Thursday, August 17, 2017

The "Crazy" Cheerleaders Like TravelCat2 on Cruise Critic - Why You Can't Blindly Trust What is Posted There

Over the past two weeks I wrote a number of detailed articles about my August 1, 2017 cruise on the Regent Seven Seas Voyager.  (You can read my article, which links to the others:  Goldring Travel Revisits Regent Seven Seas Cruises (Seven Seas Voyager: August 1, 2017) - Caveat Emptor! Consistently Inconsistent: Not a "Six Star Luxury" Cruise Experience.)

Last evening a woman, Jackie Ross (known as TravelCat2 on CruiseCritic.com's message boards felt compelled to engage in some personal attacks on Facebook after reading the above article. Spreading her comments over two different postings of the article she wrote:
Have you noticed how few people are reading your posts? And almost no one is "liking" them. Perhaps you will take the hint!
You have blasted Regent for years and years. Give all of us a break and stop talking about them. Yes - the Seven Seas Voyager is an older ship. I would recommend trying the Explorer but you would likely criticize them as well. What kind of TA are you? All of us have preferences, but few people (almost no TA's) are as bombastic and critical as you are. I am thankful that you will likely be not be cruising Regent again. Regent is simply too good for the likes of you!
The reason I started writing articles was because I became so frustrated with people like Ms. Ross (TravelCat2) spewing inaccurate, misleading and even outright false information on CruiseCritic.com. It got so bad that the website suspended and then banned me because "I wasn't there"; to which I would retort, "If the event complained of didn't happen, or the information is wrong, then the poster that wrote about is wasn't there either!"

It was also a point of frustration for me that somehow this small band of people that represent far less than one (1%) percent of the cruising public and who take a cruise once, maybe twice, a year somehow are unwittingly seen as providing "expert" or even accurate advice.

Long story short, after I was banned I decided to start what was a relatively new thing:  A Blog.  I would write honest, candid and opinionated articles where the truth matters, rather than some emotions (or, believe it or not, seemingly psychotic) based drivel ion CruiseCritic.  And that is how Making Waves (formerly This Is My Yacht) was created.

Now with over 1,500 articles Making Waves is a resource that many people around the world use. My articles are distributed and found through a wide variety of social media such as subscribed emails, RSS feeds, visits to the Goldring Travel website, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and, without limitation, organic searches on Google, Bing and other search engines. And my writings have garnered me a reputation for being candid, fair and honest.  Quite frankly, they have created bit of credibility and stature in the travel industry; something that I work hard to earn and honor every day.

So with that I figured I would, in good faith, take TravelCat2's attack (I mean comments) and do what I never do: Look at CruiseCritic to see what others are saying.

  • I said the L'Occitane bath amenities dries your hair.  Mudhen, on August 13, 2017, commented that she didn't like the L'Occitane shampoo either.
  • TravelCat2 (see above), on August 15, 2017, criticized the onion rings at the Patio Grill and Prime 7 (though she said the hamburgers and hot dogs are "great"...and you saw what I posted, so take it with a grain of salt.)
  • I noted the drawer space was limited.  So did jssabs on August 17, 2017.
  • I criticized the staff.  jssabs, who also just got off the Voyager wrote exactly what I did:
    • "I was disappointed with the level of service on Voyager. Service was very spotty in the Compass Rose and was not good at all on the pool deck. It appeared that there were just not enough wait staff or else they were poorly deployed.
  • I cautioned you about using Regent Seven Seas "free air" as being a potential nightmare.  On July 1, 2017 nigelc wrote:
    • "you can imagine my surprise when I received details of the flights Regent were planning to book for me. Rather than the direct Heathrow to Miami flight that I had expected...they expect me to fly to Newark, wait nearly five hours and then fly onto Miami - turning a simple 9 hr flight into a 17 hr marathon.... Hardly, the start to the 5 star experience promised by Regents marketing....Great having 6 star ships, but if getting to them is hell - what's the point?" (Note: TravelCat2's response was pay $350 for air deviation...but then you are still limited to certain of Regent's contracted carriers other flights.)
I could go on and on and on. And this is the problem with CruiseCritic:  There is some accurate information, but you cannot possible tell which is and which isn't.  Heck, Ms. Ross (TravelCat2) may think the Regent Seven Seas hot dogs and hamburgers are "great", but you can decide if you want to rely on her opinion.  Personally I prefer a top and bottom hamburger bun, actual lettuce, a meaty burger...and a hot dog that doesn't look like this:



If you want to rely upon her opinions - focused solely on making Regent (her choice) wonderful in everyone's eyes, go ahead.  Possibly Ms. Ross' complaints about my writings are not about them being inaccurate, but rather that Regent Seven Seas Cruises is being called out for the lower quality cruise product they are, while pitching they are Six Star Luxury.

As I wrote about Regent:  Caveat Emptor!  (Let the Buyer Beware!)  If you want to stay in the same corporate family, book a cruise on Oceania Cruises.  It can be a much as half the price of a Regent cruise and the cuisine and service is better. Book one of its newer ships (Marina or Riviera) and your accommodations will be better too.

Goldring Travel has only one objective:  Providing honest and objective information and opinion. Why?  We want you to be so confident with what we say that you book your travel with us.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Goldring Travel Revisits Regent Seven Seas Cruises (Seven Seas Voyager: August 1, 2017) - Caveat Emptor! Consistently Inconsistent: Not a "Six Star Luxury" Cruise Experience

I boarded the Regent Seven Seas Voyager for a ten day cruise from Rome to Barcelona with an open mind and a desire for my existing negative opinion of the cruise line to be proved wrong.  Heck, I passionately didn’t want to be right. This is a cruise line I experienced all the way back when it was Radisson Seven Seas and have previously sailed on the Diamond, Paul Gauguin, Navigator and Mariner…in that order and observing declines pretty much with each cruise.

Regent Seven Seas Voyager
Regent Seven Seas Cruises touts itself as “Six Star Luxury”. which offers “free air”, “free hotel”, “free tours”, “free gratuities”, etc.  That is a very high bar…and Regent set that bar and my expectations.

Adding to Regent’s hype, it now claims it has “The Most Luxurious Cruise Ship at Sea” in the Seven Seas Explorer and the rest of its fleet having had millions of dollars in renovations just completed.  Plus Regent also claims that with its new menu in the Compass Rose (the main restaurant) there are over 1,000 culinary possibilities.  (I would note that only days ago NCLH – Regent’s parent company – issued a statement that it has reduced it’s food costs, in part by “redefin(ing) our menus”.)

The Short Answer

So with that introduction and elevated expectations, I embarked the Seven Seas Voyager (which was Regent’s flagship until the Explorer launched last year) with my daughter, presented with a cheap glass of champagne…and we, unfortunately, disembarked relieved that the experience was over. Both my daughter and I agreed that the premium Celebrity Cruises provides a higher quality experience.

And, most certainly, Regent Seven Seas Cruises cannot hold a candle to, say, a Seabourn or Crystal Cruise experience when it comes to the staff, cuisine and hardware.  But I will say that I did meet at least one Regent loyalist (all cruise lines have them) that said he had been on Seabourn, but preferred Regent by far.  However, when I politely pressed him on why, he could not give me a single reason other than the packaging of tours, hotel and air.  There is a market for everyone.

Why Was I Sailing on Regent Seven Seas Cruises?

So why did I take this cruise? 

First, I was hosting a group for Ensemble Travel and, therefore, an Ensemble Experience in Les Baux de Provence, France.  Second, I was using the cruise as father-daughter time.  Third, the more luxury cruise products I can sell the better.  And, contrary to the concept thought of by some, while I sell a lot of Seabourn cruises (vanilla ice cream), I want to have other flavors/styles I can also sell with a solid recommendation (Regent being, say, chocolate ice cream).  And, let’s face it:  If the ship doesn’t go where you want when you want, you aren’t going to go on it, so I need viable options for my clients.

So with that…these are My Reflections of my experience.  You can read my six previous articles, upon which this article is based, if you want all the detail via these links:



The “Free” (Included) Stuff

Before I talk about the suites, restaurants, etc., there are a few items which Regent focuses on as being Six Star Luxury, value and convenience propositions that need to be discussed so that you can fully appreciate the product and the marketing associated with it:

-       Included (“free”)
* Tours
* Internet
* Airfare
                  * Hotels
                  * Gratuities

These are all things you pay for, as nothing is “free”, but they are “packaged” based upon the category of your suite, so let me clarify them…and how they affect, or don’t affect, the cruise experience: 

-       Airfare – If you don’t take Regent Seven Seas air, you get a credit, so it is not “free”, but packaged.  If you purchase a more expensive suite you may get “free” or supposedly highly discounted business class air.  (Remember you are paying more, so you need to do the math.) But you do not get to choose your airlines or flights…generally unless you want to pay extra.  If you don’t want to think about arranging air, and some people don’t, it is an option. But if you have a good travel agent, it simply is not worth it.  (It’s not like Regent runs the airlines so the inflight experience is the same.)

-       Hotels – You only get a single hotel night if you book in one of the upper categories, so you are actually paying for that hotel in your fare.  Again, if you don’t take the hotel, you get a credit so, again, it is simply “packaged”.  If you want extra nights it may cost you more than if you booked outside of Regent as it is charged on a per person, not per room, rate.

-       Internet – Here Regent does it right.  You get “always on” (in theory…it is a ship) internet at no additional cost.  If you don’t use it you do not get a credit.  I found that, overall, it performed well.  On, say Seabourn, unlimited internet for the length of your cruise is $399.  On Silversea you get an hour a day included in your fare.

-       Tours – Regent offers a number of “free” tours in each port.  If you don't take a tour you do not get a credit.  The quality of these bus tours vary from excellent (for a ship’s tour) to painful.  You may have 10 people or, in one case for me, over 200 people in 10 groups converging on one small venue.  None of the “free” tours include meals and if you want a bottle of water it will cost you one Euro (1€ ).  One thing I found shocking was that Regent did not have a person on the tours (except the last day…which might be because I wrote about it during the cruise).  I added up the estimated cost of the bus tours, three of which were merely long transfers, and estimate that high quality private shared small group– not bus – tours could have been provided for about $1,000 per person...if you want to take tours every day..  So for group tours it would be substantially less…

-       Gratuities – All of the luxury lines have included gratuities.

So with that I made a concentrated effort to try a variety of “free” tours (and they are noted as “free” on the order form placed in your suite).  I made a similar effort to dine in every venue and to visit the various public areas.  I wanted to see and experience as much as I could. 

The Staff

One of the most frustrating things during my cruise was the inconsistency of the staff and crew quality.  There were a few crew that were excellent, but they were far and few between.  So many of the crew were “delivery services” and nothing more; not interacting with the guests.  Some had looks of total disinterest and/or exhaustion.  

Others clearly were not trained, but simply had moved up the ranks.  I have seen this before:  A busboy becomes an assistant bartender because the assistant bartender left or moved up.  That busboy eventually becomes the bartender…and all he knows is what he learned “on the job”…whether right or wrong.

Yet others simply do not have the mastery of the English language, so you either don’t understand what you ask for or your request is met with an acknowledging smile and then goes off somewhere in outer space.  At times, it made simply ordering a food item or a drink frustrating.

As an example, my stewardess was very nice and did a decent job, but I told her every night at 6:30 pm for the first five nights to please turn our beds down after 8:30 pm because we go to dinner late…and every night she still came by at 6:30 pm to turn down our beds…because she thought I only meant that night.  I had to remember to put the privacy tag on the door to fend off this relaxation-ending knock on the door over the last days of the cruise.

There are also staffing issues as it is very clear there are not enough staff resulting in poor service, stressed out staff or the good ones running like crazy.  Some of them are simple:  Have an attendant in the Connoisseurs Club cigar lounge so people don’t have to walk across the ship to get a drink or cigar…because the able staff also has to take care of the Voyager Lounge.  Or waiting extended periods for service at the Patio Grill or even the restaurants...with dishes served with a rush or wine glasses sitting empty.

In the end, if you want to have an interactive experience with the staff, Regent is not the cruise line for you.  Yes, you can find a few that you can, but overall it isn’t going to happen. 

The Tours

As I mentioned, there was significant inconsistency in the tours. 

One “On Your Own” tour (to Florence) had a guide that gave a lot of good background information and what to see/do (along with a pitch to buy in certain shops) and a safe bus driver, while another (to Barcelona) had an assistant rather than a guide who said nothing substantive to the guests, but talked to the bus driver who had her phone mounted to the windshield so she could read her texts while talking…oh, yeah, and driving. 

Regent Seven Seas Cruises should assure
this NEVER happens on one of its tours!
The worst, however, was the tour to Cinque Terre was a disaster with many unhappy guests with literally hours wasted.  An assumed charming boat ride with a few other guests, was in reality, a very hot, very slow, ferry ride with 200+ guests with each of the 10 tour guides essentially repeating the same information over the speaker system. And when the village was finally reached, the "boat load" of people overwhelmed the venue so badly that it became “survivor” rather than a luxury immersive experience.

A "boat load" of Regent Seven Seas guests overwhelming
an otherwise quaint village in Cinque Terre
Meanwhile my small group Valencia at a Glance and Wine Tasting tour was wonderful, as was my early morning wine tasting in Ajaccio, Corsica, as well as my wine tasting in Nice (which was an interesting and unusual affair worth doing); though hours were spent wandering the towns, which I would have much preferred to do in my own time and without guides.

An interesting wine tasting/cultural lesson in Nice, France.

Valencia's City of Arts & Sciences
Especially on a "Six Star Luxury" cruise line:

-       Consistency is required. 
-       Small groups are required. 
-       Accurate descriptions are required.
-       High quality, relevant, content is required.

Alas, if something is “free” but it cheats you out of the travel experience you are pining for it can be extremely expensive.

The "Cuisine"

Another area of significant disappointment was the cuisine.  Some of the food was just inedible and others were sloppily made, while in limited instances it was quite good.  Now I will tell you that I did hear people rave about it…which I, honestly, was baffled by.  But there are people that either don’t know or don’t care about or don’t want “cuisine”.   Again:  Inconsistency.

I am expanding my comments here because dining is, for most luxury guests, extremely important.  It is, in fact, for many a daily highlight.  Remember these examples are all from a single ten day cruise...and there are more cuisine faux paus.

Example One: The Compass Rose menu has a concept of about ten proteins (fish, beef, chicken, etc.) and a dozen or so sauces.  One would think that the meats or fish would then be cooked with the sauces, but instead you are given a bowl with the sauce to pour over it.  For my “flavor” to be spooned over my food by me renders it not “cuisine”, but – like some of the staff – a lazy delivery system of food; nothing more.  There is absolutely no integration of flavors.  This is not “luxury” unless you being empowered to pick a sauce gives you the feeling of being a culinary master is “your luxury”.

I admit that I was skeptical of this concept from the start because I want the chef to create a culinary experience for me; not me figure out what goes with what.  But for me to quickly figure out that this concept resulted in the proteins being precooked and waiting to be delivered bare naked…which is why they were consistently dry…so that Regent Seven Seas Cruises could eliminate chefs and use cooks...was insulting. 

Example Two:  I ordered asparagus in Compass Rose.  A gloppy overcooked mess was delivered in a round bowl.  Seriously:  If you can put asparagus in a round bowl you know it is overcooked.  So I tried in Prime 7 and it was served on a rectangular plate but was again soft overcooked and wilted.  So I tried yet again in another restaurant and got the same result.  To me this is one of the “Little Things” that discloses many deficiencies…and the lack of Luxurious cuisine.

Example Three:  In Prime 7, the steakhouse, I ordered the Alaskan Crab Legs.  They came pre-cracked, but were basically piled on a plate with no effort to make them look like “cuisine”.  I have dined in many steakhouses, including some of the world’s best, and dumping cracked crab on a plate is not even an option, but crab salads or stone crab claws are.  (Check out Smith & Wollensky or Capital Grille menus if you don’t believe me.) And then I was not offered a finger bowl or wet towel.  Shocking!

Crab served properly in Prime 7:   A Crab Cake...small but good.
Crab not properly served: Prime 7.
Hey, at least give me a finger bowl!
Example Four:  On every cruise I order a hot dog and hamburger.  I do this because I can always tell a lot from how the simplest of dishes are prepared.  (See my asparagus observations above.) I was served two bottom buns on my smallish hamburger accompanied by scraps of lettuce along with a single slice of tomato and onion.  And my pretty tasteless hot dog was served on a soft, soggy, bun accompanied by a dusting of something that was supposed to be sauerkraut.  

Regent Seven Seas Patio Grill served my hamburger
with two bottom buns.
Looks like a burger from a late night diner, doesn't it?  Not luxury!
Compare what Crystal Cruises serves here and Seabourn here.

Example Four and a Half:  Also at the Patio Grill, the sorrowful fish scrapes I was served in this venue being blackened snapper actually topped my list for “Are you seriously serving me this?!”  Besides being served scrapes, you need to look at the size of the scrapes by comparing it to the French fries.

Regent Seven Sea Voyager's Patio Grill Blackened Snapper:
Tiny overcooked scraps of fish.
Use the French fries to appreciate the size of the fish scraps. Seriously?
Example Five:  My daughter ordered spaghetti with pesto when we boarded the ship.  It was clearly pre-cooked and kept in warm water and then drained just before it was sauced and served, resulting in an overcooked, watery, tasteless mess.  A few nights later I ordered pasta in the Compass Rose and encountered the same thing but with a flavorless, last minute, tomato sauce.  Actually the “best” spaghetti was served by room service.  (I did have one perfect order of pasta served my first time dining in Sette Mari…once.)

Example Six:  The breakfast buffet is identical literally every morning.  The only variance was the "special" egg dish of the day; not even a variety of sausages. There is a very limited offering of fresh fruits, yogurts, cereals, etc.  and, pretty much, nothing that would be considered European was offered (ex. smoked salmon was pretty much the only fish offered).

Example Seven:  I ordered room service the last night. I asked for the chicken breast without gravy and spaghetti.  I was told it would take 30-35 minutes, which is fine because it should take that long to prepare the food. It came in 15 minutes…and I also was given a breaded chicken thigh and leg.  Clearly it was precooked and there was no quality control.

I am assuming you need no more examples, but I have given as many as I have so that there is no question I am not making an issue out of a single bad meal.  It was, frankly, exhausting…and if you read my articles you can read about even more!  

We actually skipped dinner three times because we just didn’t want to eat bad food for no reason after having some great off the ship cuisine.  

Apparently bring local food back to the ship is
prohibited on Regent Seven Seas Cruises,  but we were
able to do it once.  With cuisine like this available off the ship,
we skipped frustrating dinners three times.
In fact, as I started to write this article at 38,000 feet sitting in First Class on Lufthansa I can unequivocally state that the fish and veal served here is far superior to those served on the Six Star Luxury Regent Seven Seas cruise…Airplane food!

The Suite

Now, let’s talk about the suite itself.  Short answer:  The suite is fine, but most certainly not Six Star Luxury.  I would not chose, or not choose, a cruise based upon the suite. It is most certainly no better, and worse in some important ways, from the suites found on Seabourn, Crystal and Silversea.  

I was in a standard Veranda Suite on Deck 6.  It is an older, but well maintained, affair. The sofa has been renewed and is comfy.  There are no occasional chairs so the only chair in the suite serves the long desk (and it doesn’t have anything on its feet to assist moving it across the carpet; a pain).  There is a large television on the wall, but the cables are bundled and falling down below the unit.  It sits above a single long desk that also holds glassware and a refrigerator, but there are no upper cabinets in the suite.  

Regent Seven Seas Voyager Suite
Flat Screen Television with a long deck housing
glassware and a refrigerator, but no storage
There is one large ugly painting at the foot of the bed and a mirror above the sofa.  The veranda has two excellent and super comfortable all weather chairs and an occasional table (which is too small to have meal on). 

The suite is stocked with sodas and water, but no beer, wine or liquor; which I find strange for a luxury line. Even Azamara Club Cruises, a near luxury line, provides suites with bottles of spirits.

The beds were comfortable and there are plenty of light controls bedside.  Unfortunately, as an older ship there is no place to charge your phone bedside.  The drapes and curtains are quite old-fashioned, dark grey and of a coarse material. The walk-in closet is a good size, but there is limited drawer space; especially for a couple on a longer cruise.  There is a vanity next to the bed with good, but somewhat harsh, lighting and a stool. 

The bathroom has one sink, but plenty of counter space and storage with very ordinary, painted, cabinetry.  The lighting is quite dim. The separate shower is fine, but the shower head did not deliver enough water or pressure.  L’Occitane amenities are provided, but they are low quality; not the products you may be familiar with.  The hair conditioner is watered down and dried out both my daughter’s hair and my beard (and the few hairs I have on my head).  The bath gel hardly lathered.  The towels, however, were excellent and plenty were supplied. 

Regent Seven Seas Voyager Bathroom
The Restaurants

The public spaces on the Regent Seven Seas Voyager have been renovated and an especially fine job has been done with Compass Rose, the main restaurant.  Some very creative millwork and lighting has done some magic to give the illusion of higher ceilings in this space.  The Versace chargers and flower vases are a true touch of elegance. 

In La Veranda, the casual dining (breakfast and lunch) venue, which converts to Sette Mari, an Italian restaurant at night, the seating area was quite nice, but the buffet itself needs to be torn out and redone…along with its menu and food.  It is an old fashion affair with a narrow corridor in between two buffet lines (hot on one side and cold on the other).  But the buffet goes half way and then is repeated, so you have people starting on the end or in the middle and without anyway to easily transition from the hot side to the cold side without running into someone.  I witnessed a number of plates fall due to collisions.

Prime 7, the steakhouse, is an attractive space, but Chartreuse – the elegant dining venue – has some nice touches, but is rather ordinary.  Both have cuisine that is far superior to that of the other dining venues, but Chartreuse is the only venue that elevates the service experience to a cruise "luxury" level.

The Public Spaces

For the most part the décor around the ship leans to the old fashion cruise ship styles with peach leather chairs here and smaller velour covered chairs barrel chairs lined up there.  The Library is one exception that has a bit of more modern, open, feel with large comfortable neutral colored chairs.

One thing that stood out, and not in a good way, is the artwork. Frank Del Rio, Regent’s parent NCLH’s CEO may have personally selected the artwork on the Seven Seas Explorer, but this artwork, it would seem, was curated (if it was) by others.  It is painful in its consistently large format, ugly and dark, style...pretty much everywhere.  That is except the hallways, which tended to either have bare walls or low quality pieces with only a few that could be considered better than hotel art.  

Even if you like the artwork I doubt anyone would feel the desire to do a tour of the ship’s art.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I was terribly disappointed by my experience.  I was so looking forward to finding that things at Regent Seven Seas Cruises had changed for the better; that my negativity was no longer valid; that I was, actually, being kind of a jerk.  However, I walked off the Seven Seas Voyager feeling relieved the cruise was over.  I cannot remember the last time that happened.

And, to be sure, it is not like I did not have a good time on this cruise.  I had fantastic experiences in Florence, Barcelona, Valencia, Palma de Mallorca and more.  (Read my articles!)  So it is not a matter of my having a bad attitude.  It was simply a matter of the promised Six Star Luxury cruise experience not be delivered time and time and time again....interspersed with a few luxury experiences that gave me enough hope to later again be disappointed.

For all those Cruise Critic and other Regent fanatics that are going to rant that I am prejudiced against Regent because I sell a lot of Seabourn cruises, I have given example after example after example to support my opinions. There is a reason I don't sell much Regent Seven Seas cruises to my clients...and it is documented here and in my companion articles.

So, if you just want to have everything included and the quality of the cuisine, service and tours is not as important, the Regent Seven Seas Cruises may be fine for you.  But if you want to do just a bit of work or, better, have your travel agent do it, there are better options. 

The one thing I can say, and will repeat is, Regent Seven Seas Cruises is “Consistently Inconsistent”…and that is not in any way a “Six Star Luxury” cruise experience.


Caveat Emptor!

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Goldring Travel Revisits Regent Seven Seas Cruises (Seven Seas Voyager: Rome to Barcelona - August 1, 2017) - Part VI (Palamos, Barcelona, Palma de Mallorca & Valencia: Culinary Bliss..and Consistent Inconsistencies)

The Regent Seven Seas Voyager continued on our cruise, leaving France and arriving in Palamos, Spain; a small town on the coast north of Barcelona.  Because I was here a few years ago on a Seabourn cruise and we are flying out on the morning of our arrival in Barcelona on end of our cruise I chose to try another one of the “free” tours:  "Barcelona on Your Own" so that I could share with my daughter of a few of my favorite things in one of my favorite cities.

This “On Your Own” “free” tour (actually a 1.75 hour transfer) could not have been different from my earlier experience in Livorno traveling to Florence.  Rather than having an engaging tour guide we had a friendly enough, but worthless, assistant that said absolutely nothing about Palamos or Barcelona.  Rather he was more interested in non-stop chatter with the bus driver…who had her iPhone mounted to the windshield right in front of her so she could see all her text messages come in as she was driving.  (On the return it was so bad that many of the Regent guests commented on how the bus driver did not stop rattling for even an instant for the entire 1.75 hour drive…except when the assistant prodded her.  It took every bit of strength not to scream “Shut Up!” followed by, “I guess your husband is deaf…or he should be.”)  Aside from no sleeping on the bus, and on a serious note, the safety issues were clear.

Our bus driver was busy looking at texts and
talking with our "guide" for 1.75 hours each way
during our trip to Barcelona.  Dangerous! Annoying!
One of the most important things in delivering a luxury experience is consistency.  I should be able to know, in advance, if my “On Your Own” transfer will have a tour guide or an assistant.  Regent can easily give the local operators a Standards and Procedures to be followed.  Further, and once again, as there was no Regent Seven Seas representative on the bus, there was no quality control…or person who actually should have taken the iPhone off the windshield and told the bus driver to be quiet and focus on driving rather than yapping away and disturbing the guests.

Anyway, we arrived in Barcelona to intermittent showers.  Nonetheless we headed down La Rambla to my favorite market:  La Boqueria.  I could have spent ours wandering about, tasting all different sorts of hams and fish, breads and spices...and sampling some wines. 






Instead of driving my daughter crazy, I limited it to an hour…though we did stay long enough to have a late morning snack of razor clams in garlic and oil, octopus, and fried calamari, smelts and crab.

Razor Clams with Garlic and Oil
Octopus
Fried Smelts, Calamari and Crab
We then, still dealing with the rain, headed to the Picasso Museum which, with all of the time I have spent in Barcelona, I had never been to.  Devin was not, from what I could tell, terribly impressed with the collection as most of it was focused on his early years…and the museum was crowded.  We had purchased our tickets online the night before, so we were able to skip the rather long line and head straight in.  I am not sure why everyone doesn’t do it.  With this option available at most museums in Europe, I strong recommend it.


We then had some time to spend wandering the Gothic Barrio (Quarter) and La Rambla before lunch…and then the skies opened.  We ducked into a tent covered bar on La Rambla and figured we would grab a drink while we waited for the skies to clear.  I have to admit it:  I WAS A TOURIST.  I didn’t ask because I was just happy to be dry.  Out came a huge beer and diet Coke…and a 21€ bill.  It was embarrassing and I am still angry with myself.  But at least I am sharing this Fail.


I then redeemed myself (at least in my eyes) as we headed to one of my favorite restaurants:  Los Caracoles (The Snails) located in the Gothic Barrio.  This is a very old (founded in 1835) and famous restaurant with a number of different rooms (some lined with decades of photographs of famous people who have dined there and one with hams hanging from the ceiling).  You walk past the wine bar area to the small desk by the ancient kitchen and give your name.  When your table is ready you walk through the kitchen to your table.


 I was lucky enough to score a table in the small room right next to the kitchen.  I love watching the chefs cooking and tending to the fire below the stove with giant cast iron hooks; the waiters, in their white shirts and black vests, calling out orders and bantering while waiting for dishes to be delivered, and the smells emanating from chicken and roast kid, prawns to ox.


I started out with a large plate of snails in a roast pork sauce while Devin opted for the fish soup (this one so close to a bouillabaisse) followed by a true Catalan seafood paella, which uses a different rice and a dark, earthy, sauce which includes a touch of black squid ink.



We ended with a Catalan flan.


 It was then, all too quickly, time to head back to the bus for our drive home.

After our feast in Barcelona we opted to skip dinner again.  It is somewhat disheartening that because of the lackluster dining experiences on the Regent Seven Seas Voyager we really don’t feel like we are missing out on a culinary experience.

Unfortunately, our evening entertainment options are also limited. The in-room movie selection on the Regent Seven Seas Voyager is not terribly interesting nor is the television selection which is essentially five news and one documentary station.  Karaoke and disco/70’s pop music in the clubs also seems to be the most popular, further limiting our options.  Enrichment lectures?  There is only one lecturer who is painful to listen to and is limited in his talks to European history circa World War II. 

Our second to last day brought us to Palma de Mallorca.  I had a “free” tour signed up for, but honestly we needed a break from them.  I am usually not a “tour guy”, enjoying just exploring, and the tours so far have been less than stellar.  Even the ones that have good elements aren’t holistically enjoyable.  So Devin and I decided to take the shuttle into city center.



We found La Rambla which is both beautiful and lined with trees, but great shopping as well.  After a bit of shopping we dove into the old city, with winding walkways and lots to see and enjoy.  We eventually headed to Mercate de L’Olivar, the local market.  It was OK, but a big let down after yesterday’s visit to Barcelona’s La Boqueria.



After stopping for a sangria in a funky little joint, we wandered looking for a great place for lunch.  Once again, my ability to suss out a culinary gem came to the fore.  Just visible from the sidewalk, hidden by the corner of a building, was a local’s restaurant, Vermuteria La Rosa.  (A Vermuteria is literally a place to drink vermouth, but that is never done.  It essentially is a convivial drinking place.)  Devin, of course, went vegetarian, but I ordered the Majorcan Black Pig Sausages Platter with Iberican ham, chorizo, and a variety of sausages with local tomatoes (to be rubbed on the awesome local bread with olive oil and sea salt).


It was then a stroll back to the transfer – after some window shopping - and back to the Seven Seas Voyager mid-afternoon.

We confidently decided that we would have dinner in Sette Mari, as our first experience was well and truly excellent.  And that is where we screwed up.  We should have left it alone.  Our experience was almost exactly the opposite..and the consistency of Regent Seven Seas Cruises inconsistently smacked us right in the face!

We sat down and then just sat there.  Then, unlike our first experience, a glass of prosecco was just poured and the antipasti was virtually thrown on our table with various items pointed to and then the waiter disappeared.  Getting a welcome to the table was fleeting at best.

For starters Devin ordered the minestrone soup and I the cheese lasagna.  Devin's watery, flavorless, soup was delivered literally ten minutes before my lasagna...which I had to ask for twice; only to have delivered a small square of over-cooked pasta dish.  The main course was no better as Devin's spaghetti was Olive Garden quality and my Lamb Osso Bucco was incredibly fatty (though the meat - once found - was quite good.  (I was going to post a photo of all of the fat, but decided to spare you.)

The consistency of the inconsistency is both remarkable and exhausting.

Our last morning we arrived in Valencia, Spain.  I felt compelled to try a Regent Seven Seas Cruises "free" tour one more time "Valencia at a Glance and Wine Tasting".  With a deep breath we headed out.  Our guide was charming, witty, well-informed and very efficient.  I could not have asked for a better guide.  Regent sent along someone from the ship; the first time in our ten days.  Also, our tour did not start at an incredibly early time.  And the wine tasting was both informative and entertaining. This was the best of the "free" Regent tours on this cruise.

Our tour, with 22 guests, started with a brief drive around the historical parts of Valencia.


We then disembarked our bus at a gate to the old city, where we had short walk to our wine tasting.

Old City, Valencia, Spain
(The description has the wine tasting at the end, but it was better this way.)   Our wine guide was a charming man whose job is to promote Valencia wines and he did a fine job balancing information with a bit of humor.


We then walked through the old city to the Mercat de Central (Central Market) where we were given 30 minutes of free time to shop and wander about.


Afterwards we continued our brief tour of the old city


before heading to the City of Arts and Sciences; an architecturally intriguing area recently developed by Valencia to promote tourism.  We only had a photo stop, but it probably is worth a bit of a visit the next time I am here.



Once again, I have to ask myself, why Regent Seven Seas Cruises can deliver a wonderful tour right after one that was painful (and dangerous).   The consistency of inconsistency is both frustrating and mind-boggling.

As we arrived back at the ship at 2:45 pm once again I had no lunch option other than the very limited menu at the Patio Grill.  I thought I would give the hamburger and hot dog test a second try. While I am happy to report I did receive a top and bottom bun on my hamburger and my hot dog bun was toasted, the rest was pretty much the same disappointment.  My daughter ordered a panini and it came soggy; something that I have never seen before. Ugh.  Not a great way to wind up our experience on the Regent Seven Seas Voyager.

Well, it is now time to pack up and head home.  I will be writing a Reflections article in the next days.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Goldring Travel Revisits Regent Seven Seas Cruises (Seven Seas Voyager: Rome to Barcelona - August 1, 2017) - Part V (Antibes and Marseilles: The Ensemble Experience, Cultural Wine "Tasting" and Sette Mari - Luxury Experiences for Sure)

Our cruise on the Regent Seven Seas Voyager continued with our arrival in Antibes, France to partly cloudy skies, which was quite a relief from the 90+ degree days were have experienced so far.  My continued plan was to experience Regent Seven Seas Cruises “free” tours (which are also noted in the Tour Order Form in your suite as “free”) while leaning toward revisiting places I have previously been with my daughter (for father-daughter time), but not spending entire days doing so.

This day was a four and a half hour tour “Old Nice and Wine Tasting” which was to be 4.5 hours starting in the early morning with a drive to Nice, 1 hour walking tour, 1 hour wine tasting, 1 hour free time (and 45 minute drives to Nice and then back to Antibes).  Unfortunately, the tour was not held in that order (free time was in the middle) and the unexpected rain curtailed the walking tour…but our guide most certainly did her best before abandoning it as nobody had umbrellas…and, after the past days of sun and heat, who would have?!

Moules-Frite in Nice, France
Because the rain – which was an on-off affair ruined most photography opportunities and made wandering around not a lot of fun – there was only one thing to do:  Find a café that was serving Moules-frites (Mussels and French Fries) in the morning…which was made more difficult by the number of tourists ducking into any open café to escape the rain.  But we did it!

Pairing our moules-frites with a local vin de Provence, we not only had a delicious pre-wine tasting snack, we had a pre-wine tasting wine tasting.  I mean we are on vacation, right?

Peaches!
Nice, France
Afterwards we headed to our meeting place for a very interesting, but unique, wine tasting.  The basic concept was to discuss the history of various varieties of grapes while drinking a white, rose and red wine…but with little discussion of the wines themselves. 

Beautiful Venue for our wine tasting...but not a serious one!
Beautiful wine shop next to wine tasting room
It was, in a way, a good Culinary & Cultural event rather than a typical Food & Wine one, where the wine is analyzed, but there is little discussion of why that wine even exists.  And the venue was very nice, as I sat in a big comfortable chair in a dimly lit basement. (Wine colors or structure were not topics that could even be discussed here.)  Quite enjoyable.

It was then back to the Seven Seas Voyager for the afternoon.  But, once again, the tour got back about 1:45 pm and La Veranda closes as 2:00 pm so unless a more rushed lunch immediately upon returning to the ship was desired, the Patio Grill was our only option.  It was, again, a disappointment both in service and cuisine.  We sat down with it being relatively quiet.  Then we waited…and waited…and waited before a bar waiter arrived.  Then we waited…and waited and finally a flagged down a waiter to order food.  “What is the blackened fish of the day?”  “I am not sure, but I think it is snapper.  I will find out.”  Folks, it is 3 pm and if the waiter doesn’t know by then, when would he ever know?  Mind-boggling.

Then our lunch came and I was given a tiny portion of four broken bits of overcooked fish that was not even blacked. In the photograph below you can scale the fish by the size of the French fries. Not good; in fact, shocking! 

The Patio Grill served four broken pieces of overcooked fish
(Use the French fries for scale.)  Not Good!
We attempted to go swimming later in the afternoon, but with some younger children doing cannon balls into the fairly small pool we quickly up.

Once again, we skipped dinner.  We were not only full, but simply not inspired to engage in another mediocre experience.  It was not like we needed to eat, so why do it?

The next day we arrived in Marseille, France.  The last time I was in Marseille we were docked in the Old Port which is walking distance from the fish market and some of the great bouillabaisse restaurants (Marseille is the home of bouillabaisse). However, the Regent Seven Seas Voyager was docked out of town in the commercial port so sneaking into town in the late afternoon wasn’t an option.  (I don’t know if the Seven Seas Voyager is too large or if there was another reason, but this location was disappointing.  Oh well.)  


This day I was hosting an Ensemble Travel Group Exclusive Experience.  It was a truly memorable, luxury, day that I was pretty fortunate to be able to attend…and our group was so nice, that it could hardly have been called work.  (But it was work…Right?)

Les Baux de Provence




Provence, France



Our morning started with a drive to Les Baux de Provence, a beautiful mountain village about ahour from Marseille.  Having endured the crowds in Cinque Terre and St. Paul de Vence it was so nice to wander the cobblestone walks, with our guide giving us just enough history, without being jostled.



We then drove a short distance to Baumaniere’s La Cabro d’Or restaurant for a perfect al fresco Provençale gourmet lunch.  Our starter was gaspacho soup with melon, basil and Muscat wine.  

A gaspacho unlike anything I have enjoyed before.
The style was akin to a bouillabaisse (so my miss in Marseille was sort of rectified).  This was followed by a wonderful fish, the preparation of which is hard to describe.


and finally an over-the-top, but elegant, dessert.  


But we were not done!

We were off to a most unique experience:  Carrieres de Lumieres.  It is hard to describe this, but essentially an abandoned quarry/cave has been turned into a surreal combination of art and music.  Our experience (they change every month or so) was projecting the art (or parts of the art), both static and somewhat animated, of Bosch, Brueghel and Arcimboldi onto the walls and floors of the quarry with a mix of various music from classical to Led Zeppelin.


It was then back to the ship.  Although we were not departing until later, logistically there was just not enough time to enjoyably head into Marseille.  It was a fantastic day…and one my artistic daughter truly enjoyed.

We decided to try Sette Mari, the Italian restaurant La Veranda is converted to every evening.  It was, honestly, the most cohesive, high quality, experience we have had this cruise.  We were quickly seated at a nice window table for two, poured a glass of prosecco, and then Thomas arrived with some charming banter; a first on this cruise.  Bravo, we are people; not just someone to deliver food and drinks to.

Thomas then turned around and asked, “Do you like scallops?” and then walked away.  As he did we were presented with the standard antipasti of olives, parmesan cheese, four types of bruschetta, a nice basket of breads (and breadsticks) and olive oil and balsamic poured into our bread plates.

As we were enjoying this, a scallop risotto with saffron appeared.  Thank you, Thomas.  A very nice touch and very well prepared!

The wine steward came over and asked if I would like to switch to red wine (assumedly knowing what I would be eating).  The red wine was a solid Chianti Reserva.  Another nice touch.

My starter, rigatoni with braised pork, then arrived.  It was delicious.  Finally, properly cooked and tasty pasta! 


My daughter had gnocchi with pesto, which was also flavorful, but if picky was a bit doughy in texture.  For my main course I had the sirloin steak which was delivered perfectly medium rare, but pre-sliced. Devin had the cioppino (fish soup) which was also a good looking and tasty dish.

We both commented that Sette Mari was our favorite dining experience. Whew. 

With an all-round great day from start to finish both Devin and I feel a bit renewed and refreshed.