Since this was our first river cruise after many ocean going cruises, we did quite a bit of research prior to making our decision. Some of the key elements that we were looking for were a company and ship with a good reputation, the ports (hitting a variety of Christmas Markets), the length (10 days or so), good - but not necessarily gourmet food, and finally a cruise early in the season so that we might have the best weather possible. We decided on Uniworld and the River Duchess. They have an impeccable record and the cruise itself met our criteria. It was 11 days long - 10 on the ship and 1 travelling.
The cruise started in Budapest and ended in Regensburg with stops in a variety of locations, each with different Christmas Market offerings. The only glitch that we had was that our travel agency went out of business after we made final payment. Uniworld had already sent them our cruise packet and couldn't have been more accommodating when I notified them of the problem. They immediately overnighted us a completely new packet. Absolutely outstanding service from the Uniworld main office.
We flew from the US to Munich for five days of "pre-shopping" and touring. We hit all the beer halls and hotspots and made day tours to Ludwig's Castles, Garmish, and a variety of other locations. I'm glad we went that early since we were wide awake with no jet lag problem when we boarded the River Duchess. We stayed in the King's Hotel First Class while in Munich. It was an excellent choice; good hotel, good staff, 5 minutes from the train station, and 10 minutes walking from Marienplatz. We took the EC63 train from Munich to Budapest the day before the ship sailed. We had booked our tickets on the German Railway website months before. About a week before we left, the website showed a 60% reduction in 1st class reserved seats on that train so we booked another set of tickets and turned in the more expensive ones in the Munich train station. More shopping money. The train took about 7 ½ hours to get to Budapest and was very comfortable. The car was about 2/3rds full from Munich to Vienna and there were only four people in the car from Vienna to Budapest. We stayed in the K+K Hotel Opera in Budapest. Another good choice. Good hotel and centrally located. One bit of advice that I would give would be to check out the prices of taxis from the train station to the hotel before getting in. We met people who paid 5 times what we did because they didn't ask first.
We took a taxi to the River Duchess on embarkation day and from that point, the crew took care of our every need. We selected a Category 1 cabin since it had the biggest windows and weren't disappointed. The cabin was spotless and well laid out. It was easy to store everything. Uniworld obviously used an experienced ship designer when they built the River Duchess. Our cabin attendant, Nicolette, was great, as were all the others. She would appear as soon as we left the room and did her magic. It didn't matter how long we were gone or what time of day; the room was always straightened up by the time we got back.
The meals on the ship were unbelievable. While we weren't looking for gourmet meals, we got them. The chef and his team did an excellent job throughout the cruise. The meals were buffet for breakfast and lunch with an omelet station at breakfast. Food was always the right temperature and the serving lines were kept clean at all times. I read on other posts that some river cruises had problems with people hogging tables and not inviting others to dine with them. That was definitely not an issue on this ship. We got to meet a lot of new people at the meals. Dinner was particularly good. Most meals we had Martin as our waiter. He was, without a doubt, the best waiter we have ever had on any of our cruises. He mixed and matched meals for anyone who wanted, was lively and professional, and kept the free wine flowing. We couldn't have asked for a better dining experience. The bar/entertainment staff was equally good. By the second day, the bartenders knew what we would order and mixed good drinks. They were quick to respond and always friendly. The on board musician, Zoltan, kept the room entertained into the early hours of the morning. We would try to stump him with song requests but he always seemed to come up with the song. The ships nautical staff and pursers' staff were equally professional. We would wake up early just to watch the sailors dock the ship. They obviously liked their jobs and enjoyed entertaining the passengers.
As a final comment about the ship, it was well laid out, spotlessly clean, and professionally run by an outstanding group of people who were dedicated to making the trip enjoyable for all the passengers. From the captain down, all should be commended. Tony was our cruise director and did an outstanding job. Everything ran according to clockwork - no glitches at all. Buses and guides were always present on time and at the right location. All did a great job. I am sure because Tony made sure that they knew what the standards were. He ever arranged an extra free tour one night.
Our first port of call was Budapest. The Christmas Market in Budapest was predominately hand crafted goods sold by the artists who made them. The weather was good, with a little rain once or twice. We docked across the river from the market but it was an easy 15 minute walk. Uniworld also arranged for a free ferry for people who didn't want to walk. Highlights of the market were the sausages and a type of cake we had never seen before. It is wrapped around a wooden roller then baked over a charcoal fire, dipped in sugar, nuts, or something equally as good, and sold for about 3 Euros. Totally addictive. The city tour took us to all the highlights by bus. Easy walking when we got to the sites.
Next stop was Bratislava. It was a very interesting town and we will probably go back. The Christmas Market was newer that the others but it had some of the best food. We really liked the walking tour and could have prowled the streets of the town for hours more. The local tour guide there was very good.
After Bratislava it was on to Vienna. We had been there before so we skipped the optional Schonbrunn Palace tour. Uniworld had a great new option. Instead of the normal city tour, people who had been to Vienna before could take a different tour which hit a few of the Christmas Markets (Tour was free). The tour guide was great and even bought all of us Gluwein. We took a horse drawn carriage ride around the town and had a great time. We returned to the ship for dinner then the Concert Tour. Uniworld had great seats reserved for the concert - right up front and near the wine stand!!!! All in all Vienna was a great stop. We got up early the next morning to see the Wachau Valley enroute to Melk. The weather was pretty good for this time of year but a little bit foggy. We will take the cruise again in the spring. There were a lot of passengers on deck taking pictures and drinking coffee so it was an enjoyable morning. The Melk Abbey was an interesting stop. After leaving the abbey, a few of us walked down to the little town and found a small café for beer and apple strudel.
The next day was Linz and Salzburg. We didn't have any time in Linz in the morning since we had to take a bus to Salzburg. (More about that later) Salzburg was great. Super tourist area. Tour guide was really funny. It appears few tour guides from Salzburg like the movie, "The Sound of Music", but they go out of their way to show where the film was made. Mozart is the big attraction from his house to the candies. Took another carriage ride and had a great time. Uniworld's tour include a lunch at the fortress but they offered a cash rebate for people who stayed in the town and ate their. I have never heard of a tour company doing that before. It is another example of how good Uniworld is! Another example is that Tony arranged for the Linz "Night Watchman" to take people on a free walking tour of Linz during the evening. Another plus for Tony.
Passau, Deggendorf, and Regensburg were great stops. We had good local tour guides in each of the locations and had plenty of time on our own. Sunday is a tough day to plan for tourists during this time of year. Everything is closed, but Uniworld brought us to a small mountain town where we had refreshments in a local pub, carriage rides through the forest and a trip to a glass factory.
All in all these were three great days. Disembarkation was particularly easy. No "put out your bags the night before leaving" like on an ocean cruise. Tony and the staff made arrangements for everyone to get to the Munich Airport, Prague, or the train station at whatever time they needed to leave. This is a rather long review and could have been pages longer. Bottom line is that Uniworld is a top notch company that runs a great ship and hires outstanding personnel. We are sold on Uniworld cruises and will book with them again.