 p.m.) and whether you wish to dine
alone or with friends, or to join or be joined by other guests. On the
retro side of the equation, the room is placed and styled like dining
rooms of the past, a single deck in height, centered fore and aft.
Its other most notable retro feature is a smoking section, unusual
for ships so heavily targeted to the U.S. market.
When we asked to be seated at a table for two, we were told that it
would not be possible immediately, that on the first night out,
nearly all passengers ask to sit alone (having not made friends
onboard as of yet). The only option, other than waiting for a table
to open, was to take a couple of seats in smoking. We were told by
the apologetic maitre d' that after the first night, getting a table
would be much easier.
There is no doubt that Mariner's culinary pedigree is French, judging
by the menu choices and predominantly Gallic serving staff (who exhibited, on this first night out, what many Americans complain about French waiters: a bit of impatience and a lack of warmth). But all was forgiven with
the appearance of our menu choices, which were beautifully presented
and drop-dead delicious. The menus are broken down into
three sections: a la carte, specialty choices (low carb, light and
healthy, vegetarian, no added salt, and "simplicity," i.e., comfort
food), and a degustation (tasting) menu -- a six-course fixed menu of
small portions. My wife tried the tasting menu, which included a
seafood appetizer, consomme, steamed mussels, a palate-cleansing
Kahlua Coffee sherbet and a main course of chicken breast stuffed
with prosciutto and mozzarella.
The degustation menu is made up of some choices exclusive to it and some from the regular menus, and it is important to note that you can "mix and match," which is what I did, substituting a spinach salad for the mussels and a rib eye steak for the chicken breast. All were delicious.
Sated with dinner, we made our way forward to the main show lounge, the Constellation
Theater, which has one of the best layouts we've experienced at sea. This room
has absolutely superlative sightlines, with nary a support
pillar on the lower level. Tonight, RSSC's longtime cruise director Barry Hopkins offered the typical "Welcome Aboard" show, to be followed by a stand-up comic. Though our intentions were
good, and we even elected to order double espressos in lieu of
post-prandial liqueurs, the exhaustion of a full day of travel caught
up with us, and with the thought of our suite's down comforter
calling to us, we made our way back to the suite for a well-earned