I took my first luxury cruise on Radisson's new Seven Seas Voyager as a special way to celebrate my 50th birthday. With its large cabins, the Voyager is perhaps the most comfortable ship afloat. We picked an 11-night Baltic Sea cruise that departed August 19, 2003. Having taken 20 other cruises on mass market lines, mostly Princess and Celebrity, I was afraid that once I stepped into the luxury market I'd be so spoiled that I'd never want to sail on anything else. I could taste the caviar, lobster and champagne as I envisioned days of being pampered.
Luxury cruises are expensive. Our cruises on Princess and Celebrity usually were in balcony cabins at about $300 per couple per day. The cruise on the Voyager cost $1000 per cabin per day, more than three times as expensive as our other cruises. Was it worth $1000 a day? Pour yourself a little champagne and read on to find out.
At these prices you have to judge Radisson with a more critical eye. A deficiency that easily could be overlooked on a $300 a day cruise should not occur when you're paying $1000 a day. The one word that best describes the Radisson experience for me is inconsistent. The cabins and personal attention were wonderful. It was great not to have to wait in line for anything and have servers bring you any food or drink you wanted. But the food was disappointing and the service not quite what it should be at these prices.
Embarkation: Even though they say boarding begins at 3PM, you can board as early as 11:30AM. You're met by one of the cruise staff, given a glass of champagne and escorted to a lounge to check in and have a security photo taken. Then you can have lunch at the pool grill or sandwiches in some of the lounges. There's no hot lunch available except for what's cooked on the grill, hamburgers, chicken, and steak sandwiches. The rooms are not usually ready until about 2:40PM but you can tour the ship while you wait.
The Ship: The Voyager is one of the best ships afloat in terms of passenger comfort, 49,000 tons and only 700 passengers. Other ships that size could carry up to twice the passenger load. To fully appreciate the Voyager you have to venture inside. From the outside, the ship looks like so many of the newer floating hotels. Not much on the outside appears special. It's painted all white. There is not even much of a promenade deck. With no chairs, it's really just a place to duck outside for some fresh air if you happen to be on deck 5. The centerpiece of the ship is an atrium that goes form deck 3 all the way to the top on deck 11. The Voyager is furnished in an elegant but simple fashion. There's not much to wow you until you enter your suite.
The Suites: This is where the Voyager clearly leaves other ships in its wake. The minimum suite is a 300-sq. ft. cabin with an additional 50-sq. ft. balcony. There is more than enough room for two people. The sitting area has a full size sofa with two additional chairs and a small table. There's also a desk and bar in the sitting area, and a small vanity by the bed. The bathrooms are fabulous -- full-size and marble, there is a separate shower, bathtub, and large sink with plenty of storage space. There's also a walk-in closet with enough hangers and room for everyone's clothes. And there are cushions for your two lounge chairs on the balcony. And remember this is all in the minimum cabin.
The Food: When I did a little on-line research before the cruise, passengers had said the food on Radisson was on par with Celebrity. This surprised me since, at these prices, I felt the food should be a lot better than on Celebrity. It was not. The overall quality of the food was my big disappointment on the cruise, the only area that did not meet expectations. The food was inconsistent. A few of the meals were the best I've ever had on a cruise ship. Others were major failures.
There are four restaurants on the Voyager. The Compass Rose is the main dining room, with open seating. Show up anytime and eat with whomever you wish to dine. I never saw anyone waiting for a table. And there are plenty of tables for two for those who don't want to eat with others. While the food at Compass Rose is certainly good, the menus and preparation of the food left a lot to be desired. We felt much of the food was overcooked or not seasoned properly. The meals our first two nights in the Compass Rose were so unmemorable that we didn't eat there again until the final two nights of our 11-night cruise. On the second night, which was formal, they served Beef Wellington and lobster tails. Both were disappointing. The beef was overcooked and the lobster tails were very small baby lobster tails that lacked texture and flavor. I've had much better Beef Wellington on Princess and better lobster tails on every other cruise I've taken. They didn't even stock regular lobster tails, only the baby ones. This was very surprising for a luxury cruise. On the last formal night the waiter forgot to serve the sherbet course to our entire table. To their credit, they did accommodate special requests for cherries jubilee and baked Alaska.
There are two specialty restaurants that require reservations. Signatures is a gourmet restaurant, part of Le Cordon Blue. Its philosophy is the exact opposite of Burger King. At Signatures you have to have it their way. No substitutions, no special orders. But there's plenty on the menu to satisfy almost all tastes. For the most part, the food is very good to excellent and presented so artfully that I took pictures of some of the dishes. By the way, the dress code for Signatures is always at least semi-formal, even on causal nights.
The other specialty restaurant is Latitudes. Here, they serve different dishes from different restaurants around the United States. Everyone eats at the same time, 7:30PM. Your only menu choice is between two main course items, usually a meat and fish. At Latitudes we noticed the greatest inconsistency. This is where I had both the best and worst dishes ever on a cruise ship. Some of the food is truly excellent. A shellfish soup and a fillet mignon in a wonderful sauce were the highlights of the food part of the cruise. But on our second visit and with a different recipe, the same excellent cut of fillet mignon was not properly seasoned and served on top of a puddle of bland beef consume. The unanimous opinion of the six people at our table was that the beef turned out bland and tasteless. It was as if the chef had not even bothered to taste it. Deserts also were inconsistent. A pecan pie was overcooked and tough.
Some tips for making reservations at Signatures and Latitudes. If you want your choice of times and days, make your reservations as soon as they start taking them at 3PM on the day of sailing. They'll only let you make one reservation for each restaurant. But you can book a larger table and invite someone you meet later. After a couple of days when everyone has had a chance to make their first reservation, they will let you make a second one. If they do fill up you can always try for a cancellation. We ate in Latitudes two nights when there were at least 10 empty places for people who had made reservations but didn't show up and neglected to call.
If you have a hearty appetite, beware of any dishes where the meat comes sliced. The polite term would be to say the portions are "delicate." In other words, they're small. We had three different meals of sliced veal, sliced duck breast and sliced Chateaubriand that amounted to no more than 2-3 ounces of meat in a serving. You should have seen the expression on my face on the last formal night when I ordered Chateaubriand and I got a plate with two small 1/8-inch thick slices of meat. The entire table asked for more meat which the waiter brought after a wait that seemed too long.
The fourth restaurant is La Veranda, always casual and with an outdoor seating area. We only ate there twice, although some people felt this was the best food on the ship. Its theme is a Mediterranean Bistro. Humus and chunks of Parmagiano cheese await you with bread on the table. The atmosphere is warm and inviting. Much quieter than Compass Rose. Here the appetizers are served buffet style, and the waiter brings your entrée and some deserts. Other deserts are available from the buffet. On the whole, I thought the food in La Veranda was very good. They had an excellent lamb shank, and I don't even like lamb. But others at our table were not as impressed by the food here.
To be fair about the quality of the food, I spoke to many people on the cruise that were delighted with it. They loved every bite. It's interesting how two people can experience the same meal and come away with two completely different impressions. But I was not alone in my feeling that the food was inconsistent. Everyone in our core group of eight passengers felt the same way. And while the quality of the food wasn't always excellent, the presentation was beautiful.
The Drinks: All drinks at meals are complimentary. However, except for wine with dinner, they don't tell you the drinks are free. They never offered a pre-dinner cocktail or an after dinner drink. But they are free if you ask for them at the dinner table and the waiters will bring them. This applies in all restaurants. Non-alcoholic drinks are always free anywhere on the ship.
Upon arrival you select an in-room bar set up of two bottles of liquor or wine. You also get two cans of beer and mixers, soft drinks and bottled water. The non-alcoholic beverages are replaced as needed. To our surprise, we found that, other than water, we really didn't drink anything in our suite. There are so many opportunities to drink elsewhere on the ship that we didn't have much of a desire to drink in the room. I ended up lugging the two unopened bottles of liquor back home.
Radisson does not seem to make much of a profit on drinks. The most expensive glass of red wine we ordered was $5.50 and most cocktails were no more than $4.75. I know people have suggested that Radisson just go to an open bar policy. But they would have to raise cruise fares to do it and those who don't drink would end up further subsidizing those who do drink. I would suggest a compromise that would give passengers a choice of the in-room liquor or a shipboard credit. A $50 bar credit would have been more use to us than two bottles of liquor we never had time to drink in the room.
The Service: It was always prompt, professional and attentive. With a ratio of 1.5 passengers to 1 crew, the ship excels at service. Even tables in the buffet restaurant are set with table clothes and silverware. Same for tables in the Horizon Lounge at teatime. As soon as you sit down at a table anywhere, someone is usually quick to come to take a drink order. But as good as the service was, there is still room for improvement. Only about a quarter of the time did the serves make an attempt to address me by name. Almost every time I was drinking soda, I had to ask for a refill, instead of the server coming to me to ask if I wanted another one. And in only one case did the server bring a refill without asking or being asked.
The room stewardess and her assistant were very professional in doing their jobs. I never had to ask for anything for the room. But again, they never made an effort to address me by name in the 11 days of our cruise. They only would say "good morning" or "have a nice day" when we passed in the halls. I've taken cruises on Princess and Celebrity where the room steward was calling me by name on the second day. These are small points but they are important if you want to be the very best.
The Lounges: They are all comfortable, pleasant and simple. Not much leather or glitz. Most of the chairs are cloth. The Constellation Theater is the main show lounge. There always were seats available. The Horizon Lounge featured afternoon tea and evening dancing. The Observation Lounge was my favorite, on deck 11, glassed in and overlooking the water. A quiet place to have a drink or tea and watch the ship sail. There is also the Voyager Lounge outside the entrance to the Compass Rose. Great for a drink before dinner, it turns into the disco later.
The Staff and Crew: Cruise director Barry Hopkins was excellent. He and his staff made an effort to chat with and get to know everyone. I felt the ship's management was accessible if anyone had a problem. The Captain also seemed accessible and was on the bridge to answer passenger questions during the two sea days when the bridge was open for visits.
Entertainment: The 10 singers and dancers who did the three production shows were excellent. The rest of the shows in the main showroom were a bit spotty. I felt some of the entertainer's acts were not good enough to sustain an entire show. But you really can't expect to have all top acts on a smaller ship. There was also an on board enrichment lecturer who many people thought was great, even though I didn't get to hear her. And the cruise director Barry Hopkins did a couple of lectures himself, on digital photography and the Royal family, which were popular and entertaining.
Internet Access: Available in the top suites and in the Internet café. The price for surfing the net is very reasonable. You're charged only for actual downloading time. It's less expensive to use a web-based mail account like Hotmail than to use the ship's email address. With the ship sailing full, there was sometimes a wait for a computer terminal.
Laundry: Free self-service laundry, including detergent, is available on all decks. With only two machines per deck there sometimes was a wait.
Dress Codes: On the Voyager there are three: casual, semi-formal and formal. I've concluded that ship dress codes really apply only to men. Women can wear anything but jeans. A black pantsuit can double for casual and semi-formal nights. Add a string of pearls and you can wear it for formal night too. So for the men, formal means tux or dark suit and tie. About half the men wore tuxes. Semi-formal is a jacket, tie optional. Most men wore ties. Casual means no jacket. About half the men wore them anyway.
Tipping: This is a topic that seems t get people riled up. The policy on Radisson is that all tips are included in your cruise fare and no tips are expected on board. They even tell you on board that tips are not expected. Some people felt the need to tip anyway, sometimes up front, and believed they received better service. I didn't tip extra and my service was fine. However, as much as people don't like the hassle of tipping, I believe that you will never get service as good as you would get when the employee's income depends on a personal tip from you.
Conclusions: Radisson is an excellent cruise line and I would sail it again. Some people have said it's like a floating Four Seasons resort. But I didn't feel that it was quite up to that level. The Voyager excels in its cabins, passenger comfort and service. In my opinion the food needs improvement. At these prices the food should be much better than the mass-market lines, not on par with them. What you're paying for on Radisson - and you're paying a lot for it - is a larger cabin, much more attentive service, not having to wait in line, and a more exclusive group of passengers. Whether you think it's worth three times the cost of a mass-market cruise is a personal choice. I wasn't won over completely. But I would like to sail a luxury line again. When I do, I think I'll try Crystal's new ship Serenity so I'll have something to compare with Radisson.