Swiss Sapphire Entertainment
The focus, entertainment-wise, on Swiss Sapphire is truly on destination-related enrichment. The core piece of the puzzle is Tauck's complimentary tour program, which is operated every day the ship is in port. Options are interesting and varied -- with a lot of special touches. In Arbanassi, Bulgaria, a walk-through of a small church was "interrupted" by an Orthodox choir, four voices that filled the space with haunting chant-like music that transported me back to the 1500's when the oldest part of the structure was built. Upon arriving in Solt, Hungary, we were transported to a local equestrian center not by motor coach (though we'd see plenty during the week), but by a horse-drawn carriages.
A "Discovery Briefing" occurs each night in the main lounge during cocktails and before dinner, during which one of three Tauck tour directors onboard discusses the next day's tour. In essence they offer a taste of what to expect and information on what time to congregate in the lounge. "Briefing" could be synonymous with "boring," but the directors all have strong ties to the places we visited (one born in Romania, another married to a Bulgarian), so the information is solid -- and the enthusiasm was real. After Dominic went off on a tangent about the beautiful women in Bulgaria, many wives gave the evil eye to their grinning spouses! Some mornings, a local guide would board the ship prior to our going ashore to give a lecture on the region and offer insight on some of the places we'd be visiting. Fascinating was comparing the strong political and philosophical views of lecturers in Croatia and then in Serbia, countries that were so recently at war and that we visited back to back.
The tours themselves are operated with precision -- organized and on time, every time. Each morning in the lounge, passengers are divided into three groups of about 30 each for tours. Guides utilize the Quietvox wireless audio system on walking tours; they speak into a transmitter, and the sound is picked up by each person's individual receiver and earphone. Which group you end up with depends on what color Quietvox you pick up. This system makes it easy for groups of friends who want to be in the same group -- just grab several of the same color Quietvox receiver boxes, and you're set. It was also fun to switch colors (yellow one day, blue the next) and travel with different people throughout the voyage.
The experience can vary day to day based on which local guide you end up with, and there's no way of really knowing ahead of time. For example, I got lucky and ended up in the red Quietvox group in Vukovar, Croatia, headed up by the same riveting young woman who'd also given that morning's lecture onboard. However, some of the other groups ended up hearing some repeat information as their guides hadn't been present for, and certainly hadn't delivered, the lecture.
In the evenings, as mentioned, there is piano entertainment provided in the main lounge (and the occasional liquor-induced passenger crooning). The ship also hosts folkloric performances in port by local musicians and dance troupes. By the time we reached our final destination in Romania, the songs were starting to sound the same, but I could certainly appreciate the talents of the mostly young people foot-stomping and pan-fluting their hearts out.
Swiss Sapphire Public Rooms
There are two natural gathering spots for passengers: the Main Lounge and the Lido Bar. The Main Lounge is the hub of most of the activity onboard, and there's almost always something going on here whenever passengers are onboard. It's the meeting spot for tour departures; the "theater" space for crew shows and local folkloric performances; the setting for lectures, workshops and passenger participation activities; and the primary bar, serving cocktails around the clock (and we mean that literally -- the bar is open all night!).
Live music is provided before and after dinner by a pianist, mostly playing classics from the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel and the like. If you stay up late enough, you'll find that passengers are welcome to (and do) pick up the microphone and sing along, karaoke-style (Frank Sinatra's "My Way" was a staple ... every night). If you stay up even later, you might even find yourself utilizing the itty bitty dance floor. During the day, destination-related books are available to borrow and read, as are printouts of compiled global news briefs.
The Lido Bar, meanwhile, is more of a get-away-from-it-all spot, hosting alternative meals as mentioned above as well as pre-dinner cocktails in a smaller setting. Its 180-degree glass wall opens to a small deck for fresh air and outside mingling. This space also doubles as a library and game room. We swung by daily to see the progress on a table-wide puzzle of a Danube landscape; you can borrow and play board games like Scrabble -- and there's even a Nintendo Wii hooked up to a small television with a few sports games (though we never saw anyone playing it). A bookcase of assorted fiction and non-fiction is always accessible on an honor/trade system: read it and bring it back, or take it and replace with another book you'd like to donate to the ship.
There is one Internet-connected computer station here, as well as Wi-Fi throughout the ship. Both are free to use via a username and password that can be collected at the reception desk, but the connection is very spotty (and, by that, we mean barely existent -- but we knew that going in, as satellite reception is a rarity on some stretches of Europe's rivers). We had better luck grabbing a free public signal from land while docked alongside major cities like Belgrade.
Passengers enter the ship through a main lobby that houses the reception desk, a small shop with postcards, trinkets, jewelry and a very meager allotment of personal items (so don't forget to pack, say, a hairbrush).
Swiss Sapphire Spa & Fitness
You won't find a pool onboard, though there is one small hot tub on the Sun Deck that's available for use 24 hours a day, so pack your swimsuit. The Sun Deck features an oversized chess board and a tiny putting green, and plenty of mesh and metal loungers both in the sun and under shaded canopies, as well as a few tables and chairs for enjoying a cocktail or card game.
A small spa and fitness center is located on the first deck -- a nice touch for a river boat, many of which can be lacking in amenities. The fitness center features four treadmills, three stationary bikes and two rowing machines, as well as some light hand weights. (I never saw a soul down there, though many passengers got in exercise by power-walking around the Sun Deck.)
There's one room for massages -- the only treatments offered -- that is simple but lovely (think: flowers beneath the table so you have something to look at while laying face down). Appointments are available until well in the evening due to busy days in port and can be made at the reception desk. The prices are reasonable -- full body massages (50 minutes) start from 48 euros. There are also foot and partial body options. I opted for the aromatic full body oil massage, an hour-long affair that also includes a foot soak and scalp treatment for 68 euros -- a bargain in my book.
Plus, it was one of the best massages I've had in long time, afloat or ashore. Best of all? Unlike on treatments experienced in spas operated on ocean-going ships, there was no product pitch, the bane of many a mainstream cruiser's existence. It was truly relaxing, and I'm so glad I kept the appointment.