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Trip round Med turns cruise sceptic into convert

Looking back on my maiden Mediterranean cruise I have only one regret. As the sun rose over the Alpes-Maritimes and my fellow passengers were enjoying our spectacular arrival into Monte Carlo harbour, I was still asleep. And by the time I finally crawled out of bed, we had docked.

I’m new to cruising and it hasn’t been the most promising of starts. Within an hour of boarding the ship in Rome, I discover that everyone else booked their shore excursions weeks ago.

“Don’t worry, I’ll put you on the waitlist for Highlights of Florence,” a woman at the Destination Services counter says.

No one cancels at the last minute but there are compen­sations. While my shipmates are tearing around Tuscany, the generous ratio of 750 passengers to 540 staff is skewed even further in my favour.

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I fall into conversation with a group of cruise veterans gathered at the poolside bar. They have a knowledge of the Med to rival that of Napoleon and aren’t bothered about seeing Florence for a third time. Instead they swap stories and reminisce, clearly relishing the fact there’s a newbie to impress. Ports of call are compared, contrasted and critiqued and although there are differences of opinion, the conver­sation finishes with everyone agreeing that the great thing about cruising is you only have to unpack once.

The Seven Seas Explorer launched with much fanfare in July. Costing a cool US$450 million, the Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ vessel is billed (and trademarked) as “the most luxurious ship ever built”. Maybe it’s me but the phrase brings to mind another lavish liner and an iceberg – especially when the first onboard announcement requests that passengers don their life jackets and muster in the Constellation Theatre. It’s only a safety drill but a comedy kerfuffle ensues as the hallways fill with swollen orange figures waddling around in a maritime version of the Teletubbies.

I’ve signed up for a six-night voyage from Rome to Barcelona. My Superior Suite – there are only suites on the Seven Seas Explorer, all with large balconies – is about the size of a bijou Mid-Levels apartment. I have a spacious walk-in wardrobe and a large bathroom equipped with double sinks, a walk-in shower, a separate full-size bathtub and a quarry’s worth of Italian marble. Glass doors lead onto a roomy teak-trimmed terrace, where I can sit back and watch the sunset with a glass of bubbly from the com­plimentary minibar. There’s an interactive flat-screen television and Wi-fi, which is about as essential for a modern cruise ship as an anchor. It’s both sumptuous and stylish without going overboard (nautical pun intended), yet my suite is far from high-end by Explorer standards.

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If my Mark Six numbers come up, I’ll be making inquiries about the Regent Suite; 3,875 square feet of palatial space with in-room spa, a US$250,000 Steinway grand piano, a wraparound balcony and bespoke Savoir beds. Even at US$10,000 a night, the exclusive pad is booked up for months to come. It makes you feel almost sorry for the poor souls who have to trade down to a 2,000-sq-ft Master Suite.

But back to the bold “most luxurious ship” claim. Regent regulars I speak to purr about features my untrained eye miss­es at first: the creative use of lighting, sense of space, craftsmanship and exceptional standards of service. Nor can anyone recall sailing on such a stable vessel. Then there’s the artwork. There are more than 2,000 paintings; each picked and placed by Frank Del Rio, chief executive of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, of which Regent is a subsidiary.

Cuisine is almost an art form on the Seven Seas Explorer. Dishes are prepared and presented with panache in a selec­tion of informal and fine-dining venues. The Pool Grill serves up gourmet snacks for hungry swimmers and buffet meals at La Veranda can be eaten alfresco, on the terrace. Flagship restaurant Compass Rose is the showpiece for European-inspired fare, served on exclusively designed Versace plates, while Parisian-style bistro Chartreuse features a classic French menu. Pacific Rim celebrates Asian culinary tradi­tions and works by Picasso and Chagall distract diners waiting to be seated at Prime 7 – a steakhouse that thinks it’s a members-only club.

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Regent cruises are all-inclusive so passengers don’t need to busy themselves signing chits and tipping staff. Best of all, the shore excursions are complimentary and when a cancella­tion frees up space on the Monaco Highlights tour, I rush off to collect my camera and copy of Roulette for Dummies.

We’re soon stuck in traffic – something that wouldn’t happen to Lewis Hamilton. As the coach crawls past the marina in second gear, our guide explains that on race day, the current Formula One world champion would be reaching speeds of 290km/h hereabouts. We leave the Grand Prix circuit and head into the hills, accompanied by a volley of facts and figures more dizzying than the steep winding roads.

Monaco is home to 38,000 very wealthy citizens and 52,000 guest workers enter the diminutive principality each day. Our guide lives in the nearby French city of Nice, where she pays 600 (HK$5,100) a month for her apartment. Something similar in Monaco would set her back five times as much. Just when I’m thinking what excellent value it is compared with Hong Kong, we’re shown a plush new development in which flats are going for 30,000 a month and a yacht broker where sleek sailing boats can be chartered for 265,000 a week.

Europe’s second smallest country (after Vatican City) got its start in the mid-19th century, when a casino was established on the Plateau des Spélugues. In a triumph of rebranding, the area was christened Monte Carlo (“Mount Charles” in Italian) in honour of Prince Charles III. Affluent Europeans arrived in droves and they’re still coming. As we traipse behind our flag-bearing guide, it dawns on me that the glitzy district has succeeded in making my well-heeled cruise companions look like a cut-price tour group. That’s Monte Carlo for you.

Outside the legendary casino, founded by said prince, Ferraris jockey for position with vintage Aston Martins but appearances can be decep­tive. Many of the eye-catching cars are hired by day-tripping show-offs.

“They’ll be gone this evening,” our guide explains. “They have to get them back to car-hire offices in Italy by 8pm.” We have to get back, too, but only for pre-dinner drinks.

The Meridian Lounge is busy without feeling crowded. Waiters hover unobtrusively, which is exactly how I like my waiters to hover. Considering they’ve only been working as a team for a month, the staff have settled in very quickly. There’s the occasional slip but everyone is unfailingly polite (“More caviar, sir?”) and it would be churlish to nitpick.

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Listing the nationalities not represented on the pay roll would probably be easier than counting those that are. My suite is kept ship-shape by two Filipina housekeepers and my morning cappuc­cino is made by an Italian. Evening drinks are mixed by a Ukrainian or, if he’s busy, a South African. Kirti, from Bali, talks me through the menu at Compass Rose and is fond of saying how much she loves her job, the ship and the passengers. When she isn’t on the early shift, Kirti enjoys a lie in, although this means she misses breakfast in the staff canteen. Only breakfast? When I had a lie in, I almost missed Monte Carlo.

Determined not to get caught out twice, I’m up in good time to watch as we glide into St Tropez.

It’s already a balmy 32 degrees Celsius and I spot my first cloud since leaving Rome. It soon evaporates and we’re left with brilliant sapphire skies. Long popular with hip artists and musicians, St Tropez gained an even higher profile after the Brigitte Bardot film And God Created Woman was shot on location here in 1956. The town has never looked back.

The old tourist saying: “When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money – then take half the clothes and twice the money” might have been coined with St Tropez in mind. It is reassuringly expensive. I spot a pair of matching sofa cushions in a shop window for 300 and a jar of honey in the market for 30. A 7km taxi ride to gorgeous Pampelonne Beach costs an eye-watering 85. Now, I don’t want to sound miserly, but would you pay HK$800 for a cab from Quarry Bay to Shek O?

My favourite “only in San Tropez” moment comes when a crowd gathers to gawk at a road-rage incident between a furious Lamborghini owner and the driver of an Hermès van.

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That evening, in the Constellation Theatre, I slurp cock­tails and munch lobster nachos with a group that includes an estate agent from Sydney, Australia, and a hardware store owner and his wife from Nebraska, in the United States. After we’ve broken the ice by agreeing that the great thing about cruising is you only have to unpack once, I complain that St Tropez is over­crowded with expensive shops and luxury-brand-obsessed locals.

“I thought you lived in Hong Kong,” someone says.

Cruise ships stake their reputations on the calibre of the entertainment they offer. Writing here that the juggler was pretty good in no way does justice to Niels Duinker’s show. We sit trans­fixed for an hour as the talented Dutchman hurls luminous skittles around a darkened auditorium with unerring precision. It only crosses my mind afterwards that we were sailing along at 24 knots throughout his act. The nightly schedule also features Hollywood tributes, Broadway musicals, Parisian burlesque performances and Ray Solaire’s ventriloquist routine, although it would be wrong to pigeonhole the veteran entertainer as a puppeteer.

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Solaire cut his teeth on the Queen Elizabeth 2’s inaugural sailing, in 1969, when he was the youngest member of the ensemble. The English­man is now our ship’s cruise director and, after 47 years at sea, the elder statesman. To describe him as ubiquitous would be an understatement. Solaire hosts the Constellation Theatre evening programme; appears in the daily activities video; makes regular announcements over the PA system; and seems to be on first-name terms with every passenger. When we all go to sleep, he probably heads up to the bridge and steers the ship.

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I decide not to join a tour of Toulon. I have nothing against the French fishing port and naval base; it’s just that I want to further familiarise myself with the onboard facilities. Twin glass staircases lead past a mesmerising crystal chandelier to the atrium lobby; an area of timeless elegance that will look contemporary two decades from now. The state-of-the-art Canyon Ranch spa, with its eight treatment rooms, leads through to a fitness centre and infinity pool that, today, has Provence as a backdrop. I investigate the well-stocked library and pop my head around the door of the casino before taking a lift to the sports deck, where there’s a jogging track, netted golf driving range, an 18-hole putting green and tennis court. I finish up at the ship’s prow, stretch my arms aloft and shout, “I’m the king of the world!” (I don’t think anyone was looking.)

Each morning, a representative from the local tourist office comes aboard to answer questions and help with sightseeing suggestions. Today it’s Palamós, a charming Catalan resort town and new port of call for Regent Seven Seas Cruises.

Ashore, a broad sweep of sand is liberally sprinkled with sunbathing Spaniards; restaurants serve up inexpensive but succulent prawn dishes and waiters politely apologise for not having English menus. Palamós is the “anti-Tropez” and I’d like to stay longer … but the teatime quiz is taking place in the Observation Lounge, hosted, it goes without saying, by the multitasking Mr Solaire.

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And then – just when I’ve worked out where the best bits of the ship are and the bartender has learned how to mix my cocktails – it’s time to disembark for good. I’m fond of Barcelona but as the Explorer eases into port, the urge to stow away grips me. Maybe I could come out of the closet, so to speak, just as the ship sets sail, and offer to juggle for my supper. Maybe not.

So did the voyage live up to expectations? Yes, and then some. Would I go on another Regent cruise? No question (although I’d arrange a morning call in readiness for Monte Carlo). I was pampered and indulged but also left to my own devices when it suited. If a destination didn’t grab me, I only had to wait a few hours to see what the next would bring. For six heavenly days I lived the high life aboard the world’s most luxurious ship. And the great thing about cruising is – you only have to unpack once.

Tim Pile’s cruise was provided courtesy of Regent Seven Seas Cruises