As background, my wife and I have just recently entered our early 60s, we've been married for 32 years, and we've cruised fourteen times since 1977. Our first ten cruises were on progressively "smaller" ocean-going vessels, and the last four, (one in each of the past four years), have been Europe Uniworld river cruises. Although we really liked each of our ocean cruises, we've decided we really enjoy the Uniworld format/product the best. (Note: From what I've researched online and read on CC, I'm pretty sure most of the Europe river cruise companies that market to Americans are pretty similar. We've always decided upon our itinerary first, then availability/included amenities and excursions/pricing, with an extra nod to Uniworld because we know the product. In the final decision, we've chosen Uniworld each time).
We booked our own air, on Air France, so we could pick our departure/return/routing. Both outbound and return flights were direct between Washington, DC Dulles and Paris CDG. Our outbound flight departed (as something different for us) at 10:00 PM, and arrived around 11:00 AM the next morning in Paris. (No wondering what to do at our Europe ship-departure destination like we've had upon arrival at 07:00 AM on prior cruises, with ship cabin availability not until mid-afternoon). Uniworld includes no-extra-charge transfers to/from the ship if you arrive and depart within a reasonable window on the same day of arrival/departure along with everyone else. As we've experienced before, one of the most frustrating parts of any cruise is the gathering-up of passengers from different arriving flights, walking to the transfer bus with luggage, and then waiting aboard a stuffy, non-running bus until enough passengers fill up the bus to make the drive to the ship.
The bus delivered us to the ship in less than thirty minutes, with the ship moored on the Seine near the Citroen Quay, with the Eiffel Tower on our side of the river in plain view from the ship. River Baroness is very well maintained, and was quite up to our expectations compared with our prior Uniworld cruises. All of the public spaces were decked out in Christmas decorations, including individual Christmas stockings hung on every cabin door. There are two main/indoor passenger decks, accessible by either a fairly-steep straight staircase between the decks, or a second spiral staircase between Reception on the main deck and the dining room below. There is no elevator, but there was one of those motorized gliding stairs chairs between the two indoor decks, and another outdoors between the main deck and the upper Sun deck. It was so cold this week, not many people went up on the Sun deck to sit or even to stroll or exercise. There is a fairly large protected/covered area up on the Sun deck, immediately behind the wheel house. Passengers are only permitted to smoke on the Sun deck, so the covered area was rarely utilized by non-smokers because this was the area where the few cigar and cigarette smokers congregated. The ship had Internet access available on one PC in the area between Reception and the coffee bar, and wireless capabilities in the public rooms if you brought your own netbook. At the beginning of our week, the Internet access was described by staff as sporadic, so it was no-extra-charge for the week. I found it to work pretty well when the ship was stationary, but slow and/or unreliable underway.
When we first walked into our cabin, (they're all identical on both passenger cabin decks of Baroness), it seemed very "compact" compared to our standard cabins we'd had previously on River Duchess and River Queen. Turns out it was an optical illusion. After unpacking our two behemoth checked soft side cases and carry-on cases, there was a place for everything. There are shelves on both sides of the bed, running from the floor to the ceiling. There's a small (at most three feet wide) closet for hanging garments with three drawers in the bottom, and a small cabin-key-lockable safe for valuables. Along with a large drawer at the foot of each side of the bed and a long shelf over the entire width of the bed, we were easily able to stow everything we brought. We were comfortable in no time. The bathroom was also "compact", especially the shower. Although the shower had terrific water pressure and nice amenities, (and I'm of "average" height/weight), every time I was in the 24" x 32" shower, I remembered the scene in the movie "Tommy Boy" when (huge) actor Chris Farley was trying to change clothes in a tiny airplane bathroom. We really had no problems getting used to our cabin at all. If there was one minus, though, it would be the slab hard foam mattresses on the hotel-style beds have not been upgraded to the same mattresses as we remembered from our other two Uniworld ships. (Note: We had supper with a couple who were seated at the Captain's table for the Captain's Welcome Aboard dinner, and they told us Baroness is headed to dry-dock in 2010 for a major facelift).
We were not disappointed with any of the food in the main dining room, located on the lower level. Of course, this is always a subjective opinion, plus my wife and I aren't "foodies". By my observation, though, I never did notice anyone ordering the stand-by, always-available alternative chicken breast or steak if someone didn't want any of the menu's three main entrees at supper. To me, that's always a good sign. The generous buffet breakfasts, along with available specials-of-the-morning offerings brought by wait staff or made-to-order omelets, were excellent, and the lunch buffets had new, fresh offerings every day. The desserts were also very good. Supper portions were perfect. Between the portion sizes and daily walkabouts, my wife and I came home weighing-in just slightly less than when we left home. That's terrific. The wait staff was attentive, happy, friendly, obviously got along with each other, and were always eager to please. The included house wines with supper were nice.
The ship's keyboard musician in the lounge was good, and he played until the last passenger left at night. There were local musicians also scheduled to come aboard some evenings, but when our itinerary was altered en route, (see below), the local musicians weren't able to transport themselves to meet the ship.
Our week's Cruise Manager, Emmanuelle Bonneau, was absolutely splendid! We've enjoyed every one of our previous three Uniworld cruise managers, but my wife and I agreed Emmanuelle was the best. She is a perfect combination of cheerfulness, competence, helpfulness, and just a pleasing, amazing personality. All week long she had to work behind the scenes to reschedule excursions and work with local guides and bus companies to add or modify plans so we had a wonderful experience. She accomplished all of this without coming unglued and while keeping a smile on her face. Well done!
Our first full day aboard (Monday) went as-planned, after the ship's departure from Paris towards Les Andelys on Sunday night. We enjoyed our morning tied up in the center of Les Andelys. It was sunny, but pretty cold and windy. (Note: Although the castle is quite a hike uphill, buses are provided for those who don't think they can make the climb. Do be advised, though, the hike back down the hill from the castle seemed very do-able. We witnessed a few passengers, who walked with canes all week, did take the bus up the hill, but made the return hike on their own, and they said they enjoyed it. You might consider that alternative if you choose to take the bus up the hill). Les Andelys was a small, sleepy village, with a nice church, but almost everything was closed as it apparently is every Monday.
When we re-boarded the ship after our morning walkabout with local guides, the ship's staff gathered us all to discuss a change in itinerary. We were told the captain had learned about an imminent Seine River locks total work stoppage (aka "strike"). After weighing alternatives among the ship's senior navigation and activities staff and Uniworld headquarters, shipboard staff made a decision to not proceed up the Seine in the afternoon, going farther away from Paris to our next day's stop at Rouen. A determining factor seemed to be the Captain could not guarantee we would be able to make it back up the Seine to Paris, and through the last set of river locks before the work stoppage began. Although we were disappointed to miss Rouen and its cathedral and Christmas market, most of us agreed we wanted to be tied up in Paris for the original itinerary of four days at the end of our week, rather than being stranded somewhere between locks on the river and away from Paris. (The lock operators did indeed go on strike, so it turned out the "correct" decision to alter our original itinerary was the right one).
On our way back towards Paris Monday afternoon, we stopped in a slightly larger village, Vernon. It, too, was mostly closed down because it was Monday, but it was a nice opportunity for walking about on a sunny cold afternoon, enjoying the town and its Christmas decorations.
The next morning, (Tuesday), again sunny but very cold and breezy, we were tied up in the town of Conflans. It's non-official claim to fame is it's where the Seine river barges come to rest at the end of their usefulness as commercial vessels, and they become on-the-water residences. There was a newly-arranged ship's bus excursion offered to Auvers sur Oise for a two-hour walkabout, but my wife and I chose instead to enjoy our morning walking the streets of Conflans with the locals as they went about their daily shopping for their meat, vegetables, breads, and pastries. There was a small waterfront market, too, with fresh fruit and vegetables. The ship departed Conflans after lunch, and headed back towards Paris, where we tied up after supper.
With the change in the week's itinerary, the on-board activities staff modified the sequence of the Paris days' excursions. We all happily accepted the Paris city tour by bus this morning, (Wednesday), with a walkabout stop at Luxembourg Garden and at Notre Dame cathedral with our local guides on another sunny but cold day. Then it was back on the bus to the ship for lunch, or as an alternative, you could stay in the city and make your way back to the ship on your own. After lunch, another set of buses dropped us off at the Arch de Triumph, and we left on our own to walk down the (luckily all downhill) length of the Champs Elysees at our own pace, and then through the Christmas markets, to Concorde Plaza, where we could meet the ship's shuttle buses back to the ship.
On Thursday morning we awoke to see two-to-three inches of new-fallen snow everywhere! Although we enjoyed how Paris looked in its snow coat, a lot of those commuters into the city had a heck of a time riding their scooters. We were told Paris usually doesn't get snow this early in the season, and they certainly didn't look prepared for making the already-frozen roads any easier to get around. We boarded buses with our local guides for a non-original-itinerary trip through the Louvre. Happily, for whatever reason, the crowds at the Louvre were minimal, and it was nice to see some of the highlights in only a few hours with a terrific local guide. Of course, you can spend weeks and weeks going through the Louvre and still not see everything. After lunch, the ship provided shuttle buses into the city for a drop off at either the Trocadero Christmas market across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower, or at the Opera House and its surrounding shopping district, with return shuttles from the Opera House back to the ship before an early supper. The only "optional" excursion this week, to "The Lido" show, was offered this evening. It seemed less than half of the ship's passengers chose to join this excursion, mostly because (even at its "reduced" last-minute price) it was the Euro equivalent of more than $210 per person, including the round-trip transportation and a half-bottle of champagne during the show. The next day, the feedback we heard from some who attended wasn't all positive. Several people complained they discovered the ship's price was way out of line compared to others (not from the ship) at their table at the Lido. They did enjoy the show, though.
Friday morning, overcast and grey, was lazy, with a special "brunch" provided in the dining room. Our wonderful cruise manager, Emmanuelle, gave a "France today" presentation in the lounge. The day's plan was to have the ship provide shuttle buses to Concorde Plaza again, and later return shuttles back to the ship, but the first outbound bus wasn't able to get to the ship because of the slippery roads, and had to cancel. Rather than wait thirty minutes for the next bus to arrive, my wife and I decided to adventure out on our own, and we walked to the near-by RER station. We took the "C" train to the D'Orsay Museum just five stations away, towards the Eiffel Tower. This turned out to be a good decision, as we had no problems using the RER (with tickets purchased from the ship's front desk). This was an amazing museum, inhabiting a huge beautifully restored train station. It had an extensive collection of paintings, sculptures, and displays over five floors, although there were no in-service escalators or elevators in the whole museum, which meant lots of stairs. (No American ADA compliance in Paris?) Back on the ship, before supper we had the always-disappointing "disembarkation briefing" in the lounge, meaning our week was sliding towards its end point. After dark, we boarded buses with local guides for a beautiful Paris evening illuminations coach tour, with a jump-out stop at the top of the Trocadero (with very very cold temps and strong winds) to watch the Eiffel Tower twenty-minute light show. Then it was a scramble back onto a warm coach, and a continuing wonderful drive past more of the illuminated sights of Paris. A really nice evening, complemented with hot glud wine and snacks in the lounge when we got back to the ship.
Saturday morning again dawned bright, sunny, and very cold. We were off on coaches with local guides on a thirty-minute drive to Versailles. Again, for whatever reason, either the time of the year or the snow and ice on the ground, the bus parking lot was almost empty. Minimal crowds, so we were able to enjoy our tour through the palace and grounds without crushing crowds of tourists. After the palace, we were provided tickets to the adjacent Royal Equestrian stables to watch a rehearsal and demonstration of dressage and quadrille, and then a walk through the stables before boarding the coaches back to the ship. The afternoon was on-your-own, but my wife and I decided to be lazy and stay on the ship, and also to begin to re-pack for our departure the next morning. We had the Captain's Farewell dinner this evening, and finally we said our good-byes to new friends we'd made during the week.
Disembarkation onto buses early Sunday morning after a full buffet breakfast was uneventful, and the transfer back to CDG airport was congested but tolerable. The terminal was a complete and total zoo. Part of that might have been because of delays getting to the airport in the morning's Paris snow storm, or because of flights rescheduling from the major snow storm that had paralyzed most of the eastern seaboard in the US. There were no signs in the terminal in any language directing people to where they needed to be, and no airline representatives to be seen. There were thousands of travelers all looking as puzzled as we were, and the lines were outrageously long. We finally found the right line, and got through security and to our gate with time to spare. Once we boarded, almost an hour late, we sat at the gate awaiting several groups of delayed incoming-connection passengers and their luggage to get aboard our plane. Then our plane got in line for the de-icing stations while we watched the airport maintenance crews continue to scrape the runways. We were thankful to finally get airborne just short of three hours late, not realizing how lucky we actually were to be getting back to the US east coast at all after the previous day's debilitating heavy snows that had canceled more than 50% of the incoming and outgoing flights the day before.
(If I haven't put you to sleep already with waaaaay too much detail),...
In summary, we considered this cruise one of our favorites ever. No complaints. Will we cruise with Uniworld again? YES! Absolutely! I can't think of a reason why not. We liked this ship, the staff, the (modified) itinerary, our cabin, housekeeping staff, the other passengers, and the food. Were we disappointed we didn't get to see Rouen? You bet. But that happened because of something out of the control of Uniworld. Plus, now there's a good reason to go back to France to pick up the places we missed on this cruise. Bon voyage!!