The view of the endless horizon from the two-bedroomed Regent Suite aboard Seven Seas Explorer is awe-inspiring. As it should be. First, because this suite is directly above the captain's bridge so there's an uninterrupted vista of the mighty Atlantic ocean. And second, because it costs $US11,000 a night to book and this is a 16-night cruise so the occupants have paid $US176,000 for the privilege.
That might not make the Regent Suite the most expensive cabin afloat (presumably Jamie Packer and other private yacht-owning billionaires pay more to keep moving their vessels from Cannes to Monte Carlo). However, for the time being, it is the most expensive suite in the Regent fleet, the ultra luxurious branch of US-based Norwegian Cruise Line.
At the time of writing, the Seven Seas Explorer is Regent's flagship, so assured of its elite status it is trademarked The Most Luxurious Ship Ever Built. That will change in February 2020 when its younger sibling Seven Seas Splendor is launched. Splendor, like Explorer, will have just 375 cabins (Voyager, Mariner and Navigator, the other three ships in the Seven Seas fleet, have even fewer) "but we've made improvements," says my guide, Argentinian Eddie Pszemiarower, Explorer's cruise consultant. "Which is why Splendor has the trademark Luxury Perfected'.
Pszemiarower has just shown me "one of our little secrets". At the rear of deck 10 – between Chartreuse, the ship's elite French restaurant (try the Nicoise salad for a modern take on a classic), and Prime 7 ("some of the best steak I've had outside Argentina") – there's a secret dining room. It's available only to occupants of the Regent Suite, and their guests. Not because the food is any different to that which could be served in their "cabin", but so they can enjoy the view looking backwards for a change
"Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me," Scott Fitzgerald wrote in 1926 before the Great Depression reminded many very rich people the value of a dime. Having been rudely disabused of my hope of ever becoming moderately rich, let alone very rich, I grab this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to mingle with millionaires, babble with billionaires, without them asking me to buy the next round.
First a few housekeeping notes. "The ultimate luxury aboard this ship is that you don't have to think about money," Pszemiarower says. "There is no such thing as a free lunch in life but most things on board have been included in the price. "Of course, if you want to smoke a Cohiba cigar with a rare brandy, there will be a charge. But most costs are included."
Such as? Obviously the bare necessities: return international business-class flights for Americans to the ports where their cruise begins and ends (Regent tried it for Australian passengers, but found we have far more complicated travel plans); a free night at a choice of selected five-star hotels the night before departure; limo transfers between airport/hotel and ship; unlimited Wi-Fi; unlimited shore excursions; pre-paid on-board US-style tips; "free" wines and spirits. Plus those unexpected little treats along the way such as the Beluga caviar and Piper-Heidsieck champagne on offer for breakfast this morning.
Today is the seventh day of our trans-Atlantic cruise from Miami to Lisbon and our fourth at sea. Columbus crossed the Atlantic eight times (and still thought he'd found a new route to Asia) but contrary to what millions of US citizens believe, he never set foot on the North American mainland. We learn about Columbus, Magellan, Vasco da Gama and other Atlantic navigators, as well as the geography and wildlife of the islands we'll visit, in the complimentary lectures held every sea day. It's sobering to think you could fit Columbus' flagship, Santa Maria, into the Explorer's two-floor Constellation Theatre.
There are only two other Australian passengers aboard. Pszemiarower points out we have plenty of oceans to cross closer to home and what we tend to look for in cruises are ports. And ports are distinctly lacking on this cruise. Between Miami and Lisbon, there are only three: Bermuda, the Azores and Madeira.
"Eighty per cent of our passengers on this cruise are from the US, followed by 12 per cent from Britain," Pszemiarower tells me. Many are repeat voyagers and here for, not despite, the days at sea. So what's the attraction?
"Our ships are the destinations," Pszemiarower says. "What is luxury? We could fill them with gold and diamonds, but that would simply make them expensive, not luxurious. Instead we fill them with space. A ship this size would normally accommodate 1500 passengers. Our maximum is 750.
"And to cater for those 750 passengers, we have 550 crew members. That's two crew members for every three passengers." (The youngest passenger is nine, here with her 12-year-old brother and their German parents. That makes her at least 60 years younger than the mean age.)
To prove his point about space, Pszemiarower takes me to the jigsaw lounge. In a room the size of the average studio apartment in Sydney or Melbourne, there's a single table. Each morning a new – highly complicated – jigsaw puzzle is dispersed, provided the previous puzzle has been completed. Let's not mention the sad incident of 101 Dalmatians with their incessant spots and identical collars. "It's a social thing," Pszemiarower continues as I watch the rich, mainly women, converse over the next piece of the puzzle to lay.
Next we go to the library. I've never seen one so crowded at sea. Most of the men are reading the newspapers they could have had delivered if they'd stayed at home, each title printed out at their request.
Pszemiarower has booked lunch at Chartreuse, so we're on a tight schedule. But we do a quick tour of the ship's other signature restaurants. Prime 7, as the name suggests, is the US-style steak hub. Pacific Rim is Asian (I recommend the crispy soft shell crab in tempura batter, followed by the blackfoot chicken and foie gras gyoza?). By night, La Veranda (housing the breakfast and lunchtime buffet) converts into Sette Mari, with excellent scaloppine. On deck four, there's Compass Rose, common to the entire fleet, but a luxurious experience in itself and then there's the laid-back Pool Grill. I rush between everything the ship has to offer, from Canyon Ranch spa with, according to Pszemiarower, the world's first infinity pool afloat as well as sauna, steam room and genuine ice room, to the superb entertainers offering Broadway-style acts at 9.30 nightly.
Moving on, Pszemiarower shows me The Cafe on deck five. ("Our engineer thinks this ship runs on oil," he says. "He's wrong. It runs on caffeine. The captain comes to get his coffee here every day.") Then the casino, the card room, the Connoisseur Club (for smokers: one of three segregated spaces on board) and, finally, the Observation Lounge on deck 11. This, on other ships, would be the nightclub. "But our clientele doesn't want a nightclub," Pszemiarower says. Instead it is packed every day at 4pm for traditional afternoon tea, with most rushing out to join their teams for the daily trivia quiz upstairs.
Perhaps Scott Fitzgerald got it wrong. Sure they have more money, but they're much the same as the rest of us. Anyone got time to complete the jigsaw before the Azores?
The Seven Seas Mariner will visit Australia and New Zealand in February and March 2020 as part of its 117-night world cruise. The Seven Seas Explorer will make its maiden voyage to Australia and New Zealand in 2021. See www.rssc.com
Steve Meacham was a guest of Regent Seven Seas Cruises.