Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ Splendor. Photo / Supplied
On day 3, I started with a Bloody Mary. A Bloody Mary enjoyed alongside an omelette, a fruit salad, a croissant, and a black coffee, served on a white tablecloth with an uninterrupted view across the ocean. The woman at the table next to me ordered a glass of champagne. I had the best seat in the house, but then again, so did she. In this restaurant, every seat is the best seat in the house.
Welcome to the Regent’s Seven Seas Splendor, the newest and most luxurious of the Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ fleet – and that is saying something. The Splendor is Regent’s newest ship to sail – launched just last September, she carries 732 guests across 366 suites (every one of them with a balcony and lounge chairs).
I had arrived on the Splendor in a bit of a state, unwashed and jetlagged after a 40-hour journey from Auckland. Embarking in Stockholm, I was escorted up to my suite on level 7, where the concierge asked me, ‘Would you like a welcoming glass of champagne sent to your room?’ I politely declined – it was the middle of the night on my body clock after all.
But after a moment’s pause – five minutes spent alone in the cool hush of my suite – I realised the error of my ways. I dialled room service: of course I’ll have champagne, thank you. Beginner’s error. I clearly had a lot to learn. But by my day 3 Bloody Mary, you could say I was in the swing of things.
I was on the Splendor for the 12-night European Splendor itinerary. Starting in Sweden, we would be cruising to Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Poland, Germany, Denmark and Belgium, before disembarking in Southampton, England.
Determined to experience it all, I spent my first few days on a fact-finding mission, exploring every part of the ship. As I discovered, there truly is something for everyone onboard – whether you’d like to attend the scotch and champagne tastings, or learn to line dance. Across 13 days I ate in all five restaurants, drank in the three bars, attended evening shows in the theatre, and lectures during the day. I tried room service (a white tablecloth and silver tray service that I miss terribly), and the spa, and even took a bath in my suite (an interesting experience on a ship, with the bathwater gently slushing up the sides of the tub left and right).
But after running about frantically, I settled into the rhythm of cruise life. The ship is packed with activities and spaces – but there’s a reassuring rhythm to the days that means you really can do and see everything. In the mornings, guests who are leaving the ship for the day gather at their meeting point, and are escorted to coaches (or given local maps, if they’re a bit more independent) to explore the day’s port. Lunch is a relaxed affair – dress is casual, although there is still champagne on almost every table.
The afternoons are packed with onboard activities – sports, quizzes, swimming, or reading in the library. And in the evenings, guests emerge refreshed from their suites in evening wear (yes, there is a dress code, although it’s more relaxed than you might expect), ready for a cocktail before dinner and a show (or, for the true night owls, perhaps a swing around the dance floor to the lounge pianist, a flutter in the casino or a go on the mic at the karaoke bar).
Life aboard the Splendor is seamless. A waiter offers more champagne when there’s still two fingers in your glass. Your laundry is whisked away from your room, and returned, perfectly pressed, the next morning wrapped in white tissue paper. If you stand to leave the bar, perhaps for a table reservation elsewhere, don’t be surprised to find a waiter appear at your elbow with a silver tray, ready to carry your drink for you (which is not a bad idea if you’re wearing heels on even such a gently rocking ship). As you eat dinner, the propellers kick into action, shuddering to life without even a vibration, and as you sleep, you slip through the black waters, and the ship carries you to another port, another country, another adventure.
Getting out and about
Most mornings, we awake in a whole new country – draw your curtains, and peer outside to see a port in Germany, Copenhagen, or the seaside villages of northwest Poland. Here there is history, architecture, food and culture thousands of years in the making. The excursions (which are all-inclusive) are varied to suit everyone, from city walks to museum tours, to food foraging trips that end in an onboard cooking class to showcase local cuisine.
In Stockholm, I took a tour of the fascinating Vasa museum, which houses the preserved ship, which sank to the ocean floor hours after beginning its maiden voyage in 1628, and was recovered in 1961; the next day in Helskinki, I cruised on the harbour and saw the private and public sauna chimneys belching steam all throughout the landscape (this country of 5.5 million has 3.5 million saunas); in Estonia, a walking tour of the 13th century old city taught us about Tallinn’s dark history with the KGB, who murdered more than 50,000 Estonians, and took us to a pharmacy that has been open since the 1400s. In Latvia, a Jewish history tour taught us the terrible story of what happened to Riga’s Jewish population during WWII. And in Copenhagen I hopped on a bicycle for a bike lane tour of what has been rated as the best biking city in the world.
These tours were enriching, educational and incredibly worthwhile. Although visiting a city only for a few hours gives you a taste of the place, being led by local guides offered an insight we could not have gained from days spent travelling alone. This part of the world is a fascinating place to visit right now, with centuries of land disputes, changing ownership and alliances, and now a war that borders many of the countries on our itinerary. Finland was part of Russia until 1917, and part of Sweden before that. Estonia was once owned by Denmark; today 25 per cent of the population is Russian. The war in Ukraine, membership to Nato, and what might happen next were conversations in each country we went to.
It was on these excursions that I made my onboard friends – the small tour sizes allow groups to mix and mingle easily, and after taking just a few, I found myself with dinner invitations and offers to join pub quiz and paddle tennis teams. I also met the couple who were to become my best cruise friends – Sharon and Leslie.
Sharon and Leslie are excellent cruisers, and they took me under their wing, determined to teach me the ways of the cruise. They have been cruising together for seven years – they were on a cruise ship off the coast of Australia when the pandemic began, and had to gun it for the mainland in order to get back home to Hawaii. After this trip, they are booked to fly down to Puerto Rico to hop on a cruise to Antarctica via the Falkland Islands, and in 2024 they are booked to visit New Zealand.
First lesson: learn the in-jokes
“You eat till you’re tired, and you sleep till you’re hungry.” This adage comes from Leslie, an avid cruiser who doesn’t look like she’s ever seen a buffet in her life (don’t be fooled – I saw her eat two pasta mains for dinner once, and she had a very soft spot for dessert).
And yes, there certainly is food to eat – an abundance of it. But it’s more than possible to eat very healthily – build your own salads for lunch, add some grilled prawns, and of course a glass of champagne. There are fresh tropical fruits at breakfast, seeds and nuts, smoked salmon and yoghurts. Or go the whole hog with a full English with a bloody Mary every morning – anything goes.
In the restaurants in the evening, the portions are dainty enough to allow for a five-course meal easily enough – perhaps a soup, then a salad, a small pasta dish, followed by the lamb rack and dessert. It sounds excessive, but life aboard the Splendor is more for gastronomes than gluttons.
Another in-joke to stow away? “I’ll buy you a drink.” What sets Regent apart from the competition is that aboard its ships, everything is included – that means all drinks, food (including the speciality French, Italian and steakhouse restaurants), Wi-Fi, shore excursions, your mini bar, room service, valet laundry, and even the service tips at the end of your trip. So cruisers love this joke – it never gets old and even I had busted it out a couple of times by the end of the trip.
So, despite no one buying anything, what is on the drinks menu? The options are as vast as the food – from breakfast Bloody Marys to a different range of wines in each restaurant, to your 4pm martini and then cocktails all night – order off the menu, or ask the bartender to make you whatever you fancy.
Second cruise lesson: ask for what you want
Service aboard Regent’s six-star ships is exceptional, and your experience will be indulgent and luxurious even if you wander room to room just enjoying what is offered to you on a tray by a passing waiter. But once you figure out what you want, cruising life hits a whole new level.
Did you enjoy a particular wine at dinner? Then request a bottle to be sent to your room. Did you want the Fever-Tree over the Schweppes? Have a bottle brought to the bar where you’re ordering your G&T. When Sharon discovered that Luxardo maraschino cherries were stocked in one part of the ship, she requested those cherries in her Manhattans from then on – no matter which bar she was in. After Leslie commented to a staff member that she couldn’t find peanut butter cookies on the ship, four freshly baked peanut butter cookies were delivered to her room every day from then on. After meeting Sharon and Leslie, I had all the mainstream lagers in my mini fridge swapped out for American craft ales that are tricky to find in New Zealand and had all my suitcase-crushed evening outfits pressed.
Sound like difficult customers to you? They were in fact the opposite. These confident forthright Americans were the friendliest, loveliest people on the ship. They knew all their servers by name, they chatted with everyone – and they knew exactly what they wanted, and so they got it.
On my final night aboard the Splendor, I joined Sharon for dinner at the Compass Rose – the restaurant that had come to be our favourite. I ate Ecuadorian ceviche with toasted maize, rare steak with green pepper sauce, and chocolate mousse with caramel for dessert. When I retired to my room for the night, I found my fruit bowl refreshed, my bed turned down, my fridge restocked and my laundry returned – even my socks were perfectly pressed. Yes, the transition back to real life has been tough.
But of all my cruise lessons, perhaps the best has been to simply be involved. Book the excursions, hop onboard, then lean in, say hello and make some friends. Who knows? They might even buy you a drink.
CHECKLIST: NORTHERN EUROPE
DETAILS Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ Northern Europe itineraries on Splendor sail from April to September, on 12-night voyages. rssc.com