Every five years, we try to plan a special trip for our anniversary. In 2010, we decided we wanted to come back to Europe. I wanted a relaxing river cruise in France with great food and wine but my husband also wanted more of the excitement and history of the cities of Europe. With our trip on the River Beatrice, we got everything we wanted.
We started in Prague. We did not do the add-on from Uniworld. We arrived a day early so we could see some things in more depth than would have occurred on the tour (the Jewish Quarter, Terezin). However, our travel agent recommended the Art Deco Hotel where the tour stays. We were not disappointed. The location was great as was the hotel. We absolutely loved Prague. The culture, the history, the architecture. We went to the symphony or a jazz club almost every night. And we walked everywhere. We took the subway and the streetcars just to try them out. Very clean and modern. We arranged our own tours which suited us well. We also stayed an extra day in Budapest at the end of the trip which we also booked on our own, this time at the Intercontinental on the river across from the ship.
On Sunday, we were able to take the bus with the tour to the ship. We enjoyed the ride through the Czech and German countryside. We arrived in the late afternoon in Passau, Germany to embark on the river cruise. It didn't take long to get acclimated since a river ship is necessarily not a large vessel. The rooms are not wide since the ship must be able to sail into the many locks on the river (you can touch the walls of the locks when you are at the bottom of the locks, it's that close and precise). Our cabin was in the middle of the ship in the middle level of cabins. We had a French balcony, which means that the doors open like French doors and there is a railing but nowhere to stand. We did not find that a problem since it was October and the weather was often in the mid-30s to 40s. (Bring sweaters, warmer coats, hats, gloves, scarves in October. Central Europe is like being in Northern Michigan or Minneapolis. You are on about the 45th or 50th parallel. The warmest day was 50 degrees, the coldest, about 35F.)
The furnishings were very comfortable, especially the bed. Again, not a lot of room to move around, but the space was used well. We didn't spend much time in our room anyway so it didn't matter. We enjoyed having a full window with the French balcony as opposed to a window closer to the top of the wall in the lower level cabins. However, on some days, be prepared that there may be another river ship docked right beside you, making for possibly an interesting view for you and the people on the other ship. The bathroom was small, as we expect on all ships. The shower was excellent and the toiletries were first rate (L'Occitane). The cabin was spotless and kept that way by Ester, our young and hard-working attendant from Budapest.
There are three indoor public places on the ship: the lounge on the upper deck, the dining room on the middle deck and the library, also on the middle deck. All were comfortable and we felt like it was very cozy, especially having been on larger cruise ships with a few thousand people. It was very nice to have only 150 people so that everyone could eat together and meet in the lounge for port talks, rather than doing things in shifts. You also recognized everyone on the ship, even if you did not actually meet everyone. The atmosphere was very friendly. We also spent time on the top deck outside as we cruised to the various ports. The dress was casual and even at dinner there was never a formal night. I did bring one dressier outfit for the last night of the cruise, but nice pants for women and dress slacks and a sweater for men were just fine, even at dinner. If you plan to go to the symphony or opera, a jacket might be appropriate for men and a dress or nice pantsuit for women.
This is not a ship to go on if you expect a large fitness room and lots of shops. There is some fitness equipment and one or two shops. However, the shopping is incredible on shore (Vienna, Budapest). For fitness, you will be walking a lot each day on the excursions, which are very good. We also walked into the towns at night on several evenings after dinner. The Uniworld ships also have 6 bicycles on each ship which can be used at no charge. It was one of the major reasons we chose the River Beatrice and turned out to be the highlight of our trip. (See my description of Melk, below.) The other public area is the laundry room, which is very helpful to have when you take an extended trip.
The food on the ship was wonderful and plentiful. Breakfast and lunch were buffet. Dinner was sit down (You could also eat in the library on select evenings in a more intimate setting.) The menus reflected the food of the countries we were visiting. We had goulash, weiner schnitzel, Sacher Torte, etc. You rarely see the chef on a large cruise line interacting with the guests except at a cooking demonstration and the captain's cocktail party. On this ship, the chef was there at almost every meal - dishing the ice cream, pouring soup, making sure that everything was going smoothly and that we all liked what we were eating. His outgoing personality really added to the experience. Wine was included with dinner. The wine was very good and we had to tell our waiter to stop pouring.
The cruise manager, Ingrid, was outstanding. We had some very specific places we wanted to visit in the various ports and she went above and beyond to give us information and to assist us, often without anything more than telling her what we wanted to see. She also helped us on our port-to-port bike ride (and the kitchen staff made us huge box lunches for us for the bike trip). All this while arranging for the day-to-day tours and excursions for all of the passengers.
The daily port tours were very well done. Hearing a guide is often an issue, especially a guide who might speak English with an accent. The ship uses a system that allows the guide to speak into a mic on a radio frequency and you use earphones to pick it up. It was very effective.
The entertainment on the ship after dinner is very low-key. Zoltan played the piano and other instruments in the lounge and a few nights, in addition to port lectures, there were performances by local musicians or dancers. We enjoyed all of it. We liked schmoozing with the other passengers and the low-key entertainment was perfect after a day of touring. We didn't need a big show.
The service on the ship was excellent. You really got to know most of the crew that works with the passengers since there just aren't a lot of them. We learned that one of the women at the front desk lives in Bratslava in Slovakia and each week as the ship passed by, she would call home on her cell phone. Another crew member suffered an injury and we all were concerned for her since we saw her all the time as we passed by the front desk.
We greatly appreciated the river experience over cruising in the ocean. The waters are calm and the ship moves slowly so you can take pictures and see the little towns on shore. You can wave to people on shore and they will wave back. As I mentioned, since the ship docks in town, we enjoyed going out after dinner and taking a stroll. We walked in town in Passau and Linz and along the river in Vienna. We were among the locals, which we thoroughly enjoy.
We were concerned a bit that we would be among the youngest passengers on the cruise since we are in our early 50's. It was true that we were, although a few were younger. Many were retired. However, we met a number of people in our age group and made some very good friends (with whom we are going skiing in a few weeks). Our fellow passengers were interesting, well-traveled and well- educated.
Tipping was a bit difficult just in that the tips cannot be added to your account. You must pay them in cash. Keep that in mind. Also, because you have so much interaction with the crew, you may tip the cruise director, for example, on this ship when you wouldn't on, say, a Celebrity ship.
Our biggest quibble was that the Internet service was very poor. By the end of the trip, they opened it to everyone and didn't charge for it. This is one thing they need to work on. (We learned that best free Internet access in Central Europe is at McDonald's. We also learned that in Austria, they have McCafes that serve delicious-looking pastries.)
This cruise is not for everyone. It is for a couple or a group of friends who want to see the cities up close and personal in a small setting. It is quiet and relaxing and full of history. It may not be for everyone, but is for us and we can't wait for our next river cruise.
We boarded the ship in Passau, Germany. The ship was docked on the outskirts of town for easier embarkation and then moved to a pier in the old town in the city later. We wish we had another hour or two there. We enjoyed the cathedral concert, which is spectacular. However, I heard they have a wonderful glass museum which we did not get to see. We did enjoy shopping in the old town and seeing a bit of the more modern Passau as we shopped. The boutiques were very nice and pretty reasonable. Be sure to leave room for a warm pretzel at one of the bakeries.
Our second port was Linz. We did not spend a lot of time in Linz since we went to Salzburg for the day, although we did a take a walk through the shopping area near the ship to see the town and buy a few things (including a Linzer Torte).
One of the advantages of Uniworld over other river cruise lines is that the excursion to Salzburg is included rather than an add on. As a Sound of Music fan, I really wanted to see Salzburg. The scenery is magnificent and we really enjoyed it. There is not enough time to do the complete Sound of Music tour unless you take a train back to the ship on your own. However, I felt I got enough of the Sound of Music on the tour and our guide, who was the best and most interesting of our cruise, told us how the movie was largely fiction. Nevertheless, it is fun to walk through gardens where they sing "Do-Re-Mi."
The walking tour was excellent. We enjoyed seeing the birthplace of Mozart and how the signs on the shops depicted the wares sold by the shopkeeper (including the Golden Arches). We found one of only a few "stumble stones" in Salzburg that commemorates someone who was taken from that particular place by the Nazis, which was very moving. Because our guide happens to lead tours and seminars for European high school and college tours in the off-season to teach them about the Holocaust, we got a very good lesson that day on some of what took place in Salzburg during the Shoah.
In the marketplace there were a number of elaborate wagons selling all kinds of local foods. The most delicious chocolate pretzels, for example. However, I found a stand selling fresh and prepared fish and had a very inexpensive lunch with fresh fish chowder and a sandwich of smoked sable. The sandwich would have cost $10 in the U.S. (if you can even buy it here). There it was about $4 or $5.
Linz/Salzburg was a great port. We would definitely go back.
Our next stop was Melk. I was very impressed with the Abbey, especially the very contemporary way that the museum was presented. It exceeded my expectations.
However, the highlight of the entire trip came after our excursion. We rode on the bikes available on the ship with another couple. We rode from Melk to Durnstein, the next port, through the Austrian wine country, while the ship sailed on the river. "Picturesque" doesn't begin to describe it. We saw the tiny towns with the creeks running through them to the river. We saw the carts laden with just-picked grapes and the workers in the fields harvesting the grapes. It took us about 3-1/2 hours to ride 20 miles just because we kept stopping to take in some of the towns or to take pictures.
The Danube has a bike path that runs along the entire river. It is very well marked and it is empty in October. We were able to use a few maps and make our way quite easily. The bikes were the reason we chose the River Beatrice over another cruise line and we would do it again. While everyone else on the ship saw the towns as the shipped passed by, we were in the little towns. We loved it.
By the time we got to Durnstein, it was raining and we were getting cold and hungry. Therefore, although we heard it was a great town, we'll have to go back and see it another time. It was worth it.
Vienna was incredible. The architecture and the cosmopolitan nature of the city. It is clean and well-organized.
The tour was the only slight disappointment. We went to the library, which I enjoyed, but we had just seen the famous library in Melk. Perhaps there were other sights that would have been better. We happened to see the Lippazanner stallions as we walked by and were fortunate that we could actually watch them for a few minutes. But a more comprehensive tour may have been more interesting.
We enjoyed our free time in Vienna. The shopping is haute couture with the finest of designers. On the other end of fashion, even the H & M is in a building off the main square that is worth seeing, with an old-fashioned elevator and wood cornices. For us it was all great window shopping and people watching.
In the afternoon, with our cruise director's assistance, we were able to devise our tour of Jewish Vienna. We wanted to see the Stadt Synagogue that was spared on Kristallnacht and other sites. It was a very meaningful part of our trip.
We decided to forego the symphony since we had gone in Prague. We heard it was a great evening. We were happy to take a walk that night into one of the neighborhoods with our friends.
The next morning, we were back on the bikes for our own tour of Vienna. We did not see the palace with most of the rest of the group. Instead, we saw what the locals see. Vienna is beautiful. Many parks and wide sidewalks for walking and well-marked, double-bike lanes. Better than any I have seen in any major city in the U.S. And you learn quickly that bikes stay in the bike lanes and pedestrians walk next to the bike lanes and stand behind them at intersections. What a fun way to see the magnificent buildings and parks of Vienna.