3 Tempting New Ways to Explore the World by Boat and Train
1. CONTEMPLATING THE MEANING OF LUXURY ON REGENT SEVEN SEAS' NEWEST SHIP
BY ANDREW SESSA
As I quickly discover on a recent five-night Mediterranean voyage, you don't just board Regent's new Seven Seas Explorer, you make an entrance - and, when you do, you feel like you've really arrived.
Stepping off the gangway in Barcelona, I find myself on a gilded mezzanine overlooking a double-height atrium. A smiling crew member offers a glass of Champagne, but I'm too busy staring at the atrium's 13-foot-long, 10-foot-wide chandelier, its 6,000 octagonal crystals sparkling back at me. I ride a leather-and-wood-paneled elevator to my cabin, where I discover more Champagne - a bottle this time - set amid sapphire-blue, crisp-white, and hardwood-paneled decor. In a cruise ship rarity, my oversize bed maximizes the view by facing out large windows and a sliding glass door. Beyond, my balcony is so big (another rarity), it fits a suite of outdoor lounges, the better to enjoy vistas of the ports I'll soon visit in the South of France, Sardinia, and Monaco. The Explorer very quickly begins to feel like home, which, just as quickly, makes me wonder how I'll ever return to my own.
Regent has dubbed the Explorer, which launched in mid-July, "the Most Luxurious Ship Ever Built" - which took more than a bit of courage, and not just because superlatives and the cruise industry don't have the greatest track record. (Think, for instance, of the "unsinkable" Titanic.) It also took guts because the word "luxury" can steer us toward murky waters.
Being the first new-build ship from a beloved company, and the first Regent vessel launched since 2003, the Explorer is unequivocally big news. With a price tag of $450 million, it's the costliest cruise ship ever constructed, on a per-suite basis. Holding just 750 passengers, it's also quite small, meaning it can stop in some of the most coveted, petite ports of call in the Mediterranean, Caribbean, and Northern Europe - harbors largely off-limits to larger vessels.
Its 375 cabins are all suites, each of them, like mine, richly appointed with art deco and classical details such as crown moldings and grand columns, in jewel-toned or neutral palettes. Perusing the ship's 14 decks during my sailing, I see an acre's worth of marble used in intricately inlaid floors, on countertops, and from floor to ceiling in bathrooms. Gold and silver leaf shimmers on ceilings, while mother-of-pearl climbs the columns in the Compass Rose restaurant, where, on my first night aboard, I feast on four courses - rich escargot in perfectly garlic-laced butter included - served on custom Versace china. Later, I find caviar at breakfast, snow crab legs and lobster at brunch. Some $6 million of art, pieces by Chagall, Miró, and Picasso among them, hang on the walls.
All decadent to be sure - but when more and more companies, in industries from fashion to fine wine, describe themselves as "luxury" brands, the meaning of the word has become diluted. Used too frequently to describe too many things, "luxury," as journalist Dana Thomas put it in her best-selling book Deluxe, "has lost its luster." Even with all these sumptuous trappings, I can't help but wonder: Will Regent be able to polish it back up?
Onboard, I'm surprised to learn that Frank Del Rio - CEO of Regent's parent company, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings - doesn't disagree with this assessment of luxury. Despite being the visionary for the Explorer and its "Most Luxurious Ship Ever Built" epigram, he also deems the word overused.
"The media call every ship ‘the luxury liner so-and-so,' and middle-of-the-road Japanese brands call their cars ‘luxury automobiles,' " he says when we meet in his stateroom - the ship's nearly 4,500-square-foot, $10,000-a-night Regent Suite, which sits atop the Explorer's prow. "It's an abused word."
Why, then, call the Explorer "the Most Luxurious Ship Ever Built"?
"Because no one has ever done it before," Del Rio says, playfully, during an event later in the voyage, before continuing more seriously, "Regent stands for luxury. The new ship couldn't just be a regular, cookie-cutter upscale ship. It had to be extraordinary, to make a statement and shine a bright light."
For Del Rio - and for Regent and its clientele - luxury has several specific meanings. "Luxury is freedom. Luxury is space, the best available, unique things," Del Rio tells me. "It's scarcity. It's having the finest materials, the best cuisine."
The point of the Explorer, then, is to make these meanings meaningful for its passengers.
Take freedom: Regent has led the cruise industry in expanding what "all-inclusive" can mean. The company offers unlimited free shore excursions, opening up passengers' schedules to, say, enjoy a guided tour of St. Tropez in the morning, then journey to surrounding hill towns in the afternoon, as some on my sailing do. Beginning this year, Regent even throws in round-trip business-class intercontinental airfare for two with all Regent bookings.
Freedom also extends to Explorer's three specialty restaurants - from Asia-spanning Pacific Rim, whose contemporary chinoiserie decoration strikes me as a delightfully playful Orientalist fantasy when I dine there on my second evening; to the classically French spot Chartreuse, where the smoothness of the foie gras terrine I order on night three takes my breath away; to Prime 7 steakhouse, whose bone-in rib-eye proves itself a cut above in my book. I especially enjoy that even at the ship's more standard eatery, Compass Rose, I can pick from options on the daily changing menu, whose cuisine reflects the day's particular port of call, in a way that lets me freely mix ingredients. I essentially create my own dishes, then combine these into a menu of any number of courses. By doing so, I make a veritable buffet for myself, all without a trace of an "all-you-can-eat" atmosphere. Guests can dine at any of these, at any table, any night, all included.
Regarding space, that's always precious indeed on a ship, with tight quarters de rigueur. But the Explorer boasts some of the largest suites at sea, ranging from 307 to 4,500 square feet. That two-story entrance atrium I ogled upon arrival? It's virtually unheard of on a ship this size, and, in fact, Regent has raised the ceiling heights throughout well beyond what you'd expect. My 6-foot-3-inch frame never feels compressed.
In pursuit of what Del Rio called "the best that is available," meanwhile, Regent has partnered with international leaders from the worlds of culture, wellness, and food.
For the four shows performed onboard, Regent turned to Broadway veterans, even adapting one production - an homage to the glory days of Tinseltown called A Day in Hollywood - from the Tony Award-winning musical of the same name, originally directed and choreographed by the legendary Tommy Tune. Sitting in the nearly 700-seat, velvet-lined, Murano-glass-bedecked theater, a glass of pinot in my hand, I can't get enough of My Revolution, a celebration of the music of the 1960s and '70s created by Peta Roby, whose show Burn the Floor has toured the world. Regent also partnered with the health-and-wellness experts from Canyon Ranch to develop Explorer-specific therapies inspired by the Seven Seas and to run the nearly 10,000-square-foot, two-story spa, where I all but forget I'm on a ship until I look out the windows wrapping the large fitness center and see only open water.
In further pursuit of the best that is available, Regent execs selected international leaders from the culinary world to consult, teaming up with London's Ricky Pang for Pacific Rim, for example, and they've commissioned chef-instructors from the Culinary Institute of America to teach cooking classes and lead new food-focused shore excursions to markets and Michelin-starred restaurants. During my class's hands-on session with chef Kathryn Kelly - held in a state-of-the-art kitchen whose glass walls reveal sea and sky - we learn to bake a limoncello-soaked almond cake, crispily pan-fry scallops, lightly steam branzino acqua pazza, and perfectly emulsify a vinaigrette, all in the space of 75 minutes, while working at individual cooking stations. The light from the windows casts the food we make in a glow so lovely none of us can resist the urge to Instagram.
My last day aboard, as I lie in a poolside chaise shaded by gauzy cabanalike canopies, I take note of the teak flooring, the glass-mosaic tiling, the embellishments that cover every surface with an attention to detail rarely seen at sea. But I also think about something Del Rio told me: "You can have all the hardware you want, but it's all for naught if we don't deliver on the human side."
He was talking about service staff, the people who bring a cruise to life. The Explorer has one of the highest crew-to-guest ratios of any ship currently sailing. The company selected 75 percent of the team from the crème de la crème of the staff on Regent's other three ships, adding promising new hires for these veterans to take under wing. Looking around the deck, I see this strategy succeeding in the rapid delivery of fresh, fluffy towels and in the gregarious laughs at the pool bar, shared by servers and guests over expertly mixed cocktails and, yes, even more Champagne.
Seeing all this as my trip comes to its close - having savored the caviar and the fine wine and having scaled postcard-perfect medieval towns in Provence on shore excursions - it occurs to me that it doesn't matter if the Explorer is, in fact, "the Most Luxurious Ship Ever Built," as if such a thing could ever be definitely determined. Sure, the meaning of "luxury" can be as liquid as the free-flowing sea, and as changeable as the shapes of the clouds overhead, but the Explorer unequivocally pushes the envelope of top-end cruises forward by many nautical miles, and it raises the bar toward those clouds in the sky.
Where it sails: Cruises the Caribbean through March, shifts to the Mediterranean and new Northern Europe itineraries from April to November, then returns to the Caribbean. 844-473-4368; rssc.com
What's next: Regent is proud, and rightly so, of the Explorer, but NCL CEO Frank Del Rio also realizes it's only part of the story, saying, rather philosophically: "Too often companies focus on their latest ship. But their latest ship is only their latest ship. How long does that last?" Del Rio insists he's more interested in building a brand than just building a single vessel, so he earmarked $125 million to refit the other three ships in the Regent fleet, to bring the trio up to Explorer's standards: A refreshed Navigator took to the seas last spring; an improved Voyager launched in November; and renovation work on the Mariner will be completed by April. But the CEO can't resist the temptation to build another new one, either. So Regent has an as-yet-unnamed sister for Explorer in the works, launching in 2020, and Del Rio already has an idea for one major tweak she'll have. He's not telling what that is just yet, though.
2. SEABOURN'S STUNNING NEW BEAUTY WOWS, TOO
BY JANICE WALD HENDERSON
While Regent's Seven Seas Explorer arguably holds the coveted title "the swankiest ship imaginable" for now, Seabourn aims to steal the title away with its just-launched, 600-passenger Encore.
With December's splashy Encore reveal, Seabourn is gently reshaping its definition of luxury. The new beauty shares many similarities to the triplet Seabourn ships, the 458-passenger Sojourn, Odyssey, and Quest. All please with their casually elegant yacht-meets-country-club ambience, all-suite accommodations, and popular public spaces such as Seabourn Square with its coffee bar and library. Although the same class ship, the Encore skews distinctly next-gen with a dramatic new design and extra deck. Adam D. Tihany, who impresses with his stylish restaurant and hotel decors, designed the ship from stern to bow, with stunning results.
Tihany's take elevates Encore to a more modern country club and more lavish private yacht mélange. Everything, from buttery leather chairs to beautifully patterned fabrics and carpeting, is bespoke. Wait until you see all the mahogany in both public spaces and suites. Understated nautical elements, such as gleaming brass and curvy design lines, cleverly evoke the sea.
Suites feel, well, sexier than those on Seabourn's older ships. Attribute that to vibrant red and purple accents, darker richer-grained mahogany, and rounded, rather than square, edges on furnishings. All suites, rather than most, come with verandas, which are larger than those on many ships - seemingly custom-made for kicking back with complimentary Champagne and caviar and watching the waves roll by. The more extravagant bathrooms feature marble everywhere, instead of marble accents.
New to Encore: the Retreat, a rare concept - if not a first - for luxury cruise ships. This exclusive hideaway on Deck 12 lures discerning passengers with a dedicated concierge who handles all special requests and its 15 private cabanas that encircle a central whirlpool. Comfy furnishings, high-definition flat-screen TVs, and refrigerators stocked with guests' preferred beverages make each cabana inviting. They're so nice that they could double as cabanas at posh hotels and share their price tag, with rates beginning at $350 per couple per day.
Belly up to the Retreat's private bar for custom cocktails concocted by a mixologist, or grab a table to munch on spa-inspired small plates. Seabourn stocks the Retreat with complimentary premium sun lotions, Evian misters, and bathrobes in varying weights and sizes for a weather-appropriate, custom fit. Pamper yourself at an adjacent spa that offers a variety of treatments, including relaxing deep-tissue massages.
FOR YOUR WELL-BEING
Two new programs made their debut on Encore and will roll out later this year throughout the fleet. One is a spa and wellness program in partnership with the Onboard Spa by Steiner and Dr. Andrew Weil, an integrative medicine pioneer. This mindful living program includes free daily meditation and yoga sessions, and seminars to empower guests with ideas and practices to enhance well-being. In the second, a shipboard concert called "An Evening with Tim Rice," the prolific English musical theater lyricist shares personal photographs and the inspiration behind creating his iconic songs while singers and musicians perform them live.
You'll barely notice other differentiations from Encore's sister ships. For instance, the Grill by Thomas Keller is somewhat larger than the other ones across the fleet, but its menu still stars the chef's spin on American chophouse favorites. Expect Seabourn's other popular eateries on Encore, too: the Colonnade and its buffets, the Patio for casual poolside dining, the Restaurant for fine dining, plus 24-hour room service.
Thankfully, Seabourn kept one of its most iconic amenities - the wonderful solitary whirlpool on an open deck all the way forward. Find it on Deck 7; it's heaven.
Where it sails: Cruises the Mediterranean in spring and summer, and then Asia, New Zealand, and Australia in fall and winter. 800-929-9391; seabourn.com
What's next: Seabourn debuts Encore's twin, the Ovation, in 2018.
3. HITTING THE RAILS IN SHAMROCK COUNTRY WITH BELMOND
BY ELAINE GLUSAC
By dimensions alone, visitors to Ireland don't need a sleeper train. Not in the way those who travel across the vast Australian outback do if they prefer not to fly, nor in the way those who want to travel the thousand-plus miles between England and Italy in Old World style aboard the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express do. The Emerald Isle, in contrast to those regions, measures only about 32,500 square green miles, roughly the size of Indiana. But if the very definition of luxury indulges want rather than need, then Ireland's new Belmond Grand Hibernian train fits the model like a snug Donegal tweed suit.
In August, Belmond, the London-based company that operates iconic hotels such as the Belmond Hotel Cipriani in Venice and sleeper trains such as Scotland's Belmond Royal Scotsman, introduced its strengths in hospitality and transportation to Dublin's Heuston station with the 20-cabin sleeper train. Over 18 prior months, it transformed eight 1980s-vintage commuter cars into two dining rooms, one observation car featuring a bar, and five with guest rooms. This spring, the train will launch its first full April-to-October season, running two- to six-night tours around the country, introducing a maximum of 40 travelers per tour to Irish landmarks - from Blarney Castle to the Cliffs of Moher - in daily excursions.
In at least a half-dozen trips around the Republic, I have driven rental cars on the left side of the road, sheering the hedges that hug countless slender country lanes and make Ireland so simultaneously charming and unnerving to motorists. Shortly after the Grand Hibernian went into service, I jumped aboard to see if the rewards of entrusting transit and touring to Belmond would exceed the glorious freedom of following my ears to the next musical pub or tailing a flock of sheep on those twee lanes.
"It's a land cruise," one English passenger quips over a welcome flute of Champagne when I join the train in Dublin for a four-day tour to the south and west of the country. "The shack goes clickety-clack."
Judging by rail-side photographers snapping pictures as we hurtle beyond Dublin's town houses to greener pastures, the Irish are clearly experiencing a romance with the train.
Romantic it is, underscored by its intimacy. Efficiently designed but plush berths make cozy nests in private quarters. Public hallways, not much wider than a Gaelic football cornerback's shoulders, demand a sort of good-natured fox-trot when passing tweed-vested staffers and fellow passengers. The last sofa in the observation car instills a meditative state as I watch the tracks spool away, threading villages, pastures, and bridges.
"In my career, I've never said, ‘Where's the hotel next Monday? And for how long?' " remarks the train's general manager, J.P. Kavanagh, at dinner on night one. "Hotels don't tend to move."
Existing Irish Rail tracks, not as extensive as those found in France and Ireland's other European Union siblings, constrain where the Grand Hibernian travels, so Belmond devised hub-and-spoke routes that sometimes backtrack to change course. For example, on our first day, we leave Dublin headed south about three hours to Cork, later pull away from Cork to stable overnight in the somnolent station of Charleville a few hours away, only to return to Cork the next morning to switch tracks for nearby Killarney.
But for following along on Google Maps, these are seamless transitions and if I saw the same flock of sheep twice, I didn't know it, content to gorge on lush views and follow a program of excursions. They begin with a trip to the landmark Jameson whiskey distillery near Cork for a tour of the 1825-vintage campus and an in-depth tasting class that includes an exceptionally mellow Midleton Single Pot Still, aged for at least 15 years and retailing for about $240 a bottle.
Shadowing the train, a tour bus dedicated to excursions races from one station to the next. On many of those excursions, such as the Jameson foray showcasing the rare whiskey, we're treated to special access. On our second morning, we storm Blarney Castle a full hour before it opens and cup our hands around steaming mugs of tea in the normally private Blarney House, the Scottish Baronial-style mansion where the estate's owners, the Colthurst family, live. Belmond's tour guide, Vincent Butler, provides the running narrative, covering Irish history from Viking invasions to the Great Famine, helping us to see the Tower House style of Blarney Castle - featuring slit windows, diminutive doors, and a spiral staircase difficult to ascend while battling - as "a killing machine." Butler also drolly reminds those of us who kiss the fabled Blarney Stone that we "join a long and germy tradition of tens of millions of lips."
Bussing that fabled stone supposedly bestows eloquence, a previously established trait of my 13 fellow passengers, a sophisticated lot - many had traveled on the Royal Scotsman - with keen interests in culture and history. Shared dining tables and free-flowing wine knit our community. "You have companionship and camaraderie all at once," notes one Londoner. "Plus the VIP treatment."
Irish staples such as brown bread and smoked salmon flag-wave at breakfast, but dinners delve more deeply regional. In Killarney, chef Alan Woods picks up wild venison; in Westport, in the far west, halibut. Nearby, around the mountainous Connemara, he loads up on lamb; in Cork, duck. He picks edible flowers and berries at railway sidings and bakes nearly every bread, from that brown bread to tea scones, from scratch. Allowing for spontaneity, he shuns printed menus and describes preparing his Michelin-star-level meals in just a 5-by-26-foot kitchen with one assistant as "a dance." But, he adds, "it's the first time I've had a kitchen with a view. I always take a minute to look around."
After dinner, we nibble on Irish Gubbeen, Crozier Blue, and Durrus cheeses in the observation car where nightly entertainers represent the breadth of Irish culture, from a harpist to a storyteller. Tonight, we sing Irish drinking songs and Bruce Springsteen ballads until nearly midnight with a pair of guitarists because, observes one of the strummers, "both are timeless."
On afternoon three, a stag on the tracks slows our arrival into Killarney, as a railway custodian known as a "milesman" gets dispatched to shoo the deer along. Horse carriages await at the station to ferry us around Killarney National Park, Ireland's first, before delivering us to moody Lough Leane, the park's largest lake, for a Champagne cruise. A waiter bearing a tray of hot toddies awaits our return to the train, and I realize the rhythms of life on this rail, from effortless excursions to the gentle rocking of the train underway, have a tranquilizing effect. I'm not alone.
"Normally we're going 90 miles per hour racing to meet deadlines. I find this fairly relaxing," observes conductor Tom Ryan, when I visit him in his General Motors-made locomotive.
Later, with the train parked at a quiet station, Tom taps on the dining car window and waves good night. "Contemporary society is always in a rush," reflects J.P. beside me. "This is more about how things look at 50 miles per hour."
The next day we'll reach lively Galway in the west, where I debate how to tip the busker with two buckets - one labeled "Tuition," the other "Beer." We'll explore the 13th-century Ashford Castle resort and fly Harris's hawks at its falconry school. But my favorite moment is a pre-Galway autumn morning when the dew, warmed by the sun, rises into a mist that blurs the black-faced sheep and the Connemara ponies into a kind of impressionistic Ireland that winds right to left past my cabin window at the foot of my downy berth.
No, I realize, I don't need a train to get around Ireland, but I definitely recommend one.
Details: The Belmond Grand Hibernian will run annually April through October, offering two-, four-, and six-night itineraries. Short "Taste of Ireland" trips depart Dublin for Belfast and then Waterford in Southern Ireland. Four-night "Legends and Loughs," the trip detailed in this story, visits Dublin, Cork, Killarney, Galway, and Westport. The "Grand Tour of Ireland" combines both itineraries. Trips include daily excursions, with options to play golf on some of Ireland's most scenic courses. Rates start at $4,115, all-inclusive. 800-524-2420; belmond.com