Rarely do the smoking deals that appear in your email every morning turn out to be the Grand Value that is advertised. All of us cynical types zoom immediately to the fine print to find the catch. Well, surprise, surprise, Grand Value cruising aboard the River Baroness was an excellent bargain (with a few caveats mentioned below)and a wonderful week was had by all! Uniworld's River Baroness, fresh from her 2005 makeover, is now marketing 3 different pared down river cruising experiences. The product is aimed at the active individual who prefers not to have every moment of the day preplanned into organized activities. Currently, the River Empress is alternating between Budapest to Passau, the Frankfurt Rhine and Moselle and the Amsterdam to Amsterdam "Dutch Dreams". All are of 9 days duration including the travel time from the US. All cater to the North American visitor and are non-smoking except for the sun decks. All include 5-6 excursions in the cost and offer 4-6 optional excursion depending on the cruise. The cruise prices include airfare and airport transfers but not the taxes and surcharges. We chose the "Dutch Dreams". We flew to Amsterdam from Phoenix via Dulles and were promptly collected at the airport by easily identified individuals and whisked to a bus. Our first surprise occurred at the dock: 3 river ships anchored side by side and ours was the furthest out. While we didn't have to tote anything but hand luggage, we did go up and down and through 2 other ships to reach our own. This is a river cruising fact of life and kind of fun as one gets to snoop out other lines. However, this was the first indication that the target market and the passenger population were somewhat at odds. Many people had difficulty negotiating the stairs and there were minimal chair lifts and no elevators. Upon arrival we were directed to the lounge and given coffee, tea and pastries. The brochure stated that we would not be allowed into the cabins until 2 pm, which made for a several hour wait in a very comfortable environment. We actually made it to the cabins just after a buffet lunch was served in the lounge. The Cabins:All of the cabins on the River Baroness are identical and sleep 2 people in either double bed or twin configuration(your choice). The windows on either passenger deck are the same size. The lower deck leads directly to the dining room and the upper deck to the main desk and lounge. There is a $300 difference in the cabin grade prices with no particular difference in service that I could see. We stayed in 228 and did not pay the supplement for this upgrade. Don't bother if you don't have to. There is no advantage to be gained. Size matters: All of the cabins are small and listed as approximately 130 square feet. I believe that this includes the bathroom. The fittings are of a very high quality and quite attractive. The linens are premium "hotel style" duvets and the option is given to have the bed made up "american style". The beds are extremely comfortable and have more than ample pillows with various kinds available upon request. Terry bathrobes are included. There is an in room safe of the key operated type in the closet. Suitcases go under the bed which also contains storage drawers which can be difficult to access under some circumstances. The closet has approximate 18 inches of hanger space with 3 drawers below. The bathroom and the closet cannot be used simultaneously. There is excellent storage above the bed and very accessible shelving on either side of the beds. Reading lamps are excellent (take note Celebrity!). It's all about the bathroom: There should be a note posted on the bathroom door advertising a 100KG limit. All bathrooms on cruise ships in the ordinary people categories are small. This is a normal expectation. These bathrooms are beautifully appointed, have wonderful towels (the really big and fluffy kind) and are really tiny. They have an excellent shower with the option of using it in hand held mode that is more than adequate for tall people. However, the sliding door reduces the space to coffin sized parameters. We are not over 6 ft and are of normal weight and found it somewhat difficult to maneuver in the shower. How the even moderately obese fared (and there were a number on this cruise) was an ongoing matter of conjecture among the passengers. If you have any physical limitations this is NOT the cruise for you. The toilet was most comfortable with the bathroom door open as otherwise one's knees got tangled in the bathrobes hanging from the door. Hairdryers are provided and the toiletries are of the press the dispenser variety. Cabins are spotless and remained so during the trip. Bottled water is pay-per use and unnecessary as readily available in the lounge and free and the ship water is just fine. Rooms are made up twice daily and the cabin attendants provided vases for those passengers consumed by the insanely low price of fresh flowers in the floating markets of Amsterdam. Food: Are we here to cruise or to eat? River cruising is NOT the non-stop food orgy of the seagoing ships. 24 hour food is NOT available (except cookies) and dining is kept in it's proper perspective. I must confessed that my husband missed the availability of hot and cold running ice cream that he had become accustomed to on the big cruise ships. Breakfast and lunch were buffet style with omelets and eggs available to order. Especially good were the soups, breads and natural yogurts and cereals. Sandwiches at lunch were not American style and Reuben takes on a totally different meaning. Menus can run heavily to pork and light on the chicken. Vegetarian is available and the chef REALLY cares if you don't like his food. He will make something else if humanly possible. Dinner offers a choice of 2 starters, soups, salads and 3 choices of entrees. Generally 3 desserts and ice cream were available. Wines choices were also recommended with each course at dinner. We don't drink so we really have no information about the quality or value for money in this regard. We were perfectly happy with the food and quite enjoyed the single seating/ open dining arrangements. The dining room was attractive and the wait staff competent and all fluent in English. Some of the meals were as good as the specialty restaurants aboard the large cruise lines. See part II
Rolling on the river: Well, not right away. After boarding, the River Baroness remained in Amsterdam until midnight on Sunday. This gave the passengers the opportunity to recoup the jet lag and to enjoy the next day in town. The river ships dock right by the central station and the do it yourself type was in the heart of the city. Sunday offered an included morning bus and walking tour of the central city with the flower market and the diamond factory as high points. The afternoon offered an optional tour of the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh museums which we declined as we had a post-cruise stay planned in Amsterdam. I recommend this option if you don't have an additional stay planned. It is Rembrandt's 400th birthday and the exhibits are notably. And they are crowded as it is currently the hot museum ticket in Europe!Easter Sunday was really packed according to the passengers who took this excursion. Monday morning we arrived in Enkhuizen located in the southern portion of the former Zuider Zee. This included a walking tour and a small amount of free time. Not much was open as this was the Monday after Easter and a holiday. After lunch we sailed to Hoorn and remained overnight. We skipped the included walking tour and enjoyed cafes and coffee and snooping around. No one draws their curtains at night. The Dutch decorate really well and shame on me for looking! Stores in general were closed. Tuesday took us from Hoorn to Volendam, the tourist junk center of the north. Optional tours were available to Marken Island and Edam (easily do it your self) and there was a bicycle tour of the countryside and over the dyke. Out of 140 passengers, 14 chose the bike tour. Another passenger/cruise mismatch. Optional excursions on this cruise are cancelled if less than 10 participants do not sign up. We skipped both and went into the supermarket in town and the local shopping center which provided not only snacks but hours of entertainment. We sailed for Arnheim that afternoon and thoroughly enjoyed the passing scenery. Arnheim is a wonderful small city and the site of one of the most notable battles of WWII. Included in the tour is an excursion the to Liberation Museum and the cemetery. This particular trip received the highest marks for any included tour for the passengers who participated. The ship proceeded on to Nijmegen while the afternoon optional excursion went to the Kroller-Muller Museum. Nose to nose with Van Gogh!!!!!! The largest concentration of the artist's work and most of his earliest paintings can be seen in this fabulous museum located in the Netherlands' largest nature preserve. Unlike the city museums, the crowds are very moderate, the layout pleasant and accessible and one can get nose to nose with the paintings. Since venerable spouse has set off alarms in museums all over the world, he enjoyed the opportunity to examine the brushwork without being tackled by the security staff. If art is your thing, don't miss this one! We caught up with the ship in Nijmegen, an ancient Roman city and were too tired to give it more than just a glance. There was an music program in the lounge that night and those who stayed awake said it was OK. We set sail for Dorndrecht in the morning. Dorndrecht was a wonderful city. The morning took us to the Windmills of Kinderdijk, a world heritage site. The tour through the countryside gave an excellent introduction to the Dutch view on how to manage water. The afternoon offered an optional tour to Delft which participants said was a "tourist rip-off". We opted to tour the city and enjoyed the most marvelous pair of museums. One featured 17th century painters and the other, The Simon Van Gijn, a 17th century house with an intact kitchen and assorted collections of toys, silver, glasswork etc. The leather room and the salon are particularly of interest. A very walkable city. We arrived in Rotterdam the next morning and set off for the optional tour of the Keukenhoff Gardens. The gardens are open 7 weeks a year. It is crowded for a very good reason. 8 million bulbs make quite an impression and the bulb fields with great swaths of pastels are stunning. Spring has been late in Europe this year and we were lucky in our timing and had a brilliant day. On our return to the ship, traffic conditions led us to detour through the Hague and it was interesting to take a quick peek. I think Dutch traffic is terrible and I drive in Phoenix and Los Angeles. On leaving Rotterdam, the harbor cruise included returning to the dock to pick up a couple of the crew who had had too much of a good time in Rotterdam. They did suffer during dinner. After collecting these unfortunates we proceeded back to Amsterdam overnight. See part III
This was a fun trip, but here are the caveats: Air transportation is included but a.) you might do better on your own. b.) some people took unlikely routes i.e. Atlanta to Detroit to Amsterdam which extended their flight times. c.)some return transfers were as early as 4AM...yes, 4AM! Entertainment is limited. For seven nights there were 2 musical acts, a cheesemaking demonstration and crew entertainment that was vulgar. After tea in the afternoon, the Cruise Manager gave an overview of the coming day's events and a potted history of the location. The Captain was always happy to answer questions and point out interest aspects of river travel. Do not look for Broadway style entertainment. Be aware of your limitations! As I mentioned earlier, this cruise does not make provisions for those persons who have limited mobility. The ship has one chair lift to go between decks and very narrow or circular stairs to access the lounges and the dining room. The tours require the ability to walk at least one mile and the busses make no provision for those incapable of pulling themselves up stairs. Many times activities were held up for passengers requiring this assistance and some activities were curtailed due to time constraints imposed by these passengers. The cruise manager was very gracious but privately said that she was told that she would has an "active" passenger population. Do not climb into a windmill if you can't handle several flights of stairs. 400 pound people will have hygiene issues on this cruise. All of the above taken into account: this cruise is a great value for money and offers an opportunity to see some really memorable sights at a bargain price!