Monday, September 6, 2010

Seabourn vs. Silversea vs. Regent - Forget Loyalty; Which Provides the Best Luxury Cruise Experience?

UPDATEI have written a few articles since first writing this that are worth considering.  While the following article remains highly relevant, these articles are well worth considering when deciding which luxury cruise line most likely meets your desires.: 
I eoncourage you to search my blog for other articles on each cruise line.  (A Search feature is located on the left hand side.)  There is a lot of useful information, analysis and opinion here.

Now the original article!

OK, I admit it.  I am, at times, light a moth drawn to a light bulb.  Once in a while I get the urge to check out CruiseCritic to see what the few folks that do post there are saying about their cruises on Seabourn, Silversea and Regent.  (I also read some of the Crystal posts.)  There is a very similar themes when the threads are read on each cruise line and, to me, some of those consistencies are troubling.

Regent Seven Seas is the one that strikes me as the most disturbing.  There are service issues and then there are service issues.  Then again, there are service issues.  I will be perfectly honest:  My last cruise on Regent was on the Navigator in 2006. (I was on the Paul Gauguin in 2007, but as that is no longer a Regent product - and it was always different - I will not include it.)  At that time I saw an arrogance in the ship management (hotel director, front desk, tour desk, etc.) that exuded a "Sorry, deal with it" attitude, coupled with marginally acceptable stewardess service and dinner service in the Compass Rose that was pretty close to shocking.  And, to be sure, it was an improvement in many ways over my 2005 cruise on the Mariner. You can read about it here:  Goldring Travel Regent Navigator Review 2006

Now let's fast forward to 2010.  What is different?  What is improved.  What has changed?  I am struggling here. 

I really don't care where you get your cruise information, the complaints are the same...especially in the main dining room. Time after time, on website after website, I read about the misses in the Compass Rose at breakfast, lunch and dinner.  I have worked as a waiter in a summer camp and a bartender in a James Beard Award winning restaurant and I have seen enough superyacht and cruise ship galleys to really understand what it takes.  (And following around a particular waiter - as a few do - is a red flag:  It means most of the wait staff is incapable of delivering service!)  Seabourn delivers markedly better service.  Silversea delivers markedly better service.  And, folks, Celebrity delivers better service.  And you pay a premium to sail on the first to use the term "Six Star" cruise line because why?

Then there is the issue with consistent complaints about Regent having limited its menus and having made its food bland and uninteresting.  The irony here is that its sister line, Oceania Cruises, delivers consistently solid cuisine (if not luxury quality) and has an affiliation with Jacques Pepin.  Years ago I attended the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Colorado and Jacques Pepin held a seminar/demonstration on how to create a really wonderful and tasty meal for under $6.00 a person.

Folks, this ain't rocket science nor is it magic. It is about training and attitude from the top to the bottom. While I do not expect Regent to be serving extraordinarily expensive food all the time, I do expect that its chefs and cooks will be able to perform the simple tasks that can make a $0.10 egg into a treat and a chicken breast into a sumptuous and juicy event.  (Anyone watch "Master Chef" with Gordon Ramsey?  It is remarkable how simple technique makes all the difference.)  There just is no excuse for less than very good meals...ever.

And now I hear grumblings about the Prime 7 Restaurant. I was critical of Regent serving grotesquely oversized crab legs and steaks and declared it "not luxurious", but rather a waste and very middling.  Now a number of people are admitting it was uncomfortable being service huge portions, but are also complaining that the recent changes have made the portions too small and, of course, not consistently prepared to at least a "very good" standard. 

And, as I predicted, the "free" or "inclusive" tours are leaving many people wondering just what it was they were paying for.

Yes, the ships  are physically nicer and better kept now, but they are also completely full...which those ships really were never designed to be.  And, to be sure, if you compare the hardware and dining experiences available on Seabourn and Silversea...which are at lower prices, it leaves you wondering.  I mean it should leave you seriously wondering.   And remember folks, this is not only me talking.  This is a consistent mantra from past guests. 

So who is venturing onto Regent and finding things OK:  Those that may not know any better.  New cruising families; those moving up from NCL or Holland America.  You don't find many Seabourn or Silversea past guests deciding on cruising on Regent...and now you know why.  (For those moving up, please think about that.  You want to have the best cruise experience for your money...not one that may be better than the experience on a contemporary line.)

Silversea Cruises is another one...and this is soooo frustrating for me.  I want Silversea to succeed.  I want to have confidence in the product.  But I keep hearing of disappointments and very few raves.  I will not repeat my criticisms of the Silver Spirit (which you can quickly find by searching this blog), but rather will simply say that the ship is the result of a combination of financial problems, desires to cram in as many guests as possible, poor design and a troubling change in philosophy toward generating "onboard revenue" and reduced overhead costs....probably intended to be instituted fleetwide.

I can get over such things as eliminating complimentary caviar and even cheapening the ticket wallets.  (You would be surprised how many of my clients use Seabourn's optional e-Docs when the full presentation box remains the default choice, so you have to select e-Docs.)  What I can't get over is charging for specialty restaurants...and then charging for the liquor in the restaurants.What infuriated me is Silversea's automatic charge for a donation to the cruise line head's wife's charity...that you have to ask to be removed.

But what concerns me is the consistent mention of a reduced level of service; even more than the cuisine (notice I call it cuisine on Silversea and Seabourn, rather than food on Regent!) going from consistently excellent to consistently very good.  What is consistently reported is that there is a degraded attitude toward service.  Yes, most all will be done, but that is about it.  The reports are of a disconnect with the guests.  While remembering one's name may or may not be important, remembering birthdays or being greeted with a genuine smile or a bit of flare in the dining room do make huge differences.  (Even on the premium lines, I always point out to my clients that on Holland America the service is more of a subservient quality, while on Celebrity it tends to be more proactive and interactive.)  In other words, "Just Getting It Done" is not good enough when you are discussing a luxury product.

I also have concern about the cuisine, but not one that would make me avoid a Silversea cruise.  It seems to me that the flare and presentation is just not what it used to be.  Aside from some pretty common claims that the menus have become somewhat uninspired, there is a poster on CruiseCritic (TLCOhio) who loves to post photos about anything Silversea.  When I look at the cuisine, it looks good, but not great.  There is a polish in presentation and a fresh combination of ingredients (rather than mixtures) that seems to be consistently missing.  And then there is Hot Rocks Grill on the Silver Spirit.  I get having fun at dinner, but slapping huge hunks of meat on a stone and cooking it myself - while wearing a bib so the grease doesn't splatter on me - is not a luxury experience.  (We are talking a luxury cruise here, correct?)

A poster on CruiseCritic, Stines, created a very good comparison between Silversea and Seabourn which you can read here:  Stine's Review.  I think some of the comments by others are also enlightening.  What you need to remember is that what is important to him or some other poster may not be that important to you or may be coming from a different perspective.  My point, however, is that while comparing Silversea to Seabourn is worthwhile because they both (ship dependent) deliver a quality product, there are real differences both in quality and value.

The Yachts of Seabourn is, without question, the leader in luxury all-inclusiveness.  I will not repeat all of the inclusive, but will note what the others do not.  Seabourn does not charge for Alternative Dining which (ship dependent) ranges from grilled tiger prawns to Restaurant 2's tasting menu.  Nor does it charge for caviar.  It also doesn't cut back or "forget" to stock your in-suite bar.

The remarkable thing about Seabourn is that you never hear that you are not addressed by name.  Some experienced Seabourners have noted that they prefer the smaller ships because on the newer ones not everyone knows your name and the time spent on personal moments may been a bit less (I did not find this to be true, either for myself or any guests I have traveled with.) Note the issue is not the lack of recognition or personal treatment, it is that it has remained at the level it always has been on the smaller ships and that the larger ships may be slightly less.  (Note:  My latest rating from the Seabourn Odyssey:  11 out of 10.)

Complaints about Seabourn's cuisine?  Try these on: 

(A) "I am not allowed to special order meals (like a curry lunch or dinner) in the Colonnade, but have to dine in the Restaurant."  That's right, you can still special order, but not whole meals at any venue you desire.  And this is a real problem?

(B) "After 21 days the menu becomes repetitive."  Again, no complaint about slimmed down menus or falling off of cuisine quality.  Rather it takes about 3 weeks to start seeing the same menu options.  I did have a discussion with one client that noted the vegetable options on his Asia cruise was a bit more limited than he would have liked.  When I mentioned to him that provisioning for American/European tastes in Asia can be difficult, he responded, "But Seabourn told me they fly in the vegetables."  'Nuf said.

Another feature well worth noting is the space to passenger ratio and feel.  If you read the comments about a full Regent ship or a full Silversea Silver Spirit (albeit rare), you will be amazed at the comments about how spacious the Odyssey, Sojourn and soon to be Quest are.  Personally, I find there to be far more personal space on the larger Seabourn ships than the smaller ones...and that is saying something both as to design and a cruise line making sure you receive a luxury experience in luxury surroundings.

There you have it.  A straight up, albeit limited, comparison from my perspective.

If you think I have "missed the boat" drop me an email or post something on The Gold Standard Luxury Travel Forum.

If not, why not book your next cruise?  Let me know.