I had turned down the initial preview press invitation because we were booked on the ship’s second inaugural sailing from Venice to Rome on an itinerary that included calls in Croatia, Montenegro, Greece and Italy. We were traveling with 38 clients on our annual client trip; 34 of our guests had previously traveled with Regent and its several five-star all-inclusive competitors. In some ways it was like traveling with three dozen Judge Judys, ready to observe, listen and then pass judgement. Would this sparkling new vessel pass muster? Was the hype really justified?
About the hype: Like most new builds, the superlatives began with the announcement of the new ship. This ship would have the largest cabins, the largest suite afloat, the most expensive chandelier and a Chagall and a Picasso among the 2,200 pieces of artwork. There was the usual collection of statistics: this ship would feature 52,000 square feet of balcony space, which actually breaks down to 138 square feet per cabin. On a typical two-week voyage it was predicted that just over 2,000 pounds of lobster would be consumed. Caviar would be served from time to time (there was a table display one day at lunch, and I noticed that no one was touching it.)
The consumer press was all over the story, having enjoyed their brief cruise before paying guests would board for the inaugural. So there had been a bevy of good PR for this ship, much of it totally justified.
But here is the thing about this ship’s hype: I have a bit of history with the Norwegian/Oceania/Regent group and their management. I remember when they launched the Oceania brand and they produced an introductory brochure that stated that they would have “the best cuisine at sea.” I had suggested that it might be prudent to wait until the ship was actually launched and serving meals before making such claims.
But I was wrong. The Oceania food hype was totally justified, and so were the pre-launch press releases about dining aboard the new Explorer.
I was unhappy disembarking because I had gotten into the ship’s rhythm, and I was able to forge a series of magnificent days.
Mornings were for sightseeing, walking or driving to places I have not been to in a while, updating hotels, restaurants and meeting locals who might be useful to me in the future. A shop here, a guide there, a hidden ice cream haven in Amalfi. The goal was filling an entire little black book.
But the late afternoon was for the spa, a quick shower, cocktails with clients and then a long, leisurely dinner with friends.
I won’t talk a great deal about the shore excursions since the reality is that cruise lines have less control in that area than the public imagines. On Regent they are, for the most part, included. In Taormina, for instance, you could get transfers to explore the town on your own. I noticed that Regent has pushed back the departure times of many of its morning shore offerings so guests can have a proper breakfast before going on tour around 10 a.m. Complimentary transfers were included into town where necessary. There were some longer stays. Regent is recognizing that sophisticated travelers want some down time, not a perfectly timed series of never-ending historical sightseeing marches through Europe’s churches.
Please forgive me, but I feel compelled to generate some of my own hype for the onboard Canyon Ranch experience. It was, simply put, the finest spa experience I’ve encountered in more than 30 years of travel.
Each of my scheduled services was preceded by a professional interview. Notes were taken and specifics were discussed that would truly personalize the experience. My massages were done by Thai therapists who began the deep tissue back massage by jumping up on the table with me. That allows for extra pressure from the knees and elbows.
One of my therapists explained that she felt she had found the core of my being, something I’ve been searching for these past several decades. It involved dripping oil and a single finger pressed down on a location near the center of my scalp. I actually saw heaven, and I had a Philly cheesesteak while I was there.
After the treatment, there are a bevy of relaxation venues, including a cold room with ice walls and a scented sauna. Afterwards, I walked out the back onto a private balcony with an incredible infinity pool hovering over the back of the ship. There, a spa butler brings you drinks while you spend as much time as you want to relax. I loved the infinity pool when the ship was in port; it provided a perfect vantage point to watch the action.
Much has already been written about the design of this new ship. Yes, there is marble on marble, stone and granite. The lighting was never glaring, always elegant, and after 10 days I was still discovering little design details like the lights in the main Compass Rose Restaurant, bursts of yellow along the side walls with shades of blue in the center of the room. You could actually hear guests discussing the lighting onboard.
There were more high ceilings than one expected, and some guests speculated that the “ship is half-empty” despite the fact that every single cabin was occupied. That is when a ship’s designers know that they got this one right.
But I prefer not to dwell on design. This ship was budgeted at $450 million, and it went over by more than a little; speculation is that it actually cost closer to $600 million. For that money, I would expect that the design would be exceptional.
It is, however, the human factors aboard a new ship that matter most. What is the ship’s lifestyle, and how does it mesh with the guest’s demographics? This is where the Regent Explorer achieves a sort of nautical nirvana. My group and I found we could live our lives on this ship, relaxing when we wished, butlers always on call, imaginative and memorable cuisine, culinary classes that were filled with great take-aways, an enveloping comfort of fine art and a spa that has no peer at sea.
It would be tempting to devote all of this space to a celebration of the cuisine aboard this ship. Lunch was satisfactory, but dinners were often spectacular, with even the most hardened critics finding lots to like about the staff and the innovative cuisine.
The toughest reservation seemed to be for the Pacific Rim. I barely made it into the restaurant, as I was totally taken by the $500,000 Tibetan Prayer Wheel at the entrance. Guests can pick any wheel, spin it and contemplate the message it contained. It was a thoughtful, distinctive piece of art made of cast bronze from Australia. It required a reinforced floor to support it. Most CEOs would never consider such an expense for something so unnecessary and challenging to install. But the entrance to this restaurant had to be memorable, and it is fully indicative of the amazing attention to deal that I found on this ship.
The art continued on the plates. There were Versaces at every setting, and each was themed. There was a sake menu, incredible appetizers including sushi and sashimi prepared by knowledgeable hands. The main dishes included a memorable miso cod, but the most popular dish was the lobster tempura served in a lobster shell.
One night we were seated in the Prime 7 steakhouse with friends in our group, a newscaster who had just returned from covering both political conventions. I ordered a 16-ounce T-bone steak because I knew they were using Colorado prime. The waiter leaned in and quietly whispered, “Sir, I can make that a 32-ounce cut if you would prefer.”
I declined, but it is really nice to know that there is a ship out there that provides more than you want and a lifestyle geared to exploration, relaxation and truly memorable dining experiences.
Was everything perfect? Of course not. But this was only the Explorer’s second sailing, and I expect that the needed service improvements will be initiated. For the record, disembarkation was totally impersonal. No one said goodbye to departing guests. The staff got low scores on our “recognition tests,” and guests were almost never addressed by name, a hallmark of luxury service.
But these things can be fixed. The fact is that the Explorer has emerged from the yard as a serious challenger to the title “Best Ship at Sea.”