ONBOARD THE SEVEN SEAS EXPLORER -- "Lumpy" is how Frank Del Rio, CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, describes growth in the luxury segment of the cruise industry.

New ships come in clumps rather than follow the smooth annual progression typical of the more affordable mass market and premium categories.

The industry is going through a lumpy period in which all the luxury players are ordering new ships. Del Rio's entrant in the derby is the Regent Seven Seas Cruises 750-passenger Seven Seas Explorer.

It is the first new Regent ship since 2003, an eternity in the scheme of things. The Explorer, however, is not jarringly different from Regent's previous ships, especially the Mariner and Voyager, which at 700 passengers each are nearly the same size as the Explorer.

The one radical departure is something that most guests will never see, but it's a feature that will probably define the ship for the near future: the 4,443-square-foot Regent Suite, an accommodation Del Rio said is intended for "the 1% of the 1%."

The Regent Suite occupies the forward one-third of a new 10th passenger deck, along with 10 smaller suites.

Among the features of this Pasha's palace is a floor-to-ceiling window alcove with a waist-high pedestal that provides most of the navigation information that the ship's captain receives three decks below.

There's a his-and-hers set of ceramic, heated relaxation chairs and a sauna hidden behind a golden door. Together they comprise part of an in-suite spa.

The suite goes for $10,000 a night, although Regent is mulling a price increase since the two-bedroom showpiece is sold out well into 2017.

The rest of the ship follows much of the design template set by earlier Regent ships but stepped up a notch. The designers were tasked with creating "the most luxurious cruise ship ever," but if they reached the goal it is rather a sober style of luxury.

No one will mistake this for Hollywood luxury or Parisian luxury. It is more a Ritz-Carlton, Palm Beach model, with lots of chandeliers and dark, fluted wood paneling.

"I wanted this ship to be timeless, that this vessel will be as relevant to the luxury market 20 years from now as it is today," Del Rio said.

Although several cruise-watchers said they saw similarities to the Oceania R-ships with which Del Rio launched his career, the designers said that wasn't intended.

They traced the inspiration to a photo Del Rio produced of an unknown hotel corridor with mostly white woodwork and a crystal chandelier.

In any case, the design was a hit with nearly all of the luxury travel agents on a preview cruise.

"I think this ship is really beautiful," said Stephanie Turner, CEO of Brentwood Travel, an Ensemble agency in St. Louis. "The rooms are comfortable, spacious and well appointed."

Also impressed was Mary Ellen Burton, owner of SST Travel, a Mooresville, N.C., agency affiliated with Vacation.com.

"It's a fabulous ship," Burton said. "The quality they brought into it is just phenomenal."

Likewise, Stacy Weigant, a Virtuoso agent at Forest Travel in North Miami Beach, raved, "I think it's an amazing product. I loved it."

One small criticism I had was that there's really no public place outdoors at the bow of the ship to watch as Explorer sails in and out of a harbor, one of my favorite parts of a cruise. That view is reserved for the forward suites or indoors in the Observation Lounge.

Some also thought it odd that the aft stairwell terminates on Deck 4 with two doors marked "Staff Only."

Agent Bob Newman, of Cruise Brothers in Cranston, R.I., dubbed it the "stairway to nowhere."

The Explorer is enlivened by tons of abstract, modern art, mostly hand-picked by Del Rio, an avid art collector. A signature example is a cast-bronze Tibetan prayer wheel at the entrance to the Pacific Rim restaurant that, according to one designer, came with a $500,000 price tag.

Overall, the Explorer cost more than $450 million, or better than $600,000 a berth. That's more than 25% above competing ships, and one of Del Rio's arguments for the claim that this is the "most luxurious ship ever."

He said the Explorer has over an acre each of marble and granite, but it is in the details where the luxury shows.

"Look at the intricate patterns," Del Rio said. "Look at how the marble and the granite on the floor is framed by brass profiles."

Regent is also paying top dollar for executive chefs, according to Del Rio.

Nearly everyone on the preview cruise was satisfied with the food. Explorer introduces Pacific Rim, a new Asian concept, and Chartreuse, a French option that will replace Signatures on other Regent ships.

The two-story, 694-seat Constellation theater is home to four new production shows. The two I saw, with Hollywood and 1960s rock music themes, were well staged and performed and featured striking costumes and clever lyrics, especially a send-up of Hollywood's strict 1930 production code.

The ship has a large Canyon Ranch spa and a 16-station Culinary Arts teaching kitchen.  

The main complaint I heard from agents about the ship was its service. An example I saw was a waitress fumbling to serve french fries with a pair of forks; agents also cited other examples.

Del Rio is adamant that if there are flaws, they will vanish as the crew gains experience. "What people remember is the service, and so we work very hard to have extraordinary service," he said.

Agents, such as Brentwood Travel's Turner, said that at per diems north of $1,000 a day, there are high expectations. "If you're going to be at that price point, you have to be pretty perfect," Turner said. "That's the challenge."


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