When is excess success? What makes the world’s most luxurious ship? Teresa Ooi get the best job of the year – testing the extravagant claims of Seven Seas Explorer.
She was christened by a real-life princess in Monte Carlo. She has 2,500 artworks worth $7.8 million, including two Picassos and a Chagall.
An acre of marble covers her floors, and her ceilings house almost 150 hand-blown crystal chandeliers.
Restaurants serve their fare on plates by Versace. Her main suite is bigger than a Sydney apartment, complete with gold fittings, a private spa and a bed worth almost $200,000.
Welcome to the world’s most luxurious ship. Or at least, that’s the claim of creator Frank Del Rio, president of Regent Seven Seas, Oceania Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Lines.
Seven Seas Explorer is very much his baby. A $586 million work of art. He chose the pieces on the walls, picked the colour scheme, chose the designers and made the bold claim: the most luxurious ship ever built.
So does the 56,000 tonne Explorer, christened by Princess Charlene in a ceremony that included a bravura performance by opera stars, live up to expectations?
In a white-gloved world hitherto dominated by Chrystal Cruises, Seabourn, Silversea and Viking Ocean Cruises, Explorer certainly sets a new benchmark.
Del Rio is so confident of his food offerings – he claims he pays his five chefs more than the captain – he tried to get Michelin to rate his restaurants. They declined on the grounds that a restaurant at sea didn’t have the same access to fresh produce as the other contenders.
Del Rio is unashamed about his claims. Sitting comfortably before almost 50 international journalists – Cruise Passenger among them, he is happy to tackle the most obvious question. Exactly what is it that makes the Explorer the world’s most luxurious ship?
A few hours earlier, De Rio was in his trackies personally hanging $7.8 million worth of paintings and sculptures he bought over more than two years at auctions and gallery sales.
Today, he was happy to discuss what luxury meant. Was it the 2,148 bottles of champagne in the fridge? The 907 kilograms of lobster on the tables? The designer grand piano in the 281 square metre Regent Suite that rents for $60,000 for a 10-night cruise?
Was it the acre of Italian marble in shades of black to Mykonos blue – so that the factory was closed for a year producing it. Or the most expensive and rarest piece: a $500,000 prayer wheel sculpture, hand-cast in bronze by Brisbane-based UAP company.
At 300 tonnes, the sculpture weighs the same as two cars and had to have reinforced steel plates put underneath it.
Turns out its all of the above. But Del Rio is proudest of the detail. The fact that you go onto the pool deck and can’t see one cable or wire.
For the rest of us, there was the palatial Regent Suite, which has its own private spa with gilt fittings and a plush, $1200,000 master bed filled with horsetail hair (apparently the Queen has one).
It even has a $326,000 Steinway Arabesque piano designed by Dakota Jackson. Murano glass bowls from Venice and French Lalique objets d’art dot the suite. A bottle of chilled Dom Perignon sits on the marble bar.
The suite is the largest on the sea. Naturally, it comes with butlers and a private limousine awaits at every port.
Explorer is a ship dressed to impress. The atrium is dominated by an over-sized chandelier. The main dining room, Compass Rose has Versace place settings. The Observation lounge harks back to the grand style of art deco and the new French Chartreuse restaurant is elegant, contemporary and serves excellent foie gras.
The ship even has a champagne and caviar breakfast – a little more than we could take, but we’re sure someone enjoys it.
Barcelona’s temperatures hit a sweltering 29C on the day Explorer sets sail for Toulon, France, at about 9pm. It’s her first journey and she is so newly minted she is just four days out of the shipyard.
There is no grand farewell. Most of her 750 guests are well into their main course at one of five specialty restaurants.
We are comfortably ensconced in the grand Compass Rose. The moment you enter, you are struck by the arresting Mykonos blue, hand-blown chandelier centrepiece, surrounded by gold and glass, sunray-like chandeliers, the highly- polished, intricate marble floor and grand seating in shades of beige and deep blue.
We had with scallops marinated in herb oil, followed by steamed Maine lobster tail with risotto primavera, finished with Guanaja chocolate souffle. Good start.
We are in a Concierge Suite on deck 7. It’s a generous-sized 30.8 square metres and has a big balcony, a marble and granite bathroom with twin wash basins, marble shower, full-sized bath, L’Occitane toiletries and thick, fluffy towels.
The walk-in wardrobe has sufficient cupboard and hanging space for clothes and storage for two or more large suitcases. The king-sized bedroom has an interactive TV, complimentary movies on demand, a minibar with soft drinks, beer and bottled water. A coffee machine with Illy coffee capsules. A bottle of chilled champagne and two cut-glass flutes are on the coffee table.
We turn up for our stretch and relax exercise class at 8am the next morning. Fitness director Aleksandar Gacesa from Croatia, a former USA football player, exercises us for 30 minutes.
Breakfast at the outdoor terrace of La Veranda on deck 11 is the best place to enjoy the morning sunshine and sea breeze. There is a selection of fresh mango and papaya with Greek yoghurt, sprinkled with natural hazel nuts, pepitas and macadamia, which is more than sufficient. But the full breakfast buffet with cold meat cuts, smokes salmon, European cheese and a hot selection is also on offer.
It’s going to be hard to stay fit with all this temptation. Luckily, the Canyon Ranch SpaClub is spacious and welcoming. I immediately feel at home when Carla, the therapist from Cape Town gives me a 60-minute oxygen-infused facial.
If I had been early, I could have experienced an infrared sauna with temperatures of up to 93C or the cold room when temperatures dip to 10C to improve blood circulation and muscle joints. Perhaps next time.
Dinner tonight is at the elegant French Chartreuse on deck 10 portside. Reminiscent of a Parisian cafe, it has feminine art nouveau decor and a feature wall lined with sculpted Chartreuse glass surrounded with metallic frames.
The menu is classic French with a modern twist. The terrine of foie gras is exceptional, the coquille Saint Jacques sea scallops delicious, but the duck breast with turnip could have been more moist. Dessert of dark chocolate mouse is wicked.
On the morning we arrive at Olbia, Italy, we go on a shore excursion to experience the many facets of Costa Smeralda and the seaside resort of Porto Cervo, northern Sardinia. It is home to some of the most expensive yachting hardware anywhere on earth.
Middle Eastern wealth is everywhere. Not often do you see a Harrods, a Rolls Royce office and some of the swankiest shops in Italy.
Created by Prince Karim Aga Khan and other investors, the ritzy enclave is also home to some of the world’s most expensive hotels including Hotel Cala di Volpe, Hotel Pitrizza and Hotel Romazzino. Hotel Cala di Volpe was featured in James Bond movie The Spy who Loved Me and the presidential suite is reputed to cost $42,800 a night.
Back on Explorer, we dine at Prime 7 on deck 10, renowned for its steakhouse cuisine. American chefs know how to cook a steak and keep it moist and tender. We finish our meal in time to watch Australian-born guitarist Vicenzo Martinelli, who has performed with acclaimed singer Shirley Bassey.
Next day, we arrive at the Mediterranean’s playground for the rich and famous, St Tropez. While regularly visited by Matisse, Errol Flynn, Pablo Picasso and Jean-Paul Sartre, it was a young and voluptuous Brigitte Bardot and her 1956 movie And God Created Woman that transformed the seaside port to the playground for the international jet set.
Today, you can spot Giorgio Armani or Mariah Carey accompanied by their entourages, strolling by the chic boutiques. In the heat of summer, St Tropez’s waterfront is packed.
But stroll through the backstreets and you find the shady town square known as Place Carnot, where older men play the ancient game of petanque. There’s also the traditional Provencal fresh market on Tuesday and Saturdays.
After an afternoon of strolling at the French Riviera, we make our way back to the ship by tender as she is riding at anchor about 10 minutes from the marina.
We dine at the much-anticipated Pacific Rim on deck 5. It has a dramatic entrance anchored by the massive, hand-made, bronze-cast prayer wheel. The 90 intricately-designed discs are similar to the Tibetan Buddhist prayer wheels. We take turns to spin the wheels to restore good karma.
Decorated in olive green and grey, the chic restaurant serves food from Japan, China, Thailand, Korea and Vietnam. Portions are small allowing you to sample several starters. The miso black cod wrapped in a hoba leaf is outstanding, but the duck spring roll could do with a bit more flavour. The green chicken curry was surprisingly spicy and the pho sai gon is great.
For dessert, you won’t go wrong if you pick the superb green tea panna cotta.
Cruises on Explorer are all-inclusive. Service is charmingly efficient and cheery. Nothing is too hard for the young waiters and crew who worked extremely hard to please.
The evening before we dock at Monte Carlo, Explorer throws a fun poolside barbecue party serving champagne cocktails and extensive seafood including Alaskan crab, lobster and scallops. For meat lovers, there’s steak, roast turkey and all kinds of roast vegetables and salads. The choice is enormous.
So is conspicuous consumption back?
“Good, old conspicuous consumption – that’s all over,” says Del Rio. “But luxury is back to reward success and not to vilify wealth. It’s more than okay to enjoy the best of the best.’’
CRUISE LINE: Regent Seven Seas
VESSEL: Seven Seas Explorer
STAR RATING: Not yet rated
PASSENGER CAPACITY: 738
TOTAL CREW: 542
PASSENGER DECKS: 10
ENTERED SERVICE: 2016
FACILITIES: Seven dining options, two pools, hot tubs, boutiques, casino, Constellation Theater, business centre, Canyon Ranch SpaClub, fitness centre, jogging track, library, cooking school.
BOOKINGS: Seven-night cruises on Seven Seas Explore from Rome to Barcelona departing October 28, 2017 is priced from $6,280 per person twin share. See rssc.com
Highs: It is indeed a work of art, and you’ll never be bored touring the ship. Great food, wide corridors and beautiful decor gives the whole vessel a five star feel.
Lows: PG Woodhouse once said: “I saw this show at a disadvantage: the curtain was up!” I know what he meant. American songs from the 1940s really shouldn’t make it to such a brilliant, modern stage.
Best suited: People who appreciate that luxury is about great art, good food and fabulous company and not just conspicuous consumption.