Summary: If you want to take the Tulips and Windmills cruise to see the tulips (our trip started April 12, 2013 from Antwerp to Amsterdam), understand that you are guaranteed to see windmills but all bets are off regarding viewing fields of tulips. No one can control the weather which we learned changes daily and no one can control the tulip season which apparently varies year to year. This year we were too early. You are guaranteed to see them indoors at the Kuekenhof Gardens so do not let the weather give you pause. On all other counts the cruise was a delight. The port stops focused on walking through charming villages, viewing the unique architecture of the region, the continuing efforts to keep the water out, the famous Belgian and Dutch art, and of course the flowers. You also had ample time to sample the food favorites of each region - beer, chocolate, mussels, French fries, and waffles in Belgium and their counterparts in the Netherlands. This is peak time for river cruises in this area and there were always multiple river ships in each of the ports we visited. See below for more on ports. TIP: Don't miss the French Fries from Frituur Number 1 and chocolate from Chocolate Line in Antwerp. The French Fries with mayo were fabulous. Wasabi chocolate not bad either!
Ship: The River Empress is a lovely ship commanded by its very able Captain Anton de Bot. The crew were wonderful and did everything possible to make our voyage memorable. They quickly remembered who you were and if you had any special needs or liked things a certain way. Amazing they could do this week after week. The public rooms were comfortable and roomy. The cabins were what you would expect on a river cruise, small but efficiently laid out. Plenty of nooks and crannies to stow stuff. There is space under the beds to store your luggage but if you have more than one suitcase you might have to use the closet. There was wifi in the public areas but it was pretty weak and very slow most of the time.
Embarkation: There were about 21 of us who landed in Brussels in the early morning. We waited maybe 20 minutes for someone to show up from Uniworld. We were bussed to Antwerp and were able to get on the ship and offload our bags and have breakfast right away. We could not get into our cabins until 3 p.m. They gave us maps of Antwerp and many of use went off to see the town. There's lots to see in Anwterp. It's very walkable.
Dining: The food was excellent and the staff easily accommodated all the various food allergies. And if you find something you especially like, they will bring it to you every meal if you want. Breakfast and lunch were served buffet style and included a wide variety of items for every appetite. Dinner was sit-down and included a starter, soup, entree, and dessert. There were usually 3 choices for each. Wine was included with dinners and the selections were perfect accompaniments to the menu. Portions were just right so it was easy to have all 4 courses. They often included something local to the area we were visiting.
Other items: The gift shop was disappointing in that it did not stock anything from Belgium or the Netherlands. It may have been due to the other route this ship takes going from Amsterdam to Budapest. But a few local items would have been nice, in case you missed them in one of the towns. There was a fitness center with an elliptical, treadmill and other equipment on board. Massages were available and I heard they were wonderful. For those inclined there was daily exercise at 7:15 a.m. There is self-service laundry. In addition to the on-board piano player, there were special local groups to entertain us several times. They were ok. Most people disappeared to their cabins by about 9:30 p.m. The lecture one morning about Dutch art was excellent.
Cruise extension in Amsterdam: The weather was not warm enough or the winds calm enough to sit up on the top deck. Again, that is just the timing of the cruise in April. We chose to start in Antwerp so we could spend more time in Amsterdam at the end. We booked our own hotel and did the city on our own. It is very easy to do. Everything is within walking distance. We allowed 3 days which was just fine and better than the Uniworld extension offering. The renovated Rijksmuseum is a must-see. There is a new Canal House Museum that is also worthwhile.
Other ports: Not all of the ports we stopped at are listed by Cruise Critic so I will just write it here. There were included featured excursions, often walking tours of the town, in each port and sometimes there was even a choice. There were a few optional excursions - visit to Delft factory and the town, a bulb-growing farm, walking tour of Amsterdam. Each evening before dinner, the Cruise Manager told us about the next day's itinerary and deadlines for booking optional excursions. Having taken other cruises where the optionals were a must-do, these were less so. They were interesting but did not add appreciably to the experience. The walking tour to see the hidden gems in Amsterdam was a disappointment partly because it was a Saturday and because of the crowds, it was a great effort just to keep up with our guide.
Delta Works near Veere was fascinating and Veere itself is a delightful town to walk/bike through. There is not much to see at the Delft factory and there are stores in other places where you can buy it. Skip the tour of Delft and just walk around on your own. Skip lunch as it takes up too much time and your time is limited. The Zuider Zee outdoor museum in Enkhuisen was very interesting. We went to Arnhem instead of Nijmegen because of the weather but Arnhem was fun to walk through. Hoorn was another lovely town. Actually all the towns are charming. The brick homes and the little streets go on and on. Nuenen, where Van Gogh lived for 2 years, was a lovely suburban village. It houses a museum which talks about the period when Van Gogh lived there. But the village looks nothing like the time when Van Gogh lived there. Use your imagination. It was a long bus ride. We had the choice of a full day at Keukenhof Gardens or half-day Kuekenhof and half-day Zaanse Schans. If the weather is sunny, do the full day at Kueknhof or half-day Keukenhof and relax on the ship in the afternoon. Zaanse Schans is very touristy. Every place you visit also sells souvenirs. Not worth the time.
Tipping: Other cruise lines include tipping. Uniworld does not. I'm not sure what is the best method. I think I would prefer them to include gratuities and let us decide to give extra to those people who really made a difference in our trip. Also, having to have euro coins handy every day for the bus drivers and local guides was a nuisance. While they say that tipping is not required, you tend to feel obligated. Would be better if it were all inclusive.
We plan to continue using Uniworld for our next river cruise.