My wife and I just returned from our fourth Uniworld trip in the past two years and we have our fifth Uniworld trip already booked for this September. We have become frequent and loyal Uniworld customers because of the extraordinary quality, service, and care we have experienced on earlier trips. This cruise on the Douro River was a different story entirely. This is not a Uniworld-owned ship--a fact that is not at all clear unless you read the very tiny print at the back of the catalogue. In fact, the ship is owned by a local Portuguese company, Douro Azul, and there is only one Uniworld employee on the entire boat.
The Queen Isabel itself has a gloss of Uniworld decorating about it, and it flies a Uniworld flag at its bow, but it is by no means equal in quality to the Uniworld-owned ships we have enjoyed before. The failings of this ship and its staff are far too numerous to detail, but the most annoying of all was that we could hear every single time a toilet flushed on every floor above us (we were on the bottom deck, so that's a lot of toilets!). Between 10 and 11 in the evening we would hear as many as 6 flushes per minute (I counted!). The noise was so loud that the cruise manager moved us to another room, where the flushes could still be heard but not quite as loudly. The flushes were also clearly audible in the hallway outside the rooms. Who designed this ship?!
I have a bad neck and the pillows on the bed were so soft that I couldn't get the necessary support for my neck. Since Uniworld boasts in its catalogue that “you always have your choice of pillow options to ensure the most restful sleep,” I asked the manager for a firmer pillow. He had none, but said he could go ashore the next day and buy me one if I could tell him what I wanted.
Uniworld promises in its catalogue: “We’ve crafted a culinary program for the most discerning of palates. . . .” Not on this ship! Dinner the first night set the pattern for the week--food that was, on the whole, mediocre to inedible. The first night my beef was nothing but fat and gristle--and it was accompanied by frozen mixed vegetables! Service was rushed and the wait staff was inadequately trained, lacking the professionalism we have experienced with wait staff on other Uniworld ships
In short, this is not a Uniworld ship and it is not a Uniworld operation. Despite Uniworld’s promise, you will not have a “Six-Star Experience” on the River Isabel. You’ll get a Douro Azul experience, which is something quite different. What astonishes me is that Uniworld states in its catalogue: “Unlike many other river cruise lines who use third-parties to cater their onboard operations, Uniworld handles ALL aspects of our onboard operations—hospitality, culinary, and nautical.” This is flatly wrong with regard to the River Isabel. It is owned and entirely operated by a third party—Douro Azul.
Since there is only one Uniworld employee on the ship with the rest of the staff—and the ship itself—owned and operated by Douro Azul, I think it’s fair to compare the price of the 7-night Douro River cruise on the River Isabel with the other Douro Azul-owned ships that take visitors on the identical trip (same length, same stops, same excursions). Douro Azul's Douro Spirit and Douro Cruiser both offer the 7-night trip. The base price ranges from 895 to 925 Euros. Douro Azul charges extra for the excursions—but if you include those in the price and convert to dollars (at 1 to 1.36), you get a total price for the trip on the two Douro Azul ships of $1,535 to $1,576 respectively. Uniworld charges from $$3,849 to $4,499 base price for the same cruise on their Douro Azul-owned and operated ship—not a bad markup for doing a little decorating on the ship and adding a single Uniworld employee to the voyage!
Even if Uniworld could get Douro Azul to get its act together, I wouldn’t recommend this trip to anyone who is familiar with Uniworld quality. As long as the River Isabel is owned and operated by Douro Azul, it will never match the quality of a Uniworld-owned and operated ship. It's that "third-party" operator problem that Uniworld says in its catalogue that it doesn't do (but, in fact, does do on this ship). I also believe Uniworld should make it clear in their catalogue that this trip will not meet the standards touted in their catalogue. If you believe you will be getting Uniworld’s “Six-Star Experience” on the River Isabel you will be disappointed and for Uniworld to offer this trip with the suggestion that you will receive that level of service amounts to little more than “bait and switch.”