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 Panama Canal with Regent Seven Seas Cruises

Panama Canal - Getting it Right

by Ursula and Eldrid Retief

Panama Canal with Regent Seven Seas Mariner

“Regent Seven Seas gets it just right.”

Those emailed words from our Texas friends Ann and Jim Dethlefsen, seasoned Regent Seven Seas guests, shortly before we left for Fort Lauderdale to join the Seven Seas Mariner, resonated with us for every minute of our 14-night Panama Canal Cruise.

Regent Seven Seas does get it exactly right.

No wonder its list of awards are measured in the hundreds – Best Luxury, Best Value, Best Accommodation, Best Service, Best Shore Excursions, well, “Best” just about everything, but concisely summed up by readers of Condé Nast Traveler: World’s Best Small-ship Cruise Line.

We boarded the Seven Seas Mariner in Fort Lauderdale and en route to our penthouse suite happily ran the gauntlet of smiling staff bearing trays of champagne. There was a quick inventory of the luxury: king-size bed (converted to twins at our request), a separate sitting area and marble-lined bathroom with full bathtub and a separate shower, a walk-in closet with safe, terry robes, hair dryer, refrigerator stocked with soft drinks, interactive TV, VCR. Suites range in size from 301 to 2,002 sq. ft., all of them with private balconies. So far so good; even better when we found a note from our butler.

Our butler?

One moment we were punching in a few phone digits as instructed; the next, like a genie, there was Rahul, entering our shipboard world softly and unobtrusively and with a gentle smile. Was there anything we needed? We were entitled to two complimentary bottles of hard tack for our private consumption. What would we like?

Just name it. We did. A bottle of Glenlivet and a bottle of Irish Bailey’s, please. Was everything to our satisfaction? Did we have enough bottled water, soft drinks, towels? Could he make a reservation for us at either Latitudes or Signatures (the two restaurants which require reservations), he asked when he brought our canapés around 5 p.m. that first day .... a daily routine. When a strap on a black evening sandal inexplicably snapped, Rahul was on hand to whip it away and repair it.

Butler service is a bonus for those in Penthouse B Suites and higher, with Rahul having guests in 10 suites in his care, always at their beck and call – but with a ratio of one crew member for every 1.5 passengers, there is in any case always a staff member nearby to satisfy your every whim.

The 700-guest Seven Seas Mariner debuted in 2001 as the world’s first all-suite, all-balcony cruise ship, followed by the 700-guest Seven Seas Voyager, the line’s second all-suite, all-balcony cruise ship. Completing the fleet are the 350-guest Regent Diamond, the 320-guest Paul Gauguin which has established herself as the gold standard for year-round elegance in French Polynesia, and the 490-guest Seven Seas Navigator, the first Regent Seven Seas ship to homeport in New York for Bermuda and New England/Canada sailings.

It’s not only the cruise line that is internationally acclaimed. So too are the names with which it is associated.

In the Signatures Restaurant we were welcomed by chefs wearing the white toque and coveted blue riband of Le Cordon Bleu Paris, a name that symbolizes the epitome of culinary excellence. The treasured cooking techniques are those handed down by generations of Le Cordon Bleu chefs, but the cuisine is far from traditional. At Signatures, we dined on a marvelous mixture of inventive and eclectic culinary delights.

On many cruise ships you may have to wait until the Captain’s Farewell Dinner to be presented with lobster! Not so on the Seven Seas Mariner .... we lost count of the number of times lobster appeared on the menu – lobster medallions with seafood vinaigrette on a bed of marinated leeks, tender pan-fried lobster, lobster tail with garlic, tomato & chili pepper and other variations.

The Seven Seas Mariner has four open-seating restaurants plus the Pool Grill – a surprising number for a ship of her size. Waiters recruited from some of the world's finest restaurants and hotels provide RSSC's renowned "Above & Beyond" service. A choice of fine, complimentary wine is poured nightly, and never is there any stinting.

Apart from the elegant Signatures restaurant with its French ambiance, white table linens, burgundy chairs and the soft glow of candlelight, there is the Compass Rose Restaurant, the Mariner's largest dining room , spacious, uncrowded and absolutely stunning with menus including continental specialties as well as vegetarian and spa cuisine; Latitudes, a reservations-only hideaway which serves a tasty sampler menu of nouveau international cuisine ; and the festive La Veranda (our favorite) which always reminded us of a delightful Mediterranean bistro. Specialties include fresh pasta and fish, and during the day, La Veranda also served buffet breakfast and lunch.

Those guests who yearn to cook like the pros can hone their carving and other culinary techniques in hands-on Le Cordon Bleu cooking workshops on select cruises – dynamic, hands-on introduction to the art of French fare. Classes are limited to 16 guests (with 48 students maximum) to give every participant an opportunity to interact with the chefs. In three intensive two-hour workshops, guests learn the details that go into the preparation and presentation of French cuisine and discover the secrets and techniques of Le Cordon Bleu-trained chefs while working alongside them.

Nor were the Mariner’s chefs shy about sharing their experiences and recipes. Executive Chef Warren Swaffield (now Executive Chef of the Seven Seas Voyager) shared many of his secrets on our Panama Canal cruise at a culinary workshop, as did Le Cordon Bleu Chef de Cuisine Franck Jeandon, and on one glorious afternoon, Pastry Chef Hannes Hofer presented a Chocoholic Tea Time Buffet.

Another big international name associated with Regent Seven Seas is Carita of Paris’ celebrated House of Beauty which has founded its exclusive shipboard homes on the Regent Seven Seas fleet. This upscale spa, whose patented techniques flow from its Parisian heritage, was founded with a single aim: to unveil "the touch of charm inside everyone with made-to-measure solutions” – a mantra fittingly reflected in these beautiful ships.

Cruising the Panama Canal on the Seven Seas Mariner puts Caribbean islands, the mysterious jungles of Panama, historic sights, scenic playgrounds, and great cities at your doorstep, with excursions providing a chance to look at other civilizations. We were quite happy, though, to return at the end of a tiring day to a sign welcoming us back to the ship.

In the Cayman Islands we could go from the Cayman Turtle Farm, where thousands of endangered Sea Green turtles are born each year, to exploring the technicolor underwater world while aboard a semi-submarine (or we could have dived to depths of 800 feet in a sophisticated research submarine). At the Gatun Locks on the Panama Canal there was an opportunity to see the jungle and wildlife up close on Zorra Island and on "Monkey" Island. A quick call at San Andres Island revealed white sand, red corals, and transparent water that has seven different shades of blue. We trekked the rainforests of Costa Rica and its historic capital San José, then wandered the fabled cities and playgrounds of Mexico – Huatulco, Acapulco and Cabo San Lucas. Our last call was San Diego’s vibrant downtown with its fascinating Gaslamp Quarter before reaching Los Angeles.

We planned to spend an entire day-at-sea between Costa Rica and Huatulco, our first stop in Mexico, to establish (purely in the interests of statistical science!) whether it was possible to follow the entire day’s program of events arranged by the Seven Seas Mariner’s staff to amuse and educate us.

We gave up at 10.30 (a.m. that is) in the middle of the Spanish Class where the Social Hostess Muriel was desperately trying to drum into us the phrase “I speak a little Spanish” (Hablo un poco el español) when one of us dozed off, completely wracked after a 7.30 Wake-Up and Walk with Your Fitness Instructor Jacquie (Deck 12 is devoted to sports with golf cages, shuffleboard, paddle tennis and a full-circle jogging track), and an 8.15 Morning Stretch (in the window-walled Fitness Center with the same Jacquie). After a quick breakfast, we caught the first 10 minutes of the 9 a.m. Coffee Chat & Needlepoint Get Together (with the same Muriel who was later trying to drum the Spanish phrases into us), dashed to pick up the last minutes of the bridge lecture with bridge instructors Cameron and Judith Ann, then raced to Marco’s Computer Class (How to Download Your Digital Photography). Next, we were just in time for the Enrichment lecture on the “Land of the Maya” by storyteller and anthropologist Terry Breen, who enlightened us with insights into recent discoveries regarding the Maya, and decided to skip the Tighten and Tone (Butt Buster) class with Jacquie again – no wonder she looks like a million dollars – before hitting the Spanish lesson. Are you surprised we then called it quits?

Undaunted, we decided to devote our last day-at-sea, between Cabo San Lucas and San Diego to a similar experiment .... but settled on circumspection as our watchword.

Still stiff from the various fitness workouts (although, after 12 days of the Mariner’s superb cuisine, the “Great Abs!” lesson with Jacquie was tempting) we resolved to improve our minds during the day with three Enrichment Lectures, the third by Cruise Director Barry Hopkins sharing some fascinating “inside” stories on the lifestyle of the British Monarchy. Finally we were enthralled with illusionist/magician Greg Gleason’s simple techniques on improving our memory – which served to remind us, just in time, that Pastry Chef Hannes Hofer was providing the delicacies at the afternoon Gala Tea Time.

The evening was devoted to the Captain’s Farewell Reception party, some cha-cha-cha in the Horizon Lounge, dinner, another dazzling Broadway musical revue “Fiesta Latina”, a few dollars spent in the elegant Casino and finally some live DJ music and a sorry Karaoke performance at the Stars Nightclub.

How did the rest of them find the time to lie at the poolside soaking up the sun?!

For more information visit the Regent Seven Seas Cruises website at

Photo courtesy Regent Seven Seas Cruises

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