S.S. Antoinette Cruise Review by atcken: Cruising the Rhine River in style!
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Cruising the Rhine River in style!
My wife and I just returned from a very enjoyable river cruise on the Rhine (Castles along the Rhine) aboard Uniworld's S.S. Antoinette. We did a couple of pre cruise days in Amsterdam and several post cruise days in Grindelwald, Switzerland (on our own) but I'll focus this review primarily on our river cruise. Feel free to email me with any questions on our cruise or on the pre/post cruise portion of our trip.
We have taken several cruises over the years and in fact, our last cruise was a Mediterranean cruise two summers ago on RCCL's Voyager of the Seas. However, this was our first river cruise and even after reading many online reviews, we were a little hesitant as to the possible lack of amenities and "activities" on a small passenger ship as opposed to the large cruise ships we are familiar with. It turned out that we didn't miss or lack for anything and were extremely happy with everything available on this type of cruising vessel.
6/29 -- We arrived at More Amsterdam Schiphol airport, took a 20 minute train to Amsterdam's Central Station, and walked to our hotel (Renaissance Amsterdam) arriving around 11:00 AM. The hotel had a room available (we had prepaid) and we were able to check in and dump our bags. Even though a bit jet lagged, we decided to take a walk around and ended up at the Anne Frank House and Museum. The wait to enter this famous hideout was about 45 minutes but the line moved fairly fast and it turned out the wait was worth it. After touring the museum, we headed back to the hotel to combat our jet lag and then had a nice tapas meal at a nearby Spanish restaurant nearby.
6/30 -- We decided to try the Amsterdam tram system and found it to be very easy to use, especially with a day pass, which we purchased at our hotel. I am a history buff and had wanted to visit the Dutch Resistance museum if possible and my wife agreed to try this with me. We were both surprised at how detailed and interesting this museum turned out to be. Having never been to Amsterdam, besides visiting this and the Anne Frank museum, we were really just interested in exploring the city and it's famous (and infamous) sites. After leaving the Resistance museum, that is what we did. We utilized our tram passes to hit different parts of the city and then walked around exploring after getting off at particular tram stops. During the day, we had a nice lunch in Rembrandt square (this park as well as several others reminded us of the parks in NYC where people gravitate to relax, socialize, etc.) and people watched the tourists and Dutch swarming the area. We trammed/walked over to the Heineken Experience (decided not to spend the 17 euro each to visit this though) and then made it to the Van Gogh museum (but our timing was a bit too late to visit this museum either). After walking interesting parts of the Amstel river and canals galore, we took the tram all the way back to the train station, walked through, and boarded the free ferry over to northeast Amsterdam for an evening meal along the IJ waterway.
We found Amsterdam to be an interesting city and much tamer than we had imagined. Of course, the "coffee "shops are plentiful and the Red Light District is there but still a city worth visiting. A big word of caution -- always be on the lookout for bicycle traffic cutting across your path -- bikes rule in this city!
7/1 -- After a leisurely morning, and breakfast at a nearby restaurant, we checked out of our hotel and headed down via taxi to the docking spot for the S.S. Antoinette on the IJ waterway. We got to the ship (we quickly learned to never call the Antoinette a boat -- this is truly a ship as the Captain and his crew proudly stressed throughout our cruise) around noon. There were no long lines even though we were docked across from a Viking cruise ship. We simply dropped out bags by the side of the ship with Uniworld staff and then checked in at the reception counter. The cabins were not ready until around 2:30 PM so we were invited up to the top deck for a light lunch. The Antoinette has 5 decks although I don't believe you can get to the bottom deck, as this is where the engine room, crew quarters, etc. are. The open air top deck has a lounge bar near the stern called the Leopard Lounge, a nice enclosed by large windowed salon for up top buffets and events, and the wheel house near the bow, which is not generally accessible by the passengers (however, we found you could get to the bow with a nice viewing area via an access through the front of the Grand Salon on deck 4 -- shown to us by none other than Captain Zwaal later in the afternoon).
After relaxing up on deck and enjoying our first meal onboard, announcements were made that our cabins were ready and they had us return to the reception counter. We were met by a member of the crew, who turned out to be the restaurant manager, Francisco Vicente. He led us down the deck three hallway to our cabin, #332. Our bags were in the cabin and Francisco gave us a detailed explanation of all the features of the room, including the remote controlled French balcony window. This room feature turned out to be one of the highlights of our cruise cabin although the room itself was very roomy for a cruise ship with a nice full bathroom with full walk in shower.
After unpacking, we headed up to the top deck to watch our departure from Amsterdam at 4:00 PM. After departing and as we cruised along the large canal access to enter the Rhine, we talked with other passengers and were surprised to see the Captain mingling with everyone on deck. This was to be standard throughout the cruise as the Captain and his crew were very open and hospitable and often present to talk with the passengers. A refreshing change from the big cruise ships where you often don't see much of any staff except for cabin stewards, bar tenders, and waiters/waitresses.
At 6:00 PM, we went down to the Salon du Grand Trianon for a safety briefing and welcome from the Captain, the Hotel Manager, and the Cruise Manager. No life jackets, whistles, etc. - just an informative but humorous safety briefing from the Captain and Hotel Manager. Then the Cruise Manager, Hildegard Peiker, who we came to find out was very informative, organized, and helpful, gave us an overview of all of the included and optional excursions for the week.
Our first dinner was served at 7:00 PM (although we were a bit late because we wanted to watch the Antoinette go through the first of 19 locks the ship went through for the week) and the meal was the first of a week full of excellent dinners. Dining for all meals turned out to be open seating so you can choose whom to sit with at each meal as long as there is room at the table. By moving to different tables, you have the opportunity to meet many of your fellow passengers. All of the diners and the majority of the other meals are served in the large dining room, which is the width of the ship and full of windows, called the Restaurant de Versailles.
After dinner, we relaxed in lounge chairs by the indoor pool with sweeping views of the water from the stern of the ship. The ship entered the Rhine River around 1:00 AM but that was just a bit late for us to see.
7/2 -- Cologne
We woke up around 7:00 AM and used our French balcony window to watch the views from the Rhine for a little while. We went to our first breakfast, which is served buffet style but with an omelet chef and attentive wait staff, in the dining area. At 9:30 AM, we listened to Hildegard give some more details on the excursions for the week. There was never any pressure to attend any of the excursions, optional or not, but the information presented to help you make up your mind was always very thorough. Hildegard did an excursion briefing every day at different times (normally before dinner) for the upcoming day's excursion(s). The only thing to remember is that if you decide to do an optional tour, there are cut off times to sign up so that they know how many people to accommodate. Tours never filled up and they were never cancelled, as they are sometimes on the big cruise ships.
We docked in Zons, outside of Cologne around noon and had a light lunch up on deck. From 2 -- 5 PM we went on an included excursion of Cologne, the Cologne Cathedral, and then had some free time to explore some of the city. We sampled some Kolsh beer at a pub along the Rhine and then walked back down to the ship, which had sailed up the Rhine to meet us right in Cologne.
6:00 -- 9:00 PM -- Captain's welcome cocktail followed by the welcome dinner. The welcome cocktail was in the Grand Salon and we were introduced to the entire crew, which made the ship even more personal to the passengers. After the welcome cocktail, we all went down to dinner for the Captain's welcome dinner. This and the farewell dinner on the last evening, is as formal as the dining gets and the entire was more casual than formal dinners on the bigger cruise ships. That being said, most men wore a sport coat with open collared shirts (some wore ties and I saw a few suits) and the women mostly wore nice dresses or pants suits for these "dressed up" dinners. All other dinners we dressed in business casual attire and felt quite comfortable.
7/3 -- Koblenz and Boppard
We docked in Koblenz at the confluence of the Moselle and Rhine rivers and at 9:00 AM, we did the included Koblenz walking tour along with an aerial cable car ride across the Rhine up to Ehrenbreitstein fortress. This was an excellent tour and I would recommend doing the cable car instead of just the city walking tour.
We went back to the ship, ate lunch, and then at 1:15 PM we met outside the ship to head off for an optional excursion (35 euro/person) to visit Marksburg Castle. There is a bit of walking once you get up to the castle from the shuttle buses (switchback that weren't too steep), but this was a worthwhile and interesting tour of this never damaged castle and the views of the Rhine valley were incredible. This was actually the least expensive of the optional excursions.
At 4:15 PM we were back at the S.S. Antoinette, which had sailed south to meet us in Boppard. Those that didn't do the Marksburg excursion sailed with the ship and there were even some adventurous people who used the ships bicycles (six available free but need to be reserved) to ride down the Rhine on the bike paths to Boppard. There is cable car system here if you choose or you can just explore the village. We had time to walk into the town and stopped in a wine shop for a tasting and education of German wines. We ended up buying a couple of bottles to take back on board with us. Unlike the big cruise ships that confiscate any alcohol brought on board, the river cruise ships allow you to purchase whatever and will even put chill your wine in your room if you request.
Relaxing dinner again at 7:00 PM (roast pork!) and we finished off with a nice evening on the top deck with some of our new cruise friends.
7/4 -- Castles along the Rhine cruising to Rudesheim
All morning we sailed south on the Rhine and through the Rhine valley, listening to Hildegard narrate the many castles and villages we were seeing. The views were incredible and everyone seemed to enjoy the relaxing cruise. We were treated to a traditional "Fruhshoppen" or German 2nd breakfast while up on the top deck. Sausages, sauerkraut, potato salads, and beer for brunch as well as other fixings were available. Fun!
At 1:00 PM, we docked in Rudesheim and made the 10-15 minute walk into town (there are also mini-trains to shuttle you into town if you don't feel like walking). The town was quaint but touristy and we decided to take an aerial cable car (6.50 euro/person) up over the Riesling vineyards to the large statue of Germania overlooking the city. There is some walking once you arrive at the top but the views over the Rhine and Rudesheim made this a worthwhile option for your visit to this town.
At 3:30 PM, we met back down in Rudesheim at a pre determine spot and went on the included Castle Vollrads wine tasting tour. This was a great excursion with a nice tour of this fantastic winery and the grounds as well as being able to taste several of their fine Riesling wines. I definitely recommend doing this excursion (and it is included with your cruise).
This evening was the epicurean meal in which the chefs match regional foods to pair with different wines. We started off the evening with an epicurean cocktail (apricot brandy and sparkling wine) while listening to the Cruise Manager's nightly excursion discussion. Then we all went into the dining room for a delicious 3-course meal with various wine pairings. Each evening, the chef makes suggestions for your meal choices and I'd definitely recommend his choices for this special evening meal.
This was one of our favorite days of the cruise!
7/5 -- Speyer and Heidelberg
At 8:00 AM, we docked in Germersheim and at 9:15 AM, left for our included tour of the town of Speyer with another cathedral visit. This is a nice shopping village and there was a very nice park area if you chose to stay in this town.
We had decided to do the optional Heidelberg tour (49 euro/person) so at 1:15 PM, we boarded our buses in Speyer for the trip to the famous city, university, and castle. Because we were not going to have time to go back to eat lunch on the ship, Uniworld gave everyone on this optional tour an envelope with 15euro so we could eat lunch in Speyer (so the tour really cost 34euro if you chose not to eat lunch) before heading to Heidelberg. We thought this was a classy touch by Uniworld.
At 2:30 PM, we arrived by bus in Heidelberg and had a quick tour of the campus and then a walk up into the old castle on the hillside. This is an authentic German castle and although it was crowded with many tour groups, the views were excellent both inside and out. We had time to walk around the old portion of the town and had traditional wheat beers with other cruise friends at a very old local brewery called Vetter. The bus ride back to the ship was about an hour. That evening we were treated to a traditional German dinner with a choice of either duck or trout. Everyone raved about either choice.
7/6 -- Strasbourg / Black Forest
We ported in Kehl, Germany (after the crew had to lower the top structures to make it under some bridges) and then at 8:15 AM, we took a quick bus trip over the Rhine to France and the city of Strasbourg. This was an included 1 hour tour via canal boat and then a walking tour of the city and the magnificent cathedral. We then had an hour to explore the city shops before returning to the ship. After lunch, my wife and I took two of the ship's bicycles that we had reserved and rode for an hour up and down the nice bike paths on the German side of the Rhine.
That afternoon was laundry day for us and another couple we had met on the cruise. The six washer/dryers onboard are free as well as laundry detergent. We had a nice afternoon relaxing on the top deck with our friends, periodically checking on our laundry, and enjoying some nice German Riesling wines and cheeses that the concierge had iced down and prepared for us. We did miss an optional tour by choosing this for our afternoon (Black Forest tour -- 49euro/person) but we were tired of the buses by that point. Later that evening, we talked to others that enjoyed this tour but did necessitate a total of 2 ÃÂ½ hours on buses. Their tour left the ship at 1:15 PM and didn't get back until 6:30 PM so keep this in mind if you decide to do this tour.
Everyone enjoyed a long leisurely dinner and then a group of us again adjourned to the top desk. We all watched as it seemed the Antoinette just barely made it under another lock entrance gate -- in fact we could touch the structure as we went under it. This was telling as earlier at the pre-dinner cocktail hour, Captain Zwaal had informed everyone that we would not make it all the way to Basel as the rains in Switzerland had swollen the Rhine and we would not fit under low bridges near our last port destination. In the end, this actually worked out well for us but I'll touch on this shortly.
7/7 -- Breisach, Germany
This turned out to be an overnight stay due to the rising waters of the Rhine River but although we didn't tour this town, Breisach was a nice little German town to visit.
We opted for our last included tour, which was visiting three cities in the Alsace region of France just over the Rhine.
City #1, Kaysersberg, was a nice little town with buildings built as far back as 1500 AD. This tour included about an hour stroll and then some on your own exploring time of 30 minutes. This is a town we would like to revisit as there is a castle here and a few wineries but we just didn't have enough time for those on this tour.
City #2, Riquewhir, was a little larger than Kaysersberg, but had a much more medieval feeling to it. We ate lunch here away from the touristy main street and did a bit of shopping and wine tasting. The tour allowed for us to have at least 2 ÃÂ½ hours here and after finishing this tour, some passengers opted to take buses back to the ship and skip the last city. My wife and I opted for a visit of the third city, which put us back at the ship 2 hours later than the shortened tour group.
City #3, Colmar, was a much larger city, which turned out to have several nice parks, museums, extensive shopping, and an area called "Little Venice" that had some canals. This city actually reminded us somewhat of the first city we visited on our cruise, Cologne.
As this was our last night on the ship, the crew had prepared a Captain's farewell cocktail hour and then farewell dinner. Both events were very well done and we again got to meet and express our appreciation to the entire crew. Dinner included a full vegetarian meal with several courses but we found that we could mix and match from both several menus to suit our tastes.
After dinner, we said some goodbyes to our new cruise friends, and went back to finish packing for our bus trip to Basel.
7/8 -- Disembark day
As I said, we overnighted in Breisach (instead of making it to Basel, Switzerland -- the Captain joked that he still got us from "A" to "B", just the wrong "B"), and in the morning there were several staggered bus departures taking passengers to various points. Earlier in the week, each cabin was requested to submit their departure plans (flying out after disembarking, trains, taxis to airport, extending in cities, etc.) and the crew efficiently used this information to use the buses to get us to where we needed to be.
In our case, we were planning originally to disembark in Basel and then catch a taxi to the train station for an extended stay in Grindelwald, Switzerland. As it turned out, the bus we were put on, took us directly to the train station in Basel, only about a 30 minute ride, (where we made the train connection we wanted in plenty of time), so we saved cab fare.
We had time in the morning to eat breakfast, put our bags outside our room right before our departure (not the harried put the bags out by 2 AM the night before as on the big cruise ships), and then board the appropriate bus in a relaxed fashion. The only negative was that it was raining but the crew even lent us umbrellas so we could make it to the buses relatively dry and they transported all of our bags to the bus. Very professional and thoughtful. As our bus pulled away, several members of the crew stood in the rain and waved at us!
We had purchased Swiss Rail passes, and after activating them in Basel, caught the train to Interlaken Ost for our transfer to the Grindelwald train. We had upgraded to 1st class, which was wasn't really that much more and this gave us more room on all of our train travels to and from Grindelwald.
At 12:15 PM, we arrived in Grindelwald, Switzerland and since I had phoned the hotel from the train advising of our arrival, within 5 minutes of exiting the train, a hotel shuttle was there to pick us up. We were immediately knocked over by the jaw dropping views of the Jungfrau region, dominated by the Eiger, the Monch, and the Jungfrau (which is one of the highest mountains in the Alps). We arrived at our hotel, The Hotel Eiger, which turned out to have a fantastic view directly at the Eiger.
Our room wasn't quite ready, so we explored this touristy town a bit, and decided on a pizza while sitting outside looking at the Eiger. Even though the Swiss Franc is almost on par with the U.S. dollar, we found everything here to be more expensive throughout our stay in Switzerland, so just be prepared for this.
After lunch, we found our room to be ready, which turned out to be a nice suite with a balcony and direct, in your face views of the Eiger and the entire Jungfrau range. We finished off our day by doing a small bit of grocery shopping within minutes walking distance and using the hotel's Wi-Fi to catch up with family and friends at home. (Hotel Eiger, lifestyle room, 365 CHF/night).
7/9 and 7/10 -- Grindelwald, Switzerland
As this is a cruise review, I won't touch too much on our stay in this village. Suffice it to say that, although expensive, my wife and I would definitely recommend a visit to this region if you ever get the chance. We took the famous Jungfrau railway train through the mountains (and I mean "through" the mountains) to end up at the "Top of Europe", we hiked on several "Sound of Music" type trails, and road a gondola with incredible views. We did find that if you have a Swiss Rail pass and show it, you can get discounts for several of the trains and gondolas in the region (our cost for the Jungfrau railway was 128 CHF/person including the discount and the cost for the First Gondola was 28 CHF/person with the discount). I'll be posting a Grindelwald specific trip report on trip advisor so you might check there if you want more details.
7/11 and 7/12 -- Zurich, Switzerland
The 11th was a train travel day to Zurich to stage for our flight the next day back to the U.S. Again, the train trip was fine with all of the connections exactly as advertised by Swiss Rail. We stayed at the Hotel Continental in Zurich for our one night, explored this city some in the afternoon (another city we would like to spend more time in if we ever get the chance), and then retired for the evening to be ready for our flight back to the States the next day.
So, to sum up, if you are debating doing a river cruise and especially a cruise down the Rhine River, stop debating and book it! And if you are not sure if Uniworld is the cruise line to take, I would have to say that you cannot go wrong with this well run and professional river cruise line.
Feel free to email me with any questions or for more information. Less
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Cabin review: S.S. Antoinette 332
Premier feature of this cabin is the remote controlled French balcony window. This room feature turned out to be one of the highlights of our cruise cabin although the room itself was very roomy for a cruise ship with a nice full bathroom with full walk in shower. I would definitely recommend an upgrade to this type of cabin and unless you really need a balcony, this was fine for the amount of time we were in the cabin. Bed was a bit uncomfortable due to it really being two beds pushed together but this is common for most cruise ships, big or small.
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