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Cruising Alaska in style

Anita Dunham-Potter

The Regent Seven Seas Mariner gracefully tiptoes into Yakutat Bay for an up-close encounter with Hubbard Glacier. Captain Guillou is determined to get as close as he safely can. It is a perfect day: The sun is shining, the water is dotted with ice floes, and two curious seals follow the ship into the bay.

You can sense the excitement in lecturer Terry Breen’s voice as we are able to get within half a mile of the glacier; two days earlier, the ship could get within only two miles. The ship is enfolded in silence, every passenger awed. Suddenly a thunderclap erupts in the stillness as a piece of the glacier “calves” into the sea. The sound echoes around us, the water trembling with giant ripples of waves. No wonder the native Tlingit people call the noise “white thunder.”

Alaska’s Inside Passage is an awe-inspiring spectacle of nature, with glaciers, snow-capped mountains, soaring eagles, humpback whales, gold rush towns, Russian intrigue and Native American legends. You see it all from the comfort of the Mariner.

Mid-size luxury

Formerly known as the Radisson Seven Seas Mariner, the luxury mid-size ship is now called Regent Seven Seas Mariner. At 48,000 tons and carrying 700 passengers and 445 crew members, the all-suite, all-balcony Mariner is the perfect ship for seeing Alaska in luxurious style. Its smaller size is an advantage, affording up-close encounters with glaciers and no lines for any activities. The inclusive fare includes gratuities and wine with dinner (starting in 2007, all shipboard alcoholic drinks will be included in the fare), so you are free to relax and enjoy being pampered without worrying about how the cost will add up.

Mariner is the essence of sophisticated elegance. You won’t find glitz and glamour, but rather a refined atmosphere of rich woods and tasteful décor that is more soothing than opulent. The six-story open atrium with its glass elevators is about as ostentatious as it gets on board; overall, the ship feels more like a stately home than an oceangoing vessel.

You’ll find many places to relax on the ship, including the popular library and Internet area which has comfy chairs, abundant games and puzzles, and a well-loved cappuccino/espresso/coffee machine (nicknamed “Starbucks” by the crew). The pool area is a good place to loaf in the sun, and the teak loungers are cushy. The Observation Lounge on Deck 12, which has floor-to-ceiling windows, is a great place to curl up — perhaps to read a book, watch the changing scenery or enjoy a cocktail.

With the new Regent name, the cruise line is upgrading many onboard amenities and adding enhancements throughout the fleet, including an upgrade to the furnishings in all staterooms and public areas. The redesigned staterooms will get new bedding, down duvets, high thread-count Anichini linens, cashmere throws, flat screen TVs and DVD players. In upper category suites, guests will be able to play iPods on stereo speakers. High-speed wireless Internet access and cell phone service will also be available on all ships. On Mariner, WiFi is currently available only in the library area, but other areas of the ship will be wired as “hot spots” in the coming months.

Suite life

The new upgrades to the cabins are just icing on the cake. In fact, the suite life aboard Mariner (and aboard her sister ship, Voyager) has always been great. The all-balcony configuration gives everyone a view, and the cabins are so comfortable and spacious that it is tempting to spend the whole day there. In my opinion, they are the best staterooms on any ship sailing today.

Mariner has 350 suite accommodations that range from a “Vista” suite, measuring 301 square feet, to the multi-room “Grand Suites,” which measure 1,486 to 2,000 square feet, including balconies. Butler service comes with the 90 largest suites.

My 449-square-foot “Penthouse Suite” on Deck 11 was wonderfully laid out and afforded plenty of space for me and my two children. Deluxe amenities included a generous walk-in closet area with drawers and tons of hangers, a huge wraparound sofa containing the cabin’s third berth, two lounging chairs, a large desk area with iPod docking speakers, a bar area with a refrigerator, a well-lighted vanity area, plush teak deck chairs, and a bathroom twice the size you’ll find on most ships. The deep soaking tub with massage showerhead was a great addition, though passengers over 6 feet tall might have trouble showering as the ceiling doesn’t reach very high. A bar setup with your choice of alcoholic beverage is part of the cruise fare. The only thing missing was a clock — an indication that life on a Regent ship is about getting away from it all.

The best part of our suite was our butler Nor. He anticipated all our needs and went above and beyond with added touches for the kids (every afternoon he would bring their most favorite thing: chocolate-covered strawberries). Our stewardess, Donna, attended to the suite twice a day and restocked our bar with our choice of beverages. Turn-down service always included chocolates on the pillows.

Between the service and the amenities, I found myself spending a lot of time in my cabin haven. What with the view and the ability to snuggle up in the plush deck chairs, why would I want to leave?

Dining

The dining options are quite surprising aboard the Mariner. There are four restaurants and a pool grill to try, or you can dine in-suite with lunch and dinner served course by course from the main restaurant menu. The Compass Rose restaurant on Deck 5 is the main dining room for breakfast, lunch and dinner. All meals are open seating, so you can dine when you like and either alone or with others. La Veranda restaurant on Deck 11, which has a breakfast and lunch buffet, takes on a trattoria-style atmosphere at night, offering a menu of cuisines from different regions. This was our favorite place to dine, especially during the “Mediterranean Bistro” evenings; the antipasto and entrees are excellent. The Poolside Grille offers a casual lunch menu in the afternoon, and a traditional high tea is served at 4 p.m. in the Observation Lounge.

Two restaurants require reservations: Latitudes, which serves Indochinese dishes family-style, and the intimate French restaurant, Signatures, the only restaurant at sea operated by chefs from Le Cordon Bleu. I found both to be outstanding.

Service is warm and friendly in all the restaurants, and there is a willingness to meet special requests. Even my kids’ craving for chocolate milk was accommodated by the staff, who returned with gourmet chocolate milkshakes custom-blended by the bartender.

Entertainment

The daily activities and entertainment offerings — from fitness classes to enrichment lectures — make the days at sea pass all too quickly. Terry Breen, Regent’s resident Alaska specialist, gives the best port lectures I’ve ever experienced on any ship.

I’m a bit jaded when it comes to shipboard entertainment productions, yet I was pleasantly surprised by the quality and variety of the evening shows in the Constellation Theater. After the show, the evening’s entertainment continued with musicians performing in the Observation Lounge. The Stars Nightclub disco operates into the wee hours. Another popular spot is the Connoisseur Club, where guests can settle into a comfortable English club chair and light up a stogie from the club’s humidor.

The casino is a small gaming room with blackjack and slots on the side. Shops, which are also small, carry some lovely high-end jewelry; a general store offers local souvenirs, jewelry, clothing and a few logo items. There are art auctions and a photo gallery, where guests can buy photos of themselves on the cruise. (One thing I didn’t like about this cruise it was the photographer shooting guests at dinner. I found it too “Vegas-like” — and out of character for Regent’s sophisticated ambiance.)

Pampering comes in the ship’s Parisian Carita spa, where both the Asian and European treatments book up early. I indulged in two massages during my trip and they were excellent. Across from the spa is a well-equipped gym that was always in use.

When in port, Regent offers many shore excursions, everything from flight-seeing to walks around the town walks. The best shore excursion was the Tracy Arm Fjord Cruise to the Sawyer Glaciers. Book early because this one sells out fast.

Regent families

Traditionally a line catering to an affluent older clientele, Regent has made efforts in recent years to appeal to families and cruisers of all ages; grandparents are particularly encouraged to bring their grandchildren. On my cruise there were more than 40 children, and most were traveling in large family groups. One family I talked to had four generations traveling together; it was truly wonderful to witness.

For kids 3 to 17, Regent offers supervised activities at certain times of the year, mostly on Alaska, Tahiti and holiday sailings. I wasn’t sure if my veteran kid cruisers (ages 11 and 9) would like a shipboard program that offered no designated children’s area. I needn’t have worried. In fact, the kids told me they’d never had as much fun with other kids as they did on this cruise.

Instead of offering the usual mindless kid cruise activities (computers and videos), the excellent counselors had the kids playing a lot of skill games along with team activities that allowed them to get to know each other better. There were also educational talks for the kids to learn more about Alaska. By the end of the cruise, addresses and e-mail information were being exchanged between newfound friends. I was truly impressed with the program.

Regent reflections

As I sat in the comfy confines of a plush wicker chair sipping a cappuccino from the “Starbucks,” I watched my kids playing a lively game of checkers. It’s the simple pleasures on board the Mariner that truly define this cruise. Sadly, this is something you won’t experience on many of today’s large cruise ships. Reflecting on my experience aboard the Seven Seas Mariner, I realized this was the most relaxing and carefree cruise I had enjoyed in years.

If you go

Regent Seven Seas Cruises is a luxury cruise line, and the average cruiser’s income is well into six figures. That being said, it can be an affordable option for those premium cruise line cruisers who are thinking about “trading up” to a luxury cruise line. Fares for the lowest stateroom category on Alaska sailings (remember, all the suites have balconies) start at $3,497 per person. Look for promotions that offer free airfare or special kids-sail-free deals.

June 19, 2006


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