After taking many traditional cruises, decided to explore Holland about a river cruise ship, the Uniworld River Empress. Although quite different than typical cruise ships, it was nonetheless a terrific experience and a great vacation.
Approaching the ship in Amsterdam, the first thing that occurred to me is that there were "no people" waiting to board!! We walked right up the short gang plank into the lobby where the Uniworld crew welcomed us with warm smiles and keys to our cabin. Check in was quick and easy and we were in our cabin within only a couple of minutes.
The ship holds 138 passengers, and has 5 passenger decks. Deck 5 is the "Sun Deck" which is mostly an open air viewing deck with chairs and lounges. There is also a glass covered sitting area so that even in inclement weather you can have a panoramic view. This is where the "bridge" is located as well, and towards the very front are tables and chairs. We often brought drinks to this part of the deck and watched the countryside slowly pass us as we relaxed.
Deck Four is where the beautiful dining room is location (more on food later!). Also, all of the ship's suites (4 of them) and top-graded cabins with floor to ceiling windows are on this deck. Towards the front is the bar/lounge which is the meeting place for port talks, captain's welcome aboard party, etc.
Deck Three is cabins, and Deck Two is cabins, along with an area (indoor patio) for 24 hour coffee and tea, a small boutique shop, the gym/sauna and the hairdressers. Deck One is cabins, along with the small launderette (2 washers, 2 dryers which are free—soap is available for $2.50 for 2 loads).
From top to bottom, the ship sparkles. Although much smaller and cozier than a cruise ship, they have all the bases covered with great cabins, a spacious and bright dining room and the services mentioned above.
The Itinerary: Holland is really beautiful at tulip time. The trip begins in Amsterdam, sails north to Hoorn and Volendam, then heads back south to Rotterdam, Delft, Arnhem, and Schoonoven. I won't go over each and every detail of the ports (Uniworld's brochure does a terrific job of that!), but instead will provide some of our favorite activities on the trip.
Amsterdam: We were lucky that the cruise spent a night in Amsterdam at the beginning of the trip, and 2 nights at the end. There is a lot to see and do, so don't worry that there is too much time there. We boarded the ship about 2:00 p.m. on Sunday and spent an hour on board getting unpacked and touring the decks. Went to visit the Anne Frank House (well worth the 15 minute wait to get inside) and walked around central Amsterdam. We had tried to go to the Anne Frank House earlier in the day, but the lines were too long. At 5:00, they had diminished quite a bit and I had heard that the later you go, the shorter the wait. The next morning, Uniworld took us to the world's largest flower auction just outside of Amsterdam. It is called the Aalsmeer Flower Auction and it is similar in many ways to the New York Stock Exchange, except that in place of stocks, the product is flowers. This place is HUGE and you walk ABOVE all of the action and look down at flowers, the actual auctions (where the prices are set for flowers WORLDWIDE) and the logistics of getting the flowers in and out of the auction center. We returned to the ship midday and as we were eating lunch we sailed up to Hoorn.
Zaanse Schans is an outdoor windmill museum and they also give demonstrations on how to make wooden shoes. Great photo opportunities here, and also on the bus ride through the multi-colored fields of tulips that extend as far as your eyes can see!
In Delft we toured the Delft pottery factory and then spent time downtown. Many old and interesting churches, and a huge plaza with nice outdoor cafes.
The Dining Room: Open seating at all meals. Breakfast and lunch are buffet style. However, at breakfast, you can order an omelet of your choice from the buffet and at lunch, you are offered soup and and desert from your waiter. Dinner includes a starter (every night is different, and they are really creative!), soup, a main selection (either meat, fish or vegetarian), a nice desert choice and cheese and fruit from the buffet. The food was all outstanding and there is something for everyone. If you cannot find something, they will make something for you e.g. steak. The food overall was high quality, tasty and delicious.
The cabins: At 154 square feet, not overly spacious but certainly adequate. The cabin layout was very nice and they managed to fit in bedside tables, a sitting chair and table, and a bathroom with nice shower (that consistently had great temperature control and water pressure). Very clean and new, and the cabin service is excellent.
Ten reasons to choose a river cruise over a traditional cruise:
To begin, I believe there is a market for both types of cruises. However, here are 10 reasons why I would travel on a river cruise again with Uniworld:
1. The crew. They can make or break a cruise, and hands down this crew (of only 36) did an outstanding job in every way. We had great service from the cruise manager, the officers, the front desk personnel, the cabin attendants and the dining room staff. 2. The ship. Although much smaller than traditional ships, the River Empress had a great deck plan and above all, was sparkling clean. Everywhere. 3. The food. I was never disappointed with any of the meals. There was a lot of variety, and portions were the right size (although you could order seconds if you wanted). 4. The destinations. Although Amsterdam is a large city with an adequate port, most of the other destinations we went to were too small for traditional ships. This trip gave us an opportunity to experience, and explore, ports that we otherwise would never go to see on a cruise. 5. The tours. Every one is included with your cruise fare. Just show up when they tell you to, and a first class tour bus is waiting for you just a few feet from your ship. Not only did they leave and return on time, every one had a knowledgeable and friendly tour guide, along with an experienced driver. Do not underestimate the value of having all your tours covered in your cruise fare, particularly when the conversion rates for dollars to euros are so poor! 6. Easy on, easy off! These river ships are more like hotels when it comes to arriving and departing guests! Whenever the ship is in port, it is easy to just walk off and on without great fanfare...it reminded me of going to and from a hotel. Quick and easy, in and out! 7. Other passengers. With such a small group, it is easy to meet others and we found that over the week we made many new friends. 8. Relaxation. There is something remarkably soothing about sitting on the top deck and watching the nearby land go by. 9. The other itineraries. Uniworld has many ships sailing throughout Europe and other parts of the world. Now that I've had my first experience with them, I'll definitely be back to another river cruise. 10. The small things. Umbrellas in the cabin should it be raining out. Juice, coffee and pastries at 6:00 a.m. for us early risers. A small vase of fresh flowers in every cabin after the cruise begins. Free washers and dryers. Welcoming smiles from the crew in the lobby every time you come back on board.
What a wonderful week we had seeing Holland on the River Empress. I'd do this trip again if there weren't so many other places I want to see first!