Uniworld's "Castles Along the Rhine" riverboat tour was a very enjoyable experience for my wife and I, and we're not big fans of group tours. The boat, the itinerary, the food, and our fellow passengers were all quite pleasant. Uniworld offers this tour on the Rhine River from Basel, Switzerland to Amsterdam, or the reverse starting in Amsterdam. We took the "reverse" and departed Amsterdam on July1, 2007.
The Boat: The River Ambassador is one of Uniworld's older boats, but was completely renovated at the end of the 2006 season. The interior and exterior are in excellent condition, the carpet is new, the wall coverings are fresh, and all of the "stateroom" fittings and fixtures are new and bright. I used the term "stateroom" in quotations, because these rooms are all quite compact - in fact it is difficult to turn around in the shower without banging your elbows. But even though the room is small, it is incredibly efficient with lots of storage in built-in closets and in deep drawers under the bed. You still have to put everything away as soon as you are done with it, or the room quickly becomes unmanageable. The corridors down the length of the boat are plenty wide and bright, but the stairs going down to the lower level restaurant are quite steep. On the main level you are met by the front desk, which is staffed with pleasant and efficient crewmembers 24-hours a day. Just past the front desk, you walk into a small area with large windows, comfortable seats, and 24-hour coffee, tea, and iced-tea service. Continuing forward, you enter the spacious lounge & pub area. There are groups of comfortable new seating around the large windows, and a there is a small library of paperback books ranging from the classics to recent thrillers and beach reads. The bartender and wait staff are unobtrusive but available. In the evenings, Tony plays sentimental oldies on his keyboards - music more for the Lawrence Welk set than for fans of U2.
Upstairs there is a large open area with comfortable deck chairs and sun lounges, as well as a glass-enclosed roof-covered area with wicker chairs and tables. Sun, rain, or wind is no problem if you want to sit up top or walk the deck. I enjoyed spending some very relaxing time watching the world glide by and reading a book or having a drink.
The Restaurant Going down the stairs to the main restaurant, you are met by another spacious room with a variety of table sizes, mostly arranged around the large windows. Seating is not assigned, and after a couple of days you have had the chance to meet some very nice people from America, Britain, Ireland, Australia, South Africa, and other nations. Both breakfast and lunch are served buffet style, with attentive wait staff taking care of beverages and special requests. For evening meals you are presented a menu and given choices: two salads, two soups, two or three entrEes, and two desserts. Food quality and presentation was generally quite good, but there were a few clinkers. Every meal included vegetarian options, which sometimes was a better choice. I don't think anyone left the boat without adding a couple of pounds to their weight.
Tours Most tours are included in the base price of the trip, but Uniworld does offer some optional extra-cost tours as well, taking people to different castles or restaurants. The majority of the port stops and local tours are in Germany, but two days are in the Alsace-Lorraine region of France. At each stop local tour guides (sometimes as many as 5 guides) take a small group of passengers thru the local points of interest. The guides have microphones and transmitters that work on the receivers and earphone that every passenger is given. It is a very good system that allows everyone to hear and also allows passengers the ability to walk around without missing any of the commentary. Uniworld really did a good job here: the guides were excellent, and a couple were superior. Some of the German towns we visited suffered extreme destruction during WWII, and the local guides carefully mentioned the amount of reconstruction. One town that had been an important rail center lost about 87% of their buildings in 1944 - most of what we saw in that town was reconstructed (some as recently as 1985), and reminded me a bit of going to Epcot Center. Most of the smaller towns were relatively unscathed by war and had tremendous history and local color. This was especially true in Strasbourg France, and in the Alsace region we visited by bus. The smaller towns and villages in France were extremely charming and picturesque and would merit repeated visits in the future if we are fortunate to return to the area.
I really enjoyed the day-long "wine road" tour through France. You drive on secondary roads thru the vineyards and small villages that are just a few kilometers apart, and you gain an appreciation for rural life in the vineyards. Many of the villages still have the narrow cobbled lanes and rustic buildings dating from centuries ago. On the day-long wine road tour, everyone is given 15 Euros to purchase lunch on their own in one of the more beautiful villages we visited - quite pleasant. If you wish to view some of the photos I took of the trip, you can go to http://picasaweb.google.com/rdmullin/RhineRiverCruise2007?authkey=79taPETttho
The Passengers Uniworld is touting this tour as one of their "family friendly" packages, and several extended family groups were on our sailing. The majority of the passengers were in the 40 to 60 year-old range, but there were also children as young as 10, and some older couples. By nationality, it seemed that about 50% were American, 30% British, perhaps 10% Australian, and the balance from other countries. Most were very seasoned travelers and knew how to get along and enjoy the trip. One of the real treats of this kind of travel is getting to know a broad range of people from around the world, and we enjoyed the company of these good people as we walked thru the towns or shared meals.
The Crew Our captain and sailors were all quite efficient, professional and friendly. The Tour Director really earns her paycheck, making sure that all of the local arrangements are set and that the exceptions that have to be made for some passengers are taken care of. Even when things went slightly wrong (one of the busses was late, for example) she made sure everyone was informed and happy. The Hotel Director who oversees the cabin staff did an admirable job keeping the place humming along, and the food staff were always professional and helpful.