We had a wonderful time on the River Duchess from Amsterdam to Istanbul in summer 2010. It is amazing that one can travel, in great comfort, on a boat from the North Sea almost to the Black Sea. The scenery along the rivers and canals is superb and many passengers took advantage of the top deck to experience this to the full. The first lock, the first city, the first town, the first low bridge - all an experience and this was just at the start of the adventure. Arriving in towns/cities by boat is a real experience.
Hotel, restaurant and cruise managers, chefs and restaurant staff were top class and this made the trip very enjoyable. The captains and crew did an excellent job throughout the journey. Progressing through numerous locks and navigating a meandering river takes significant expertise and experience. A passenger had a serious health issue when we were cruising through Germany and he was taken to hospital with little fuss. On the section from Vienna to Istanbul a doctor was on board. In the event of a problem you felt secure that everything would turn out well.
The wonderful towns and cities we visited were interesting from many points of view but the time available in each is necessarily short. Tours were well organised and relaxed and the local guides were generally good but in some instances it would be better to read up on the area and do your own thing especially if the boat is nearby. It was easy enough to peel off the group once we had our bearings. Uniworld supplied maps of most towns but we tried to augment these with maps from the local tourist offices in the larger towns. We had 3 days/4 nights in Vienna and that was great. Istanbul was fabulous and we had a few extra nights there as well as in Amsterdam.
The included bus excursions were exceptional: Hungary (Pecs/winery), Croatia (Osijek/home hosted lunch), Bulgaria (Veliko Tarnovo/Arbanassi). We did no optional excursions. We never thought we would spend time in interesting Balkan cities like Mohacs, Vukovar and Belgrade which were the centre of conflicts over many years. A lecture on the recent Balkan conflict organised by Uniworld was most interesting.
Food & included wines were excellent. One had to be careful not to overindulge! Serving sizes at dinner were small, a great idea as the breakfast and lunch buffets offered a substantial and tempting selection. I had fish most nights and these meals were excellent as were the other dishes - gourmet quality all. The cheese board selection was superb. Vegetarians were well catered for.
There were always plenty of fresh salads and vegetables at lunch along with soup, fish etc and Orlando the Executive Chef was often on hand smiling and ready to slice off baked lamb, pork etc. This was always delish. We generally passed on the wonderful deserts but the desert chefs were so good that it was difficult to do and at times we were tempted. There were usually apples available but as it was summer and the local fruit and berries were in season there could have been more of these (suitably ripe) made available.
The open seating allowed us to meet many other passengers and this was a highlight as there were many interesting people on board. At first we thought it desirable that tables for two should be available but soon realised we didn't need any. The refurbished boat will apparently have these available for 2012 and all tips will be included in the price which is a great idea.
The only glitch with dinner was the occasional long wait. This seemed to coincide with nights where there was on-deck-dining where a chef and waiter were required on deck. Perhaps this left the restaurant short of staff.
Our cabin was fine and large enough for us with plenty of storage. The bed was firm and we asked for the doona to be replaced with sheets as we find doonas are too hot. Our lovely housekeeper put the doona under the bottom sheet to make the bed a bit softer - a great touch and typical of the caring service on board. The aircon worked perfectly except for the last night on board where a power problem resulted in it's failure throughout the ship during dinner service. It was fixed by the next morning.
The only problem we had with the cabin was with the noise from the thrust system during lock progression and docking. Our cabin was near the front of the boat and we should have been warned, perhaps by our agent, but at least by Uniworld. I would avoid booking the first few cabins near the front. I should say, however, that not all passengers in those cabins thought there was a major problem. The cabin review rating entered is for the cabin without consideration of the noise.
There was a great little fitness room which was little used except in the early morning. The laundry was a very useful facility and was heavily used. Internet reception was generally useless during cruising, as you would expect, but improved when in port. For serious Internet activity such as transfer of large amounts of data it was best to use facilities in the towns and cities. No doubt the cruise companies will solve this one eventually.
Entertainment was adequate and generally consisted of a piano player in the lounge. Later on in the cruise local groups would come on board and entertain the passengers. These were always of a high standard.
We look forward to doing another river cruise and would love to travel with Uniworld again.