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Copyright © 1995-2003 
Linda Coffman

Radisson Seven Seas Mariner
September 2003

From Paul, reflections of a first time cruiser.

We approached our first cruise experience with a mixture of anticipation (me) and mild dread (my wife is prone to motion sickness). Drawn by the lure of seeing parts of Alaska that we would otherwise never see, and reassured by traveling companions who are experienced cruisers, we decided to venture out on the Mariner's final Alaska cruise of the 2003 season.

Having done considerable research on the Mariner on various websites before we embarked, we felt at the end of our voyage that the experience had surpassed our expectations in every respect. In weighing the comments that follow, remember that we had no point of reference to compare the Mariner to other cruise ships, so these are the impressions of cruise novices.

The Itinerary
The Mariner's typical Alaska itineraries are one way Seward to Vancouver or reverse. This repositioning cruise started in Vancouver, called in Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, Sitka, Seattle, and Victoria (in that order), with at-sea days cruising the Inside Passage and Tracy Arm, before heading south to San Francisco and a wonderful finish to our experience, cruising under the Golden Gate Bridge at daybreak. We made independent air and land arrangements and, as San Francisco is home, we can't comment on Radisson's air and land offerings. Even though we did not call at destinations further north that are included in Radisson's usual itineraries, we found the grandeur of Alaska to be everything we had hoped for. The Mariner's propulsion system allows close approach to shorelines and glaciers and turn-on-a-dime navigation in tight quarters.

Time spent in each port was generally adequate for the opportunities available and for the planned shore excursions, of which a wide range was offered. We only availed ourselves of the White Pass & Yukon Railway excursion in Skagway and the Mendenhall Glacier and River Float in Juneau because of one traveling companion's temporary mobility limitations. We thought both were worthwhile and good value for the money. By that I mean that while both are available onshore on a walk up basis, booking through the tour desk on board cost only a few dollars more, and gave us the convenience of being met dockside by a bus (or set of specially designated train cars in Skagway), plus the assurance that our return to the ship was being monitored.

The Ship
All public areas were tastefully elegant, comfortable, spacious, and (consistently throughout every part of the ship) impeccably clean and tidy. There are four distinct restaurant venues, three lounges (plus a separate, enclosed "clubroom" accommodating cigar and pipe smokers), a nightclub, a theater, a library of books and videos with its own reading room, a garden promenade for art shows and auctions, and, up top, the pool deck and track for walking and jogging. There is also a very fine fitness center with a good assortment of machines, free weights and aerobics area, and an adjacent spa and steam room, both of which we used daily (see more below about the fitness center in relation to our dining experiences onboard). While we did not have any spa treatments, we did make frequent use of the (complimentary) steam room and sauna. There is also a casino which we did not enter, two small boutiques, and a photo shop. The atmosphere in the public areas was much more reminiscent of a very good small luxury hotel than of a Las Vegas mega-resort. The atrium forward included three glass-walled elevators and a circular staircase, and provided a feeling of light and airy spaciousness. The large forward Observation Lounge and the aft Horizon Lounge maintained the same small luxury hotel feeling, with ample and comfortable table seating, and pre-and post-dinner entertainment (piano and guitar).

We had fair to good weather for most of the voyage and made good use of the pool deck, which occupies most of the 11th deck and includes a saltwater pool large enough to swim laps and three soaking tubs. These Jacuzzi tubs received a lot more use than did the pool, with the exception of a few hardy youngsters who were eager to swim in any weather. We found the tubs not quite hot enough, an opinions shared by most of our fellow soakers.

For this voyage we had about 450 passengers, well short of the ship's 700 capacity. This fact may have contributed to the overall feeling of spaciousness that pervades the Mariner. Yet I doubt that even at full capacity would any part of the ship have seemed crowded. With the exception of the two reservations-required dining venues, there was never an occasion anywhere on ship that a space was filled to one-half capacity.

One aspect of the Mariner that I have not seen described in any other reviews is security procedures. I am prompted to mention it because when we approached both Seattle and San Francisco, we found the ship being escorted by two armed Coast Guard vessels that quickly shooed away any small craft that came too close. Perhaps this is a standard procedure, but most of the passengers found it a surprise (and for most a welcome one). Then, while awaiting disembarkation in San Francisco we were idling away some time watching the ship take on fresh water, and noticed that before even hooking up the hose, a member of the ship's crew came out and took several samples of the water back on board (presumably for testing). We also noted upon boarding in Vancouver that all public areas gave distinct evidence of vigorous cleaning and disinfecting.

An important issue for us was the ship's stability and the possibility of motion sickness. We had one night of rough weather while at sea between Sitka and Seattle, encountering 120Km/Hr (that's roughly 70 miles an hour) sustained winds and high seas through most of the night. Although outer decks were closed and the production show was canceled for the evening, restaurants and lounges operated normally. Another passenger who owns a 65-foot yacht and is an experienced cruiser described the ship as "incredibly stable" during the storm. Those prone to motion sickness fell into two categories. Those who had taken "precautions" (such as my wife's scopolamine patch) mostly avoided nausea, although many kept to their suites. Those who did not take the precautions readily available at the reception desk in many cases spent an extremely uncomfortable night. In contrast, sailing from Victoria to San Francisco, despite seas the Captain described as "rough" there was very little discernible motion. In calm seas and along the Inside Passage, fjords and bays, we had to look out a window to know that we were moving.

The Suite
One of the attractions of the Mariner and a key factor in our decision to take this cruise was the all-suite, all-balcony format. Our suite was in the "Deluxe" category on deck 7. This is the smallest suite available, and, at 301 square feet including a 50-foot balcony, I would not describe it as "spacious," yet because of the extraordinarily clever use of that space we felt it was very comfortable and more than adequate for this 11-night cruise. Indeed, our inexperience caused us to overpack, and the walk-in closet accommodated enough clothing and other paraphernalia for a much longer cruise. The sitting area is small but intelligently laid out, with a wall unit accommodating TV and VCR as well as a desk and cabinets doing duty as a writing area with storage for cameras, books and so forth. We were able to enjoy cocktails with our friends in our suite without feeling the least bit cramped. However, more than four people would be a problem for any length of time.

The bathroom was a very pleasant surprise. Many reviews have noted problems with the shower-tub. At 6'1" and 190 pounds, I was able to shower quite comfortably. I do believe that with another inch or another 50 pounds, showering could require some uncomfortable contortions. We did not use the bathtub as such, but to my eye it seemed rather too small for a person of my height. Because it is a combination, there is a step up to get into the tub and shower, and this could be a problem for someone with significant mobility limitations, but our friend with a relatively new artificial hip reported he was able to shower with no problem. The bath is finished in marble, the fixtures are brilliant in design, layout and execution, and we would have felt perfectly comfortable with this for a much longer voyage. Very tall and very large people, however, might well be unhappy with the shower/tub arrangement. It should also be noted that the steam room contains more spacious stall showers that are available throughout the day.

We had the opportunity to look at one of the larger suites during a cocktail reception, and decided that unless traveling on a voyage that required hosting groups of more than four, there would be no reason for a couple to take anything larger than the Deluxe suite. Indeed, we preferred the more cozy atmosphere to the idea of rattling around in so much empty space. The balcony was definitely a plus in making the suite feel uncrowded. Although the weather was too cool for extended sitting outside, the balcony easily accommodated two seated in the reclining chairs, and had the weather been suitable we would likely have taken our morning coffee there on the small table between the chairs. With the sliding glass door open, the sitting area and balcony blended into a single space more than ample for four people to enjoy cocktails and appetizers (readily available from room service) before setting out for the evening's activities. Comfortable pads for the chairs were set up each morning by the cabin stewardess, and brought in at the evening turndown and stowed behind the curtains. 

Radisson makes a big deal out of the dining experience on its ships. Most of the reviews I have read comment extensively on the Mariner's facilities and food, so rather than go over the same ground, I will try to use a shore-based point of reference, namely the Zagat dining guides. I have found these guides to be amazingly accurate in giving the relative ranking of restaurants within a particular city. Zagat rates restaurants for food, service and decor, each on a scale of 1 to 30, with 30 being awarded very rarely indeed. Typically a city's top forty restaurants will have food ratings from about 25 and up, with the two or three very finest holding 28 or 29 points. In San Francisco (a city with thousands of establishments), for example, a restaurant with a Zagat food rating of 25 is an excellent restaurant and usually would be among Zagat's top 40.

On that scale and using San Francisco as my point of reference, I would rate each of Mariner's venues roughly as follows: 

Signatures - 26 points. This reservations-required venue serves an a la carte dinner menu in the Cordon Bleu style, with five courses consisting of appetizer, soup or salad, a sorbet, a main dish, and dessert. The menu did not change during our voyage, but we were able to dine at Signatures three times and found ample variety. The menu is decidedly French, and presentations and service are artful. Decor is very stylish in a traditional way.

Latitudes - 24 points. Mariner also requires reservations for Latitudes, which offers dinners with a theme it calls "confusion fusion," involving a set menu of sampler plates with many Asian touches. The appetizer and soup courses both include samples of three different items, and the main course can be had as either a three item sampler, or one can choose to have (a proportionately larger) serving of just one of the main course choices. The dessert is also a sampler plate. The tableware is artfully whimsical, perhaps commissioned for this restaurant's theme, and the decor is formal but very pleasant. It gets a couple of points less than Signatures only because two of the many items I sampled were not entirely successful. The menu changed once during this voyage.

Compass Rose - 22 points. This is the main dining room, and reservations are not required. It reminded me of hotel dining rooms in Europe, with crisp linens, good china, and a daily changing menu including a number of a la carte choices as well as a "menu degustation." Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, it is every bit the fine hotel dining room. The Compass Rose menu is also available via room service for in-suite dining during dinner hours. We did not have a chance to try this service, although we did rely on room service for morning coffee, juice and fruits. Compass Rose also offers low fat, low calorie "spa" menus for those counting calories or cholesterol, as well as appealing vegetarian options.

Veranda - no rating because we did not eat there except for one hasty buffet lunch. This venue is at the back of the pool deck and offers both enclosed and outside seating. The menu has a Mediterranean theme, and I'm sure we would have visited more had we experienced weather permitting outside dining in the evening.

Pool Grill - 20 points. Open from 11:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m for hamburgers, chicken or steak sandwiches, grilled sausage, and a variety of salads, all of very good quality. After placing an order for grilled items, one prepares the self-service salad plate and repairs to one of the numbered tables on the pool deck, where the grilled items are delivered by waiters. Many tables are sheltered from wind by glass, permitting a view while dining. The ambience is very friendly and informal, and we found the simply grilled items to be of excellent quality and prepared exactly as requested.

In all the dining venues, wines are complimentary at dinner if you are content to drink the sommelier's choices, which we found to be uniformly good. The complimentary choices changed nightly in each venue, but we found the Signatures sommelier happy to pour the evening's choice in Compass Rose upon request, and vice versa. Other wines are available for purchase, but we did not feel the need to look at the list. Wines are poured liberally throughout the meal. All other beverages are complimentary throughout the ship and in the suite, with the exception of liquor, cocktails, and wine other than at dinner. The cost of drinks in the lounges, however, was quite reasonable (under $5 except for vintage Ports and single-malt Scotch). In addition, at the beginning of the voyage a complimentary in-suite bar setup is provided including two liters of liquor (selected on a form that the stewardess will collect, and delivered a short time later). Additional bottles can be purchased if needed at very reasonable cost. Room  Service readily provided whatever else might be needed for in-suite cocktails, including nuts, chips, assorted canapés (of very good quality), cocktail olives and onions, and even an occasional eyedropper full of dry vermouth for the dedicated martini drinkers in our group.

In all the dining and lounge venues, service was attentive, friendly and professional. Every effort was made to accommodate special requests--in fact, I cannot recall that any of our party, or anyone we spoke to on the ship, for that matter, was ever refused a request. For example, although Eggs Benedict was not on the breakfast menu in Compass Rose, our request for it one morning was readily satisfied with a classic preparation including an excellent, light and frothy Hollandaise Sauce that obviously had been freshly made. The reservations policy for Signatures and Latitudes is designed to afford all guests an opportunity to dine in these restaurants at least once. Given our small guest complement and longer itinerary, we had no problem getting additional reservations, and the reservationists were very good about managing the waiting list and honoring walk-up requests (including one evening when in 15 minutes they arranged a table in Signatures for eight of us who decided to dine together on the spur of the moment). The entire food service staff appeared to take a good deal of well-deserved pride in offering outstanding service. A couple of reviewers have commented about snobbish or condescending attitudes, but our experience was completely the opposite: from headwaiter to busboy, the service was friendly, polished, and professional.

Apart from concern about motion sickness, one of my wife's apprehensions was that we would come away from the cruise ten pounds heavier than when we started--a reasonable fear because we both enjoy good food and found, as expected, an abundance of it on this cruise. We were both pleasantly surprised when we stepped on the scale upon returning home, and found we had not gained a pound! This resulted, I believe, from two factors. First, we made daily use of the fitness center and walking track on deck twelve to achieve a combination of about three miles a day of brisk walking, plus whatever we did on shore excursions. (Beware the scale in the fitness center, by the way -- it was erratic and generally seemed to overstate our weight.) Second, we breakfasted lightly and avoided the buffet lines in favor of Compass Rose or the Pool Grill for lunch and one of the three restaurants for dinner, where we found the portioning to be perfect to provide very satisfying and varied meals with moderate caloric overhead. We avoided the afternoon tea and morning pastries, but did enjoy the desserts in Signatures and Latitudes. Whatever the reasons it worked out for us; your results may vary.

Entertainment & Activities
The evening schedule on this voyage had the following pattern.

  • 6:00 p.m. Pre-dinner entertainment in the lounges--piano, guitar, or singer/accompanist duet. Very pleasant.
  • 7:00-9:30 p.m. Open seating dinner, subject to the reservation requirement in Signatures and Latitudes.
  • 9:45-10:30 p.m. Entertainment in the Constellation Theater. There were three production shows with eight singer-dancers backed by the Mariner Quintet, the other evenings being filled by a pianist and a harpist. We took in one only of the production shows and thought it was nice, with some money obviously having been spent on costumes and so forth.
  • 10:30 on -- Dancing or theme gatherings in the Stars Nightclub, and more lounge entertainment until the last revelers retired.

We found the open seating policy at meals allowed us to make a lot of new friends on this voyage and we tended to spend the evenings socializing with them after dinner rather than attending the theater.

Various onboard activities were offered daily, ranging from fitness classes to needlepoint, audience participation games, bingo and enrichment lectures. The social staff was energetic and charming, but we found the prospect of an afternoon nap to be too tempting and didn't take advantage of any of these offerings.

We felt this voyage was a very good value. To return to the land-based comparison, the accommodations, food, service and ambience were very much on a par with the small luxury hotel experiences we are familiar with in Europe and the U.S., and the price we paid (discounted from Radisson's list prices) was very competitive with what we recently paid in London and Paris for good small hotels and fine dining. Based on that yardstick, one might even call this cruise a bargain, considering that it includes priceless sightseeing and shore excursion opportunities not readily available in any other way.

For these first time cruisers, Radisson Seven Seas Mariner hit a home run. All expectations were met and most were exceeded. There were no disappointments. We are now talking about plans to transit the Panama Canal on the Mariner. The only "problem" we have is that I fear we will be reluctant to try any other ship after having such a wonderful experience on the Mariner.

Photo: Courtesy of Radisson Seven Seas Cruises

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