Donna and I have sailed on many ocean-going vessels, but we had never done a river cruise before. So we were excited to have a Rhine river cruise planned for this Fall. What did we think? We loved it. It really suited our lifestyle and interests. River cruising avoids our least favorite things about larger ships (waiting in line and crowds) as well as those activities we don’t care much about (casinos, large production shows). Instead you get a more intimate and relaxing experience focused on personal service and local culture.
We sailed on Uniworld’s S.S. Antoinette, one of their newest riverboats. The latest generation of European riverboats are mostly the same size – 443 long because of the locks on the major rivers. While Viking’s longships hold 190 guests with 50 crew members, Uniworld’s newest ships (the S.S. class) hold 154 passengers with 57 staff. In terms of space per guest and staff to guest ratio, that makes a big difference. Uniworld also has a more inclusive program with gratuities and a wider range of drinks included in the fare. At the end of the cruise we paid for one thing: our optional tour of the Black Forest.
From the outside, the SS Antoinette looks pretty much the same as all the other riverboats. The only difference I noticed was the top deck which features a pop up restaurant (L’Orangerie) and bar (Leopard Lounge), rather than just umbrellas and canopies. In the pictures below L’Orangerie is collapsed on the left and expanded on the right.
Once you are inside you discover the over the top luxury and design for which Uniworld is famous. Honestly it is not my taste, but it is certainly very comfortable and has many conveniences. Our cabin was near the central lobby, which meant we had only a few steps to coffee in the morning, to meals and to the ramp. Of course, no one was very far from anything. The cabins, pool, leopard lounge and spa were in the rear and the other public areas – front desk main lounge and dining room and L’Orangerie were forward.
Uniworld has opted for a variation on the French Balcony. While most other lines have railings and sliding glass doors in their mid-priced cabins, Uniworld offers a window that opens from the top so that the full width of the room becomes your balcony with a glass rail. This window is push button and very cool! There is a large closet and plenty of drawer space. The TV had several news channels and a nice selection of movies. The king size bed was very comfy. The bathroom had lots of storage space, a makeup mirror and a selection of top shelf soaps and lotions. However, the desk space wasn’t large enough for a laptop which they should remedy when they do their next renovations.
The Captain was from Netherlands, the Hotel Manager from Spain, the Cruise Director from Canada while most of the rest of the staff were from Eastern Europe particularly Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria. They were universally accommodating and friendly. Those I remember particularly were Kremena our favorite waitress, Peter the masseur and bike tour leader and Iliya one of the butlers who served us dinner in L’Orangerie. Our cabin attendant, Carla, had the quality of always being there when we needed something. Each of these individuals were devoted and passionate about their work and made us feel at home.
Entertainment and Activities
Several nights local performers were brought on board. From opera singers to comic musicians these short performances were excellent. My least favorite performer was the keyboardist and singer who was on staff. He was talented, but I would have preferred a pianist rather than the synthesizer and drum machine accompaniment he used.
In our stateroom were two small receivers we used when touring that had stereo headphone jacks so you could use your personal headset or the one provided. Each day we were automatically signed up for the main tour, but we could select an free alternate tour or sometimes two alternates. The alternate tours usually involved more difficult walking. And in most places there was an upgraded tour to a more distant location for which there was a reasonable fee ($69 to $119 per person). The upgraded tours on the Rhine cruise went to Heidelberg, Marksburg Castle and the Black Forest. (For details about these and other tours see my other blog posts.) Our local guides were universally excellent – mature and patient. As always some of those on the tour did not follow the schedule, but the guides handled this professionally.
There were two Uniworld buses (with drivers) that paralleled our route along the Rhine. In some locations other buses were used, but having a staff bus driver made the local tours more timely and reliable.
Every meal was excellent. Breakfast featured ready made omelets and other egg dishes along with bacon and local sausages, excellent ship made breads, fresh fruits, yoghurts and cheese. Lunch was like dinner only buffet style with a carving station and with an emphasis on local specialties and cheese. Dinner was sit down with four or five excellent courses. There were lots of options and everything was perfectly prepared and presented. I would have preferred that the featured main course be less focused on beef. However, there were always lots of options. And there was cheese. Our chef, Bratislav did an amazing job. (Sorry we didn’t take food pictures!)
Donna and I are in our sixties (I know, it’s hard to believe) and the average passenger on our cruise may have been a little younger. The youngest and most popular guests on the ship were a honeymoon couple from Winnipeg. There were several other travel agents we met and everyone agreed that Uniworld had done a phenomenal job. Nearly all the guests were from the US and Canada with a few from the UK. There was one couple from Brazil.
For those guest with difficulty walking, the ship was not a problem. There was an elevator and the decks had no inclines or stairs. To reach the top deck there was a chair lift.
Though alcohol was served generously, the crowd was fun but relatively quiet. I suspect I missed the wild times in the Leopard Lounge! Oh, well…next time.
I highly recommend a fall cruise in the Rhine region. While it was mostly cloudy the fall leaves were at their peak which made our pictures and memories that much more vivid. And Donna and I will be taking another river cruise very soon!