The summary of this review is that the trip was WONDERFUL. This was our third Grand Circle trip (previously with OAT to Machu Picchu/Galapagos Islands and GCT to South Africa, but our first river cruise) and we have had three GREAT experiences. As with the other two trips, the difference on this trip was the Program Director and the Staff. They truly reflect the high standards maintained by Grand Circle, which in our mind make the difference.
We had read a lot on various forums about the Danube Markets, but little about the Rhine Christmas Markets. What a nice surprise to see markets in almost every stop despite our early trip. Only in Nijmegen (where they don't have markets) and Mainz (where they weren't open yet) did we not see markets, though they varied in size in various towns. We made up for that, however by shopping in other stores in the towns which many times had better prices and selections than the markets themselves. We found the best prices for our needs in the small stores in Heidelberg (Steins, Nutcrackers, & Smokers) though we managed to buy something in every town without much trouble. We followed our philosophy of buying something if we really liked it when we found it, because we have too often in the past said we'd get it later and couldn't.....and we didn't regret this approach as we rarely found cheaper prices. Our guide, Steven Martinot, was very helpful and thorough in recommending which town might have a particular souvenir, and which store/restaurant/bar might suit our needs.
We arrived at the airport in Amsterdam about 9:30am and were on the ship by 11:00. One of the Program Directors met us and escorted us to the bus for the transfer to the Ship. We were docked centrally near the train station and in the afternoon set off to walk to the Anne Frank House, some shopping, and the obligatory stroll through the Red Light District. Amsterdam is an easy and safe city to get around in (we had been there before) so we went off on our own.
We skipped the optional tour in Nijmegen the next day to the Holocaust Museum in favor of some relaxation (that jet lag is rough) but heard from those that went that it was a moving experience. Our walking tour was the first of many strolls through various river towns which highlighted the history and architecture of the area. The use of the provided individual receivers allowed us to hear our guide perfectly throughout the trip.
After a brief walking tour in Cologne (where we experienced our only drenching rain and wind) we were given free time to visit the Cathedral or to browse the markets. There were several different Christmas markets in Cologne, and we finally got to leisurely visit them when the rain diminished and we returned after lunch, but it is NO fun at all to visit the Christmas Markets in drenching rain, no matter what protective clothing you bring!! It was a good first lesson, however, as we learned that those "water-resistant" parkas we brought really just resisted the water for a little while and there was no substitute for long underwear, rain pants, waterproof rain jackets, and LAYERS of clothing. Toe warmers and hand warmers came in handy as well!!
Each day we stopped at another town along the way, stopping very close to town except in Strasbourg where the street cars were convenient and easy to use. Koblenz, Mainz, Heidelberg, Speyer, Baden-Baden, Strasbourg and Kayserberg were all wonderfully scenic stops. The two additional optional tours, Rudesheim and Heidelberg were well worth the modest cost. The walking tours were generally not strenuous, though definitely involved walking on cobblestone streets and uneven pathways. They varied in length, were generally slow-paced, and were usually a mile or two at the most.
On-ship entertainment varied from a local children's choir to magicians to the chef teaching the making of German stollen. A musician performed every evening and at special events to assure constant entertainment. The tour was generally fast paced if you wanted to do everything, with something to do most of the time (especially shopping), but individual choices could slow this considerably by balancing the free-time activities. Most days we were eating breakfast by 8am and ready to tour by 9am. Usually, a half day was available for voluntary activities such as shopping or lounging.
The entire staff of the ship was wonderful. We have never been on a ship, large or small, that had an entire staff (from the Captain and Hotel Manager to the Engineers, cabin stewards, or other staff) that ALWAYS seemed to sincerely care about making our trip perfect. We NEVER experienced a hint of poor service or uncaring people just going through the motions. Rather, each person without exception treated us as valued guests.
We seldom saw our cabin steward (though when we did he always asked about how he could help us further); we would go to breakfast or dinner, and magically when we returned our cabin was always spotless and refreshed. At mealtime, despite our changing tables, so we didn't always have the same wait staff, they quickly knew our names, and the idiosyncrasies of our choices.
I had two wonderful massages on the ship (yes, they have a masseuse!!!). The cost was about what you would pay at home, and less than half the charges you might see on a large cruise ship. I highly recommend you try to get one....a great way to get over that jet lag!!
We have never had a more accessible Captain on any trip. We first met him at the Safety briefing which was the most thorough I have ever experienced. Throughout the trip, he was available, personable, and truly interested in the passengers. He even participated in the crew show (not to be missed, by the way), and not just to give a speech!! Likewise, the other senior members of the staff were always attentive and accessible.
On any tour, the Program Director provides the glue that brings it all together. We again were blessed with a superb Program Director, Steven Martinot, who consistently shepherded us through the tour. As on all tours, there are different personalities of our fellow travelers that require different amounts of attention (perhaps we are one of those too). I have never seen a tour director more consistently patient with everyone, and truly interested in pleasing everyone. A truly remarkable person.
This service level and extraordinary standard of excellence with its staff is the quality that separates the Grand Circle experience from the rest.
The cabins were comfortable, though small. There are good videos on the GCT website that clearly show the cabins, but the nice surprise was the roomy bathrooms. In looking at cabins on the first day before people moved in, it appears they are all about the same with a small amount of space deducted from the cabin to provide the narrow balcony. Our shower (201) was large and covered the width of the bathroom (probably close to 4'x3') while others had corner showers that seemed a bit smaller, but certainly adequate. The pull-down beds were VERY comfortable and even though I am over 6', and large, I was absolutely perfectly relaxed. The sofas were adequate for sitting, but too narrow to lay down on, so we ended up leaving the beds down all the time. Two movies showed continuously on the TV (many were Christmas movies, though we saw Casablanca and Patton on two nights as we went to sleep!!); there was also news and other channels as well.
The ship was exceptionally clean and the decor was pleasant, though not brand new. However, it did not show signs of wear or deterioration at all. The lounge was very comfortable as were all of the facilities on the ship. A small area off the main lobby, and the library provided quiet spaces that could be used as well.
Obviously, in the winter, the sun deck serves primarily the smokers on the ship. A three-sided covered area behind the wheelhouse provided some protection from the wind and the elements, but obviously required heavy coats. On the day we sailed a particularly picturesque section of the Rhine, the dining staff provided homemade hot chocolate in this area as we all enjoyed the afternoon on the river.
The food was wonderful! We've cruised on over 20 large ships, and traveled extensively, and found the presentation, preparation, and variety to be very good. For Breakfast, every day omelets or eggs were available for custom preparation, a special preparation was available from the kitchen, and all of the normal breakfast foods -- pastries, meats, waffles or pancakes, juices, and fruits -- were provided on the self-service buffet.
At lunch, this same buffet line (actually two similar lines) contained a wonderful salad bar, usually at least 3 prepared sandwich options, several hot options, and other self-serve sandwich options. Many days a custom pasta dish was prepared to your individual taste. Again, an option from the kitchen was available to order as was a hamburger and French fries!! We always started with soup which was delicious. Varied desserts options were always provided.
Dinner started usually with an appetizer, soup and salad followed by a choice from two or three entrees. These included a wide variety of dishes including vegetarian options, turkey, duck, chicken, fish, lamb, pasta, and beef. Also, standard options of Grilled Chicken Breast and Salmon were always available with a baked potato. Two dessert options were offered. In short, only the pickiest eater couldn't find something to eat each night. And of course, red or white wine was provided on a complementary basis at dinner.
Coffee, Tea, or Hot Chocolate were available on the ship 24 hours/day. Cookies or snacks were provided in the lounge in the afternoon and evenings. The first day, 5 bottle or 7 bottle wine packages were offered at a discount (bottles ranged from about 13 Euros and up) and soft-drink packages were also offered. Generally on the ship, prices were reasonable and seemed to be less than those charged for comparable items on large cruise ships.
Yes, there were VERY minor irritants along the way that could be improved upon (have you ever been with 140 people in any event that hasn't had some irritant?) As with any tour, a little flexibility and a sense of humor are needed.
The most important of these was the inability to reserve a table for meals in the restaurant. When traveling with 4 in our group (tables were mainly for 6), it became a challenge to get 4 seats at the same table.....the recommendation from the Program Directors was to send someone early to stand in line and "hold" the seats! Thus, for every lunch or dinner, my wife or I was generally somewhere between 10th and 15th in line (I refused to go more than 15 minutes early) necessitating one of us to miss the port talk or other pre-meal activities. Actually, despite an otherwise wonderful trip, my wife has said she won't go on another river cruise unless she can reserve a seat in the dining room. The number of people who were always in line to reserve a table indicates the significance of the problem (we had groups of up to 30 on the trip). One night, the Manager actually gave the Captain's Table to a late arriving group that made a big fuss (perhaps this is a hint for future travelers). I gather they recognize this is a problem, but haven't found a way to accommodate it.
Whenever a minor problem occurred (for example our toilet kept running), it was only a few minutes after reporting it that the issue was resolved.
Our cabin bathroom tended to have a slight 'sewer' smell occasionally. I suspect it was a problem of not retaining water in the shower trap (I think it is a common 'boat' problem), but it was never so overwhelming that it was offensive. Plumbers were on board at two ports, and they were cleaning "kitchen fat" out of the pipes (at least I think that's what the limited English of the plumber said) and following this the smell disappeared.
We ended up with 3 suitcases (2 big, 1 medium) to get all of our different sweaters, raingear, snow gear, etc. to the ship. We also included a duffle bag for overflow when we bought too many souvenirs. Now we could do this as we did our own air, and were allowed 2 bags each, but suffice to say we had four full bags going home! In fairness, though, I could have left one sweater and two sweatshirts at home, and if we had taken advantage of the onboard laundry, easily stayed within 1 bag each (until we bought souvenirs!!). Those nutcrackers and steins and stuffed animals etc really do take a lot of room!! Fortunately, two suitcases just squeezed under the couch on each side!!!