Uniworld River Ambassador - Floriade Cruise - May 20-27th, 2012
Preface to this review: I have been on a number of “ocean” cruises before I took my first river boat cruise. I do NOT like ocean cruises because they are "factories" and passengers are only a "product" although I have found them useful/beneficial in only ONE way: they provide a brief taste of a country or place - perhaps enough to judge whether or not you want to return.
This was my second river boat cruise. It was notable in so many ways, both good and bad, that it deserves a thorough review.
The Good –
Uniworld advertises itself as a “boutique” cruise line. Promotional materials suggest that this company provides service and services that are at least one step above the “common” providers. To be honest, if you can afford a river boat cruise, you are not amongst the lower income strata, so - to me - ALL of these are “boutique” cruises. That said, except for the usual couple of surly or unhappy people, the crew of the River Ambassador were SPECTACULAR at customer service, with at least the appearance of genuine concern for the happiness and comfort of all passengers. The River Ambassador crew and staff provided an attention to detail and special needs* I have NEVER experienced in any hotel, restaurant or other facility anywhere in the world. I make special mention of three people: Chef Bogdan, Restaurant Manager Zhivko and Head Waiter Alexandru. As you can tell from their names, all are Eastern European.
In addition to the overall freshness and variety of the foods and menu choices, all three of these gentlemen went far out of their way to assure that my special need* to be gluten-free was met! The Pastry Chef even prepared gluten free cookies JUST for me! Of the four of us who usually dined together, I was gluten free, my wife allergic to strawberries, one fellow traveler allergic to shellfish and the fourth at our table allergic to bell peppers. The Uniworld staff KNEW about each of our special needs and assured that they were all met. This is NO small feat when caring for 200 or so passengers!
A couple of meals were not to my liking, but that is to be expected. On the other hand, Chef Bogdan and his staff created AWESOME soups with flavor far exceeding the usual saltiness. he also created wonderful and INTERESTING entrees. Each meal included at least one fish choice and each entry was served with interesting and mostly delicious assortments and combinations of vegetables that would either be new or unusual to Americans. The River Ambassador kitchen offered at least 4 or 5 entrée choices every evening!
The River Ambassador, itself, was fine as a vessel. It was stable and moved at a very nice speed (powered, I am proud to say, by two engines of American manufacture - the Caterpillar company). The Captain was excellent and omnipresent. Fully approachable by staff AND passengers.
The sailing crew, engineering and hotel staffs and other employees were all excellent examples of customer service. MOST spoke excellent, fluent, English.
The Average -
City tours were average. There were some good tour guides and some poor tour guides. Local drivers and bus accommodations were all excellent. Planning for local excursions was uniformly excellent and well executed. As you will read in my review of ocean versus river boat cruising, city tours are INCLUDED at each port of call on river boat cruises. They are NOT options for which you are milked as on ocean cruises.
The BAD -
Accommodations - one word “claustrophobic.” MEN, NO ROOM to STAND to pee! Not to be funny, but I needed to move the toilet paper holder/toilet brush holder into the shower in order to stand in front of the commode. 128 square feet is NOT adequate; this Is NOT “BOUTIQUE” even if “recently remodeled.”
I imagine in order to conserve fresh water, the pressure to the shower head was severely restricted. While Uniworld had refurbished the cabins with modern “rain” style removable shower heads, there was insufficient water pressure to point the head upwards!
Noise level - horrendous - engine, locks, deck sounds even one level down, etc.
Entertainment - minimal and disappointing.
Ports of Call -
The FLORIADE was a MAJOR disappointment. It was THE reason we chose this cruise! The first signal of coming disappointment came when the on board cruise director gave his pre-port of call lecture and told his travelers that they should NOT expect the Keukenhof (a floral wonderland near Amsterdam). Despite the name “Floriade” this is NOT a floral exposition. In fact, as far as I can recall (my wife and I did NOT visit the entire Floriade. We were so disappointed that we left after a couple of hours), there was only ONE area truly devoted to flowers – a green house type of arrangement. The Floriade tried to be a mini-world’s fair but – in my opinion - did not succeed very well. One of the few interesting displays was a geodesic dome in which you STOOD on a glass floor and watched what I believe was a Google Earth display beneath your feet. While it was dizzying because the camera zoomed in and out around the globe, it was fascinating. Unfortunately, apparently NO attempt is made to keep the floor clean. Maybe that is emblematic of the way we care for our Mother Earth! The Floriade is spread over 160 acres. Most of it is EMPTY grounds. I understand that the Floriade was supposed to end in June but has been extended. DO NOT BOTHER!
If you want to see flowers and can afford the trip, go to the Keukenhof! If you can only afford domestic travel, go to the Philadelphia Flower Show which is AWESOME!
Other ports of call:
The cruise started in Brussels. Brussels is your basic, large, European city. It was neither notable nor exciting. On the other hand, it was not disappointing either. You can easily eat your weight in fantastic chocolates, Belgian waffles and – of course – BEER. Antwerp came next. Unless you are interested in buying diamonds, you can skip Antwerp. We then passed into the River (Meuse) Maas in the Netherlands and stopped at Maastricht. Unfortunately, Maastricht is so lacking in notability that I remember NOTHING about the town. Venlo, Netherlands and the Floriade came next. The next port of call was Cologne, Germany. Unfortunately, by this time I had developed a raging flu (perhaps as many as 25% of the passengers had the ailment – SADLY, these at least moderately well-to-do and likely well educated people did NOT have the brains to COVER their mouths when they sneezed and coughed!) so I missed the city tour. I heard that Cologne is an interesting city mostly rebuilt as it was before World War II. I did go into Cologne the following morning and found it to be worth visiting. The final stop on this cruise was Königswinter, Germany. For me, this was the BEST port of call on the cruise. Königswinter is the location of two notable castles on a mountainside overlooking the Rhine. On the top of the mountain, are the ruins of Drachenfels Castle. Halfway down the mountainside is Drachen Schloss (or Schloss Drachenburg or Castle Drachenburg). If you do not want to hike up the mountain, you can get to both of them on a wonderful cog railway. On a clear day, which ours was, you can see all the way to Bonn and, I think, Cologne, from the mountain top Castle.
After the cruise, my wife and I took a train from Cologne to Munich. If you have never traveled by train in Europe, it is THE way to go! Munich was WONDERFUL. A GREAT place to visit!!
Overall impressions: Uniworld’s staff were uniformly AWESOME. I tipped people personally who I have NEVER tipped before because of their personal attention to MY needs and wishes. This particular cruise is NOT worth taking. Based on this one experience, I gladly recommend Uniworld to other travelers; just NOT this particular cruise and DEFINITELY not the Floriade.