Seven Seas Voyager sets out to show her wares

Cruise editor Rebecca Tobin joined Radisson Seven Seas Cruises in Monaco for the christening of its newest vessel, the Seven Seas Voyager. Her report follows:

t was the perfect christening for the Seven Seas Voyager. The sky was blue; the ship looked great; and the backdrop of Monaco gave the familiar custom a fairytale charm.

The champagne bottle broke on the first try, traditionally a sign of smooth sailings ahead.

If only the rest of the world would cooperate.

March was a rough month for travel. Americans were renaming their french fries, and several of Radisson Seven Seas Cruises' prechristening guests had chosen to stay home pending the outcome in Iraq.

The upscale market itself is in flux, with new capacity coming on line at a fast clip. RSSC increased its capacity by about 50% in 2001 and again by about 30% this year.

Radisson Seven Seas CEO Mark Conroy seemed buoyed by the positive mindset of the passengers on a prechristening "shakedown" cruise. Each of them had logged at least 50 cruise days with RSSC.

And like a proud papa, Conroy was busy showing off the ship and taking guests on behind-the-scenes tours.

"Go home and make fun of your friends [for being afraid to travel]," he told his fellow cruisers. "Our parent company [Carlson Cos.] has the desire and the ability to support us," he said during some downtime in the ship's Voyager Lounge. "These guys, they write checks. They said: 'Make the most of a difficult time.' "

But he admitted the ship was sailing less than full on its first several cruises.

"It's frustrating. We have a product our guests just love," he said. "Wonderful hardware, great crews. If we can't make this work, it'll just break my heart."

Radisson Seven Seas Cruises' latest, the 700-passenger Seven Seas Voyager, sails into Nice, France. Only those who travel to Europe this summer will get a glimpse of the Seven Seas Voyager, which is spending the majority of its time in the Baltic region, followed by Mediterranean cruises. The Voyager makes its maiden transatlantic crossing to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in November; it will spend the rest of the year in North and South America.

RSSC's fleet covers a fairly wide range. There's the small, quirky Song of Flower, the double-hulled Radisson Diamond and now the larger, all-suite ships.

The Voyager is the latest of these similarly designed, similarly named midsize ships. These will be the recognizable face of Seven Seas Cruises, the name the line hopes into morph to by the end of 2003.

The product itself is a little larger than some of its luxury competitors but more upmarket than the lines in the premium category.

Drinks on the house?

Executives are now testing two new-for-the-fleet concepts on the Diamond that would make RSSC cruising a more laid-back, value-added experience: casual evening wear and complimentary bar service.

Conroy is still puzzling over how the concepts will play out. RSSC already offers guests a fully stocked minibar on embarkation as well as complimentary wine with dinner -- but the line's other bar charges are a revenue stream that RSSC would have to find elsewhere.

As for relaxing the dress code, he said, "We did do a survey of our past guests, asking them about [casual dress]. And wouldn't you know it, half were for more casual and the other half were against it."

Dining in

The Voyager is a sister ship to RSSC's Seven Seas Mariner, but it is not identical. Dinner choices onboard are similar to the Mariner, with the open-seating Compass Rose restaurant and the more casual La Verandah, which doubles as the ship's buffet restaurant.

There are two alternative dining choices. The Signatures restaurant is everything an exclusive dining experience should be: great food, overseen by chefs trained at Paris' Le Cordon Bleu, with a classy environment.

New to RSSC is Latitudes, a dinner theater where the food is the featured performer. After guests are seated, the curtain parts to reveal -- the galley. Each evening is linked to a region and its music, and chefs prepare the dinner on stage.

There are no cover charges for any of the restaurants, although reservations are recommended for Signatures and Latitudes.

Gauging the flow

The company said it took a few cues from the Mariner when it submitted the plans for the Voyager, including improving the passenger flow so the bars and lounges are more accessible and livelier.

It was difficult to predict the flow based on my preview cruise, and the first few cruises, at around 65% occupancy, would have flowed differently than when the ship operates at full capacity.

But the plans seemed to be working. The smaller Voyager Bar and the Horizon Lounge with its combination bar and dance floor attracted guests before and after dinner. Conroy said the line poured an additional $1 million into its onboard entertainment.

The one room that seemed empty the entire time was the cigar bar, Voyager's Connoisseur Club -- and that's been my experience on ships in other fleets, as well.

Another lonely room was the Observation Lounge on Deck 11, all but deserted when I got back from losing my euros in Monte Carlo's casino. It's not an easy find; it's tucked forward of the ship's biggest suites. That's a shame because the Observation Lounge's late night entertainment featured a harpist playing lovely music.

On the other hand, RSSC's port-intensive itineraries may leave passengers ready for bed. The Voyager's May 13 itinerary, for example, is an eight-day Barcelona to Rome voyage that visits a different port each day.

No bad cabins

The Voyager is designed as an all-suite, all-balcony ship. You really can't get a bad cabin. My 370-square-foot cabin was classified as a Penthouse suite, but lest you think penthouse means tops, I direct you to the Voyager suite, nearly twice the size; Grand suites with tubs built into an indoor deck; and the ultimate, two 1,403-square-foot Master suites.

But even the Voyager's lowest rung suite, the Deluxe, has 306 square feet of living space and a 50-square-foot balcony.

The cabins are designed with a modern -- some said "corporate" -- feel. And any cabin class above the Deluxe version includes butler service.

Guests looking for a flaw in the Voyager seemed to find one in the suites' walk-in closets, where several passengers complained about drawers that were hard to open.

But, as Conroy noted, if that's the major problem, the Voyager's not doing too badly.

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