My husband and I, with a great deal of luck and a little bit of juggling, managed to make it to Basel on December 21st to begin our Christmas Market Rhine River Cruise, which because of the timing did not include any German Markets. It wasn't a huge loss because we did shop at the Basel, Lucerne, and Strasbourg Christmas Markets and hit the "Mother of all Markets" on the Champs-Elysees when we arrived in Paris, for our Part II Vacation. What follows is our reflections on the river cruise part of our holiday and is an attempt to provide an honest and balanced account of our experience aboard the River Queen.
The River Queen is a well appointed boat with very nice spaces, including a comfortable lounge with a cozy fireplace. Compared to cruise ships, it is very compact which means the distance from your cabin to the dining room can be all of 70 feet. The cabins are attractive and the floor to ceiling windows in ours were great for viewing the lovely scenery rolling by. The bed was really comfortable, the towels plush and the bathrobe generously cut.
The food, for the most part, was good and on a few occasions very good. Lunches were more appealing than the dinners, which tended to be very drawn out affairs, reflective perhaps of a wait staff which was stretched too thinly. I would recommend the soups and the vegetarian entrees, including the stuffed crepe, the onion tart and the rosti. I especially appreciated the fact that the menus reflected the cuisine of the region.
Tour guides for the included excursions were enthusiastic in sharing their knowledge of the various cities and the rich history behind each. You could partake of these guided tours or go off on your own. They did not seem to offer different tours for those passengers with mobility concerns. All of the included tours seemed to move at a fairly brisk pace. The extra cost excursions reflected good value for the price charged. They were really enjoyable, especially the trip to Lucerne and the tour of Marksburg Castle. We participated in all of the extra tours and we were glad we did.
Onboard entertainment was surprisingly good. We were told not to expect much on a small boat but the performers, who we had the pleasure to experience, were marvellous. They ranged from a lovely woman who lectured about German Christmas traditions, an Edith Piaf type singer accompanied by an accordion player, a trio consisting of two violins and a guitar who performed folk music and classical music and finally, this wonderful woman who, accompanied by her husband on the keyboard, sang everything from country music to polkas to opera to swing - just fantastic.
The storage in the cabins left a lot to be desired. There was no long section in the wardrobe to hang dresses or suits and the shelves were awkwardly placed. I would strongly suggest that future passengers buy a few over the door hangers. It would alleviate some of the problems we encountered.
When we called to confirm the docking location of the boat on the day of our departure, we were advised that the location had changed and we were given a different address by the Uniworld agent. We arrived at this spot along the river with a cab driver who was quite eager to unload us and our luggage on a deserted road with no boat in sight. We can laugh about it now. We gave him the original address in our cruise documents and the ship was there. Sixty francs later we were schlepping our luggage down a winding ramp and up to a boat that looked empty of passengers and crew. Not a soul was in sight, in the lobby or behind the reception counter. We pressed a button which opened the door to the ship, lugged our bags in and called out, "Hellllll-oooo-oooo!" A crew member did appear within a few seconds of our call and we marvelled at the difference between security onboard cruise ships and river boats. Anyone could have boarded the boat and stowed away in a number of places. It was all very strange and somewhat unsettling.
One of the things that I found most disappointing on my River Queen cruise was the inconsistent service I encountered. Some of the crew were outstanding and seemed to really enjoy their jobs. Gabor, the bartender was a delight, always smiling and pleasant, greeting passengers by name and remembering their favourite drinks. Any request, and my requests are always politely made, would be met cheerfully. Sabina, our cabin attendant, was always cordial when we met and kept the cabin spotlessly clean. There was only one female member of the wait staff in the dining room and I can't recall her name, but she reflected this same level of professionalism and efficiency and was so good at her job. Unfortunately, this was not the case with all of the wait staff who managed to straddle that thin line between aloof and downright surly. One night, I decided to try an alternate dining option which included fish or chicken. When I asked the waiter how the chicken was prepared he looked at me with great impatience and said, "I don't know." Isn't that the job of a waiter, to know? Wouldn't the correct response be to say, " If you give me a moment I'll go and check with the chef to see how it is prepared." When you would ask questions, this league of waiters, and there were about half a dozen of them, would either nod or shake their heads as though uttering an answer would be a terrible waste of their energy. I was puzzled as to how the dining room manager could not see this and correct it.
When we have cruised on ships in the past, we have had few occasions to deal with officers or management and on the odd occasion when we have had a concern it has been dealt with quickly and competently. I am very sorry to say that this was not the case on the River Queen.
The first incident had to do with the hotel mangager. On the second day we had no hot water from our shower. We reported it and the officer at reception said she would look into it. The next day it was fine and we asked another passenger if they had the problem with hot water and the person said that he, too, was without hot water on the second day. A few days later, I was without hot water again. This time the hotel manager told me I didn't know how to operate the nozzle. I explained that this was not the case and I felt it might be a hot water shortage in certain cabins at peak hours. I left frustrated and when it happened the next day again, my husband insisted that the hotel manager come to room and see for himself. He arrived with the boat's engineer and they insisted it was still a problem with the faucet in the shower. When my husband turned on the faucet in the sink where there was no hot water either, they simply gave him this blank stare and shrugged. I fully expected a bottle of wine with a letter apologizing for the inconvenience, to be waiting for us in our cabin when returned from sight-seeing that day, but there was nothing. There was no follow-up to any of the three complaints of no hot water at any time, during the cruise. They never apologized for the inconvenience.
The second incident had to do with the cruise director. During one excursion my voxbox, a device that transmits the voice of the tour guide to your earphones, was not working. Again, the cruise director, after trying an alternate set of earphones, just shrugged and told me to stay close to the guide so that I could hear. When I suggested that he should test the voxboxes before the bus leaves the area of the boat so that he could get replacements if they malfunctioned, he was pretty nonresponsive. Again, no apology. On another excursion, when he lost part of the group, I urged him to follow from the back and send someone ahead with the directions, he pretty much ignored me and my advice. He set a pace and never looked back to see if the passengers were with him. He just seemed unaware or indifferent. His job was to introduce the talent in the evenings and he did so. However, I don't ever remember him coming up to the front of the lounge after the performance was over to thank them and lead a round of applause. This was an individual who really lacked polish and style, as well as some basic organizational skills.
I enjoyed many aspects of this river cruise. I liked the itinerary and the intimacy of a ship of this small size. The passengers were friendly and there was a casual feel to the whole experience. You could dress up for dinner if you wanted to or you could wear a nice pair of pants and a sweater and you'd be good to go. However, the inconsistent service and the issues involving the cruise director and hotel manager left a bad taste in my mouth. My husband is not opposed to going on another Uniworld cruise and thinks that perhaps any of the negatives we encountered could very well be unique to the particular ship and the crew. I, on the other hand, think that there are so many other lines out there, why not try them. After this cruise, I would be hard pressed to recommend Uniworld to friends or family. River cruises I would recommend to anyone!