By Peter Hughes
An Italian village square, early morning. (Well, early for this village, actually just after 9am). Half a dozen people, on their way to work, are spinning out their cappuccinos in the empty cafés on opposite sides of the Piazza Duomo. Beside one, Marco, bald and bellied, unlocks the tall doors of his souvenir shop.
It could have been a film script.
Two cyclists enter the scene on spindly racing bikes – both are shrink-wrapped in Lycra, black and radiation yellow, as bright and tight as tropical fish skin. One crosses himself in front of the cathedral. Swinging a fashion house’s glossy white shopping bag, a blue-uniformed concierge on an errand from one of the village’s expensive hotels idles by. A harassed-looking woman in a green T-shirt delivers wedding flowers to the steps of the cathedral – pink and cream roses, amid galaxies of white gypsophila.
At this point in a movie, the concierge would produce an automatic weapon. Marco, the florist and the coffee drinkers would dive for cover and a slow-motion shoot-out with the cyclists would be choreographed to a requiem Lacrimosa. But this was not a scene from the latest Tarantino film or The Godfather Part IV. These were the morning rites of spring in Ravello in southern Italy.
It’s a subtle business, taking a cruise these days – all a matter of fine judgment and finer tuning. First there is the choice of ship, which, in shore terms, can mean opting for anything on the leisure spectrum between Butlins and Outward Bound, with the possibility of Ibis or Four Seasons in between. Then, having picked your ship, there is the question of how to use it.
Mine was anchored off Amalfi, 1,200 perpendicular feet (365m) below Ravello, or 40 minutes by a squiggle of a mountain road. I hitched a lift on one of the ship’s excursion buses but bailed out to spend the day on my own in Ravello. I could do so because my 10-day cruise, from Athens to Barcelona, was aboard Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ Mariner.
The view from Villa Rufolo, Ravello
Fresh from the shipyard after an extensive refurbishment, this was one of the most liberal, and liberating, ships on which I have sailed. I could cadge the lift because nearly all the excursions are included in the cruise price. And with the encouragement of the crew, I even made use of the excursion’s tickets to Villa Rufolo and the gardens created around the romantic ruins of this medieval palace, which, 800 years ago, bagged one of the best vistas in a village made of vistas.
The view from the villa is still magnificent, if only because it excludes any sight of the concert hall designed by the celebrated Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. The hall opened in 2010, two years before his death. Niemeyer never visited Ravello, as is obvious from his eponymous auditorium. It’s an atrocious building that looks like a great, white concrete Nissen hut, crassly plonked between the predominantly 18th-century village and the high curve of tousled cliffs that tumble to the Tyrrhenian Sea. Sadly it is visible from the hillside terraces of the Hotel Caruso, where I took myself for a glamorous lunch.
Seven Seas Mariner is a classic cruise ship, both in looks and concept. Despite being the first cruise vessel where every cabin can legitimately call itself a suite, with separate sleeping and living areas, and despite being the first where every cabin/suite has a balcony, it still manages to look like a ship, rather than a housing project. For a vessel of its size – 48,000 tons – it has surprisingly sleek proportions. The racy prow has a lot to do with this, but there are only eight passenger decks, which means that, at 709ft (216m) long, it doesn’t look top heavy. That alone makes it something of a rarity these days.
Rarer still is the fact that when Regent claims its cruises are “all-inclusive” – often a very elastic term – it almost means it. The only things I found for which one had to pay on board were fancy wines and spirits, treatments at the Canyon Ranch spa, cigars, extensive use of the ship’s Wi-Fi and certain shore excursions. Everything else – gratuities, meals (including those in the specialist restaurants), unlimited trips ashore and even 15 minutes of ship-to-shore phone calls – is included in the fare. On some cruises the cost of the top suites also includes business-class air fares, and most people qualify for a hotel the night before sailing.
Nor does Regent stint in what, ostensibly, is chucked in for free. A daily choice of different white and red wines is served in the restaurants, and in the bars you’ll find Glenfiddich whisky, Grey Goose vodka, Bombay Sapphire gin and Courvoisier cognac, among many other leading brands.
Shore excursions, to the ancient city of Ephesus in Turkey, for example, were comparable with what other cruise lines offer. I took a wine tour on the Greek island of Santorini, for which there was a supplementary charge of $106 (£68) – the ship’s currency is the US dollar – although frankly, a similar tour in Sicily, at no additional cost, was better, even if the vineyards of Mount Etna are not as interesting as the unique viticulture practised in the wind-blasted desert-like landscape of Santorini.
The Sicilian town of Taormina, with Mount Etna visible in the distance
And lest anyone should imagine that my gustatory interests are entirely alcoholic, the two specialist restaurants on board Mariner left one with a genuine feeling of having enjoyed an expensive night out, without being handed a bill at the end of it. One, Signatures, is retro-French – when did you last have tournedos Rossini?
The other, Prime 7, the more intimate of the two, is essentially a classy American steakhouse, serving huge cuts of succulent beef, as well as lobster and Dover sole. On this cruise, the evening dress code was “relaxed casual”: men were required to wear “shirts with collars” but did not need jackets, and baseball caps worn after 6pm were frowned upon. Women wore their finery anyway.
Regent’s inclusivity has proved popular, despite its commensurately high prices.
It also makes Mariner difficult to compare with its rivals in the luxury bracket, such as Seabourn’s Odyssey and Silversea’s Silver Spirit. The key difference is that it is bigger, with capacity for 700 passengers, against its competitors’ 450 and 540 respectively.
Even so, my narrow Concierge suite on Mariner was smaller than its equivalent on the other ships. At four of the 10 ports visited on this cruise, Mariner was too big to berth and we were taken ashore by tender.
Mariner scores highly for its exemplary levels of service – room-service dinner is delivered course by course, for instance – as well as imaginative menus in the main restaurant, its terrific house band, the polished stage shows, teak decking, luxurious sun beds and stylish public rooms, which were all spruced up during last year’s refit.
I particularly liked the huge theatre, the library and a proper observation lounge on the top deck, with 180° views. The airy Horizon Lounge, with its outdoor terrace, works well for the breakfast buffet, although less so when half of it becomes a rather gloomy trattoria at night.
But for all that, it’s difficult to find the “six star” exclusivity to which Mariner aspires when there are 700 of you on board. All inclusive, yes siree; wholly exclusive, ’fraid not.