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From World of Cruising magazine, Autumn 2011

EUROPE’S HEARTLAND, BY BOAT

For those cruisers who would enjoy a more intimate, low-key experience sailing down scenic rivers and inland waterways while visiting non-coastal European cities, a river cruise may be the perfect solution.

Numerous riverboat companies operate in Europe, traversing the Rhine, Main, Moselle, Elbe, Havel, Danube, Seine, Saone and Rhone rivers, as well as the waterways in Russia, Holland and other countries.

Most of the riverboats built prior to 2000 generally provided smallish cabins with two twin beds on opposite sides of the room where one or both folded up and converted to a couch during the day. Bathrooms were also quite small, crowding in a shower, sink and toilet.

Cabins on the upper decks had large picture windows, but on the lower decks the windows were small (the rationale was that, when the ship was docked, there was no view from the lower decks because they were below the dock line).

Public areas included a reception lobby where the passengers entered and exited the ship; a three-meal-a-day dining room, usually with a buffet table; an all-purpose lounge and bar; and a sun deck spanning the length of the ship with another lounge and the captain’s bridge.

Needing to lure passengers from traditional cruise ships, the riverboat lines had to provide a more enticing package and, in the past 10 years, more and upscale vessels emerged. Existing lines renovated or scrubbed the older craft and also added more modern new-builds. In the last few years, competition among the river-based companies has become even greater.

As a result, each new ship seems to offer more spacious accommodations, more suites, a larger number of French balconies, additional facilities, more amenities, more diverse dining and better guides for shore excursions. 

Fast forward to summer 2011 and I got the chance to put two brand new boats to the test and assess what makes a modern river-cruise so enticing.

I started with a 7-night Main Canal/Danube River cruise on the 189-passenger Viking Legend and followed with another 7-night Rhine voyage on the 164-passenger SS Antoinette of Uniworld. The Legend and sister ship Prestige entered service in 2009 and 2010 respectively, while the Antoinette was new this year.

These vessels have been touted as the latest and most innovative on the waterways of Europe. Having sailed in previous years with both cruise lines, I was keen to see the changes in their offerings.

Our Legend cruise commenced in Nuremberg and terminated in Budapest, with visits to Regensberg and Passau in Germany, and Melk and Vienna in Austria.

On both the upper and middle passenger decks (but not the lower deck), all staterooms and suites had French balconies with floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors. This was an innovation from most of the pre-2009 Viking riverboats. Although a balcony cabin is desired by today’s cruisers, having one on a river voyage seems especially enjoyable since there is so much more to see.

The 170sq ft stateroom was tastefully furnished, with sufficient storage and the usual amenities, such as a private safe, hair-dryer, fridge, telephone and a small bathroom with vanity, toilet and a circular shower stall.

The two single beds could be pushed together but not converted to matrimonial style. TV programming included CNN, CNBC, Fox, BBC, ESPN, MGM movie, Sky Cinema, National Geographic and movies on demand.

Generally speaking, there are not a lot of activities on riverboats, so the TV variety was most welcome. Bottled water was replenished daily, while ice machines were located down the hall. There was a laundry service but, regrettably, no machines for passenger use. Robes and slippers were available on request.

On many boats, the vibration of the engines can be annoying but the Legend’s much-publicised state-of-the-art propulsion system delivered a quieter, vibration-free ride and my sleep was not disturbed.

Since I do much of my writing while traveling, it was another plus that there was free WiFi. For those without their own computer, the ship furnished several free of charge (however, a connection was not always available).

The common areas were tastefully decorated with warm woods, fabrics and paintings. Although more modern and impressive than the older Viking vessels, the layout was similar and included the all-purpose observation lounge and bar, as well as the large dining room with scenic windows for viewing the passing landscapes.

An addition is an attractive library/lounge area with both a panoramic view and access to an outdoor seating area. The sun deck was fairly typical but included shaded lounging space. There was no fitness room or sauna, though, as is customary on other new-builds.

I looked into one of the 340sq ft suites, which are quite an innovation for those willing to pay the higher tariff. Inclusion of these genuinely deluxe accommodations seems to have become another trend on newer boats, and the luxury is unarguable.

Traditionally, passengers on riverboats tend to be somewhat older, with the activities to match. On both ships, the cruise director gave a lecture describing the following day’s itinerary and excursions during cocktail hour. During the day, various enrichment lectures and cooking demonstrations were offered.

I found the officers, front office and hotel staff and cabin stewards on both ships outstanding.  All of the crew spoke English, were extremely accommodating, and far more knowledgeable and responsive than on most cruise ships. The dining room staff on Antoinette were especially notable.

The dining experience was also somewhat similar. Both had an open-seating policy; however, passengers were expected to come to lunch and dinner shortly after the doors to the dining room opened.

Breakfast and lunch were the most outstanding, and always included an attractive, well-stocked buffet table with numerous dishes, many indigenous to the countries visited. Additional hot dishes were also available and served directly from the kitchens.

Dinners were multi-course, table-service affairs with a choice of two different appetisers, salads, main courses, and desserts. On the Legend, dinner main courses were attractively served but quite hearty and not always to my taste; however, salads and lighter fare were available.

I found the fare on Antoinette more to my liking and superior to many ocean-going vessels. However, the overall variety on both ships was a great deal less than on ocean-going ships.

The highlight dining experience on Legend was the Bavarian lunch on deck en route to Vienna. While traversing the scenic Wachau region of the Danube, bratwurst, Wiener schnitzel, potato salad and steins of beer were served accompanied by an accordion player.

Both ships served wine with dinner while speciality coffees and snacks were available throughout the day. Alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, all priced in Euros, were fairly expensive, though, but passengers were allowed to bring wine aboard with no corkage charge.

After dinner, guests gathered in the Observation Lounges for drinks accompanied by nightly piano music. Nightlife is notably more low-key than cruise ships.

The big advantage of riverboats, though, is they dock directly in the town or close by, allowing passengers walking access to all the sights. Both lines included daily excursions in the fare, plus several optional tours for a fee.

For the most part, the guides were extremely knowledgeable and had an excellent command of English. Passengers were given portable listening devices that enabled them to listen to the narrative of the guide even when they were some distance away.

VIKING LEGEND FACTFILE

Entered service:  June 2009

Length: 443ft

Beam:  37.5ft

Passengers: 189

Crew: 45

Passenger decks: 4

Staterooms: 2 at 340sq ft; 82 at 170sq ft; 4 at 134sq ft

ITINERARIES: Various 8 and 11-day cruises on the Danube from Nuremburg, Budapest or Passau.

MORE INFO: In the UK, call 0800 319 6660 or visit www.vikingrivercruises.co.uk; in the US, 1800 304 9616 or www.vikingrivercruises.com.

After disembarking Legend in Budapest, I flew to Basle to meet Uniworld’s newest ship. Launched in March, she offers 7-night cruises on the Rhine between Amsterdam and Basle, including visits to Cologne, Koblenz, Rudesheim, Breisach and Speyer in Germany and Strasbourg and Colmar in France.

Entering the lobby, I was dazzled by the elegant French décor. A spectacular blue sapphire, 10ft Baccarat chandelier, which originally hung in New York’s Tavern on the Green, loomed above the two-story atrium.

The lounge and restaurant designs were inspired by the Palace of Versailles; the finest European marble adorned the walls and floors; and a 19th century Venetian glass mirror rested above the reception desk. Arranged throughout the ship is a collection of carefully selected original art from personal collections. I had never seen a riverboat with such elegant décor and furnishings.

The cabin, on the lowest passenger deck, was elegantly furnished, but had small windows, a small marble bathroom, limited drawer and closet space and was difficult to move around.

Staterooms located on the middle level were a bit larger and had floor-to-ceiling windows, the top half of which could be opened. On the top level, staterooms and suites were considerably larger and had separate alcoves with sitting areas and similar windows. With the top portion of the window opened, it gave the impression of a protected private balcony, which also could be enclosed in cooler weather.

Guests occupying the eight 294sq ft suites and one 391sq ft Royal Suite enjoyed additional perks, including butler service. The accommodations on the top deck were easily the most desirable.

Included in all were English Savoir beds draped in the finest and highest thread-count Egyptian combed cotton linens, cashmere blankets, European duvets, a choice of pillows, robes and slippers, flatscreen TV with CNN, BBC, CNBC and movies on demand, hair-dryers, phones, private safes, ice buckets (ice machines are located in the public areas), and marble bathrooms with glassed-in showers, bathrobes and L’Occitane products, all distinctly superior to other river vessels.

I was impressed by the numerous innovations in the public areas, which included an elevator that serviced each deck; an enclosed, glassed-in atrium with a heated, mosaic-blue tile swimming  pool, a shower and massage room; a small fitness room with a variety of cardio machines (finally, a chance to exercise off a few meals!);  a fleet of bicycles; the L’Orangerie, a sky lounge on the Sun Deck for semi-outdoor dining; and a 20-seat movie theater with plush seats and state-of-the-art equipment.

Salon de Grand Trianon, the main bar and lounge, featured fine antiques and inspirational paintings in carved gilt frames with windows dressed in striped silk taffeta.  The Leopard Lounge also located on Sun Deck was an intimate, imaginatively decorated venue with leopard-inspired décor.        

Here again was free WiFi, as well as a self-service launderette with an ironing board as an alternative to the full laundry service.              

Having travelled on all the latest additions to the major riverboat companies during the past two years, I would have no hesitation in pronouncing the Viking Legend and SS Antoinette the most innovative and beautifully appointed vessels presently plying the waters of Europe.

SS ANTOINETTE FACTFILE

Entered service: March 2011

Length: 443ft

Beam: 37.5ft

Passengers: 164

Crew: 55

Passenger decks: 4

Staterooms: 1 at 391sq ft; 8 at 294sq ft; 53 at 196sq ft; 20 at 163sq ft

ITINERARIES: Various 7-day itineraries on the Rhine from Amsterdam or Basle.

MORE INFO: In the UK, call 0845 678 8558 or visit www.uniworldrivercruises.co.uk; in the US, call 1800 733 7820 or www.uniworldrivercruises.com.

Viking and Uniworld are just two of a distinguished group of European river-cruise operators these days. Here are some more worth considering:

Scenic Tours: This Australian tour operator with offices in the UK and Canada own six boats on the Rhine, Moselle and Danube. The latest, Scenic Pearl (2011), sports two full decks of spacious suites with real outside balconies, unusually generous storage and large bathrooms. Wine, beer and soft drinks are included, along with airport transfers, gratuities and tours; 0800 690 6987, www.scenictours.co.uk.

Tauck European River Cruises: This division of highly regarded Tauck Tours leases four riverboats exclusively from a Swiss company and operates them throughout Europe. Highly rated for pre and post-cruise packages, as well as interesting, all-inclusive excursions. Some 85 per cent of accommodations have French balconies and there are 14 300sq ft suites; 0800 961 834 or www.tauck.com.

Avalon Waterways: Operating 10 boats with lineage from 2004-11, they are well appreciated for their expert on-ship tour leaders, who stay with passengers for pre and post-cruise segments. The 166-passenger Panorama was new in 2011 offering 66 spacious suites (including two at 300sq ft), all with sitting areas adjacent to adjustable windows that open to give the feeling of a balcony. Wine, beer and soft drinks are also gratis at dinner; 0800 668 1802, www.avalonwaterways.co.uk.

AMAWaterways: Formed in 2002 by several cruise veterans and in partnership with APT (an Australian tour company), they operate seven modern boats that entered service from 2006-10. Facilities include a glassed-in wellness area featuring a fitness centre with sauna, massage and beauty salon and a sun deck with a whirlpool and walking track. Also charter four vessels in Russia, France, Spain/Portugal and on the Mekong River; AMA, 0808 223 5009, www.amawaterways.co.uk; or APT, 0845 603 6738 www.apttouring.co.uk.

Sea Cloud Cruises: Although best known for its sailing ships, the Hamburg-based company also owns the 88-passenger River Cloud II (which entered service in 2001). The ship is somewhat smaller than other riverboats but includes all of the facilities and amenities; +49 40 30 95 9250, www.seacloud.com.

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