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Cruise Ship Review
Regal Cruises

Regal Empress

by Lisa Plotnick

Regal Empress

The past sixteen months have been difficult for fans of older cruise ships and liners. Premier and Commodore cruise lines ceased operations, forcing many favorite ships into lay-up. Princess and NCL announced plans to remove classic ships from service. And our hopes of seeing these and other ships resurrected are fading as many succumb to the breakers, victims of the perceived notion that all cruisers expect huge ships, towering atriums, and private balconies. Even the intangible aspects of traditional cruising are disappearing, as evidenced by nickel-and-diming, resort-style restaurants, and optional formal nights.

Thank goodness for Regal Cruises.

We recently returned from a five-day cruise to New England and Canada on the Regal Empress. And, I am happy to report that traditional cruising is still alive and well, on an intimate former liner. Although Regal is a budget line, a fact that was evident in some areas, the overall cruise was top-notch in many respects, most notably service and cuisine, and offered a fun yet relaxing vacation for our family.

Ship History

Regal Empress was built in Glasgow, Scotland in 1953 as the tss Olympia, the first and only newbuild for the Greek Line. Olympia made regular transatlantic runs between the Mediterranean (Piraeus, Haifa) and New York, and was later used for cruising. As originally built, she carried 1,300 passengers, just 10% of whom were accommodated in first class. The remaining 1,100+ traveled tourist, a category that gained popularity during the postwar years.

Olympia was withdrawn from service in 1974, and spent the next seven years in lay-up. She was rescued in 1981 by Commodore Cruise Line, who renamed her Caribe I and made several alterations to prepare the ship for the growing Caribbean cruise industry. Among the mechanical modifications was the conversion of her engines from steam turbine to diesel. Caribe I served Commodore until 1993, when she was sold to Regal Cruises. Regal has operated her as its sole ship, Regal Empress, ever since.

Today, the mv Regal Empress carries a maximum of 1,068 passengers (934 double occupancy) on eight passenger decks. Her crew of 396 represents nearly 50 different nationalities. She is a cozy 21,909 GRT, and measures 612 feet long and 79 feet wide.

Ship Tour

CorridorAfter a quick and effortless embarkation process at the New York passenger terminal, we entered the Regal Empress forward on Promenade Deck. We easily located our cabin, stopping periodically to admire the Art Deco details, from the wood-paneled walls in the lobby to the back-lit metal columns in the corners of the main stairwells. After stowing our carry-on luggage, we set out to explore our new, temporary home.

Sports Deck
The topmost passenger deck is mostly outdoors, accessible only by external stairways. There is not much up there, except for a tiny gym (one Lifecycle, one Stairmaster, one treadmill, one weight machine) and a small, half-court basketball area. I enjoyed the Sports Deck for the fabulous vantage point it provided for taking photographs of the passing scenery.

Sun Deck
Sun Deck PromenadeIndoors are thirty cabins and two wonderful public rooms, the Commodore and Mermaid lounges. The Commodore Lounge is an intimate, albeit under-utilized, pre-dinner gathering spot, and is one of several areas on the Regal Empress that retains much of its original character. Half-staircases on either side of the room descend to comfortable seating by a large set of windows, and the dark woods give the room an elegant, old world feel. Also lovely, but in stark contrast, the neighboring Mermaid Lounge features bright aquas, etched glass panels, and metal-framed windows and doors. The Mermaid is a later addition; a magradome over the dance floor is evidence of the areaís earlier life as a swimming pool. Sun Deck also features a teak, wraparound outdoor promenade, and a large sunning area.

Promenade Deck
Promenade AftThe hub of the ship, Promenade Deck houses a wide variety of public areas, both old and new. The shipís only remaining swimming pool (she once had three) and two large whirlpools are located aft, surrounded by a sunning area that is open to the sea on three sides. The outdoor portion of the deck also includes a bandstand, bar, and pizzeria. Hidden away indoors are a card room, childrenís playroom, and Internet café. Also inside is the Library, the shipís most elegant original space with its glass-fronted bookcases, dark wood ornamentation, and beamed ceiling.

Indoor PromenadeOld and new are connected by an indoor promenade that runs nearly the entire length of the ship on both sides. (The forward portion of the promenade was sacrificed to create private verandas a few years ago.) A good portion of the starboard side, aft, is taken up by La Trattoria buffet and its adjacent seating area. The port side is relatively unobstructed, except for a few video game machines and a shuffleboard court. The small mirrors on the interior walls of the promenade are actually windows of the cabins along this deck, something to keep in mind before using them to adjust your make-up.

Upper Deck
Aft is the Grand Lounge, used for evening shows and passenger gatherings (such as shore excursion talks). Sight lines are terrible, but as this is more of a nightclub than a theatre, audience members are never more than 14 rows away from the stage. Aft of this area is one of the Regal Empressí biggest secrets - a shaded, outdoor viewing area just over the stern. Upper Deck also contains the Mirage, used as a movie theatre by day and disco by night. Forward on Upper Deck is the Passenger Services Desk and the Beauty Salon (which I did not use). Many cabins are also located on this deck.

Restaurant Deck
Dining RoomLocated amidships, the Caribbean Dining Room is one of the most stunning, single-level dining rooms I have seen aboard ship. Much of this room is original tss Olympia, including the raised ceiling, etched mirrored panels, wood columns, and various pieces of artwork (most notably, a mural of New York Harbor near the aft entrance). Unlike most dining rooms of its era, a full set of windows offers sea views on both sides of the room. The casino is located aft, as are the shops (good selection, reasonable prices). The photo gallery extends forward from the dining room, along a narrow passageway that offers wonderful views of the ocean through wood-framed windows. A cluster of passenger cabins is located toward the bow.

Main, A- and B-Decks
The public areas on the bottom three passenger decks consist solely of cabins. It is not possible to walk from bow to stern on these decks. Port side cabins on Main Deck are reachable by a single stairway only, not by elevator.

This leads me to comment on accessibility, a concern on any vessel, but even more so on converted liners. Regal Empress has three elevators that, in typical older-ship fashion, do not necessarily service all decks. The forward elevator connects all but the top deck, and the aft elevator connects all but the top two. The third elevator accesses just three decks. I avoided the elevators out of fear, which my husband later told me was well-founded. I also did not see any cabins specifically designated for persons with disabilities, but judging by the number of passengers who used wheelchairs and other mobility aids, appropriately appointed cabins may be available.

Cabins

According to Regal Cruisesí literature, Regal Empress offers 457 staterooms in 13 categories. Aside from 201 outside and 227 inside cabins are seven suites, 14 mini-suites, and eight veranda staterooms.

As with most former liners, it is a good idea to consult the deck plan before making a cabin selection. For example, some of the standard outside cabins on Sun Deck feature queen-sized beds, while cabins in the same category on Upper Deck have single, stationary beds, instead. Nearly all of the superior deluxe outside cabins either overlook the indoor promenade or are not accessible by elevator.

We occupied cabin U44, a standard outside triple on Upper Deck. The cabin measured 140 square feet including the bath; the bedroom/living area was 115 square feet (10½' x 11'), but felt larger. Two twin beds were parallel to each other on opposite walls, and a fold-out upper berth was located over one of the lower beds. Storage was not a problem for our family of three, as a double dresser provided eight drawers and there were three full-length closets with a sufficient supply of hangers. A programmable safe was provided, as well. The cabin also had a television, which received local stations as well as several movie channels. However, its awkward placement in front of the single porthole made me prefer that the line hadnít bothered to add it.

The bathroom was in decent shape, although tiny (approximately 4' x 6'), and everything was in good working order. The shower was about the size of a phone booth, and the curtain was thick enough so that it kept its distance, for the most part. As far as amenities, bring your own shampoo, conditioner, and hair dryer, as Regal does not provide these. (I did see hair dryers in some suites, though.) Cabin U44 was clean, quiet, in a great location, and we would not hesitate to book it again.

 

Dining

A quote from our 12-year old tablemate best sums up the Regal culinary experience: "This cruise line lost a lot of money on me. I ate at least $1,000 worth of food!"

Indeed, Regal did excel in this area, offering a variety of choices in both the formal Caribbean Dining Room and the informal La Trattoria buffet. All food items were complimentary, including the fresh hot donuts on deck each morning, and the ice cream in the afternoon. Drinks other than water, iced tea, hot tea, and coffee usually required an extra charge; a machine on Promenade Deck dispensed cans of Coca-Cola products for $1.50 each. Juice was included at no charge during breakfast at the buffet and at all times in the dining room.

BuffetWe seldom take our meals at the buffet on our cruises, but I did stop by several times to see what was offered. Breakfast and lunch were the typical fare, while nearly the entire dining room menu was available during the dinner hours. Pizza was also available at a separate station for most of the afternoon and evening. Breakfast and lunch in the dining room were usually open seating. The breakfast menu remained unchanged (no Eggs Benedict, but I did enjoy a wonderful smoked salmon omelet), and lunch alternated between a daily menu (three courses) and a buffet (freshly-sliced meats, soups, salads, pasta with various toppings).

Dinners in the main dining room were among the most elegant Iíve experienced on a mass-marketed cruise line. Every evening, we arrived at our table to find an appetizer platter featuring an item such as hummus, polenta, or black beans. The table also had something I had not seen on my prior cruises: personalized place cards at each setting. The menu changed each evening, and consisted of cold appetizer, hot appetizer, soup, salad, entrée, and dessert, each beautifully presented and garnished. Standouts included liver wrapped in bacon, marinated mushrooms, consommé aux nouilles, Caesar salad, veal florentine, and the best grilled salmon I have ever enjoyed. Vegetables were served by our assistant waiter, another nice touch. Fine presentation extended to the childrenís menu, although it probably didnít matter to the three boys at our table (ages 12, 10, plus our 7-year old) as they thoroughly enjoyed each of their meals.

Dining RoomI could have done without the nightly parades, as I feel they often detract from the elegant dining experience. However, Regalís lobster parade was a notable exception, as it was far from ordinary. The party began as soon as all diners were seated. Waiters danced through the dining room, each with a tray holding a live Maine lobster that was brought on board earlier in the day. (My husbandís comment: "For us, it was fun. For them, it was a death march.") Those who ordered lobster for dinner were presented with the whole crustacean, sans what lays within the mid-section, pre-cracked by the chefs to ensure tidiness. The lobsters were boiled to perfection, and corn on the cob made this a lobster fest that even we New Englanders could enjoy.

 

Evening Entertainment

Show LoungeI was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the evening shows in the Grand Lounge. The three main productions ("Chorus Line," "Broadway Legends," and "Swing, Swing, Swing") were low-key in terms of special effects, which was fine as we were not in a theatre, and were very well-choreographed and executed. The remaining two evenings featured solo spots by the lead performers. The absolute highlight was the show "All the Way: The Music of Frank Sinatra," starring Nicholas Richberg. Remember the name. Mr. Richberg had the full attention of audience members, including my 7-year old, as he gave his interpretation of many Sinatra favorites. His performance was enhanced by his personal remembrances of listening to this music as a young child. The only performer I did not care for was the magician; I found his jokes regarding an overweight audience member to be in poor taste.

Yet another nice touch on this cruise was having the Regal Empress Quartet entertain the audience until the start of the show - it was not necessary to sit through a few rounds of BINGO in order to get a good seat. The four-member band played all the standards, and many passengers expressed their pleasure by taking to the dance floor.

Poolside entertainment was provided several times throughout the day and evening by Aquarius, a three-piece calypso-style band. One of my lasting memories of the Regal Empress will be our dancing on deck one evening with a group of passengers from New Jersey as Aquarius played a lengthy version of "Who Let the Dogs Out." We also enjoyed dancing in the Mermaid Lounge to the music of the duo Pink Slip, who played contemporary hits of the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

Other onboard entertainment included Jimmy at the piano bar in the Commodore Club (didnít get a chance to hear him), Battle of the Sexes quiz game (too late in the evening for us), and the Passenger Talent Show (OK, but there should have been a separate version starring the kids).

Daytime Activities

One area in which Regal was lacking was in the availability of daytime group activities. There were a just a few offered while at sea, such as mambo lessons, a table tennis tournament, and aerobics, but I would have liked to have seen a few organized gatherings onboard while in port. A ship historian would have been ideal. Ironically, one of the best activities took place on debarkation morning, when the movie "Thirteen Days" was shown in the Grand Lounge.

Now, this is not to say that we were bored on this cruise. On the contrary, we found plenty to do while not ashore. We lounged by the pool, listened to Aquarius, and enjoyed snacks from La Trattoria. Our son enjoyed playing basketball on Sports Deck, and cheering his parents on as we played a game of shuffleboard. (It was actually a lot of fun.) And Sun Deck provided the perfect setting for one of my favorite shipboard pastimes - sitting in a lounge chair under the lifeboats to catch up on my reading.

Children's Program

Allow me to preface this section by stating that we are the type of family that enjoys spending a lot of time together on a cruise. It is not important to us if a childrenís program is open while we are ashore, as our son always accompanies us off the ship. Our main reason for utilizing a childrenís program is to allow our son to spend a couple of hours a day having fun with kids his own age, in a place where he can run around without disturbing other passengers. It doesnít need to be fancy or structured; it just needs to be safe.

Safety was the main issue we had with Regalís childrenís program. Under normal circumstances, two counselors for the 5-17 age group might have been sufficient. However, there were over 300 kids on board as a result of a summertime family promotion, and Regal did not adjust the program accordingly. The inadequate staffing levels made it impossible to accompany a child to the public restroom, if need be. Thus, we permitted our son to use the program for just an hour at a time on a couple of occasions. But, this should not be seen as a reflection on the counselors. Vera and Nicky were wonderful and did their best under the circumstances to provide a program that the kids would enjoy. Among the activities for the 5-9 group were arts and crafts, magic shows, and nightly movies. Still, I would urge Regal to avoid turning the Regal Empress into the next "Big Red Boat" - she is simply too small to accommodate so many children.

The Crew/Service

One of the reasons we enjoy the smaller ships is the greater opportunity to meet and chat a bit with some of the crew, who for the most part seem rather detached on the mega-ships. We enjoy learning about their homelands and their impressions of the ships on which they have worked. Overall service also seems to be superior on the smaller ships, and this was certainly the case on the Regal Empress.

Our Cruise Director was Ivan Kivitt, a veteran of many ships, including my beloved SeaBreeze, although our times on the ship did not coincide. After our first meeting, he remembered that I had traveled on several of Premierís ships, and introduced me to other Regal crew members who had once worked on that now-defunct line. Ivan was a capable emcee of the evening activities and was highly visible both onboard and in port. Assistant Cruise Director Jax Enright was very energetic, and said hello to our son by name every time she saw him.

Our Cabin Steward was a hard worker, volunteering to move the mattress from the upper bunk to the floor each night and back each morning, insisting that it would be more comfortable for our son than the air mattress we had brought. However, I was put off by his constant compliments every time I passed through the hallway without my husband, as well as the barrage of inappropriate personal questions. Other than that, he did his steward job effectively, as our cabin was always spotless.

Dining room service was superb, perhaps the best we have ever had. Our Waiter and Assistant Waiter, Mark and Sasa, were flawless, adding to the ambiance of the dinner hour. There really is something to be said for having the same team every evening. By the second night of the cruise, Sasa knew that I preferred green vegetables to potatoes and just one spoonful of salad dressing. By the third night, I felt confident enough to ask Mark to help me select between two entrées. What impressed me most was that there was NO solicitation for tips or high marks on comment cards. Our Maitre dí, Hector, who had visited our table every evening, was nowhere to be found when we left the dining room on the last evening. We located him after a few minutes in order to extend our gratuity.

Ports of Call

The itinerary was certainly more "New England" than "Canada" with just one, five-hour stop in a Canadian port. Overall, the ports were fairly varied, and offered a decent representation of life in coastal New England.

New York, New York
I realize that this is not a part of New England, but I mention our embarkation/debarkation port for a number of reasons. While I have cruised from New York before (Dreamward 1994, Carnival Destiny 2000), there was something special about being on a ship that was a regular member of Liner Row during the 1950s and 1960s. It was also a thrill to see so many ships in town on that summer Sunday, 2001: Pacific Princess and Nordic Empress were Bermuda-bound and Norwegian Sea was going to Halifax and New England. The crew of Regal Empress added a nice touch to our sailaway by providing commentary on the passing sights as we traveled down the Hudson River, something even this native New Yorker found educational.

Newport, Rhode Island
We live fairly close to Newport and have visited previously. We stayed on board to ensure one relaxing day on our port-intensive itinerary. For those going ashore, Regal offered a number of excursions, including a Scenic Overview bus tour and a visit to one of the mansions. There is more to Newport, though, such as the Tennis Hall of Fame, Touro Synagogue (oldest surviving synagogue in U.S.), and the White Horse Tavern (oldest tavern in the U.S.), and the downtown area is walkable for most. Unfortunately, the visit is far too short: 8 am to 2 pm, even shorter when time for tendering is considered. (Note: The itinerary for 2002 substitutes nearby New Bedford, Massachusetts for Newport. Hopefully, the shore call will be long enough to allow Newport to be offered as a separate excursion with ample time for independent touring.)

Saint John, New Brunswick
Our only Canadian port of call was the highlight of the trip for our family. During our first visit two years ago on Splendour of the Seas, we explored the recently-restored waterfront, including Market Square and the Old City Market. This time around, we decided to take a shore excursion to see the surrounding area. Regal offered an excursion that fit the bill perfectly, combining a stop at the Reversing Falls Rapids with a visit to the Cherry Brook Zoo. At the Reversing Falls Park, where we lucked out with the tidal conditions, we viewed the Falls from above and watched as more courageous folks on a different tour rode the rapids on jet boats. The Cherry Brook Zoo was an added bonus. The zoo specializes in rare and endangered species, and its Vanished Kingdom was most poignant, featuring life-sized models of animals that have become extinct over the past few centuries. The exhibit came about as many children who visited the zoo thought that only dinosaurs were extinct, so the zookeepers saw the need to illustrate that extinction has claimed many other animals and is sadly continuing. We were so captivated by Saint John that we are considering a return for a land-based vacation.

Portland, Maine
This is a great port of call, as Portland is the gateway to a myriad of day trips. Many passengers visited the shopping mecca of Freeport, home of L.L. Bean and other factory outlets. Others opted for a visit to Kennebunkport, the quaint village that is the summer residence of former President George Bush and family. Regal also offered bus transportation to Old Orchard Beach and tours of Portland by bus, horse-drawn wagon, or amphibious vehicle. We spent the day exploring downtown Portland on our own, using day passes for the local bus system ($5 per person). Among our stops were the bustling indoor Public Market, and the historic Old Port area. I advise anyone visiting Portland by ship to be on deck at least an hour prior to docking, as the entrance to the harbor is one of the prettiest Iíve ever seen.

Marthaís Vineyard, Massachusetts
A favorite summer vacation spot of many locals and celebrities, this 100-square-mile island has everything from charming gingerbread cottages to chic shops to nature preserves. We enjoyed the Island Sightseeing Tour, which transported us through four of the islandís main towns, including an hour at our leisure in the former whaling village of Edgartown. The main problem with this port is that the tender dock in Oak Bluffs can accommodate only a few small vessels at once, and our shipís tender was given lowest priority after the numerous ferries that call on the island. As a result, we had to wait 45 minutes standing in 90-degree heat in order to return to the ship. While Marthaís Vineyard is beautiful, I suggest that Regal reconsider this port of call during July and August, perhaps replacing it with Boston until the summer crowds subside.

Closing Thoughts

When I mentioned to several people that I was going on the Regal Empress, I heard comments such as, "I would never go on a ship that old," or, "You get what you pay for." I strongly urge anyone apprehensive about the ship for these reasons to reconsider. Regal Empress appeared to be well maintained, and was just as clean, if not cleaner, than the newer ships on which Iíve cruised. And, in these days of deep discounting, passengers can easily find a comparably priced cruise, although additional charges so prevalent on other lines were negligible on Regal. Yes, there were some areas in need of improvement, but I have yet to find a ship that excels in every area.

I still enjoy the new ships, and there are several that I would like to try. But, it is nice to know that I can "come home" to the Regal Empress, to experience the beauty of an actual ocean liner while being isolated from the real world for a few days. After all, that is why I fell in love with cruising in the first place.

PHOTOS courtesy of Lisa Plotnick.

Line

Lisa PlotnickLisa Plotnick lives in New England with her husband, Neil, and their young son. Their first cruise was on Premierís StarShip Atlantic in 1990, and they have since enjoyed fifteen cruises on seven lines, including NCL, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, and Carnival. Lisa is also an amateur passenger-ship historian and would enjoy hearing from anyone who has traveled on the Olympia, Caribe I, or Regal Empress.

Lisa has written many cruise ship and cruise book reviews for us and recently joined our staff of SeaLetter Columnists.

Lisa Plotnick may be reached for questions or comment at: lisa@sealetter.com.



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