(5:30 p.m. EDT) -- I've just returned from my 20th cruise to Alaska -- my favorite place to sail to -- and my first with Regent Seven Seas, having done everything from Carnival to Silversea - and even a stint working for Seabourn in the region. Regent purports to be the most luxurious and inclusive sailing in the 49th State; this year, Regent upped the ante by replacing the older Seven Seas Mariner, which had been a stalwart in Alaska for many seasons, with the newer and larger Seven Seas Explorer.
Regent's primary selling point for years has been its inclusiveness. Beverages (except connoisseur selections) are all included. Ditto for gratuities, all specialty dining restaurants, Wi-Fi access and even a broad selection of shore excursions. Aside from the spa and onboard gift shops, or elective purchases from the connoisseur's wine list, there's little to spend extra money on aboard a Regent cruise.
All that inclusion, however, comes at a price. Regent's fares are typically higher than its luxury compatriots Silversea and Seabourn and are leaps-and-bounds above what you'd pay for a suite on a mainstream ship sailing to Alaska.
Did the experience live up to expectations? Here's how the ship, and the trip, stacked up:
Launched in 2016, Seven Seas Explorer, is, by any definition, gorgeously designed. While the décor is darker and more masculine than sister-ship Seven Seas Splendor, Regent's designers have woven an embarrassment of riches into the ship's interior styling. From the grand staircase that sweeps attractively down the port and starboard sides of the ship's atrium to the old-world literary pleasures of the ship's extensive library (replete with floor-to-ceiling windows and the requisite leatherbound furniture), there is guaranteed to be a space aboard Seven Seas Explorer that speaks to you.
And that's a good thing. The 746-passenger ship instantly feels like home -- if home happens to be a grand country club decorated in exacting style. Some subtle additions to the ship include the Connoisseur Club smoking lounge and the ultra-popular Puzzle Corner that is tucked away off the interior promenade on Deck 5.
The crown jewel, particularly in Alaskan waters, is the Deck 11 Observation Lounge, offering sweeping views over the ship's bow and entertainment by day and night. From the lounge -- and indeed, our private balcony -- we watched whales breaching in the distance and dolphins swimming alongside, not to mention Alaska's gorgeous scenery rolling by around-the-clock.
Art lovers will find the ship worth sailing aboard if only to experience its multimillion dollar collection of works, many hand-picked by former Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings boss Frank Del Rio, himself an avowed art aficionado.
Wine lovers will delight in Seven Seas Explorer's complimentary and for-purchase reserve wine lists. A wide swath of vintages from around the globe are represented onboard, with extra add-on selections running from a few dozen -- to a few hundred -- dollars per bottle.
The same can be said of the extra-cost add-on experiences Regent offers passengers, like the Connoisseur Wine Lunch. Offered once per voyage for $169 per person, this two-hour culinary event was the highlight of our sailing, pairing five dishes with five vintage wines from around the world.
The most notable pairing: the black angus beef bulgogi, complemented with Shafer Hillside Select 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon -- a bottle that retails for nearly $400, for which pours were liberally dispensed to the three dozen or so people assembled at the luncheon held in the Pacific Rim Restaurant on Deck 5.
Other extra-cost events are suitably geared toward connoisseurs, including a vintage Macallan Tasting ($85 per person) and a Hennessy Tasting Journey ($89 per person). A boozy, complimentary wine journey was held in the ship's atrium on the first day at sea, which also did not disappoint.
While some areas of shipboard service were harried -- notably the pool grill, where finding someone to take your order always seemed to be harder than it needed to be -- most crew were incredibly kind, friendly and hardworking.
Like many luxury lines, the real benefit seems to be for passengers who have sailed with the line before. We witnessed passengers greet crew like old friends in bars and restaurants onboard, and crew seemed well-versed in the likes and dislikes of their most traveled guests. That's an important quality on a luxury line, where the cruise really is a home-away-from-home for these high-net-worth individuals.
And, of course, those fortunate to stay in Regent's top-of-the-line suites will experience commensurate service, thanks to the addition of butlers to the onboard roster of crew. (Not every suite aboard Regent is bestowed with the service).
The Serene Spa and Wellness Center located on Deck 5 aft is sublime. Not only does it have a quiet aft deck with an oversized whirlpool that's free to use, but the facility also throws in complimentary fitness classes like stretching, meditation and guided yoga and all the treatment options you could possibly want.
We partook in a 75-minute Swedish massage that proved to be the perfect antidote to a cold and rainy day in Juneau -- just one of the many treatments onboard. It was so good we actually fell asleep -- something that rarely happens to us during shipboard massages.
Be sure to make appointments early, however. Even on a ship this size, the plum spots days tend to book up very quickly.
Don't get us wrong: we're huge supporters of the new port development at Ward Cove, approximately a 20-minute drive west of Ketchikan. A co-partnership between Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings and Huna Totem Corporation (which also largely backs development of Icy Strait Point), the old mill site at Ward Cove has the potential to both revitalize a formerly abandoned industrial area and turn it into a mecca for outdoor adventures right in the heart of the Tongass National Forest.
But while other mainstream lines tie up in the heart of Ketchikan, within easy walking distance of all attractions, it felt like a miss to have to queue up for a bus into the heart of town from Seven Seas Explorer.
Why does that matter? Because having to take a bus starts to dramatically cut down your time ashore. Arriving at 10 a.m., the earliest you can reasonably be in Ketchikan is an hour later, at 11 a.m. The last shuttle returns to the ship at 4:30 p.m., despite the ship remaining in port until 6 p.m.
On paper, passengers have 8 hours ashore. In reality, it's barely 5½ .
So, while those aboard Holland America's Volendam enjoyed a full day in Ketchikan before easily ambling back to their ship, passengers aboard the far-more-expensive Seven Seas Explorer had to get on an old converted transit bus and head 20 minutes out of town more than 90 minutes before they were due to even sail.
Ward Cove is a developing port. In time, it could be that it will be more popular than Ketchikan itself. But, for the moment, it doesn't feel commensurate with the luxury experience guests on Seven Seas Explorer would expect.
While having complimentary shore excursions is arguably a whale of a perk, it's not all roses --at least, in Alaska. The included excursion list is fairly ho-hum and includes plenty of tours that are offered on Regent's lower-priced cousin, Norwegian Cruise Line, as well as other cruise lines.
Regent is missing some of the more interesting tours other lines have put together in the region: Disney Cruise Line, for example, offers several excursions focused on Tlingit culture, and Princess Cruises has partnered with Discovery Channel for some unique adventures ashore. Hands-on experiences like horseback riding the Chilkoot Trail are missing entirely from Regent's offerings, and the line lacks exclusive tours that other luxury companies have developed, a la Seabourn and its additional-fee Ventures program that offers expedition-style excursions in Alaska's most remote reaches.
Pricing for some of the add-on tours is quite high. Regent prides itself on its culinary programs aboard and ashore, but it's hard to envision what the $329 per person chef-led culinary tour of Juneau would include. This isn't wine country, and the only Michelin you'll find in the State sells tires. It's more a function of a tour that likely works great in the Mediterranean not really translating to Alaska.
Are the free excursions on offer a value? Most definitely, and for the first-time cruiser exploring Alaska, there's sure to be something that Regent offers that fits the bill. Having them rolled into the price provides great piece of mind. We'd just like to see Regent really lean into this and craft some truly luxury experiences ashore in The Last Frontier that help set the line apart.
Ultimately, luxury lines carry an expectation of an excellent dining experience. And what we found is this: The cuisine onboard our sailing was merely OK.
To be clear, there are flashes of brilliance. Our meal at Chartreuse, Seven Seas Explorer's upscale specialty French restaurant, was exceptional on every level. And several dishes in the Compass Rose main restaurant were good to excellent -- usually the pasta dishes or initial appetizers, some of which include Alaska seafood.
Overall, however, cuisine just can't stack up to Regent's other luxury competitors -- or even its more downmarket relative. Sister-brand Oceania, for example -- a line that clocks in at nearly half the starting rate Regent goes for on many itineraries -- had cuisine that left us more than satisfied thanks to its superb presentation and crisp, clean flavors.
Red meats were an unusually weak spot for a line at this caliber. Food is incredibly subjective, but I've never encountered a meal I didn't enjoy -- until this cruise, when one prime rib entrée came out looking (and tasting) neither prime nor rib. Garnished with a lonely sprig of broccoli and some vegetables, it made me feel ill.
Another oddly difficult spot concerned room service, which we ordered each morning to bring coffee and tea to the room. Two mornings, our order came with no tea and only coffee. One morning it came with two hot waters and no coffee. And the last morning saw it come with coffee, tea, two saucers, and only one cup.
Regent has legions of loyalists who love the line; indeed, many on our sailing praised the ship, the ports of call and the onboard amenities.
But several, however, talked wistfully about preferring other luxury cruise lines. Others we chatted with had never sailed on another luxury cruise.
There might also be a bit of a function of Regent's high cost at play, with high-net-worth individuals possibly choosing it simply because it frequently offers the most expensive cruise. (We have no doubt the line's massive, top-of-the-line suites speak for themselves in terms of value.)
One travel agent we spoke with was receptive to the Regent experience but lamented its cost, noting for the money, other options, including private suite enclaves on big cruise ships, offer more value.
One aspect of Regent that pleasantly surprised us in Alaska was the sheer number of multigeneration families aboard. Staff even turned the Card Room on Deck 11 into a sort of makeshift kids club for the mostly teens and tweens.
It feels like Regent needs a little tweaking in Alaska. We found ourselves missing the little touches other lines, even the mass-market mainstream ones, roll out in Alaska.
You won't find hot towels or Champagne when returning to the ship in port like luxury brands Silversea and Seabourn do, nor will you find cups of mulled wine and boozy hot chocolate for glacier-day viewing, like Royal Caribbean and Holland America Line provide to passengers for an extra charge. Carnival Cruise Line delighted us last year, with a surprising number of Alaskan-themed activities and lectures; an unusual move for a line that prides itself on its uber-casualness.
Will you enjoy your cruise to Alaska with Regent? Yes. Will you come home being a lifelong convert to the line? That's harder to say. In a place like the Mediterranean, some of these small misses will likely be less apparent, and there's no faulting the ship or its crew. But in the ultra-competitive Alaska market, Regent stumbles by not fully embracing the destination in a way its other lines do.
With the line's newest ship, Seven Seas Grandeur, launching before year's end, Regent's chance to innovate will come again. We look forward to seeing how Regent expands its Alaskan presence in years to come now that Seven Seas Explorer is firmly on the schedule.
If cost is no matter and inclusions and ease-of-use are important to you, Regent's pricing model and exquisite ships make it easy to enjoy a slice of the good life without having to worry about the little details.