First...I hate cruises. After 11 six to nine month deployments on carriers and cruisers during a 36 year Navy career, I hate cruises. My wife likes them. This was our fourth, one being the Delta Queen which was fun but doesn't really count. I am ready to go home after five days, unfortunately they usually last seven. Our Seven Seas Mariner cruise was ten days and neither of us wanted to leave. A great experience. Well worth every penny, which with free liquor and no tipping, compares favorably with comparable rooms on lesser "cattle boats".
The ship had a great open ocean ride for its size. Roll was well controlled by the stabs, pitch was moderate and you can't do anything about heave. Just enough movement to screw up my golf swing in the cages and help us sleep.
Check in: When they say 3:00, that's what they mean. No checking in at noon and getting lunch on board. I had been forewarned, the entire ship had been chartered the cruise before and all 704 pax were dumped at Pier 66 while we were having breakfast. They universally raved about the ship but the Radisson reps let me know that the ship is closed until 3:00 so the crew can catch their breath and have one decent meal together every week or so. We showed up a little before and found a terminal full of really ticked off people. The Mariner reps, being French, didn't give a rats. At the appointed hour we squeezed through a tiny door to the next room where we checked in by deck. The process took seconds, provided you had passports and credit card and didn't ask any questions. Lots of people asked questions. Photographer was available for Kodak moment but as with the rest of the cruise, you had to ask. No cameras in your face. Assumed that was because a significant number of the old goats didn't appear to be with their wives. Greeted with flute of Champaign and crewmember who took carry on, led the way to room where a bottle of Champaign waited icing in a silver bucket. Stewardess (tall, blond Icelander) arrived to ask about our preference for set ups and soft drinks for the fridge and to take our order for the two complementary bottles of booze to be provided. The buzz started in the elevator, left somewhere around Daytona driving home.
Room: We bought the cheapest but received a four category upgrade. Everyone seemed to get an upgrade within type (suite, penthouse, etc.) Some paid for modest penthouse and ended up in 1220 sq ft quarters with butler. Our room was near to the Penthouse, only much narrower. Had the large bath with mirror in the tub, walk in closet with umbrella, king size bed, sitting area and balcony. Very comfortable. Next time will spring for your size room for the extra width. The washer/dryers on each deck were out of commission for some reason. The gave us a $100 laundry credit.
Crowd: The ship was reported to be full but we hardly saw a soul. Absolutely no crowds. Restaurants were never more than half full, plenty of room in the theater, lots of space around the pool. They must have stayed in their rooms because they weren't to be seen about the decks. No lines to leave the ship in port and walked off by ourselves when debarking. Where on earth did you cruise people come up with "disembarkation"? Only event to till a room was when the Cruise Director ( who sang at Dodi's funeral) gave a talk on the royal family. It filled the Mariner lounge. My wife said it was enjoyable, I was at the wine tasting.
Food: Fabulous, as Anne Campbell described. This was our first experience with open seating. The tables for two were very popular. The greater/seater would try to put you at a larger table with the intent of building a group. That, for us, with a couple of exceptions, was a disaster. Large percentage were loud, pompous, conceited, demanding, boors. My wife and I enjoyed eating alone, just talking to each other, instead of listening to a table full of (well, never mind). In any event, you sat where he put you, no asking for that table over there. French, remember? Compass Rose served excellent breakfasts. Lunch was a bit overdone. Who wants five courses at noon, with wine? Dinner was a gastronomic experience, every meal being memorable. With open seating, your order was taken and the courses began arriving, not waiting for the whole room to be fed before moving on. Glasses were kept full with absolutely exquisite wine selected to compliment the evening's menu. My wife figured I drank the equivalent of three glasses during white wine only meals, about five if red was served with main course. Service was French, prompt, professional, friendly and helpful. The buss boys were on a par with the waiters of other cruise lines. The French did not appreciate guests getting too friendly with them. Never left without feeling a $20 tip was appropriate. La Veranda, again never crowded, no matter when, was buffet breakfast which we didn't think worked if you wanted something hardy. We took lunch there trying for one sensible meal per day. If you were fetching or frail, a waiter took a plate and walked you through the line, explaining each offering while building a magnificent lunch of French prepared god knows what. I tagged along fixing my own salad. Could eat inside or outside . Evening meal at La Veranda was Mediterranean, a fun diversion. They didn't appreciate my asking what they were going to do when the sea gulls discovered La Veranda. The two specialty restaurants were billed as reservation only but in fact they only reserved about 70% capacity so there was a good chance of being seated if you just showed up. Signatures, the Cordon Blu was a disappointing experience for us. Three courses versus the C.R.s' five and the food didn't appear to be prepared any better. Some raved about the place and ate there as often as they could get in. Latitudes, another fun experience, was a sampling of Indonesian and south sea island fare. Once was enough. The buffet around the pool was about the same as La Veranda except they kept steaks, chops, sausage, chicken and burgers on the grill. Room service was by courses. Having dinner served on the balcony while sailing down the river leaving Charleston was easy to adjust to. Tea time in the proper British tradition but no midnight buffet, probably because that crowd would have had a coronary. After a couple days out, we would go to the restaurant through the bar. Would hook up with people we wanted to eat with and get a larger table. As I said, when left to the maitre'd, it was a disaster.
Dress: Pretty much as you described. Everyone (except me) dressed up one notch from that required. Yes, required. No showing up in jeans saying this is all I brought, now feed me. Coats went on after six, required or not. When coats were required, ties optional, everyone (except me), wore a tie. Casual, everyone (except me) wore a coat. This crowd just naturally felt better dressed up.
Entertainment: Plenty to do but you had better be able to take care of yourself. The usual bridge, lectures, crafts and bingo during the day. A whole room full of computers for classes and keeping in touch. The evening show started at ten, a little late after three huge meals and all that wine. No expense spared on sets and costumes. Troupe was young and energetic but a bit stiff. Comic was hilarious, magician unfortunate. Was nice being able to order a ginger ale without digging out charge card.
Tipping: No tipping and they mean it. You would rarely have the same waiter twice. They got genuinely annoyed when you asked to sit in a certain waiter's station. Didn't see our stewardess the last evening or morning. Would have liked to have said goodbye. The management said we had already been charged the equivalent of their tips and that they receive it in their salary. Not having to shell out the obligatory 15% each time you order a drink was nice. We were told not to tip the stevedores because the company hired them from the city for the day and they were well paid. However, when the fellow piled our bags on his dolly and asked about tips for the porters, I paid.
The ship: Again, as you said, no vibration, anywhere, anytime. No propeller shaft. The drive system is essentially two 8,500 horse power electric trolling motors suspended beneath the hull. No rudders. A retired ship's master and I exhausted the second officer's English so he called the captain, who is most enthusiastic about his new toy. The bridge is 22nd century, the nav system, GPS (which doesn't translate in French) and autopilot are totally integrated. Other ships say they are, however........ One lady, being booked on this summer's Alaska cruise, demanded to know how the system was going to detect whales and ice bergs. But, seamanship consists of punching in where you want to go and what time you want to be there, and then sit back and let it do its thing. The captain thought it impertinent when I opined what would happen to the electric motors when the shaft seals inevitably leaked, and when the pods got sheared off on an uncharted rock. Little old lady said she was sure the captain had spare pods. The captain looked pained. But, he can spin the pods 360 degrees and turn the ship on a dime. With bow thruster, moving out from the pier sideways was possible.