Regent Seven Seas has a new ship and a new attitude - and both appeal to today's luxury cruise passenger. Peter Lynch sets sail on its latest vessel, Splendor.
Ever since Regent Seven Seas made the boast that it was launching "the most luxurious ship ever built" with Regent Seven Seas Explorer, the world has been waiting with bated breath. How do you top a claim like that?
The line's follow-up, Splendor, is a story of our times. Splendor's epithet is, "luxury perfected". But it might also be, "less is more".
Sure, the showmanship is still there and the decadence remains. But there is a significant dialling down of the dazzle, and a ramping up of the sophistication and subtlety.
Sister ship Explorer is a blinged-out rap artist. Splendor is a debonair crooner by comparison. More Sam Smith than Jay-Z.
Instead of a recitation of excess, her owner is keen to point out the new Vero Water system that does away with plastics, new fuels and use of shore power that puts Splendor among the best environmentally. There is also a new cooking school, chef experiences and Go Local shore excursions.
Regent maintains it's ready to tackle the demands of this decade's luxury consumer: still luxurious, but more meaningful experiences and with a lighter footprint.
Australia and New Zealand are Regent's third-biggest market, so we are an important test bed for another new message: that Regent offers the best value in luxury cruising.
Yes, the line claiming the most luxurious ships also wants to be known for offering the best value for money. How does that work? It's all about the inclusions, says the line.
On some inclusive cruises, things aren't what they seem. Specialty dining, many shore experiences and premium alcohol are extra, meaning a dose of bill shock as passengers disembark. Regent, however, includes the lot.
So how does Splendor measure up? We think rather splendidly. Explore was on board for a short cruise from Rome to Barcelona - the ship's second outing.
Built by Fincantieri in Ancona, Italy, Splendor carries 542 crew and 750 guests in 375 suites. It features five restaurants, three bars and a show theatre.
The rockstar Regent Suite, at 412 square metres, is a two-bedroom mansion with private car and a driver in every port, a butler and an exclusive dining room for 12.
The enormous wraparound balcony has a jacuzzi and the Dom Pérignon 2008 vintage is virtually on tap. The suite is $16,500 per person a night - but don't all rush at once. It's already booked out until November.
But what about life for the rest of us?
Despite being in a vessel that smells like a new car, her crew is well drilled - and the ship itself is a delight, both in terms of facilities and her ability to perfectly handle seven-metre swells from the French mistral winds.
There is a bigger Coffee Connection with outside seating and more pool deck space. Signature restaurant Compass Rose still features Versace plates, though the colour palette is more contemporary and the giant chandelier has been toned back.
Splendor's specialty restaurants are certainly special. The surf and turf at Prime 7 is everything you would expect from a top-class steakhouse. Chartreuse, a beautifully designed French classic with a menu to match, serves duck foie gras, soufflé and steak tartare with caviar - and that's just the hors d'oeuvre. Our seared Barbary duck breast with glazed turnips and candied morello cherries is a sensation.
Another culinary gem, the Arts Kitchen, has to be the kitchen with the best view in the world and classes are under the watchful eye of oceanic master chef Kathryn Kelly. Anyone who can teach me to make a tasty pesce all'acqua pazza - fish in crazy water, a delicious branzino fillet poached in white wine and shallots - has got my vote. In just an hour, we also produce pain perdu with rum-spiced caramel syrup.
Our cruise is short, but we manage to pack in two unique shore excursions, three shows and a day at sea.
So how can all of this also offer the best value in luxury cruising?
"We will always be the most expensive because we offer the most inclusions," Steve Odell, Regent's Asia Pacific managing director.
"But luxury comes at a price and you should be looking at value. You don't go to Louis Vuitton or Cartier looking for discounts."
Odell believes Splendor is a bit more to Australian tastes.
"It's designed like a private home and I think that will go down well with Aussies."
We are inclined to agree.
Lovely suites, big balconies, great food and good service. Regent really does know how to do luxury cruising.
Have you heard the one about the comedian who died on stage? Must have been on Splendor. The ship has a wonderful theatre, but sadly the acts we saw didn't do it justice.
Best suited to...
Sophisticated travellers who love culture, fine dining and great destinations.